Review 1643: Girl, Woman, Other

Readers who prefer traditional narrative styles beware—there are hardly any periods in Girl, Woman, Other. Although I often enjoy more experimental novels, this bothered me at first, because it forces Evaristo to start a new paragraph almost every sentence, if you can call them sentences—many are more like lists. After a while, I got used to it.

Girl, Woman, Other is about the lives of British black women, twelve women who each has her own chapter. The plot, which is minimal, centers around a play about black female warriors named The Last Amazon of Dahomey, written and produced by Amma, a radical feminist gay woman. The novel is divided into four parts, each devoted to the lives of three women who have some type of relationship to each other. But there are more relationships within the book, some of them surprising.

The novel is fresh, the stories interesting, many of the characters justifiably angry. I wasn’t sure how much I liked it, though, until the Epilogue, which was touching.

All-in-all, Booker prize winner or not, I would call this novel of linked stories a semi-successful experiment in form and writing style. It is at times a little didactic through characters’ speeches, but it does tell some powerful stories about the experiences of black women, women’s sexuality, women in general.

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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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Review 1454: Milkman

Best of Ten!
Middle sister, the unnamed narrator in a novel where no one has a name, has a stalker. Actually, she has two. She lives in the 1970s in an unnamed city that is clearly Belfast, and at 18 she has no way to explain what is happening to her and no one to tell, anyway. The man she’s worried about is known as the Milkman, rumored to be a powerful renouncer-of-the-state. This stalking begins with him driving up next to her and offering her a ride. She knows not to get into his car.

That is all it takes for rumors to begin flying about that middle sister is having an affair with the Milkman. Eldest sister, egged on by her husband, who has been letching after middle sister since she was 11, arrives to berate her for this supposed affair with a middle-aged, married man.

But middle sister’s strategy for keeping safe in a dangerous world is to tell nothing about herself. That, and her mother’s constant queries about why she isn’t married yet, have caused her to keep secret her real relationship with maybe-boyfriend. It is the maybe part of this relationship that decides her not to tell maybe-boyfriend about the stalking either, when it progresses to the Milkman joining her while running and making clear that he knows every aspect of her life.

She does finally tell her Ma the truth, but her Ma is too busy upbraiding her for bringing shame upon the family with the affair and calls her a liar. So, middle sister is left to cope with her fears alone.

This sounds like a grim tale, and at some times it is, but it is told exuberantly, in a torrent of words, ideas, stories, asides, and circumlocutions. To give you an idea, about page 80 middle sister steps into an area called the ten-minute zone because it takes ten minutes to cross it. She describes the ten-minute zone and an explosion within it, then she goes into what she calls “the provenance of the eeriness of the ten-minute area” from which she relates a discussion with Ma about her asking weird questions, tells about her father’s history of depression and her Ma’s “hierarchy of suffering,” discusses her bafflement in “shiny people,” those who go around looking happy, finds the head of a dead cat and decides to bury it, compares cats and dogs and tells about an incident where the state killed all the neighborhood dogs, has another encounter with the Milkman and then with one real milkman, and so on until page 139, when she steps out of the ten-minute area. I would include an excerpt, but a short one would seem nonsensical and a long one would be, well, long.

Above all, the novel is funny, dazzling, gleeming. I was absolutely entranced by it. It is about more than middle sister and her adventures, it is about the effects on society of everyday terror, paranoia, gossip, constant attention to the behavior of your neighbors. This is a stunning novel that won the Booker Prize. It deserves it.

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Review 1377: Lincoln in the Bardo

The title Lincoln in the Bardo is the first tip-off that this book is unusual, for it refers to a Tibetan concept of immediate life after death. The novel is set in a graveyard after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willy, and is narrated by a host of ghosts who don’t know they are dead and are clinging to their worldly concerns. It is also moved along by quotations, some real, some fictitious, by accounts of the time, letters, and historical accounts.

The ghosts in the graveyard are grotesqueries who physically manifest the obsessions they had in life. The two most important ghosts in the novel, for example, are Hans Vollman, who sports an enormous erect penis because he died before he could consummate his marriage; and Roger Bevins III, whose sensual nature is indicated by his multiple eyes, noses, and hands. Okay, this can be comic. It is certainly an amusing idea. But after a while, I began to miss the subtle humor that seems to have deserted us in recent years.

The thrust of the plot is that children aren’t meant to linger in the Bardo or terrible things happen to them. However, Lincoln arrives early in the novel to visit his son in his grief, and he says he will return. Vollman, Bevins, and their friend, the Reverend Everly Thomas, become determined to help Willy leave, and to do so they must get Lincoln to return to the tomb and release him.

