Category Archives: Erin’s Favourite Books

On the Death of Beverly Cleary

In the ten plus years of writing Literary Vice I’ve never commented on the death of an author (though I’m sure I’ve rambled about the death of the author at some point). And for good reason. While I have favourites whose work I seek out and enjoy, I’m mostly not bothered by biography or terribly interested in the what’s what of an author.

But I wanted to mark Beverly Cleary’s death because her books, and the Ramona series in particular, matter to me. I’ve written here before on how Ramona offered me a certainty and comfort in moments of distress and it remains true these quiet stories of a remarkably curious, imaginative and determined girl, achingly aware of how she is meant to fit in but never quite does… resonate.

One of the best gifts I received when I was pregnant with R. was the boxed set of Beverly Cleary. The gift, from C., was intended, I’m sure, for R. but was, of course, for me. I remember opening it and being so excited for the moment I’d be able to share the stories with a small human, and excited more for how that small human might also come to love a world of true-to-a-child challenges overcome by persistence, caring adults and asking for help. Sort of like the world I hoped might be possible for my child.

R. listened to Ramona for the better part of an hour tonight (I’m no hero, we have the audiobooks out from the library), as he has for the past months since discovering them. And now he asks simply for “another Ramona” and I have accrued a small fortune in fines because he Cannot Part with Ramona the Pest. And I cannot say no to a small human who loves Ramona as I do.

I know Ramona doesn’t and can’t connect for all readers the way it did for me, and so I offer this note of appreciation without my usual urging that you seek it out for yourself or a child you know and love. More that I wanted to say I am grateful – always – for the magic worked by stories. And grateful for the work of Beverly Cleary in creating and sharing Ramona with me. These are books I love.

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The Children’s Bible: Also for atheists

Lydia Millet’s The Children’s Bible hits a little close. The novel follows a rag-tag group of children after environmental catastrophes – flood! – destroy their homes. Having to keep themselves, and their drug-stupor parents, alive they hole up and quarantine themselves, scratching out a new existence after society collapses.

Though it may be painful to read because of its indictment of our collective inaction on global warming, and the profound arrogance of having children amid such certain devastation, it is nevertheless, very, very good.

I grew up in the United and Anglican churches before quitting God and becoming a Unitarian (I feel compelled to offer that not all Unitarians are atheists. #joinus). But even if I hadn’t spent formative years hearing Biblical stories, the Biblical references and adaptations are drawn from the biggest and brightest of stories (Eden, Noah’s ark, the 10 commandments, the birth of Jesus, Revelations, etc) so anyone who has watched The Simpsons should have enough of a command of the allusions to appreciate the plot. That said, Millet does well to make these moments smooth and uses well timed diction to remind the reader that a Biblical Moment is happening.

Aside from mirroring these Biblical scenes I’m not sure the ‘point’ of having the plot follow that of the Bible. I guess because we are in End Times now? Or maybe to remind us that there is no God, or if there is, it’s a God who has opted for a non-interventionist approach, and it falls to us to make change. Okay, yeah, that seems a plausible reason.

The best part of the book is its argument for art and literature. It’s suggestion that we bundles of molecules, we who are destined to reunite with the water and mountains (poisoned though they may be by our garbage) find purpose and solace in writing. And of course reading.

After writing out my Christmas cards most of which began and ended with WHAT A YEAR, I’m very happy to recommend this book as a sort of 2020 solace. Like it admits and takes as its premise that everything is shit, and that there is no ‘but’ to that sentence. So you may as well read.

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Filed under Bestseller, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

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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Coming Up for Air: Yes! A Great Book!

Nothing fancy or personal here, folks, just a ringing endorsement for Sarah Leipciger’s Coming Up for Air, a fantastic book about… drowning? But really – the writing here is extraordinarily good, so good the interwoven plots don’t need much to hold together – though they do. Like chapter 24 that details Pieter in his fishing boat and a *spoiler spoiler* Event is some of the best writing I’ve encountered in years. Hair raising.

I may have been predisposed to like this one because it’s historical fiction and Canadian, but given my recent spate of not being able to read anything serious or well-written, I think this one had its fair share of odds to overcome. Threading three plot lines – that of the 19th century woman who kills herself by drowning in the opening chapter, a mid-century man who moulds plastics and a contemporary woman living with cystic fibrosis and writing – the reader sets out wondering if and how these plot lines come together. And while they do eventually, sort of, connect in terms of plot, it is their thematic and symbolic notes that connect them most meaningfully: water, breath, filial and affilial love.

As a creature of the water myself I was hypnotized by the descriptions of swimming and submersion. As the three characters navigate water-filled worlds they raise questions about the thinness of the line between life and death, and the hubris of humans in swimming this line.

So now that libraries are fully reopening you have no excuse. Get out Coming Up for Air and I promise you won’t be disappointed.*

*Promises are not valid if you have bad taste.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction