Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Review: The Girl on the Fridge

The Girl on the Fridge The Girl on the Fridge by Etgar Keret
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What incredibly short stories! Oftentimes a few paragraphs long, or a few pages at most, these stories were extremely quick, which was a nice way to experience reading: I could sit down, zip through a few, and set the book aside until later with zero stress.

However, perhaps due to their brevity or maybe something else, I was often left feeling frustrated. Where was the story? These seemed to be more snapshots, introductions to interesting situations or ideas, but rarely anything that felt like a full and complete story. This is a problem I find myself facing with many short story collections, where the "stories" feel more like character sketches or introductions to full stories that then fail to materialize. So in many ways, this collection was just one more that left me unfulfilled.

Yet I cannot say I did not enjoy it at all. The ideas and characters and situations it presents are fresh and unique. The stories cohere in a vague way that I might only identify by rereading the book in its entirety, but they always felt like they belonged in this collection, no matter how banal or bizarre. So the next time I have novel fatigue, I just might pick up another collection by Keret. Because sometimes, freshness and brevity is worth it a little frustration.

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Sunday, February 19, 2017

On Failing

Here is what failing feels like: it feels like two lead vices clamping around your legs as you fight to keep them in motion. It feels like dread, in that moment right before you look down at your watch. It feels like sliding backward down a hill that has no end. It tastes like metal. Looks like darkness. Sounds like silence, where there should be the deep, tremendous roar of will.

I’m running. And I’m failing. And I don’t have any answers.

Before I sound too self-pitying, I should point out that by many people’s estimations, I’m not failing. In fact, if you look at the “official record” of what I’ve done so far in 2017, you might say I’m succeeding. I’ve run a handful of races and placed reasonably well; I’ve even won a few. But is winning the same as succeeding?

Depends on your definition of success.

If I show up to a race and the only women there are at my fitness level, with my experience, then yes: I want to win. But there are plenty of women out there who are fitter, tougher, more talented, and harder-working than I am. If they show up, I will not win.

And frankly, I don’t care.

What I care about is, when the race is neck-and-neck and it comes down to who can dig deeper in those last miles, or moments, or seconds, that I don’t let up. I don’t care if my name is rendered in lights or entirely forgotten. I don’t need an extra medal, or a trophy, or a podium, as nice as all of those things are. What I need is to know that, when it comes down to it, I care more and can push myself harder than the woman next to me. If, in the end, she is actually faster and wins the race, so be it. Good for her. But as long as I ran right to the brink of self-destruction and gave it everything I had, all the way through the last centimeter of the race, I’ll be happy.

Happy . . . but perhaps still not succeeding.

The beauty of running is that I don’t have to care about winning for the sake of winning. Running is not like basketball, or soccer, or tennis, where there is one winner and one loser, and if I don’t win, I failed. In running, I can lose to tens or hundreds or thousands of women and still succeed. But in order to do that, I have to beat myself. I have to beat my own fastest time.

That is how I measure success.

So right now, I am failing. I am failing at races, I am failing at workouts, and I am frustrated as hell. However, I’ve heard some smart people insist that failure is not the end of the journey. So tomorrow, I’ll lace up my shoes, strap on my watch, and try, try again.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Review: I'll Give You the Sun

I'll Give You the Sun I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First off, I just have to say this up front: page 333 cites Brancusi's The Kiss as "one of the most romantic sculptures ever made." So of course, I looked it up.

Let's just say it looked better in my head.

But that's the thing about writing about visual artwork: it can look better in your head. And it should! Loading down a piece of writing with every single detail of a painting or sculpture would bore the reader to tears, but a few lines of slightly vague yet compelling description that appeals to all the senses can do wonders. Jandy Nelson does wonders.

Before I get too far into the discussion of artwork, let me backtrack. This novel is not about artwork, per se. It's about artists--lots of them--and about passion and love and identity. Also, it's a YA novel, so the romances are (of course) over-the-top in the best sort of way: all fireworks and melting insides and desperation and agony (but written in much more eloquent, unique ways that I just described). Nelson accurately captures the essence of quirky teenagers struggling with the fine line between being true to their themselves and using their quirks to alienate themselves and others. She also looks at the idea of "what's allowed" in love and romance, in both teenage and adult life. And she does so with compassion and a narrative that moves at the pace of a skittish colt.

Jude and Noah are teenage twins, competing for their parents' love and the love of the world around them. Noah is the dreamer and the model child; Jude is the rebel. Yet when tragedy strikes, their role reversal could not be more abrupt, and the ways they hurt each other and shame they feel as a result drives the narrative forward with the sort of "what will happen next" urgency of a murder mystery. I enjoyed how the past and present were intertwined by allowing Noah to tell "what happened" and Jude to tell "what is happening," and I was impressed with how Nelson managed to conceal facts from us, the readers, even while the characters themselves knew what had happened.

My only criticisms were that 1) by the end, it felt a bit like "everything plus the kitchen sink;" I feel as though limiting the melodrama of the narrative just a bit, particularly at the end, would have done it a great service, and 2) every loose end tied up a little "too" perfectly. Otherwise, however, it was a quintessential YA novel, perfect for lovers of art, romance, and family drama all rolled into one.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

Review: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book does something unique: it makes you root both for the protagonists and against them at the same time. On one hand, you are rooting for Wavy and Kellen to end up together--after all, this is a love story. Even the most curmudgeonly reader wants, on some level, to see a happy ending. But then, the moment you realize that you're rooting for them, you're instantly horrified, because you understand that what you allegedly want to happen is for an 8-year-old and a 21-year-old (or however old they grow up to be, eventually) to have a successful romantic relationship. To put it mildly, it's a little too Lolita for comfort.

I liked this book. I liked the world Greenwood created: the dusty Midwest, full of women wearing too much makeup and not enough clothes, the men covered with tattoos and smelling like gasoline and cigarettes. The narrative compelled me from the outset: the tough little girl who wouldn’t speak, who desperately needed a caretaker, and who defied expectations. And I appreciated the nuances of the surrounding characters. However, I didn’t love the impromptu narrative shift to characters other than Wavy and Kellen; it struck me as lazy authorship not to be able to convey what these other characters thought or felt without diving straight into their heads. The jump between first and third person also threw me from time to time—something you definitely don’t want to do to a reader who is as engrossed in the story as I was.

Up until the “all is lost” moment, I was 99.9% sold on this book. I thought for sure I’d give it 5 stars. But then it started feeling like Greenwood was trying to jam in “everything but the kitchen sink,” and in spite of everything that was happening, I could already see how the story would end. I knew how I would end the story, but I also could tell, without reading ahead, how Greenwood was going to wrap things up. And frankly, I think tying things up so neatly was a missed opportunity. This was a complex issue he was exploring, with a lot of internal and external factors at play. To give it such a straightforward resolution did the characters and the readers—and the story, really—a disservice.

Endings are hard. I’d be interested to know how many endings Greenwood wrote for this book before settling on the one that’s in there. But, ultimately, I think he chose wrong. Hopefully he’ll do better with whatever he writes next—which I most certainly will read.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"B is for Brains" – The Berlin Marathon Race Recap

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I’ve rewritten this race recap three times. Each time, I fretted over how much to include, what to omit, which events are "interesting," and just how honest to really be. In the end, it turned out longer than I'd like, but it finally says what I want it to say. I think.

I don’t know how other people do it, but when I prepare for a race, I set three goals. The first is the one I tell my friends and family–mainly the people who don’t know much about running. This “C goal” the “safest” of the three: the one that, barring any catastrophe, I should reasonably be able to hit. Typically, it involves running a PR–a personal best–by any margin.

The next goal is the one that, depending on my mood (and who’s asking), I may or may not tell my running friends. Like the C goal, it’s one I also think I can hit, but requires a little more hope and a lot more luck. If race conditions are good and I keep my head on straight, I have a very good shot. The B goal is usually the one I tell my coach.

