Review 2179: A Shock

If I hadn’t been reading A Shock for my James Tait Black project, I certainly would not have picked it out based on its description on the back cover: “a rondel of interlocking stories . . . both deracinated and potent with place, druggy but shot through with a terrifying penetration of reality.” How pretentious.

The stories are unusually linked, by characters but also by stories told in a pub. Although I found some of them interesting, I did not find them emotionally engaging, and the explicit sex in some of them is not my thing.

Notice that I haven’t said what they are about. That’s because it’s hard to describe, and a short recap of each story wouldn’t help. Although not exactly magical realism, some of the stories, while apparently set in reality, become a little fantastical.

And that’s what I have to say about that.

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If I Gave the Award

With my review of The Deadman’s Pedal, I have finished reading the shortlisted books for the 2013 James Tait Black Fiction Prize. Therefore, it is time for my feature, where I decide whether the judges got it right. This year the shortlisted choices couldn’t be more different. They range from a very cerebral novel that traces a family history by imitating a classical bagpipe musical form to a less cerebral depiction of a deceptive personality to two novels about young people trying to find their way. Although all of these novels are about personal topics, I have ordered them in this paragraph from the most intellectually removed to the least.

The most cerebral of these novels is The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn. This novel traces relationships between fathers and sons by using a classical form of bagpipe music as its organizing structure. It is a form dependent on repetition and embellishment, so although I found this novel high in concept, it was also a bit fascinating. Still, the repetitions proved a bit much for me.

The next most cerebral of the novels is Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. This is a novel about a poet who considers himself a fraud and spends his time arranging his face to look intelligent or thinking of profound things to say. The novel is funny at times, but I found myself getting lost in its logical circumlocutions and I strongly disliked the main character (not that that is necessarily bad).

At the beginning of the award-winning The Deadman’s Pedal, I found myself heartily disgusted by teenage boys and the love critics have for coming-of-age novels, those about boys, anyway. Then as the young Scottish protagonist went to work for the railroad, I got more interested until the book became mostly about adolescent sex.

That leaves me with The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan, although I am not entire satisfied with my choice. I was absolutely rivetted by this story of a vivid young girl who has been failed by the system. However, I also believe that in some ways this book is slighter than some of the others. I will say, though, that of these four authors, Fagan is the only one whose other books I have looked for.

Review 2168: The Deadman’s Pedal

I had a few thoughts when I began reading this novel that weren’t necessarily connected with how well I liked it. One was how much male writers and critics love coming of age stories, at least if they’re about boys. If they’re about boys, they’re literary fiction (hence the James Tait Black prize win). If they’re about girls, they’re women’s fiction. Take Philip Roth, for example. He’s written the same novel over and over, and back at the turn of the century, he was the only writer who appeared twice in Time magazine’s list of the 100 Best Books of the 20th century. This coming of age novel was one I read for my James Tait Black prize project.

My second observation was more personal. In the beginning of the novel there is some joking around between 15-year-old Simon Crimmons and his friends. Now, I know that at this age a lot of things are said between boys to impress each other, but I found the way they talked about girls disturbing. I actually asked my husband if when he was this age, boys talked this way, and he said no. But he would have been about ten years older than these boys at the time these scenes are set in 1973. Everything they said was so objectifying, it’s no wonder young girls have image problems.

Anyway, Simon is nearly 16 at the beginning of the novel and wants to quit school and get a job. His father owns a fleet of trucks, but Simon can’t work for him until he is 18, so he ends up accidentally applying for a railroad job. His parents are very much against his quitting school, but he is headstrong. Another title for this book might be “Adolescents Making Poor Decisions.”

Simon seems to be a grounded individual who knows who he is, but even as he is getting sexually involved with his girlfriend, Nikki, he meets Alexander and Varie Bultitude and is fascinated by them. They are the teenage children of the area aristocrats, and they seem much more fluid in nature, trying on the hippie look of the times. Simon and Alexander have books and music in common, but we get the sense that to Alexander, Simon is just a way to spend time while he’s home from school. Simon and Varie, on the other hand, have little in common. She’s interested in horses, geology, and the occult. But she is beautiful and he’s fascinated by her.

Much of the novel is about class. Simon complains once that he is too middle class for his fellow railroad workers and too working class for the Bultitudes. Varie is surprised to find he lives in the largest house in his village, and she mistakes his mother for the gardener. His parents have worked their way up from the working class and are dismayed to see him going back down.

Warner seems to have captured the banter of the railway men and the dynamics of small-town Scotland, remote Scotland, too, where they are nearly at the end of the railway line.

I became more interested in this novel when it moved away from Simon’s school friends, especially the frightful Galbraith, to the working world of the railroad. However, I wasn’t much interested in the adolescent obsession with sex.

