Category Archives: 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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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

Akin: In which I am bossy about how a plot should behave

The overwhelming word that comes to mind with Emma Donoghue’s Akin is ‘lukewarm,’ which as someone who tries to write down how I feel about the books I’ve read feels unsatisfying. Declare a position! But really, I could neither urge you to read or not read this one. It’s fine. If your book club picks it? Fine. If someone gifts it to you because it was on the bestseller table at the book store? Fine. If you pass over it at the used bookstore because there are seven copies and you’d rather take home [insert anything else] [except Girl on the Train] Fine.

I read it out of curiosity. I’d enjoyed Room  and Akin was getting lots of hype and I’m nothing if not easily persuaded by best-of lists and recommendations. And Akin does have reasons for recommendations: (1) it’s a tight plot – taking place in a little over ten days, it follows octogenarian Noah as he must unexpectedly take over the care for his grand-nephew, Michael, and still journey to his birthplace of Nice to discover the truth about his mother (Noah does, I mean). The focused plot gives the novel a short story-esque feel, and a relative certainty early on for the reader on how things between Michael and Noah are going to turn out. (Cue every plot ever about a troubled teenager and an equally-troubled-but-pretending-to-have-it-all-sorted adult like every teacher-disturbed class movie ever). (2) Michael is a well done character, and the questions he asks and his reactions feel sensible and in line with what his character would say or do.

And then there’s the reasons you could pass this one by: (1) The aforementioned obviousness of the outcome of the Noah-Michael dynamic and the somewhat alarming way in which having children is roughly inserted towards the end of the novel as a prime Purpose for living – an insult to folks who don’t have kids and an unreasonable burden to place on children (2) The entire plot line of investigating the backstory of Noah’s mother reads as both impossibly far-fetched and like a poorly grafted limb onto the main body of the story. Every time the two of them set out to investigate another piece of her backstory I was surprised again to find that the novel seemed to think Noah’s mother and Nazi history was the point of the book or the thematic center. Not so, novel. Figure out what you’re about and be about that. (Curious minds want to know? Themes of judgement, justice and redemption).

Taken together I remain… lukewarm. Convince me otherwise? Or don’t. With this one I really don’t care.

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

Flights: Weird, Delightful

Olga Tokarcquk’s Flights won the Booker and the National Book Award and so I figured it had to be good. And it is? No, it is. But it’s strange. In form, mostly. It’s written as a series of fragmented chapters – some no more than a paragraph, others stretching for 20 or 30 pages – all circling one another thematically, but not necessarily, or usually, by plot or character. It’s an exercise in immersion and floating, I’d say, to let go of the usual anchors of the novel and to suspend yourself in something like a mass collection of postcards that you’ve been tasked with assembling into a cogent archive. Continue reading

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Filed under Booker Prize, Fiction, National Book Award, Prize Winner