Category Archives: Booker Prize

History of Wolves: Booker Prize shortlist meet Minnesota winter; or, what to read on your holiday break

There’s a lot going on in Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, but at its heart the novel explores culpability and guilt. The first page of the novel explains that our protagonist, Linda, held and hugged a boy, Paul, who died. What follows is how Paul died, and more significantly, why he died (as his death, we learn, was far from inevitable).  Continue reading

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His Bloody Project: Blerg.

I couldn’t remember the title of this book when I sat down to write, so I popped into google the things I could remember: novel, nineteenth century, crofter, bloody, murder, Scotland. And pop! Google knew exactly the title because there aren’t many novels set in the 1880s Scotland about a murderous crofter. (Probably there’s just this one.) Google also wanted me to know that Graeme Macrae Burnet is the author. You probably wanted to know, too.  Continue reading

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The Green Road: What we mean when we say ‘a good book’

Countryside-scene-in-repu-008Imagine you’ve just finished reading a good book. You put it down and you think to yourself, ‘gosh, that was a really good book’ (okay, you probably don’t say ‘gosh’). You try to put your finger on what made it good. If someone asks you about it, you don’t hesitate to tell them to read it, but you probably don’t go out of your way to recommend it. You think about the characters again for a few days, but then the specificity of their story seeps into a wider feeling you have about the book: it was good.

I’ve just finished Anne Enright’s The Green Road and I can safely report it’s a good book. The writing is at once grand in its capacity and small in its attention on detailed, particular moments. With a compelling use of a shifting third person limited narration, the plot traces the Madigan family over decades. Each long chapter follows one of the four children in a specific moment in time, richly evoking place and character. Each successive chapter moves chronological leaps forward, always toward something. That something is the eventual family reunion when all children are gathered at their childhood home for Christmas.

It wouldn’t be an outrageous argument to claim these chapters are linked short stories, such is the telescopic focus on the one child, the particular time and place. For instance, the (best) chapter following Dan through the gay community in the 1980s, AIDS ravaged New York, is a tight story unto itself. Even while the development of Dan’s character comes to have resonance in the eventual reunion chapter such that this earlier chapter is necessary for the latter, the chapter could be self-contained for its own sake.

To this point on the function of the character-focused chapters: Perhaps because the mother in the story, Rosaleen, does not get a chapter onto herself (in this way the form mirrors the message that she has devoted her sense of self entirely to serving her children), the climactic moments that focus on her feel less pressing than they might had we had time to connect with her first-hand. That said, the children’s reaction to these climactic scenes give the reader a firm sense of the importance and reverberations of the moments.

It’s a good book for exploring questions of familial loyalty, of how and when identity becomes fixed, of who we want to be versus who we might actually be, and of what we owe our family (read ‘owe’ as broadly as you can: what debts we aim to repay, what we have because of them, what obligations are due). These questions get worked out in individual chapters and across the whole with each successive chapter adding layer and echo as the reader comes to piece together both chronology and family hierarchies.

A good book, then, is one that is well written, with strong character development and thematically rich. It’s not a great book because it doesn’t quite leave you shaken, not changed by the beauty of the work or by the questions it explores. This one then is good, and given the profile of Anne Enright, will probably be described as great. You be the judge.

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An Unnecessary Woman: Books Break Barriers (and other reflections on why we read)

Boy-reading-newspaper-New-001The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation is in the middle of its annual “Canada Reads” competition to pick a book all Canadians should read. This year the contest focuses on books that break barriers. Sure, I think, encourage people to read books that might challenge their assumptions and invite an alternative perspective. Except I sort of think this invitation to burst or break (such violent language for such a gentle activity: or is it?) is what all fiction is about, what all reading is for: the space to inhabit perspectives in ways that make you examine (if not *break*) those assumptions you hold that keep others at a distance, or to simply (simply?) travel an unknown story as more than a tourist, but less than a local.

Certainly Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman explores how reading creates this space of exploration. In a powerful passage on the nature of evil, our narrator foregrounds the responsibility that comes with reading, noting “We all try to explain away the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib or the Sabra Massacre by denying that we could ever do anything so horrible. The committers of those crimes are evil, other, bad apples; something in the German or American psyche makes their people susceptible to following orders, drinking the grape Kool-Aid, killing indiscriminately. You believe that you’re the one person who wouldn’t have delivered the electric shocks in the Milgram experiment because those who did must have been emotionally abused by their parents, or had domineering fathers, or were dumped by their spouses. Anything that makes them different from you. When I read a book, I try my best, not always successfully, to let the wall crumble just a bit, the barricade that separates me from the book. I try to be involved” (100 – emphasis added). Yep, that’s it (for me), that’s why I read (or one of the big reasons).

More than an opportunity for introverted exploration, however, the book posits that reading might be enough to make a meaningful life. Our first person protagonist, Aaliya, is a divorcee in Beirut. Deemed “unnecessary” by her family, she takes a job in a bookshop and spends her life reading during the day and translating – from translations – one book a year into Arabic.

[An aside: Beirut is cast as a complex character in the novel, seen as “the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She’ll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is” (88). An aside to the aside: you get a sense from these sentences of the beauty of the writing, right?]

Her work of reading and translating attempts a response to the existential question of what makes a life meaningful and worth living. We get glimpses at different points in the novel of others for whom this question has not been satisfactorily resolved: suicides, isolation, destruction. Those, too, for whom the task of making meaning – through the creation of art or parenting, for instance – is insufficient to satisfy the existential question (cue more suicide). For Aaliya the response of reading and translating, while salutary, is, likewise, insufficient. She thinks “Nothing in my life is working. Giants of literature, philosophy and the arts have influenced my life, but what have I done with this life? I remain a speck in a tumultuous universe that has little concern for me. I am no more than dust, a mote – dust to dust. I am a blade of grass upon which the stormtrooper’s boot stomps” (159).

The conflict of the book – such as it is – focuses around this question: how can we individually make meaning of our lives? How might reading and stories help us in this pursuit? (Perhaps its as Aaliya suggests in one of her bleaker moments that “In order to live, I have to blind myself to my infinitesimal dimensions in this infinite universe” (277).)  So while there is this quasi-conflict, one complaint I have with the book is that it’s more a meditation on the beauty, power and influence of reading than it is a complete narrative on its own. Sure there’s a narrative arc, conflict and character development, but these elements seem a secondary interest to the purpose of exploring the magic of words. So I’d give the strong caveat that while I encourage you to read this one for its masterful meditation on the importance of reading and of story, I’d begin reading with lowered expectations for a nuanced or intrinsically satisfying narrative.

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