Tag Archives: Booker Prize

The Green Road: What we mean when we say ‘a good book’

Countryside-scene-in-repu-008Imagine you’ve just finished reading a good book. You put it down and you think to yourself, ‘gosh, that was a really good book’ (okay, you probably don’t say ‘gosh’). You try to put your finger on what made it good. If someone asks you about it, you don’t hesitate to tell them to read it, but you probably don’t go out of your way to recommend it. You think about the characters again for a few days, but then the specificity of their story seeps into a wider feeling you have about the book: it was good.

I’ve just finished Anne Enright’s The Green Road and I can safely report it’s a good book. The writing is at once grand in its capacity and small in its attention on detailed, particular moments. With a compelling use of a shifting third person limited narration, the plot traces the Madigan family over decades. Each long chapter follows one of the four children in a specific moment in time, richly evoking place and character. Each successive chapter moves chronological leaps forward, always toward something. That something is the eventual family reunion when all children are gathered at their childhood home for Christmas.

It wouldn’t be an outrageous argument to claim these chapters are linked short stories, such is the telescopic focus on the one child, the particular time and place. For instance, the (best) chapter following Dan through the gay community in the 1980s, AIDS ravaged New York, is a tight story unto itself. Even while the development of Dan’s character comes to have resonance in the eventual reunion chapter such that this earlier chapter is necessary for the latter, the chapter could be self-contained for its own sake.

To this point on the function of the character-focused chapters: Perhaps because the mother in the story, Rosaleen, does not get a chapter onto herself (in this way the form mirrors the message that she has devoted her sense of self entirely to serving her children), the climactic moments that focus on her feel less pressing than they might had we had time to connect with her first-hand. That said, the children’s reaction to these climactic scenes give the reader a firm sense of the importance and reverberations of the moments.

It’s a good book for exploring questions of familial loyalty, of how and when identity becomes fixed, of who we want to be versus who we might actually be, and of what we owe our family (read ‘owe’ as broadly as you can: what debts we aim to repay, what we have because of them, what obligations are due). These questions get worked out in individual chapters and across the whole with each successive chapter adding layer and echo as the reader comes to piece together both chronology and family hierarchies.

A good book, then, is one that is well written, with strong character development and thematically rich. It’s not a great book because it doesn’t quite leave you shaken, not changed by the beauty of the work or by the questions it explores. This one then is good, and given the profile of Anne Enright, will probably be described as great. You be the judge.

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Booker Prize, 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

Vernon God Little: What we avoid

Vernon_news

 

There’s no question DBC Pierre’s first novel, Vernon God Little, is an excellent piece of fiction. The book takes a school shooting in Texas (is it Texas? Somewhere near Mexico, anyway) and explores the community reaction to the event – spectacle, denial, scapegoating – through the darkly comedic story of Vernon, falsely accused and prosecuted for the crime. The first person narrator of Vernon is masterfully represented in his fixation on shit and young women, as well as use of diction, phrasing, pace and image that moves past conjuring a character to allow the reader to fully accept and inhabit him (if not identify with – a problem to come to). The narration also does well to explore his complicated feelings around the massacre, the (failure) of adults to take responsibility or engage with grief, his expectations of justice and the justice system and his attempts to reform himself and his relationship with others.

Despite the brilliant narration and the timely thematic questions (what is the role of the press in perpetuating/perpetrating crimes? how does collective culture sublimate grief? how do we understand and make sense of the senseless? what are the effects of poverty on access to justice?) I read this book knowing it was great, but feeling at a remove. If literature is great because (and if) it can allow (or require) the reader to adopt different perspectives, to explore experiences unavailable in lived experience AND because it is masterfully constructed in literary technique, Vernon God Little shines in the latter and wavers in the former.

I should say this book sat on my shelf at work for eleven months before I finally read it. And not because I lacked time or opportunity. I tried reading it twice before. It wasn’t until I’d forgotten my book at home and it was a choice between no novel (a gasp of impossibility) or Vernon God Little that I gave it sufficient time (the 60 minutes of my lunch break) to get invested enough to read the whole thing. It wasn’t a novel that grabbed me. Is it that the first person narrator repulsed me a little? Maybe. (and maybe he’s meant to) It’s not that the experiences in the book are too far removed for me to care about – all kinds of my favourite books are those that I love precisely for their ability to take a seemingly distant experience and make it relevant and poignant for me and to let me see my world and relationship to it differently – it seems more the case that Pierre didn’t do enough to make these foreign experiences connected to this reader. There wasn’t opportunity for empathy, or even sympathy, no chance for identification or care.

So I read the book with a respect for the writing, an understanding that it was an important topic and explored with great literary skill. And yet I found myself unmoved and unchanged in its reading. Uninterested in what becomes of Vernon. Is that a problem of this reader or of the book? You read it and tell me what you think.

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

The Sisters Brothers: Against my (terrible) instincts

                

I heard Patrick de Witt read from *The Sisters Brothers* in Hamilton last year, and the book excerpt – and the reading – was brilliant. The novel won the Governor General’s Award and the Writers Trust. It was shortlisted for the Giller and the Booker. N. told me to read it, so did J. and I. (in short all my most trusted recommenders). Yet it took being stranded in the airport with nothing to read – a battery dead on an ereader at the end of a vacation is a sure testament to the staying power of print – before I finally sat down (trapped on a plane) to read it.

Why my resistance? When the book is SO FUCKING GOOD? 

I don’t know. I blame my disinterest in cowboys (even though I loved True Grit, The Englishman’s Boy and Lightening) (I think this means I’m not *actually* disinterested in cowboys so much as I *think* I should be disinterested in cowboys). I blame the title for making me think it was going to be about some boring sister and her brothers (sigh). Maybe I blame my own stand-off-ish-ness to historical fiction post-dissertation? Yeah, maybe that (in fact I think this is the secret of the life post thesis – or maybe not secret, but I’d never heard it talked about – and that is that when you finish four years of thinking about a particular genre almost exclusively, by the end of those four years you want absolutely nothing to do with that genre Ever Again even if it also happens to be your *favourite* genre. What a bind). 

So anyway. I was wrong to wait this long. I should have read this the day it came out because (let me say it again) it is so. good. It’s dark, and funny, and features incredibly well developed characters, it asks questions about morality, will and choice, duty and what it means to be a gentle, man. It is really very, very good.

So yeah, sorry to N. and J. and I. I should have listened to you. My favourite part? Calling N. to tell him to go out and get the book Right Away and having him sigh and remind me that he recommended it to me months ago (he’s so good to put up with me).

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Filed under Booker Prize, Canadian Literature, Erin's Favourite Books, Fiction, Giller prize, Governor Generals, Historical Fiction, Prize Winner