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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Review 1824: The Big Music

This high-concept novel is admittedly a bit demanding to read. Although it is the story of difficult family relationships, a distinguished heritage, a dying man, it is written to convey a sense of the piobaireachd, the classical form of bagpipe music, a type of music dependent upon repetition and embellishment.

John Callum Sutherland, an old man nearing his death, is trying to complete a piobaireachd called “Lament for Himself.” Because of his fears of his father, a famous piper, John Callum as a young man left behind his long, distinguished family history and vowed never to return. Only once he returned after his father’s death and met Margaret MacKay, the housekeeper, did he realize what he missed by leaving, the music and the great love.

Now, dying and off his meds, John Callum needs a new note for his piobaireachd. He decides he can find it by taking Katherine Anna, Margaret’s infant granddaughter as well as his own, to his small hidden hut where he works on his music. As he goes, he imagines the melodies made by Helen, Margaret’s daughter, when she finds her baby is missing.

Margaret has summoned Callum Innes, John Callum’s son, from the south because she knows John Callum doesn’t have long to live. Callum has never lived in the remote family home in Sutherland. He has only spent his boyhood summers there and has never felt part of it. He too fears his father.

This novel is about a family home, a family legacy, music, and the relationships between fathers and sons. It is at times touching, but it appeals more to the cerebral than to the emotional. Not only is the novel written in the form of the piobaireachd and attempts to convey the music, but it is heavily annotated and makes the novel itself, and the writing of it, the center of the story in the postmodern fashion. Finally, it provides nearly 100 pages of appendixes for those interested in the history of the family, the piobaireachd form, the geography of the area, and many other topics.

I found this novel, which I read for my James Tait Black project, more intellectually interesting than involving. I have to admit to tiring of some of its repetitions, most often of the footnotes in continually referring readers to the appendixes.

Every Note Played

Fair Helen

Dirty Birds

Review 1816: Sight

Hmmm. I find it hard to evaluate Sight because even though it explores very personal thoughts and feelings, it appealed mostly to my intellectual side not my emotion. And I have the greatest response to the latter. Some readers on Goodreads compared Greengrass to Rachel Cusk, and I can understand the comparison.

Sight is concerned with seeing below the surface, both in the obsessions of the main character and in the stories she tells about Roentgen, Freud, and John Hunter, an early anatomist. The unnamed character is at first painfully and neurotically conflicted about having a child, feeling the desire for the child while at the same time fearing the responsibilities of parenthood, but even more so fearing that she will not connect with her child. All the while, she lets us know that in another time she has already had this child and is expecting another one.

We learn that the narrator’s mother, the daughter of a psychiatrist who is an unrelenting self-analyst, had her dreams interrogated so thoroughly as a child that she stopped having them. Thus, her mother attempts to live only on the surface. Greengrass explores how we can know another person, or even ourselves, through the focus of motherhood, daughterhood, and through ruminations about scientific discoveries.

She writes in a lovely, meticulous prose, although she often prefers long, complicated sentences. Like her microscopic observations, though, her style seems distanced from the reader. I read this novel for my James Tait Black prize project.

Outline

4321

Umbrella

Review 1795: American War

In 2074, Sarat Chestnut is only six when her father is killed by a terrorist bomb while trying to get a permit for his family to move into the north and safety. The Chestnuts live in a United States divided by civil war with its coastlines eroded far back from global warming. As residents of Louisiana, they reside in a purple state, a state that while it belongs to the North (blue states) has many Southern sympathizers (reds).

After Benjamin Chestnut’s death, Martina, Sarat’s mother, is told that the fighting in East Texas is coming nearer and she should retreat to the refugee camp at Camp Patience in Mississippi. As a resident of Camp Patience, Sarat grows up witnessing terrible events and is slowly groomed by Mr. Gaines to be a terrorist.

In between the chapters about Sarat, El Akkad includes documents about the war leading readers to realize that even more horrific events are ahead and, to me at least, telegraphing Sarat’s fate.

Like most good dystopian novels, this one puts our world troubles into perspective and holds a warning for us. Although dystopia is not really my genre, I found this novel riveting. I read it for my James Tait Black project.

The Parable of the Sower

The Year of the Flood

The Testaments

Review 1779: Sudden Traveler

I enjoyed Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, so I was looking forward to reading her Sudden Traveler for my James Tait Black project. I sometimes have an uneasy relationship with short stories, though.

This thin book is a collection of seven stories. Some of them are slices of life, but others are more fantastic.

In “M,” a woman who was raped as a child transforms into a powerful creature that disposes of men who prey on the helpless.

In “The Woman the Book Read,” a man spots a woman he knew as a little girl on the beach in Turkey. He remembers how much he cared for her when he was engaged to her mother.

In “The Grotesques,” Dilly witnesses the humiliation of a local drunk.

“Who Pays” is quite mystical. Set in the Middle East, it is about village women who figure out a way to circumvent another war.

In “Orton,” a woman decides to disable her pacemaker in the town of her childhood.

“Sudden Traveler” is about a young mother burying her own mother.

I found some of the stories perplexing and “Live That You May Live” is one of them. It’s about a mother telling a terrifying story to her little girl.

The Wolf Border

Slipping

Nocturnes

Review 1776: Strangers

Anita Brookner is a writer I’ve sometimes considered reading but never have until now. I read Strangers for my James Tait Black project.

Paul Sturgis is a 72-year-old bachelor who leads a routine life. He has always wanted a family, but after his last girlfriend, Sarah, left him, he resigned himself to bachelorhood. Since his retirement, he has felt lonely and purposeless. He routinely visits an elderly cousin, but he always feels that he bores her. She asks him no questions and constantly talks about her social engagements.

He takes a trip to Venice and meets Vicky Gardner, a woman some years younger than he. In London they meet again and develop a sort of acquaintance that is characterized again by her talking about herself and asking favors but not asking about him. She is a free spirit of no fixed abode who asks him to take charge of some luggage.

He also meets his old girlfriend Sarah again. She is now a widow, and although she is 10 years younger than he, she has changed from an active, decisive woman to an old lady who is always thinking of her health. She also never asks him any questions.

Most of this novel is concerned with Paul’s ruminations about his situation and the past and his yearning for real company and a different kind of life. Although it is well written, it seemed slow moving and repetitive. The cover reviews refer to its wry humor, but I guess I missed it, because it just seems sad. Paul is eventually galvanized into action, but it takes a long time, and I’m not convinced that the new life he chooses will be much different from the old one.

Sweetland

The New Sweet Style

Outline

Review 1714: Girl

Best of Ten!

Maryam is a young girl attending a girl’s school in Nigeria when Boko Haram attacks the school and drags off the girls. At the Jihadist camp, the girls are gang-raped and otherwise brutalized while they are forced to work as slaves. Eventually, Maryam is forcibly married to a young jihadist.

But that’s only the beginning of this deeply involving novel, for after a harrowing escape and a restoration to her family, Maryam finds herself treated almost as badly at home.

This novel is a break away from O’Brien’s usual Irish novels although not from her fluid prose. It is short—I read it in a few hours—and riveting. I read it for my James Tait Black project.

Little Bee

An Orchestra of Minorities

And the Mountains Echoed