Tag Archives: book club

That Summer: When the bathtub is the beach

If beach reads are those you tote with you to the beach (though let’s be clear, my beach days are all toting toddlers, and why is it ‘tote’ for the beach – like you never just carry something from your car to the sand, it has to be ‘toted’ I DIGRESS) what is the name for books you read in the dead of winter? For me it would be deep-bathtub-to-soak-the-cold-from-my-bones reads. I have this memory of reading The Kindly Ones almost exclusively in the bath in the winter of 2010 – memorable because it was close to 1000 pages and my bath was then (and now) Not Big – and probably because reading it was a purposeful diversion from the thesis writing I was meant to be doing.

[spoilers and sexual violence]

Now the diversion is from equally existential threats – will my floor ever not be covered in yogurt? (ha ha – we all know the threats are… much more substantive, but really, the menace of yogurt) – and the desire to sink in to anything else is high. And it’s So Cold. So we find ourselves with our bathtub read: That Summer by Jennifer Weiner – famous for beach reads. And it is one you can sink into with little effort and find yourself immersed (how far can I take this) in a decently plotted and reasonably thoughtful consideration of the long, irrevocable change wrought by a rape.

It follows Daisy and Diana and how their lives cross and the ways single events ricochet throughout the rest of their lives. It purposefully explores the privilege of class and gender – most clearly the threat of violence that underwrites too many sexual experiences and explicitly grapples with how #metoo upturned what many women took for granted as the way things were and had to be, and the safety of some men in imagining they could carry on being and doing horrendous things.

All while offering lush descriptions of Cape Code and picturesque cottages with bleached wood frames and outdoor showers. And too many descriptions of a pan fried steak. (for the record: one description of a pan fried steak is too many).

Where it doesn’t attempt any commentary and just takes for granted the assumed is in the whiteness of the book. And maybe that is fine, no book has to be all things or do all things. It just read as remarkably… focused on the particular threat for young white women running along a beach. Maybe more perplexing given the effort in the book to see the woman reading it – frustrated with a partner, irritated by a tween, struggling with Purpose and Meaning – and to myopically miss the possibility of additional complexity.

Anyway – probably all beach reads are marketed to rich white women (anyone written a Masters thesis on that?). But yes, this particular rich white woman needs another thing to read in the bath, so send me your suggestions.

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The Children’s Bible: Also for atheists

Lydia Millet’s The Children’s Bible hits a little close. The novel follows a rag-tag group of children after environmental catastrophes – flood! – destroy their homes. Having to keep themselves, and their drug-stupor parents, alive they hole up and quarantine themselves, scratching out a new existence after society collapses.

Though it may be painful to read because of its indictment of our collective inaction on global warming, and the profound arrogance of having children amid such certain devastation, it is nevertheless, very, very good.

I grew up in the United and Anglican churches before quitting God and becoming a Unitarian (I feel compelled to offer that not all Unitarians are atheists. #joinus). But even if I hadn’t spent formative years hearing Biblical stories, the Biblical references and adaptations are drawn from the biggest and brightest of stories (Eden, Noah’s ark, the 10 commandments, the birth of Jesus, Revelations, etc) so anyone who has watched The Simpsons should have enough of a command of the allusions to appreciate the plot. That said, Millet does well to make these moments smooth and uses well timed diction to remind the reader that a Biblical Moment is happening.

Aside from mirroring these Biblical scenes I’m not sure the ‘point’ of having the plot follow that of the Bible. I guess because we are in End Times now? Or maybe to remind us that there is no God, or if there is, it’s a God who has opted for a non-interventionist approach, and it falls to us to make change. Okay, yeah, that seems a plausible reason.

The best part of the book is its argument for art and literature. It’s suggestion that we bundles of molecules, we who are destined to reunite with the water and mountains (poisoned though they may be by our garbage) find purpose and solace in writing. And of course reading.

After writing out my Christmas cards most of which began and ended with WHAT A YEAR, I’m very happy to recommend this book as a sort of 2020 solace. Like it admits and takes as its premise that everything is shit, and that there is no ‘but’ to that sentence. So you may as well read.

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Filed under Bestseller, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction, New York Times Notable, Prize Winner

The Great Gatsby: I’m sorry, high school English teachers. I was so wrong.

