Tag Archives: book clubs

A Little Life: The Best Thing You Will Read. Emphatic plea for you to read this book.

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It’s been hard to write about Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Hard to find words for how affecting I found the novel, how much I appreciated it. I really, really, emphatically, as loud as I’ve ever claimed it, think this is a brilliant novel. It’s not worth it to have best lists, I get it. But if I was someone who kept best lists (okay, I do) this one would be near the top. I can’t think of a book in recent (or any?) memory that has lived so fully in my mind, has occupied such a significant place in my thinking while – and after – I was reading it. Note I didn’t say “enjoyed” – it’s a hard story to live within, and you really will live within it (and for days and weeks after you finish it – it’s still following me around). It’s a long book, but you won’t notice the length, except maybe the anxiety of realizing you only have half of it left, the worry that eventually the last page will come. It’s a book that wants you to feel deeply and succeeds through masterful – truly – narration and character development in making you feel so. much. Continue reading

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Book Club, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction, Prize Winner

A Tale for the Time Being: You Probably Haven’t Heard Of This Book; Here’s Why You Should Read It

maxresdefaultOr maybe you have heard of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being. After all, it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, hyped in all of the right places. All the same it slipped through my Canlit net, and seems to have for all those I’ve talked about the book with as I’ve been reading it, and so I’ll assume you haven’t heard of it either (you’re my made-up audience, so I may as well, right?).

This idea of the reader-audience and how readers make novels mean something by reading them is one of the (many) preoccupations of this fantastically rich and layered story. At one point our protagonist-cum-author notes “Surely a reader wasn’t capable of this bizarre kind of conjuration, pulling words from the void? But apparently she had done just that, or else she was crazy. Or else… Together we’ll make magic… Who had conjured whom?” (392). The role of reader in the novel is complex: with two threaded narratives – that of Ruth, an author living on an island in British Columbia who finds a diary washed up on the beach and that of the diarist, Nao, an American-Japanese schoolgirl – that both reflect, influence and respond to one another, one of the questions the novel asks is how readers determine and impact the meaning and influence of a story. Within the novel itself this question is explored in the relationship between Ruth and Nao, but the novel expands this question with metafictional play and probity to include this reader, too. So you ought to read it because the novel presupposes its existence depends on your reading it.

You ought to read it because the philosophical questions it explores like the nature of time and quantum mechanics; the role of animals in the interconnected web of being; restitution, responsibility and war; the relationship of class and identity (and bullying); the purpose of art and art-making; – are those questions that make both for great dissertations and for great discussions (and I know you have a thesis you want to write or a book club to attend [*cough* this was a book club choice for the book club I attend]). These questions look esoteric when I write them down, and there are moments of the novel – like reading the Appendixes on Schrodinger’s Cat – that stray in that direction, but the overwhelming feeling this novel evoked for me was exhilaration: it’s simply thrilling to see a masterful exploration of questions of time, identity and the nature of meaning in life through grounded (if somewhat fantastical) story.

And you ought to read it because I say so. Okay, not that. But because it’s beautiful.  Layered with complexity and richness, yet not so dense as to be inaccessible or off-putting. And you see it and think 400 pages, really? And I say, consider the time it takes to read. No really, consider “time” and “takes”: what does it mean to “take time”? Once you’re asking that question you may as well be reading the novel because in reading you find time, time-taking, time-making – well, you might have a different feeling on the other side (which assumes you ever leave a novel once you’ve read it… another question for another time being).

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Filed under Book Club, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Prize Winner

The Light Between Oceans: Ruined by the epilogue

*The Light Between Oceans* takes a thought-experiment as plot: on a desert island you and your husband find a baby, you’d like to keep the baby and so you do, even though your husband has reservations, years go by and the baby becomes and is yours until you discover elsewhere on the island the grieving, *real* mother of the baby. What do you do? Do you return the baby? 

Into this murky moral waters M.L. Stedman enters in the later two thirds of the novel. The first third of the novel is taken up with introducing this moral problem and is executed brilliantly: characters are well developed, the setting (an isolated lighthouse post) feels just this side of clever in terms of a too obvious metaphor and shifts between third person limited narration are made smoothly and in ways that enrich our understanding of their relationships.

But once the moral quandary arrives Stedman is overextended. His characters steadfastly adopt one position – the wife is for keeping the baby, the husband for returning her – without believable, let alone compelling, wrestling with the moral question. It is as if after making this moral problem utterly concrete in the scripted plot Stedman opts to return to the ethereal thought-problem by having the two characters stand in for moral positions rather for the whole people they have been up until the midpoint. 

I stayed interested in the question even as my concern for the characters disappeared, and was (I’ll admit) impressed with the way Stedman resolved the question (a resolution I won’t spoil in case you’d like to read it).

Until. Until the epilogue. I’ve been trying to think of one good epilogue I’ve (ever) read and am coming up empty. This novel keeps with the tradition of ruining perfectly good endings by needing to end *again.* Why can’t the author trust the reader with being unsettled? Why should we as readers expect a neat solution or consolation? Don’t we read, in part, to look and poke at these questions in the safety of a novel where we trust the author to give us a believable – not necessarily comfortable – conclusion? Reading the epilogue made me distrust all I’d read before as if it was all a setup for this pat dismissal of the possibility – perhaps the necessity? – that these characters should suffer and *continue to suffer* because of their choices. 

So if you can commit to *not* reading the epilogue (and to ignoring the increasingly forceful last few sentences of each chapter that insist on including references to light, dark and shadow in case we’re likely to miss that we’re in a gray area and need the moral guidance of the “light”) then you might well enjoy this novel. Everyone else seems to be reading it and it will give you an opportunity to weigh just how much you love your (partner) (child) (mother) (sister) and whether you love your own happiness more.  

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Gone Girl: So. Terrible.

I’m training for another marathon (have I mentioned that already?) and so am back into listening to books while training (nothing like a good “read” to get you through the kilometres). My latest listen was to Gillian Flynn’s *Gone Girl* and I’m sorry to report that it was Just Terrible.

Sentences like “he was so angry his head literally exploded” —> needless to say the rest of the paragraph did not focus on a headless protagonist as the “literally” might have you believe <— occur with a frustrating regularity. The contrived oppositional accounts of events do, at first, provide some interesting questions about narrative reliability, but the device gets dull as the intent for the back-and-forth becomes a clear echo of the “he said” “she said” question the book asks about reliability and persuasion. In short the form reflects the content far too closely to be anything other than obnoxious.

And then there’s the sexism. The reduction of women to whores, bitches or saints with nothing else to complicate them – no stand alone reasons for their actions or feelings – all is naught but evidence of their eternal and inherent archetypes. It was gross. And frustrating. And so terrible.

Forget the hype. Ignore the book. There’s nothing thrilling about wishing – so hard – that characters would just kill one another already and finding that they just won’t. 

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