Category Archives: New York Times Notable

Washington Black: Won all the prizes. For good reason.

Washington Black… Washington Black… If I were redoing my comprehensive exams in Canadian literature I’d put Washington Black on the list. And not just because it has extensive scenes of Snow and Ice (our titular protagonist finds himself – unprepared and unexpectedly – in the Arctic with his master-turned-friend-turned-masterscantbefriends), but because it is a great read and comprehensive exams in Canadian literature need 99% fewer books about black flies and 99% more of this combination of compelling exploration of Canadian civility coupled with excellent writing.

Right, so what’s it about. We open with our first-person protagonist, Washington, as an eleven-year old slave on a sugar plantation in Barbados. In the opening chapters his life takes a turn when he’s ‘given’ to Tish, the eccentric naturalist brother, of the plantation slave master. What follows is a chronicle of his life from that moment until an uncomfortable resolution/departure from Tish many years later.

The initial encounter with Tish is one of the first moments where luck enters the plot (later scenes of a hot air balloon landing on a ship during thunderstorm or bumping in to the right botanist at the right time) in a way that isn’t frustrating so much as it reinforces that for all of us, the idea of our life owing to  ‘hard work’ has much less to do with merit than it does to first-foremost-and-always the inherent privilege of our race, gender and class of birth, and then-with-similar-consequence-and-similar-lack-of-control, the random fortune of being in the right place at the right time with the right people. It’s a powerfully delivered message meant to disrupt any earnest beliefs we might have about genius or personal industry.

Luck is complicated further in that Washington really is some kind of genius artist. And does make decisions for himself that have positive – and negative – consequences. So it’s not like throw-up-your-hands-nothing-matters, more a way of reminding the reader that where historic slavery ends, the continued belief that white people are better than people of colour or indigenous folks continues, and in the subtle ways of thinking that what I have is somehow (exclusively. or mostly) because I earned it, rather than a web of privilege and luck with a peppering of personal effort.

It’s also a book attentive to smell, which is great.

ANYWAY. It won like a million prizes, and so if my endorsement isn’t sufficient, maybe the Booker committee or the NYT will be. And not knowing Esi Edugyan or her work habits, I’d say this book stands in opposition to all I’ve just said – as every page shows hard work and genius.

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Filed under Booker Prize, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Giller prize, New York Times Notable

Redeployment: I waited too long to write this and now I forget everything.

Gah. Once again I accidentally read a short story collection and it was terrific. I may have to (finally) admit there’s nothing inherently evil about the form.

This particular collection, written by Phil Klay, and much ballyhooed by the New York Times, is pretty great. Focusing on the American role in the Iraq war, each story offers a slightly different perspective on the experience of war, from a solider returning home to a chaplain on the front lines.

I read it over the holidays and so now don’t remember as much as I wish I did, but I remember enough to suggest you read it. Uhhh – what specific thing can I say? Sorry. Not much. Next time I won’t wait three weeks to write about it…

E

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Fiction, New York Times Notable

Manhattan Beach: Sex! Intrigue! Women-who-aren’t-fierce-but-just-women!

Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach is the sort of book you read while at work. Like tucked inside an important memo. (One of my memories of elementary school is our teacher discovering that Joseph had been hiding a novel behind his math textbook and the teacher went bananas and used a meter stick to hit the book across the room. Which with the benefit of age now seems an unmeasured response. I mean, I can see being annoyed if he had a porn mag tucked in there, but a novel? Oh well. I guess we must Be Respected at all times. I DIGRESS.)

It’s an excellent novel. Really. Go and get it now and start reading. Things I think make it excellent (in no particular order): Continue reading

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction, National Book Award, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

Elizabeth is Missing: The best literary thriller yet

I finally used one of the little neighbourhood ‘libraries’ that have cropped up all over the place. I’ve walked passed dozens of them (one on my way home from the bus stop) and each time I think I ought to stop, but don’t, because another part of me assumes that these must be ‘garbage’ books – the sort that someone read and don’t want to keep and can’t be bothered to give away. But there’s one of these little libraries on my neighbour’s front yard, so I hardly had to detour and it felt impolite to not at least flip through, so I dropped off Nick Mason and picked up Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing: a fantastic choice to finish my summer of reading literary thrillers. Continue reading

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Filed under Bestseller, Fiction, Mystery, New York Times Notable