Sometimes a book just rips your heart out

As much as I enjoy writing, I have to admit that I enjoy reading even more. Part of learning any skill is that you gain a deep appreciation for excellent work when you come across it. Sometimes my appreciation is coloured by a little sadness, a little envy, because I doubt that I will ever produce a work that has the bones and the universality to be a classic, but these twinges of inadequacy still can’t dampen the experience of coming across a piece that leaves me psychically breathless.

Usually when I read a book like this I need about a week off before I can pick up anything else.

ws woman reading

I can’t really pin down the qualities that make a book so exceptional. Very often, it isn’t so much the content as the collision of the story with thoughts, feelings and the shifting psychological fault-lines going on in my own inner universe—a matter of the intersection between what is brewing in my subconscious mind, and a topic that speaks to those as yet unthought or unimagined questions and desires. It’s a serendipitous event, a happy accident.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across Fugitive Pieces at the East Gwillimbury public library’s used-book sale. The book has been on my radar for a long time, one of many I’ve been meaning to read. I remembered, vaguely, that it had won all sorts of awards. I eagerly took it home with me, and dove in with no expectations and no idea what it was about. Once I was immersed I could barely come up for air.

Reading a great book, for me, is like crawling temporarily into another person’s body and soul, becoming another so completely that I temporarily forget my sense of self. The protagonist shows me her reality, her hopes, her fears, her disappointments, what she has learned, and the cost of that wisdom. As I read this novel, I often found myself in tears,   not because it made me sad but because it filled me with admiration. Michaels took the unspeakable and made it poignant and beautiful. She translated experiences from history into stories that demonstrated the impact of the past on the small and mundane challenges of everyday existence. It’s always the little things that drive us to the brink.

Some books contain a whole universe. In many ways, fiction can convey far more about truth than any other method of documentation because the experience of fiction can bypass the logical mind, the analytic mind, and most remarkably, it can bypass words. A really great book capitalizes on the fact that empathy and imagination are skills that bubble from a common spring, tributaries of a source that extends beyond individuals to something much larger and more archetypal, something that is very much alive and vibrant and omnipresent.


I really don’t want to descend into a book review or even try to convey what Fugitive Pieces was about. Suffice it to say that it was full of stunning passages and ideas that were deeply resonant and vibrating with truth. One of my favourites (about writing biographies):

We’re stuffed with famous men’s lives; soft with the habits of our own. The quest to discover another’s psyche, to absorb another’s motives as deeply as your own is a lover’s quest. But the search for facts, for places, names, influential events, important conversations and correspondences, political circumstances—all amounts to nothing if you can’t find the assumption your subject lives by (122).

So here’s to the book lover’s quest, a microcosm of something much larger and of extreme importance. Time spent reading great books is never wasted. Exploring and reflecting on the assumptions we live by could save us all a great deal of suffering in the end.

Have you read anything sublime lately? Anything you would really like to recommend? Please feel free to post it in the comments below.

Treasure your time to read. Until next time,


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3 comments Write a comment

  1. Oh yes. FUGITIVE PIECES is a particular favourite of mine since I read it years ago. Savoured every page. Hooked by the mystery and sense of longing. Loved the way the heart of the tale was peeled away, layer by layer. Characters who continue to stick to me. Yes, Elaine, you read a truly fine book when you read that one. Poetry in the prose and I suppose that is what made me happiest — Michael’s use of language. Gorgeous. Thanks for posting and reminding me why I love it.

    • What a beautiful way to describe the book, and the exceptional prose. Thanks for the insightful comment. I really had the sense of reading the work of a virtuoso, and that is thrilling when it happens.

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