The Glass Hotel: What you let yourself know and not know

If you’re still in search of a summer read (okay, I may be in denial about how much of the summer is left) you could do much worse than Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel. With a jumpy chronology and shifting narrative points of view, the novel follows the rise and fall of a Bernie Madoffesque character and his ‘wife.’ It has the appeal of a suspense novel, but with the depth of well-crafted literary fiction. Plus descriptions of fancy things, which let’s not kid ourselves, we all love.

I was especially taken with the thematic questions at the heart of the novel: the possibility of knowing something and not knowing it at the same time [which the form of the novel brilliantly demonstrates – the reader is introduced very early to the knowledge that Jonathan (our Madoff character) will go to prison, and yet we spend much of the novel knowing this, and doubting it as we read (and hope?) that he and Vincent will avoid punishment]. Our characters struggle with what immorality (and crimes) they are willing to stomach from those around them or themselves, and more importantly, what they are able to put out of mind and ignore for their own material comfort. While the novel doesn’t make the explicit connection to our current moment the reader can’t help but contemplate what we know is happening and what we allow ourselves to not know (for any host of issues from climate change to racial injustice to animal suffering to the utility of a Peloton bike to etc). Rather than casting these characters as evil or unlikeable for this self-delusion, the novel instead points to how we all find ourselves in situations, often lifetimes (of jobs, or marriages, or identities) where we have made compromises, or slid down slippery slopes, and rather than confront where we are, or what we have become, or who we are with, we insist on not knowing what we also know. It’s a question I’ve not read as explicitly or carefully in any novel, and one that, after it surfaces, seems entirely obvious for exploration. Like so much else hiding just below the surface waiting for consideration.

So yes. If the well-paced plot, fully developed characters, and scenes of fancy things weren’t enough to endear you to this book, let the weighty (yet somehow not ponderous) theme bring you to it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Prize Winner

The Passage: 800 Pages of a Vampire Pandemic

I wanted a hefty summer read and so I chose… a book about a vampire pandemic? I blame some NYTimes column of summer reading suggestions for pointing me to Justin Cronin’s The Passage. Blame suggests it was a bad choice. I don’t know. It might have been. Probably the part about reading about a pandemic where there are only a handful of human survivors left was a bad choice. But the part about a virus that creates vampires was excellent.

I was about to write that it would make a great adaptation for TV and then I checked and it has ALREADY BEEN ADAPTED. Clearly TV producers are reading my mind/blog. A great adaptation because it’s super plot driven, with lots of hanging scenes where you’re left wondering if someone is still alive, or why they are having a strange dream, or whether X hero is going to make out with Y hero. Plus lots of descriptions of fancy military equipment and gritty technology that makes for excellent set design.

Reasons you could probably skip the EIGHT HUNDRED PAGES and just watch the show:

  1. There are many, many other better things to read
  2. The characters aren’t all that interesting or well developed and so the novelistic interiority wouldn’t be missed
  3. There are many, many other better things to read

Reasons you might want to read EIGHT HUNDRED PAGES (and also watch the show):

  1. You have a newborn/puppy/insomnia/high maintenance plant and are forced to be awake at outrageous hours where the best thing preventing you from falling asleep in your chair and thus RISKING THE LIFE OF YOUR CHILD/puppy/sanity/plant is an epic book about a vampire pandemic.
  2. You are similarly trapped somewhere and the only thing available to read is this giant book.
  3. Did I say trapped? I mean, #blessed.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bestseller

Coming Up for Air: Yes! A Great Book!

Nothing fancy or personal here, folks, just a ringing endorsement for Sarah Leipciger’s Coming Up for Air, a fantastic book about… drowning? But really – the writing here is extraordinarily good, so good the interwoven plots don’t need much to hold together – though they do. Like chapter 24 that details Pieter in his fishing boat and a *spoiler spoiler* Event is some of the best writing I’ve encountered in years. Hair raising.

I may have been predisposed to like this one because it’s historical fiction and Canadian, but given my recent spate of not being able to read anything serious or well-written, I think this one had its fair share of odds to overcome. Threading three plot lines – that of the 19th century woman who kills herself by drowning in the opening chapter, a mid-century man who moulds plastics and a contemporary woman living with cystic fibrosis and writing – the reader sets out wondering if and how these plot lines come together. And while they do eventually, sort of, connect in terms of plot, it is their thematic and symbolic notes that connect them most meaningfully: water, breath, filial and affilial love.

As a creature of the water myself I was hypnotized by the descriptions of swimming and submersion. As the three characters navigate water-filled worlds they raise questions about the thinness of the line between life and death, and the hubris of humans in swimming this line.

So now that libraries are fully reopening you have no excuse. Get out Coming Up for Air and I promise you won’t be disappointed.*

*Promises are not valid if you have bad taste.

Leave a comment

Filed under Canadian Literature, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction

Long Way Down: Best Hour (to reset your commitment to reading)

So as I was mocking myself for my inability to focus, I decided I did have *some* control over what and how I read. The same podcast I referenced last post, on ‘deep reading’ and ‘deep thinking’ had the insight that you can just… put your phone away. Granted Ezra, the host, bought a literal safe to literally lock his phone away to provide him the right environment to read. I don’t have the luxury of locking my preschooler away (did I say luxury?), but I do have time every day that I can read.

[As an aside, I think if you went back through the last year of blog posts you’d see a series of posts where I Firmly Commit to focused reading, and then posts where I decide I can never focus again and why should I bother and I’m just going to read mysteries anyway. And then the pendulum swings again and I delete all my news apps and social media accounts and for a month I read a lot and feel better, and then I get sucked back into the addiction and it’s all Trump and tweets and what is with Justin’s beard all over again. So yeah. Acknowledging that today’s post is of the sort where I feel virtuous and committed and that by next week this will probably have changed all over again.]

ANYWAY. To give myself an achievable goal I started with a critically acclaimed, very-short, young adult fiction prose-poetry novel Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds. This truly terrific little (and I mean little – like an hour to read, max) book follows our protagonist on his trip down an elevator en route to revenge shoot his brother’s killer. On board the elevator he encounters the ghosts of all those – and there are so many – that have been killed around him. And with each encounter we see in sharp relief how this and all the other murders have tried – to varying degrees of success – to shape and contain the child. And how far beyond individual choice this action, or any inaction, would be – so constrained by context that choice itself is as risible as it is hearbreaking.

So yes – I recommend you to Long Way Down for its form (a playful prose-poetry) and its effort to have you rethink individual choice in light of all the rules that are spoken and unspoken in the lives of each of us, but particularly those navigating the intersection of race, class and gender.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction