The whole first week [of school] was depressing. I spent nine hours of it shivering, wrapped in a Gogolian coat, through a nine hour documentary about the Holocaust. At some point I thought I had grown a lump in my thigh, but it turned out to be a tangerine-- it had fallen through a hole in the pocket and ended up trapped in the lining.
I spend a lot of time listening to teenagers. I sit there, patiently, and savor the simple fact that I am no longer 18 and confused about everything. I'm now 28 and only confused about most things. The Idiot, a 2018 Pulitzer Prize Finalist, is yet another reminder that being 18 is hard. Selin, Batuman's main character, is a freshman at Harvard trying to make it through #allthethings. She chokes down her first beer (tastes like urine), feigns sleep so that her roommates don't try to talk to her (they're annoying), and has her first all consuming crush on a hot, Hungarian math student named Ivan (he already has a girlfriend). At the beginning of the novel, you can tell that Selin is a bit of a loner. She is hyper intellectual and has trouble expressing her emotions in a way anyone can understand. Generally, reviewers find Selin impossible to relate to (readers overwhelmingly label her as "strange" and "weird"). While I'm not sure if I relate to Selin, I am sure that I find her HILARIOUS. I can overlook all her intellectual pretensions just because she's so damn funny.
Batuman is a crazy gifted writer. As Roxane Gay writes in her review of The Idiot: "Man, this is just a writer showing off how well she can write." The Idiot is a dense, character driven novel. If you're someone who likes page turners/thrillers/action, this is probably not for you (you're really missing out though).
"The sofa bed was designed for someone different from me-- not just smaller but also, it seemed to me, with a different personality."
'That's the thing with girls, isn't it?' he said. 'Whenever they stand on the edge of something, you can't help it, you can't. You think, Push. That's all it would take. Just one little push.'
It took me some time to finish Girls Burn Brighter. I started it in Baltimore last week (photo taken on Federal Hill), and didn't finish it until yesterday. The book chronicles a relationship between two Indian women that is not exactly platonic, nor romantic. I would be interested to hear other opinions on this, actually...Was there romance between Poornima and Savitha or was this just a friendship? There were passages that made me wonder whether they were in love. Regardless, I tend to appreciate stories focused on relationships between women. A few of my Goodreads friends loved Rao's debut, so I had high hopes going into this. I want to be clear: there are parts of Girls Burn Brighter that I appreciate. Generally though, I found the characters' unrelenting suffering completely exhausting (and nightmare inducing). By the middle chapters, I was entirely desensitized. There was no respite from the grinding physical, emotional, and sexual pain here, making it impossible for me to maintain genuine emotion through the whole novel. Diksha Basu, author of The Windfall, perfectly captures my sentiments in her New York Times review: "The pure evil that Savitha and Poornima face is so shocking and so unbelievably constant, that the reader ends up numbed to the horror. All men are evil; mothers-in-law (of course) are evil; sisters-in-law are evil; matchmakers are evil; even strangers on train platforms are evil. Everyone is evil." Basu also mentions the problematic "exotic India" framework in Girls Burn Brighter -- I noticed this as well and chalked it up to Rao's desire to appeal to broad readership in the US (which I realize is a vaguely problematic assumption on my part). So I didn't love this book, but I can most certainly understand why lots of women enjoyed it. I will pay attention to whatever Rao publishes next.
I had been racing, and thinking only about that. I was getting better, but I was also feeling the limits of what I did. My life had become smaller. I prohibited myself from many things, set myself in a limited pattern of thinking. It is perhaps obvious in hindsight, but obsession does not give you more, but less. I had the routines and the inflexibility of someone already old.
