Category Archives: Prize Winner

David Copperfield and Demon Copperfield: Truly Genius

Ahhhhhhhhh.

I know generative AI is all like ‘I can write a thing in the style of so-and-so’ but with due respect to the robots, you cannot write like THIS. Jesus but Barbara Kingslover Hit It Out Of The Park with Demon Copperfield.

I’d heard it was good – well reviewed and on all the lists from last year, plus some personal recommendations – but felt held back by having not read David Copperfield. Some told me you didn’t have to have read David to appreciate Demon, but I thought I’d better check out the original just in case. And well. Guys. Did you know Dickens was a pretty good writer? Like I know you ‘know’ but maybe you’re like me and you haven’t actually read anything by him (or if you did it was a 100 years ago and a blur of high school English) and so you don’t really know. I mean don’t go out and drop what you’re doing, but I’m here to report: Charles Dickens was no slouch. But then, I cheated. I listened to it on audiobook (double speed and it still took 40 hours) and so maybe I’m a fan because of the British accent reading it to me and the aid of different voices. But probably it’s just a good one.

Anyway. So David Copperfield if you missed it: not an orphan from the outset, but an orphan, spends some time hungry, doing child labour, exploited, left for lost by institutions that should have – could have – protected him. Demon Copperfield? Same plot a few centuries later and this time it’s opioids and underfunded schools and exploitative companies and willful neglect that take center stage for judgement. [As an aside, if you don’t to read David Copperfield, then please, please, read Empire of Pain before you read this one – as it contextualizes (and layers the outrage) in incredibly helpful ways.]

Even while both books brilliantly attack institutions for the unmitigated failure (and not just passive failure, but active harm) of the young and the poor, they simultaneously argue for the profound – life changing – impact of individuals on one another. What harm, what hope might be possible in how we show up (or don’t) for one another.

So sure, all the institutions you can think of are (probably) failing, but they’ve been failing for centuries! Optimistic spin! AND as it always was and is also now true – we aren’t helpless in the face of it. While Demon and David both narrate exceptions – characters who are themselves exceptional and find themselves surrounded by others who – despite the structural failures that crumble – are kind. Kindness and caring are very small in the face of it all, and what we really need is revolution. And still. This reader clings to that tiny thing. Being kind, showing up, despite it all, holding hope.

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

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow: high school math and Mum and I disagree

I have this memory of being in Mr. Lowe’s OAC (yes, OAC) Calculus class. I got back another test where I had managed a 70 something after a thousand hours of studying and fretting and worrying and fretting. And feeling like #why. At the time the why was this vision that if I didn’t take OAC Calculus I wouldn’t be able to take Psychology courses at University and become a therapist*. Then I discovered a University that would let me in to their Psych program without Calculus. I digress. I’m sitting in this class and I get the 70 and I’m just Done With Calculus (despite Mr. Lowe spending hours of his own time helping me, and my friends J. and J. spending hours of their time helping me). So I go to the office to call my mum (or maybe it was a pay phone) and ask her – crying in this memory – can I please drop Calculus, I don’t think I’ll need it to be a therapist and it’s making me miserable. I don’t know if my mum remembers the call, or knows how I’d spun out the different versions of my life that hinge(d) on her Yes or No to Calculus. But she supported me and said, of course, do what you want to do. And so I dropped Calculus. Like right after I hung up I walked over to the counselling office and dropped it. Probably for Latin. Very useful. (actually) (as useful as Calculus?) (what do you want from me)*

WHY THE LONG RAMBLE, ERIN.

Well, Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, in addition to being (or maybe mostly being) a book about friendship and its boundaries, and a book that intentionally or not tries to capture the mood of A Little Life (credit to mum for pointing out this parallel which is Spot On), is also a book about women in math.

Our protagonists, Sam and Sadie, spend the book falling into their friendship and then creating wildly successful video games together. Their lives are peppered with the accidents of circumstance and the mistakes of choice that make for any life, and their friendship is one of the accumulation of small moments layered on a true connection. The book is mostly about this friendship – how they come to be friends, how they betray one another (or think they’ve betrayed one another), how other people interrupt and intersect with their friendship, and what the boundaries of love in a friendship fall. It is a beautiful story on this thread – even if, again credit to mum, Sadie’s grudge against Sam midway through the book stretches the boundaries of plausibility.

And it is also a book about what Sadie has to experience and respond to because she is a woman who is very good at math, and one who loves video games, and one who wants to make those games in an industry and institutions full of men. I’d forgotten I read this book, truthfully, but then remembered when reading a list today of top books of last year, and was like oh right, that one. And then found myself tonight listening to a podcast about how boys are struggling in school and how this is impacting men’s outcomes in a bunch of domains. And truly – I’m a mother of a self-described boy and am not dismissing the (surprising to me) information about the widening gap in gendered achievement in schools. But was also like Come On. I suppose I can accept two things at the same time: women are doing better at school/university across a wide range of metrics AND the programs that men dominate are still the ones preferentially valued. The glut of women in universities is hardly yielded Power to the extremely well educated, and extremely underpaid teachers at my daughter’s daycare.

So maybe that’s the thing I liked best about Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow: its careful exploration of how Sadie navigates computer science programs, video game making/marketing and Silicon Valley. The way she finds herself used, abused and manipulated by men with power and then ‘lucky’ to find the good ones. The way efforts at ‘wokeness’ risk violence, and the tension between what we know about our friends as individuals and the way we let their individual identities influence our perception of their actions (like: did he do that because he’s my friend, or did he do that because he’s a man?).

And there’s more someone else would read into this book about race and class and orphan-hood and disability. There’s a heap to think through and plenty to enjoy. It reads quickly, is absorbing, and in the end – I think – satisfying.

But for me? I couldn’t stop thinking about Mr. Lowe. And what we tell ourselves about math.

*I did not become a therapist. But Latin probably got me the degree.

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Filed under Bestseller, Fiction, New York Times Notable, 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