Tag Archives: best books

On Re-reading A Little Life

I haven’t fallen into a literal hole. I am still here. But I did fall into rereading Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (original post here) and well, it turns out that rereading one of your favourite books that happens to be 700+ pages takes a few weeks. Both for the length and because I purposely drew it out. Took my time. Tried to remember what it was like reading it for the first time, and how I might have changed since the first reading.

The most obvious difference the second time through is that I knew what had happened to Jude and what would happen to him. On the first reading a major part of the experience is learning, along with Willem, the history and present of Jude, and learning, along with Harold, what Jude’s life becomes. It’s a gradual unravelling and the beauty and pain of it is all mixed up. This time, though, I knew – dreaded, and knew – what was coming and so could both understand Jude better from the beginning, as well as feel ever more wrenched worrying about him.

A more subtle difference, I suppose, is in my interest in the question the novel explores around what makes a meaningful life. Reading in the middle of a pandemic, with the American election looming and the planet heaving, along with the arrival of a new small human, really brings the existential questions Front and Center. And for Jude and his friends, the only-once-spoken question of what makes a meaningful life circles all they do. I didn’t notice the first time around that none of the four main characters have children (maybe because children and life meaning was less important to me personally, or maybe because I’m inattentive, or was concerned more with the story of Jude). There is one brief scene where they talk about this and do away with the long held idea that children bring life meaning; instead, they pose friendship, true friendship, as a worthy inheritance. Of course there is all the art they create and consume, all the hours of effort put into rich and fulfilling careers, but the centrepiece of existence does seem to be this relational commitment. Indeed, Jude makes it for as long as he does on the basis of his feeling that he owes something to Harold (someone I’m sure could do a useful comparative read between this book and All My Puny Sorrows), and the effort and energy the characters give to friendship reads as the ‘commitment’ one might expect from a spouse or a parent. Of course the novel does explore the parent-child relationship with Harold and Jude, and the spousal relationship with Jude and Willem, so it’s not as though these relationships are completely absent, more that on this reading I found myself drawn to these affiliative relationships and the true sense of purpose they offer.

So yeah. My mum thought it unwise to reread such a difficult book in such difficult times, and there were certainly moments where I agreed with her: it is hard to read this book and not find yourself living in the story such is the brilliance of the writing. That said, it is somehow entirely… I was going to say ‘uplifting,’ but that’s definitely the wrong word. Affirming? Some word that gets at the idea that good art, great art, as this novel is, spurs hope, generates optimism, even while the subject itself is as grim and dark and heartbreaking as they come. Something to do with the contrast then. Is there a word for this? Beauty maybe? Lol. I don’t know. I do know that once again I loved the book, and once again, I’d urge you to read it.

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Filed under Erin's Favourite Books, Prize Winner

The Dutch House: Superb.

Ahhhhhh! Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House is so good. Like wrap yourself in a blanket and sit in a cozy chair and don’t get out for several hours because everything is absorbing and so well written. It’s the writing that is excellent without showing off that it’s excellent. And a plot that keeps you totally hooked without big bangs or wildly suspenseful moments – just a deep and absorbing care for character.

Okay, you know me, I’m a sucker for character, and this book is that. It follows Danny and Maeve throughout their lives from the traumatic departure of their mother in their early years through their subsequent experience with their step-mother, with partners, with children, with one another. I want to say so much more about what happens in their life, but then I really want you to read it, so I’m going to restrain myself and say it follows their lives with all the ups and downs (acknowledging the horrible cliche of that description but moving on).

It does foreshadowing so well.

And setting, too! An anchoring point along the way is the Dutch House itself: the extravagant mansion their father bought and that – purportedly – drove their mother away. The symbol of their lost childhood, what was stolen from their family, of unearned extravagance and the cost of desire.

Like I really, really liked it folks. The kind of enjoyment where I am legitimately sorry the book has ended, I’d have liked to have known Danny and Maeve IRL so I could keep checking in with them. Alas. I’ll have to live with hearing what you think of this one, because promise me you’ll read it…

 

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Women Talking: Reading in Company

It’s such a good title, for such a good book. Ready to declare Miriam Toews in my top five fav authors ever (those wondering the rest: Toni Morrison, Margaret Laurence, Dave Eggers (I know, I know), Alice Munro and… Miriam Toews) (list subject to change) (do not hold me to these late hour, several drinks decisions). Continue reading

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Giller prize, Prize Winner

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