The Great Believers

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is getting major press in the US but for some sad reason, not so much here at home. So! That’s where I’ll step in because this is a novel I wish everyone would read. It’s a big one but it’s gripping, keeping you turning page after page after page. You know those books you can’t wait to get back to when you’re not reading it? This is one of those books.

The story moves between two time periods: 1985 where we follow and love a group of young men living in Chicago during the AIDS crisis and 2015, the story of a woman searching for her lost adult daughter in Paris. I love this sort of book! Reading and waiting to see just how and when the stories will intersect.

The subject of The Great Believers is serious but somehow never gets too heavy or too sad. There are funny moments and it is definitely not a slow read. Ultimately, The Great Believers is about the family we choose.  It’s a heartbreaking story, of course it is. So many young men die for no reason with no help except from each other. We don’t know how bad it was, how many people died, how many families were torn apart.

Makkai’s other books are gems as well. I remember falling completely in love with The Borrower when it came out. It tells the story of a young librarian who helps a young boy through major struggles in his life and it also is amazing.

The Great Believers will surely be on many awards lists next fall and I wouldn’t be surprised if it wins. I’ve read in reviews that it is going to be this new book that will make Makkai a household name.

If my raving review of this book doesn’t draw your interest than read something from the author herself. This was a recent post she put on Facebook about writing a novel during such trying times.

This is a weird time to be releasing a novel, and I have a lot of other things on my mind.

Something that’s been hammered home for me in five years of work on this book: genocide does not always announce itself as genocide. It doesn’t always come in swinging machetes. It can be slow. It can be built of neglect. A lot of the time, it looks like bureaucracy. It’s going to happen again and again, in our lifetime: People in power are going to kill the people with the least power. Most often, they’re going to do it slowly and silently.

But here’s the other thing I’ve learned by writing a book about AIDS, and listening to survivors: You can fight harder than you think. You can fight when you’re sick, you can fight when you’re despondent, you can fight when you have nothing to lose, you can fight when you have everything to lose.

We don’t always choose the battles we’re conscripted into. I’m proud and honored to be in the trenches with all of you.

Yes, yes and yes! This leaves me jumping and fist pumping the air.

When I finished this book I just sat on my couch, holding it, not ready to let it go. This book, to me, is a heart that I want to hang on to and protect, but I would love to share it with you.

— Sarah C.

The Genius That Is Meg Wolitzer

Meg Wolitzer has been tearing up the bestseller list as well as the airwaves this spring with the release of her newest book, The Female Persuasion. Just listen to her interview on Q .

meg_wolitzer_and_Emma_Straub._040418I read The Interestings last year and I enjoyed it, however it was not until I read her latest novel that I truly understood the genius that is Meg Wolitzer and why another of my favourite authors, Emma Straub, felt the need to make herself a t-shirt with Meg’s name on it. I would wear a t-shirt with either of their names on it any day of the week!

This is a big novel, the kind you get muscles from because for the week you are reading it, you never put it down. The novel tells the story of Greer Kadetsky, a college student who left home to get away from her pothead, negligent parents to make something of herself. Greer knows she has something to offer the world and that when she can get over being so shy and figure out what it is, she is going to be amazing.

One night at a party, she is groped by a stranger who ends up being someone who has assaulted numerous women on campus. Greer begins to get her voice and speak up with her friend, Zoe (they make t-shirts too!) only to fall short when the male is given a mere slap on the wrist. One night, she and Zoe attend a speaking event featuring the very famous feminist, Faith Frank, think Gloria Steinem with awesome boots. After the talk, Greer meets Faith in the washroom and this meeting is the jumping off point for the rest of Greer’s life.

The novel tells the story of these women over the years, as well as Cory, Greer’s high school boyfriend. He may end up being the strongest demonstrator of equal rights when he is forced to give up his career and take care of his family. His feminism is quiet and shows it doesn’t need to be in the spotlight. His story is heart wrenching and beautifully written, perfectly juxtaposed with the fame Greer gains as she grows into herself as a writer and activist. The evolution of their relationship was real and never felt manipulated.

Wolitzer has written a story of relationships within the story of Greer’s coming of age. She writes of female triumphs and the roadblocks and setbacks often caused by men. She shows the ways women can lift each other up – the theme of mentoring is a dominant one – but also how badly they can hurt each other. This book is a new favourite of mine for sure and I will definitely be reading the rest the Wolitzer’s backlist.

— Sarah C.

I Am. I Am. I Am.

I have imaginary friends and I won’t try to deny it. These friends are all online and are mostly writers, except for Kristin Bell who is just so delightful with her personal Instagram stories about her house being ambushed by raccoons and her children having worms (yes, you read that correctly) that I feel she’s really reaching out to us all.

All kidding aside, beyond Instagram and Twitter posts, reading a personal essay is a fabulous way to submerge yourself in someone’s life experiences. Reading about someone’s troubles and their triumphs (raccoons and worms and all) shapes the way you feel about things and helps to relearn things you thought you already knew.

I recently read Maggie O’Farrell’s gorgeous essay collection, I Am I Am I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death. Now. Don’t let the title throw you off. This collection is uplifting. O’Farrell reminds us of the invisible tightrope we’re always walking between living and dying, and it’s a good reminder. A wake up call to remember what really matters and most likely, it’s never going to be on my phone.

O’Farrell tells stories that made me cry and also laugh out loud. The first story gave me straight up chills. It’s her story of hiking around a lake while traveling alone when encountering a man who tries to attack her. Brush with death number one. I dare you to not keep reading!

Her stories are not told in the order in which they took place in her life. They weave a gorgeous narrative with incidents from when she was young showing up after we learn about boyfriends, jobs, family and then eventually about her own children. There is something for everyone and like I said, it’s a great reminder to live these days as best we can, helping others and maybe making some ‘real’ friends along the way.

— Sarah C.

The Hopefuls By Jennifer Close

When Art Imitates YOUR Life

During the summer of 2014 my family went on a trip to Washington DC. My husband had some work to do at the Smithsonian (which I didn’t realize, I’ll admit, is a collection of many incredible museums and not just one!) while our sons and I enjoyed the sites and some swimming. We stayed at the Hilton at Dupont Circle. It was a wonderful hotel with a gorgeous pool and more than enough food to keep us happy. We travelled in August and the weather was stifling so besides some walking trips to the museums (and one morning out when we got very lost very far from home) we stayed close to the hotel.

This week I began reading The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close. I wanted something a little lighter that the Elena Ferranti books  I’d been reading this year (my favourite of 2016!) but still something smart. This novel fits the bill. It is about a young couple who move to Washington DC (didn’t see that coming, did you?) to work on the Obama campaign. It’s a great story but what drew me in right away was that the couple buy a house across from the Hilton Hotel and Dupont Circle, and often go swimming in our pool! Maybe this is just me but it doesn’t take much to make me happy and so this was quite exciting.

The best part was when the narrator refers to the hotel as the place where the attempted assassination of President Reagan took place in 1981. I was there and I didn’t know because perhaps running around after two boys under ten kept me from reading something I should have prior to the trip. I was to busy packing swim trunks and sun screen and Wimpy Kid books. I’ll admit that at times I was also busy pretending to be Leslie Knoppe from Parks and Recreation, but again, that’s just me.

I’m not quite finished the novel but it has kept me reading and wanting to get back to it when I’m away. Jennifer Close is great at building tension slowly. Things aren’t going well for our young couple in DC, they are perhaps not as happy as the Obama’s were at the time. But who knows what will happen, how the next fifty pages will end. The Obama’s never would have predicted their ending in the White House as the way it’s about to happen, that’s for sure.

– Sarah C.

Reading for Comfort

whenbreath   myname   excellentlombards   lauralamont

This year my husband and I both turned forty, and since then life has taken some turns, unfortunately not always for the best. This happens to everyone. Kids get ill, with things serious enough that a few days off school and a new video game can’t help. The best grandfather in the world can die. Things, sometime bad things, can happen and it’s ok.

That’s what When Breathe Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi taught me. I know you’ve heard about this book already and you should have.  If you’ve read it, you loved it like I did. If you haven’t it’s probably because the topic, that the writer was a brain surgeon who died tragically of brain cancer at thirty seven, is too sad for you. But it’s not, and you can hold me to this. It’s gorgeous and smart and makes you happy that there are so many wonderful people like Paul was, in the world.  You learn about his widow Lucy, who lives on with their young daughter and the fierce love they carry for Paul. Hard, sad things  happen, and that’s ok.

It’s also good when these things hit us, to find books that let us hide. During these past months I’ve needed to read things, mostly fiction, that kept my mind sharp and moving forward. I love, LOVE, Elizabeth Strout and her newest book My Name Is Lucy Barton was perfect. It was light to carry with me on the train when my grandfather died. It was a simple story written brilliantly about two woman, a mother and her adult daughter, reuniting in a hospital after years apart.  The chapters are short and after each I would close the book and enjoy how calm the book made me feel. Then the train would bump a little and I’d get right back into the story.

Next, I discovered Jane Hamilton through her newest and somewhat autobiographical novel, The Excellent Lombards, which was wonderful. It is the story of a young girl growing up with her family on their apple farm. She loves her family (as crazy as they are) and unlike her brother, makes no plans for her future except to take over the farm one day. She is afraid to think of anything else and can’t imagine why everyone wants her too. It made me laugh out loud.

Then, I got on an Emma Straub kick, a wonderful kick to be on! I had already read and enjoyed her book last year, The Vacationers but I think I liked her newest, Modern Lovers even more. However, it was her first novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures that I fell in love with. It is a wonderful, sweeping story of a woman moving from a small rural family home to Hollywood. She becomes a famous actress and tries to juggle her young family in the nineteen twenties. Who knew how Hollywood worked at that golden time! Straub’s writing is infectious as is her personality is you have the time to look her up. She tends to dress like her book covers when going to author events and she also has an adorable family.

After finishing Lucy Barton on a train ride, I realized I was unprepared for the trip home and found myself with moments to spare in a book store. I grabbed Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. I know,  it’s not a new one and it’s been on my list for a long time and it was completely worth the wait. It’s a perfect story to sink oneself into, a story about people trying to do to right thing, whether in Ireland or Brooklyn, always surrounded by love.

When sad and hard times hit, of course the other route is emerging oneself in fantasy, science fiction, or the Outlander series. But for me I’ve needed to be connected to people, good people, who are also trying to figure things out, how best to move forward for loved ones. Aliens and time-travel wasn’t going to do it for me this time (although in the past they have). These books did the trick to pick me up and away before bringing me home, often with a new way of looking at what was going on around me.

And remember, as long as you have time to read, things can’t really be all that bad.

Sarah C.