This Week, I Read… (2020 #13)

47 - The Memory of Running

#47 – The Memory of Running, by Ron McLarty

  • Read: 3/26/20 – 3/27/20
  • Mount TBR: 47/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF at page 87. I cannot abide how grossly sexist and ableist this novel is.

Our protagonist is a fat chain-smoking alcoholic. Most of the early chapters are devoted to repeating his actual weight, his feelings about his weight, how many cigarettes he smokes and just how much he drinks; as if that’s a substitute for being an actual character. At one point, he also reminisces about how the only way he got through a hard time in his life was by being a jerk to everyone around him.

I was already bored with him, but since I knew the point of the novel was his journey of self-discovery and improvement, I can see how he has to be a complete loser to start with. And that’s not me fat-shaming him–the narrative is too busy doing that for me. His obesity is his personality.

So first we have the underlying sexism inherent in thinking this loser, this utterly mediocre-or-worse man, is worth telling a story about. I don’t see any evidence of that.

But it gets worse, because nearly every female character so far in the book is defined by their breasts, their disabilities, or both. The only one to escape that is his mother, who was introduced immediately before she died and didn’t get the breast assessment. The nurses at the hospital? Big breasts. Every woman he meets randomly? Big breasts. Every girl in every story he tells about the past? Big breasts. His neighbor who he played with as a child and meets again as an adult woman? Not so much about her breasts, but she does spend their entire first conversation with him defensively explaining how capable and clean and healthy she is despite her wheelchair. (That was a really uncomfortable scene, not just because of the insensitive treatment of the subject, but also because people simply don’t talk that way. It was beyond stilted and awkward.)

His sister? Again, not quite so much about her breasts, though one past story about how much the protagonist hated her junior prom date skates pretty close to inappropriate, talking about how hot she looked. No, she has more development, I’ll admit, but it’s entirely about her mental illness–she hears a voice that sometimes encourages her to go somewhere odd, take off her clothes, and hold strange poses. But that’s all I know about her, so yeah, she’s completely defined by that mental illness.

I wanted to keep going until the actual plot of the story began, the bike-trip across the country that transforms him (somehow) into a better person. But I didn’t make it that far, because soon after that childhood bike reenters his life, he passes out after riding it drunkenly a short (ie, non-cross-country) distance and wakes up near a community Little League game. The local Catholic priest was attending, and gets him to the hospital to get checked out, and takes him back to the church to rest afterward.

The next scene is actually one of the worst things I’ve read in my life. The priest, who has literally just met the protagonist, goes on a long, winding, bitter confessional story about how he became attracted to a divorcee in his congregation and eventually asked her sexually explicit questions over the phone, which she started recording partway through and later used to get him into trouble. The priest is also a breast man, apparently, because this is one of the actual things he told the protagonist he said to the woman:

“Why don’t you, why don’t you take off the rest of your clothes so your full, ripe breasts can cool off?”

It’s not even just that his behavior was inappropriate that bothers me. It’s that the author thinks this is a story a priest would tell someone he’s literally just met and knows nothing about. It’s an echo of the same problem from the protagonist and his wheelchair-using neighbor: they’re sitting on the porch together after his parents’ memorial and apropos of nothing she’s hyper-defensive about her disability, laboriously explaining her capabilities and routines. People don’t talk that way. People don’t immediately spill their secrets or explain their lives to near-strangers on a whim. Unless they’re drunk at a bar and need to rant, but even then, these aren’t the conversations they’d be having.

I need a shower.

48 - Starlight on Willow Lake

#48 – Starlight on Willow Lake, by Susan Wiggs

  • Read: 3/27/20 – 3/29/20
  • Mount TBR: 48/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: The 20th book on your TBR (it was the 20th unread physical book in my collection, sorted by date of purchase, when I made the list)
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A solid family drama masquerading at the last minute as a romance, which is what I thought I was getting when I started reading it.

Most of the story on the hero’s side is actually about his family’s struggles after their father’s death and mother’s spinal cord injury in a skiing accident. Most of the story on the heroine’s side is actually about raising two daughters after her husband’s death from diabetes complications and being unable to move on (romantically and with life in general) because she’s still paying off the debts that incurred and she’s constantly one step ahead of homelessness.

The two of them don’t have their first date until around page 400. I can’t even call this a slow burn, because there’s no burn! They spend very little time together and have very little chemistry! He’s engaged to someone else for most of the book!

It’s not a bad story, but it’s only about 10% what I consider “romance,” and that 10% is weak. Its strengths lie in other directions, notably the two daughters being rather good/realistic representations of their age groups.

49 - State of Wonder

#49 – State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

  • Read: 3/29/20 – 4/1/20
  • Mount TBR: 49/150
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book by an author on the Abe List of 100 Essential Female Writers
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book by or about a woman in STEM
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Though I can’t recall what book I described this way, I’m fairly certain I once reviewed something and called it “a fever dream of a novel.” Whatever book that was, State of Wonder has wrested that title away from it.

The first half of the book spends so much time dipping in and out of Marina’s memory and nightmares that following a cohesive real-time plot was more of a challenge than I wanted it to be.

I’ve only read one other Patchett work, Bel Canto, and when you read something that good, something you adored, returning to the same author comes with a certain set of expectations, one that Wonder did not live up to for me. Was it bad? No. Was it stunning and transformative? Also no.

The pace picks up and the fever-dream gloss falls away at least somewhat in the second half, which I was able to read much more quickly; yet I felt like I was missing some essential element to the story that would tie the whole thing together. A work like this must have a theme, but when I pick through my memory to find what it is, I can’t decide. Is it an exploration of the earthier aspects of womanhood and reproduction? Is it about confidence and self-doubt, or missed chances? Is it about the purity of science for its own sake, or the necessity of using science for humanitarian purposes versus exploiting it for profit? All of these things are touched upon, and I’m not saying any story has to limit itself to just one central theme, but I can’t parse what the message is, what my takeaway from this work should be.

I’m not sure my indecision is without basis in the novel, though, because Marina herself is a wishy-washy character at best, very passive. First she doesn’t want to go to the Amazon, yet it seems inevitable that she must, so she puts up no real fight. When she reaches Manaus and is waiting for the proverbial guard dogs to make their decision about whether she’ll be allowed to travel onward to Dr. Swenson, she seems constantly on the verge of boarding a plane to go home, yet goes deeper into the jungle on her quest, again, without much of a fight, but also without much gusto. When she’s at Dr. Swenson’s camp, she’s fascinated by what she finds but also always has one foot out the door, ready to abandon her tasks as impossible; yet she stays, allowing other people to make her decisions for her. Maybe that’s what I felt was missing–the protagonist’s backbone, along with any sense of urgency.

It’s a meandering story, despite having such clear goals in mind, and while I’ve been pretty harsh with it here, the good parts were quite good, and overall I’m glad to have read it. But unlike Bel Canto, it hasn’t earned a permanent place on my bookshelves.

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