Milkman by Anna Burns wins the Booker Prize

I’m so happy. I really didn’t expect it to win, even though I thought it should. But the judges apparently chose it unanimously. The Guardian has a good rundown of the announcement here, alongside a rather ungenerous post by one of the Guardian Books people here. We get it, you wanted Sally Rooney or Daisy Johnson. But guess what? This was a flat-out better book. Val McDermid talks about the judging process in the Guardian and in the New York Times. I love the last line in the Times interview.

I really thought the New New Thing or the Big American Thing trends would swamp the Burns and the Robertson, which I ranked #1 and #2 on my short- and longlists. In reading my other longlist nominees and perusing reviews, discussions, and interviews, I’ve been struck by how much the industry is letting its desperation to hold onto its readership affect its decisions about what books deserve to be publicized and praised. Debuts win out over technically and substantively better novels by veteran authors almost every time. When they don’t, it’s often because the author herself is a Hot Commodity, someone who gets a lot of interview/profile press as part of the new release. I’ve read over half the NBA Fiction longlist and three books off the Giller longlist, and in both cases the second/third/fourth novels are better than the debuts, for all the reasons we would expect. Of course debuts are going to be less polished, on average. Yes, there are assured and impressive debut novels, but good authors tend to get even better because they hone their craft and learn to control their gifts.

I’m just about done with my long- and shortlist reading. I’ll read a few more NBA books but probably not all of them, and I’ll read one more of the Giller shortlist for sure and probably a couple of the longlisted books that didn’t make it. I’m a bit disappointed in the Giller shortlist. No First Nations books or authors (as far as I can tell) and three books by established, acclaimed authors which may or may not represent their best work. I loved last year’s list because I found new, interesting, quirky books. The established author won, but it was a challenging and interesting novel. I’m holding out hope for Eric Dupont’s Québecois novel, because otherwise the Heti or the DeWitt are really going to have to knock my socks off.

I have enjoyed reading all these nominees, and I’ll probably do it again next year. But I’m breaking up with the Tournament of Books; I’ll get reading ideas from the longlist but I won’t try to read the shortlist. After three years of close following and reading, I’ve learned my tastes and the TOB’s don’t really mesh. That leaves me the first half of the year to read much more from my TBR. Which is good, because I haven’t read nearly enough from it this year!

I’ve been out of town and away from the internet and/or super busy when in town, so I’m behind on posting here, but I’ll try to get back to posting reviews at least a couple of times a week. I’ve got plenty in the can, and I’m still reading.


NBA Longlist quick reviews

The NBA shortlists come out on Wednesday, October 10. I’ve read 5+ of the 10 books at this point. Here are three brief-ish reviews of books that were worth reading but not at the top of my list, and one DNF.

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

Heads cover

This is a debut collection of short stories, some of which have been published elsewhere. It’s uneven but well worth reading. The first and last stories deal with black men shot by police and the effects on those around them. They involve more than that, but I found it interesting that we begin and end the collection with those, because most of the stories have very different emphases. It’s as if the author was saying that we can’t escape that reality, and she’s right. Both are gut-punches in expected and unexpected ways, and I found them very effective.

The other stories that worked really well for me were the ones that featured Fatima, a young black girl and then woman who is one of only two black students in her majority-white private school in Southern California. We are introduced to her indirectly in an epistolary story in which the two mothers engage in escalating one-upmanship and hostility. I found this clever, but much more cruel than funny. But Fatima’s own stories are fully of empathy, nuance, and complexity.

There is one other pair of connected stories which felt more like vignettes than full stories. The characters aren’t well developed and they seem more designed to make a point than to illuminate the people in them. I found that to be a recurring issue in the rest of the collection. The author does write young women well; older women and men, not so much.

The writing is assured and stylish. It occasionally has that workshopped feel (one story’s ending is shocking as you read it and then completely predictable in retrospect), but these stories were workshopped. I read in an interview that Fatima’s stories began as a novella, and perhaps that’s why they worked so well for me. There’s just more there to engage with.

3.5 stars at Goodreads.

