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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve compiled atentative 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!
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 email@example.com or DM me on Twitter! 🙂
You don’t know me, but I met you recently. And I realized I’ve been surrounded by girls like you for my entire life.
I haven’t read the entirety of your story yet. I read 370 pages of a book written about you, called Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m going to read the rest of it soon, but by the time one a.m. rolled around, your story was making me a little nauseous and upset. I spent my mostly-sleepless night thinking about you, with a knot of worry churning in my stomach. And I realized that since I’m not your friend, that I can’t text you or call you, I needed to write you a letter. There’s a lot of things I want to tell you, Ana.
We have a lot in common. We’re close to the same age, we both love classic British novels, don’t have enormous amounts of money, and live quite simply. We both have the ability to trip over empty air and we both blush when confronted.
We both have never been in love or a relationship, and we both don’t really see it in our near future. We, along with millions of other women, have succumbed to society’s unwritten rule that to be desired we have to be as beautiful as a twentysomething A-list Hollywood actress.
On page 24, you say “I wonder if there’s something wrong with me.” When Christian Grey leaves after you have coffee together, you think “What was I thinking?” assuming that someone good looking and upper class wouldn’t be attracted to you. On page 92 you say, “God, I hope I don’t let him down. He’ll find me lacking in some way.” Page 188: “Could I feel any more inadequate?” These are just some of the many, many, many instances, Ana, where you express your insecurities about your worth as a woman in the first 370 pages of the book about you.
Like you, there are millions of girls who think they aren’t good enough based on their appearance and/or their previous sexual/romantic experience. Modern culture has constructed a timeline of milestones that need to be followed in order to be considered normal: first boyfriend(s) in middle school, first broken heart(s) in high school, lost virginity before/during/after prom, first one-night stand during frosh week. These are basically designed to make us feel left out if none of these happen to us.
By the time we reach our age, Ana, without having a significant other, we are faced with the horror of the next ten years’ worth of our friends’ Facebook engagement announcements. Judging from popular movies, TV shows, and books, our reaction is supposed to be distraught, bitter, alcohol-induced, and followed by a series of one-night stands.
Being single in our society is portrayed as a terrible omen. And you’re not the first, or the last, to wonder if there’s something wrong with you because you aren’t being chased by mobs of Colin Firths and George Clooneys–or anyone at all.
Ana, just because you’ve never had a boyfriend doesn’t mean you’re not worthy. Of course you are. From what I know about you, you’re nice, generous, smart, and it’s relatively fun to be your friend.
Please don’t validate, or invalidate yourself, based on your relationship status, Ana. You are an individual, not an extension of someone who wants to have sex with you.
Regardless of whether people flirt with you, want to date you, want to have a one-night stand with you, you are a person. One entire human being. You are not less of a person because you are single.
It’s okay to be single and happy. It’s okay to be single and lonely. It’s okay to fall anywhere in between, with happy days and lonely days tossed together like trail mix. It’s okay and normal to be insecure, but this does not mean you are unworthy of good things.
Like many young women, Ana, I’m worried you fell for the first man you are insanely attracted to regardless of his personality. I’m worried that movies, TV shows, and books have too greatly romanticized the idea of a young woman falling for a broody, hot-and-cold-mannered, rich man who inexplicably turns out to be marriage material. We’ve grown up in a world of Mr. Darcys and boys who pinch you in class because they “like you” but this doesn’t mean falling for a now-rude, now-polite person is healthy for us.
Of course there’s something magnetic about a man who is charming and warm one day and cold and distant the next. He’s dangerous to like because you never know if he’ll like you back–and when he does like you, oh, that’s the best feeling, isn’t it Ana?
But he’s not always the healthiest man to love, especially for women who have never been in love before.
This is what I’m worried about, Ana. Unlike most young women, you are the main character in a franchise that has (for some reason) become incredibly popular. It seems as though you jumped into a rocky relationship with a man based on sexual desire, and his behaviour on nearly every page is very, very, questionable. I’m not talking about his sexual tastes–honestly, the healthiest times you two interact is when you’re getting it on. It also seems like it’s the only time you actually like him. Maybe this will change over the course of the books about you, but even if your relationship does get healthier it doesn’t change the fact that it’s unhealthy in the first 370 pages. This is why I’m writing this letter.
I really hope you learn to love yourself, Ana, and make healthy choices for yourself.
You aren’t worth any more or less by being single or being in a relationship. Need I remind you that Elizabeth I, Jane Austen, and according to their Wikipedia pages, Anne and Emily Brontë (whom you mention you enjoy), never married? They remain some of the most famous women in history. They’re totally valid and worthy, right? So why do you think you’re not?
I think that more emphasis needs to be put on female strength rather than the apparent innate need for a significant other to validate our very existence. I love that you get to have lots of orgasms, because let’s face it, the media doesn’t really show female orgasms as a real thing, just an elusive myth.
But no offense, Ana, you’re kind of a disappointing role model. I wish you were’t, because there are so many women who feel the same way as you. I really want you to be strong, autonomous, independent, and healthy. And I want you to know what is good for you and what’s not, and when to walk away from something that is unhealthy and harmful. These are the kinds of women we need to be spotlighting in “romance” novels/movies.