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Review 2083: Heads of the Colored People

I read Heads of the Colored People for my James Tait Black project. It is a collection of short stories, many linked by common characters, that explore black identity in the middle class, a hyper-aware Californian middle class.

In “Heads of the Colored People,” what starts out as a somewhat comic clash at Comicon ends up as headlines because of Fighting While Black.

In “The Necessary Changes Have Been Made,” Randolph, one of the few black professors at an HBUC, learns that the problems he has had with his office mate are probably race-related.

In “Belles Lettres,” two highly educated black mothers duke it out by letter over their two schoolgirls.

In “The Body’s Defense Against Itself,” Fatima, one of the schoolgirls now grown, sees a woman in her yoga class who reminds her of her old arch-enemy. This makes her remember her years of body self-hatred.

In “Fatima the Biloquist: A Transformation Story,” Fatima, now a teenager, feels too white, as one of only two black children in her school. She meets Violet, an albino black girl. who offers to teach her how to be black.

And so on.

Some of the stories are funny but usually with a bite, such as “Suicide, Watch,” about a woman so obsessed with social media that she hints at suicide just to see if her numbers go up.

Some of theses stories verge on the bizarre, but I think most people can find something to relate to in them. They are insightful and original.

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Review 2065: The Invisible Bridge

One of the reasons I learned to love reading was that I got swept up into another time or place or even world. As I got older and more discriminating, this experience happened less often. It happened most recently within a few pages of starting The Invisible Bridge, which I read for my James Tait Black project.

Andras Lévi, a young Hungarian Jew, arrives in Paris in 1937 to study architecture. He has brought with him a letter that an acquaintance asked him to mail once he was in Paris. He mails the letter but notices the address.

Soon he is involved in the technicalities of art school, made more difficult because he almost immediately loses his scholarship, a first act of the anti-Semitisim that is perceptibly increasing, although not as bad in Paris as it was in Budapest. He seeks a job at a theater from Zoltán Novak, a man he met on the train from Hungary. When he begins a friendship there with an older actress, she sends him to lunch with friends at the address on the envelope he mailed, and that’s how he meets Klara, an older woman with whom he falls madly in love.

This novel, which starts out seeming very particular, about a love affair between two people, grows into a novel of great breadth, covering events of World War II, the Hungarian Holocaust, life in work camps, the siege of Budapest. All of it is centered in the importance of family.

I absolutely loved this novel. It is sweeping, wonderfully well written, touching, harrowing. And what a story, based on the lives of Orringer’s grandparents. I can’t recommend this book enough.

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Review 2058: Crudo

If I had ever heard of Kathy Acker, I might have appreciated Crudo, which I read for my James Tait Black project, more. The novel incorporates her writing and depicts a woman named Kathy who has had a double mastectomy and otherwise seems to echo Acker’s life except that it is set in 2017, some years after her death.

The novel is primarily a character study. Its events, with some reminiscences, are days leading up to her wedding and the month afterwards. She is extremely neurotic and sometimes seems almost paralyzed by world events. She is commitment phobic and yet is getting married, so she obsesses about that. She thinks in very graphic terms and expresses herself crudely at times. She decides to do something and changes her mind. She has screaming fits because the deck was painted brown.

Altogether, she is a difficult and infuriating woman. I didn’t like her at all, which interfered with my enjoyment of the novel.

Laing’s writing is clean and vivid. She appropriates the words of others as did Acker, but her appropriations are noted at the end of the novel.

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Review 2031: Attrib. and Other Stories

I found Attrib. and Other Stories, which I read for my James Tait Black prize project, a little intimidating, as I find reading poetry. That’s because, although I enjoy language, I use and understand it more straightforwardly.

Williams, on the other hand, clearly loves to play with language while also understanding the moments when it fails you. Two of the stories demonstrate this: “Alphabet,” in which a sufferer from aphasia is forgetting her words along with her lover, and “Spins,” where the narrator contemplates her inability to find the right word as her lover stomps out the door.

“Smote,” subtitled “(or when I find I cannot Kiss You in Front of a Print by Bridget Riley)” was a bit much for me in the verbal gymnastics department, but then its ending was so simple. The most straightforward story and the one that affected me most was “Spines,” about a family on vacation that can’t be bothered to remove a drowning hedgehog from the swimming pool.

Williams is playful and imaginative in her writing. Most of the stories (all except “Spines”) are written in the first person and feel very personal.

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If I Gave the Award

Having just reviewed the final shortlisted novel for the 2010 James Tait Black Prize for Fiction, it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. Most of the shortlist left me unsatisfied for this year, but it contains two wonderful books.

The novel I found least interesting was Strangers by Anita Brookner. The story of a lonely man and his unsatisfying relationships, I found it slow moving and repetitive, although it was well written.

I have loved some of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels and applaud him for seeming to try different things, but I found his collection of short stories about music and fame, Nocturnes, unsatisfying. I also found some of the situations frankly unbelievable.

