Category Archives: Erin’s Favourite Books

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

The Dutch House: Superb.

Ahhhhhh! Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House is so good. Like wrap yourself in a blanket and sit in a cozy chair and don’t get out for several hours because everything is absorbing and so well written. It’s the writing that is excellent without showing off that it’s excellent. And a plot that keeps you totally hooked without big bangs or wildly suspenseful moments – just a deep and absorbing care for character.

Okay, you know me, I’m a sucker for character, and this book is that. It follows Danny and Maeve throughout their lives from the traumatic departure of their mother in their early years through their subsequent experience with their step-mother, with partners, with children, with one another. I want to say so much more about what happens in their life, but then I really want you to read it, so I’m going to restrain myself and say it follows their lives with all the ups and downs (acknowledging the horrible cliche of that description but moving on).

It does foreshadowing so well.

And setting, too! An anchoring point along the way is the Dutch House itself: the extravagant mansion their father bought and that – purportedly – drove their mother away. The symbol of their lost childhood, what was stolen from their family, of unearned extravagance and the cost of desire.

Like I really, really liked it folks. The kind of enjoyment where I am legitimately sorry the book has ended, I’d have liked to have known Danny and Maeve IRL so I could keep checking in with them. Alas. I’ll have to live with hearing what you think of this one, because promise me you’ll read it…

 

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Filed under Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction, Prize Winner

The Great Believers: The One Book You Should Read This Year

If made up statistics are to be believed, most Canadians will read one novel this year. For the love of all that is terrific in reading… let this be your one novel. Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers is extraordinary. Okay. I’m not actually sure this would be the one novel I’d make you read. Ack! That’s a question for another post. But it’s really, really, really good. Continue reading

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Filed under Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction, National Book Award, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

Circe: I was President of Latin Club.

It will come as a surprise to no one that I was President of my high school Latin club. It was the kind of club that included an annual inter-institutional, three-day Roman based extravaganza of geekhood: chariot races, tug-of-war, academic competitions, barely-concealed-drinking, dramatic readings and theatrical performances. It was a haven for the weird and quirky before Glee and Geekculture made such things popular, or at least tolerable. I don’t know what high school is like now, but I know that for me, high school was only made tolerable by S., J., J., and Latin club (and who are we kidding, the library). One year, at this ‘Classics Conference,’ we staged a fashion show in which we assembled period costumes (hand sewn, of course) for the characters from the Odyssey and then wore them on stage for an audience; we had never been as proud or as celebrated. I played the role of Circe, dressed in seductive red, and if I could find a photo I promise I would never show it to you.

This is all a long wind up to let you know that I was very excited when my copy of Circe arrived at the library. You’ll remember that I adored Madeline Miller’s first novel, Song of Achilles  and so the combination of enthusiasm for the myth, the character and the novel and I was… excited.

And get this: Circe lives up to even these expectations. It has at its core questions about mortality (and we all know how I love to think about mortality), morality and what makes for a good life. These questions are woven through with ideas of gender, sexuality, and how women becoming fully themselves. One danger the novel brushes against, and ultimately (I think) avoids, is in supposing that it is through the maternal experience that this self-assurance is (pardon the pun) born.

To say more: the novel follows our titular character through her formative experiences in her father’s home, through banishment to an island and the many and varied characters she encounters there, through to her ventures from the island – and the causes for these departures – to her final conclusion. Along the way she does have a child, and this experience is – accurately (I think) – transformative. But where the novel succeeds (again, in my view) is in allowing that this singular experience of becoming a mother is not, in its self, sufficient for total transformation. Rather it is the collective experiences of developing her witchcraft; discovering her sexuality; mastering her body and its limits; reconciling herself with regret, consequence and guilt; and in the climactic moments – revealing to herself her strength and depth of character. All of these moments unfold slowly and in ways that subtly but progressively deepen and change her character.

Lest you worry this is nothing but an exhaustive character study, there are moments of intrigue, of romance, of suspense, of magic. But above all, there is beautiful – really – writing. Some of seascapes and landscapes, sure, but really writing that gets you to think differently about humanity and its capacity. I can think of few better ways to begin 2019 then with this novel that asks readers what makes our mortal lives worth living.

 

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Filed under American literature, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction