Wednesday 25 November 2009

Reading as a political act/The political inefficacy of reading

I've recently tried to push the admittedly narrow limits of my reading by focusing on two (very different) books of non-fiction: Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals and Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night.

Foer's book is a qualified argument in favour of vegetarianism, the researching and writing of which were inspired by the birth of his son and the suddenly much more important need to know exactly what comprised the food he was buying for his family. In terms of effectiveness (for inspiring people to look into what they put in their mouths and into their families' mouths), Eating Animals might really work for two reasons: First, many, many people know and love Foer's novels (Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and so not only will this book end up on a lot of people's radars the way any number of other similar books simply would not, but he's also working the daytime television circuit pretty well.

Second, as has been pointed out elsewhere, even though Foer is now vegetarian himself, this is really an "outsider" book. Written as a voyage of discovery, it offers nothing that's really new to those of us who have been thinking seriously about this issue for a long time. However, the newness of both Foer's experience and his perspective are potentially quite powerful things, rhetorically, because Eating Animals displays none of the creeping self-righteousness that can too often show up in tomes penned by those who've been veg*n a really long time and can no longer recall how difficult it is to even contemplate changing one's diet in the ways they propose.

Also, because it's written by Jonathan Safran Foer, the writing is excellent and thoughtful in terms of looking at the larger social picture, both of which are also, in my experience, new additions to the bevy of "vegetarian" books out there. (And Foer's the hottest vegetarian out there except, of course, for my husband. And maybe me. And some friends of mine. But I digress.)

Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night is a sort of anthropological history of the library and its cultural, political, and personal significance. It's a love letter, really, to books and to the people who collect them for others' use and to the places in which they are collected. It's also a eulogy of books lost to time, to destruction (intentional and otherwise), and to indifference by our increasingly tech-savvy but distractable 21st-century world.

Like Foer's book, Manguel's is very well-written - and I have to say, the writing of non-fiction has always been a major sticking point for me; so often, in my previous experience, non-fiction writing has treated as something to be used in the most starkly utilitarian ways, not something to be cherished, lingered over, or played with. Manguel's love letter is thus also a love letter to the act of writing itself, even though he claims his focus for reading and a long and varied culture of collecting books.

In spite of the rhapsodies he permits himself, however, Manguel is clear about one thing: reading is a political act, and so therefore is collecting books into libraries, regardless of size. Censorship, he argues at one point is, in a case of rather devastating irony, an inescapable aspect of creating libraries for there's no possible way every book can be included in any one library structure - and those who tried to create one (Babel) are famously known for having destruction rained down upon their heads, at least mythically.

And yet, Manguel sees nothing more dangerous in terms of a culture's awareness of itself as a culture than to allow censorship, to not try to circumvent that necessary censorship as much as possible. Citing a sadly very long list of the ways in which censorship has been enacted on reading throughout our world's history, he reminds us that in our apparently very open-minded and "safe" western world, things haven't changed nearly enough:
In the aftermath of 11 September 2001, the Congress of the United States passed a law, Section 215 of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, allowing federal agents to obtain records of books borrowed at any public library or bought at any private bookstore. "Unlike traditional search warrants, this new power does not require officers to have evidence of any crime, nor provide evidence to a court that their target is suspected of one. Nor are library staff allowed to tell targeted individuals that they are being investigated." [From Lawrence Donegan, 'Anger as CIA homes in on new target: library users,' in The Observer (London, 16 March 2003)] Under such requirements, a number of libraries in the United States, kowtowing to the authorities, reconsidered the purchase of various titles. (p. 125)
I would be interested - very interested - to know how often this law has been put into effect in the U.S. - and with what (sorts) of books and what (sorts) of penalties ensuing. Eating Animals may very well end up being one of the books whose readers are investigated, for vegans are considered to be the number one domestic terrorism threat in the U.S.! Eating Animals is not a pro-vegan book; it's a pro-vegetarian book as, I say above, with qualifications - but it does go after big corporations with a lot of governmental power on their side.

And much more importantly, when it comes to book banning and condemning, those doing the banning and condemning don't generally read the books they take aim at. Not a few times in Canadian educational history, in my lifetime, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has been banned from high school curricula by those who've neither read the book nor understand its historical importance - or because school boards have kowtowed to angry parents who've neither read the book nor understand its context.

