Category Archives: Reader Request

To Paradise: It May Have Taken Me All Summer, But It Was Worth It

I have this memory of reading Infinite Jest in one week at the cottage. And memories of scoffing at people who took weeks to read a novel. Like, what, I thought, were they doing with their time? Well scoff no more because it took me all summer to read Hanya Yangagihara’s new novel, To Paradise. But I did. And you should, too.

Set in three distinct time periods – the late 19th century, the mid-20th and the near future of the 2060s – the novel grounds itself (not literally, but close to literally) in the setting of Washington Square park and the residents of a stately manor house on its edges. In these richly imagined sections of the book distinct characters with repeating (and for this memory fogged individual, sometimes confusing) names move through the house with recurring thematic questions explored through these unique yet layered temporalities.

Some of what the book focuses on is family – what kinds of responsibilities a parent owes a child, where parental and child autonomy start and end, and how freedom within a family is limited, found and exercised. Much of it is on how illness shapes a family. Written post-2020, and with the latter section of the novel (the 2060s section) written entirely from a frame of a post-pandemic, post-climate catastrophe state, the backdrop of Covid looms even while it is never explicitly named. The ways parents and children, partners and lovers, are asked and required to negotiate, to compromise, to mourn, and to sacrifice within the frame of contagion is… compelling and unsettling.

Yangagihara writes incredible characters. You’ll recall that I love A Little Life – so much so that I read and reviewed it twice – and what I loved in that novel – the exquisite imagining of the wholeness of characters – repeats here. Most reviews of To Paradise will tell you that the middle section, set in Hawai’i, drags a bit. And it does. But more because the plot is slow than the fault of fully imagined characters. Make it through that section and you are richly rewarded in the final third.

I suppose my only complaint is the unsettled questions at the end of each section. While I know the lack of answers is intentional, I do, I can’t help but remain frustrated that the responsibility for imagining the future falls to me. Of course there’s a thematic point in that formal quality, but still. Come on.

Thanks to my mum who urged this one on me and promised that I’d love it. I did.

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American Dirt: When You’re Not Sewing a Face Mask

So I’m interrupting my afternoon project of sewing some face masks – because that is where we are at, friends – to bring you this report on Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt. Believe it or not, at one point this novel occupied something of a spotlight in news and culture circles (this in the time before all of our thoughts were cannibalized by The Plague), as readers, reviewers and cultural critics wrung hands about cultural appropriation (and to a lesser extent, good writing).

The basics of the hoopla are covered here, with parts of it owing to the selection of the book by Oprah and Reese for their bookclubs and the rhapsody of their reviews pointing to how the book ‘opened their eyes’ to the plight of Mexican and Central American migrants/refugees and the extreme journey required to make it to the safety of America (which, sidebar, not to judge, but to judge, is a little surprising that it took this novel to raise to awareness this catastrophe of violence). When proper readers got ahold of the book there were questions about the authority of Cummins to write the story – could she take on the voice of a Mexican migrant without being one herself? Other reviewers simply wondered at the quality of the writing – why such praise for a book that was, at best, mediocre in its writing? A final pocket of complaint focused on the way the novel drains history and politics from the plot: we witness mother and son flee a murderous drug cartel for the safety of the U.S. with all but the flimsiest consideration of the roots of violence both within Mexico, the incredibly fraught space of the border and then America itself.

It was this last piece – the missing American plot – that bothered me the most. Sure I was irritated by the one-dimensional characters, the insubstantial emotional depth offered to any of them (like surely I should have some empathy mustered for an eight-year old who has his entire family of 16 murdered in front of him, and yet the book sort of declares this as Traumatic, but doesn’t do any of the literary work to bring the reader into this space, and so we are left forever having to accept on the surface the event as traumatic, without seeing or witnessing or being inside the character’s experience of this loss and rupture), and the plot points that read as clumsily assembled scripted markers from a paint-by-number novel planner. But my biggest irritation was that, for some reason, I expected that the novel would include the arrival in America, and the realization that the vision of safety, security and opportunity that they held up as beacons throughout their journey was… complicated. Sure there is some mention of ICE, and a very shrouded reference to changing experiences at the border with changing politics, but for the duration of the novel America stands as an absolute haven. And I am in no position to question the relative safety of America, or to cast doubt on the difference in fear between fear for your life and fear of deportation, I just found it a frustrating absence – or perhaps rewriting – to see nothing of their lives in America and instead to have the US once against stand in as saviour.

So yes. If you’re about to order a book for curbside/delivery from your local bookstore, please do not choose American Dirt. Wait until your library reopens and order it there, and then you probably should read it so that you can disagree with me, or join a book club and talk about it, or write a pointed letter to Oprah, whatever.

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The Silence of the Girls: Not Nearly as Good as Song of Achilles

In an unplanned but entirely excellent book swap with my friend, S., I traded her Strike Your Heart for Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. I think she got the better deal. Not that The Silence of the Girls is bad, it’s just… obvious. Continue reading

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Here I Am & The Nightingale: Final Reads of 2016

I have the stomach flu. I’ve been meaning to write up these separate posts for days, but have instead been subsisting on ginger ale and popsicles and general grumpiness. Cue some commentary about a fitting end to 2016.

I did read two novels over the holidays. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Here I Am and Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale. I have a lot to say about both, but I’m too queasy to muster much, so here’s the abbreviated version for both: don’t bother. Continue reading

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Filed under American literature, British literature, Fiction, Reader Request