Category Archives: Erin’s Favourite Books

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Erin's Favourite Books, Prize Winner

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.

Leave a comment

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…

 

Leave a comment

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

1 Comment

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