If I Gave the Award

Having posted my review of the last shortlisted book for the 2018 James Tait Black Fiction Prize, I think it’s time for my feature where I discuss whether the judges got it right. The four entries for this year are disparate and for each of them, I have both positive and negative reactions. In fact, this is so much the case that I hardly know which book to start with or to pick. I’ll just work my way toward the winner.

I guess I’ll start with First Love by Gwendolyn Riley, because I’m still not sure what Riley meant by the title. The novel depicts the main character’s two abusive relationships, one with her older, ill husband and the other with her first boyfriend. Although these depictions are realistic, the theme doesn’t give the reader much to like.

American War by Omar Al Akkad was not my genre, being a dystopian novel about the results of climate change and about how young people are radicalized for war. However, I found it completely engrossing, despite disliking its themes.

White Tears by Hari Kunzru is about a relationship between two young men in college who form a friendship and a company based on a mutual fascination with sound. However, it turns out that that neither the narrator nor the reader understands what is going on, and the novel gradually moves from complete realism to having a strong supernatural bent. Although this novel flagged for me at times, its ending was so unexpected that Kunzru was the only author of these four from whom I wanted to look for more to read. (Although this reminds me that I have not yet done that.)

The winner of the award that year was Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams. I can understand the judges’ choice, because this collection is so playful with language. Still, I only had a strong reaction to a couple of the stories and felt that its playfulness was beyond me at times. Also, I often struggle with short fiction.

So, which book did I think should get the award? I had the biggest reaction to White Tears, but didn’t think I should give the honor to a book that flagged for me at times. American War was the only one I called engrossing, but it was also really not the kind of thing I like to read. Attrib. and Other Stories was way above my head at times, but at other times it was funny and endearing. I think for this shortlist, I’ll recommend that, if you want to read one, pick the one that sounds most interesting to you. That’s right. I am totally copping out.

If I Gave the Award

Having just posted the review for the last of the shortlisted books for the 2020 James Tait Black Award, I find it is time for my feature, where I decide if the judges got it right. This time it’s going to be a hard one, for none of the nominated books struck much of a chord with me. Usually, I judge the books by how I reacted to them, as most people would do, I think.

Often, I start with the book I liked least, but I am not even sure which one that is. So, I guess I’ll start with the winner, Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman. This book is by far the most experimental of the four shortlisted books, which I’m guessing is why it’s the winner. It is mostly one 1000-page sentence—except for short passages of regular narrative—and it breaks just about every rule of fiction I can think of. I felt that Ellman got details wrong for her character, a middle-aged American Midwestern housewife. She seemed too old and too British. The novel was compelling enough in an odd way for me to finish (that is, I kept wondering why I was still reading it), but didn’t have much of a payoff.

A lot of people are calling linked short stories novels these days. The James Tait Black award is for fiction, but almost every entry I have read so far has been a novel or a novel of linked stories, so Sudden Traveler by Sarah Hall is an anomaly. That is, it is definitely a collection of short stories rather than linked stories making a novel. Some of these stories are slice of life and some quite fantastical. Although I liked another book I read by Hall, I am not generally so comfortable with short fiction (although I like the linked story novels) or with the fantastic, and I found some of the stories perplexing. If this book had any overarching theme, I guess it might be girl power.

Although I liked Girl by Edna O’Brien, it is definitely the least experimental of all the entries. It is a very short, straightforwardly told story about a young Nigerian girl who is kidnapped and the results of that even after she is returned to her family. O’Brien’s writing is beautiful and the novel is affecting.

I’m ending with Travelers by Helon Habila, a novel of linked short stories about the plight of African refugees in Europe. Does that mean I liked it best? I’m not even sure. If I had to pick a winner, I guess it would be either Girl or Travelers. I had more of a response to Girl but think it is slighter than Travelers. Do I think the judges got it right this time? If they are awarding for experimentalism, maybe, but I’m not even sure whether Ducks, Newburyport deserves all the accolades it got. I think that sometimes reviewers in any genre of media get excited because something is different, and this may be a case of that.

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

Telegraph Avenue

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.

Related Posts

4321

Milkman

The Lesser Bohemians

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.

Related Posts

First Love

Dear Thief

All the Birds, Singing

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 was shortlisted for the 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.

Related Posts

Stay With Me

The Happy Marriage

The Headmaster’s Wife