I'm in DC this week, so I went to Busboys and Poets last night to eat dinner and finish Joe Mungo Reed's debut novel, We Begin Our Ascent. I picked this up from Content Bookstore last week because I felt like reading a "sports book." Reviewers have compared We Begin Our Ascent to some of the best in this genre: The Art of Fielding (Chad Harbach), Running with the Buffaloes (Chris Lear), etc. While there were parts of Reed's debut that I loved, I was generally disappointed (I don't think it's nearly as good as the two books mentioned above-- I love Harbach and Lear). We Begin Our Ascent is primarily about (1) how doping affects an athlete's "soul" and (2) how doping affects an athlete's marriage. I was underwhelmed with the way Reed handled both topics. The cycling scenes were tedious and could have been better done with less repetition and more of a narrative arc. Perhaps it's the nature of the Tour de France that bores me: cycling, eating, cycling, sleeping, doping, eating, more cycling. It doesn't have the arc of a normal race. Instead, there are all these "stages" and the entire thing seems endless (like, way more boring than a marathon could ever be). Lastly, I never really bought in to Liz and Sol's relationship. The marriage never came to life for me. Early on, I decided that Sol was vaguely annoying. Then, I hoped Liz would save the book for me, but she ended up being irritating/purposeless too. I had a hard time figuring out the characters' motivations here.
Perhaps if you're a cyclist, you'll love this book. There are some nice quotes. It's not terrible. I'll be interested to hear if it becomes a more popular read this winter.
A few nights later, I secretly hope that I might be a genius. Why else can no amount of sleeping pills fell my brain? But in the morning my daughter asks me what a cloud is and I cannot say.
I walked down to Content Bookstore during lunch today. If you're anywhere near Northfield, you should stop at Content. You can visit Blue Monday or El Triunfo on the same trip.
I wish I was the type of person to love Dept. of Speculation. This type of person is cooler than me (also more artistic and romantic). Published in 2014, Dept. of Speculation was a PEN/Faulkner nominee and was also included in the NYT Top Ten Books of the Year. It's super strange (not a conventional novel), though there are beautiful parts. The format of the book reminds me of Clemmons' What We Lose -- Offill strings together sentence fragments, random reflections, and lengthy declarations to create her narrative. Another goodreads user aptly described Dept. of Speculation as a "literary scrapbook." The story follows a faltering marriage during the early years of parenthood. Most of the book is from the wife's point of view (she remains unnamed-- Offill refers to her as "the wife"). The wife is a writer, but has no time to write once her daughter is born. Turns out caring for a child gets in the way of artistic expression and the wife is mad about it. The husband, who also remains nameless, is a disloyal jerk who doesn't help around the house enough.
While the format of the book is completely unique, the themes in Dept. of Speculation feel tired. I've read too many books about middle income white artists who have a kid and then get pissed because there is no time to do art. Cry me a river. Maybe you shouldn't have procreated in the first place. Or maybe you should make your significant other put down the video game and cook dinner for once. This stuff doesn't pull at my heart strings like it used to. So that's that. Probably a smart / creative/ artsy book. Not for me.
Despite the snow in early October, we made it through this week without any flurries. It's actually beautiful running weather today-- sunny and almost 50 degrees. Relatedly (is that a word?)-- I'm becoming one of those Minnesotans who talks about weather all the time. I notice that I bring up the weather when I'm trying to make myself comfortable around new people. It's like a password to the hearts of strangers: if I mention "the weather," I brand myself as one of them, as someone to trust. I thought about this a lot last week because History of Wolves takes place in Northern Minnesota (in a tiny, fictional town called Loose River). The winter weather in Loose River is obviously horrendous (there's usually about 3 feet of snow on the ground, encased in roughly 3 inches of ice). Fridlund's characters talk about the weather a lot. This is not surprising as the author herself is from Edina, MN. She's also a St. Olaf grad (Carleton Admissions made a mistake if we passed on this lady in an Edina docket). All this to say, it's apparent in History of Wolves that Fridlund has had plenty of practice talking about Minnesota weather.
Perhaps the first thing to mention here is that History of Wolves is the author's debut and it has been wildly successful by most any metric. Fridlund actually found out that her book was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize while she was in labor with her first child (for some reason I love this piece of trivia-- at the moment she brought her debut child into the world, her debut novel received one of the literary world's highest honors #winning). I read History of Wolves really quickly-- it is a true page turner. The novel chronicles a traumatic summer in the life of a teenage girl, Linda, who lives in the woods of Northern Minnesota. There are two different plots running simultaneously here. The first follows Linda's increasingly strange infatuation with a creepy teacher at her school. The second, and far more interesting, plot chronicles Linda's relationship with the new family across the lake. On the first page of the book, we learn that one of the new neighbors dies and Linda later speaks at a trial related to the death. For the rest of the book, the reader attempts to piece together both the circumstances of death and the extent of Linda's involvement. I honestly can't figure out why Fridlund stretches herself across these two (largely unconnected) plots? I don't think it works particularly well. Yes, I understand that Linda's obsessions with her teacher and her neighbors are both a product of typical teenage angst / loneliness, but that's hardly enough to tie these stories together. I would recommend reading History of Wolves for the second plot line alone though--really thought provoking and creepy.