And then there’s the A goal. In college-application-speak, this is the “reach” goal, and it’s the one I truly have my heart set on. I almost never share this goal with anyone, because yes, I’m a little superstitious, but also this A goal seems greedy. It reveals that I don’t think it’s enough to just PR; I have to PR by this much.

Pasta dinner "race faces."
Three weeks out from Berlin, I had my three goals in place. The C goal was to PR. The B goal was to run a 2:55 (three minutes faster than my last marathon PR). And the A goal was to run a 2:50. My racing season thus far had gone great, and all three felt achievable . . . right up until I ran the worst half marathon of my life. After that, I spent the next two weeks trying to convince myself that the race was a fluke, that I wasn’t a mental disaster, and that the marathon couldn't possibly feel that bad . . . could it?

Then, to make matters worse, the night I was scheduled to fly to Europe, my coach announced that he was leaving New York. By email. An email that I read on my phone at 9pm while standing in an extraordinarily long airport check-in line, stressing over freelance work I had not yet finished.

This is it, my overreacting brain announced. He’s abandoning you. The team you love so much is finished.

Of course, I knew that none of these things were true. But nevertheless, I proceeded to spend the entire equally long, equally stressful security line trying to convince any onlookers that, no, these weren’t tears, I was just having an uncontrollable yawning epidemic. All in all, not the best send-off.

Fast forward to Saturday, September 24th: the night before race day.

I’ve always known that I am part of a fantastic team. Everyone is friendly and fun, supportive and encouraging. But on this particular day, my incredible teammates and fellow running friends took it upon themselves to remind me how great they really are.

So much love!!!
Here I was, thousands of miles away, in an entirely different time zone, and all of these amazing people took it upon themselves to not just think of me, but to bombard me with Facebook, Instagram, iMessage, and WhatsApp messages wishing me luck and reassuring me "you can do this." And for the first time in two weeks, I felt more than just apprehensive. I felt excited.

So. On to the race.

There’s nothing interesting to say about the morning of my race other than the fact that once I finally reached my starting corral, I was surprised to discover that there were almost no women around. And I don’t just mean standing near me; there were almost no women in sight at all. (As it turns out, fewer than one in four people running the Berlin marathon this year were female!) Eventually, a tiny British woman standing nearby approached me. She introduced herself by way of saying, “Honey, you look about as nervous as I feel!” and we chatted about the lack of women in our vicinity. Then, twenty minutes later, the starting gun sounded, and away we went.

Here was my plan:

Run the first half in 1:28. This would average out to 6:43 per mile (which I calculated the night before).
Then, alternate 2 mile “workouts.” Run two miles of fartleks (i.e., 1-2 minutes fast at the beginning of each mile before settling back into an easier pace for the remainder of the mile), and then run two miles at tempo (i.e., an even pace).

With this scaffolding, provided by my very wise coach, I decided I’d try to decrease my tempo miles by each set. Therefore, my plan ultimately looked like this:
Me, trying to pretend marathons are fun.

Miles 1–13: Average 6:43/mi
Miles 14–15: 2 miles fartlek (2min hard per mi)
Miles 16–17: 2 miles tempo @6:30-40/mi
Miles 18-19: 2 miles fartlek (2min hard per mi)
Miles 20–21: 2 miles tempo @6:20-30/mi
Miles 22–23: 2 miles fartlek (1-2min hard per mi)
Miles 24–25: 2 miles tempo @6:15-20/mi
Mile 26+: Whatever’s left

Unfortunately—as every runner knows—races rarely go according to plan. Here’s how the race actually broke down:

The first half of the race felt like floating. Literally. I felt like I was prancing down the street, with absolutely minimal effort. This is exactly how I’ve felt at the start of every marathon I’ve ever PR’ed, so it was definitely a good sign. My goal at this stage was to stay in control: don’t get too excited, but also don’t lose focus and let the pace slip.

