my tragic right hip

Busting out bad joints all over the place

July 28th, 2011

#57 – A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit From the Good Squad coverWhat a rare book Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Good Squad turned out to be for me — one utterly and completely deserving of its rather exuberant praise and awards. This book swept me away from start to finish and the quirks that I would normally complain about (a la the entire chapter by the young Alison Blake) charmed me to no end because the writing is just that good. It’s more of a series of linked stories, Venn Diagrams of people’s lives as they interact, slip away, and then come into contact with someone else who can complete the tale rather than a traditional novel. The format feels innovative and new — parts of the book are told out of chronological order, some characters flicker in and out like fireflies, but Egan masterfully holds it all together with deft strokes and impressive sentences. I could not put this novel down.

Here’s the reading scenario: my son has Hand, Foot and Mouth disease. Yes, it’s as awful as it sounds. We spend a miserable evening at the emergency room in Peterborough for them to tell us that it’s a “virus.” He ran a fever of 104. He turned the colour of a lobster. My heart would not stop racing. And we spent a miserable night in the middle of a heat wave with him sobbing and trying to gain control over his fever — Egan’s novel was the only thing that kept me sane that night. I held him and read it. I rocked him and read it. He slept on me, and I read it. And when his fever didn’t break the next day and we had to head home to see the family doctor to get a further diagnosis (he had stopped eating and drinking at this point too), when I forgot the book in a panic to get home, I was devastated.

It’s a book, people. (more…)

March 13th, 2011

#24 – The Illumination

Oh, Kevin Brockmeier, thank you so very much for breaking my heart.

The Illumination swept me away and held me tight and didn’t let go — I inhaled this book over a 24-hour period, and actually didn’t mind the fact that I was the only one awake in my house far into the night simply because I had this book for company. Told in successive vignettes from the perspective of six different people, a single notebook, filled with one sentence love notes from a husband to a wife, the novel tracks the impact of “The Illumnation” on their various lives. One day, peoples injuries, be it cancer or a canker sore, begin to glow with white light. All of a sudden, the world’s population is lit up when they are in any kind of pain. And it affects each person differently, and utterly changes the world.

The novel begins with Carol Anne Page, who manages to slice off the tip of her thumb trying to get into a package that her terrifically mean-spirited ex-husband has mailed to her. While in hospital, with her glowing wound, she meets a kind doctor, and then has a roommate who dies in a car crash. As her light is just about to expire, the young woman tells Carol Anne to keep her journal — inside are hundreds of love notes from her husband, whom she thinks perished in the crash — and the book starts along a journey that essentially forms the basis of the plot of the book. What’s going to happen to the book, how does it end up from one person to the next, and what does it mean to their lives.

It then goes back to the husband, to a young boy, a missionary, a writer and then finally a street person who sells books in NYC. Each story alights on the fact that their lives are somehow touched (or ruined in Jason, the husband’s case) by these words and the pain they carry. All in all, it’s an excellent novel, truly the best I’ve read so far this year (I know it’s only March). The writing is spectacular and, like Blindness by Saramago, the supernatural event isn’t cloying or overdone; it’s simply another way to explore the human condition and how it changes when pressed in a direction it never imagined it would go. There isn’t the “end of the world”-ness that you’d find in something like Children of Men or the aforementioned Blindness, but there is a sense that without The Illumination, these six individuals would never come together, even with the notebook, which is a fine thread to connect them together.

They are vastly different stories but they all have one thing in common, and that their internal pain in some ways now matches their external pain, and there’s little that can be done about it, even in a day of modern medicine. Strange and exciting things happen to each of the characters as we follow them while they have the notebook — it changes them sometimes, sometimes nothing changes except perhaps a level of acceptance of the true disappointment in life. Regardless, the stories broke my heart in a million different ways and I love that about a novel. In particular, the one told from the perspective of young Chuck Carter, whose rich and vivid imagination more than counterbalances the fact that his home life is terrifically mixed up and abusive, and that he has decided to stop talking. I wanted to reach into the book and tear the boy up with hugs, I wanted to shake his parents, and then I remembered it wasn’t real.