I was presenting to 80 parents and high school students on Saturday when I realized that I was having trouble seeing. The lights in the room were burning my eyes and I could no longer see faces clearly. I somehow made it through the rest of the presentation with limited interruption, then went to the doctor. Apparently I have a corneal ulcer (which sounds way more serious than it is, but it's still super annoying and painful). I filled a prescription for eye drops, walked home (could not drive), and promptly sliced open the length of my right hand on a broken wine glass (I wasn't actually drinking from this wine glass yet, though I 100% felt like it). All to say, I didn't go out much this weekend. On the bright side, I did get to read Emily Ruskovich's debut novel, Idaho, which has been on my TBR list for a few weeks now. I have a lot of feelings about it, so please bear with me...
Idaho defies traditional categorization. It's part murder mystery, part psychological thriller, part literary fiction. The basic plot involves a middle aged woman (Ann) married to an older man struggling with dementia (Wade). Over their many years of marriage, Ann digs deeper into the defining tragedy of Wade's past: his ex-wife (Jenny) is serving a life sentence for murdering their youngest daughter, May. Their other daughter, June, ran away at the time of the murder and has been missing for 15 years. The essential questions at the outset of the novel are: (1) Why did Jenny murder her daughter? and (2) Will the missing child ever be found? Ruskovich writes beautifully, though some of her artsy literary techniques surely went over my head. I was so absorbed in the plot that I ended up reading this too quickly. I might re-read it in order to fully appreciate the writing.
I felt frustrated at the end of Idaho. There are very few plot resolutions, at least not in the traditional sense. We never find out exactly why Jenny murdered her daughter, though that's the point: is there ever a "reason" to kill one's child? Humans look for patterns and logic in the face of tragedy, while certain actions are senseless. It's almost like Ruskovich is poking fun at the reader: "You think there could truly be a reason why a mother would kill her own child? It's senseless! Why look for a reason at all if you know a reason could never suffice? I'm not going to hand you a reason!" Ruskovich is right: the death of a child is always entirely and completely senseless. Why look for sense in a crime that has none?
To frustrate the reader even more, Ruskovich never tells us what has come of the missing daughter, June. The reader, just like the parent of a missing child, is left dangling: is June alive or dead? Parents of missing children say that not knowing whether their child is alive is one of the worst aspects of the saga. These parents (and Ruskovich's readers) are forced to live forever in this liminal / dangling place. There is no closure, there is no sense, and there is certainly no reason.
Ruskovich-- Idaho is perfect. The parts that frustrate me are exactly the parts you have purposefully designed to frustrate me. Bravo, well done.
If the house is a safe and happy home, Noelani would first have to overcome the tug to turn around and return to that embryonic environment. That's what most people do when they set out on a morning run. One only takes flight at full speed when a house is not a home. And that's what Noelani does, runs fast straight out the door as if being pursued, running seven miles at breakneck speed, a slow returning walk only at the last block, before putting her hand on the knob of the front door.
I'm posting from Minneapolis for the first time in weeks. I'm happy to be home awhile before hitting the road again at the end of the month. Unfortunately, it snowed here yesterday. I still struggle with the fact that this place gets snow in October. I've lived through five winters here, but it still shocks me. Even by Minnesota standards, it's been undeniably cold this week (and I don't completely love that I'm wearing mittens before Halloween).
