Booker longlist reading: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Just under the wire, I finished one of my most eagerly awaited longlist nominees. Shamsie’s novel has received rave reviews all over the place and is the bookie’s favorite to make the shortlist. It’s a topic that I’ve studied and written on and one that matters a lot to me: the way in which the post 9/11 (and in this case, 7/7) attacks have reshaped the way Muslims are perceived and treated in western Europe and North America. Shamsie’s novel is set in the UK and focuses on the particular issues there, but the larger themes apply across many settings.

Liz, Rosario, Theresa, and other Booker Longlist readers have described the plot so I won’t rehash that here (you should definitely go read their reviews and the comments to them). Shamsie models her story on the plot of Sophocles’ Antigone, with a few modifications in the cast and family relationships. In her telling there are two central families, one comprising Isma, Aneeka, and Pervaiz Pasha, the children of a British-Pakistani man who died fighting with Islamist terrorists; and the other headed by Karamat Lone, rising front-bench politician and current Home Secretary whose marriage to a wealthy, successful American businesswoman has propelled his career. Karamat and Terry have two children in their 20s: Emily, an investment banker in NY, and Eamonn, a somewhat aimless but charming and handsome 24-year-old.

Isma is the older mother-substitute, who finally has the chance to pursue her own intellectual ambitions when twins Aneeka and Pervaiz reach adulthood. But her decision to pursue a Ph.D. in the United States sets a number of actions in motion, actions that will have devastating consequences for all of them. And Karamat Lone is drawn back into the Muslim community that has both raised and rejected him, with his political ambitions tied to events he can only imperfectly control.

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Booker longlist reading: Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

I’ve been looking forward to this novel since I read about the shortlist, although I can’t exactly tell you why. I don’t gravitate to Irish-set fiction, I’d never heard of the author, and the entire text is one long sentence (more on that later). That should be at least two strikes against it. But something in the description grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

I wish I had the talent to write this entire review in one sentence but I don’t so I’ll spare you and just use my normal rambling, overly-comma-filled style. Marcus Conway is a middle-aged engineer who lives in County Mayo, in a small village near the coast. The book opens with him listening to the Angelus bells tolling at noon. The reader knows (from the blurb on the back of the Irish version) that Marcus is dead, but Marcus doesn’t seem to. He stands in his kitchen, thinking about his life and his family. The rest of the text is made up of his memories of various events, although they often have an immediacy that makes them feel as if they’re happening in the present. Maybe when you’re no longer alive time doesn’t work the same way.

Anyway, Marcus reflects on his various roles: as a son, a father, a husband, and a civil servant. He’s mostly performed these roles very well, although he’s fallen down hard a few times. His marriage has weathered some storms but he and his wife, Mairead, have a strong, loving, and still passionate relationship. His daughter Agnes is an artist with a promising future ahead of her, and his son Darragh is off spending a year working his way through Australia and other countries far from home. Through Marcus’s recollections we get crisp images of each family member, as well as of some of the politicians and businessmen he clashes with as part of his job. McCormack does a phenomenal job of immersing the reader in Marcus’s life. At one point I was almost afraid to keep reading because I didn’t know if one of his family members would pull through, and I really didn’t want anything bad to happen. This is the power of fiction: in a hundred pages I was fully invested in people that I had no idea I’d even be interested in.

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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: 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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