Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Digression: Books I'm Reviewing—Kevin Chong's 'My Year of the Racehorse'

   The two memoirs I read immediately before Kevin Chong's kinda, sorta memoir, My Year of the Racehorse, were Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? and J.J. Lee's The Measure of a Man.
   A portrait of a harrowing 'Christian' childhood and an aftermath that included depression, a suicide attempt, and intermittent bouts of madness, the exposé aspect of Winterson's memoir is not there—I assume—for the titillation of a voyeuristic public (that would be an equally cynical and self-loathing performance on her part); instead, in sharing formerly private experiences and a decades-in-the-making story of recovery, the broad purpose of Why Be Happy is educative.
   A significant portion of Lee's memoir recalls growing up with an alcoholic father whose failed dream of becoming a Somebody in the culinary world of Montreal resulted in an escalating series of familial disasters. Woven within the book, though, are snippets from the history of male fashion—the suit jacket in particular—and scenes from Lee's adult attempt to become a tailor (a skill he hoped to attain partially because he yearned to professionally re-size a too-large suit that belonged to his deceased father so that it fits). Like Winterson, Lee's memoir exposes personal pain. Yet in telling about the process of coming to terms with his past and learning about manhood from what appears to be a dubious role model, the experiences the memoir describes allow a reader to apply Lee's insights, successes, and limitations to their own set of circumstances.
   These approaches to memoir sprang to mind while taking notes on Chong's book because now and then I wondered, "Why are you telling me this?"
   Chong's book is subtitled "Falling in Love With the Sport of Kings," and the best part of it for me illuminates a sport and culture about which I knew practically nothing. And as a tour guide through the Vancouver version that mysterious world, Chong comes across as witty, urbane, and knowledgeable; in other words, he's the exact kind of person you want leading the way.
   As though rebelling against the potential and apparently fatal dryness of that cultural historian/museum docent role, Chong—who mentions a desire to be cool a few times in the book—throws in an increasing number of personal anecdotes, about friendships he's neglected, romantic relationships that have gone off the rails, and so on.
   While the embryonic voyeur in me has to admit to a certain degree of, um, gossipy satisfaction with the revelations of dark secrets from Winterson and Lee, Chong's detours into episodes from his daily life irritated me in the way that a vapid celebrity tweet does. Though Katy Perry might be entirely earnest when she publishes "There's nothing like a best friend when you're ill" through Twitter, anyone can see the sentence is disposable; it's an essentially meaningless communication that ultimately serves the needs of the celebrity to be a trending brand name.
   Transposed to a book about horse racing, minutia from the author's life seems out of place. It's a matter of taste, I suppose. My ideal museum docent is a charismatic educator and rightly assumes that he doesn't need to tell me how much beer he drank the night before. The art on the walls is enough to keep the tour group attentive.

[The review of Chong's book (as well as Winterson's) appeared in the Vancouver Sun. Lee's was published in the National Post.]


  1. Hi, I felt like responding to this. It's poor form for an author to contact a reviewer, but I consider Twitter to be a form of loud talking, "meaningless conversation" meant to be overheard. And you mentioned reading my book here and on your blog.

    First off, I sincerely thank you for your thoughtful reading of the book. Even when you take issue with my approach, I always felt you did so in a manner that was respectful and tactful. I've also read and admired your reviews in the past.

    I'm sorry that portions of my book irritated you. I can totally understand that. I have no doubt that my work would compare poorly to the other works you mentioned.

    I'm writing to explain myself (and, yes, maybe the book should have done all the talking). In your blog post, you seem perplexed that I share so much of my personal life in a book about horseracing.

    Well, the book is not just about the sport of kings, but why people get involved in it. For horsemen, it's the desire to belong in a family or to be around animals. For millionaires of yore, horses were status objects.

    Owners spend big sums to live vicariously through the work of their horses and the trainers and staff they pay.

    For me, horseracing was a vehicle not only to explore a sport I was curious but, as a small-time owner, a way to explore my own status anxiety.

    The friendships and bad relationship stories in the book are meant to explore my own concerns about my own social standing. I often feel as though I am "competing" against my peers.

    I didn't write a history of the sport because literally dozens of those books have been written. I've read many of them.

    The reader might not have learned about the history of jockey's silks, but they learned more than just my experience buying them. They learned about the conventions used to design these garments.

    When I wrote this book, I didn't assume that I was writing for people who wanted primarily to learn about horse-racing or had no interest in my personal life or my attempts at humour.

    My last non-fiction book was about being a big fan of Neil Young. It was about 55% me, 45% NY.

    I still get email about it from complete strangers who want to talk about their experiences as music fans. It wasn't necessarily a blockbuster, but the same publisher wanted a 2nd book with a similar approach about a different subject.

    Other people thought the first book was self-indulgent and frivolous. I sympathize with their opinion.

    And I agree with you. This approach could be a matter of taste. But if you think Katy Perry's tweets are so irritating, what makes them so difficult to avoid?

  2. Hi KC,

    Thanks for the response. It was so well mannered.

    Since there's only one direct question, I'll answer it. Celebrity tweets and sound bytes (and so on: McD's jingles being not categorically different) are practically impossible to avoid not because they're interesting or intelligent or actually worth our time, but because (drum roll, please) the many engines of consumer capitalism make them ubiquitous. I'll bet if you answered your own question, we'd be on the same page. That's just a guess, though.

    I liked the idea of status anxiety motif that was present in "My Year of the Racehorse." I didn't see your book exploring it (as a sociologist or psychologist might: as a generational symptom, or a historical one) so much as showing it as an aspect of your book's persona (hence my reference to Woody Allen).

    I suppose the moments of dissatisfaction I felt came down to proportion: more of this, less of that. It's clear to me that in the arts the nature of the golden mean could be debated for eternity.