Review 1759: White Tears

You may think you know what’s going on in White Tears, but you don’t. Kunzru provides a few clues to that effect, but it’s easy to glide right over them.

Seth is a nerdy outcast in college when he meets Carter Wallace, a good-looking, popular rich kid. The two bond over sound and music. Seth has been immersing himself in techno when Carter introduces him to the gritty sounds of old-time Black country soul on vinyl and even older 45s.

After college, the two form a recording company, with Carter as the face and Seth doing the creative work and sound engineering. They are beginning to become famous for an old-fashioned sound, produced entirely by analog instruments. But Seth notices Carter losing focus and becoming more engaged with collecting.

One day, Seth is indulging his hobby of walking around New York recording noises when he catches someone singing part of a blues song, “Believe I buy me a graveyard of my own.” He plays it for Carter, who becomes obsessed with it. Carter uses the fragments from Seth’s recording to make what sounds like an old-time record, complete with cracking noises. Then he mocks up a picture of a 45, invents a singer, Charlie Shaw, and advertises the fake record on a collectors’ website.

What starts out as a seemingly harmless prank has serious consequences. Soon, apparently meeting a collector who wants to buy the fake record, Carter is severely beaten and left in a coma. Seth finds out his company and their apartment are both owned by the family corporation, and he is immediately dispossessed, the family claiming he is just a hanger-on. But Seth and Carter’s sister Leonie want to know what happened to Carter.

This novel is dark and unexpected. At first, I wasn’t so interested in the story about Carter and his fanboy Seth, neither of whom are that likable, but eventually I got sucked in. Again, it’s a novel I wouldn’t have chosen for myself, but I read it for my James Tait Black project.

Utopia Avenue

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Mortal Love

 

If I Gave the Award

Having just posted my review of the last book on the shortlist for the 2016 James Tait Black fiction prize, I am now posting my feature wherein I examine whether I think the judges got it right. In this case, of the four nominees, I liked two and disliked two.

I’ll start with the winner of that year’s prize, You Don’t Have to Live Like This by Benjamin Markovits. I felt that it handled its themes of racism and gentrification poorly and employed constructs of magazine writing that don’t really work in fiction. It also seemed bogged down by lots of ineffective and inconclusive conversations between characters and by an ineffectual main character.

The other book I didn’t really enjoy that much was Beatlebone by Kevin Barry, a fantasy about John Lennon visiting Western Ireland. Not much happens in this book, and what does happen, I didn’t find interesting. Although the novel is very well written, I thought it seemed like fanboy fiction.

The First Bad Man by Miranda July tickled my funny bone, with its plethora of eccentric characters. I found this novel bizarre but touching.

I would have given the prize to The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall. It’s about the isolation of an emotionally detached woman and events that allow her to open the door to the people in her life. I found it thoughtful and vital.

Review 1591: Ducks, Newburyport

The unnamed narrator of Ducks, Newburyport is a 40-something Ohio housewife who works from home making pies and cinnamon rolls for restaurants. She is a survivor of cancer, and she and her husband Leo are both working very hard to pay off her medical bills. She has four children, a sulky teenager, Stacy, from her first marriage and three young children from her second.

Ducks, Newburyport consists mostly of her mental ramblings as she goes about her day, a timid woman who rarely speaks her mind and is obsessed by her failures as a parent and daughter and by violent incidents in the news. The book almost completely consists of one 1,000-page sentence, if you can call a bunch of phrases beginning with “the fact that” or sometimes just lists of words a sentence. Periodically, this monologue is broken by a few paragraphs about a female cougar and her cubs.

Ducks, Newburyport breaks just about every rule connected with literature. It breaks the Strunk and White rule about not using “the fact that” about 50 times per page. It uses no traditional sentence structure or paragraphing except in the lion sections. It breaks notions of narrative. (It’s not stream-of-consciousness.) And it has a plot, sort of, but not in the traditional sense. I’m not sure if the novel is an elaborate joke or just Ellman thumbing her nose at the rules and winning awards while she does it. Lots of people have compared it to Ulysses, but Ulysses is more poetic. The narrative style alone may drive you nuts.

