Tag: Man Booker prize

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.


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.


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.


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.


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. (more…)

Booker Longlist Review: From A Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan

I’ve been waiting for this novel for a while, and when it landed on my ereader I told myself I would go slow. I couldn’t do it. The language sucked me in and I kept reading until I finished. It’s a short novel but packed with beautiful imagery and interesting characters.

Donal Ryan Cover

The book is divided into four parts, with the first three introducing different narrators and settings and the fourth bring the three disparate stories together. The first, Farouk’s story, is shattering. Farouk is a doctor in Syria and he and his family have paid a broker to get them out, via boat, to Europe and future safety. Farouk’s wife is ready to take the risk and their daughter is cheerful and relatively unaware. When things go terribly wrong, Farouk can’t cope with the reality.

What worked so well for me in this story was that Ryan didn’t attempt to portray a highly realistic and detailed portrait of a Syrian refugee’s life and context. Instead, he concentrates on Farouk the relatively privileged, educated man who has confidence that his money and sophistication will keep him from making avoidable or irretrievable mistakes. He doesn’t, and that compounds the tragedy and makes it even harder for him to come to terms with what happens. It’s a different way to approach a refugee as Anyman, emphasis on the “man,” because were we to see the story through his wife Martha’s eyes it would have been a different one. While as a reader I concentrated on the story being told, I realized in retrospect that this was also a story about masculinity and how it privileges and confines Farouk.


Booker Longlist Review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

This novel has now been longlisted for both the Booker and Giller prizes. It was one of the novels I especially looked forward to, and I found its themes interesting and ambitious, but the execution ultimately unsatisfying.

George Washington Black is a young boy, an outdoor slave on a Barbados sugar plantation, when he is plucked from the fields to assist the scientist brother of the villainous plantation master. When a cousin of the family dies and Wash is likely to be implicated, the brother, named Titch, and Wash take off in an airship. Thus begins their adventure, which takes Wash from Barbados to Virginia to arctic Canada to England and beyond, all in a brisk 350 pages.

The novel has the structure of an adventure story but Wash is a slave and Titch is the brother of his master and it’s 1830s US and England. So there’s much more going on than the normal coming of age story (Wash is barely a teenager when the novel opens). The first part, set on Barbados, is unsparing in its depiction of the horrors of plantation slavery. The villain may seem cartoonish and the conditions exaggerated, but the historical record pretty much confirms that this depiction is not unusual. The publisher’s blurb calls it steampunk, but none of the science is far-fetched. Airships, diving suits, and the types of scientific inquiry and specific experiments being conducted were all around at the time the story is set.

Since this is one of the Booker longlist choices a lot of people have been reading it at the same time, and I have felt as if I’m reading an entirely different book from them. Some readers have focused on the adventure aspects, calling it a rollicking story. I never had that feeling. Wash is a fugitive slave for a large portion of the book, and he’s chased by a bounty hunter for most of it. He’s at risk for capture in the US portion, especially since slavery is still legal, and in Canada and England he’s frequently treated as something less than human. When he falls in love and enters into a romantic relationship it regularly puts him at risk. His great scientific and artistic achievements are appropriated by white men, who encourage him but either can’t or don’t find ways to give him credit for his contributions. The story is suffused with the knowledge that he will probably never have a fully peaceful, satisfying life, because the world will not allow it.


The literary awards season is upon us

Yesterday the Giller Prize longlist was announced. Last week the National Book Awards longlists were announced, comprising four old and one new categories: fiction, poetry, nonfiction, juvenile fiction, and now translated fiction. On Thursday the Booker shortlist is announced, and then next week the Goldsmiths shortlist is announced. That’s a lot of potential books to read. And no, I’m not planning on reading all of them. I will finish the Booker longlist (and keep posting my reviews). I have 1 1/2 books to go and hope to have the 1/2 done by Thursday. I’m intrigued by the Giller list and I’ve only read one book from the longlist, Washington Black by Esi Edugyan, which is also a Booker longlist nominee. I’m planning to sample as many books as I can from the Giller and NBA longlists, but there’s no way I can read them before the shortlists are announced in October. I really enjoyed my Giller readings last year, though, not least because I hadn’t even heard of many of the books. The US literary industry is terrible at covering Canadian lit until there’s an award nomination unless the person is already well known. Here’s the longlist from the CBC website (links go to CBC pages which tell you more about the books and authors: (more…)

Booker Longlist Review: The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

This is the first book of Kushner’s that I’ve read, but I was aware of her earlier novels and I knew the general subject and themes of this one before I started reading it as part of the Booker 2018 longlist. It has received a lot of advance press and glowing reviews, and Kushner has given a number of interviews. It’s definitely been one of the most talked-about books of the year.

Mars Room cover

I went into it with high hopes, because mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex are issues I’m very interested in. But I found this book to be quite disappointing overall. It has flashes of brilliance, and Kushner has a distinctive and interesting writing style, but the flaws made it a very frustrating read.

These are big subjects, hard to wrestle into a coherent form, and it shows. The main narrator of the novel is Romy Hall, a 30-something woman who is serving two life sentences plus six years for the killing of her stalker. Romy has earned her living as a dancer in a strip club and supports her young son, first in San Francisco and then in Los Angeles. She earns just enough to survive, living in the Tenderloin in SF and in a run-down immigrant neighborhood in LA. When she is arrested she winds up in county jail until her trial, where she is represented by an overworked public defender. She refuses to plea bargain (unlike the vast majority of indigent plaintiffs) and winds up with a very harsh sentence and incarceration in the Central California Women’s Prison in Chowchilla (here renamed Stanville). This is where the story begins; we learn Romy’s past through flashbacks and conversations.

In addition to Romy, we get POV narration from another inmate, Martinez, as well as two men: Gordon Hauser is a permanently-ABD English grad student who gets a job as a teacher in Stanville, and Doc is a bent cop who is in prison for life for two murders (he’s convicted for two but has killed more than that). Hauser is well-meaning but ineffectual and somewhat pathetic; Doc is a sociopathic racist and misogynist. Oh, and we also get excerpts from Ted Kaczynski’s diaries, to which Kushner had access through an artist friend.


Booker Longlist Review: The Long Take by Robin Robertson

I don’t read a lot of poetry and the last verse novel I read was Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate, which came out many years ago. But I was intrigued by the reviews and when it made the Booker longlist I moved it up the TBR. Robertson is a highly acclaimed poet, one of two people who has won the Forward Prize for poetry in three different categories.

The Long Take Cover

This is a true verse novel, in my opinion. It is written primarily in poetic form (with short prose sections) but it has the structure and beats of a prose novel. The narrator is Walker, a Canadian veteran of World War II. We meet Walker in New York City in 1948, where he has landed because he feels he cannot go home again and pick up his old life, not given the man he feels he has become. Walker is still suffering psychologically and emotionally from his war experiences, and he is very much a loner. He decides to move west to Los Angeles, where he lives in an SRO and obtains a job on a left-leaning daily newspaper.

Walker is drawn to the skid row community, many of whom are veterans, and he strikes up a friendship with Billy, an African-American veteran and activist. Billy introduces him to members of the community, and Walker gets to know the people in his neighborhood, many of whom are old and in financially precarious circumstances. He spends much of his time walking the streets of LA, from downtown to the ocean. The veteran and senior community he is part of is in stark contrast to the image of Los Angeles as new, presentist, and ever-growing, with construction wiping out what past existed. This perspective is both challenged and reinforced by the film industry: challenged because film noir in particular exposes the corrupt and seedy underside of the construction boom, and reinforced because it can’t help showing Los Angeles in a glamorous light.