Why I write unconventional (and unpopular) book reviews

I am driven to write book reviews for my blog though these posts are seldom popular compared to my running posts. Why do I do it?

I realize that books are (and always have been) my greatest passion. Running was undoubtedly my greatest talent. It shaped my whole life. Through running I discovered another facet to my self-identity, one that the sixteen-year-old bookworm had never experienced: I was an athlete who could love the sense of physical power and effort. I gained a completely new appreciation of my body.

Yet books are what completely engage me and excite me. The admiration and awe I have for great writers surpasses my reactions to even the most outstanding athletic achievements.

I write my book reviews for two reasons: First, I write for myself. Book reviews are my vain attempt to capture the essence of great writing. What exactly am I trying to hold on to when the reading is done?

• the evocation of emotion and memories
• new ideas (or, paradoxically, ideas so familiar to me that I am bonded to the writer)
• spiritual epiphanies and psychological truths
• the escape from too-harsh or too-mundane reality through the beguiling delight of a good story (what’s going to happen next?)
• the zany creativity of unusual style or word coinage/combinations or meandering long sentences that sometimes extend to paragraphs or even pages that leave the reader dizzy, coming up for breath eventually after being suspended in another world.

The second reason I write book reviews is because I’m compelled to share what I love. Yet I always experience a sense of futility while writing book reviews. I know I can’t do justice to the book; the best parts of my reviews are the quotes, but what can I do when countless sentences and paragraphs of a book are worthy of quoting?

Some books are so rich in their layers or themes or details or technical structure that they have to be reread. That’s what I thought about The Brothers Karamozov (Fyodor Dostoevsky) and Traveling Sprinkler (Nicholson Baker) [See my book review here.] Some books are so loved and reread that their characters become like real people or friends. For journalist Rebecca Mead, Middlemarch (George Eliot) has been a lifetime companion—she wrote about this in her recent highly-acclaimed book My Life in Middlemarch. The book I simply call “my favourite book” is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith). I read it first when I was twelve, and have reread it so many times I can repeat many sentences and paragraphs of it by heart.

Avid readers know there is never enough time to read, especially now with all the distractions of the Internet. In fact, the online world just gives me more suggestions about worthy books; it gives me access to more book reviews, blogs, and other opportunities to interact with people about books.

All of this conflicts with the fact that reading (and writing) are solitary activities best done without distractions. I also feel torn between the desire to read (and reread) classics and my favourite books, and the urge to devour the latest books and keep up with the evolution of writing techniques, forms, and contemporary topics. The illustration below gives a quick view of the books I’m eager to read, and what led me to them.

A collage of book covers with text about the books

Some of the books I want to read RIGHT NOW!

My comments about how I was reminded about John Updike’s work illustrate one thing I love about the Internet: the randomness of discovering jewels or links to jewels. Hermione Lee’s article about Updike’s writing not only made me want to read more of him, but encouraged me as a writer. For one thing, Lee’s article is over 2,600 words long, so there is still a place for extended book reviews and analyses about writers.

I was also encouraged to discover that Updike drew heavily upon his own life as the source for his fiction. I have struggled with questions of how to use personal experiences without being totally narcissistic, and how to use real people and experiences as “seeds” for fiction without simply recounting real events.

For Updike, childhood memories remained vivid and appeared in his writing. His adult life was tumultuous—he had multiple wives and carried on multiple affairs, and none of his friends, family, or lovers were exempt from being incorporated into his fiction. According to Adam Begley (whose biography of Updike Lee critiques in her article), “What mattered most profoundly to him wasn’t sex or even love; what mattered was writing.”

I don’t know yet how far I will get on my journey to becoming a good writer. But my book reviews are my way of cementing the wonder and appreciation I feel for a good book. As Stephen King says, “If you don’t have time to be a good reader, you don’t have time to be a good writer.”

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Book review: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Cover of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

In The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes has written with an understated courage about the tragedy of a man’s coming face to face with his own failings and self-deception near the end of his life.

It’s a sad book because the protagonist, Anthony Webster, gains his wisdom too late—by his own estimation. It’s too late to change his mistakes or to make amends for them. All he has left is “regret, guilt and remorse”—with remorse being the strongest and most terrible of the three, according to Anthony.

Yet it’s a beautiful book, because it is beautifully written. Anthony is carefully, sympathetically drawn. He is a kind of Everyman. He is not evil (though when shown a letter he had written four decades earlier, he is shocked by his own jealousy-provoked viciousness); rather he is by turns bumbling, self-centred, passive, and insensitive. I can only gasp at Barnes’s writing skill; somehow, he makes us like Anthony in spite of (or because of?) his ordinariness, his lack of heroic qualities.

The Sense of an Ending is a very good novel until the last four pages. But it’s the shocker ending that most displays the author’s virtuosity. Like Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, like Bill Gaston’s The Good Body, this is a book that demands rereading to figure out just how the writer was able to put it all together with such ingenuity.

I don’t have to give away the ending to explain the source of the book’s power. I think it comes from the comparison of our own lives with Anthony’s. If we are old, do we share his emotions, or have we lived more fully? If we are middle-aged, this book is a warning. Anthony’s revelations come too late. There were points in his life when he could have been more honest with himself and others about what he felt and what he wanted. He could have made other choices instead of going with the current, following the path of least resistance.

I don’t need Anthony’s warning.

Going through a textbook mid-life crisis, I changed my life completely between the ages of 48 and 52. Some of the choices I made were planned—going back to school to train for a new career as a writer and leaving my husband—but others were not. I didn’t count on wrecking my knee and losing my running career, which was such a big part of my identity. I didn’t know my coach George Gluppe’s health would deteriorate rapidly and that he would pass away last April. I wouldn’t have chosen to have everything in my life go all topsy-turvy within the space of a few years.

But there were many stimulating and joyful beginnings, times of being amazed by the realization: It’s not too late!
There are also those middle-of-the-night times of panic, when the darkness spreads to gut-deep despair and my fear: I’ve left it too late!

But I can only start from today, and welcome my unfolding new life. I don’t know how it will all turn out. I don’t know what my “sense of an ending” will be, two or three or four decades from now (if I live that long). All I can know for sure is that I won’t share Anthony’s remorse about not having tried to change.