I can’t imagine liking a book more, I truly can’t.

#23 – You Or Someone Like You

I’d never heard of Chandler Burr or Your or Someone Like You before our sales conference, maybe a year ago, maybe longer. A friend in the office read and adored the book, so I ordered a copy in to read and there it sat on my shelf at work, and then at home, for months and months. So, coming to the “Bs” meant finally reading it, and what a surprise, it’s actually a terrific novel, and completely not what I expected.

In a way, Burr’s narrator, Anne, reminded me of a character Lionel Shriver would create: intelligent, uncompromising and, at times, aggressive in terms of what she wants out of life. At it’s heart, this is a book about words, what they mean, how we use them, and how books enrich a life. Anne’s got a PhD in English Literature. She’s been married to Howard Rosebaum for years. He’s a huge Hollywood producer and they’ve been living in LA for years. They are the elite of the elite of LA, they know everyone, and everyone knows them.

Anne’s background, British by accent, raised around the world by her parents as her father served in the Foreign Legion, has taught her that home is always where you choose to be; Howard, her husband, feels like home is where you go back to, where people always have to accept you. This fundamental different might not seem like much, but when religion becomes involved (Anne never converted; Howard is Jewish but not Orthodox or necessarily practicing), it becomes a fissure that threatens to tear the couple apart. And when their son Sam announces that he’s going to visit Israel, to explore his roots, something happens to shake Howard and Anne’s marriage to the core.

Surrounding the family drama, Anne begins a book club — more like an intense canonical reading group — and she takes directors, screenwriters, producers, line producers, and the like through the books as a means of self-improvement and understanding. From there, it gets out of control, an article in Vanity Fair, and then all of sudden she’s about to produce her own movie. Not always likable and not always saying things that prove popular, when Howard has a crisis of conscious, Anne breaks all boundaries to get him back. In a way, she has chosen love and family above all else, and without Howard, she’s not home, she’s not where she wants to be. But how she gets there, and her opinions, and what she has to say to impact him, to pull him back from where he ended up, well, it’s neither politically correct nor all together sane.

The book is delicious in its irony, and carries the weight of its words very well. It’s hard to write a book about high literature, about some of the greatest books ever written, include many of their words, and not expect the book to hold up to the same kind of scrutiny. I didn’t agree with a lot of what Anne said sometimes, especially towards the end, but that’s the point — she was trying to be argumentative, fighting with all of her words to get her husband back, and regardless of the outcome (SPOILER: she gives a disastrous speech in front of a lot of truly “important” people), you can’t fault her reason or her passion. But I think the most successful aspect of the novel is the fact that it truly doesn’t go where you expect a simple story about a marriage either falling apart or coming back together goes. In fact, there’s nothing simple about this book, and that’s to be celebrated.

CHALLENGES: Off the shelf…

February 27th, 2011

#18 – Pretty Little Dirty

If I remember correctly, I wasn’t terrifically enthralled with Amanda Boyden’s second novel, and so I let Pretty Little Dirty languish on the shelves for, well, years. And while there were a few problems with the novel, I found myself reading it well into places in my life where I should have been sleeping, and that’s got to be a sign that it moved me in some inexplicable way.

Lisa Smith (oh what a placid, everyday name) has been best friends with Celeste Rose Diamond (yes, you read that right; the names are terrible, I know) since they were both in grade six and moved to Kansas City from other, larger cities (Chicago and New York respectively) before the start of the school year. Their friendship is epic: they are destined to love one another in ways that only schoolgirls can — utterly and completely, beyond a familial relationship and creating a bond that best friends know is there, even if they can’t explain it — they love one another above and beyond anyone else.