The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen is probably the most unusual of the entries. It is a boldly illustrated story about a boy genius and his trip to the Smithsonian to accept a fellowship. I found some of the aspects of the story unlikely, but my biggest problem with it was the narrator’s voice. There was no time that the voice sounded like a 12-year-old boy, genius or not.

Cover for Wolf Hall

The winner of the prize that year was The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt. I can understand why it won, because it is an ambitious novel that tries to paint a portrait of Victorian society against the microcosm of one family’s experience. It is also completely absorbing, so I think it deserves the award.

However, the other shortlisted book was Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, a fascinating novel about the life of Thomas Cromwell and one of my favorite novels of all time. I’m not saying that the judges got it wrong this time, but the choice between these two would be difficult for me. I’m guessing The Children’s Book won because of its larger scope.

Review 2009: The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

Tecumseh Sparrow Spivet is a 12-year-old boy who spends most of his time on a Montana ranch mapping things. Not just making geological maps but mapping the everyday activities on the ranch—his sister’s technique of shucking corn, the regularity of his father’s sip of whiskey, as well as numerous scientific subjects. In fact, his mentor, Dr. Yorn, has encouraged him to submit drawings to various journals, and he has had some published.

T. S. does not feel comfortable at home. He is mocked by most of his schoolmates. He feels he is a disappointment to his rancher father, and his scientist mother, whom he calls Dr. Claire, seems to be completely obsessed by the search for a particular beetle. Worse, his oldest brother has recently died.

One day he gets a call from the Smithsonian. It appears that Dr. York submitted one of his diagrams as an entry in a prestigious fellowship and he has won. Dr. Jibsen, unaware of his age, informs him he is expected at the Smithsonian on Thursday to give a speech.

At first T. S. hesitates about accepting the award, but then he decides to go to Washington. He packs up some things and hops a freight train east.

Liberally decorated with T. S.’s drawings and musings, this novel is inventive and sometimes funny. In a way, it is meant as a wild romp with a philosophical dint, so maybe we’re meant to overlook the truly implausible aspects of the story, such as that a recipient of an important award would have someone on the Smithsonian end immediately organizing his flight.

I was drawn along at first and ready to suspend my disbelief, but first, what can your hero do while he spends several days on a freight train getting to Chicago. Nothing, right? If you are expecting a picaresque series of adventures like I was, you’ll be disappointed. But T. S. has brought along one of his mother’s notebooks, which is how he discovers she is writing a novel about one of his father’s ancestors. Larsen inserts the entire contents of the notebook into the middle of the novel, with a few interruptions. At first, it was interesting, but after a while I sighed every time I saw the typographic clue that the novel was restarting.

This is all fairly unimportant, though, against the criticism that T. S.’s voice is never convincing as that of a 12-year-old, genius or not. Yes, he is childish at times, but then his voice is much too young for a 12-year-old. But most of his musings and concerns are those of an adult.

Is the book fun to read? Yes, mostly. But I tired of it after a while.

I read this book for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1885: Travelers

When I first began reading Travelers, I thought I would be disappointed in it, because the bio said Habila had won several awards for his writing, but I found a misplaced modifier in the first few pages. Can’t help it—I’m a grammar nerd. However, I soon found the novel compelling.

It is structured as six novellas, which are linked by the presence or acquaintance with the unnamed narrator. He is a Nigerian student who is supposed to be finishing his dissertation in Washington when his American artist wife receives a fellowship in Berlin. Their marriage has been suffering since she had a miscarriage, and they see the move as an opportunity for a new start, but while his wife works hard, the narrator seems to be aimless, wandering around Berlin and ignoring his work. He becomes interested in a group of activists living in a squat and taking part in demonstrations. Several of them are refugees from Africa, including Mark, a transgender artist.

In this first novella, we meet Manu, who we learn about in the second novella. As Manu’s family crossed the Mediterranean in a derelict boat, the boat sank and he lost track of his wife and baby son. Every Sunday, he and his daughter search the area around Checkpoint Charlie for his wife and son.

In the third story, Portia, a Zambian studying in England, has traveled to Basel to meet Katharina, who used to be married to her brother David. She has gone there to understand her brother better, a man who always seemed to want to leave home, but also, at her mother’s behest, to find out why Katharina killed him.

In the fourth story, after meeting Portia and traveling with her to Basel, the narrator listens to the tale of a Somalian whom he meets on a train. This man and his son have suffered unimaginable hardships trying to find a place for themselves and their family. However, in a moment of confusion, the narrator loses his identity papers and finds himself incarcerated in a refugee camp.

This novel examines the state of many east and west African countries and the plight of African refugees in Europe. Habila is a master at quickly involving readers in the lives of its many often incidentally encountered characters. I read Travelers for my James Tait Black project.

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