Thursday, August 25, 2016

A Hologram for the King: a belated book club review

In my previous exposure to Dave Eggers (namely A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) I laughed and loved and sighed from the publication information through all 900 or so pages of the tome. I was therefore pretty excited when someone selected Eggers' novel A Hologram for the King for book club. And while the novel is vastly different from Eggers' much longer memoir (why does a youngish man have such a lengthy memoir?), I still found it intensely satisfying, engaging, whimsical, and thought-provoking. 

Hologram will not be to every reader's liking, but what book is? I relish strong characters, deftly-drawn scenery and clever word play, and Eggers delivers these three things big time. What he lacks (although I hardly missed it) is a strong plot. The plot is mainly about waiting, but that slow-moving train gives so much room for the main character, Alan Clay, to do a slow resolve into mid-life obscurity that any more active plot would be mis-matched. 

Alan Clay, one time high-flying Schwinn sales man to the world, is the prototypical anti-hero. He fears disappointing his young adult daughter with the reality of his fallibility (what parent amongst us doesn't live with that fear!), he lives with the daily impact of poor choices optimistically made (welcome to my life), and he clings desperately to some thought that things can still turn out all right, if only. If only. 

I might be making this all sound depressing, but I found charm and comfort in Alan's predicaments. His obsession with the lump on his neck (serious illness would solve a lot of problems), his awkwardness with the opposite sex (if you're 50ish and dating, no doubt you feel Alan's pain), his aimless days passed with just a thin covering of purpose. I spent much of the book smiling ruefully and thinking, thank the bright heat of the sun I'm not the only one. 

If you're all about fast-moving plots, this is not the read for you. But if you want to spend a few hours with someone who needs a little saving, and to have his story sweetly shared, Alan Clay's your man.

So, this was actually the book club selection from February 2015, when I was volunteering in Jamaica. I had planned to continue to participate in book club remotely, but it just didn't work. Novels are next to impossible to find in Jamaica, and for some reason it never worked for me to Skype in to meetings, so I just gave up after the first couple months.

Still, since I've been gathering the missing books I thought I'd try to do some catching up while I have some extra time. I do remember people saying they thought it was dreadfully slow, but ... I wasn't here so I can't report out on any more than that. 

damn, I did it AGAIN!

I know I've said this before, but one of the best books I've ever read was The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. I read it almost 20 years ago and still find something new in each re-reading. 

The agreements themselves are simple, but they are not easy:
  1. Be impeccable with your word
  2. Don't take things personally
  3. Don't make assumptions
  4. Always do your best
I had the agreements posted over my desk for years. The print-out moved with me from office to office and still lives in my at-home desk - too worn to hang anymore, but still worth seeing regularly. 

I cannot claim to live by any of these - certainly not to the degree I would like - but they are touchstones, and they are something I continue working towards. The one I struggle with the most consistently and feel the least progress with is the second agreement: Don't take things personally.

Today, I got sucked into defending myself against someone who dislikes me. You'd think that'd be a great exception to the "don't take things personally" rule, right? A direct jab from someone who has said (and shown) repeatedly that he doesn't like me seems like the epitome of personal. Only, the truth is that THAT'S NOT ABOUT ME. It's not personal. It's all about him.

His opinion of me is not my business. I wanted to be defended by other people, and knowing (assuming - see #3) there was no help coming I jumped in there and defended myself. I shrank to his size. And I've been stewing about it ever since. It sucks to be disliked (though he's certainly not the only one, and I'm okay with that). It hurts more not to be defended by those who do like me. But the only thing I can control is my response, and it's embarrassing to get sucked in. 

I'm a work in progress, and I'm learning to be more patient with that, but it's disheartening to have a day like today when my own ego proves to be as fragile as ever. I want to be the bigger person. I want to receive insults and jabs and feel compassion for the source of them. But, I'm just not there yet. Maybe I won't rehang the scarred and worn out mini-poster from 2001. Maybe I'll just save this  image as my screensaver so I see it before I go on social media. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The High Mountains of Portugal: a book club review

I love Yann Martel - at least, I think I do. Life of Pi was one of the most moving, thought-provoking fables I've read; his short-story collection The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccomatios changed my mind about the validity and power of short-stories; and Beatrice and Virgil was intriguing and rewarding, especially as a 'writer who reads.' So I was thrilled when Martel's latest novel, The High Mountains of Portugal was selected for a summer book club selection. Unfortunately, the thrill didn't last.

Far be it from me to doubt the power of Yann Martel's writing, but I was relieved when, at long last, I got to the end of this novel. I didn't hate reading it, but it felt like an endurance test. I'm more of a sprinter. The story is presented in three parts, over three separate yet linked stories, and with recurring themes. As always Martel uses humanity's distance from and relationship to animals to highlight the human condition.  And again there were magical elements woven into the otherwise realist story. But, it just never sang. There were spots of beauty, but they didn't occur with the kind of consistency that I need to stay engaged with a story.

My disappointment in this book isn't enough to keep me from recommending it, or from reading whatever Martel produces next. It is enough, however, to dull the glow of my ardour.

I have been so lax about reviews the last while - even book club reviews. I've thought about maybe doing video reviews instead, but I hate being on camera. So, anyway. I don't know if there will be more. I'm fairly ambivalent about blogging, and the reviews, and book club in general. That said, this month we had a phenomenal mini-retreat day trip to Lake Cowichan. Although the total drive time was longer than the visit time, the lake and the food were lovely. There's just something about being offline, out of town, sitting in the breeze off a lake.

Beautiful Lake Cowichan, from the dock

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