This novel is wildly original. Aside from the characteristics I’ve mentioned, it is written more like a screenplay than a novel. It also resonates deeply in its themes of grief, Lincoln’s worries about the war, and the concerns of life affecting the afterlife. Still, I was repelled by how crude and crass it is at times. I also felt that the novel was much longer than it needed to be. You get the idea about the ghosts fairly quickly, but the supernatural chatter becomes boring after a while.

I read this for my Booker Prize project.

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Review 1374: The Sellout

Really? This book won the Booker Prize? I know my sense of humor is getting to be out of date, and when I read on the blurb that the book was “biting satire,” I just sighed. There’s no subtlety in humor anymore, and this novel is a prime example. Its writing style is broad and hectic, like a really long stand-up comedy routine. I’m guessing you either love it or hate it.

The narrator, a black man whose name is Me, starts out the novel at the Supreme Court, where he is being tried as a slave owner and is getting a lot of hatred because of his race. He proceeds to tell the story of how he got there, spending lots of time getting to the crux of the story.

The beginning of the book, where he satirizes his upbringing as a subject of his father’s childhood development experiments, is over the top but amusing. When he introduces the character of Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, his all-on employment of racial stereotypes (to make fun of them, of course) was too much for me. I quit about halfway, after he reluctantly made Hominy his slave.

Be warned that this novel makes extensive use of the N word. I’m not sure, but Beatty’s intent may be to desensitize us to it. If so, it didn’t work.

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Day 1260: The Finkler Question

Cover for The Finkler QuestionHaving read Howard Jacobson’s J for my Booker Prize project, I was not looking forward to reading The Finkler Question for the same project. Since it won the award in 2010, I was hoping to like it better. I found it, however, very difficult to stay interested in.

Julian Treslove, the main character, is always expecting loss. He imagines himself holding the women he loves as they lie dying. I found him unbelievable and cartoonish.

Treslove has a long friendship with Libor, his former professor, and Finkler, an old school friend. Both of them are Jewish and recent widowers. Treslove, naturally lugubrious, has been hanging out with them while they grieve and argue endlessly about Jewishness and Israel.

I mean endlessly.

Treslove tends to make generalizations about Jewish traits and calls Jews “Finklers.” I ask you, who would do that?

Then one night on the way home from Libor’s house, Treslove gets mugged by a woman who says something to him that might be “You Jew.” After Treslove endlessly examines this event, I mean endlessly, he decides maybe he’s actually Jewish. He hopes he’s Jewish.

It doesn’t help that Jacobson tells this story using the same jokey, ironic tone that drove me crazy in J. I know that there are people who convert, but Treslove is such a ridiculous person I feel he’s there to be ridiculed.

Yet, I briefly became interested in him after he buckles down to become Jewish and meets a woman who seems suited to him. I could not say the same for Finkler, who belongs to ASHamed, Jews who are ashamed of the behavior of Israel.

I assume Jacobson is mocking the different characters and their ideas about Judaism, but no one in this book feels like a real person but Treslove’s girlfriend, Hephzibah. This novel really bugged me. I see it as the type of literary novel honored by the male publishing elite that no one actually likes.

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Day 862: The Remains of the Day

Cover for The Remains of the DayBest Book of the Week!
Having seen the movie The Remains of the Day years ago, I think it is just as well I waited so long to read it. Even so, some of the book’s scenes made me envision the movie, though I had forgotten most of it.

Stevens is the butler for Darlington House in the 1950’s. Lord Darlington, whom he served for 30 years, is gone, and now Stevens works for Mr. Farraday, an American. At Mr. Farraday’s suggestion, he has decided to take a holiday to visit the former Miss Keaton, who used to be the housekeeper in Darlington House. He surmises that her marriage is not altogether happy. She has split from her husband, and Stevens hopes she will agree to return to Darlington House as housekeeper. As he travels, he keeps a diary reflecting his thoughts on the journey.

To Stevens, his professional capabilities are the most important areas of his life. He reflects a great deal on such concepts as what dignity consists of. He has removed himself emotionally from the events of his own life, so much so that when his father is dying in the house, he won’t leave the dinner party he is serving. Stevens’ dedication is taken to such an extreme that when he sees in Mr. Farraday a disposition to banter with him, he, who has no sense of humor, begins to practice witticisms.

The Remains of the Day is the striking portrait of a unique individual as he comes to consider some of his life’s decisions. He has devoted his life to the service of Lord Darlington, whose political decisions before World War II left him a ruined man. Stevens thought he was helping Lord Darlington do important work, but later he had to re-evaluate that idea. In the meantime, Stevens ignored a possible other life for himself with Miss Keaton.