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NBA Longlist Review: Where the Dead Sit Talking by Brandon Hobson

Where the Dead Sit Talking cover

Brandon Hobson has written at least two previous novels and a bunch of short stories, but this is my first book by him. It tells the story of about two years in the life of 14/15 year old Sequoyah, who has been living in foster homes and shelters since his mother was sent to prison for drug- and alcohol-related offenses. Sequoyah loves his mother but he has learned to distance himself from her, for his own sake. His case worker finds him a new foster placement in a rural area a couple of hours from where he’d been living in Tulsa, OK. He becomes the third foster kid in the Troutt’s house, along with 17YO Rosemary and 13YO George. Sequoyah is Cherokee and Rosemary is Kiowa, and that creates an instant bond between them, but their connection deepens as they spend time together. It’s never sexual but it’s emotionally very intense. George and Sequoyah share a room and also get to know each other, and mostly they get along, but George is focused and obsessive about his interests (he’s writing a novel, among other things) and he has trauma-based fears. So it’s not really a friendship, although they grow to care for each other’s well being. The Troutts are a bit odd but kind and supportive. The caseworker is also kind and supportive, although necessarily from a distance.

The entire story is told through Sequoyah’s POV. We learn about his upbringing and background through his ruminations and flashbacks, including his childhood in Cherokee County, his mother’s lapses, and the kitchen accident that left him with obvious facial scarring. Sequoyah wants to connect with people but he doesn’t really know how, and he veers from aloof to intensely attached depending on his mood and general state. He’s very much a teenage boy, but one who has had a difficult life and is having to make his way without stability or supportive love from any family members. His found family isn’t bad, especially given what it could be, and he does the best he can with it. Rosemary becomes the focus of his obsessive interest and attention, which creates problems because she is unstable and unpredictable.

Although a lot of things happen in the course of the novel, they’re related at such a controlled, subtle pitch that they don’t feel consequential until they sink in. In the hands of another writer the story could have been highly emotional and melodramatic. But that’s not how Sequoyah experiences and internalizes it, so we don’t either. The way it creeps up on the reader made it far more devastating to read than it would have been if the emotions had been raw on the page.

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September reading roundup

I’ve been reading pretty steadily all year, but the first month of the academic year is usually the time when I slow way down even if I’ve had a good summer of reading. This year followed that pattern, although reading the Booker longlist gave me a boost, and I had airplane/airport time, which always helps.

I read 6 1/2 books in September:

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney. I read this from my TBR because Rooney’s Booker-longlisted novel is frequently discussed in tandem with this 2017 debut. I reviewed it here on the blog. I still like this one better than Normal People, and I’m still a bit befuddled by the “Salinger of the Snapchat Generation” moniker being repeated unironically. For a genre reader the tropes she mashes together are pretty obvious, but her distinctive voice makes it her own.

Milkman by Anna Burns. Another Booker longlist that made it onto the shortlist and my co-favorite of the ones I’ve read from the longlist. This is why I keep reading prize nominees, even when I get a run of 3-stars in a row or am disappointed by the shortlist and/or prize choices. My review is here, and the only thing I can add is that I’m still amazed by how good it is. Also, a book that gives you “The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal” as a metaphor for divided society is a great, great novel.

Normal People by Sally Rooney. This is the Booker longlisted novel. I think I’ve said enough about Rooney in reviews, Goodreads threads, posts and comments here, and probably while doodling in seminars. My review is here.

Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon. This is the first Maigret mystery, which I picked up in a Kobo deal earlier this year, and I used it as a palate cleanser between Booker and NBA nominees. I’m late to Maigret but I like the character very much, and Simenon is wonderful with atmosphere. This is set in 1930s Paris, when the Marais was still a seedy neighborhood. It’s amusing and depressing to read about specific run-down streets when you know them primarily as tourist havens with temples of consumption. It’s a good-not-great book, best for Maigret completists.

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Goldsmiths Shortlist 2018

The Goldsmiths Prize shortlist was announced yesterday. This may be my favorite literary fiction award. It is dedicated to finding fiction that is innovative and plays with the boundaries of the form. Some nominees have been quite experimental, others less so, but they’re all interesting. I definitely haven’t liked every book I read from the lists, but I’ve also found some gems.

This year’s list:

  • Kudos by Rachel Cusk
  • Murmur by Will Eaves
  • In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne
  • The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici
  • Crudo by Olivia Laing
  • The Long Take by Robin Robertson

I’ve read the Cusk, Robertson, and part of the Gunaratne. I’ve been wanting to get the Eaves but it isn’t published in the US yet so there’s the inevitable finding-it-elsewhere issue (and no ebook version). I wasn’t much interested in the Laing, but I’ll read it now. And I’d never heard of the Josipovici although he’s 77 and greatly admired.

