Etta and Otto and Russell and James (Can. Summer Reading Challenge Week 1)

Week 1 of my Canadian Summer Reading Challenge has ended.

I read Etta and Otto and Russell and James, the debut novel by Emma Hooper. I’ve been wanting to read this book since this interview popped up in my Twitter feed earlier this year, and I finally went out and bought a hardcover copy a few weeks ago. The concept of the novel appealed to me right away, from the moment I read Emma’s interview.

After reading reviews online and watching book vloggers from various parts of the world review it, I knew I had to read this quirky, Canadian novel. Following (guess who) Etta, Otto, Russell, and James, the 305-page book offers the readers a fresh, surreal, almost fantasy experience in watching 82-year-old Etta walk from Saskatchewan to Halifax to see the ocean.

I finished Etta and Otto and Russel and James. #amblogging #canadianreadingchallenge

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Living in mainland Nova Scotia, I’ve always been a mere hour’s drive away from the nearest beach, basin, or waterfront. My maternal grandparents loved the ocean, which my mother inherited, and sea shells, sea glass, and star fish have always been a part of the interior decor in my grandparents’ house and mine. Even though the ocean has never been a large financial or traditional part of my upbringing, I’ve always had access to the ocean through day trips, stories, and beach-themed bathrooms. Sometimes I forget that not every Canadian has a relationship with the ocean that I’ve grown up with.

My grandparents loved the ocean.

Etta’s desire to see the ocean for the first time in her eighty-two years of life is something I’ve never experienced, and never will, and it was lovely and enlightening to follow her desire across the majority of Canada.

Jumping back and forth from past to present, the novel blurs conventional storytelling in a beautiful, complex, confusing way that I thoroughly loved. There’s a lot of blank spaces for the readers to fill in for themselves–or maybe they’re left blank simply because it doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t have to make sense, it just is.

The relationships between the characters are not defined so deeply in the novel so the reader knows exactly who they are and what they’ve gone through together. We’re given tidbits, teasers, and hints to keep us guessing. As Emma said in her interview,

“It’s meant to drift in and out of understanding a little bit, and it’s meant to make the reader not work but be involved so you can’t just sit back and be totally passive and just skim through on a surface level.”

We see little windows into Etta, Otto, and Russell’s past, but we miss the sixty-plus years between the time the war ends and Etta leaves for Halifax. We don’t know what happened between Etta and Otto, Etta and Russell, Russell and Otto. We’re left in the dark like a bystander rather than the intimate experience we as readers are used to having with the characters.

I really loved this novel for its unique format and style, and its habit of twisting cliches so you barely even notice the cliches, and I know I’m going to read it again. This is one of those books where you know you missed something the first (second, third) time around.

*Update: quick note on the end of the novel I forgot to add. I’ve heard mixed things from different people about how they feel about the novel’s end. While there is no obvious conclusion, and it’s left in the hands of the reader, there is a clever link to one of my favourite lines in the book. “It’s a loop, Otto. It’s just a long loop” (pg. 304). The book’s end could be its beginning. You could read it again and again in a long loop. Which I probably will.

So one week down, fourteen(ish) more to go! This week I’ll be reading Great Village by Mary Rose Donnelley.

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Canadian Summer Reading Challenge 2015

April is the cruellest month.

There’s final papers, spring blizzards, sleep to lose, food to stress eat, and exams to study for (maybe even oral exams, if you’re a lucky student of the University of King’s College).

But it’s done. It’s over. I survived my first year of post secondary education at the oldest chartered university in North America.

I read hundreds of books from 2100 BCE to the 21st century. I read Plato, Dante, Shakespeare, de Beauvoir, Kant, Heidegger, and Arendt. I read until my eyes hurt and my brain stopped absorbing information.

During this year, as I squinted at the musings of many different dead white dudes mainly from central Europe, I began to miss the Canadian voice. The comforting, familiar humour, kind will, dependable dry wit, patriotism-inducing, big city buzz and small town silence of the Canadian voice is one I grew up with.

In recent months years the amount of Canadian authorship I’ve consumed has dwindled, partly because I have less free time than I used to, and partly because I’ve been trying to get as many pretentious-sounding classic novels under my belt as possible like a good little history nerd.

I’ve never read a Margaret Atwood novel for Pete’s sake. What kind of monster am I?

Over the winter I decided that summer 2015 would be dedicated to reading Canadian-written books (with special effort to read Canadian authors who are women and/or people of colour and/or Atlantic Canadian).

I hope to conquer one book a week until the end of August–this should put me at around 15 books (taking away one week for when I’m in the UK, and another for to allow for laziness the potentiality of day trips that will take momentary precedence).

Each week I’ll either write a blog, a series of tweets, or maybe EVEN A VIDEO WHO KNOWS? sharing my Canadian reading experiences. I don’t want to say I’ll be writing solid reviews for each one, but I’ll definitely share my thoughts about each little Canadian literary nugget that finds its way into my hands.

I also caved into getting an Instagram account, which I plan to be using as a visual extension of my blog. I’ll be posting what I’m reading as well as general attempts at making a square of pixels aesthetically pleasing.

Ashley's staff pick. Book 1 of my Canadian Summer Reading Challenge.

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I’ve compiled a tentative list of the authors I want to read, some for the first time and some to revisit, but none of these are set in stone, in part because I’m not yet sure what books I’ll have access to. I’ve already bought two books, but before I buy more I need to be reunited with my dutiful library card.

Sadly I am made of neither money or Canadian fiction.*

Do you have any reading challenges this summer? If you’d like to take part in the Canadian Summer Reading Challenge with me (or a more/less intense version of it), please send me a link to where you’re posting your progress, or leave comments/tweets to let me know what you’re reading and how you’re doing!

Happy reading!

If you have any suggestions for books, please leave a comment or tweet/Instagram me.

*If you’re a Canadian (especially Atlantic Canadian/woman/person of colour) author and you want to send me a copy of your book in exchange for a review, please send me an email at libby.maire@gmail.com or DM me on Twitter! 🙂