Celeste, of course, is utterly beautiful, and both she and Lisa are gifted academically — so they excel at school, when it’s in their interests. They are suburban girls looking for adventure, and they find it the summer before they graduate from high school in the form of an teacher and his students from the local art college. Experimenting with sex and drugs, Boyden’s narrative matches the feverish way young girls have of barreling into adult life — it rolls around and around, often repeating similar thoughts over and over again — much like a conversation between girlfriends. She has a strange tick to her writing — keeps telling us, the reader, that Celeste’s story is far more interesting than her own, but then we never get the full story when it comes right down to it, because the book is told from Lisa’s perspective. Celeste remains at arm’s length from us, and maybe that’s the way Lisa likes it — she’s as much in love with being Celeste’s best friend as she is with the idea of friendship itself. The ultimate unreliable narrator, in a way, putting her subject on a pedestal and then never really letting the reader see how the sculpture came into existence.

I also like how, while there’s very typical things in this novel that even reminded me a little of Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides (minus the very important Trip Fontaine character, naturally) — mother’s with psychological problems, broken families, fathers that hold on too tight to their daughters, sex with older men — Boyden intersperses this with the punk scene in the 80s, something that’s kind of close to my heart. Not because I was remotely a punk, but there was a time when I used to sneak downtown to hang out with skin heads at a bar called Michael’s on Queen Street across from the Big Bop, and grew up just at a time when the wrong Doc Marten’s could get your head kicked in — so much of this book, while set earlier than my own teenage years, reminded me of my youth. I didn’t do nearly the same amount of drugs, and never dropped out of university, but the struggle to find myself, to define myself outside of the tragedy that defined my own family, as Lisa attempts to do by attaching herself to the Diamonds, well, that rang incredibly true.

It’s hard to write teenage angst without it coming across as melodramatic, and Boyden does it so very well in this book — there were problems with the book in places, mainly the sex scenes (they were a bit too much and a little “ride me like a stallion Morag” for my liking) — but overall, once I started this book, I couldn’t put it down. I actually avoided sleep training the RRBB so I could read more, which meant we spent a lovely few hours with him sleeping on me as I powered through the pages. Lastly, I really, really wish people would stop using the second person. I don’t know why it bugs me so much, but it does. However, I would have given my left shoe to be at some of the shows Boyden describes throughout the narrative. Black Flag in 1982? Probably way too violent for me but what an experience.

The Summary: Another Off the Shelf book down, and while the alphabetical reading is now weighing me down a little (I’m really not liking my current book, In the Time of the Butterflies), I am getting through the books much quicker than I thought. I might start reading 2 or 3 in a row from any particular shelf just so that I’m not bouncing around so much and can get through a letter before moving on to the next. In fact, maybe that’s what I’ll start now and pause my current book because it’s seriously boring.

January 31st, 2011

#10 – The Reserve

Well, let me be honest, Russell Banks’ The Reserve totally surprised me. The only other novel by Banks that I’ve read was The Sweet Hereafter and, while I enjoyed it at the time, the only reason I had for reading it was to compare it to the film, which was excellent. I tried and abandoned Cloudsplitter, and never went back to Banks. But, I’ve got my new reading approach, and B is for Banks in my American fiction section, and hence, The Reserve.

Not unlike Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife, The Reserve has a totally unreliable and somewhat wicked female protagonist. Beautiful, charming, and terrifically disturbed, Vanessa Cole has returned to her parents’ summer home after her second divorce. It’s 1936, and her behaviour remains scandalous throughout the novel. And when artist Jordan Groves flies in to see her father’s art collection, he’s lured into a dangerous relationship with the woman that has far reaching consequences for both of them, and for their families.

There’s a Gatsby meets Hemingway feeling to this novel. The Coles are of the upper classes, and it’s not just money that separates them from the locals. But the fact that they own a section of an exclusive property in the Adirondacks called The Reserve. The locals work there; the summer people only vacation, and this dichotomy is explored throughout the novel, especially when Vanessa turns to the guide Hubert St. Germain to help her with the tragic situation that becomes the pinnacle moment in the book. When her father dies suddenly of a heart attack, Vanessa’s demons, whether real or imagined (the novel only hints at the truth), are unleashed. And her actions are shocking.

