Lessons in Chemistry: When You Have a Six Hour Flight

I suppose on a six hour flight there are a lot of things you could do. Watch 1/3 of the Lord of the Rings movies. Contemplate mortality. Crotchet a hat. OR you could read Bonnie Garmus’ entirely fun Lessons in Chemistry and you might not notice the cramped seat and tiny cup of cold coffee meant to sustain you for the duration.

It is a very fun romp through the the 1960s as we follow scientist, Elizabeth Zott, who encounters sexism and gender-based violence in all the usual places, and some extras, in her efforts to simply be who she is: a scientist. The first half of the novel is something of a rom-com heavier on the rom. With the second half taken up with the shine of celebrity after Elizabeth becomes – and not too much of a spoiler here as I think its on the front cover or maybe in the prologue – a celebrity chemist-chef, maybe famous primarily because she imagines (apparently for the first time) that women might just like someone to talk to them like adult humans.

There are some lovely characters – a Mary Poppins-esque neighbour who saves Elizabeth and whom Elizabeth saves in return. A heroic dog (as a person long on the record for distrusting dogs, even I found this one endearing). A precocious child. Some rowers who – for whatever reason – are not subject to the same misogyny of the rest of their societal peers and are instead just interested in good rowers.

It is problematic in ways that we can just skip over so as to enjoy the book for what it is. But worth noting that the plot arc of individual who persists amid challenge demands a lot from individuals to pull up their bootstraps etc etc – which isn’t to say the novel isn’t aware of the structural impediments to Elizabeth’s success – quite the opposite! or that it’s not interested in how Elizabeth relies on others in a community for her eventual triumph – she does! or that there aren’t examples of other individuals who learn and grow – there are! more that in celebrating this exceptional woman – incredibly smart and tenacious – there’s something of a thread that the people likely to succeed, and those who can do the work of change, are those of the talented genius. Rather than a collective effort of community. And that if you happen to be someone who doesn’t learn to read by age 3 you might not change the world.

What a relief for me, then.

All that said: fun and absorbing and you’ll thank me when your plane is delayed for deicing and you have something to sustain you for the extra seventeen hours.


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Our Missing Hearts: Good, good, good.

Celeste Ng’s Our Missing Hearts showed up on many of the best of lists for 2022, and with good reason. The plot, which imagines a near-future where economic disaster strikes America, and in an effort to curb widespread unemployment, rioting and chaos, the government introduces the ‘PACT’ law – Protect America something-something. The law – and the surrounding punditry and storytelling about its purpose – places blame for the chaos on China, and so by extension (of course) all Asian-Americans are suspect. Included in the law is the power for the government to forcibly take children from the homes of those suspected of harbouring pro-China tendencies. And so the novel explores how one family, one boy – Bird, and one mother navigate a world where children can be, and are, routinely taken from their families ‘for their own good.’

The book is aware, of course, of the essential parallel to current and recent examples of this kind of supposed benevolent government action – residential schools in Canada never far from the readers’ mind – where too often and too easily the public actively ignores state sanctioned kidnapping because it isn’t happening to us. And so part of the plot focuses on how activists use art, and stories in particular, to make the truth of the stolen children impossible to ignore. It is metafiction done quite well.

I did like the book, found the writing great – poetic and punchy, though I found the plot lagged somewhat in the middle. I loved the imagined role for librarians in the novel – those great keepers of information and those willing to make sure information is made available to those who ask for it.

Like Little Fires Everywhere I suspect many will read this and chat it up at a book club (or two). If you do, let me know what your group thinks. If nothing else, the book makes the case that the very idea of a book club could be a subversive one.

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A World of Curiosities: Louise Penny Made Me A Little Nervous.

I like Louise Penny mysteries. I’ve read many and reviewed many here and I don’t have much new to say. Same good stuff: descriptions of food, truth about a person can be read in their eyes, being a murder investigator Takes a Toll, etc etc. This latest offering, A World of Curiosities had me legit in suspense though – like had to put the book down, walk away and make a cup of tea I was so nervous – in suspense. Take note: I prefer my mysteries to be cozy (though I’m not sure Gamache qualifies) and very, very comforting. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy this one – I really did! Just that I had some genuine concern. And there was no inclusion of maple bacon or flaky warm croissants! True deviation from the series. Be warned. Make your tea first and be prepared to be a littllllee nervous.

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Filed under Bestseller, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Mystery

The White Hotel: In which ChatGPT writes my review and/or This Book Is Extremely Weird

What a strange, strange book. I must have started – and stopped – D.M. Thomas’s The White Hotel (first published in 1981, so don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it) fifteen times. Why did I persist you ask? Because m. named it as one of her favourite books, and loaned me a copy with Please Return underlined and so I thought, okay, okay. I’ll try again.

And why did I keep giving up? The intensely erotic (pornographic?) opening sections (say the first 100 pages) was A Lot to get through and I kept thinking is the whole book this… smut? (lol – it’s not smut. But also so much fisting and adults breastfeeding). Anyway, I kept reminding myself this is meant to be read by Freud (as Freud, our opening character has sent this account of his patient, Anna G, to a friend) and so keep it together, Erin.

Does it improve? I don’t know. The elaborate sex scenes diminish in the later sections that are narrated from the perspective of the patient – actually Lisa – a kinda mediocre singer and her prophetic visions. It ends – somehow – in the mass murder of Jews at Babi Yar with Lisa/Anna in attendance. And then maybe Palestine. With some letters to Freud in-between. And a confirmation that Lisa/Anna is an extremely unreliable narrator being interpreted by… Freud.

It is A Lot. And unlike anything I’ve read before. I am very certain ChatGPT could not dream this one up, and so cause for some hope for the future of the novel. Though Freud interpreting The White Hotel would be neat.

And so I leave you with this:

Erin to ChatGPT: “write me a review of The White Hotel in the style of Freud”

ChatGPT : “As a psychoanalyst, I find “The White Hotel” by D.M. Thomas to be a fascinating exploration of the human psyche. The novel tells the story of Lisa, a patient of mine, as she recounts her past experiences and memories to me. Through her recollections, we are able to delve deep into the workings of her mind and uncover the complex and often disturbing elements of her psyche.

The novel also explores the relationship between Lisa and myself, and how this relationship is both therapeutic and destructive. The author masterfully portrays the transference process, and how it can be both beneficial and detrimental to the treatment.

The writing style of the novel is unique and poetic, which adds to the intensity and emotional impact of the story. The novel is not only intellectually stimulating, but it also evokes a wide range of emotions in the reader, from empathy to horror, as it delves into the dark and disturbing aspects of the human mind.

Overall, I highly recommend “The White Hotel” to anyone interested in the workings of the human mind and the complex relationship between patient and therapist. It is a novel that will stay with the reader long after it is finished, as it forces us to confront our own inner demons and the fragility of the human mind.”

Like I said. Extremely weird.

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