The Air We Breathe

Tea Art | Ginger Pear

I don’t know how I muscled through this, how my eyes in the dark continuously focused on these words that weren’t beautiful, or even at all interesting.  I managed to amuse myself with a series called “tea art.”  See my newest feature, “Ginger Pear” to your left.

This is the second book of boring that I’ve read by Andrea Barrett.  Her stories in Ship Fever (which contained the Mendel Pea Story which I was so fond of) won the National Book Award and prompted me to give her a second chance at wowing me with The Air We Breathe.  (Yes, I expect to be wowed, I’m a book snob).  I was especially interested on how she narrates with the group (first-person plural) “we.”  While I think this is an imaginative concept and really outlines the group thought that goes on and becomes extremely important by the end of the book, it didn’t make the read worth it.

This is my frustrated face.

I think where my problems lie with Barrett are in pacing, and detail.  Her pacing is unbelievable slow.  It took me a wild 5 days to get through this book.  I wasn’t inspired to continue picking it up and not interested in the main characters enough to keep striving.  I should have just flipped to the family history at the end of the book to discover that Leo and Eudora (fabulous name) do in fact marry and live endlessly in love and without tuberculosis for the rest of their days.  Instead, I read on like a girl floating on a chunk of wooden barge during calm sea times.

The book is set in 1916 at a Tuberculosis Sanatorium.  The threat of war is imminent and by the end is upon everyone in the town.  I think this is part of the problem why the collective “we” didn’t work.  I hardly got to know the voice of any characters even though a main part of the plot are these Wednesday meetings when someone from the local sick speaks about themselves and anything they’d like to educate others on.  I thought this was such an interesting way to get people connecting in a story, set them in a meeting.  It’s like going to an AA meeting – of course you’re going to find characters, or a Bible Study meeting.  You can’t tell me their aren’t bonneted Baptist women with gray comb overs that are shouting to you from the page.  Just imagine their red face upon the latest town marriage, or the shrill of their voices as they gossip.

A meeting is such a great setting for a fictional environment and yet the meetings were inherently boring.  One of the things Barrett has been praised for is her use of science and technology in fiction.  However, in these parts where I should be dying to understand fossils, or really feeling the radiation of x-rays before they were perfected, I was left dulled and sighing.  The only time the x-rays really made my heart twinge was when Eudora x-rayed Leo and through this the reader was able to see just how biological love can be, just how scientific.  Doesn’t the wife of a husband who’s had a heart attack think about that heart afterwards, think about the vessels and how that thick red mud is sloshing through them, where the nutrients are, what he should eat?  Love, as inherently biological is another great concept.

Unfortunately, this may be a case of a lack in beautiful writing.  Not once in 297 pages did I feel the need to scribble down a beautiful phrase.  In a story of love, sickness and war, there should be beauty.  There should be beauty and not boredom in that loneliness, and that excitement.  Instead, I was neither taken with the word choice (the details) or angry with them.  I felt that this was just a story told straight, nothing fancy.  And where’s the fun in that?  Did Barrett rely solely on the “we” to make this a book of genius?

The Air We Breathe | Andrea Barrett

There were moments in Ship Fever where I wanted to eat the page; rip-it-broken down the binding, crumple it into my fist and shove it into my soaked mouth.  I didn’t, of course because I’m not a Destructor, but those moments are important in any book. All books should be held to beauty.  I know that everyone’s idea of beauty is different, but books should move people.  Books should make you stay up past lights out, and hold a flashlight past when your arm is tired and those sleep pins are pricking because your blood has stopped flowing.  They should make you want to EAT PAPER, eat words, eat.  Then on the other hand they should starve you, they should make you bleed to find out what the character will do next, what way the writer will describe a wooden fence in the country.

I’m not saying don’t read Barrett, or don’t read The Air We Breathe, just be forewarned that it isn’t something you’ll hold in your hands like gold.  Hey, maybe it would make a great movie. This book will move you to create art out of a draining tea bag, let the tainted water puddle over the scrap paper.

