Booker longlist reading: Books-in-progress update

I was hoping to have a couple of more Booker books finished, but instead I have two on the go and two to start and finish. So here’s an update in the meantime.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I have been switching between audio and ebook and neither is working for me. I see a lot of rave reviews but I’m more on the 1- and 2-star side of the ledger (there are quite a few  of these ratings as well). It feels less like a novel and more like a collage which started as a play, not because of the lack of plot, but because of the cacophony of voices and the lack of a clear through line. I’m fine with no plot (see my review of Autumn, among others), and I’m fine with multiple voices and an experimental style. I just can’t figure out what the author is trying to do here, and there’s not enough in the text itself to draw me in so that I don’t care that I don’t know. It also doesn’t help that David Sedaris always sounds like David Sedaris to me and the narrations feel overacted and/or self-consciously “historical.”

Three-quarters of the way through, I’m trying to figure out what on earth the use of “Bardo” in the title has to do with anything, since it doesn’t resemble the Buddhist bardo(s) with which I’m familiar. The African-American characters are introduced in discomfiting ways, and I’m still not sure why Lincoln’s pain is foregrounded in the title and blurb when the bulk of the book is about other characters. Maybe it all becomes clear in the last quarter.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy. This was a complete surprise to me. I borrowed it from the library on a whim, started reading, and just loved it. It has received a lot of mixed reviews, with the Booker reading group at The Reading Room ranking it at the absolute bottom of their list so far. I can see how the book could fail for readers, especially readers who are unfamiliar with India’s past and present sociopolitical contexts, as well as readers who prefer less political ranting and a more linear plot. But from where I sit, this is the book I’m so glad someone as talented as Roy has chosen to write about contemporary India. The BJP motto of India Shining, emerging superpower, etc. has dominated a lot of western (and Indian) discourse, which buries the enormous costs of the country’s economic gains of the last 25 years. Income and wealth inequality is higher than it’s been in decades (certainly since Independence), and Hindu nationalism is dominant (if you want to see how far white nationalism can go in a country and what it can do, this is your analogy).

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Booker longlist reading: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry is a highly respected and fêted Irish author, and this latest book has already won the Costa Best Book award for 2016. I’d been on the verge of buying it all year, and I’m not sure what held me back. I finally bought an ebook version and started with that. I also picked up the audiobook to finish the last few chapters.

This book has received a mixed reception among our little Booker longlist reader community. Liz loved it but it didn’t work for Teresa or Rosario, and I’ve seen similar criticisms in a Goodreads New Fiction group I lurk on. I’m a sucker for Western-set litfic, both historical and contemporary, so I was pretty sure I’d like this and I did.

The story opens in 1851, when the narrator, Thomas McNulty, meets his future friend, lover, and partner, John Cole, under a hedge in Missouri. They’re both young and broke and join together to find ways to support themselves, falling in love along the way. After a couple of years masquerading as young women to serve as dance partners for miners, they outgrow their roles and join up with the Army. As soldiers they remain side by side, experiencing the Indian wars on the western plains of Nebraska and Wyoming, the Civil War in Maryland and Virginia, Andersonville prison camp, and finally farm life in Tennessee (with interruptions along the way). They adopt an American Indian orphan, Winona, and together the three of them make a family that does its best to stick together through some of the country’s most turbulent times.

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Booker longlist reading: Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

One of my favorite aspects of Man Booker season is that I learn about books and authors I’d not heard of before. This year there were fewer of those finds, but this was a stellar one. McGregor has written several other books and is admired within the UK literary community, but he hasn’t really broken out in the US that I can tell. More shame for us, because this is an amazing novel. The Guardian has two excellent reviews which provide slightly different interpretations but agree on the quality of the work.

Reservoir 13 is nominally a mystery, in that it begins with the disappearance of a girl at the New Year. She goes off for a walk with her parents and vanishes. The family has been on holiday in a village in the Peak District, a place they’ve been coming for years, and the village rallies all its efforts to try and find her. The media descend and the intensive search throws a spotlight on the place and its people. For a while. Then another story comes along and the spotlight recedes, reappearing intermittently when new information comes to light or there is an anniversary. Meanwhile, the village residents go about their lives, touched to greater or lesser degrees by the event.

