The Lost Scrapbook (1995)

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Now here’s a friendly little book that is notorious for being unknown and overlooked. If you’ve read it, you’re likely the passenger of one of three channels: (1) You trust William T. Vollmann’s judgement*; (2) you heard that the novel has been lumped in with the names Gaddis and Pynchon; or (3) your tastes coincide with those of Steven Moore. My own arrival is the result of a confluence of these channels, catalyzed by the Goodreads recommendation engine. While its affinities with the likes of Gaddis, Pynchon, et al. are not as prominent as I expected, Evan Dara’s debut novel achieves that almost impossible echelon of sui generis for which I pine. That is, I’ve read The Recognitions and Gravity’s Rainbow, but I can still say that The Lost Scrapbook is a unique experience that stands on its own.

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The Tunnel (1995)

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After twenty-four days of finally working my way through William H. Gass’s masterpiece, I can say that my nails feel as besmirched as Herr I’m-Not-German Kohler’s. Gass, in his highly entertaining notes to the editors of the book, states that “[t]he reader is to feel, as he or she doubtless will, as if they are crawling through an unpleasant and narrow darkness.” Quite right. And in his interview with Michael Silverblatt (whose blurb adorns the cover of my Dalkey Archive paperback), Gass makes no qualms about the aspirations and demands of his book. Silverblatt, an avid and insightful reader if there ever was one, even confesses to swaying–yet not faltering–under the heft of the first 90 pages. The Tunnel is deliberately large, complex, and difficult. How else shall we, as readers, grow?
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The Red Word (2018)

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Sarah Henstra, despite most marketing blurbs I’ve read, is not merely a fresh young voice graduating from her YA novel Mad Miss Mimic (2015) to her debut adult novel The Red Word; she is a PhD-holding professor and graduate practicum director at Toronto’s Ryerson University. Her specialization is 20th-century British literature, upon which she has various scholarly publications. She is a board member of the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs (CCWWP), and she was on the steering committee of the 2016 Canadian Writers’ Summit. Already, she is busy with a new work of fiction entitled Dear Little Jo. Yet for all of her pedigree and hard work, Sarah Henstra has delivered a novel that finds trapeze-artist balance between wide accessibility and complexity. With such a sensitive and contentious subject, she somehow manages to avoid satire and kitsch on the one hand, and sterility on the other. The Red Word is gripping, important, and probably not what you expect.

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Hotel Silence (2018)

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Coincidentally, I read John Barth’s debut novel, The Floating Opera, just before reading this winner of the Icelandic Literary Prize. Both books, as it turns out, are preoccupied with Hamlet’s universal and perennial question: “To be or not to be” (this question, incidentally, is a great way to remember how to avoid split infinitives). Barth’s and Ólafsdóttir’s protagonists open their narratives with the decision to commit suicide—not to be. And both characters keep a cool-headed disposition that invites us to consider such a morbid determination without revulsion. But whereas Barth’s book toys with timeline and perspective and, in general, expresses his signature zest for language, Hotel Silence is a straight-forward rush of a story, told in the first-person present, that threatens to vanish as quickly as it appears if one doesn’t slow down.

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Little, Big (1981)

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A curious title with an implied “and everything in between.” Close, far; natural, supernatural; rational, irrational—and everything in between, represented throughout the book by the Germanically-capitalized Somehow, is what one encounters once the title page is turned. John Crowley has appropriated the fantasy novel and made it his own. He has razed the boundaries between literary and genre fiction, chastening my former distaste for fantasy. In Little, Big everything is alive, everything possible, and what is perceived by the adult reader as bad is yet good when viewed through the eyes of a child.

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The Goldfinch (2016)

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Allow me to eschew the well tread ground of the parallels between Tartt’s latest novel and Dickens’s bildungsroman Great Expectations and the symbolism of the book’s eponymous painting as an analogue to Theo Decker’s own ineluctable tethering. Instead, I would like to address what seems to be the more pressing question: People seem to be more interested in whether they should read the novel than in actually reading it. I discovered a lengthy thread on the LitNet forums where the original poster (OP) spends numerous posts seeking a sort of support group from the community just to get off the ground with the novel. Then follow further posts concerning the number of pages the OP has managed to read that day and more queries for affirmation that the OP is doing the right thing in reading the novel and sticking with it. To be sure, this is an extreme example, but from what I can tell from a sampling of other opinions, this book seems to pose a daunting threat to many readers.

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Cloud Atlas (2004)

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I tire of much contemporary fiction because, for the most part, it pales in comparison to older, mightier literature of the canon; and as I find myself “reading against the clock” (to borrow Bloom’s words) it’s hard for me to expend my precious reading hours on literature that doesn’t have a payoff confirmed by many ages before myself. Still, I take chances in the name of curiosity and, I suppose, keeping at least a pulse on the state of current fiction. And yet oftener and oftener, when I take these chances, I find myself disappointed and wishing I had allotted the time to, say, absorbing some unread Shakespeare play, Borges short story, or perhaps tilling the soil of some of Montaigne’s vast corpus of wisdom. But—alas!—with this treasure of 2004 from one David Mitchell, disappointed I was not! Far from it, in fact.

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