On Re-reading A Little Life

I haven’t fallen into a literal hole. I am still here. But I did fall into rereading Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (original post here) and well, it turns out that rereading one of your favourite books that happens to be 700+ pages takes a few weeks. Both for the length and because I purposely drew it out. Took my time. Tried to remember what it was like reading it for the first time, and how I might have changed since the first reading.

The most obvious difference the second time through is that I knew what had happened to Jude and what would happen to him. On the first reading a major part of the experience is learning, along with Willem, the history and present of Jude, and learning, along with Harold, what Jude’s life becomes. It’s a gradual unravelling and the beauty and pain of it is all mixed up. This time, though, I knew – dreaded, and knew – what was coming and so could both understand Jude better from the beginning, as well as feel ever more wrenched worrying about him.

A more subtle difference, I suppose, is in my interest in the question the novel explores around what makes a meaningful life. Reading in the middle of a pandemic, with the American election looming and the planet heaving, along with the arrival of a new small human, really brings the existential questions Front and Center. And for Jude and his friends, the only-once-spoken question of what makes a meaningful life circles all they do. I didn’t notice the first time around that none of the four main characters have children (maybe because children and life meaning was less important to me personally, or maybe because I’m inattentive, or was concerned more with the story of Jude). There is one brief scene where they talk about this and do away with the long held idea that children bring life meaning; instead, they pose friendship, true friendship, as a worthy inheritance. Of course there is all the art they create and consume, all the hours of effort put into rich and fulfilling careers, but the centrepiece of existence does seem to be this relational commitment. Indeed, Jude makes it for as long as he does on the basis of his feeling that he owes something to Harold (someone I’m sure could do a useful comparative read between this book and All My Puny Sorrows), and the effort and energy the characters give to friendship reads as the ‘commitment’ one might expect from a spouse or a parent. Of course the novel does explore the parent-child relationship with Harold and Jude, and the spousal relationship with Jude and Willem, so it’s not as though these relationships are completely absent, more that on this reading I found myself drawn to these affiliative relationships and the true sense of purpose they offer.

So yeah. My mum thought it unwise to reread such a difficult book in such difficult times, and there were certainly moments where I agreed with her: it is hard to read this book and not find yourself living in the story such is the brilliance of the writing. That said, it is somehow entirely… I was going to say ‘uplifting,’ but that’s definitely the wrong word. Affirming? Some word that gets at the idea that good art, great art, as this novel is, spurs hope, generates optimism, even while the subject itself is as grim and dark and heartbreaking as they come. Something to do with the contrast then. Is there a word for this? Beauty maybe? Lol. I don’t know. I do know that once again I loved the book, and once again, I’d urge you to read it.

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Dear Edward: Sole Survivor of Airplane Crash or; Why Keep Going (+ a lot of ‘quotes’)

I was part of the last cohort of students in Ontario to take OAC’s (or grade 13). It meant five years of high school instead of four (though *cough* *humble brag* I still did the five years in four years) and included a suite of ‘advanced’ courses that were intended to prepare you for University. Courses like “World Issues,” and “Writers Craft” and “Super Fancy Latin.” One of my favourites was “Philosophy,” which managed to cram into a semester the entire canon of Western philosophy. Sort of. The teacher, Mr. Morrison, was cantankerous and brilliant. He taught me how to write a good essay (or good enough for first year University instructors to be impressed, anyway) and how to purposefully swear. Of the lessons he taught though, the one I keep coming back to – probably in an already oversimplified and misremembered way -, is the one on existentialism. I remember him banging away on the idea that to face the void of existence we have to either ‘destroy something’ or ‘create something,’ and (implied) our imperative as we set out into the world was to find something worthy of our acts of intentional creation. That we wouldn’t find meaning in God or the state, but we might just find it in art. Twenty-odd years later I recognize Mr. Morrison’s lecture wasn’t earth shattering, but it was… significant to me at the time, and something I continue to return to all these years later.

So when it was Mr. Morrison I thought of after reading Ann Napolitano’s Dear Edward. The premise is simple: titular young boy, Edward, is the sole survivor of a giant plane crash where 191 other people die, including his parents and older brother. How does this person (hard to call him a child after surviving such an event) make a meaningful life? How does he make sense of his survival (how do others make sense of it, and how does he navigate their efforts to force meaning on him)? How can he reconcile his sense of loss with the losses of those around him – can such things ever be compared? (and why do we bother comparing grief?) [The best example of this in the book is in comparing Edward to his aunt who adopts him. She has had multiple miscarriages and her sister has died, surely, the book asks, her grief is Significant? But nothing, it seems, touches the loss for Edward. In part because he is made to stand in for all 191 others who died and asked to be for them in life what they might have been.]

Through years we watch Edward develop relationships with his aunt and uncle, with the girl next door, with his therapist and with his teachers. We see him do something like ‘come to terms’ with his trauma, by doing as Mr. Morrison-by-way-of-philosophy advises: creating. He figures out that he won’t ‘get over’ his trauma, rather he will create himself anew. And as he does that he comes in to millions – millions and millions – and sees a way forward through giving others the chance to create what they want through Money.

Which let me just say the answer in this book slips precariously close to ‘money is the answer,’ but pulls it back, I think, to ‘community’ is the answer (which my bleeding Unitarian heart can’t help but nod vigorously at while I’m reading), and yes, ‘creation.’ So Mr. Morrison, if, somehow, you are reading this: thanks for teaching me all that you did. And if you need a new book to assign (if you’re still teaching), maybe you could do Dear Edward or maybe just, you know, keep doing you.

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Big Summer: Uhhhhh. I’m Failing at Instagram

So I have an Instagram account where I post pictures of my kids and follow my friends from grad school. I sort of thought of it as a virtual photo album not fully realizing it’s a whole world of commerce and connection and posturing. Okay, so I do know that I sometimes make my kids do extra cute things for the likes, but I didn’t realize you could monetize that and I know, I know, Luddite, etc. Tbh (to be honest – for you, mum), I don’t know how to use a filter, or how people add the sparkling things like lips and hearts, and I don’t really care to learn. Except if maybe it would make me millions of dollars like the ‘influencers’ in Jennifer Weiner’s Big Summer do. Maybe I could be a mom influencer? I have many ideas for cute snacks that I… never execute.

But really, this book is both a total waste of your time to read because it’s silly and hilariously over-the-top, and also the exact sort of summer candy that will make your beach vacation a blast because of course you are going on a beach vacation because you are fancy and can do just that.

The novel starts out as a somewhat serious exploration of female friendship, online culture and body acceptance. It then takes a radical pivot (in the sense I didn’t see it coming at all) to murder mystery and romance. (Like the kind of romance where you squirm a little because there are A Lot of Details and you weren’t prepared for that kind of reading right now.) And the rest of the novel is something of a whodunnit mixed with a splashy polished fancy rich things catalogue. Like it was almost impossible to stop thinking about how the book was setting itself up to be adapted for HBO.

SOOOO. What? Do you read it? I don’t know. It’s so silly. Even while it’s trying to be Serious and Important with its themes of bullying and fat acceptance. But maybe silly is exactly what we all need right now. Maybe. You tell me! You never do, but still. Maybe if I was a better #influencer you would…

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The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: Totally fun.

I was a big fan of the Hunger Games Trilogy (uhhh. don’t follow that link. turns out I read the trilogy but was too busy to post beyond saying I read it and liked it). But I’ve always been a skeptic of the prequel that seems only to be written to capitalize on a giant market demanding more of the series. Because (obvs) these books tend to be bad and obvious about their effort to rake in some more money (think: all the appendages to the Harry Potter franchise).

Happy was the day, then, that I picked up Suzanne Collins’ The Ballad on Songbirds and Snakes on the recommendation of David Plotz from my most favourite Slate Political Gabfest podcast. He was right! It’s a totally fun read. If you’re in to child murder? Okay, no. But it’s fun in that the world of the Hunger Games quickly comes alive in a fully developed and independent plot, with interesting questions to explore: how do atrocities (like a game about child murder) come to be accepted (and celebrated) by a general public? to what extent are individuals (in this case the eventual President Snow) crafted by circumstance or by choice?

I particularly liked the way the book unsettled expectations for the plot arc. I was expecting it to climax with the annual hunger games, but the games serve only as a pivot point to take the reader into a second build-up of character development and tension.

If I had one complaint it would be that the ending read as rushed and not entirely consistent. Without giving too much away the erstwhile romance takes a dramatic turn, and I’ll claim it was my fault, but I didn’t see the ending coming At. All. and as a consequence found it read like it wanted to get to a particular conclusion but didn’t have the logic (or perhaps the patience?) to bring the reader to that point.

So if you liked the Hunger Games by all means read this one. If you haven’t read that trilogy yet… what are you still doing reading this? xo

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