Review 1403: Washington Black

Best of Ten!
Washington Black is a twelve-year-old field slave on the Barbados plantation of Faith in 1830 when a new master arrives. Masters are to be feared, but it soon becomes clear that the new master is cruel and thinks nothing of the death of a slave.

Washington and his protector, the old woman named Kit, are alarmed when one evening they are summoned to the master’s house. They are expected to wait table while the master entertains his brother, Christopher, although they have no training. After the dinner, the brother asks for Washington to wait on him personally.

Christopher, or Titch, as he asks to be called, is a man with a scientific mind. He is working on an airship he calls Cloud Cutter, which he plans to launch from a mountain at the top of the plantation. Once Titch sees how exactly Washington draws, he begins to involve him in his experiments.

The master is away when Titch’s cousin Philip arrives. He brings some news that disturbs the plans of both Titch and the master. Then a terrible event occurs. Because Washington is present for it, he knows it means his death. Titch knows it, too, and the two flee the plantation in the Cloud Cutter.

Washington’s life becomes one of adventure overshadowed by fear. Although during the novel he travels to the Arctic, Upper Canada, England, and eventually Morocco, for years he fears being recaptured.

This novel is part adventure story, but it has the more serious aim of exploring the bonds between the exploiter and the exploited. Titch is a mystery to Wash, a seemingly compassionate man who yet abandons him in the Arctic. For years, Wash believes him to be dead, but then he hears he is alive. This sends him on more journeys to try to find and understand his mentor.

I thought this novel was fascinating, especially the descriptions of sea creatures when Wash begins studying them in Upper Canada. Later on, he begins to build the world’s first public aquarium.

I liked Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, but I was really caught up in the story of Wash’s life. This novel applies to my Man Booker Prize project, but I would have read it anyway.

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If I Gave the Award

Cover for Do Not Say We Have NothingHaving posted my review of The Sellout by Paul Beatty, I see it is time for my feature where I give my opinion of the winners for a specific award. The Sellout was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. It was the winner that year. If you read my review, you know that I disliked this book intensely because of its style, which reminded me of a long stand-up comedy routine, and also because of its over-the-top plot. In fact, I did not finish reading it. So, obviously, I would not have picked it for the award.

Another book that did not impress me was All That Man Is by David Szalay. It depicts in barely related short stories (why is it called a novel when nothing but the theme overlaps from story to story?) a series of incidents featuring despicable male characters who at best do nothing and at worst are very bad indeed.

Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh, on the other hand, is a portrait of a despicable woman. Although I thought this novel presented a masterful characterization, it was not my favorite.

Cover for His Bloody ProjectI liked Hot Milk by Deborah Levy more, but I thought some of its events were unlikely. And it was confusing at times, written in an almost hallucinogenic style.

Although I occasionally found its style irritating, since it has a fairy tale-like quality to it, I found Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien heart-rending. In addition, it informed me about events I knew nothing about.

My selection for the winner, however, would have been His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. I found it absolutely fascinating as it followed a crime as well as depicting the lives of crofters in the 19th century.

 

 

If I Gave the Award

Cover for Jamrach's MenagerieYesterday, I posted my review of the last of the 2011 shortlisted books for the Man Booker Prize, so it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. The 2011 shortlist offers a lot to like, although I found a bit to dislike in it, too.

It’s easy for me to dismiss one of the books. I did not like Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, an ironic, superviolent Western, at all.

I was a little more interested in Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan’s dual time-frame story about how jealousy affects an American blues band hiding in Nazi-occupied Germany and Paris. However, I didn’t really like most of the characters and I wasn’t in love with the vernacular used to narrate the novel, which I believed was probably not historically accurate.

Snowdrops by A. D. Miller paints a chilling picture of life in post-Cold War Russia. I felt this was an engaging thriller and character study with a narrator made unreliable by his willful ignorance.

I was enchanted by the narrator of Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English, a naive 11-year-old boy from Ghana, and the novel invoked in me a growing dread. However, I felt that the role of the pigeon didn’t really work.

Cover for The Sense of an EndingJamrach’s Menagerie just plain tells a fascinating story, about a 19th century boy who is rescued from poverty by a menagerie owner and who sails off on a mission to find a dragon. This novel features wonderful storytelling.

The winning novel was Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending. Barnes is a master of the unreliable narrator, and this novel is no exception. Through reading the diary of a friend who committed suicide, the narrator learns that everything he remembers about the key relationships in his life is wrong.

Although this time it was a tough decision, I have to agree with the judges. Barnes’s book is short but psychologically fascinating and complex. I would also pose that it is the novel that is the most literary of the shortlisted books. I strongly recommend some of the other books, however, particularly Jamrach’s Menagerie.

 

Review 1325: Exit West

Cover for Exit WestIt’s difficult to describe Exit West. Part embedded in a slightly futurist reality, a small part speculative, part romantic, the novel is mostly a parable. Those of you who know me, know I don’t really like parables and I seldom appreciate magical realism, so this probably wasn’t the best choice for me, but I read it for my Man Booker Prize project.

Saeed meets Nadia in class as their unnamed city succumbs to war. They secretly see each other while a war goes on between religious fundamentalists and the government. As the situation deteriorates, Saeed’s mother is killed.