I was in New York for a few days last week and, predictably, visited the Strand. They have relatively cheap used book options, so it's enormously difficult for me to resist buying a few. Over the past few months, several people have recommended Cherise Wolas' books (she has written two: The Resurrection of Joan Ashby--haven't read it yet-- and The Family Tabor). I generally gravitate towards books like these: intricate family dramas with strong female characters. Tbh though, this did not work for me. Wolas chronicles a wealthy family whose esteemed patriarch, Harry Tabor, was involved in all sorts of sneaky schemes throughout his banking career. I don't really understand what he did -- something along the lines of insider trading / illegal money moves/ I don't really care about the specifics but it's definitely dirty. **Somehow** Harry completely represses the memories of all this illegal activity and believes himself to be an honorable human. When he starts having flashbacks to all these illegal activities, Harry runs away from his family. His wife and daughters are shattered: "Where is our lovely perfect rich kind father who has never done anything bad in his life we love him so much ohmygod where is he." Then, they all go looking for Harry.
I'm making this sound worse than it is. But really, it's not very good. I'm now debating whether or not I should read The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, which I have on hold at the library. I wish I had read that one first, because the reviews are stronger. I might need a break from family drama for a minute.
Of course raising children is a lot of hard work, but I don't see why it's supposed to be so virtuous to do work that you created for yourself out of purely your own self interest. It's like someone who digs a big hole in the middle of a busy intersection, and then starts filling it up again, and proclaims 'Filling up this hole is the most important thing in the world I could be doing right now.'
I visited three of my former students in Boston last week. One of them is at Concord Academy, so I visited the always lovely Concord Bookshop.
I read Heti's first book, How Should a Person Be?, last summer. I enjoyed it enough that I bought her newest book, Motherhood (published in 2018). At the core of this book is the question of how one decides whether or not to become a parent. There is so much written about parenting, but perhaps not as much written about the decision to become a parent. My best friend told me that her parents made a pros/cons list. Heti's book is essentially an elaborate, 300 page pros/cons list. The 37 year old, female narrator in Motherhood struggles for years to make an ethical, informed choice about whether to have a child with her partner. Heti's new book is well written and thought-provoking in its philosophical meanderings about the extent to which children can/can't create meaning in life. I appreciate Heti's blatant disregard for the constraints of genre: like her first book, Motherhood is neither fiction nor non-fiction, but some strange world in between. There are annoying things about the book too: (1) I got tired of reading about the narrator's dreams all the time--there's a lot of self therapizing going on here, (2) this is basically 300 pages of privileged, well-educated, white woman angst. Goodreads users have called the book "navel gazing," "narcissistic," and "self involved" (and, for what it's worth, I don't disagree).
Heti decides not to have a child. I think this is part of the reason why I like the book. For married women of child bearing age, the decision not to have a child is infinitely more interesting than the decision to have a child (and perhaps more brave too).
My mother was so good, she was too good. Some people would say that kind of goodness needed to be locked up. She was a cup of sugar. But sweetness is always looking for Mr. Bad and Mr. Bad can pick out Miss Sweet in any crowd-- just like magnets. Mr. Bad was the refrigerator and Miss Sweet was the 'Florida Loves Oranges' magnet sticking to the door.
Hello from Salt Lake City. I've been here for a conference the past few days, but have fit in some reading and running. I'm trying to make my way through at least most of the 2018 longlist for the National Book Award. I finally got a kindle version of Jennifer Clement's most recent novel, Gun Love. This book is entirely well deserving of the longlist honor. To be honest, I have a feeling Gun Love will end up as a 2018 finalist (the topic is just so timely). The book is a devastating story of childhood in the midst of America's gun violence epidemic. Pearl, a young girl with a single mom, lives in a trailer park riddled by gun violence. She survives off a steady diet of powdered milk and cigarettes. Pearl's neighbors collect guns in one of the empty trailers where she does her math homework (they sell these firearms in Mexico for a profit). Before reading Gun Love, I knew very little about firearm trafficking (aka gunrunning). Between the years of 2009 and 2014, more than 70% of confiscated guns in Mexico came from the United States. Clement tells the story of firearm trafficking from the perspective of a child, which is obviously heartbreaking. Gun Love is a beautiful novel, written in poetic prose. Some goodreads users seem to think the language is "pretentious." I think it's just beautiful. Well done, Jennifer Clement. I'll be rooting for you when finalists are announced next month.