Thus, simply reading Eating Animals could well constitute a political act. And Foer argues that whether you change your diet after learning what he reveals or not, that too is political - for not doing has inescapable significance. I take his point, but not doing anything generally leads to nothing changing - which is the same, in this case, as not having read the book. So, while I know using the example of one book is not fair, I will nonetheless ask: is reading a political act if the reading effects no change? Or, how many people does a book have to inspire to change or act for the reading of it to be considered a political act worth noting?

And is reading any book or any text really a political act? Manguel discusses how in the American south, many slave owners worked very hard to ensure their slaves didn't learn to read because direct personal access to information and education could incite rebellion; confronted with such an example, it's hard to deny that reading bears some sort of political meaning. But reading a Harlequin romance - or even, as enjoyable and informative as it is, The Library at Night! - doesn't seem to me to have any political implications, regardless of how any given reader or group of readers might respond.

The majority of people I deal with in my store and the majority of readers I know (self included) generally read to relax, to escape, to feel pleasure. If that sort of reading is political, it's only political in the negative sort of way Foer attributes to doing nothing, as I note above - and that's not a political choice that can be measured, for readers who do nothing can on the face of doing nothing be in no way distinguished from those who don't read to begin with, unless by CIA agents with naught to do but trawl library records.

I personally can't conclude that reading is inherently political; when political, reading is contextually so. I do agree with Manguel's assertion that individuals receiving educations which enable them comfortably to read texts penned for adult audiences is of political importance, as is universal access to reading materials of choice. Apart from that, I think political action happens entirely elsewhere and likely doesn't involve a comfy chair, tea, and home-made cookies (my ideal reading set-up).

Tuesday 17 November 2009

What ho! Shakespeare!

As you know, I've been trying to think of ways to inject some pizazz into Bookphilia and my feelings about it. I'm afraid none of my ideas are looking very well in the cold light of day, which I guess leaves me with two immediate options: stop blogging, or, keep writing reviews as I know how to (and hope that the romance will reignite all on its lonesome). For today, at least, I suppose my simply being here and showing you a picture of a P.G. Wodehouse book means I'm going for the latter option.

In my experience so far, P.G. Wodehouse's books are quite predictable and all pretty similar; the characters get switched up a bit and the hairy situations are somewhat altered but really, they're all the same. I have no problem with this and obviously, neither does the rest of the reading world, for all his books are being re-printed in purdy new soft covers.

Wodehouse's novels are fun and generally reliable and forgettable; I can't even remember the details of my favourite Wodehouse novel, Leave it to Psmith. But hey, if it's good enough for Shakespeare, it's good enough for me (and our man Pelham Grenville) - because really, all Wodehouse's books, in spirit for sure and also often in detail, are modern renditions of Shakespearean Comedies. Engagements arranged in record time, engagements broken, engagements remade and broken and remade, confused identities, young people running about in the green world well beyond the reach of the city, youth's conflict with the oldsters/parent figures, and the ultimate triumph of youth - all Shakespeare AND all Wodehouse. Wodehouse has no shame about his literary lineage, for he loves to drop little snippets from Shakespeare's oeuvre - who loved his intertextual references too. Wodehouse is like the meta-Shakespeare of 300 and change years later.

Obviously, such an analogy can only go so far; while Shakespeare's Comedies ARE all remarkably similar, he still had a great deal more breadth than Wodehouse, who did not pen tragedies or histories, or most interestingly, "problem" novels defying genre and the readerly expectations surrounding it. But this doesn't mean Wodehouse's Comedies aren't interesting. One of the things I find fascinating about them is how much more deeply than Shakespeare he thrusts his characters into the proverbial forest removed from the real world. Contemporary politics are barely gestured towards, if at all (e.g., in The Code of the Woosters, Roderick Spode is a rather intimidating fascist dictator in the making, but when crushed up against the meditative and ever firing brain of Jeeves, he has no chance there, in the country - and more importantly, his political ties and proclivities in no way affect the major plot points). The insularity of the English country mansion and its environs become inviolable to all negative forces save those of parent figures' in direct conflict with young people's desires.

