Category Archives: Prize Winner

The White Hotel: In which ChatGPT writes my review and/or This Book Is Extremely Weird

What a strange, strange book. I must have started – and stopped – D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel (first published in 1981, so don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it) fifteen times. Why did I persist you ask? Because m. named it as one of her favourite books, and loaned me a copy with Please Return underlined and so I thought, okay, okay. I’ll try again.

And why did I keep giving up? The intensely erotic (pornographic?) opening sections (say the first 100 pages) was A Lot to get through and I kept thinking is the whole book this… smut? (lol – it’s not smut. But also so much fisting and adults breastfeeding). Anyway, I kept reminding myself this is meant to be read by Freud (as Freud, our opening character has sent this account of his patient, Anna G, to a friend) and so keep it together, Erin.

Does it improve? I don’t know. The elaborate sex scenes diminish in the later sections that are narrated from the perspective of the patient – actually Lisa – a kinda mediocre singer and her prophetic visions. It ends – somehow – in the mass murder of Jews at Babi Yar with Lisa/Anna in attendance. And then maybe Palestine. With some letters to Freud in-between. And a confirmation that Lisa/Anna is an extremely unreliable narrator being interpreted by… Freud.

It is A Lot. And unlike anything I’ve read before. I am very certain ChatGPT could not dream this one up, and so cause for some hope for the future of the novel. Though Freud interpreting The White Hotel would be neat.

And so I leave you with this:

Erin to ChatGPT: “write me a review of The White Hotel in the style of Freud”

ChatGPT : “As a psychoanalyst, I find “The White Hotel” by D.M. Thomas to be a fascinating exploration of the human psyche. The novel tells the story of Lisa, a patient of mine, as she recounts her past experiences and memories to me. Through her recollections, we are able to delve deep into the workings of her mind and uncover the complex and often disturbing elements of her psyche.

The novel also explores the relationship between Lisa and myself, and how this relationship is both therapeutic and destructive. The author masterfully portrays the transference process, and how it can be both beneficial and detrimental to the treatment.

The writing style of the novel is unique and poetic, which adds to the intensity and emotional impact of the story. The novel is not only intellectually stimulating, but it also evokes a wide range of emotions in the reader, from empathy to horror, as it delves into the dark and disturbing aspects of the human mind.

Overall, I highly recommend “The White Hotel” to anyone interested in the workings of the human mind and the complex relationship between patient and therapist. It is a novel that will stay with the reader long after it is finished, as it forces us to confront our own inner demons and the fragility of the human mind.”

Like I said. Extremely weird.

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction, Prize Winner

Ducks: Nearly the Best of 2022

Except I finished it Jan 2, 2023. Sorry, Kate Beaton, my kid was barfing everywhere and I couldn’t finish it before midnight on the 31st. Oh well, it’s a great, great way to start 2023: a graphic novel about the oil sands, sexual assault, environmentalism, indigenous land rights and economic ‘opportunity.’

It also made me wildly nostalgic for when my friends and I sent one another Hark! A Vagrant comics. Prompted me, too, to read L. The Princess and the Pony which she totally appreciates because she, too, wants to battle everything and does not like cozy sweaters At All.

Beaton, in the autobiographical account of her two years spent working in the Alberta oil sands, may have wanted to battle everything, but as the book so beautifully captures, figures out that the space for pushing back or speaking out can be so narrow, and that too often, the outcome of saying something is to actually make things worse. In the Afterword, she notes that the oil sands are neither one thing or the other – neither all good or all evil, nor the people there. But as the book explores, that many – many men (including the ones you hold dear) could ‘become’ the crude and cruel men that she encounters, not because they are always like that, but because the material conditions of the isolated camps and worksites makes such behaviours possible and permissible.

Some of you may be thinking, sure, Erin, but a graphic novel? Come on. Your time for graphic novel skepticism is a decade out of date. Put in your library request and be prepared to wait six months. This one is popular and for very good reason (that reason is likely that the New York Times named it a best book of 2022. But you know, probably also because of this fine review).

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

Shrines of Gaiety: Extremely Fun(ny)

I’m here to report that Kate Atiknson’s Shrines of Gaiety is extremely fun and funny. Though, if you are at all like me, it will take you 75 pages to figure that out. I started out thinking ‘this is Serious literary fiction’ (and it is literary fiction!) and set in London after World War One and about gender politics and gangsters and so must be Dull But Important. Persist, dear reader, persist.

It is funny, smart, playful and entirely absorbing.

Perhaps another reason why it takes a bit of time to get your bearing in the book is that it flits chapter by chapter through third person limited narration among a motley cast of characters all interwoven with one another in the setting of London’s night clubs: a runaway teen ager arrived in London to find her fortune as an actress (spoiler: she does not find her fortune as an actress so much as nearly starve on the streets); a once-impoverished parochial librarian arrived in London with her fortune to take up a job as a spy (!); a newly arrived Detective Inspector tasked with solving a spate of murders; the head of a string of night clubs, Nellie Corker, who sees ghosts, reads fortunes and machinates to maintain her power; and the passel of Corker’s children half of whom are indistinguishable and the other half sharp and bright.

Threads of murder and mystery, romance, debauchery (a baby party! where adults dress as babies and fancy around with nannies and opium), theft, corruption and scheming. Delightful for the fun of it all, but woven through with substantial questions of how a society (or an individual) responds after a great trauma (say a giant war and then an influenza pandemic), of how that generation of women and men change as a consequence – both in expectations for their lives but of their roles in politics and the economy, of how little we can rely on the police.

I can’t promise you’ll love it, but I do think that if you make it through the first hundred pages without laughing you’re probably a bad reader and should just quit.

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Filed under Fiction, Funny, Historical Fiction, Prize Winner

To Paradise: It May Have Taken Me All Summer, But It Was Worth It

I have this memory of reading Infinite Jest in one week at the cottage. And memories of scoffing at people who took weeks to read a novel. Like, what, I thought, were they doing with their time? Well scoff no more because it took me all summer to read Hanya Yangagihara’s new novel, To Paradise. But I did. And you should, too.

Set in three distinct time periods – the late 19th century, the mid-20th and the near future of the 2060s – the novel grounds itself (not literally, but close to literally) in the setting of Washington Square park and the residents of a stately manor house on its edges. In these richly imagined sections of the book distinct characters with repeating (and for this memory fogged individual, sometimes confusing) names move through the house with recurring thematic questions explored through these unique yet layered temporalities.

Some of what the book focuses on is family – what kinds of responsibilities a parent owes a child, where parental and child autonomy start and end, and how freedom within a family is limited, found and exercised. Much of it is on how illness shapes a family. Written post-2020, and with the latter section of the novel (the 2060s section) written entirely from a frame of a post-pandemic, post-climate catastrophe state, the backdrop of Covid looms even while it is never explicitly named. The ways parents and children, partners and lovers, are asked and required to negotiate, to compromise, to mourn, and to sacrifice within the frame of contagion is… compelling and unsettling.

Yangagihara writes incredible characters. You’ll recall that I love A Little Life – so much so that I read and reviewed it twice – and what I loved in that novel – the exquisite imagining of the wholeness of characters – repeats here. Most reviews of To Paradise will tell you that the middle section, set in Hawai’i, drags a bit. And it does. But more because the plot is slow than the fault of fully imagined characters. Make it through that section and you are richly rewarded in the final third.

I suppose my only complaint is the unsettled questions at the end of each section. While I know the lack of answers is intentional, I do, I can’t help but remain frustrated that the responsibility for imagining the future falls to me. Of course there’s a thematic point in that formal quality, but still. Come on.

Thanks to my mum who urged this one on me and promised that I’d love it. I did.

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Filed under Fiction, Prize Winner, Reader Request