I did a google search for the term "crawdad." Turns out it's just another word for crawfish/crayfish. These "mini lobsters," also known as mudbugs or yabbies in the US, are known to Germans as "Sumpfkrebs" (swamp crab). I've never had crawfish, but research suggests you can include them in lots of runner-friendly dishes, such as risotto, pasta, and cornbread. In Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens tells the story of Kya Clark, known to her small North Carolina community as "Marsh Girl."
Where the Crawdads Sing currently has a rating of 4.56 on goodreads (which, with over 4,000 ratings, is as good as it gets for contemporary fiction). Did the book live up to its wildly high ratings? Well, it reminded me of Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. When a new book reminds me of a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, that's usually a good thing...except for the fact that I didn't love All the Light We Cannot See (don't hate me?). Both novels are lyrical AF and go on for entire pages describing shiny shells, smooth sand, fragile marsh grass, and nibbling crustaceans. Yikes, I wish I cared more. Remember the repetitive symbolism with whelks and mollusks in All the Light? Yeah-- same stuff here. The main character literally communicates with gulls for paragraphs on end. You can skip entire pages and still not miss important plot/ character developments. I understand that some people enjoy this type of novel.
Where the Crawdads Sing is part coming of age story, part murder mystery, and part nature field guide. There's even some poetry in here. For me, the novel glows brightest in its descriptions of the interplay between Kya's scientific studies and sexual awakening. There are some hilarious passages describing Kya's (almost obsessive) interest in the mating habits of insects.
Was this book "beautifully written?" Yes. Was it one of my favorite books of the year? Far from it. But don't trust me too much. As we know, I gave All the Light 3/5 stars and it won the Pulitzer.
I bought this book at my new favorite book store, Books are Magic, in Brooklyn. My love for Magers and Quinn in Minneapolis has not faded, nor has my adoration for Content Bookstore in Northfield...but I'm beyond impressed with every aspect of Books are Magic. The indie selection is so smart/ interesting and the store hosts an event EVERY SINGLE NIGHT OF THE WEEK. If I didn't live in Minneapolis (I love Minneapolis--not leaving yet), I would live as close as possible to Books are Magic so that I could get lost in there when I feel vaguely anxious about the rest of my life.
My love for the store has grown since last week because the book I bought is SO GOOD. I don't know how to describe Putney and still make people want to read it-- the premise of the novel is disturbing, to say the least. An eleven year old girl, Daphne, falls in love with a famous, thirty year old man. This creepy dude grooms her for several years and then rapes her when she is thirteen. I'm aware this probably doesn't sound like a book anyone would want to read, but trust me when I say that Zinovieff's writing is genius. The story is told from three points of view (perpetrator, victim, and witness) and every aspect of the plot is finely tuned to our current political moment (#metoo). Ultimately, this is a story about a child's love for the man who abuses her.
If you need a little more encouragement to pick up Putney: Sofka Zinovieff is just a really cool lady. She splits her time between London and Athens and has a PhD in sociology. Zinovieff has two young daughters and I could tell that they were, at least in part, an inspiration for this novel. Please read this book and let me know what you think. And, if you haven't, visit Books are Magic.
The fiction longlist for the National Book Award was announced Friday. There are ten great books on the list (Tayari Jones' American Marriage, Lauren Groff's Florida...just to name a few). Rounding out the list is a collection of short stories that I recently borrowed from Carleton's library: Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. I read the collection in a day-- it's quick and super smart. Most of the stories focus on the trauma of being the only black person in a particular space (school, yoga class, etc). Primarily, Thompson-Spires focuses on the experiences of black children and young adults at PWIs.
Heads of the Colored People is named after a collection of nineteenth century literary sketches by James McCune Smith (they were published in Frederick Douglas' newspaper, The North Star). These sketches focus on different aspects of the black working class in nineteenth century New York. Thompson Spires' short story collection describes a diverse set of black Americans in college, high school, church, and yoga classes. Most of these characters do not experience overt racism, but are exposed to daily microaggressions in predominantly white spaces. We meet a black English professor at a small liberal arts college, a black child with hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating), and the families of the only two black children at a private school. While Thompson Spires primarily focuses on how people of color experience race based discrimination in predominantly white spaces, she also reflects upon the sometimes strained relationships between the few black individuals in these spaces. In "The Body's Defenses Against Itself," Thompson Spires describes the competitive (and sometimes cruel) relationship between the only two black students in a 6th grade class.
This is a GREAT short story collection. I highly recommend. Finalists for the National Book Award will be announced October 10. I hope Thompson Spires is on that list.
Hello from New York. This is the best (and only) pretzel croissant I've ever had. I ate two this morning while reviewing Small Country. Unclear whether I will order a third.
Gael Faye was born in Burundi to a French father and a Rwandan mother. At age 13, he fled the small, war-torn country for France, where he has lived ever since. Small Country, published in France in 2016, was an immediate hit in Europe. This is Faye's first novel. He is also a very talented rapper. I've been listening to his stuff all afternoon (turns out I remember something from Carleton's French department). His most popular song shares the name of his book (Petit Pays).
Small Country is about how war steals childhood. Faye's main character, Gabriel, is a ten year old boy growing up in Burundi. Before violence breaks out, Gabriel lives a relatively peaceful childhood. He hangs out with friends at a neighborhood spot in Bujumbura and has a secret crush on his French pen-pal, Laure. When war bursts into Burundi from neighboring Rwanda, everything is broken, including Gabriel's innocence.
While I've read a fair number of books about Rwanda (special s/o to Clemantine Wamariya for The Girl Who Smiled Beads), I've yet to read anything about Burundi. This is a superb place to start. And listen to Faye's music too.
And I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.
Last week Carleton's Class of 2022 arrived on campus (thrilling), I stumbled across a huge sunflower in Northfield (beautiful), and I finished Sarah Winman's newest novel, Tin Man (devastating). I've been thinking a lot about how to review/ rate this book. There is a noticeable discrepancy between (1) the objectively strong writing/ plot of Tin Man and (2) the extent to which I actually enjoyed reading it. I remember feeling this way about Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See: the writing felt objectively beautiful (if such a thing as objective beauty can exist), but I didn't quite enjoy reading it. Parts are almost too romantic, too heartbreaking, too deliberately crafted to break your heart and then put it back together. Like All the Light We Cannot See, Tin Man read like a very sad fairy tale for me. Perhaps it's just not my kind of novel. That said, it sure is a beautiful one. I can see why it's beloved by readers around the world.
Tin Man is a book about first love. Michael and Ellis are twelve year old boys when they meet and fall in love. As teenagers, they vacation in France for a week and daydream about a future together, living in "an old stone barn filled with junk and wine and paintings, surrounded by fields of wildflowers and bees." When Ellis falls in love with a woman years later, things get very sad and very complicated. Winman packs a lot into this short novel: she writes about physical abuse, the loss of a parent, emerging sexuality, and the AIDS epidemic. Tin Man is a quick read and absolute worth picking up. I look forward to seeing what Winman writes in the future.
In June 2009, twenty year old Edwin Rist performed in a concert at the London Royal Academy of Music. Later that night, he boarded a train to visit the British Museum of Natural History at Tring which holds one of the world's largest ornithological collections. Armed with a glass cutter and a large duffel bag, Rist broke into the museum and stole the skins of 299 tropical birds. By the time Rist was caught months later, more than half the skins had been sold (at exorbitant prices) to fly-tiers around the world. For those not familiar with the art of fly-tying (I had never heard of it), it is the process through which people craft artificial flies to catch fish. The world's best fly-tiers will go to extreme lengths to access rare, colorful feathers. The most beautiful flies sell for hundreds of dollars and are never used to catch fish.
As fly-tying continues to intrigue Americans, certain birds commonly used in fly tie patterns have become increasingly difficult to find. To this day, many patterns call for feathers of birds that are either endangered or extinct. It was this desire to access the world's most beautiful (and rare) feathers that drove Edwin Rist to break into the museum on that summer evening in 2009. The Feather Thief reads like a true crime novel. The first two sections move relatively quickly, but I found the last section pretty tough to get through. The book should be shorter than it is. That said-- fascinating topic. I learned a lot about pretty birds and the men (yes, mostly men) who are obsessed with pretty birds.
