Tag Archives: identity

Outline: Sometimes you have to be bored by a novel


People seem excited about Rachel Cusk’s Outline because it’s some sort of experiment in form and characterization: the ‘novel’ follows a writer/writing instructor while she is in Greece teaching a writing seminar.  The novel narrates her conversations with those she encounters – from airplane seat mates to long time friends – over the course of her trip. There is something to be said for the way her character is revealed in relief – what she doesn’t say, how she lets the conversation be focused on the other person, by the questions she asks and the settings in which these conversations unfold (e.g. on a boat with a person she met on the plan the day before).  Continue reading


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Filed under Bestseller, Fiction, New York Times Notable

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe: Why you might choose cake over this novel. If you were me.

download-2As evidenced by the three stickers of award-endorsing-approval on the cover, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, is well regarded by people who control stickers on books. Also by all of the young adults on the internet. And then all the readers on Goodreads. Why do they like it? It’s a romance, a bildungsroman, a redemption for the weirdo (and don’t all readers of YA identify as weirdos, themselves?), an affirmation of family, an exploration of identity in all its shapes. Continue reading

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Filed under Fiction, Prize Winner, Reader Request, Young Adult Fiction

Strange Bodies: Why we need the Humanities


Sometimes – let’s admit it, often – I’m asked about the purpose of the Humanities. Why not take a course in accounting? Or better yet, something in engineering? Why not, indeed.

Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies gives us the great, and oft repeated, justification for the Humanities: the Humanities let us explore the moral and ethical dimensions of our current (and future) worlds, with keen critical awareness and imaginative and robust analyses of complex problems. And what does that mean?

In the novel it means humans have developed the capacity to download an individual consciousness (not as far off as you might think) into a ‘new’ (that is to say, harvested) body. It means the humans involved need to work out all the philosophical and ethical implications of this new technology: who/what/where is the individual? what is the relationship among body, mind and spirit? how can one consent to a technological and biological process with unknown or unforeseen outcomes? just because we can do something with technology, ought we to? It means we read a novel to explore these questions through story in a way that lets the nuances and complexities of the questions unfold through plot and character.

We also get the book’s provocative thematic question on the relationship between immortality achieved in text and immortality in body. That is, the novel poses that all writers of all ages who have active readers have already achieved a certain kind of immortality (hardly a new argument, but a fascinating one all the same). In writing and reading we engage in a dialogue that transcends time and space. (you might want to say ‘dun dun dun’ right now – as if you’ve just realized something brand new and shocking, rather than something you’ve always known).

I admit I found the conceit of the novel exciting at first. I eagerly read the quasi-mystery, quasi-thriller as I worked to figure out how our protagonist could be at once living and dead. Midway through the book, once the urgency of the mystery resolved into the still-urgent-if-less-car-chasing-and-explosions questions of the nature of humanity, identity, memory and the soul, I was a little less wholly captivated. Call me a lazy reader, or more properly, call me one who likes her philosophy and ethics neatly packed in a story compelling in its own right. That is, I’m a student of literature, and not of philosophy.

But I’m nevertheless a proud student of the Humanities. I see this novel as a prescient and provocative call to question (if not challenge) the way we make use of technology and the way we work towards technological change that is neither good nor bad on its own. So we need the Humanities to help us make sense, to urge us to pause, to discuss, to question. And we need this book as a captivating means to do just this work.

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery

The Illuminations: Beautiful doesn’t always mean you like it.

dishesI’ve recently started a book club. It’s given me an occasion to talk to my mum, J., about the book club she’s been a part of for the past 30+ years (how long?). She was giving me advice (solicited, this time) on how her book club operates. They each rate the book, but with the rule (enforced?) that the rating cannot take into account the balance of “well, I found the book beautiful, *but* it just didn’t resonate with me.” That is to say, the rating has to be on your overall impression of the book in ways that don’t allow for separating out the well-crafted sentence from the one that moves you.

This blog sometimes feels to me like this kind of exercise in declaring my overall impression of a book. And in the case of Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations I find it difficult to do so. I didn’t like the book – I’ll come right out with that – but not for any reason I can find to pin down. It’s beautifully written. It addresses complex and nuanced questions about nationalism, identity, memory, gender and maternity. It focuses on provocative settings: the 2001- war in Afghanistan (how do Western soldiers understand their involvement – as a game? a proxy? What counts as “real” violence?), a retirement home (what are the limits of independence and community? what do we owe our parents and what do they owe us?) and the remembered – or misremembered – scenes of an aging woman with dementia (what can she know about her own life? how is her identity reconstituted by those who know her now – and then?).

I wonder if my own over-attachment to character is what gets in the way the novel resonating with me. I say that because the novel shares the focus on the characters (the soldier, the grandmother, the children, the neighbours). And so while complex, human and empathetic, I found myself at a loss to work out who I was best meant to identify and attach to, who I was meant to care about their conflict and change. I suppose a different reader (a better reader?) might be able to see this richness in character as an opportunity – all the more to engage with! – rather than a drawback.

But according to the rules of book club, at least J’s book club, I have to say that I didn’t like the book.

One final note to end on: I love reading the acknowledgement sections of any novel. I like imagining how the novel I’ve just read was built and shared by a community of people. On occasion I recognize names in the sort of recognize a who’s-who. So when I read in the plot of the novel a reference to the university I attended, I imagined while reading who I might know who had come into contact with the characters (or author). Delight then, in reading in the acknowledgements that one of my favourite, certainly most influential, professors M. was in the acknowledgements. I suppose I should be surprised – the feminist elements, focus on photography, interest in the every day should have given me the clues as I was reading. But there you go. So hooray to M. for her involvement in this beautiful book. That I just happened to not like very much.

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