The one way in which Wodehouse does not maintain his fairly consistent generic homage to Shakespeare, however, is in relation to the issue of class. In Shakespeare's Comedies, class distinctions are allowed to break down and be toyed with in the forest - although they will, of course, be re-established directly prior to the characters' re-entry into the "real" world. A great deal of Wodehousian Comedy relies on the strict maintenance of those class distinctions throughout whatever chaos ensues. With Shakespeare, the temporary disintegration of class is a true fantasy in the non-literary sense of the world - in Renaissance England, to what class one belonged was very clearly marked by the clothes worn. Indeed, that Renaissance actors, low rent by anyone's standards, could dress themselves as kings on the stage caused a fair bit of anxiety - for external markers were the only markers of social position (and therefore power) that were universally understood.

So, I wonder, was Wodehouse simply not enamoured of that particular aspect of his mentor's Comedic style, or is the sharp delineation of class in Wodehouse's novels itself the fantasy? Is the thing to be yearned for, in a Europe shaken by wars, the rise of a strong union culture, and an increasing influx of immigrants, not more social diversity but less? Given Wodehouse's political affiliations during World War II, that's a rather disquieting hypothesis. (It's also disquieting that I say this, given how many years I spent trying to teach my students to avoid engaging in biography criticism!) Or, are Wodehouse's novels simply a gentle send-up of the old guard who would imagine that larger cultural changes would leave their country (estates) entirely untouched in every way? Or, even more basically, is Wodehouse just having a simple laugh at those who would imagine that youth won't triumph over age?

I don't know the answers to these questions. I do know, having just come up for air and looked around with blinky eyes and racing heart, that I've apparently just written, not a review of The Code of the Woosters (which I very much enjoyed), but rather a hasty and un-researched lecture geared towards a first year English course - if anyone taught Wodehouse to first years, which I can't say I've ever heard of. Having not taught uni courses in 3 years now, I find what I've just done confusing. And perhaps more, not less evidence, of the fact that I don't know what kind of relationship I want there to be between the books I read and how and what I write about them. Sigh.

Friday 13 November 2009

The best sort of YA book is not really for YAs

That I have read Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels is a testament to the power of the interwebs, friends - specifically to the power of the book blog, for if it weren't for Raych's post on this book I would not have read it. If it weren't for the interwebs and my bookstore, I don't think any very recently published tomes would penetrate my consciousness these days (except for The Time Traveller's Wife, which 50 people a week ask me for; no one's yet asked me for Tender Morsels, the fools). I just want to dive into a pool filled not with water but with novels penned by a variety of Victorians, P.G. Wodehouse, and Ellis Peters and drown in bookish happiness.

What I'm saying is, Tender Morsels is a little bit of a departure from what I'm craving at this particular moment but it's exactly what I wanted when I found myself disappointed by that half-arsed Philip Pullman book a little ways back. Lanagan's book abounds in magic and inexplicable happenings, and the writing is really damned good in a capital-s Story sort of way, and like all the best YA novels out there, it isn't what many parents would consider suitable for YAs. It is fully of nasties and terrors and sex good, confusing, and very, very bad - and I absolutely loved it.

Reading books like this makes me feel a desperate sort of pain about my own inability to write creatively anymore. I want to write books like this, more than I can say. But every time I come up with a halfway good idea, I kill it to death by immediately analyzing it as though I were still a literary critic. I do this much against my will and can only hope that as more time passes, I'll be able to shed that aspect of my grad school life as well.

Back to Tender Morsels. It's a retelling of Snow White and Rose Red, a fairy tale I read repeatedly as a child, as it was in my favourite books, the 2-volume set of The World's Best Loved Fairy Tales. Like the original story, Tender Morsels includes the angry little dwarf with the beard and love of gold, as well as the bear who wins the hearts of the beautiful sisters. But the sort of suppressed sexuality barely hinted at in the original is in Lanagan's book explored with a great deal of confidence (and sometimes rather grisly relish) for the book begins and ends with gang rape and there's a whole bunch of alternately compelling and disturbing looks at human-animal sex in between.