Banks excels at plotting and the novel simply draws you in from start to finish. His descriptions of the setting are incredible and do much to add to the atmosphere that surrounds Vanessa’s questionable actions. The fog that lies low over the lake echoes her state of mind kind of thing, and while it might sound sound cheesy when I write it here, I’m not doing Banks’ exceptional prose justice. There’s not a hint of melodrama, and there could be, and even though you feel you know these characters — the flighty socialite, the rugged outdoorsman, the unhappy wife, the “artist” as “man” (aka Jackson Pollack), Banks has a way of twisting them just slightly to the left or the right, whether it’s by their dialogue, or the actions that ultimately unhinge them, that casts them away from type.

I roared through this book. Once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. I left the RRBB sleeping on me for hours so as not to disturb either his napping (I should have put him in his bed as we’re trying to do more of these days) or my reading time. At one point, he was curled up on the bed beside me as I dove through the final thirty pages or so, with me rubbing his tummy so he would sleep just that little bit longer and I could finish. I was that engrossed. Sure, there are loose ends. Sure, there were things that could have been tidier, but on the whole The Reserve is damn fine novel, and it makes me actually want to read more Russell Banks. Thankfully, I’ve still got a copy of Cloudsplitter, as it’s a 1001 Books book, which means it’s now in alphabetical order — and once I’ve finished my International “A” selection (Purple Hibiscus), I’m on to 1001 Books titles. But it’ll be a while before I get to the “Bs”. I’ve got three Austen novels to get through first.

Sigh. My life is rough, isn’t it?

January 18th, 2011

#5 – Abide with Me

Elizabeth Strout is the kind of writer whose novels have such a solid moral core that you don’t even realize their depth until you’re at the end, teary-eyed, and wondering how she managed to be so subtle in her prose, yet so overwhelmingly apparent in her themes both at the same time. But wait, let me back up a little. There’s a subset of American fiction, primarily written by literary writers, people like Strout and Marilynne Robinson, that I would equate to the “old woman on her deathbed” narrative that sometimes defines our Canadian canon, and that’s the “pastor going through crisis” trope (would we call it a trope? Do I even remember what that word means?) that you find in novels like Home or Gilead. So, when I first started Abide with Me, I thought, ‘oh, here we go, Strout’s just putting in her two cents worth in terms of that American tradition.’

But what a rich tradition it is, and what a rich novel Abide with Me turned out to be. The story of a widower who is the minister of a small town in New England where the rustic setting not only traps its inhabitants during the long, cold winter, it turns them, often, against one another through fits of gossip, jealousy and petty indiscriminations. Tyler Caskey arrives young, bright-eyed and newly married. His wife, Lauren, is almost too big for the town with her bushels of red hair and big city ways. She spends too much money and isn’t all that interested in being a minister’s wife. Not to mention the fact that the town isn’t all that crazy about her, either. But then, she dies a horrible, tragic death (and I’m not spoiling anything here), and Tyler’s lost his way, and the novel turns — it becomes about grieving, about loss, about life after tragedy, and the subtle ways Strout moves through Tyler’s experience don’t even become readily apparent until the end of the novel, when you fully understand how hard it must have been for him to lose the woman he loved, but also the life he expected to lead.

Not only is Tyler suffering from the loss of his wife, but it seems everyone else in town has undergone some sort of trouble. From adultery to actual crimes, Strout’s novel pits the concept of grief up against some very real problems that exist within the human condition, perhaps to explore how grief affects people in many different ways, that it comes in many different forms. By the end, the book moves into a separate stage, and it is through the idea of healing, whether it’s by telling the truth finally, by allowing yourself to be forgiven, or by respecting the fact that sometimes you simply can’t continue, the entire town can’t help but move through Tyler’s grief with him, and it has a very poignant impact on everyone.