This novel tells a sad, sad story. Stevens is not always a reliable narrator for us, as his perceptions are as limited as his point of view. This is a novel of depth and brilliance, intricate as a puzzle box, as we delve the depth of Stevens’ psyche.

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Day 722: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Cover for The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthDon’t expect good cheer and humor from The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It is the often harrowing novel based on the experiences of Richard Flanagan’s father as a POW during World War II, one of the hundreds of thousands of Australian soldiers forced to build a railroad through Burma with not much more than their bare hands. A much-sanitized version of this story was the basis for The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Dorrigo Evans is the main character of the novel, a surgeon who ends up being in charge of the prisoners simply by virtue of not having died. We meet him first as an older man, one of Australia’s greatest war heroes, feeling no self-worth, unhappily married, and unfaithful to his wife. The novel moves back and forth in time between the days when he is waiting to be shipped overseas at the beginning of the war until his death years later. In the summer before he went to war, we learn, he fell madly in love and had an affair with his uncle’s young wife Amy.

I think it is interesting that the New York Times reviewer thought this affair was a huge flaw in the novel while the Washington Post reviewer thought it was beautiful. I agree with neither of them (although I lean more toward the Times reviewer’s opinion) but think the Times reviewer was off base in blaming the affair for keeping Dorrigo from pulling his life together after the war. It wasn’t the affair at all but the memory of the decisions Evans was forced to make during the war. At one point, he must decide whether to try to save Darky Gardiner an undeserved beating or try to save another man’s leg. Both die, and the later revelation of Darky’s true identity makes this more painful. At another point Dorrigo is made to decide which of his starving, disease-ridden men must march 100 miles north of the camp. He picks the men with boots, reasoning they might have a chance of making it alive.

Occasionally, we see the thoughts of the men’s captors, the Japanese officers or Korean guards. In all his life after, only for a moment does the Japanese Major Nakamura have the slightest doubt of his behavior during the war. To him, the Australian soldiers had shamed themselves by surrendering and were being given a chance to redeem themselves by serving the Emperor. We occasionally also get glimpses of the brutality of mind that characterizes the Japanese military.

Whether you like this book or not, it is not one you will soon forget. This novel won the Booker Prize last year. Although I preferred several of the other short- and long-listed books for the prize, I still found it compelling reading.

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Day 675: Amsterdam

Cover for AmsterdamThe Booker Prize people liked Amsterdam a bit more than I did. Although the shattering last page of McEwan’s Atonement absolutely upended that novel, the same technique did not work as well for this one. Perhaps the problem lies with my having seen McEwan do this several times already.

The novel begins with the death of Molly Lane. Two old friends, both former lovers of Molly, meet at the funeral. Clive Linley is a world-famous composer, and Vernon Halliday is an editor trying to save a floundering newspaper. At the funeral is another of Molly’s former lovers, foreign secretary Julian Garmony, a right-wing bigot whom both men dislike. They all pay stiff respects to Molly’s possessive husband George.

The brush with mortality makes both Clive and Vernon a tad hypochondriac, and they end up exchanging a pledge. But various stresses will soon interfere with their friendship. Clive is struggling to complete what he thinks will be his masterpiece in time for a performance in Amsterdam. And George has offered to sell Vernon some compromising photos of Julian that he found in Molly’s papers. Vernon has to decide whether publication of these photos will result in increased sales or backlash.

This novel is darkly humorous. None of these men is a sterling individual. In fact, they are all morally bankrupt. Clive seems the least at fault for quite some time, but then he does something unforgivable and justifies it as being for his art.

It’s difficult to explain my main criticism without revealing the ending. I can only say that the implications of the final page do not make sense, that there is no way that the character could have known how things would work out. So, I do not think the surprise ending works as well in this case as in other McEwan novels.

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Day 668: The Sea

Cover for The SeaIn this contemplative novel, recently widowed Max Morden returns to the small Irish seaside resort where his family used to live when he was a boy. It was there he met and became fascinated by the Grace family, much above his own in social strata.

Max’s memories are assisted by his residence as a boarder at The Cedars, the house where the Graces stayed that summer. The Cedars has become a boarding house that is now managed by Miss Vavasour.

The young Max became the companion of the Grace’s oddly feral twins, Chloe and Myles. They are two very unpleasant children who torment their teenage nanny Rose. At first infatuated with the voluptuous Mrs. Grace, Max eventually turns his attentions to the spiky Chloe.

Through his memories of the extraordinary events of that summer and his feelings about his wife’s death, Max eventually gains some self-knowledge. Looking back, he also gains some understanding of the dynamics between people that he did not grasp as a child.

The Sea is stylistically exquisite, with its sussurating and rhythmic prose a striking meditation on death, grief, and memory. Although I guessed one of its revelations much earlier than intended, that did not take away from the power of the prose.

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