So I know I said I was (I am!) taking a blog holiday, but I couldn’t resist checking back in to let you know about the excellent Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. You’d think that a novel about the life of Achilles and the Trojan war could only be dull (that was certainly my impression going in), but wowbamzonk but this book is great. (I’ll admit I decided to read it because it won the Orange Prize – one of the few literary prizes that I find consistently delivers an exceptional read). I’d especially recommend it for a trip to the cottage as it’s entirely engrossing, and is neither candy-fluff-mindless, nor emotionally/mentally taxing. It strikes an ideal cottage/beach balance of smart, character-driven (with the well established plot) and entertaining.
Narrated from the point of view of Patroclus, Achilles’s companion and lover, the novel explores the great love of these two figures and the way ‘forbidden’ love is navigated by family, nation and gods. The novel is roughly divided in two with the first half setting up the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles, along with establishing Achilles’s god-like (or godly?) powers and the future the two men want for themselves (along with the likely future). The second half takes on the Trojan War itself, narrating battles, but more interested in how a ten year war/seige is waged and the impact on the local communities/the flourishing of camp life.
Fascinating throughout is the extent to which Achiells is motivated by his desire for historic longevity – to be known as a hero on par with Hercules (the reader is of course more than aware that he certainly succeeds in establishing himself as a legendary hero) – and his willingness to sacrifice – almost – anything to gain this longevity. For Patroclus motivations are more nobel, but no less ambitious: he wants the same for Achilles, but he wants – more modestly – their life together to continue in perpetuity. The way the two work together to secure Achilles his heroic claim is a study in expressions of love and sacrifice for love. I do think the rendering of Patroclus as (ultimately) the ‘greater’ Greek is fascinating as it sets up an alternate portrait of heroics: not battle success, but self-sacrifice, gentleness and, crucically, care for the vulnerable.
So yes. I resolve to get back to vacation, but let my eagerness to post this be evidence of the quality of the book and not (as is also likely the case) my inability to take a proper rest.
Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs was on the New York Times list for the best books of 2016. I went through the list and requested books at the library, most of the list had a wait list dozens, or hundreds, deep. Not so for The Association of Small Bombs. It was on the shelf at my preferred location. Maybe because I was requesting books the same day the list came out? Or maybe because readers are silly and thought they wouldn’t like a book about terrorism in India? Whatever the case: be me and get yourself to the front of the line to read this one. It’s terrific. Continue reading
It was tempting to cheat on this one and wait until after bookclub tonight to post my reaction to André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs, with the thought that my ideas would be much more refined after discussion with my smart and insightful bookclub friends. But you only have me, and so you’ll have to make do with my pre-discussion, pre-wine interpretation. Continue reading
There are many things to fear. We are taught and reminded and encouraged to fear what we don’t know, who we don’t know and to never ask questions about the things about which we are told to be afraid. The things we should be afraid of – car accidents and sitting at desks – are trumped (or are Trump) by hyperbolic headlines of xenophobia and a capitalist impulse to make us buy our way out of anxiety. Michael Christie’s excellent, If I Fall, if I die (which until now I remembered as ‘If I Fall, I die’ – a telling slip of my memory) asks us to reconsider how we come to be afraid and the bravery of encountering those fears (and what motivates us to do so: loyalty, love, stubbornness).
Our story follows Will (a clever naming as so much of the character is about choice, what he will do and what he wills himself to do) and his mother, who experiences agoraphobia, along with many other and cascading fears, to a degree that she raises Will within her childhood home in Thunder Bay. The plot takes off when, in the first chapter, Will finds himself Outside and begins realizing the way his mother has constructed their world as one filled with fear bears little relationship to the reality of what is, or should be, threatening.
The novel’s exploration of the way fear is made (rather than natural or inherent) is fascinating. In one scene Will is attacked by a wolf (for real) and because his sense of what should be frightening has been so skewed he doesn’t seem to realize that a wolf. attack. is the sort of thing one really ought to get a raised heart rate about. The novel takes on questions of the social construction of fear in little ways (why are we expected to fear teenagers on skateboards?) to big fear (the circulating anxieties about race, poverty and mental illness that have material and ideological consequences for those we make objects of fear and those who fear them). It is a sophisticated at yet propulsive exploration of the emotion/state of fear.
It is also decidedly Canadian literature in its setting and theme (*cough* Survival!). Thunder Bay and the politics (of fear) around indigenous land claims and resource extraction are at once particular to the setting, but made wider points of consideration in the exploration of how such fear is created and perpetrated by state officials (the police and schools, in particular) and economic/social policies. The first few chapters had the feel of a somewhat over-workshopped first novel with abundant similes and hamfisted diction, but either Christie eased up, or I got used to the style and stopped be distracted by the writing (I might even go so far as to say I found some sentences well observed. Might).
All this to say you’d do well to pick this one up. I suspect Chapters will put it on Heather’s list, or someone will put it on your Books to Read This Summer because it’s hard to not enjoy the story (the characters are loveable and peculiar in ways that make them objects of fascination: how unusual! agoraphobia!). I’d urge you to look past what could be construed as a plot gimmick, to see that the book is about a whole lot more.