If you're disturbed by the notion of human-animal sex being compelling, just make yourself feel better by thinking of this book as saying something allegorically about the limits of human civilization and what lies beneath the surface. I'm sure this book, and most other fairy tales, function primarily at the level of the allegorical, but Tender Morsels is so good - and so uncomfortably so at points - precisely because it keeps the allegorical so earthly and literally immediate.

PS-Raych not only reviewed Tender Morsels, but also interviewed Lanagan - check it out here.

PPS-I've had a number of ideas for reviewing books without writing book reviews but in the cold light of day they're none of them very good; indeed, some are downright embarrassing. I'll keep my thinking cap on and see if I can come up with some better ideas. Or maybe in the meantime, I'll magically go back to loving my blog just as it is.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

The Sarazens head without New-gate: time for some gushy good feelings

While I continue to meditate on how to infuse new life into my blog (or to my feelings about my blog), I will fulfill a long overdue promise: waxing ecstatic on what's so great about being a self-employed bookseller. If the following begins to look suspiciously therapeutic, like a gratitude list for some kind of self-help event, don't be surprised: I've been rather cranky this week and I'm writing this post now in an effort to remind myself why I should be excited about being a book-wallah.

Employment for the unemployable
In partial response to my "confession" of a few days ago, Amateur Reader assured me that I was doing the world a service by reminding it that doctoral studies are not like other forms of school; that doing a PhD is, in fact, rather like a shitquake in its destruction of health, hopes, minds, and relationships. (Okay, he didn't say anything about shit tectonics, but you get my point.)

What grad school also destroyed, for me, is the ability to work in a so-called normal job. Having made my own schedule for so many years, I find being somewhere that isn't my kitchen, in apparel other than pyjamas, by 9 am to be closely related to being punched in the neck by Andre the Giant in the amount of pleasure it provides. Not only do I find getting up early to be convulsion-inducing, but I also have a very hard time working steadily.

In grad school, I acquired the very bad habit of waiting until the last possible moment to do anything and then riding the adrenalin-mare to the terrifying and deadline-skirting finish. Of course, this didn't work so well with my thesis as there was no real deadline; and it also maybe didn't work so well in the "real" jobs I've (briefly) held in attempts either to continue to afford grad school or to try something entirely unrelated in my early bids at escaping the academy.

But. But! As a book-wallah who owns her own proverbial stall, I can open whenever I see fit to do so; and luckily, I bought a shop in a 'hood that doesn't see customers before 11 am as a general rule. This is important not only because getting out of bed is so evil, but also because sitting around with a hot drink surfing the interwebs before starting work is actually pleasurable now that thesis-writing doesn't follow it! There is no guilt whatsoever in these sometimes exceedingly lazy mornings.

More importantly, perhaps, if there are days on which I really don't feel like working, I don't. And reading all day in a bookstore isn't really an unrelated activity. It's like research, for which I'm paying myself a wage that puts me well below the poverty line. So double that no guilt thing above. Not that I have entirely unproductive days very often, for there's always a mountain of books to be cataloged and/or shelved. But there's some leeway. It's the perfect job for someone with a great deal of edjumakayshun and no discipline whatsoever.

It's a buyer's market
Back in my undergraduate days, selling used books was a profitable activity. A few times, in desperate circs, I managed to pay my rent just by off-loading a third of my books at a local second-hand shop. That wouldn't happen now. I get literally 15+ calls a week from people wanting to sell their entire libraries and then there are the walk-ins, with just a bag or two of books. Every baby boomer in Toronto is apparently trying to make space and so not only do I have to turn potential sellers away quite frequently because there's just no space, but I also don't have to pay very much for these books. In fact, I pretty often open the front door in the morning to find someone has left hundreds of books on the stairs for me.

It may not be a seller's market though, and so at some point, the beautiful dream will likely end. If we didn't sell our books online as well as in the shop, we wouldn't survive. And I've spoken with many other booksellers who either say the same, or who aren't online and are really struggling just to make ends meet. So, who knows what will happen? I'm just going to run with it until it no longer makes sense to do so. And then I'll become a twitchy, Valium-addled housewife with nothing to do but read a couple 1000-page novels a week and write angry letters to the papers about what a bunch of illiterate little bastards the kids are these days. I like the sound of that actually; I'll include it in my 5-year plan.