Around mile twelve, the ball of my left foot started to bother me. This has happened before in other races, but I never know when it will start or why. Halfheartedly, I prayed to the running gods that it wouldn’t get worse. Then, since I’d been running primarily on the left side of the street (where it was less crowded), I attempted to move closer to the middle in hopes that doing so would solve the problem.

I crossed the half in 1:27:32. So far, so good.

My first fartlek went better than expected, with each mile clocking in around 6:20. In fact, other than the foot pain, which was getting worse mile by mile, everything was going better than expected. Each mile of my first tempo came in in a tad under 6:30/mi, so I mentally rolled back each tempo set to the faster end of the range. If I could do 6:20s for my next set and 6:15s for the last, it would be a very good day.

Ah yes, there's the pain face.
The next fartlek, I knew, would be telling. Miles 18-19 are typically the “bonk” miles, meaning that if the race falls apart, it usually does so right around here. However, these two miles went okay, and in spite of choking at a water station and slipping on some of the plastic cups (yes, this race used plastic water cups, which we had to grab off of the tables ourselves), I still managed to average the set in 6:25/mi. I was starting to get tired, and my left foot felt like it was being smashed with a sledgehammer, but I wasn’t suffering-suffering. And on the bright side, I only had one fartlek left!

The next tempo was when fatigue really hit. My first mile was nowhere near the pace I had planned, and while I put in effort to pick up the second mile, even that one didn’t quite make it down to the 6:20 mark.

And that’s when I got scared.

This hurts, said the fear, and you’re not even running as fast as you should be. What if you try to go faster and blow up? You’ll be at Mile 23, dead as a doornail, with nothing to show for all these months of hard work.

But listen, continued the fear. You have this PR in the bag. Just hang on here. You can do this—just don’t try anything fancy.

This moment may seem like a turning point, a decision, but that’s not how it felt; it felt like a foregone conclusion. And even as I succumbed to my own mental demons, I already knew: no matter what the clock said at the end of this race, I’d be disappointed. I could have done better.

A few miles later, somewhere within the last 5k, a girl in a white and blue tank top ran by me. Part of me wanted to latch onto her and try to get back under the 6:40 pace I was running, but mentally it was just too late. Let her go, said the fear. Let her run her race. You run yours.

So I did. And off she went.

Team pride, right here.
Finally, we passed under the Brandenburg Gate and into the home stretch of the race. In the distance, I could see the broad blue finish line cutting across the sky. We had less than half a mile left to run, and that's when I saw her. The girl. The one in the blue and white tank, who had passed me earlier. Suddenly, my coach’s voice piped up inside my head. “Don’t get outkicked.”

It's been his mantra to me for a year or so, now, ever since I lost third place to another girl by no margin at all.

Don’t get outkicked.

So I kicked. I ran this girl down, crossed the finish line, and waited for the exhilaration of “winning” to hit. But it didn’t come. Instead, all I felt was a dull ache of disappointment. Sure I had put in a colossal effort, and sure it hurt. But I’d been capable of more, and I gave that up.

Here’s the bottom line: am I sorry to have run a 2:53 marathon? Hell no. It’s a nearly 5-minute PR, and I worked hard for it. Am I embarrassed by my 33rd place finish among 9,000+ women? Of course not. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that sort of statistic would ever apply to me. But could I have given more? Yes. I knew it in the race, and I know it now. I didn’t lay everything on the line, because I was afraid to fail.

My best, most surprising races to date have always been the ones where I took risks. These are the races where I told myself, “it’s okay if you fail—because you gave it your all.” If I'm honest, I haven’t tried this yet in a marathon. I’ve run smart, and I’ve run well, but I’ve never fully thrown caution to the wind and said, “Screw it. If I fail, I fail.” However, that day is coming. And when it does, I can only hope that everything I have in my arsenal—the training, the rest, the food, the sleep, my awesome coach and amazing teammates—will be enough to pull me through. After all, they've gotten me here.

Race Length
Finishing Time
Average Pace
Overall Place
Gender Place
Age Group Place
26.2 mi
881 / 45,066
33 / 9,263
9 / 1,434

GCR reunion in Berlin.