Recent Reading: More award nominees and a timepass

Well, the Booker prize winner was announced last week. Now I know how people who disliked The Sellout felt last year. I loved The Sellout and didn’t mind that a US author won. This year half the shortlist was made up of US authors (writing very US-focused novels) and the best known, most garlanded author’s book won (George Saunders for Lincoln in the Bardo). Eh. Never mind. The longlist was awesome and I found new authors and novels I really enjoyed, and in looking for other longlist readers I stumbled across a couple of reading groups on Goodreads and blogs I didn’t know about.

I read two National Book Award longlist novels (neither made their respective shortlists), another Booker nominee, and one of the Goldsmith shortlist books:

Hate U Give coverThe Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. This seemed to be the It Book of its season, at least it was all over my Twitter feed and there were lots of feature stories about it in the press. I don’t read much YA so I didn’t put it on my TBR, but then I put a library hold on it out of curiosity and it came in right around when the NBA longlist was announced. I enjoyed it quite a bit. It feels like a debut; the structure is quite transparent, the plot goes pretty much the way you think it will, and if you’ve been paying attention to the many protests since Trayvon Martin’s killing some of the set pieces will look familiar (although they’re well written and integrated into the characterizations and storyline). The characters provide a little too much symmetry: there is a bad cop and also a good cop, a bigoted white teenager and an oblivious but trying-to-learn white teenager, good mothers and bad mothers. But the authorial voice is terrific, and the protagonist gives readers an important window into various aspects of middle- and working-class (and lower) African American life. The characters are quite nuanced and there’s something unaffected and fresh about the telling of the story, and it’s an important story to tell and tell well. Thomas does. Continue reading

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Recent reading: award nominees and challenge choices

September is always a super-busy month for me but I’ve managed to keep reading. In addition to the Booker shortlist in the first half of the month, the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist was announced last week. The Goldsmiths is given to a novel written by a UK or Irish author which is “genuinely novel and which embodies the sprit of invention that characterises the genre at its best.” There is frequently overlap with the Booker but not always, and usually not much. The six nominees are:

  • H(A)ppy by Nicola Barker
  • A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume
  • Playing Possum by Kevin Davey
  • Reservoir 13 by Jon MacGregor
  • First Love by Gwendoline Riley
  • Phone by Will Self

I’d heard of 4 of the 6 and was thrilled to see the MacGregor on the list. Like many readers, I’d never heard of Playing Possum, which is published by the wonderfully named Aaargh! Press. The Barker and the Baume had been on my radar, and I’ve been meaning to read a Will Self novel. I’ve managed to pick up half the list through the library and will order the Barker for sure.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading a bit more of the Booker list and other award-nominee novels, along with some lighter and more comfort-oriented fare.

History of Wolves coverA History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund. I bounced off the description because it sounded like another MFA-influenced novel about retrospective looks at teenage girls. But after it made the Booker shortlist and I read quite a few positive and convincing reviews and comments, I decided to try it. It didn’t start well; I had to force myself to keep reading through the first third of this novel. The writing felt overly self-conscious and I wasn’t convinced that it was in character. There are two storylines, one involving Maddie/Linda’s schoolmate and a teacher, the other involving a mother and child who come to live near Linda in the woods. The two parts don’t cohere and it’s not clear where anything is going. But then Leo, the father, shows up, and things start to fall into place.

The book is about so many things, too many really, because Fridlund can’t quite bring everything together. But the themes are important and her approach to them is unusual. The teacher-student relationship, the role of religion in Leo and Patra and Paul’s lives, Linda’s relationship with her parents, all of these are written beautifully and the twists and turns in each storyline are unexpected. Continue reading

The Man Booker shortlist

I woke up knowing that the Booker shortlist had been announced while I was asleep (10am BST). My first intimation that it was not what I and some other readers were expecting came when I read Rosario’s and Theresa’s tweets. Whoa. There were three I expected and three I didn’t, two choices that I agreed with and multiple omissions I didn’t. So, I suppose, a normal Booker year? Here’s the list:

  • 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
  • The History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
  • Elmet by Fiona Mozely
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
  • Autumn by Ali Smith

What was different for me this year was that I had read over half the list, which is far and away the most, and I’d been so sure, along with a few other people, that some of the books were slam dunks. In that category were the Ali Smith , which made it, and Reservoir 13, which didn’t. In the next category (probably but not a slam dunk) were Solar Bones, Lincoln in the Bardo, and Home Fire. I thought Days Without End and The Underground Railroad might suffer from the “too many awards already” problem, but the Barry certainly deserved to be there on quality grounds in my opinion, and the bookies and the rest of the literary world thought the Whitehead did too.

This year’s longlist was really strong, and there were always going to be worthy books left off. I’m still kind of stunned, though. I shouldn’t be; after years of reviewing genre novels I certainly know the importance of taste, and when you have a high quality threshold like you do here, taste is going to play a key role.

Of my choices that didn’t make it, the one I feel most strongly about is Reservoir 13. It’s a terrific accomplishment, it’s innovative while still being accessible, and McGregor is a long way from a household name. McCormack has already won awards for Solar Bones, and I’m guessing Home Fire will do well in upcoming award competitions.

Right now my first choice on this list is Autumn, but I plan to read the Fridlund and the Mozely before the announcement, and I’ll see how much headway I can make on the Auster. My taste-wise least favorite is the Saunders; I can see why it was chosen, and lots of smart thoughtful readers love it, but if it wins I’ll know how the anti-Sellout people felt last year. 🙂

The winner is announced on October 17.

How about you? What do you think? Are you surprised, pleased, befuddled, or some other emotion completely? Which ones are you going to read (or not)?

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: 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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