I was Such. A. Shit. in high school. Not really. Like not throwing chairs through windows  or skipping class or smoking. I was still me, aka: super keen and over-achieving. I just mean that is it’s own kind of shit. Because I must have been *so irritating with my relentless opinions and ideas and dispositional contrarian-ness.

To whit: Grade 11 or 12 English, we read The Great Gatsby. I didn’t like it.  Rather than keep this view to myself, I wrote a missive to my teacher explaining that subjective truth meant that because I didn’t like it, the book couldn’t be a good book. And she was like ‘you’re ridiculous. this is an objectively a great book’ and I got more and more combative and more invested in proving my brilliance and proving that I was right and the book was terrible. And on I went until she was like “fine!”

And then, blush. Twenty odd years later, book club picks it as part of our ‘classics’ series and *spoiler* 16-year-old Erin was an idiot. This book is objectively great.

[Aside. A. just came in and he’s teaching the book to high school students right now, and I shared how irritating I was in high school, and then a random stranger burst in to tell us How Great the movie version is, and I was instinctively like ‘The movie is terrible because movie adaptations are always terrible. So… I’ve learned nothing.]

There’s nothing worth summarizing here about the novel that hasn’t been written about a hundred different ways, so I’ll just say that this time when reading it I couldn’t better/differently appreciate the nostalgia and longing in Gatsby for the past he can’t have again, the striving he feels to prove to himself and others his worthiness (and oh man, if we could just get high schoolers to see what a futile process this is it could spare them twenty years of therapy and sadness), the impossibility of self-determination when Plot (car accidents) and Character (Tom) will always intervene in our best laid plans. And the narration through Nick that lets us keep  one remove so we can say ‘that isn’t me’ while all the while realizing that yearning and sadness is in all  of us… just… ‘great’, indeed.

So, old sport, heart-felt apologies to the past. If Gatsby’s taught me anything, I can’t go back there anyway, so best not to feel too much guilt and regret. Forward. Ever onward.

 

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Filed under American literature, Fiction

The Picture of Dorian Gray: I lost count of the ‘terrible,’ ‘horrible,’ and ‘frightful.’ And loved it.

Your probably know something of the premise of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray from pop culture (I’m pretty sure there’s a Simpsons Halloween episode that recounts it): handsome young man sells his soul to remain ever-young while having the portrait painted of him grow old in his stead. Liberated from the physical evidence of sin (the theory being that sin shows up in the eyes and face), Dorian descends the vice ladder into gambling, ruining female reputations by being seen with unmarried women, whoring, opium and eventually murder. Along the way he is urged on by the devilish, morally questionable, and aphorism spouting Henry Wotton (honestly, I can’t think of a single thing Wotton says that hasn’t been transcribed onto a ‘literary tote bag’ or ‘literary magnet’ at some point or another. Even while he’s viciously sexist and excessively proud).

It is a delicious and delightful novel that plays at once at the thought experiment would-you-rather questions of youth or goodness, beauty or morality, while also asking the reader to question the assumptions we make about other based on what we see in their visage (oh how 19th century writing meddles with the diction of my thought). All the while written with a sort of playful Horror and Terror and Fright at the ‘scandals’ Dorian embroils himself in. (No surprise the book was banned and caused Outrage – to think that the assumptions of a 19th century morality might be something you intentionally and explicitly question…).

Mostly it is a book about art, and the possibility of art creating the eternal for the artist. And in the case of this book, it’s hard not to be persuaded that Wilde the man – for all his complexity – is most certainly dead, while the artist lives on in the work. In that way it’s a hair on the side of self-indulgence, but done so with knowledge and humour. That is to say, the writing is all too conscious of the hubris of wishing art into eternity.

The only part I found tedious was in a long section just after Dorian discovers the painting holds the evidence of his sins. It’s a near endless accounting for the way he burns through his wealth on gems and art and music and how he spreads the influence of his epicurean philosophy among his peers. It was… exhausting. Probably the point.

I listened to this one as an audio book and highly recommend it in this form. Free from my library and brilliantly narrated. Though I wonder what Wilde might think about the mutilation of the form from immersive reading to listening-whilst-driving/cooking/cleaning/being-a-fucking-do-everything-for-everyone-all-the-time-woman. Probably he wouldn’t care, because for the most part women are decorative. Ha. But seriously. Good.

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Filed under British literature, Fiction