Book-buyers are the coolest people to have to deal with if you work in retail
You've all read about the crazy people I sometimes have to deal with but the majority of my customers are calm, nice (or nice enough), and not given to temper tantrums. Most want simply to browse because unlike some big box store working, ridiculous vest wearing booksellers I've met, I don't push at all. Most indie booksellers don't; it hearkens back to a rather more civilized age, I think.

At the same time, I often have excellent and stimulating conversations with people about books. I've had great talks with disaffected academics in which we shot the intellectual shit completely free of any anxieties about how up-to-date our ideas or interests were. I met one prof who revealed that while she had tenure, was employed at the most respected (by certain magazines) university in the country, was about to begin a year-long sabbatical, and working only on things she was interested in, STILL regretted not chucking it all to do something else. She fervently informed me I'd made the right choice. She looked really tired. Her unhappiness saddened me but think of how generous she was to admit so much to someone she didn't know, just to alleviate any doubts I might have had about the choice I'd made! Amazing.

And she's not the only generous person I've met. One day, a crazy man was in here harassing me. He kept insisting that I let him go get me a coffee, or a juice, or a tea, or why didn't I have some of the JOLT he had in his bag, etc and he was so loud and manic that while I firmly insisted I wanted nothing to drink (from a crazy man I'd never seen before!) he would not take the direct hint and just kept on trying. I was getting nervous but what kept me relatively calm was the presence of 4 - 4! - people who hadn't come in together but who all stayed for a long time and were obviously only pretending to browse as this went on. They all 4 stayed close to my desk (behind which I was hiding) and only left after crazyJOLTman left. And they left immediately after he did; two of them even turned to look at me and offered conspiratorial/comforting smiles! I wanted to hug them all and yell, a la Sherman Alexie, "How many good men are there in the world? Too many to count!"

And one more gushy story for you. I was chatting with a woman about a lurid mystery novel we'd both read and enjoyed a few years back - Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind. I asked her if she'd read the prequel, The Angel's Game, which had recently been released and she said yes; I said I was waiting for it from the library but was 200th in line. She came back the next day and gifted me her copy, insisting that I shouldn't have to wait that long. She didn't try to sell it or ask for credit or anything; she just handed it to me with a smile and left. And that's a fat, new hardcover book.

(Sidebar: I've since learned that being 200th on a library waiting list isn't such a big deal here. A couple of months ago, I put The Elegance of the Hedgehog on hold - 450th in line. And recently I decided I'd check out Wolf Hall because another blogger whose taste I trust said it was good so I put that on hold - I'm 950th in line!!!)

Oh yeah, the books part
Yes, and I live in a giant library of my own. This seems so obviously a Good Thing that I don't think I need to say anything else about it.

My boss is okay too
Sometimes she's a jerk but it could be worse. She brings me lunch every day and sometimes also snacky cakes.

Alright, so there you go. The next installment of The Sarazens head without New-gate will likely involve some weirdness, if I know myself at all. Looking forward to it.

Sunday 8 November 2009

A confession

Today, between segments of a very long bicycle ride and a delicious greasy brunch with my dear hubby, I finished Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone. It was action-packed, full of confusion and misdirection and red herrings, and it was well-written to boot. Most enjoyable. But I want to write about something else right now. Please bear with me.

I've mentioned before that I began this blog simply to discover how many books I read on average per year. It quickly turned into something I enjoyed for its own sake, primarily because it gave me an opportunity to write about books in an entirely casual, and therefore pleasurable, way in direct contradistinction to the "professional" writing I was doing for my dissertation.

Blogging about books was a vacation, a relief, but also a reminder of what got me so far in the study of literature to begin with. Not that anything I've ever written here would have ever functioned as even a good undergraduate essay, of course; it was simply that writing about books in this way reminded me of a simpler time during which I had a much simpler relationship with literature - and it helped sustain me until it was all over.

