Category Archives: 100 Books of 2011

Of Mice and Men: Delicate Dreamers

                   

Of Mice and Men asks a number of questions: what sacrifices are we willing to make for those we love? (as in George’s decision to continually uproot himself to protect Lennie) How do we know when we’re acting in the best interest of those we love, or acting selfishly? (as in Candy’s inability to put down his dog; and George’s climatic decision) What effect does intention have on culpability? (as in Lennie’s responsibility for crushing Curly’s hand, or *spoiler*)

But the issue that interested me the most was that of why, when we’re given the opportunity to have the things we’ve dreamed about and schemed for, why, when those things are within grasp we intentionally sabotage the opportunity, we turn away with two hands the (not even chance) promise of realizing our (supposed) dreamed future. Steinbeck’s novel proposes that there are two sorts of people: those who live for the perpetually postponed dream; and those who, when the opportunity for realization occurs, seize it. I’m not sure I accept such a stark dichotomy of people, indeed, I might rather have liked Steinbeck to have been a little more nuanced in his explanation of why this kind of personal sabotage takes place. It can’t be a simple as some people live in/for dreams, can it? And yet, Lennie’s childish interaction with the world, his constant deference to George work to build a character that is delicate, innocent, and for that, a fool. A fool not because he isn’t bright, but a fool to not just pass up, but actively refuse, the realization of his (or George’s?) dream. And George’s ultimate decision and action reveals him as the kind of man who will seize the opportunity, regardless of personal or ethical cost, the kind of man who will act selfishly and call it a benevolent or generous act. Though at the same time the selfishness – the at long last selfishness – is somehow its own kind of realization of a dream, to finally act for one’s own interest, rather than a constant deferral for the needs of the other (Lennie).

So I think I need someone else in my immediate circle to read this one so I can talk about it out loud. It’s only 100 pages, or an afternoon of reading, so if you’re so inclined, give it a read and let me know. I’ll buy the coffee, if you’ll help me get George and Lennie (or me and me) out of my head.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, American literature, Fiction, Prize Winner

Jacob Have I Loved: Worry-love

   

This book gets me. It gets how I experienced love as a young person – love as packaged out in parcels of worry. Those who were loved the most (I thought) were the most worried about, the most needy. Louise (or Wheeze) comes to believe that to feel not-worried-over is to not be loved, and so she never accepts help because she never accepts that she could be loved – and so worthy of worry (or she never accepts that she could be worried-over, and so worthy of love). The greatest challenge for her in the book is to find a way to worry about herself and to make a decision that is worthy of her own esteem. This conflict sets up a rich narrative that does not condescend to a simplistic narrative of simple resolution, but demands the reader accept (along with Louise) disappointment, betrayal, and how her fear of her own greatness, or fear of her own worth, limit and fail her.

I let the title get the better of me in this one. I kept waiting for Louise to fall in love with some man named Jacob. I blame my insubstantial Biblical training for missing the Biblical reference, or at the very least, noting the Jacob/Esau parallels of Louise and Caroline’s relationship. (this from a girl who puts East of Eden in her top five of all time…) Or maybe I blame my expectation after reading the rest of the YAF category that all YAF is just a shoddy pretense for a romantic relationship that will either doom or redeem the protagonist.

So it was with not a little disappointment that I found Jacob I Have Loved ended with this same predictable and uncomplicated resolution: Louise falls in love and in doing so substitutes her dreams of being a doctor for satisfaction with being a mother. Barf. What a let down from the tremendous independence she gains over the course of the novel. Okay, okay, you’re saying that choosing to be a mother is its own kind of (rewarding) choice (as Louise’s mother so definitely points out to Louise!), but unlike every other choice Louise makes, this one – to be a mum and not a doctor – occurs without self-reflection or cause. It just sort of… happens in the gap between paragraphs. Suddenly the warmth of a breastfeeding baby is all she needs and the radical power of her independence is subsumed in some kind of wet dream of motherhood.

I shouldn’t end with that paragraph – if only so that you don’t think me a child-hating, baby-eating monster – because I really did love this book. I loved Louise’s anger, her frustrating and her exhaustion with trying to negotiate relationships that are not obvious, or easy, or welcoming to her. I loved her determination and her awareness of her own failings. I love that she worries about other people, and recognizes in this worry a kind of love. And I loved that she allowed herself the imperfections that made her fail or fuck up, and that these imperfections are (eventually) understood as okay.