It’s important to be your own best friend. Think of your closest friend. You know how beautiful and kind and smart they are from your perspective? I want you to learn to see yourself this way. I want you and women (and everyone else), to be content with yourself, to know you are more than your relationship status, and to be able to look at yourself naked in the mirror and think yes, I am pretty dang beautiful, and I am totally a human being worthy of happiness, whether or not that means being in love or in bed with someone or being single.
I don’t need someone to tell me I’m beautiful to know it. Yes, it’s nice to hear it, especially on days I’m feeling sad or lonely, but most days, most days I already know I’m beautiful–not to mention awesome.
So, dear Ana, and all of the women like you, I hope you grow to love yourself as you are, and not wait until your Colin Firth (or Jamie Dornan) comes along to sweep you off your feet. He might never show up, anyway, due to lost connections or unfortunate coincidences, so it’s best to love yourself as you are now. And if you don’t, maybe it’s time to start.
Thanks so much for reading this, Ana. I’ll be thinking of you. And when I meet the Anastasia Steeles of the world, I’ll be trying my best to show them what I have tried to show you in this letter.
Hello, internet! It’s been a while (once again) since I’ve stopped by, and I’ve really fallen behind on reading all the wonderful blogs I follow. With today’s snow day (snow week?) I thought I’d catch up on some things.
Back in January, Diane Lynn McGyver was kind and generous enough to give me a copy of her debut novel Shadows in the Stone (Quarter Castle Publishing, 2012) to review. I feel awful that it has taken me so long to get around to it, but here I am!
Corporal Bronwyn Darrow is an honour-driven, hard working young dwarf (and not a Tolkien-esque dwarf, either) who is dedicated to rising in the ranks of the Aruam Castle. When he comes to be the legal guardian of Isla, a hauflin child, he learns, among other things, that there is more to life than work and status. Alaura of Niamh, a young enchantress with a mysterious past, becomes entangled in the lives of Bronwyn and Isla, and this is essentially where the story kicks off, following Alaura and Bronwyn on their physical and metaphorical journeys to save Isla (and everyone else) from a dark and mysterious outside force.
Without giving too much more away about the plot, I will say right away that this was unlike any other fantasy novel I’ve read before. It contains all the yummy elements of a traditional fantasy — an evil magician, a prophecy, dwarfs, elves, and of course a little hard-to-get romance between the two main characters — but there are other aspects that aren’t really typical, and that I absolutely adore.
The relationships between all the characters are what steals the show for me: Bronwyn’s relationships with his parents and siblings, his friend Farlan, his daughter Isla, and best friend/hardcore love interest Alaura. I don’t usually see strong familial ties in fantasy books, probably because most of the time the main character is an orphan, and I love the scenes where Bronwyn attends family dinners, banters with his siblings, and seeks advice from his parents.
The fact that Bronwyn and Alaura are friends first and love interests second (for the most part) is one of my favourite things in the entire book. Their ability to help each other, work together, argue incessantly, and understand each other is inspiring, and not what I expected. The forces keeping them apart romantically — usually set up or created by Bronwyn or Alaura themselves — makes us as readers want to slap some sense into them because they love each other and they both know it. The sexual tension is killing me. (But sshhh, as a reader, I actually don’t want them to get together because I like their friendship too much.)
Isla is the little girl everyone loves, but she’s not just a cutie that needs protection from the adults 100% of the time. She’s independent, strong-willed, incredibly clever, and able to gain the help and alliance of those around her in order to survive. Her friendship with fellow hauflin Liam is something I look forward to the development of in future books, and I’m eager to see her become a strong and caring young woman. Out of all the characters in the book, I think Isla is my favourite, followed by fierce and powerful Alaura (everyone loves a strong heroine).
The book as a whole is stunning visually. The Land of Ath-o Lea is beautiful and varied, and I’m curious to know more about the politics of it, and how humans, elves, dwarfs, and hauflins all coexist. I want to read an Ath-o Lea history book on how it all came to be. Many of the scenes are so well described it felt more like I was watching a movie rather than reading a book — when this happens in novels, I am an incredibly happy reader.
If I have anything to say that is a critique it’s that I would like a glossary of characters/places and a pronunciation guide at the back. Maybe it’s because I read it in chunks over a long period of time rather than in one or two sittings (time constraints didn’t allow for this) but I had a wee little bit of a difficult time keeping track of who was who and where, especially the minor characters. It was a book that I had to consciously dedicate time to. It’s not what I would consider a casual, easy, light-hearted read for bus travel, but one for snow days where one stays put for several hours at once.
All in all, Shadows in the Stone is what I consider a very unique, relationship-oriented novel with fascinating, multifaceted characters in a diverse and changing world. I’m intrigued as to where the plot is headed, because I honestly have no idea.
**I wouldn’t recommend this book for young readers, as there is some sexually intense scenes and graphic content, but to everyone else, especially fantasy fans, go for it!