I noticed that Ellman gets a few things wrong. Some are to do with the age of her character, who makes lots of cultural references, many of which are too old for her. Certainly, the narrator is interested in old movies and songs, but the mistakes I’m talking about have more to do with Ellman being closer to my age than her narrator’s. She talks about everyone having their tonsils out when she was young, but that’s a 50’s or early 60’s thing rather than an 80’s. And similarly, she says just about every woman in America is on hormone replacement therapy, but that wasn’t even being prescribed as much when I was hitting menopause, and I’m older than Ellman. Some of her verbal habits, like calling underwear me-oh-mys just seem ridiculous and old-fashioned. Of course, this last could be characterization.

I also thought Ellman has been living in the U. K. too long to get an American housewife quite right. Just a small example is her repeated references to Bath Oliver biscuits. I doubt if many Americans know what those are, even if they’ve eaten them. I had to look them up, and I have eaten them. In general, as well, Americans don’t eat beans on toast, a phrase that she repeats excessively. Of course, again, that could just be a phrase that’s lodged in her head.

These are small things that you’d think her editor would have caught, if editors even edit anymore.

Did I like it? As soon as I got a feel for what the novel would be like, I assumed I wouldn’t finish it and kept waiting to decide to stop reading. But I found it oddly hypnotic, and I finished it. I found the narrator annoying as well as unreliable. She says she doesn’t remember things, but 80% of the novel is her memories. She also says she doesn’t remember her dreams and then relates them to the tune of several a page sometimes—another rule broken—which I found irritating, because I don’t like reading about dreams in fiction.

Would I read it again? No way. Does it deserve two (at least) prestigious literary awards? I have no idea.

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If I Gave the Award

Cover for Solace

Having posted my review of There but for the, I find that I’ve reviewed all of the shortlisted books for the 2012 James Tait Black Fiction Prize. Therefore, it is time for my feature where I explore whether I think that judges got it right.

Occasionally I don’t know which book to start with, but in this case it’s a pretty easy choice. I’ll start with the winner, You & Me by Padgett Powell. Sometimes, I think that critics and judges get so tired of the same old thing that they like books just because they’re different. This may be a classic example. It’s supposed to be a take-off on Waiting for Godot, as if Waiting for Godot needed one. I found it utterly unfunny and boring and thought it was the worst book in the bunch.

There but for the by Ali Smith was much better, but I found it annoying at times. A series of linked stories that are sometimes touching, the novel also featured some verbal gymnastics that I found tiring after a while, especially in the last section.

Cover for Snowdrops

Now, we come to Solace by Brenda McKeon, about the relationship between a man and his son in rural Ireland. I am torn between this one and the next shortlisted book. I found Solace interesting and insightful, also touching.

I think I’m going for Snowdrops by A. D. Miller as my choice. This novel is about the horrible results of a young British lawyer’s infatuation with a Russian girl and his resulting willful blindness during the wild 2000’s in Russia. It is a slowly developing but absorbing thriller. I liked it a lot.

If I Gave the Award

Cover for A Country Road, A TreeI just reviewed The Sport of Kings, which was the last book I read of the shortlisted books for the 2017 James Tait Black Fiction Prize. This means that it’s time for my regular feature, where I give my opinion of whether the judges got it right.

If you were paying attention to my last review, you probably already know that The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan doesn’t get my vote. I found it overblown and rambling, as well as depicting a bunch of detestable characters. Of course, I’m not a big fan of Southern Gothic.

Similarly, although I liked What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell better, I wasn’t that interested in the all too familiar story of a man falling in love with a prostitute nor in the explicit sexuality. The section about the narrator’s relationship with his father was more interesting.

Cover for The Lesser BohemiansNow, let’s get to the good stuff. I thought that A Country Road, A Tree was a fascinating biographical depiction of the life of Samuel Beckett during World War II. It wasn’t very venturesome in other respects, though.