Now, I've been done with school for almost a year. For some time after completing what I hope will be my final university degree, I think my blogging became, overall, quite a lot better than it had been. I had more time and brain for engaging with what I was reading and for considering what I might say about it. I've even, in the last 6+ months, had some Thoughts along the way. Things were looking good.

And things continue to improve, in one sense. I feel fantastic. I feel free of any lingering anxieties, fatigues, etc associated with my unhappy times in academe. I feel recovered from it. I feel like a normal person (!!), and many people I know who have been done with grad school much longer than I have unfortunately cannot say the same. I feel lucky and blessed and given to playing in the fall leaves like someone either very spiritually free or a bit slow. I feel good.

The thing is, the better I feel, the harder I'm finding it to blog. I struggle more with every post and am less satisfied with the results every time (except maybe for my Curious/Creepy posts, but I am the kind of hopeless nerd who laughs at her own jokes). I'm certainly not finding it difficult to read; indeed, all I want to do is read incredibly long novels (hence the Victorian novels of late, gawd luv 'em); yet, when it comes time to post about them, I find myself longing simply to start another novel, immediately.

So, what I'm hoping for with this confession, I suppose, is some perspective and advice. If you blog, how do you maintain your interest and energy in the activity? If you've felt like this, how have you gotten past it? I like my blog. I worked hard to make it this darned purrty. But I'm losing stamina right now. So please, share. I'm all ears - interweb-ally speaking.

Thursday 5 November 2009

The Reading Lamp: Guy Fawkes edition

This installment of The Reading Lamp actually has nothing to do with Guy Fawkes but as it is Guy Fawkes Day, I encourage you to remember, remember the fifth of November for I know of no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot.

I also know that you should read Celine's interview below and enjoy it AND not set anything on fire tonight. - Colleen

Your name: Celine Kiernan

What are you currently reading?
Houdini!!! The Career of Erich Weiss by Kenneth Silverman. (Also just started Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.)

Where are you reading them?
'Til now, mostly in snippets on trains and in the toilet because I’ve been so busy. But I’m done with the edits on the trilogy and the book fest season is over now, so for the next little while I intend to snuggle on my sofa with my big red blankie and my books and luxuriate in some head-space.

How did you discover these books?
Houdini: Been lusting after it forever. It’s usually out of my price range. But I recently found it cheap as chips on Amazon and snapped it up!

Symmetry: Been vacillating over it since it came out. Was afraid it wouldn’t live up to The Time Traveler's Wife.

What do you think of them so far?
Houdini: By far the best Houdini bio I’ve read so far. No aggravating flights of fancy (unlike some I could mention).

Symmetry: Only 24 pages in and I already love and envy Audrey N. for having lived up to my expectations.

What is the one book you love so much that you can’t be objective about other people not loving it as well? Have disagreements ever come to blows? There are quite a few – but I must tighten my jaw against harsh words if folks diss Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels.

How do you choose what to read next? I’m very often researching my own work so that is a factor in my non-fiction reading. But for fiction I usually go by friends'/trusted book-bloggers' recommendations; occasionally I choose a book at random from a bookshop shelf. I’ve recently started listening to audio books (for non-fiction only) so that I can get some exercise while researching. (Currently listening to William Wilberforce: Life of the Great Anti-slave-Trade Campaigner by William Hague.)

What is your favourite indie bookstore? Why? The Crannóg in Cavan Town (Ireland). It’s a bloody gorgeous little shop and the owners/staff treat each customer as if they were the only person who mattered.

What book have you hated so much you wanted to cause it or its author harm? I’ve only ever struggled through one such book (life’s too short to read books you hate and I usually put them down, but I stuck with this one to the long-protracted end.) I won’t publicly diss another author, so the book shall remain unnamed. Suffice it to say the dude was on the radio shortly after I had endured his waffle; he was so smugly pleased with himself that I wanted to drag him through the speakers and throttle him until he gave me back the week of my life I had wasted on his drivel.

What is your favourite either unknown or underappreciated book? Well it’s hardly unknown or underappreciated, but I think Animal’s People by Indra Sinha is a wonderful book which no-one I know has read and which, therefore, I’ve no-one to talk to about. This makes me go WAH!

