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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Day 1282: Snowdrops

Cover for SnowdropsBest Book of Five!
At the beginning of Snowdrops, A. D. Miller explains that “snowdrops” are what Russians call the bodies that emerge from the snow after it melts. Sometimes these bodies are of drunks who have fallen asleep in the snow, but sometimes the explanation is more sinister. This note at the beginning of the novel is not the only hint that things are not going to go well for someone.

Nick Platt is a British lawyer who has been transferred to Moscow during the reckless years of the 2000’s. He thinks he is worldly and sophisticated, but he has a lot to learn when he meets Masha and her sister, Katya, in the metro one day. He is soon involved in a love affair with Masha, who asks him to help with the paperwork for her elderly aunt’s purchase of an apartment.

During the same time, Nick’s bank is shepherding an investment in oil managed by a character he calls the Cossack, a typical example of the gangsterish businessmen he and his boss have to deal with. Finally, Nick’s elderly neighbor, Oleg Nikolaevich, is worried about the disappearance of his friend.

It doesn’t take much to guess that all three of these situations will go badly wrong, assisted by Nick’s willful blindness because of his infatuation with Masha. It is getting there that is the pleasure of this engaging, slowly unfolding thriller and absorbing character study. Snowdrops is a novel I read for both my James Tait Black and Man Booker Prize projects. It’s really good, teeming with the atmosphere of those lawless days in Moscow.

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If I Gave the Award

Cover for Parrot and OlivierHaving finally posted my review of The Finkler Question, I see that it is time again for my feature “If I Gave the Award,” in which I evaluate the shortlist I have just read and say which book I think deserves the award.

The winning book for the 2010 Man Booker Prize was Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, but if you read my review on Tuesday, you’ll know I’m not going to pick that one. I found most of the characters unbelievable, the humor not funny, the tone irritating, and the preoccupations of the characters kind of ridiculous. In fact, it was my least favorite of the shortlisted books.

I felt too much distance from the action and characters of C, by Tom McCarthy, to pick it. Similarly, I felt that the narrative style of The Long Song by Andrea Levy distances the reader from its characters.

Room by Emma Donoghue was a compelling read, so I can’t complain that I felt distanced by it. However, I don’t think it is in the same league as the other books. It employs an imaginative approach by narrating a difficult situation from the point of view of an innocent boy, but this approach is not always convincing, and it is essentially just a thriller. I almost feel that its selection on the short list was an effort to attract more readers to the prize by selecting a popular novel.

Cover for In a Strange RoomIt has been a very long time since I read Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey, but I still have fond memories of its sly humor. It is my second favorite of the nominated books.

So, we get to the novel that I think should have won the award, In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut. This book is not only beautifully written, but it is affecting and insightful in the behavior of its characters. Although it purposefully keeps some distance from the readers at times, I found it powerful and touching.

Day 1250: Pigeon English

Cover for Pigeon EnglishBest of Five!
Once again, I’ve been charmed by the unique voice of the narrator of Pigeon English, Harri Opuku, an eleven-year-old boy from Ghana living in a rough area of London. Harri is such an eleven-year-old boy, fascinated by bodily functions but still repelled by the realities of sex, exuberant, funny in a crass boy way, strong in family feelings and the joy of life. He has a hilarious command of English and is liable to comment “Everyone agrees” just when he comes out with the most ridiculous bits of misinformation.

The big news in the neighborhood is the stabbing death of an older boy. Harri and his friends are fascinated by this crime, and one of their games is to investigate it, picking up fingerprints with cellophane tape and watching people for signs of guilt. This situation is one to which the readers know the answer but the boys do not.

Harri is also flirting with the idea of joining the Dell Farm Crew, a local gang that seems to have lots of advantages. But his essential niceness makes him fail the gang’s tests.

This novel makes you laugh while creating a growing sense of dread. For Harri’s world is violent, and he seems singularly unprepared for it.

The only part of the book that didn’t completely work for me was the role of the pigeon, a bird Harri decides is his, who makes occasional comments that are much too sophisticated for Harri (or a pigeon, obviously). The pigeon acts as an omniscient narrator or perhaps more like a Greek chorus.

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

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Day 1233: History of Wolves

Cover for History of WolvesOne of the themes of History of Wolves is the horror that can result from a belief taken too far and the subservience of one person to another. This theme resonated with me very particularly because of the history of my family.

