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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theMystery.doc (2017)

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The new novel so colossal it comes with a built-in ribbon bookmark. At over 1,600 pages, its stature commands attention. But it can easily be ingested within a few sittings; though it takes much more time for digestion and absorption. I turned the last page tonight. Then wandered around my apartment. Took a walk outside. Glanced at some neglected books on my shelves. Aimless in a stupor. Finally I sat down to collect my thoughts. The book has cast a spell on me. Its towering imposition—the scope and magnitude of its reaches; the power and grip of its obsessive assembly—have overwhelmed me. Matthew McIntosh has succeeded in his goal of finding a new form to capture and pass down the post-9/11 American experience.

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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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The Scarlet Letter (1850)

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In Why Read the Classics?, Italo Calvino’s first definition of “a classic” is a book “about which you usually hear people saying, “‘I’m rereading…,’ never ‘I’m reading….'” (3). By this he essentially means that, if one were to read, say, The Scarlet Letter outside of high school, one would never admit to having never read it before, especially if one were held in high esteem for literary knowledge. I, however, choose to shed all pretensions and fully admit that, though I had read Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown” (in many ways similar to this novel), before this past weekend I had never read Hawthorne’s magnificent allegory. And I’m glad for it.

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