Monday 2 November 2009

In which I become increasingly more nervous that Bel Canto was just a beautiful accident

A few months ago, I read Ann Patchett's Bel Canto and was just blown away by the writing, the story, the gentleness with which the author treated her doomed and fragile characters. I enjoyed Bel Canto so much that it made me both extremely interested in and tensely wary of reading any of Patchett's other novels; I have this fear that books as good as Bel Canto can't be matched by their authors because they're too good, and that everything else must surely disappoint. But I took the plunge, friends, in spite of my fears and read Run. So, it's really too bad that it confirmed my fears.

Plot spoilers!
Run tells the story of the Doyles and the Mosers, two families who on the surface of things have nothing much in common, but who turn out to be intimately connected in profoundly unexpected ways. Tip and Teddy Doyle are young African American men in their twenties, adopted into an affluent white family as babies and who enjoy the educational and social benefits thereof. Their adoptive father, as former mayor of Boston, has high political aspirations for his sons, sons whom he deeply loves but whose real desires (Tip loves nothing but fishes and wants to do a PhD in ichthyology, while Teddy feels called to become a Catholic priest) he tends to dismiss in favour of constantly pushing them both to become politicians.

The Moser family comprises a single mother, Tennessee, and her 11 year old daughter Kenya; they live in a housing project, and Tennessee barely makes ends meet in her job as an elder care worker.

The two families meet in a snowstorm when, coming out of a lecture by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Tip almost gets hit by a car but is saved by Tennessee, who takes the hit and is severely injured. At the hospital (Tip ends up with a fractured ankle and so must go too) it becomes clear that these two families coming together this way may not be accidental because Kenya reveals amidst a great deal of shock and awe that she is Tip and Teddy's sister!! and that Tennessee is their birth mother!!!

How does Kenya know this? Because Tennessee has been watching them for years now, to make sure they're alright. If being stalked by their birth mother isn't enough, it's revealed that the Mosers also live literally a 5-minute walk away - yes, the beautiful part of Boston is apparently literally on the other side of the tracks from Cathedral, a rather rough part of town. Not so surprisingly, I guess; Toronto's just like that in points as well. But in Run, it does make the stalking seem a little less benign.

It is benign, however, as the Doyles come to see as Kenya stays with them (there's nowhere else for her to go, for secret reasons I won't reveal here) while her mother undergoes multiple surgeries in hospital.

Now, Run gestures towards all kinds of huge and important things like class, and parents' expectations of their children, and race, and how genetics affect family dynamics and the identities of individuals within families and the larger social pool. But in the end, these gestures felt rather half-hearted and the issues weren't explored in the depth they could - and, I think, should - have been. So, there was a lot of story and not a lot of substance here, just shadows of substance not fully materialized.

In which I really spoil the plot
Also, the way the book wrapped up was really too pat; it's so glib and easy that it almost makes me angry. Kenya is a smart kid at a shitty, ghetto school; she's got natural talent for the piano but no money for lessons and no instrument to practice on; she's a startlingly gifted runner but isn't getting to as many meets as she should be because of the whole shitty school and no money problem. So, instead of having Tennessee live so that the Doyles and Mosers can try to sift through the complicated historical intersections of their lives and try to create some kind of new familial relationship, Patchett just kills Tennessee off via some handy undetected internal bleeding. This, of course, ensures that Kenya is adopted and saved by Daddy Doyle and his money just like Tip and Teddy were.

Really, I can't tell you how disappointed I was by this ending, which I saw coming halfway through the book. After Bel Canto, I couldn't believe Patchett was actually going to wimp out and do this but she did. All I can think is that she got a little lazy, which is probably the worst adjective one could throw at a writer, but it seems too terribly apropos not to use. Had Patchett decided to explore how these two socially and financially divided families might try to come together in some unique way, she would have written a potentially phenomenal novel; as it stands, I think Run was, while often very engaging for her writing is still very good, ultimately a disappointment and for me, a failure.

I'll likely give Patchett at least one more shot before deciding that Bel Canto was the beautiful anomaly in her unexceptional oeuvre. But I have to admit that I'm even less excited and more nervous to do so than I was before I read Run. Sigh.