I adored this novel. I was so taken by the character of Katherine, Tyler’s five-year-old daughter, who so vicerally experiences her mother’s death that my heart broke on every page, and the sheer inability for the people around her to see how and why she’s suffering (with the exception of her father who, while baffled by his daughter’s behaviour, clearly loves her more than life itself) or to give her the hand she needs felt so real to me, primarily because I too lost my mother, but not at such a young age. All in all, the novel, set in the 1950s, explores gender roles, explores the banality of small-town life, the suffication of spending so much time indoors when the snow is piled high and all the women can do is make beds and polish floors to keep themselves sane, and it also explores the idea of faith, how it can stretch and bend, but also break, just at the very moment when you need it the most — and this is a theme for which I am quite familiar with in my own life these days.

I’m amazed that I had these novels just sitting collecting dust for so long. But I am a true believer in fate when it comes to reading. You pick up a book at the right time for you to be reading that book — if you don’t finish, it’s not always the book’s fault, it’s just perhaps not the right moment to be reading. I needed both Amy and Isabelle and Abide with Me this month. They have enriched my life in ways that I find hard to express — and given me something to aspire to, Strout’s writing is simple exquisite.


January 17th, 2011

#4 – The Keep

For the most part, I enjoyed Jennifer Egan’s The Keep. While I found her writing to be a little commonplace for lack of a better word, I did enjoy the story. In a lot of ways, this novel reminded me of The Ruins, only with stranger characters. The book opens up with a fairly typical urbanite, Danny (an overgrown connected club kid, right down to the earrings and pointy boots), making the pilgrimage to his cousin’s castle. Howard, said cousin, has bought the entire German estate, including an ancient keep with its resident, an equally ancient member of the originating family who refuses to leave, and intends to renovate it as a resort — one free of all modern communication, a place to reflect and unwind, only it’s in ruins at the moment. Howard has asked Danny to come and help, and as a 36-year-old with no prospects, he comes as called.

Only there’s a history between them. An incident. One that has rocked their relationship, and one that they need to work out as the story progresses. I am not going to spoil that here. What I will say is that alternating between the chapters where Danny finds himself in increasingly dangerous and injurious situations, you discover the novel’s actual narrator, Ray. He’s a prison inmate taking a creative writing class, and the story of the castle, of the keep, and of Howard and Danny, is actually his project. Teaching the class is Ann, and a strange, Shawshank-like relationship rears up between the two.

For a while, you wonder how it all relates: where does Ray’s story come from, how does it all tie in together, and then Egan pulls out the twist, and the book changes perspectives. We’re now looking at things from Ann’s point of view, and this was the part of the book that I actually found the most intriguing. A former crystal meth addict, whose husband is still addicted, Ann is trying desperately to be a good mother to her two daughters, both of whom were subjected to their parents’ awful behaviour.

Many of the characters feel cookie-cutter, like you could have pulled them from a bag of stereotypical characters from pop culture — even Ann, “drug addicted mother” and Ray “far-too smart criminal,” are a little too cookie cutter for my taste. But as far as a good commercial read goes, you don’t get better than The Keep. It’s creepy in all the right places but, like The Ruins, the true terror factor doesn’t leap off the page as one would hope. There’s one absolutely terrifying situation but I was constantly questioning the believability of the whole story throughout. Yet, I did find myself drawn to Ann, and to her vulnerability, and that’s probably why I wished there were more from her perspective than just the last section of the novel. But I’m a sucker for hard-luck addict stories, hell, that’s why I loved Lullabies for Little Criminals so much.

On the whole, I was terrifically creeped out by The Keep and found it a solid read, especially following The Guardians. Maybe January is the perfect month to read terrifically spooky books — it’s all dark, cold and snowy, and the nights seem to last forever, especially when you’re up at odd hours like 2 AM, 4 AM, etc. But does this novel put me on a crash course to read every else Egan has ever written, not really. Certainly not like Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout, which is why I’m halfway through Abide With Me at the moment. I’m hoping to finish it today because I have so much to say about it already — the blog post is active in my mind. Now finding time to read and then write it all up, well that’s an entirely different story.

READING CHALLENGES: Off the Shelf, of course. I’m getting tired of writing that sentence. I am not, however, getting tired of cleaning off my shelves. Now we just need more visitors who like to read so they can pick over my outgoing box of books so the novels can actually leave the house and be enjoyed by someone else!