My grandmother was a Christian Scientist. She and her mother were very active in the church, and I know from reading her diary from her college years that she took it seriously. My grandfather was an Irish-American Catholic who converted to marry her.

When my mother was a baby, she got very sick. The story goes that her parents prayed over her, but her fever did not go down. Finally, according to my mother, her father said, “Bill (her name was Beulah, but he always called her Bill or Billie), we have to call a doctor.” Christian Science went out the window, and if it hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t be here today. The main character of History of Wolves, Linda, witnesses what happens in a similar situation.

Linda is a sophomore in high school during what becomes for her a life-changing year. Several things happen that she finds sexually confusing. A teacher, Mr. Grierson, is accused of being a pedophile. Another girl accuses him of molesting her but then retracts her accusation. Linda is attracted to this girl.

Linda herself has had an unusual upbringing. When she was a child, the property where she lives in the woods of Minnesota was a commune. Linda isn’t really sure whether her parents are her parents or just two adults who were left when the commune broke up. She has a distant relationship with her mother, who pays her little attention.

Across the lake, a family moves in. When Linda makes their acquaintance, only Patra, the young mother, and her son Paul are living there. Leo, Patra’s husband, is away in Hawaii working.

Linda begins babysitting Paul. We know from the beginning of the book that Paul will die and that there will be a trial. It takes quite a bit of the book to get to this event, and I think readers will understand what is going on before Linda does.

Even for a teenager, Linda is damaged and needy. She gets a crush on Patra, and that is partially what keeps her from seeing clearly.

There is a lot going on in this novel, and it doesn’t all pan out. Still, I think the novel effectively depicts traumatic events that shape the main character’s future life. I thought the novel was sometimes confusing but also thought-provoking. I read this book for my Man Booker Prize project.

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Day 1219: In a Strange Room

Cover for In a Strange RoomBest of Five!
It’s not clear to me whether In a Strange Room is a novel or three slightly linked short stories. I’ve seen it referred to as both. The linkage comes from journeys, as each section deals with a journey the narrator takes with different people.

This narration is complex. South African novelist Galgut himself is the narrator, but he speaks both in first and third person, the one hinting at intimacy, the other, more often used, at distance.

The first section, or story, “The Follower,” deals with a journey in the early 1990’s with a German named Reiner. The narrator meets him on another trip, and although they do not know each other well, they correspond. Eventually, Reiner comes to Africa, and the two take a journey through Lesotho. It’s difficult to understand what the narrator sees in Reiner besides good looks, and eventually the trip becomes a battle for control.

The second section, “The Lover,” starts with Damon latching on to a group of Europeans traveling in Africa after he leaves the group he started with. He keeps running into them when he is with the first group and offers to help them when they are turned away from the Malawan border for not having visas. Damon and Jerome are attracted to each other, but they can barely communicate, as Damon doesn’t speak French and Jerome barely speaks English.

In “The Guardian,” Damon takes his old friend, Anna, on a trip to India. She has recently been hospitalized for mental illness, and Damon finds it increasingly difficult to deal with her.

I didn’t really enjoy Galgut’s novel about E. M. Forster, so I wasn’t exactly looking forward to reading this novel for my Booker Prize project. But I am happy to say that I found In a Strange Room powerful and touching. It is sparsely written but completely involving. Even though it doesn’t explicitly express emotion, it still evokes an emotional response. I am happy to have changed my mind about Galgut.

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Day 1195: The Long Song

Cover for The Long SongSeveral years ago, I greatly enjoyed Andrea Levy’s Small Island. So, I was happy when I saw that The Long Song was in both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize projects.

July is fathered upon her slave mother, Miss Kitty, by the overseer on Amity, a Jamaican sugar plantation. It is early in the 19th century, so July is a slave, too.

July and Miss Kitty are field slaves, but when July is nine years old, the master’s sister, Caroline Mortimer, takes a fancy to her. She takes July away from Miss Kitty to train her as a house slave and calls her Marguerite. The novel is written as July’s memoir, as she recalls the final days of slavery on the island and its transition to freedom.

At first the tone of this novel bothered me. It seemed too sprightly and playful for subject matter that is sometimes appalling. It really tears into its white characters, too, who are portrayed at best as hypocrites but more often much worse. Eventually, though, its sly sense of humor got to me, and I laughed out loud. Still, I did not feel as involved by this novel as I did with Small Island.

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