Category Archives: Prize Winner

The Overstory: Beautiful, but…

Having married a person who works with trees, I regularly find myself in proximity when tree-related questions are tossed his way. Sort of what I imagine those working in medical fields must encounter: any social gathering is an opportunity to solicit advice (though with fewer on the spot requests to examine moles or rashes, I suspect). S. also suffers the ‘owl’ conundrum so brilliantly outlined by David Sedaris in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls: should you ever express a passing interest in something, say owls, you will find yourself on the receiving end of owl-related gifts, gadgets and whimsy for the Rest of Your Life. So it is with those who work with trees. No shortage of tree themed tea towels, stationary, wall-art or coffee table books. Which is to say, we have many Tree things. (Which is partly owed, I think, to the relative resistance of S. to inquires about his desires when it comes to gifts and the what-else-can-we-do-throw-up-the-hands-lets get-him-another-Tree thing result).

So it was that Richard Powers’ The Overstory was recommend to me because it is all about trees and so I’d likely enjoy it because… S. (Of course the book has also been suggested to S., but given his Terrible Flaw in that he doesn’t like fiction (*gasp*) hardly a chance he’d be inspired to read it). Maybe also recommended to me because I/we spent a lot of time in the forest?

Whether or not I had any involvement with S. it should have been recommended to me for the beautiful writing. Powers has a delightful tone in the book – something that bridges poetry and prose, coupled with a sort of achronology where the characters and setting all feel somewhat out of time, or beyond time, (like a tree!) even while they are clearly situated in time and space (also like a tree!).

The first half of the book reads as a series of short stories. A character introduced each chapter who has some passing or central connection to a tree. Having not read much about the book before, I wasn’t sure whether these characters ever come together, or whether there was some wider plot we were working toward. But! In another instance of form marrying content, we do see these seemingly separate characters come together into one narrative arc (form-content in the sense that one point of the book is to illustrate that there are no singular trees, rather all trees are intimately connected) as some of them try to save the giant Redwood trees and others sort of glom on to the scene in efforts to understand, capitalize or undermine these efforts.

But. And I’m sorry there’s a but. I want to offer a full-throated endorsement of this book because the writing really is beautiful and the message of the Value (far beyond monetary) of trees and the forest ecosystem is essential. But it’s… pretty dull.

Like there are only so many pages you want to read about the connections of roots and moss and leaves. Even while you’re like this is beautiful writing! And isn’t nature incredible! And aren’t these trees Truly Miraculous.

It’s a strange feeling. To be so bored by something so magnificent. Maybe there’s a special prize out there we could offer Powers for achieving this rare balance of banality and brilliance?

Anyway. I’m at something of a loss in suggesting whether you should read it. If anything, I’d say read the first long part that has the chapters on each character. As a series of short stories they are excellent and well worth your time. After that… well, I won’t think less of you if you put aside the poetry and homage to nature and… read a Louise Penny mystery. Just as I did.

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Filed under American literature, Book Club, Fiction, 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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Filed under Erin's Favourite Books, Prize Winner

Dear Edward: Sole Survivor of Airplane Crash or; Why Keep Going (+ a lot of ‘quotes’)

I was part of the last cohort of students in Ontario to take OAC’s (or grade 13). It meant five years of high school instead of four (though *cough* *humble brag* I still did the five years in four years) and included a suite of ‘advanced’ courses that were intended to prepare you for University. Courses like “World Issues,” and “Writers Craft” and “Super Fancy Latin.” One of my favourites was “Philosophy,” which managed to cram into a semester the entire canon of Western philosophy. Sort of. The teacher, Mr. Morrison, was cantankerous and brilliant. He taught me how to write a good essay (or good enough for first year University instructors to be impressed, anyway) and how to purposefully swear. Of the lessons he taught though, the one I keep coming back to – probably in an already oversimplified and misremembered way -, is the one on existentialism. I remember him banging away on the idea that to face the void of existence we have to either ‘destroy something’ or ‘create something,’ and (implied) our imperative as we set out into the world was to find something worthy of our acts of intentional creation. That we wouldn’t find meaning in God or the state, but we might just find it in art. Twenty-odd years later I recognize Mr. Morrison’s lecture wasn’t earth shattering, but it was… significant to me at the time, and something I continue to return to all these years later.

So when it was Mr. Morrison I thought of after reading Ann Napolitano’s Dear Edward. The premise is simple: titular young boy, Edward, is the sole survivor of a giant plane crash where 191 other people die, including his parents and older brother. How does this person (hard to call him a child after surviving such an event) make a meaningful life? How does he make sense of his survival (how do others make sense of it, and how does he navigate their efforts to force meaning on him)? How can he reconcile his sense of loss with the losses of those around him – can such things ever be compared? (and why do we bother comparing grief?) [The best example of this in the book is in comparing Edward to his aunt who adopts him. She has had multiple miscarriages and her sister has died, surely, the book asks, her grief is Significant? But nothing, it seems, touches the loss for Edward. In part because he is made to stand in for all 191 others who died and asked to be for them in life what they might have been.]

Through years we watch Edward develop relationships with his aunt and uncle, with the girl next door, with his therapist and with his teachers. We see him do something like ‘come to terms’ with his trauma, by doing as Mr. Morrison-by-way-of-philosophy advises: creating. He figures out that he won’t ‘get over’ his trauma, rather he will create himself anew. And as he does that he comes in to millions – millions and millions – and sees a way forward through giving others the chance to create what they want through Money.

Which let me just say the answer in this book slips precariously close to ‘money is the answer,’ but pulls it back, I think, to ‘community’ is the answer (which my bleeding Unitarian heart can’t help but nod vigorously at while I’m reading), and yes, ‘creation.’ So Mr. Morrison, if, somehow, you are reading this: thanks for teaching me all that you did. And if you need a new book to assign (if you’re still teaching), maybe you could do Dear Edward or maybe just, you know, keep doing you.

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Filed under Fiction, Prize Winner

The Glass Hotel: What you let yourself know and not know

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.

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Prize Winner