The Robertson and Gunaratne are on the Booker shortlist, and Kushner is nominated for the third straight year. The Laing was tipped by a number of people since it got quite a bit of buzz when it was published.

I’ll read the full list and report back. I need to write up a proper review of the Cusk. And I still have my three remaining Booker longlist books to write about, some of which I still have to finish.

I’m working on the National Book Awards list but haven’t started any of the Giller longlist yet. That shortlist comes out on October 1 and I may just punt and read those (plus whatever doesn’t make it that I already decided I wanted to read).

I would love a three-day escape where I did nothing but read books. Instead I’m reading hundreds of pages for work each week and I have two papers to revise in the next month. But that’s another whole post’s worth of complaining so I won’t do it here. 🙂

Recent Reading: Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

I still have three Booker novels to finish and review, but in the meantime I thought I’d post about other books I’ve been reading (yes, I do read books that are not on awards longlists!). I read this one because it was in my TBR from last year and it seemed helpful to read it before going on to Normal People. I liked it better than the latter, although I think Normal People is probably the better book in terms of execution.

Rooney’s debut novel has been wildly praised and hyped. She has been called the voice of her generation, and her agent’s coining of the phrase “Salinger of the Snapchat generation” has been repeated approvingly. With the praise and hype has come the inevitable backlash. When I sat down with the novel I tried to shut out the noise and concentrate on the pages in front of me. And mostly it worked. It’s very much a debut novel, but it’s quite assured, and Rooney definitely has a distinctive voice.

The plot/storyline is very basic: Undergraduates Frances (our narrator) and her best friend (and ex-girlfriend) Bobbi fall in with a rich, glamorous married couple in their 30s. Nick is an actor, Melissa is a journalist and writer. Bobbi is drawn to Melissa, Frances to Nick. They socialize , run into each other at professional and art events, and spend time in France together. Nick and Melissa’s marriage is complicated, and so are the four characters’ relationships with each other (in pairs and multiples).

The novel is made up of extremely familiar themes and characters:

  1. The older man-younger woman relationship, with the older man being married. Points for Nick not being a professor, even though this is set at college.
  2. The intense female friendship (IFF), which has become a thematic cottage industry for women writers in the last couple of decades.
  3. The coming-of-age novel, set at university. This never ever gets old, apparently, because every cohort comes of age and many of them either do it at college or find college interesting. And enough older cohorts want to read about it across the ages.
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Booker Longlist Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

This is a book I knew nothing about until it was longlisted for the Booker prize, but once I read it I put it at the top of my list. Burns has been nominated for other awards, and this novel was reviewed in the Guardian, but I didn’t remember that until I went looking for reviews and interviews.

The narrator of the book is an unnamed 18-year-old young woman living in an unnamed city in the 1970s, trying to navigate her life amidst social conflict and violence. The city is basically Belfast, the Narrator is part of the Catholic community, and the time period is the Troubles. Narrator’s primary interest is getting through life and not getting caught up in the maelstrom around her, for reasons she lays out early on:

Knowledge didn’t guarantee power, safety, or relief and often for some it meant the opposite of power, safety and relief — leaving no outlet for dispersal either, of all the heightened stimuli that had been built by being up on in the first place. Purposely not wanting to know, therefore, was exactly what my reading-while-walking was about.

And she is largely successful until the Milkman, who is very much part of the conflict, decides he wants to get to know her better (and perhaps more). Narrator fends him off as best she can, but the nature of his position and the way everyone must be classified, categorized, and assigned a position in an us-or-them world makes it impossible. From being a slightly eccentric but largely unnoticed person, she becomes part of the beyond-the-pale group, one which is marked and viewed with suspicion. And suspicion is easily transformed into danger in this world.

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Booker Longlist Review: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

Johnson’s debut novel (after a collection of well-received short stories) has been longlisted for the Booker Prize and has mostly quite positive reviews, so I’m in the minority in seeing it as a very mixed bag. It has some lovely turns of phrase and the descriptions of nature (and the characters’ relationships to nature) are striking and often very effective, but the overall project just didn’t work for me. The novel feels both over-egged and under-baked.

