Tag Archives: responsibility

The Mountain Story: The Book You Wouldn’t Bring if You Were Lost on a Mountain

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If you were lost (on a mountain) what book would you want to have with you? Pragmatic answers about edible plants or wilderness survival have no place here. You certainly wouldn’t want to pack Lori Lansens’ The Mountain Story. Maybe it’s just me (it’s probably just me), but I could have easily done without this one. Lori Lansens is something of a Can Lit showstopper – her novels The Girls, Rush Home Road and The Wife’s Tale have been best-sellers (and not the Canadian kind of best seller where you get featured on the CBC, but fancy New York Times best-sellers). So what is it these readers are gravitating towards?

Sure The Mountain Story has an engaging plot. From page one our protagonist, Wolf Truly, has set out to kill himself (cue conflict) by jumping off a cliff (for real) on the mountain he has climbed and hiked through his teen years. Enter the merry band of misfit women – three generations in three women – who, through a series of unfortunate events (for real), find themselves and Wolf, lost and trapped on the mountain. Plot is built on conflict (or so the books on writing tell me) and this one is full of yawn-inducing man-versus-nature conflict: finding water, finding food, coyotes, broken arms, broken bridges, snakes. Interweaving these necessary hiccups on the road to salvation (and we know they get saved, the story is told retroactively) are pieces of Wolf’s story from before the mountain: why he wants to kill himself, the deal with his father (isn’t there always a deal with the father?), the love interest, the deal with his mother (there’s definitely always a deal with the mother). I had a hard time deciding which parts of the story I found more tedious – the mountain or the backstory, but I’ll go with the mountain because there it felt most like I was working my way through a story arc written in an elementary school writing class.

I suppose these pieces of an adventure story could be interesting if there were characters that offered anything like complexity or curiosity. As it is Wolf (despite his name) is neither. The three women – so forgettable I’ve forgotten their names – are likewise Women Who Get Lost on the Mountain rather than characters with depth. Of course there’s a love story – what more romantic setting might you imagine than being stranded on a mountain as you attempt to kill yourself? And of course there’s familial tension – how could you not bicker with your mother while stranded on a mountain? And sacrifice. And heroism. And yawnyawnyawn.

 

 

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Canadian Literature, Fiction

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

On Reading

I read novels as a way to think about my responsibilities without having to think about my responsibilities. I read novels about characters who create new identities for themselves, or who question the dangers of too much compromise, or who contemplate the brevity of life and the challenge of making meaning in a world of such surplus and scarcity, a world of such disparity. While reading these novels I think that I understand the questions the author is asking. I pause after a poignant paragraph, I write essays on completion of the novel that summarize my impressions of the narrative, I emphatically recommend books to anyone who will listen and enthusiastically agree with the declaration that such and such a book is just incredible. I don’t do these things without sincerity; in each moment I attend to the narrative itself I am committed to being with and in the narrative.

I tell people – family, friends, colleagues – that the value of reading Literature is its capacity for changing perceptions, for inviting questions, for provocation, challenge and for altering the way readers look at everyday life. I passionately argue for an engaged readership that sees novels as a way to explore societal ills and potential solutions, as a space to wrestle with historical and contemporary grievances and injuries, and as a conversation about who we are as people, what we value and what defines us as (ir)rational, meaning-making, meaning-seeking beings.

Any regular reader will know that what I’ve written so far can only be followed by a “but,” because this is not an era of sincerity and we are not inclined to the optimistic observations about simplistic goods. My but is not dependent on an admission of the failings of fiction, far from it; I remain earnest in my stated beliefs about the power of novels. But. For all my acclamation of beauty, power and potential, I, myself, refuse these opportunities for sustained reflection. I make routine resolutions to sit quietly with my thoughts and to ask myself what I value, what my purpose might be, what makes for a meaningful relationship. I run, I swim, I cycle and each moment I’m engaged in these expressions of body – these intense experiences of breath, heat, movement – I remind myself that I should be thinking about the Big Questions (and that I should be writing my own novel while I’m at it). In the moments on transit when each rider fills the car with their separate, silent dialogues I think I should be thinking right now. I see my days as moments when I should be thinking about myself and my community, but I instead fill my mental landscape with headphone music, cellphone conversations, internet television, food, radio, sex and sleep. This admission is not intended as an indictment of “modern society” and its ills of isolation; this admission is meant only as confession.

I confess that I do not know how to spend time with my own thoughts. I do not want to ask the questions I read in novels. I do not want to know how little substance I have available to shape an answer. I will avoid the risk of inevitable silence by cramming my mental space with all manner of other distractions, not the least of which are novels.

I read because I do not want to think about myself, my complicity in inequality, my failure to meet my own expectations of citizen engagement, my frustration with my friends, family and colleagues, my dissatisfaction with the promises made and undelivered, my hurt and loneliness, my secret belief that I’m destined for great things.

Am I sad? Do I want to quit my job? Do I love my partner enough? What are my responsibilities to my family? What do I owe my community? Why do I get paid as well as I do? How can I live in a country that denies health care to refugees and exploits the environment for economic gain? I can’t answer these questions because I won’t answer them. I won’t give up the mental real estate required to be sad. To be hurt by injustice, by my selfishness, by exclusion. Instead I’ll read stories that let me feel just a little bit, just enough to assure myself that I’m engaged and that I’m politically active. I will read novels that grant me the self-assurance to say “oh this is an important question” and to flag it as such when I present the story to someone else. As if I can take credit for the thematic heft by identifying its existence. As if I can claim depth by knowing where the deep end lies.

I read, still. I love reading because I love feeling like I’m doing something.  I’m asking the questions, but only to you. After I finish this sentence I’ll close my thoughts, pick up a book, and let someone else take responsibility for giving the answers.

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Filed under Erin's Favourite Books, Uncategorized