That’s why, I’m guessing, the winner for 2017 was Eimer McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians. And I have to say, although I thought that A Country Road, A Tree was a great novel, I enjoyed the quirky, inventive narrative style of The Lesser Bohemians. It’s a toss-up for me, so we’ll say the James Tait Black people got it right.

 

 

Review 1319: The Lesser Bohemians

Cover for The Lesser BohemiansI found The Lesser Bohemians a difficult book to read, in more ways than one. Still, if you are willing to give it a try, you may find it rewarding. It won Britain’s oldest literary prize, the James Tait Black fiction prize, in 2017.

The narrator of the novel, whose name we don’t learn until the end, is an 18-year-old Irish girl who comes to London to attend drama school. She is naive and inexperienced, but she plunges right into a life of partying. Still, she has not yet accomplished what she wants to, losing her virginity.

Then she meets an older man in a pub. He is 38 and a well-known actor. They begin an affair that he makes clear is a casual one. Soon, however, she realizes she is in love with him. Darker times await.

One of the difficulties (but also joys) of this book is the writing style. Although the story is told chronologically, McBride writes in sentence fragments, smashes sentences together, shifts pronouns and verb tense, and plays with typography, leaving gaps between words and placing innermost thoughts in smaller type. Here, for example, is a paragraph about her first friendship.

Vaudeville she, drawing all around. Funniest. And good to found a friendship. At least she’s a side to go side by with to class. Vault a day then with its procession of self. What’s your name? Whereabouts are you from? Live close? I hate the announcing but new futures demand new reckonings so I shuffle around what I have. Not much, not much, only me. Far from exotic when there’s Spaniards and Greeks. And here the first Dane I’ve ever met. Australian girls. Not white or Irish. You mean English up North? I only crossed a sea. Speak French then? Amazing. Fluently? I’d love to slip my homogeneity but. On to the next class. Go.

Like the narrator, none of the characters have names until, toward the end of the novel, the narrator and her lover use their names in the text. This can make it difficult at times to tell which characters are speaking or being referred to. The shift to actual names signals a shift in clarity for the main character.

Another problem for some readers may be the rawness and explicitness of its sexuality and of some other subject matter. For we are dealing with two really damaged individuals. I had to laugh when I realized my library was shelving this novel with the romances. Trust me, this is not a romantic novel.

So, why do I say it is worth reading? For one thing, it has a great deal of energy that carries you along. Also, you come to know these characters, with all their flaws, and care what happens to them.

The novel shifts about 2/3 of the way through, when the man starts being honest about himself. One reviewer thought the novel sags a little here. Certainly, it shifts in style, and perhaps loses some energy, but I was interested in the story.

Perhaps I don’t believe the ending of the novel and what it promises after all the characters’ volatility. Still, I was touched by this book and thought it was well worth reading.

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If I Gave the Award

Cover for We Are Not OurselvesSince I just reviewed Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson, the last of the shortlisted novels for the 2015 James Tait Black Fiction Prize, it is time for my feature, where I give my opinion about whether they got it right or not. The 2015 list is a difficult one, because I didn’t love any of the shortlisted novels, but I thought all of them were excellent in different ways.

I read We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas the longest ago, in the same year that it was published. I recollect that, while I stayed interested in the novel, it was a long time before I was very vested in this story about a family coping with Alzheimer’s.

Fourth of July Creek was another novel with a more straightforward narrative. It focuses on people on the fringes of society in Montana. It is interesting and involving and ultimately touching as it explores the stresses upon an already fanatical man being pressured by the government.

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey uses a more inventive approach to narrative, it being a long love/hate letter from a woman to her former best friend. While it recounts the reasons for the destruction of their friendship, it reveals how the woman yearns to see her friend again.

Cover for Dear ThiefAlso a novel about a friendship and the winning entry, In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman is the most ambitious of the novels and also the one least likely to appeal to some readers. It is a tour de force in narration, consisting mostly of a long series of narratives by one character on a wide variety of subjects. It is the most thought-provoking of the shortlisted books and the most difficult.