The book comprises 13 chapters, each representing a year since the disappearance. We get to know a dozen or more of them as they are born, die, move into or away from the village, get married and/or divorced, lose their jobs, and grow older. Their backstories emerge over chapters, which means the reader can feel a bit at sea at first. But keep reading and you learn a lot about them, and at least for me, by the end I felt enmeshed in the village and its life.

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Booker longlist reading: Autumn by Ali Smith

I’d been looking forward to reading this novel for months and the Booker longlist gave me the push I needed. It has been described as the “first Brexit novel,” and it is that, but it is much more as well. Liz and Teresa have written terrific posts about the book and you should definitely go and read them. Teresa notes the dreamlike quality of the (excellent) writing, and Liz draws attention to the way the emphasis on the artist Pauline Boty’s collage style is reflected in the novel itself, something I hadn’t noticed as I was reading but should have.

I’m a pretty literal reader, even of writing that is more abstract and experimental. What stood out for me in the book were the different relationships and the context in which Elisabeth was navigating a challenging life of academic precarity, apparently without much of a support structure. She and her mother love each other but they don’t seem to have a lot in common, and although she has renewed her important relationship with Daniel, it’s temporary and somewhat one-sided as he nears the end of his 100+ years.

Smith is an amazing writer, and the way she incorporates Brexit and the current political climate is somehow both direct and subtle, in the sense that it’s very present but it doesn’t feel heavy-handed. There is a chilling sequence where Elisabeth is applying for a passport renewal and the post office clerk behaves like someone out of 1984, or Terry Gilliam’s movie, Brazil:

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Booker longlist reading: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Hamid’s novel marks his second recognition by the Man Booker committee; The Reluctant Fundamentalist made it to the shortlist and while it didn’t win, it won a slew of other prizes. I had very conflicted feelings about that book. Stylistically it was impressive, but substantively it fell short in a number of ways for me. I hadn’t planned to read this one (I skipped the book he wrote in between, which was also well-reviewed), but as I said before, it kept staring at me from the New Fiction shelf and I read a couple of interesting exchanges about it on blogs and at Goodreads.

I started out thinking I’d read 40 or 50 pages and see how I felt about it, and I finished it within the day. Teresa’s review does an excellent job of capturing many of the novel’s strengths, so I’ll direct you to her Shelf Love blog for an overview. If you want a formal review, this one in the Sunday NYT Book Review by Viet Thanh Nguyen is absolutely brilliant.

I loved the way Hamid made the settings both specific and general. Knowing he was from Lahore, I assumed from the opening chapters that the novel was set in Pakistan, but then when the civil war intensifies the setting feels more like what we’ve seen happening in Syria over the last few years. The gradual breakdown of civilian life and the need to get out is captured vividly, even though his style in rendering scenes of loss and horror is often matter-of-fact:

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Reading the Man Booker longlist

I know, I’m surprised too. I’ve followed the Booker Prize awards for decades, and I’ve read quite a few of the winners and nominees, but until a couple of years ago it wouldn’t even have occurred to me to read the long and shortlist nominees in real time. But I’ve really enjoyed Liz McC’s and Rosario’s posts on their reading experiences, as well as a few other readers I learned about. Last year I bought a number of the books but of course failed to read most of them before the prize announcement in October (I’d only read the eventual winner, which I loved and admired almost unreservedly).

This year, since I’ve been reading a lot this summer and following various litfic conversations and challenges, a number of the books were familiar to me and/or ones I’d been considering reading. I sincerely doubt I could read all of them by the time the shortlist is announced in early September, but here’s the full list and how they stack up in terms of my interests:

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster. This was available at the library so I picked it up, but it’s 800+ pages of bildungsroman and seems to be based on the author’s life. I’m already in the middle of two 700+ page books about Men of Privilege and they are more interesting to me than the premise of Auster’s novel, so I doubt I’ll get to this one.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. I’m a sucker for dark literary westerns, so I almost bought this at the beginning of the summer. And it’s not long! It’s definitely on the must-read list.

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Recent reading: Head v. heart (AKA the litfic edition)

I’ve been reading across various genres this year, with a lot of literary fiction mixed in. Reading litfic requires mental muscles that I don’t exercise as much in genre, not because genre doesn’t require brain power, but because I’ll happily read a genre novel for its emotional payoffs or comfort-read benefits. If it’s not technically strong, I can live with that. Case in point: the Expanse series book I read earlier this summer. The writing was workmanlike at best and the plot meandered, but it was an interesting world and I was happy to fall into it.

With lit fic, I’ve been having the opposite reaction: the reading experience itself may not be great, but once I’m done and writing up my reactions, I realize the book’s strengths and have to give the author credit for them. Case in point: Ill Will by Dan Chaon. I put this on hold at the library when The Morning News announced its Rooster summer reading challenge.

a separation coverI was excited enough about the challenge to buy the first book, A Separation by Katie Kitamura, but that one turned out to be a major disappointment. As I ranted at my LibraryThing page:

I loathed this book, and that doesn’t happen often. I could live with the stream of consciousness and the lack of quotation marks. I was fine being in her head as a writing approach. I just found her, the narrator, deplorable. I don’t know WHY I was in her head. The book is marinated in privilege, and the occasional line of self-awareness doesn’t excuse the overall treatment of Greece and the Greeks as backdrop to Aimless Rich One-Percenters. But even that I could have put up with, if I hadn’t been so revolted by the narrator, especially in the 2nd half. I was OK with her in the first half, but she really went off the rails for me in the second. In real life you would find this person appalling, so what am I supposed to get from her as a fictional character? What does she illuminate?

Also, I now hate comma splices with the heat of a thousand suns. I didn’t hate them before this book, but I’m transformed.

Nevertheless, I gave the book 3 stars because I thought it was trying to do something interesting and worthwhile, and I could see how the approach might work for a different reader.

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Recent Reading: Yours and mine

My buddy-reader and longtime friend of DA, Keishon, suggested that I post about what I’ve been reading recently and ask other people to chime in on their reading in the comments. I would love to hear what other people have been reading, because I invariably get good suggestions (the latest is the Kate Hewitt book Liz McC talked about in her last post).

Here’s a sampling of what I’ve been reading:

The Stand coverStephen King’s The Stand. This was part of my post-apocalyptic reading trend. Keishon and I decided to buddy-read it since it was over 1100 pages and I’d tried and failed before. I made it this time! We both decided to read the director’s cut edition. In addition to being longer than the originally published version, King updated the time frame from the 1970s to the 1980s. If you’re unfamiliar with the US in the 70s it may not be that apparent to you, but for me it was a bit jarring at times. Still, I enjoyed the book a lot. I thought it was really three novels in one volume: First up was the introduction of the many characters and the spread of the virus. This was scary, fast-paced, and gripping. In the second section the various storylines and characters converged as the survivors made their way to one of the two sides. One was led by the forces of good as embodied in a 101-year-old black woman, and the other by Evil. Third and last was the leadup to and then the climactic battle between the two sides. The second part dragged the most for me, and there is a literal deus ex machina at the end, but overall it was a great ride.

Miss Jean Brodie coverMuriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. This is mystery novelist Ian Rankin’s favorite novel (he wrote his PhD thesis on Spark) and it’s been called perfect by critics. I can see why. It’s short, but Spark makes every word count. Miss Brodie is an unforgettable character, and despite the fact that the story is closely set in a girls’ school, the reader gets a rich, textured view of Edinburgh in that era. There is just so much packed into 160 pages, and it never feels forced or artificial. An amazing novel.

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Reader, I blogged.

Hello again. I tried the newsletter thing but it wasn’t for me. I’ve abandoned Twitter (I read my feed occasionally but don’t tweet now), and while I like Mastodon as a microblogging platform, it’s still finding its identity as a community, and the decentralization means it’s harder to find kindred spirits. So it’s a work in progress. But I still read a lot of blogs even though blogs are apparently dead dead dead, and they’re still my favorite form of conversation, especially about quotidian activities like reading and organizing my life. So I’m back.

Like a lot of people I know, I had trouble reading in the last quarter of 2016, especially after November 8. I found a bridge solution in reading fiction and nonfiction about people who had experienced or been raised in the shadow of collective traumas and managed to come out the other side. Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, Alejandro Zambra’s My Documents, and some post-apocalyptic genre fiction. Then this past January we took a week’s holiday where I read a lot in a short time, and I was off and running on the reading front, excepting times when work was overwhelming my waking hours.

I’m back to reading some romance, but only from a small handful of autobuy authors. Most of the romance novels being published today are emphatically Not For Me, at least not now. I’ve gone through these kinds of stretches before, where I read mostly other genres. Six years of reviewing at Dear Author meant that I neglected other types of fiction I’ve always enjoyed, and I’m catching up now.

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