I do wish she’d become a doctor. Just saying.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction, Prize Winner, Young Adult Fiction

Wax Boats: A week ago

                                     

So the whole point of this blog was to help me remember the books I read, because I have been known (on occasion) to forget the books that I read. So it is with some regret that I report that I finished reading Sarah Robert’s short story collection Wax Boats about a week ago, and in the time between finishing it and (finally) having the time to write this, I have forgotten a lot of the salient details I had planned to comment on.

What do I remember? What can I comment on?

There are some good animal stories in this collection?

Umm. I liked that several of the stories featured reoccurring characters (I expect Roberts is hard at work on a novel, as many of the stories and the cycle of characters lend themselves well to a longer work), though I might have liked these stories to be properly linked – perhaps under one title? – rather than interspersed among other stories in the collection, which led to some unnecessary thematic jostling.

There’s a really great story about a Boy Scout camping expedition gone wrong “Hammersmith” that is well worth getting the collection to read. I’m not sure I’d extend the same recommendation to the rest of the collection, as my already fading memory suggests the stories were good, but not great. With the exception of ‘Hammersmith,’ which asked what kinds of bravery are possible, and what we owe one another in small – self-sustaining – communities. It would be a really good story to put on a Canadian lit comprehensive exam list, or a course on Canadian literature, if, for some reason, you found yourself in the position to be writing either of those things.

I promise to never let a week go by between finishing and blogging again. For all our sakes.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Fiction, Short Stories

Everything is Illuminated: Brilliant.

    

So Jonathan Safran Foer sounds like a prat on the radio. He sounds like a self-assured genius, who is maybe also judging you for eating meat. And so I put off reading Everything is Illuminated because I thought it might be infused with self-righteousness or self-congratulatory brilliance. But after finishing the novel I no longer care what Safran Foer sounds like on the radio, or whether he is arrogant and self-congratulatory. I don’t care because the book is brilliant. And so I’ve been (again) reminded that books are not their authors, and while Safran Foer probably is a prat, that’s no reason not to read (and love) his book.

What do I love about it? Let me describe the ways:

Character voice: While the characters themselves appeal to me in the way all brilliant characters do – in their unpredictable, yet believable, reactions; in their failings; in their changes over the course of the novel; in their revelation of something about me – the voices of the characters in this novel are staggering. I don’t simply mean Sasha’s (genius) voice as a translator come to English that reverberates (I’m not sure if that’s the technical word for it, but whatever it is when you’re still hearing the voice hours later), I mean the kind of distinct clarity of a singular character: when grandfather is speaking the diction, the meter, the pacing could only belong to him. The characters are each unique and complex, but they are made exponentially more so by the lilt and precision of their voices.

Form: Postmodern play with form can be annoying. There are occasions, I think, when adding blank pages, or runonsentences, or cacophonous ellipses (if ever there was an oxymoron….) are nothing but authors trying to show that they too have read Paul Auster, William Faulkner, and Kafka, and that they too recognize the dismemberment of form can parallel the collapse in certain truths. But here! But here! Oh but here formal play does not distract, does not serve as formal play for the sake of formal play. Here the introduction of unusual and unexpected formal elements provoke, they punch, they do something to meaning that makes the words mean MORE. And that’s it, I think. That instead of the postmodern ennui, here the formal disintegration is meant to emphasize just how acutely we feel, just how poignant love and loss can be and are, just how sincerely feelings are emphatically FELT. The form makes you feel  – perhaps, and individually, disoriented or annoyed or awed – in order to remind you that living is an exercise in feeling.

Plot: Neither too saccharine or too cold, the simplicity and elegance of this story is brilliant. Unfolding over protracted time, but an isolated location, the plot weaves in ways that both surprise and satisfy. A cliched expression on my part, but nevertheless true.

And then, and then! The questions this novel raises around responsibility to others are devastating. It points a finger at all of us for being selfish, for not being capable of truly understanding the other (in such exact Butlerian terms that I’m tempted to see who wrote their work first), for acting out of cowardice, for acting out of grand delusions of self-importance. It accuses each of us of a piracy of spirit and then says, but you are human, this is the only way you could be, and so perhaps, in this predetermination, you are forgiven.

So yeah, I liked this one.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, American literature, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Prize Winner