I can understand why the judges chose In the Light of What We Know, but as I think about it, I have to choose the book that I connected with most. Although I enjoyed the winning novel, I also was just on the edge of irritation with it as I read it. So, for its slightly inventive approach and the connection I felt to the material, I am picking Dear Thief with a strong nod to Fourth of July Creek.

 

Day 1248: Literary Wives! First Love

Cover for First LoveToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

There is no conventional plot arc in Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, which won this year’s James Tait Black Fiction Prize. Among other things, it shows scenes from a dysfunctional marriage between a writer, Neve, and her husband, Edwyn. It also provides some insight into Neve’s upbringing—her bullying father and her detached mother, whose smile Neve describes as baring her teeth.

What does the title mean, though? We see no evolution of a relationship, only a few scenes of tenderness, but mostly shattering scenes of badgering and bullying from her misogynistic husband. Neve continually reminds herself that her older husband is ill and must feel terrible, but he treats her shamefully.

We see almost more of her previous relationship in her early 20’s with Michael, an American musician. He breaks up with her over a trivial incident and then returning, years later, entices her into a declaration of her feelings only to drop her again. Is this her actual first love? Because she sure doesn’t seem to love her husband. Are we to understand that her damaging first love destroyed her self-esteem to the extent that she puts up with this husband? I don’t know. Just some points to consider.

I’m not sure how much I liked this novel. It certainly provides insight into a classic abusive relationship, but there seems to be no end to this dire situation.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Literary Wives logoNeve seems to be drawn to manipulative, cruel men. Although there is some affection in her marriage, it seems to be dependent upon her completely submerging herself to his needs and demands. Edwyn is verbally abusive and on one occasion, physically abusive. The novel blurb describes them as an unsuited couple, but I can’t imagine anyone getting along with this man. Pity and fear seem to be the only things keeping Neve in her marriage. I think this is one of the worst marriages we have studied in this club.

Neve’s role in this marriage seems to be to cater to her husband’s every whim and make no demands. When she tries to reason with him out of his abusive ideas, her arguments are thrown back at her as bitchery and whining. Instead, she fares a little better if she holds her tongue. It is difficult to understand what Neve gets from this relationship.

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A New Project, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize Shortlist

In the most recent Tea or Books? podcast, Simon and Rachel discussed whether they were less or more likely to read a book because it had won a literary prize. This was an interesting topic to me, because as you may know, I am working on two projects to read the shortlists of the Man Booker prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction starting in 2010. Although I never used to read a book because it won a prize, I personally have found, despite some disappointments, that reading the shortlisted books has helped me by raising the quality of the books I read in general. I agree with Simon and Rachel, though, that the book winning the prize is not necessarily the best one in the shortlist.

During the course of this conversation, Simon mentioned the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, which is one of the oldest literary prizes in Britain and is given by the University of Edinburgh. (I hadn’t heard of it.) He said that he felt as if the books chosen for that shortlist more adequately represented what people were actually reading. That led me to take a look at the shortlist for that prize, and I decided that, nuts as it may seem, I would add the shortlist for that prize, just the fiction portion of it, to my projects, beginning in 2010 as I have done with the others.

So, here are the books that I have challenged myself to read. The winners are indicated in red (or purple, if there is a link to my review). It helps that I have already read half a dozen of them. I will transfer this information to a page where I can keep track of my progress. (Note that, depending on where you look for a list, there is some difference of opinion on the numbering of the years. I have chosen to follow the numbering that the prize itself uses.)

Cover for Wolf Hall2010

Strangers by Anita Brookner
The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt
Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Selected Works of T. S. Spivett by Reif Larsen
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Cover for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell
La Rochelle by Michael Nath
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

2012

Solace by Belinda McKeon
Snowdrops by A. D. Miller
You and I by Padgett Powell
There But For The by Ali Smith

2013

The Panopticon by Jenny Fagan
The Big Music by Kirsty Gun
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warren

Cover for Harvest2014

Harvest by Jim Crace
Benediction by Kent Haruf
The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

Cover for We Are Not Ourselves2015

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

2016

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry
The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
You Don’t Have to Live Like This by Benjamin Markovits

2017

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimer McBridge
The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan