Category Archives: Booker Prize

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.

1 Comment

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

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Booker Prize, Fiction, Prize Winner

The Sisters Brothers: Against my (terrible) instincts

                

I heard Patrick de Witt read from *The Sisters Brothers* in Hamilton last year, and the book excerpt – and the reading – was brilliant. The novel won the Governor General’s Award and the Writers Trust. It was shortlisted for the Giller and the Booker. N. told me to read it, so did J. and I. (in short all my most trusted recommenders). Yet it took being stranded in the airport with nothing to read – a battery dead on an ereader at the end of a vacation is a sure testament to the staying power of print – before I finally sat down (trapped on a plane) to read it.

Why my resistance? When the book is SO FUCKING GOOD? 

I don’t know. I blame my disinterest in cowboys (even though I loved True Grit, The Englishman’s Boy and Lightening) (I think this means I’m not *actually* disinterested in cowboys so much as I *think* I should be disinterested in cowboys). I blame the title for making me think it was going to be about some boring sister and her brothers (sigh). Maybe I blame my own stand-off-ish-ness to historical fiction post-dissertation? Yeah, maybe that (in fact I think this is the secret of the life post thesis – or maybe not secret, but I’d never heard it talked about – and that is that when you finish four years of thinking about a particular genre almost exclusively, by the end of those four years you want absolutely nothing to do with that genre Ever Again even if it also happens to be your *favourite* genre. What a bind). 

So anyway. I was wrong to wait this long. I should have read this the day it came out because (let me say it again) it is so. good. It’s dark, and funny, and features incredibly well developed characters, it asks questions about morality, will and choice, duty and what it means to be a gentle, man. It is really very, very good.

So yeah, sorry to N. and J. and I. I should have listened to you. My favourite part? Calling N. to tell him to go out and get the book Right Away and having him sigh and remind me that he recommended it to me months ago (he’s so good to put up with me).

2 Comments

Filed under Booker Prize, Canadian Literature, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction, Giller prize, Governor Generals, Historical Fiction, Prize Winner

Cloud Atlas

Away for work with no laptop, and so a proper post is impossible at the moment, but I wanted to get down a few thoughts about David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas before I forget (for those counting I only have one Mitchell novel left, which I may save for the day i recognize as the worst day of my life so that I might have something to live for/look forward to. He is so. Brilliant. I like just knowing there is
more of his genius for me to discover. that promise (both the potential and the guarantee) – withheld – makes my life more livable).

I want to remember the form – a mess of genres, narrative points of view and forms. The theme of servitude: to ideals, people, corporations, history (but not love). The idea of ascension – that we (people, characters) might be evolving in a way that keeps us the same even while we strive to be/do better. The idea of reliance, that if we are to make it/survive it will only be after trusting in someone else, knowing we will be betrayed, but in the time before betrayal that we might make/do something great or lasting. That we lose ourselves in moments of beauty – that in reading this book we find ourselves presented with one such moment – a space to forget the petty, insular problems of a particular time and place, and transcend form, genre, and *self* in a way that allows the briefest recognition of beauty. That is what the characters do, and that is what Mitchell offers his readers. And we rely on him to take us somewhere higher then we had been before. And he, unlike his characters, doesn’t betray that faith, but really did leave this reader with a greater expectation for what is beautiful, for what great art can do.

Leave a comment

Filed under Booker Prize, British literature, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction, Prize Winner