Reading into con­nec­tions

Toronto Star - - BOOKS - Robert Wiersema’s lat­est book is Seven Crow Sto­ries, out now. ROBERT WIERSEMA SPE­CIAL TO THE STAR

De­spite the high-pro­file pub­lic­ity around the world of books and pub­lish­ing (con­sider the num­ber of lit­er­ary prizes awarded in the last few months and the plethora of Best of 2016 lists all around us), the act of reading is it­self ut­terly per­sonal. How we re­act to a book, how we con­nect with a story, is com­pletely sub­jec­tive, largely im­mune to any sense of ob­jec­tive qual­ity or ac­claim (my con­tin­ued fond­ness for the nov­els of Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code fame, de­spite their myr­iad prob­lems, is an on­go­ing tes­ti­mony to this).

The in­ti­mate con­nec­tion be­tween reader and book is at the heart of Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Liv­ing to Read and Reading to Live, the new col­lec­tion of es­says from award-win­ning fic­tion writer Peter Orner. As Orner writes in his “Notes for an In­tro­duc­tion” — which he as­serts he is com­pos­ing in the garage which serves as his of­fice, in which there is no longer any shelf space for new books —“fic­tion isn’t ma­chin­ery, it’s alchemy.”

The es­says in Am I Alone Here ex­plore that very per­sonal alchemy, as Orner re­counts the par­tic­u­lar books that spoke to him, or with which he con­nected in some way (one sus­pects it’s a sam­pling, not an ex­haus­tive list).

In dis­cus­sions of books rang­ing from A.S. By­att’s The Matisse Sto­ries to Moby Dick to Vir­ginia Woolf’s To The Light­house and dozens of oth­ers, Orner ex­plores not only the works them­selves but, to a greater de­gree, how they be­came im­por­tant to him, il­lu­mi­nat­ing cor­ners of his mind and soul, res­onat­ing against his per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences. That these ex­pe­ri­ences in­clude the end of his mar­riage, his role as a par­ent and the death of his es­tranged fa­ther lends the book a power that seems to be greater than the sum of its parts.

Am I Alone Here isn’t quite lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, nor is it quite a mem­oir. Rather, it feels like an act of self-ex­plo­ration and rev­e­la­tion. As a re­sult, one ex­pe­ri­ences a fresh un­der­stand­ing of the books, but also a keen em­pa­thy for, and con­nec­tion with, Orner him­self. Read­ers will come away from Am I Alone Here with a sig­nif­i­cant reading list; I’m start­ing with Orner’s own fic­tion.

Am I Alone Here, by Peter Orner, Cat­a­pult, 276 pages, $24.50.

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