It’s over-egged because there is just too much going on that doesn’t feel entirely under the control of the author. It’s about a mother-daughter relationship, growing up in an unusual community, mysterious mythical creatures who sow fear and dread in that community, family secrets, and the reworking of Greek myths in contemporary terms. That’s a lot of freight for one short novel to carry. While the character of Gretel does most of the narration, the fulcrum of the book is her mother, Sarah, whose choices and actions shape much of the forward momentum of the past and present storylines. She gets an assist from the character of Fiona, a transgender woman who sees the future and feels compelled to warn those in danger. Fiona’s premonitions bring two storylines together in a way that is surprising unless you haven’t been told of or figured out which Greek myth is being reproduced here.

The under-baked part comes from the sketchiness of opacity of many of the characterizations, with some of the characters seeming to exist primarily to further the plot. Sarah, whose character is essential to giving meaning and depth to the story, remained frustratingly out of reach. I was told she was charismatic and nearly irresistible, but I rarely saw why. Margot’s family was strongly on page when Gretel needed them for information and when Fiona’s part in the story was at the forefront, but they weren’t fleshed out much beyond that, and even in the scenes in which they appeared they felt half-drawn. Charlie came across the same way to me.

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Booker Longlist Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

I wasn’t looking forward to this Booker longlist entry but I was impressed in spite of myself. I thought it was going to be new adult written as lit fic, but that assumption was way off. The novel doesn’t always work, but I found it thought-provoking and often very insightful. More tightly focused and less trope-y than Conversations With Friends, it’s a classic coming-of-age university novel but very much of this era (which makes me curious about how it will age and be regarded retrospectively).

Normal People cover

The plot is simple. Marianne and Connell grow up in the same small town in Sligo and go to the same secondary school. Marianne comes from a wealthy, dysfunctional family and Connell is raised by a single mother. Apart from school, the two are connected because Lorraine, Connell’s mother, is Marianne’s family’s house cleaner. Both are very intelligent but Connell is content and popular at school, while Marianne is basically an outcast. These opposites become attracted to each other and embark on a secret relationship, which ends before graduation when Connell humiliates Marianne in classic teenage-boy fashion. But before their break, both had decided to apply to Trinity College Dublin, so they make their separate ways there in the fall.

At college the tables are turned. Marianne’s wealth, standoffish personality, and general air of alienated boredom make her a welcome addition to the rich college kids’ clique, while Connell’s working-class background and friendly, relatively uncomplicated disposition place him at the margins of several groups (especially because he’s not interested in joining one of the many college societies). Ironically, Marianne comes to his social rescue when they encounter each other and resolve their breach. The deep connection and sexual attraction they feel for each other resurfaces and shapes the rest of their time at Trinity.

The novel is all interiority and focuses entirely on Marianne’s and Connell’s relationships (with each other and with other people). Although both are very smart and hard-working, the reader learns almost nothing about the substance of their studies until well into the second half of the novel. Instead we read about their not-a-romance, their hookups, their other sexual and romantic relationships, and their friendships, especially Marianne’s female friendships. They break up and make up, inexorably tied to each other as friends with or without benefits. Connell has one other long-term relationship which he thinks is a healthier one but which doesn’t satisfy him as much, while Marianne has a couple of unhealthy relationships in which men treat her badly (both physically and emotionally), to some extent at her request.

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The Man Booker Prize: 2018 Shortlist

I woke up very early this morning and remembered that the Booker Shortlist was being announced. The six books chosen:
  • Milkman by Anna Burns
  • Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
  • Everything Under by Daisy Johnson
  • The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner
  • The Overstory by Richard Powers
  • The Long Take by Robin Robertson
While I would have loved to see Donal Ryan make the shortlist, I didn’t really expect him to. It’s a wonderful book, but it drew mixed reviews from the readers in the Booker groups I frequent at Goodreads, and it had a couple of mixed to negative reviews in the professional critical press. There wasn’t a lot of buzz around it, which shouldn’t matter but seems to. I am not entirely surprised Warlight didn’t make it. Again, the fact that Ondaatje just won the Golden Booker shouldn’t matter, but it could, and it’s not a flashy book, although I think it’s beautifully written and interestingly constructed. I’ve also seen remarks to the effect that Ondaatje has written better books (and been recognized for them), so that could have weighed against inclusion if the judges agreed. I’m happiest about The Long Take and Milkman making the list. I haven’t posted a  review for Milkman yet but it is up there with the Robertson as my top choices, ahead even of the Ryan and Ondaatje. Milkman is funny, painfully true, and fascinating. I was afraid it was too under the radar to make it, so I’m thrilled. I’m equally thrilled about the Robertson, which I hoped would make it but thought might lose out to something more conventionally novel-shaped. Continue reading