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A Little Heartbreak, A Dose of Literary Reality

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I’m hoping this was just a speed bump on the road called Jack Reacher.

I just finished Lee Child’s latest addition to the Jack Reacher series, Past Tense, and was…What’s the word…Saddened? Untitillated? Underwhelmed?

JR is once again the middle of Nowhere, USA. He’s kinda/sorta looking for his father’s birthplace. He gets into a few fights. He wins them all handily. The end.

Of the roughly 3,454 books I’ve read by Mr. Child, this was the first time I felt let down, something many of us have experienced at one time or another with authors/artists we love. We are, after all, human. No artist can remain at the top of their A game forever (although a solid argument could be made for Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, Mr. Picasso’s baptismal name).

I remember the first time this happened to me as a reader of fiction, feeling somewhat crestfallen, that is. I fell in love with Tolstoy at a young age, starting with War and Peace, moving onto Anna Karenina (which his old comrade Dostoyevsky called “the greatest love story ever written”), and culminating in his last novel, Resurrection, in 1899, which had a great premise but ultimately fell flat.

Then it happened with Murakami Haruki. I loved A Wild Sheep Chase. What followed (in English translation) was Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Norwegian Wood, Dance Dance Dance, South of the Border, West of the Sun, and then his opus, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. From there, things went south for me (but not west of the sun), including Murakami’s choice for his new translator. It began with Sputnik Sweetheart and Kafka on the Shore, and then — contrary to what some believe — 1Q84.

Alternatively, there are some “red wine” authors that seem to get better with age, like Ayn Rand (I know, I know…This will be controversial with certain readers), who went from We the Living (amazing, with a terrific ending) to The Fountainhead (profound, nearly led to a complete nuclear meltdown for Ms. Rand) to her true opus, Atlas Shrugged (which had a profound influence on philosophy, politics and social movements). The same could be said of Somerset Maugham, who started relatively early with Of Human Bondage, then The Moon and Sixpence and then, at the tail end of his career as a novelist, his opus, The Razor’s Edge.

Finally, there are the yo-yos of the literary world. Take Fyodor Dostoyevsky. He broke out to wild acclaim in 1846 with a novella called Poor Folk, and didn’t get 15 minutes of fame; he got, quite literally, 15 days of being what Guardian contributor Daniel Kalder called a “cause celebre.” It would be 20 years (of being pissed on and heckled) until Fedya D regained his rightful place as a master of fiction after the release of Crime and Punishment in 1866. His last novel, seen by many to be his opus, was The Brothers Karamazov.

As a final note, and as it pertains to the genesis of this post, 61 Hours and Worth Dying For are my two favourite Reacher novels to date.

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Consciously Uncoupling & Jonathan Franzen

Are you married? Do you have a child/children? Do you find yourself staying with your partner mostly (or completely) because of the kids?

The New York Times ran a thought-provoking article a few months ago that I recently came across. The piece by Cole Kazdin, titled “The Original Conscious Uncouplers,” is the story of two parents who stay together for the sake of the kids. Theirs is a relationship devoid of affection or romance, but replete with love and kindness for their offspring. When the kids are deemed old enough to handle the news, the parents announce they are getting divorced, and what was once a seemingly perfect family where nobody fought or raised their voice quickly becomes a war zone, one in which the mother and father can’t even stand being in the same room together.

I know I’m not alone when I say I can relate to this scenario all too well. For me, fewer things represent (and stain) my generation than divorced parents (twice over in my case), some of whom consciously uncoupled, some of whom just went to blows while the ink was still drying on the marriage license.

In literature, it’s easy to find extreme relationships written about very well. Whether it’s the epic love story of books like The Map of Love or The Count of Monte Cristo, or the doomed love of books like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, it’s harder to find novels that explore marriage from the ground level, so to speak, a more realistic approach.

Reading this NYT article reminded me of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. The Corrections may have been his coming-out party – and a good book in its own right – but it was Freedom that earned Franzen a place among the pantheon of great American writers. And for good reason. Although it could very well have been 100 pages shorter, it’s one of the most realistic fictional accounts of family life in middle America I’ve ever read. In some ways, Franzen has carried the torch forward from Updike’s “Rabbit” series, which chronicled everyday life, including marriage, in a compelling and believable way like few others.

Fortunately, Cole Kazdin’s article has a happy ending after a tumultuous relationship finally rights itself, one in which love and kindness win out. I guess sometimes there really is a silver lining in real life.

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