34 thoughts on “The Air We Breathe

  1. cravesadventure says:

    I do not like books that turn out to be a bit of a let down or disappointment. I have a hard time putting a book down like this and usually muddle my way through to the end.

    • Cassie says:

      Same. I almost never give up on books and sometimes it leads to a bad book. I’m pretty good at knowing what I like so that makes it a buy easier for picking good books.

  2. Elizabeth says:

    I read this book a few years back and agree with your commentary. It was slow going but still a worthwhile read. Two years out, the part I remember most was scene in the basement about the woman who was playing with x-rays. I don’t think it was the main plot line but that was what stuck with me. I can’t remember anything about the main character and the romance plot line.

    • Cassie says:

      I’m not sure if you’re talking about Eudora or Irene. Irene was the main lady who studied all the patients x-rays – she was wonderful and every scene with her in the basement did really brighten up the story – you’re right.

  3. Obscured Dreamer says:

    You have saved me from a book. I am forever grateful. I don’t usually take reviews to heart; however, I am going out on a limb and doing it this time. It might be that I myself am trudging through a book I thought would be inspiring. I’m sitting here reading blogs and replying simply because I don’t want to try and finish the last 100 pages.

    Once I’ve started reading a book my OCD won’t let me stop. One day I am going to bend the will until it breaks over this rule in my head. Life is really too short for bad books! Oh, yes, don’t let me forget – Life is too short for bad coffee too!

    • Cassie says:

      I can’t stop either. Unless a book is ABSOLUTELY MISERABLE. I hope you can conquer this at some point. There was one book where I read only forty pages and threw it away. Literally, I opened the cupboard below the sink, and threw it as hard as I could in the trash can. It was The Lie by Chad Kultgen. It was a HORRIBLE HORRIBLE HORRIBLE. SEXIST SEXIST SEXIST book. I was like NO ONE SHOULD READ THIS.

      I didn’t even recycle it. I regret that.

      And yes, bad coffee. There’s too much good coffee to have bad. : ) You couldn’t be more right on that one.

      • Obscured Dreamer says:

        You just reminded me of the only book I never did finish. (I wish you could see the shock on my face!) There once was such a book, I don’t recall the name, but I do recall that even with my dark humor and not easily offended self, this book had me ready to puke. It was about a demon in a nunnery. It should have been marked XXX. I did recycle it though. Can’t really say I’m glad I did, but then again I hate the ruin of any book.

        Perhaps if I can convince myself to look at bad, boring writing as a repulsive thing not to be read, I could stop reading and not feel guilty? Something to ponder.

      • Cassie says:

        I think you can do it. That book sounds absolutely terrifying. I did put The Shining by Stephen King in the freezer (my grandmother’s habit — passed on to me).

        Good on you for recycling. I can’t convince myself usually – I push through hoping the end will be satisfying and make up for all the other jibber jabber.

  4. Amy Pirt says:

    Shan’t be wasting with that one, then! You should read The Care of Wooden Floors: it’s really good.

  5. ameliaclaire92 says:

    Cassie, I hate that I’m just now getting caught up on all of your posts. Things have finally quieted down for me since it’s officially summer, so I’m reading through all the posts I’ve missed. I love how you point out that good books should make you want to eat paper, eat words. Funny, but so so true! :)

  6. dearsuburbia says:

    What an amazing review. That last line captures it so perfectly. I envy your persistence. I mostly read ridiculous amounts of non-fiction and poetry. Just about never finish fiction when I attempt a read. But last year I read Purge by Sofi Oksanen and finished in about 2 days. Couldn’t put it down, couldn’t get it out of my mind, my skin. Have you read it?

    • Cassie says:

      I read a lot of poetry and nonfiction as well and it’s much easier to get through a poetry book because you can take extensive breaks. And nonfiction, I think you expect to be taught something or to go on some journey that you don’t expect with fiction which makes me want to push through more, maybe?

      I’m going to add that to my to-read list right now. Sounds good to me. If you can’t get a book to leave you – it has to be amazing.