After she left, no one knows how wretched I felt, how deep the abyss. How could they? I can barely recall it myself. How much did I suffer? How much pain did I go through? I wish there was a machine that could accurately measure sadness, and display it in numbers that you could record. And it would be great if that machine could fit in the palm of your hand. I think of this every time I measure the air in my tires.
I prefer novels to short stories, but this week I was in the mood for short stories. I've seen a few positive reviews of Murakami's new collection, Men Without Women, so I decided to make it my next read. This collection was published in Japan in 2014, but not translated to English until 2017 (many of the stories appeared in The New Yorker before 2017). I have some experience (though not extensive) with Murakami's magical realism: I read Norwegian Wood and Wild Sheep Chase. I loved both books.
The first thing to know about this collection is that it is not uplifting. I would not advise reading Men Without Women if you're going through personal heartbreak (unless you're one of those people who wants to wallow in external sadness during episodes of intense, personal sadness). Most of these stories are downright depressing. Murakami describes the emotional lives of men who have lost a woman (to death or another man). Generally, this process of uncoupling leads Murakami's characters to illness, depression, loneliness, etc. In the story "An Independent Organ," the main character actually dies from a broken heart. From what I can tell, Goodreads folks who rate this one or two stars tend to see the male characters here as "soft" and "wallowing." If you are one of those people with no patience for post-heartbreak angst, you probably shouldn't read this. Or maybe you should.
While it makes sense to be choosy about when you dip into this collection, it is absolutely worth reading at some point. I love Murakami's writing. As in most of his books, there's a healthy dose of magic and mystery in the form of strange forest creatures, disappearing cats, and bizarre relationships. Though very sad, the collection is also deeply insightful. Highly recommend.
Why We Run has been on my bookshelf for years. I "borrowed it" from my grandmother and haven't returned it to Maine. I picked it up this week because I've been contemplating a return to racing (my last race was Twin Cities Marathon in October 2017). I've had some much needed time away from running, but I've been slowly returning to the sport.
I have entire shelves packed with running books, and Why We Run is nowhere near my favorite. That said, I like parts of it. Heinrich is a professor in the biology department at the University of Vermont. He knows a lot about animals and a lot about running. The last two chapters of the book describe Heinrich's training for the 100 km National Championships (he ran up to 140 miles per week). This part of the book is exciting and beautifully written. Overall though, Why We Run feels like an outdated take on the sport (especially in relation to women in competition). It was published almost 20 years ago (Heinrich was 60 at the time). In a section describing why men are better suited to fast running than women, Heinrich writes: "When women do run as fast and far as men (as many can), they likely do so at a reproductive cost. They must lose so much body fat that ovulation ceases."
There's a lot wrong with this statement. While it's fair to say that many female runners struggle with amenorrhea / female athlete triad, it is not fair to say that women can only be fast "at a reproductive cost." It's just false. If you run 100 miles per week and take in enough calories (that's a lot of calories), you will continue to get your period and likely beat many male athletes. Many of America's fastest women get a regular period. Amenorrhea is not a sign of fitness or speed (**you don't need to stop getting your period to be fast**). There's also plenty of evidence that male marathoners tend to have decreased sperm counts due to lower levels of testosterone. Generally, endurance running tends to reduce semen quality. Men sometimes get fast "at a reproductive cost." Heinrich doesn't mention it.
There are other lines like this throughout the book that bother me. I blame this on the fact that the book was written 20 years ago, by a 60 year old man. There's another piece of this book that I struggled with though: long, dense sections (with many diagrams) describing the anatomy of birds and insects. I understand why these pieces are included. Perhaps I was just not in the mood. Biology majors / insect lovers will enjoy this section more.
If you're a runner, this is worth reading. You'll really enjoy parts of it (maybe just skip to the last two chapters). I don't feel at all confident that non-runners will enjoy this book. Perhaps one of you will prove me wrong.
Most people live their entire lives with their clothes on, and even if they wanted to, couldn't take them off. Then there are those who cannot put them on. They are the ones who live their lives not just as people but as examples of people. They are destined to expose every part of themselves, so the rest of us can know what it means to be a human.