Saeed and Nadia hear rumors about doorways that can take refugees to other parts of the world, and we take a few side trips from their stories to witness people emerging in other countries. In some countries, the doors are guarded to keep the refugees safe. In others, the governments are trying to keep refugees out.

Saeed and Nadia decide to leave, but they cannot convince Saeed’s father to go with them. They eventually go, emerging first in Mykonos, where they live in a refugee camp, then in London, and finally in Marin County. Everywhere they go, they join swarms of refugees.

Hamid isn’t as interested in the grueling journeys of refugees as he is in the psychological effects of their journeys. Quiet, reflective Saeed has more difficulty adjusting than does the more adventurous Nadia.

Because this is more of a parable, though, the two main characters are mostly ciphers. We don’t really get to know them or care that much about them. Hamid’s lightning glimpses of other people’s lives open up the novel a little bit. It’s a technique similar to that used by David Mitchell, but in this novel it doesn’t work as well. Sometimes these glimpses seem to have little point, although most of them are linked to the doorways.

Aside from the timeliness of this novel (which I’m guessing is what has made it so popular especially with predictions about climate refugees to add to our current economic refugees and those fleeing violence), this novel was interesting but not altogether successful.

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Review 1318: All That Man Is

Cover for All That Man IsIf David Szalay’s new novel shows all that man is, then we’re in a sorry state. A collection of nine barely linked short stories that is being marketed as a novel, the book depicts nine men at different life stages travelling or living in a different European country than their native countries.

The book starts with young men and works its way through middle age to old men. Seventeen-year-old Simon is travelling with his friend Ferdinand through Europe. They seem to be incompatible travelers. Simon is interested in art and music, while Ferdinand wants to party. Simon has mixed feelings when Ferdinand has sex with their middle-aged landlady in Prague.

Bernard is an aimless 20 when he quits his job to go to Cyprus with a friend. He ends up going alone, where he finds himself involved in a sexual relationship with both a hefty young woman and her mother.

Baláz is hired by Gábor to come with him and his girlfriend Emma to London. The details of this job are murky, but Baláz needs the money. It turns out that he is to provide the muscle while Gábor and his friend Zoli pimp Emma out to wealthy men.

Karel is an academic who begins the story believing his relationship with a lover who meets him periodically for a few days is perfect. But she has news for him. She has just discovered she is pregnant. To this news he answers, “This is shit!”

Kristian is a talented journalist with a friendly connection to a politician, Dahlig. The tabloid he works for decides to expose Dahlig’s affair with a married woman. Even though Kristian and Dahlig have a cordial and political relationship, Kristian thinks nothing of interrupting Dahlig’s vacation in Spain to break the news and try to force an admission from him.

I think you get the idea. These are not likable men. At best, they are feckless and inert. At worst, they are ruthless and amoral. Szalay affords each of them a moment of insight, clarity, or immersion of the senses, but these moments are fleeting. Sordid is a good adjective to describe these lives. This was not one of my favorite pieces of fiction. I read it for my Man Booker Prize project.

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Review 1312: Autumn

Cover for AutumnAutumn is the first of Ali Smith’s planned Seasonal Quartet. I believe Winter is already out. The first is about, among many other things, Brexit.

Daniel Gluck may be dying. He is an elderly man, over 100, and he dreams, among other things, that he has become his younger self and that he is turning into a tree. At his side reading to him is Elisabeth Demand, a thirty-two-year-old lecturer who has known him since she was eight. He taught her how to invent stories, approach the world creatively, and think critically. He always greets her with, “What are you reading?”

As Elisabeth walks around the village where her mother lives, she observes the various attitudes about Brexit. Some people are exultant while others are horrified. Her mind goes to A Tale of Two Cities, which she is reading to Daniel: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

It’s beyond my powers to provide much more than a suggestion of this novel, which touches on so many subjects, among them British pop artist Pauline Boty, Christine Keeler of the Profumo scandal, our experience of time, the relationship between mothers and daughters and brothers and sisters. I’ll just say that I found the novel both intellectually challenging and touching. I read it for my Man Booker project.

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Day 1284: Hot Milk

Cover for Hot MilkSofia is an anthropology graduate student who has given up her job and her room in a storage cupboard to care for her mother, Rose, as she seeks medical help at a clinic in Spain. Rose has a myriad of symptoms, but no one has been able to diagnose a problem. Mostly, she is concerned about her legs. She can’t walk, at least when she doesn’t want to. She can’t feel anything, except when she does. She complains constantly, and nothing is ever right.

Sofia is unhappy with her life—her unfinished dissertation, her job as a barrista, the cubbyhole she lives in, her subservience to her mother. Her father left them when she was five and despite being wealthy, seems to feel no responsibility for them, even in the days when they could barely afford to eat. He has made a religious conversion and now has a young wife and baby daughter.

Sofia is dabbling in an affair with a German girl, Ingrid, from Berlin, but they seem to be at cross purposes.

This novel is intelligent and sometimes almost hallucinogenic as it explores Sofia’s attempts to wake up and take responsibility for herself. At times, I found it a little confusing and its incidents unlikely but mostly I was engaged in Sofia’s journey.

This is another book I read for my Man Booker Prize project.

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