  7. Let's CUT the Crap! says:

    I so hate reading a book that doesn’t entice me. I too plod my way through to the end, hoping a miracle will happen. Guess I’m not going to try this one. I already have LOTS of really good ones WAITNG for me. . .

    Thanks for the heads up.

    • Cassie says:

      I think most readers keep reading just to see if there’s something remarkable, or as you say a miracle at the end. There usually isn’t, unfortunately for us! And yes, read good books!

  8. kiwidutch says:

    Excellent, Honest review… much appreciated.
    Some books grab you by the throat from the first sentence, others you have to grow into, and yet others never quite convince us to fully enter their world and “believe”.
    It takes all sorts, but it’s great to see an honest review so that reader can get a glimpse of what to expect.

    • Cassie says:

      Thank you. I pride myself on being honest about the books I read even if that honesty isn’t always the nicest thing I have to say.

      This book had its moments, it just wasn’t a whole package of wonderful. I agree that it takes a lot to convince readers to believe, and other times it doesn’t. I believed the history aspect of this book (obviously, it happened), it was just the characters that I couldn’t trust. Bleh.

  9. litendeavors says:

    Hey Cass….I have this book too. I think I bought it at the Dollar tree a few months ago. I guess there’s a good reason why it landed there.

    I haven’t read ANY of her stuff….been meaning to read Ship Fever.

    • Cassie says:

      Hey Jen! Do read Ship Fever. I think it’s a really good model of science in fiction. And maybe The Air We Breathe won’t be so bad for you. I would actually really like to know what you think about it.

  10. yogibrew says:

    “I know that everyone’s idea of beauty is different, but books should move people. Books should make you stay up past lights out, and hold a flashlight past when your arm is tired and those sleep pins are pricking because your blood has stopped flowing. They should make you want to EAT PAPER, eat words, eat.”
    I tried to explain this idea in a workshop last week, and one writer said, “But I just read for fun, I don’t need it to mean more than what it is.” And I acted like a grown up, and stopped myself from gnashing my teeth. I like the way you put it.

    your blog is awesome?

    • Cassie says:

      Thank you so much. : ) That writer is totally lying to himself (herself maybe) if he/she said that. You do read for fun, but you also read for escape, for beauty, to see the world in a new way, or a new light, to inspire you. All of those things are sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes fun.

      I think you should have gnashed your teeth and gone book snob on them. It’s complicated in a workshop setting though because everyone wants to friends, but they also want to compete with each other so people are constantly trying to one-up you. In this case, you were right. At least in my mind. : )

      And thank you, thank you for the kind words.

  11. Ryan says:

    It’s been years since I gave up on a book. The last one was The Lord of the Rings. I think I could plagiarize your entire post, replace The Air We Breathe with The Lord of the Rings and it would still work.

  12. Celia says:

    I was really interested to read this post. Like you, I am a HUGE fan of Ship Fever. I read The Air We Breathe a few years ago and I did like it. Not as much as Ship Fever, but well enough to finish it anyway. :-) The first person plural… surprisingly… worked. It kinda sucked me in and made me feel like I was a part of it, you know? The Voyage of the Narwhal, on the other hand, was terrible mess of a book. I think maybe she is better off writing short stories than novels. The problems of structure and pacing don’t seem to be issues in her short fiction.

    Loved what you said about good books making you want to eat… and then starving you and making you bleed… So true!!!

    • Cassie says:

      I could definitely, DEFINITELY, see where the first person plural would make you feel a part of it. I think I was just annoyed with characterization and I wasn’t enamored with any of the main characters enough to feel part of their group. Thank you for letting me know not to read The Voyage of the Narwhal. I know she has a series of books that are supposed to follow where Ship Fever ends off, is that one of them? I kind of want to read the sequels of Ship Fever, but I’m not sure I want to read anymore at all.

      You’re right her short fiction is brilliant – it’s when she goes into novel terrain that it gets a bit rocky.


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