A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

Read: 9 October, 2017

Recently retired, George is just starting to settle into his life’s new mode when he discovers an odd lesion on his hip. Though his doctor quickly dismisses it as ecsema, George is pretty sure that it must be cancer. And thus begins his spiral into depression as his family tries to cope while being utterly incapable of communicating with one another.

The writing style is casual, almost breathless, as each member of George’s family gives us direct access to their thoughts as they think them. It means that the narrative is always subjective, and sometimes even a little muddled as characters get drunk or high on valium or focus on details to the exclusion of the big picture. But having access to the perspective of all four members of the family balances out the narrative.

That said, Haddon has never met a metaphor he didn’t like. This was particularly noticeable at the beginning, before I had acclimated to the style. And, frankly, it bordered a little on the absurd at times.

The characters were strong, and it was interesting to see so much of them from both the inside and multiple versions of the outside. While the difference between the first and third person prespectives is a comedy gold mine, Haddon doesn’t take advantage. Characters remain fairly consistent regardless of observer, except where George’s mental illness is concerned (and then only because his inner thoughts are new, and therefore unfamiliar).

George’s illness hit a little close to home, making the first part of the book rather difficult to read. I’ve been ill quit a bit in the last 1-2 years, which has exacerbated my usual depression/anxiety combo. Having George’s thinking so neatly mirror my own put me into a sort of feedback loop that really wasn’t healthy. But while that was bad for me, it’s an endorsement of Haddon that he got it so right.

The “almost every problem would be solved if the characters would just talk to each other” trope is one that I usually find incredibly frustrating, but it didn’t bother me too much here. Perhaps because the characters understood the problem and were clearly trying to reach out to each other. But it did make the characters themselves unpleasant. They are all utterly self-centred and incapable of thinking of others. This is just annoying when they whine about being unable to relate to each other, but it’s sad when we see how it plays out in their treatment of Jacob – Katie’s toddler. It’s clear that his emotional needs are not being met, just as it’s obvious that Katie’s and Jamie’s weren’t met when they were children. So while the book largely ends on a high note, it’s also clear that nothing has truly been fixed, and that all the same issues will still be present in the next generation.

I’m honestly not too sure how I feel about the book. I’m always inclined to like what I read, and this book certainly had a lot to recommend it (the capturing of middle class britishisms, alone, gives the book a certain value), but I just didn’t enjoy reading it all that much. And maybe that has more to do with me than the book, and maybe I’m being unfair, but I just can’t recomend it. A book like this needs a lot more humour to give it some balance. Without it, it felt like we, like George, we’re just wallowing.

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Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Read: 27 June, 2015

Bird by Bird is another book about writing, based in large part on the classes Lamott teaches (the conceit fades in and out, but by the end she addresses her readers directly as if they were students who had just completed her course). The style reminded me more of Writing Down the Bones, rather than Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, in that it was more of a pep talk, more about attitude, rather than the actual mechanics of writing. And pep talk it certainly was. In fact, if I were to summarize the thesis of the book, it would be: “Keep at it, don’t be discouraged, you can survive this!”

I enjoyed the book, and I mostly liked Lamott’s writing, but I didn’t feel like I got as much out of it as I had from Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg’s book make me keep putting it down to go write, and I’m still using many of its prompts. Bird by Bird never really gave me that feeling. As I finished the final page, I did feel like I wanted to pick up my writing project and work on it for a bit, but it wasn’t the frantic feeling I got from Bones.

Still, I found Lamott’s writing to be interesting, if not truly engaging, and the book is full of little gems, little pericopes that I thoroughly enjoyed. I doubt that this is a book that will stick with me, but I did enjoy the ride while it lasted.

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