Circe: I was President of Latin Club.

It will come as a surprise to no one that I was President of my high school Latin club. It was the kind of club that included an annual inter-institutional, three-day Roman based extravaganza of geekhood: chariot races, tug-of-war, academic competitions, barely-concealed-drinking, dramatic readings and theatrical performances. It was a haven for the weird and quirky before Glee and Geekculture made such things popular, or at least tolerable. I don’t know what high school is like now, but I know that for me, high school was only made tolerable by S., J., J., and Latin club (and who are we kidding, the library). One year, at this ‘Classics Conference,’ we staged a fashion show in which we assembled period costumes (hand sewn, of course) for the characters from the Odyssey and then wore them on stage for an audience; we had never been as proud or as celebrated. I played the role of Circe, dressed in seductive red, and if I could find a photo I promise I would never show it to you.

This is all a long wind up to let you know that I was very excited when my copy of Circe arrived at the library. You’ll remember that I adored Madeline Miller’s first novel, Song of Achilles  and so the combination of enthusiasm for the myth, the character and the novel and I was… excited.

And get this: Circe lives up to even these expectations. It has at its core questions about mortality (and we all know how I love to think about mortality), morality and what makes for a good life. These questions are woven through with ideas of gender, sexuality, and how women becoming fully themselves. One danger the novel brushes against, and ultimately (I think) avoids, is in supposing that it is through the maternal experience that this self-assurance is (pardon the pun) born.

To say more: the novel follows our titular character through her formative experiences in her father’s home, through banishment to an island and the many and varied characters she encounters there, through to her ventures from the island – and the causes for these departures – to her final conclusion. Along the way she does have a child, and this experience is – accurately (I think) – transformative. But where the novel succeeds (again, in my view) is in allowing that this singular experience of becoming a mother is not, in its self, sufficient for total transformation. Rather it is the collective experiences of developing her witchcraft; discovering her sexuality; mastering her body and its limits; reconciling herself with regret, consequence and guilt; and in the climactic moments – revealing to herself her strength and depth of character. All of these moments unfold slowly and in ways that subtly but progressively deepen and change her character.

Lest you worry this is nothing but an exhaustive character study, there are moments of intrigue, of romance, of suspense, of magic. But above all, there is beautiful – really – writing. Some of seascapes and landscapes, sure, but really writing that gets you to think differently about humanity and its capacity. I can think of few better ways to begin 2019 then with this novel that asks readers what makes our mortal lives worth living.

 

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Filed under American literature, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction

An Ocean of Minutes: Time Traveling Romance

So if you loved The Time Travellers Wife, you’ll probably enjoy Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes, which is probably the last thing Lim wants me to write, and I’m sorry for saying it. Because they’re very different books. This one is beautifully written, with complex characters and a compelling plot: our protagonists are separated in time when Polly jumps to the future in a gamble to save her lover, Frank, from dying of a pandemic flu. The post-apocalypse future of life after the flu is as disturbing as it is resonant.

But the overarching romance of their relationship, the way the mechanics of time and time travel play in to their relationship, the urgency of their reunion, and the gender politics of a woman waiting – forever waiting – to be reunited with her man – echo strongly with the best-known time travel novel.

That said, whether you’ve read Time Travellers or not, or have no opinions about time travel, I’d recommend this read. It’s not like The Best thing I’ve read, but it’s a solid bet and you could do worse for first books for 2019.

[SPOILER FOLLOWS] Continue reading

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Giller prize

A Thousand Splendid Suns: I Just Don’t Believe in Happy Endings

I can’t explain it. I’m an optimist. An obnoxiously optimistic optimist, like I’ve had to consciously learn how to listen to folks when they’re having a problem and just say ‘that sucks’ rather than ‘oh oh! here’s why there’s a silver lining to your total misery.’ So how can it be that I’m so irritated by happy endings? I don’t find them plausible. Sure, I appreciate that sometimes things work out, but mostly? no. Which, okay, is at odds with my claim to optimism. Maybe it’s just that my outrageously privileged life has led me to believe that things will (mostly) work out for *me*, even while they mostly do *not* work out for other people/the world.

So cue my dissatisfaction with Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, which *spoiler* has a ‘happy’ (well happy-ish) ending. Don’t confuse the happy-ish ending with a happy story. The book is full to bursting with very difficult scenes of domestic abuse – many of which I ended up skimming over because I found the level of detail to be too much for me. And there are all kinds of moments of pain, grief, loss, disappointment, betrayal. So maybe Hosseini felt like after making the reader – and the characters – suffer through all that they do, they/we were owed a happy-ish ending? To me it just wasn’t plausible, though, that after all that had happened, that things would end out working out as they did,

Anyway – broad strokes, the book follows Mariam and Laila through thirty-odd years of Afghan history. I appreciated the historical fiction aspects, as I’ll admit to a spotty-to-non-existent understanding of pre-2000 Afghan history. Both characters are reasonably well drawn, and their particular motivations and interests thought through, though I would say that Laila is the more believable of the two. Mariam reads as a little underdeveloped, particularly in her transition from downtrodden wife to heroic sister/friend. Similarly, Rasheed, the abusive husband/father felt like a caricature to me. I’m not expecting a sympathetic portrait of a violent, abusive, volatile man. At the same time, I might have believed his character more if there was some nuance to his actions.

The effect of these somewhat underdeveloped characters was to have me doubt the reliability of the rest of the narrative. What I mean is that because I didn’t fully believe in the reality of the characters, I doubted the veracity of the rest of the narrative. Like if these characters were caricatures, maybe the depiction of Afghan life under the Taliban was being similarly reduced to its most extreme or most recognized elements. What I will say about that doubt, was that the reading prompted me to read more non-fiction to find out how closely the narrative followed ‘actual’ events and circumstances, so perhaps there’s a silver lining there…

And there we go. Full circle. A book I didn’t really like that I am – optimistically – suggesting might have some merit after all.

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Filed under Book Club, Fiction, Historical Fiction

There, There: Top three of 2018.

Tommy Orange’s There, There is in the top three books of 2018. You should go get it and read it and that’s about all you need to know.

If you must know more… the opening chapters – broad and context setting – are powerful, moving, persuasive and other synonyms for compelling. After these historical and broad chapters we move through a series of characters and their tangential relationship to a coming pow-wow in Oklahoma. Weaving through second and third person, these initially discrete chapters layer and build to the climax that is polyphonic and emotionally charged in the best possible ways. While each character receives relatively scant development because of the condensed chapter the reader encounters them, I was nevertheless utterly riveted by the climactic scenes and cared urgently and completely about the outcome.

So there you go. Go get it and read it.

*UPDATE* A bunch of you have been asking for the other two books in the top three for 2018: reasonable request. So…

My Absolute Darling

Red Clocks

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Filed under Fiction, Prize Winner