Tag Archives: Summer Reading

Song of Achilles: Worth interrupting your vacation

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. 

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Station Eleven: Why are you having a baby when the world is ending?

I’ve wanted a baby since my lady bits started twitching in my late twenties. I’ve been asked – and had trouble replying – why I want a baby. It’s a good question, and one we (collective humanity we and my partner-and-me-we) should probably be able to answer before we go ahead and have one. Enter me reading Emily St John Mandel’s (excellent) Station Eleven and feeling ever more sure that the world as we know it is ending, and that having a baby is… [enter your adjective]: risky, selfish, hopeful, terrifying, absurd, brave. Sure, when I was born in the 80s my parents must have felt a similar sense of foreboding: the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation probably made it feel pretty scary to have a kid. And without the same frame of reference, I can’t be sure, except the arrival of disasters brought on by global warming makes the ‘threat’ not a possibility, but a reality.

So what does my baby-end-of-the-world-angst have to do with Station Eleven? The book narrates the post-apocolyptic world of a mix-matched cast of characters for whom the mantra “Survival is Insufficient” prompts them to not just survive, but to make and appreciate art, to maintain friendships and romances, and to form complicated relationships with ideas of past and future. It also gave this reader the scope and space to consider the [enter your adjective] of being a parent in any world, the massive responsibility and the abnegation of self called for by culture and circumstance (am I more or less likely to have a baby now? Time will tell).

With characters scattered in time and geography, the novel moves back and forward as readers are invited to piece together the events surrounding the collapse and the journies and connections of different characters (much, I might add, as one of these characters might be positioned to try to make sense of their world). We witness a magnificiently drawn setting of winter Toronto (really, not since the mostly wretched The Night Circus have I enjoyed a setting quite so much) and scenes along the north-east seaboard of North America (less brilliant than that of Toronto). Our characters are a little uneven in how successfully they’re drawn, but for the most part their motivations are well grounded in past events and rich personalities. (I would add that the narration of the lives of these characters ‘before’ the collapse is excellent – our knowledge of the imminanent end to their existence through the juxtaposition of their present adds urgency and poignancy to already great narration).

The past is captured in the creation and curation of the “Museum of Civilization” – an effort on the part of a few characters to preserve the history of the world that was lost, and to teach future generations about the cultures destroyed through their objects. The Museum is contrasted with characters who have ‘lost’ memories of the first years after the collapse. A sense that while remembering and presevation is a critical part of rebuilding culture, so too, an active forgetting (of the violence and isolation, we presume) is required for the same.

The future gestured to at the end of the novel is one of an expansion of connectivity (the lights go on again), the spread of ideas (the creation of a newspaper) and expanded travel (the networks of roads grow). It is a future, though, predicated on the tenacity and hope of its populace. The willingness of each character individually, and the groups collectively, to learn from one another and to trust one another (as in newspaper interviews and expansions of communities).

More than the (truly excellent) video game The Last of Us, the TV series The Walking Dead and the host of other post-apocolyptic futures we’ve encountered in recent years, Station Eleven calls on us to consider not only the everyday marvels and luxuries that surround our priviledged lives, but the threads of civilization that make a human life worth living: art, community, a connection to the past, a sense of hope for the future.

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Reading in Newfoundland; or, How to Hit a Moose

Moose Standing in WaterFear not. We didn’t hit a moose. But I also didn’t get as much reading done as I intended because my time as a passenger was spent on moose patrol, rather than reading. What? Oh, yeah, I was on holiday in Newfoundland for eleven days. Saw some whales, dolphins, puffins, no big deal. No moose spotted (happily), though we learned that in Gros Morne (where we spent the latter half of the trip) there are five moose per square kilometer. Symbols of Canadiana don’t come much more dense (ha ha).

In retrospect, with such a quintessential ‘Canadian’ vacation planned (though many of the Newfoundlanders we talked with disputed the ‘Canadianness’ of Newfoundland) I probably should have selected Canadian or Newfoundland-based novels. As it was, I took along several of your summer recommendations (thanks):

Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer

Post-apocalyptic fantasy finds a group of four ‘explorers’, defined by their roles (the psychologist, the anthropologist, the linguist…), sent into a [anthropomorphic][animated][alien] landscape/environment to gather data. They encounter a range of challenges that are at once metaphoric and practical. With a nightmarish, oppressive atmosphere, the book asks the reader to consider the environment/natural world as both hero and antagonist to our present and our future. 3/5