I read this book for two reasons; (1) Roxane Gay liked it, and (2) I wanted to read Heti's older stuff before buying her new book, Motherhood. Published in 2012, How Should a Person Be? defies traditional categorization. Part fiction and part autobiography, the layout of the book resembles the layout of Zinzi Clemmons' novel, What We Lose. How Should a Person Be? is an amalgam of numbered lists, surprising one liners, essayettes, and more traditional narrative.
In just over 300 pages, Heti follows a person's "search for meaning" in the Toronto art world. The main character, a white woman in her twenties named Sheila, wants nothing more than to be "important" in the world. Through art, she hopes to "do something meaningful" and become as famous as possible. Sheila wants to be one of those "Important Artists." Unfortunately, there's nothing interesting enough about Sheila (or her work) to vault her to the level of fame she so ardently seeks. She's mad about it.
Some Goodreads people hate this book. I can understand why, I guess. The book chronicles the life of a white woman with money trying to "find meaning" in the world. It's a whole bunch of navel-gazing. That's the point though-- Heti is examining our generation's narcissism. I didn't have it in me to hate this book. While the main character is often lacking in intrigue, Heti serves up plenty of it in the creative construction of the book. How Should a Person Be? is for women, about women, written by a woman. This pans out on Goodreads: women seem more likely than men to rate it 4 or 5 stars. Fine then. I'm okay with that. I look forward to reading Heti's newest book, Motherhood, later this week.
Hello from Hancock Point. I haven't done much reading this week because it has been running/ swimming/ hiking/ kayaking weather. Today I saw a seal and a bald eagle on the far side of Bean Island. In between wild life sightings, I finished Senna's most recent novel, New People. First reaction: this book is very different from her earlier (and most famous) novel, Caucasia. Though there are similarities in topic (both focus on the lives of biracial American women), these are entirely different novels. Unlike Caucasia, New People is unconventional and strange (parts of it are almost fantastical and disturbing). I struggled with the first hundred pages before settling into the strange plot.
New People follows Maria, a biracial woman who passes as white, as she prepares for her marriage to college boyfriend, Khalil (also biracial). Senna describes the beautiful couple as the "King and Queen of the Racially Nebulous Prom." They have degrees from Stanford, well paid jobs, and a brownstone in Brooklyn. They hope to name their children Thelonious, Quincy, or Indigo and host dinner parties where "all the guests will be witty and shining in shea butter." They're even featured in a documentary called "New People," which follows men and women "blurring the boundaries of race." Early in the novel, we learn that Maria is infatuated with another man, a black poet (we never learn his name or read his poetry). Maria concocts an obsessive romance in her head and stalks the poet. She finds his address, breaks into his apartment building, and watches him from the fire escape. She even babysits for a family in his building. This is a strange read, though I'm glad I picked it up after Caucasia. Senna is talented and I look forward to reading more of her stuff.
I'm on my way to Maine from Minneapolis, with a stop in New York (the day there are direct flights MSP -->BGR will be a happy day). This late night flight is made better by the fact that I have a row to myself and a large can of Surly.
A few weeks ago, I came across a used copy of Caucasia at Magers & Quinn for $7.99. A few Goodreads folks rated it highly, so I grabbed it. I didn't quite realize how famous this book was when I bought it. Danzy Senna, who is from Boston (Brookline HS grad!), now works as an English professor at USC. She is the daughter of two Boston based writers: Fanny Howe (white, poet) and Carl Senna (black, journalist). Senna's book is a coming of age story, focused on the experience of a biracial girl, Birdie Lee. The novel, set primarily in Boston, takes place in the 1970's. Senna focuses on Birdie's relationship with her older sister, Cole. Though Birdie and Cole are sisters, Birdie looks like her white mother (and passes as white throughout most of the novel), while Cole resembles her black father. They are assigned to separate public schools ("in the name of diversity") and stared at by kids in the neighborhood. When underground political activity drives the parents apart, Birdie and Cole are separated. Birdie is raised to pass as a white girl in New Hampshire, while Cole grows up in California, identifying as black.
This is a short review because I'm out of time on this flight, but this book is 100% worth picking up (especially if you're from Boston). I'm hoping to read Senna's new book this week.