Wednesday, August 11, 2010

READING ON A DEADLINE


Four hundred sixty-three pages to go. I'm never going to make it. Why do some authors have to be epic-centric?




Ten months ago, while staying at the family cottage in Ontario, my cousin's wife and I sipped wine and chatted about what makes a good book. I'd said I was drawn to stories in which the writer brought the characters to life in such a way that I felt I knew these people. She recommended a book she'd recently read. Would I want to borrow the book? Sure, why not. A week later she handed me the book. Lift with the knees, not the back. The hardcover came in at more than seven hundred pages. As a person who has always been a slow reader, the rounding rules from math class do not apply. In my mind, the tome (tomb?) was an eight-hundred pager.




I flew back to Vancouver, relieved that Air Canada didn't charge more for the added weight in my suitcase. I set the book on my dresser and proceeded to forget it existed. Entertainment Weekly was a much more consumable read. (Sometimes, after reading, I felt I knew James Cameron and the "Glee" cast, too.)




On impulse, I booked a flight back to the cottage and that book could no longer be ignored. I could not in good conscience borrow a book for almost a year and return it, mumbling, "Sorry, never got around to it." I am a writer. Writers are voracious readers, right?




Then July came and I booked another trip to the cottage. Suddenly the book taunted me every time I walked in my bedroom. Gonna read me? Or are ya just a literary fake?




It was like I was back in college, end of semester, 1,900 pages of text behind in my reading assignments. That's when I'd curse the history prof who had five texts on his course syllabus. Should have dropped it the first week. Would have saved a bundle at the university bookstore and might have gotten more than a few naps in the days leading up to finals. I told myself that 800 is nothing compared to 1,900. Less than half! A snap! But 1,900 came twenty-five years ago when four hours of sleep was the norm and all-nighters were trendy. Cramming made sense. (Being prepared was for Boy Scouts and that was the last thing I wanted to be compared to in university.)




Could I cram again? Was there any point in even doing so? It's leisure reading. Setting daily page quotas seemed to violate the intent.




I didn't for a moment think about surfing online to read a few reviews and finding a Wikipedia entry about the author. Even in a reading crisis, I never cheated. Never looked at Cliff's Notes. I'd do the time. I'd walk around with raccoon eyes, wear them as a badge of honor.




And so I began reading Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed. The main character immediately came off as cold and passive-aggressive. That was my out! Sorry. Couldn't get into it. Couldn't relate to the main character. I could go back to reading Julia Roberts' latest interview promoting her new movie. But no. The writing was strong. So what if I didn't like the character? Wasn't that the point of strong storytelling? I could be introduced to new people but never have to sit with them face-to-face.




I read on. Columbine. Ugh. I cannot handle reading about violence. This author had done extensive research about the massacre. If not abandoning the book, I could have skimmed the scores of pages dealing with the shootings. And yet I didn't. This book had been offered for reading, not skimming, scanning, perusing. I worked through the pages, felt like I was there, not that I wanted to be. Effective writing.




And then the book began to unravel. The author included a flashback chapter to his childhood. Interesting backstory, but unnecessary as such a large chunk. If the book weren't so long, I could overlook this, but I cursed the editor. Save a tree for Pete's sake! The novel drifted farther from its core as letters from an ancestor and family history took up more text, offered in the form of a subordinate character's thesis. I grew more annoyed. My editor would have never allowed it. Easily two hundred pages could have been chopped. Still, I read.




One hundred thirty-one more pages. I finished the novel on the plane. I think I felt more relief than satisfaction. The pacing of the book felt off. For the first seven hundred pages, the writer meandered about, freely going off on side paths before finding the main trail again. And yet the final thirty pages felt like a whirlwind wrap-up, quickly updating character stories to bring the story to its conclusion. It felt like the kind of update that flashes on screen at the end of a movie biopic before the end credits roll. Made for a tidy conclusion, but also made the tangents in the story more aggravating. (SPOILER ALERT: I also didn't care for the fact that the meaning of the book's title wasn't revealed until the last page of the book. As I read, I kept stopping and wondering, "Is that 'the hour he first believed'? Did I miss it?!)




So I did it. I surrendered the book yesterday, leaving it with another cousin. I won't even have to have a conversation with the donor about my impressions of the book. I could have gotten away with not reading it. And yet I am pleased to have made it through. To his credit the author created strong, distinct characters and built a story atop a foundation of core themes and values. I am also more cognizant of the importance of ruthless editing whereby no passage gets a free ride no matter how beautifully written.




I'm currently reading two short story collections. They are just the antidote after the marathon read. I find comfort in knowing I can skip a short story if it doesn't pull me in from the outset. And I look forward to getting back on a normal sleep schedule. Here's hoping Rocky the Raccoon goes into a long hibernation.




But then I remind myself I've never read War and Peace. How can I call myself a writer if I haven't read that? And I can only renew library books twice. I see late nights ahead of me…







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