Euphoria, Lily King

Following the anthropologist theme, Euphoria is based on the life of Margaret Mead with Mead fictionalized as Nell, her husband as Fen and their collaborator as Bankson. In addition to being one of the best love stories I’ve read in recent memory, the book is a thoughtful and nuanced exploration of ideas of ethnocentrism, positivism and colonialism. Principally narrated by Bankson, the retrospective time frame infuses the novel not only with urgency and threat, but with an assurance of the importance of the narrated events: for it is only in retrospect, the novel argues, we recognize and signify small choices, taken-for-granted actions and chance encounters with power. 4.5/5

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon

Gawd, N. Gawd. What a mess of terrible boredom. Maybe I’d have liked this one if I knew anything about the early years of the Internet. Or New York. Or business ventures. Who am I kidding, the point of fiction is that you ought not need to know anything about the subject to be captivated and moved by it (see Euphoria above!). The novel was altogether too interested in its own clever turns of narrative direction and layered sentences to present anything like compelling character or plot. I was marginally interested in the thematic concern of American greed and self-centered ambition, but only barely. 1/5 #worstbooks

The other books recommended still to come: I’m nearly done part one of My Struggle (Karl Ove Knausgaard) (It is So. Good.) and have the Pope and Mussolini and Snow Boy Bird from the library, and am on the waitlist for Station Eleven. All this to say: stay tuned.

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Summer Reading List

summer-reading

What makes for a great summer read? I remember listening to a great episode of Slate’s Culture Gabfest (if you don’t listen, this podcast is the only reason I know the terribly little I know about movies, music and celebrity – looking at you P.) on the qualities of a summer book that included arguments for books of ‘escape’ (that is, books that aren’t emotionally or intellectually challenging), giant books that you’d otherwise not have time to dedicate to reading and books with heady plots that might capture interest for long stretches.

I’m not sure I have a ready answer to ‘the qualities of a great summer read’ question. Perhaps I’ll use this summer’s list to develop some kind of framework or taxonomy. What I do know is that each year I put out a call to friends and family for their suggestions. I populate a list that sits outside my usual, ongoing and interminable pile of recommendations and to-reads, because this list is the one that I promise to read, and do read while on vacation.

And so this week coming I head out on my first of two vacations this summer. I’m grateful to have the time, and looking forward to the chance to read. Thanks to those who suggested titles for me. I’ve put in my order at the library, and have picked up the following

Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer (already fifty pages in to this one) Double suggestion made me put this one right to the top of the list. That and it was the only suggestion that clocked in under 400 pages (really? you all want me to read giant books?) and I wanted an early success.

Bleeding Edge – Thomas Pynchon (those who have been reading the blog for any duration will know that I have long resisted the urging (taunting?) of N. to read Thomas Pynchon. Perhaps he’s worn me down. Perhaps it’s my guilt for not being a better long-distance friend. Perhaps it’s my sympathy for his soon-to-be-no-sleep-ever-father-of-twins status, but I’ve committed to read it. The real shit of it is I secretly worried he’s been right the whole time and I’m going to love it.

Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi I know nothing about this one other than P. recommended it and she’s been right with all her other suggestions. Even in suggesting a short story collection. Gasp.

The Pope and Mussolini : the secret history of Pius XI and the rise of Fascism in Europe – David Kertzer 99% of the time my mum is right about the book she suggests I’ll love. It helps that she reads 99% more than I do (she reads a lot) and that she knows enough about me to know what I’ll like. I have to say, she’s been going on and on about this one lately to the point that I’ve suspended my outright ban on non-fiction and am prepared to read it. Also because I love her. 

My Struggle – Karl Ove Knausgård One part deferrance to my supervisor-hero’s wisdom, one part realization that this book is on the top of a bazillion best-of lists, and one part guilt that the last book L. suggested (a collection of Lorna Crozier’s poetry) I actually read but failed to blog (don’t worry, it’s the only time that’s ever happened. *wink*). Let’s be clear: I’m not committing to all four volumes.

Station Eleven – Emily  St John Mandel Because Amazon said I should. (And a half a dozen others).

It’s exciting to imagine that with *two* vacations this summer I’ll get to put out *another* call and collect another set of magic. Until then I thought I’d leave you with one or two of my own suggestions for you to read this summer. Books that I’ve read in summers past (I’ve chosen books from the pre-blog era to give you something I’ve not otherwise reviewed) and really loved. Read em’ if you like. Let me know what you think.

City of Thieves – David Benioff: Siege of Leningrad. Boy must find a dozen eggs or be sentenced to death. Incredible mix of humour, intensity and imagination. Oh, and historical fiction.

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon: The book that introduced the image and mystery of  ‘the cemetery of forgotten books’. Mystery, literary love affair and suspense coiled around magic realist elements.

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