If you’re still in search of a summer read (okay, I may be in denial about how much of the summer is left) you could do much worse than Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel. With a jumpy chronology and shifting narrative points of view, the novel follows the rise and fall of a Bernie Madoffesque character and his ‘wife.’ It has the appeal of a suspense novel, but with the depth of well-crafted literary fiction. Plus descriptions of fancy things, which let’s not kid ourselves, we all love.
I was especially taken with the thematic questions at the heart of the novel: the possibility of knowing something and not knowing it at the same time [which the form of the novel brilliantly demonstrates – the reader is introduced very early to the knowledge that Jonathan (our Madoff character) will go to prison, and yet we spend much of the novel knowing this, and doubting it as we read (and hope?) that he and Vincent will avoid punishment]. Our characters struggle with what immorality (and crimes) they are willing to stomach from those around them or themselves, and more importantly, what they are able to put out of mind and ignore for their own material comfort. While the novel doesn’t make the explicit connection to our current moment the reader can’t help but contemplate what we know is happening and what we allow ourselves to not know (for any host of issues from climate change to racial injustice to animal suffering to the utility of a Peloton bike to etc). Rather than casting these characters as evil or unlikeable for this self-delusion, the novel instead points to how we all find ourselves in situations, often lifetimes (of jobs, or marriages, or identities) where we have made compromises, or slid down slippery slopes, and rather than confront where we are, or what we have become, or who we are with, we insist on not knowing what we also know. It’s a question I’ve not read as explicitly or carefully in any novel, and one that, after it surfaces, seems entirely obvious for exploration. Like so much else hiding just below the surface waiting for consideration.
So yes. If the well-paced plot, fully developed characters, and scenes of fancy things weren’t enough to endear you to this book, let the weighty (yet somehow not ponderous) theme bring you to it.
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.
So as I was mocking myself for my inability to focus, I decided I did have *some* control over what and how I read. The same podcast I referenced last post, on ‘deep reading’ and ‘deep thinking’ had the insight that you can just… put your phone away. Granted Ezra, the host, bought a literal safe to literally lock his phone away to provide him the right environment to read. I don’t have the luxury of locking my preschooler away (did I say luxury?), but I do have time every day that I can read.
[As an aside, I think if you went back through the last year of blog posts you’d see a series of posts where I Firmly Commit to focused reading, and then posts where I decide I can never focus again and why should I bother and I’m just going to read mysteries anyway. And then the pendulum swings again and I delete all my news apps and social media accounts and for a month I read a lot and feel better, and then I get sucked back into the addiction and it’s all Trump and tweets and what is with Justin’s beard all over again. So yeah. Acknowledging that today’s post is of the sort where I feel virtuous and committed and that by next week this will probably have changed all over again.]
ANYWAY. To give myself an achievable goal I started with a critically acclaimed, very-short, young adult fiction prose-poetry novel Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. This truly terrific little (and I mean little – like an hour to read, max) book follows our protagonist on his trip down an elevator en route to revenge shoot his brother’s killer. On board the elevator he encounters the ghosts of all those – and there are so many – that have been killed around him. And with each encounter we see in sharp relief how this and all the other murders have tried – to varying degrees of success – to shape and contain the child. And how far beyond individual choice this action, or any inaction, would be – so constrained by context that choice itself is as risible as it is hearbreaking.
So yes – I recommend you to Long Way Down for its form (a playful prose-poetry) and its effort to have you rethink individual choice in light of all the rules that are spoken and unspoken in the lives of each of us, but particularly those navigating the intersection of race, class and gender.
Folks. I decided I wasn’t distracted enough from reading by the Burning of the World and so I went and had a(nother) baby. And *now* I remember a new kind of distraction. The sort where earnest efforts for ‘an hour of concentrated deep reading’ are laughable, and the most comfortable way to read is holding a phone (because one hand) that is constantly dinging and vibrating to let me know that someone out there wants to get in touch, or that another catastrophe is upon us. And you’ll recall I’d already decided to let this be a summer of reading I can or want to read, rather than any ideas of what I should read.
And so I read three Louise Penny novels back-to-back A Better Man, The Nature of the Beast and The Long Way Home and I have to say that reading three in sequence is Not a Good Idea as this reader realized that there are only so many times a protagonist can be described as having ‘kind eyes’ before you lose patience, and only so many brie and pear sandwiches before you begin to wonder about cholesterol levels. Maybe it was a problem of reading the books out of sequence, but I also had a hard time keeping track of why some of the secondary characters were doing what they were doing (why was Clara mourning her husband? did he die? or leave her? or both?). Not that we’re ever meant to have a strong connection with these secondary characters, they are all parodies of themselves, and all hopelessly generous and thoughtful in an entirely out-of-time-and-place way.
Which is not to say I didn’t have a good time reading the books. I did. Just with diminishing returns and rapidly declining interest (which may or may not have correlation with increased time spent awake in the middle of the night and a choice between reading and showering or eating – which, let’s be clear, you can read and eat at the same time, so why would any one bother with showering?).
All this to say I think I’ll be taking a break from Louise Penny for the foreseeable future. I just got A Little Life back out from the library, and maybe re-reading that will prove focusing. Or I’ll be back here in a week telling you about the magazine I read. Whatever else I need to stop refreshing my news apps and checking Twitter because I promise there’s nothing comforting or enjoyably distracting about that at any time of day. Or, of course, you can send me your recommendations for what to read when you are grossly overtired and despair for the world. And are addicted to news apps and podcasts and should really, really, just. stop.