January 2nd, 2011

#1 – The Good Daughters

Sometimes it’s hard for me, professionally, even though I know this is a blog for which I am not getting paid, to separate my true feelings about a book from a more balanced approach in terms of reviewing. Joyce Maynard’s The Good Daughters puts me once again within this dilemma. Other aspects conflicting my ability to write a non-biased review: I have met and interviewed the author, and was incredibly inspired by her; and I loved her previous novel, Labour Day.

But that doesn’t take away from the fact that there is something definitively lacking within this book. If I had to put a finger on it — and this may seem harsh — it’s story. Told from the alternating perspectives of two “birthday sisters” born on the same day in a small rural community in New Hampshire, the book feels more like a character study than a novel, and it lacks a certain polish. The writing is often redundant and repetitive, parts that could be interesting are told in shorthand in the rush, I suppose, to get through the entirety of each woman’s life. The book skims the surface and uses cliche to describe key elements (no woman should ever be described as a rare fruit, like, ever) and the constant back and forth feels gimmicky.

It’s obvious that there’s more to the story than the fact that the two girls, Ruth Plank, a farmer’s daughter, so inherently different from the rest of her family, not just physiologically but also emotionally, and Dana Dickerson, stuck with parents who never should have been so, awkward and incredibly different than her flighty family, were both born on the same day in the same hospital nine months after a terrible hurricane (yes, a hurricane, boy it does stir up some awful human emotions and some truly interesting mischief, yawn). And, not to brag, but I had figured out the “twist” by about page two and then had to read on until the big reveal — Maynard parsing out little clues here and there throughout. What’s most astonishing is that both Ruth and Dana, intelligent, well-adjusted women both, didn’t give more thought to how different they are, to the real story, before just about everyone around them who knew the truth ended up dead.

There’s a sweetness to the novels that you can’t deny, and I think it would make a very good book for, forgive me, suburban mom book clubs. But it really wasn’t a book for me — a quick read, which I always appreciate, with a really great setting (I love the Plank farm; its history and its roots [been in the family for 10 generations]) and I can see what Maynard was trying to do but I always find that books that try to encompass so much, like entire lives instead of those pivotal moments, sometimes lack the depth that I crave in a more literary sense. Yet, the stereotypes and the coincidences are a little too much to take in places — I appreciate Maynard’s inclusive writing, international adoption, a truly beautiful lesbian partnership, are just two examples, but when it all comes together it feels forced, a little too Jodi Picoult movie-of-the-week for my tastes.

Overall, I was disappointed in this book, and I hate to start off a reading year on such a note, but there’s always tonight for another try. I’m not sure where I’ll go next. There are so many books to choose from. What I’d really like to know is what everyone else is reading and have some recommendations. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to find one or two titles on my shelves.

December 31st, 2010

#67 – Amy And Isabelle

After suffering through Pearl, was I ever grateful for Elizabeth Strout’s excellent Amy and Isabelle. When I was combing the shelves for something to read, I had forgotten that Strout wrote the excellent Olive Kitteridge, and you can see similar themes in her earlier novel: small town life, history repeating itself, the problems of parenthood, mother-daughter relationships (even though Olive had a son, correct?), so I should say parent/child relationships.

Regardless, Amy and Isabelle remains a thoughtful, engrossing novel that takes place, I think as the 60s are turning into the 70s. Isabelle, the mother, and Amy, the daughter, each live with their own internal restrictions that affect their relationship. Isabelle is strict, complex, sad — she tells everyone she’s a widow, but you know that’s not the whole story — and is in love with her boss at the shoe mill where she works as a secretary. So proper she always wears pantyhose in the heat of summer (the hottest on record), her thin brown hair consistently pulled into a French twist, she’s unprepared for the issues that arise over her daughter: typical teenage stuff, lying, inappropriate love affairs, and then a shock that changes everything.

Amy’s naive in an intelligent way. She was raised by an honest, forthright person (for the most part) and believes that when someone says something, they mean it. And her good heart, her good nature, gets her into a situation that ultimately disappoints her, it’s heartbreaking for both mother and daughter.

Strout has a gift for small town life, like in Olive Kitteridge, she intersperses the story of the main character with other colourful people — people like Amy’s best friend Stacy, her parents, the church women and a truly delightful character called Fat Bev (who comes from French Canadian stock; naturally).

Shirley Falls, Maine might be experiencing a heat wave but the weather isn’t the only thing stagnating. As the summer progresses, and as the lies pile up both for Amy and for Isabelle, it’s a relief when the truth rains down, both metaphorically and literally — the storm breaks not just the weather, and it’s glorious. The novel itself reads like that moment just after a storm when everything feels fresh and renewed. I honestly enjoyed this novel so much that I spent the few spare minutes finishing it yesterday morning when I should have still been sleeping. I did regret this for a moment when the RRBB had such a rough night last night, but good lord, it was a good read. I honestly think that Alice Munro is an excellent comp for Strout, so if you’re a fan, I’d be curious to see what someone else thinks.

READING CHALLENGES: What else? Off the Shelf!

WHAT’S UP NEXT: I started Joyce Maynard’s The Good Daughters and am already finding it a bit lacking. The prose feels a little sloppy and repetitious at the moment, but I’m hoping the further I get into the actual story, the more this will abate.

December 30th, 2010

#66 – Pearl

Oh, this book. OH THIS BOOK. I wish I had better things to write about Mary Gordon’s Pearl. I know how hard it is to write a novel, and I always try to judge books with that thought in mind, but I couldn’t get over how annoying I found the narrative voice in this book. Gordon uses the second person, a device that rarely works beyond Choose Your Own Adventure, and the narrator TELLS the entire story. I know it’s obnoxious but it’s the kind of writing I hate — the storytelling, the David Adams Richards-esque, perspective that ultimately means that the writer doesn’t trust the reader to GET it.

Pearl, the title character, is a, natch, beautiful young woman in her twenties; she’s impressionable but brilliant at languages, so she’s studying Irish in Ireland in the 1990s. Taking a very tragic accident to heart, she chains herself to the American embassy after putting herself on a hunger strike for six weeks. She’s going to die for a cause — in a roundabout way, the Peace accord that Sinn Fein signed — and feels her actions are right and just. Her mother, Maria, a strong-minded, strong-willed woman who came of age in the 60s, flies to Ireland to try and save her daughter’s life.

The premise feels so forced, in fact, the melodrama of the entire story degrades the very real politics in the novel. It belittles them to the point that I was a little offended. That Pearl invokes Bobby Sands, that she is so taken by his very real and very necessary actions, isn’t what bothered me, what bothered me the most is the arrogant way the narrator speaks from her perspective. It’s not that Gordon is a bad writer — she’s just far, far too precious of a writer. It’s as if she’s in love with every single sentence and doesn’t have the heart to cut to the actual story, which, had it been allowed to be shown instead of told, could have been quite affecting.

There’s also a moment of such pure absurdity, I mean, eye-rolling absurdity, between Pearl, Maria and Joseph, Maria’s quasi-adoptive brother (he’s the son of her housekeeper; Maria’s mother died when she was two and her father employed Joseph’s mother; he became like Maria’s brother, caretaker, and so much more), that put the nail in the coffin for this novel for me. I almost didn’t finish but I am on a mission and I stuck with it. But I’ll tell you one thing — it’s hellish to try and read a book you really aren’t liking at 4 AM. On the whole, I didn’t find a single part of this book believable, not the characters, not the situation, and especially not the intrusive, annoying, overbearing narrator who just wouldn’t remove themselves and let me enjoy the writing. It’s the first dud from my shelves. How disappointing, eh?

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Girl with titanium hip will rock. Girl with titanium hip will write. Girl with titanium hip will read. Girl with titanium hip will battle crazy-ass disease called Wegener's Granulomatosis. Now stuff that in your spelling bee!

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