If I Gave the Award

Since I posted my review of the last book from the 2018 shortlist of the Booker Prize on Tuesday, it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. It’s a hard decision this time, because there are so many good books on the list. Actually, they are all good. I just connected better with some than others.

As I often do, I’ll start with the books I enjoyed least. I think I just didn’t connect with The Long Take by Robin Robertson. At least partially, that’s because it is a poem, but it is also almost plotless and very gritty. It is beautifully written, though, about homeless World War II veterans and the selling out of L. A.

Another gritty entry is The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. I found this novel more gripping, and it is about an important subject—the lack of justice in our justice system. However, it seems I am not really a Kushner fan.

To make my decision harder, I enjoyed all of the other four entries. Two of them were on my Best Books of the Year list two years ago, and another one—most likely both of the others—will be on the one for this year.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan is really an adventure story set in the 1900’s. Washington is a slave on a Barbados plantation who flees with Titch, his master’s brother, after the death of his master’s cousin. Having left everything he knows, he is then abandoned in Canada by Titch. I liked the sense of not knowing what was going to happen next.

I enjoyed Everything Under by Daisy Johnson, too. It’s a mysterious rendering of the Oedipus myth set in the fascinating world of the people who live on Britain’s canal system. I found it atmospheric and interesting.

This year, The Overstory by Richard Powers blew me away, and it will be on my best books list for the year. Taking on the metaphor of a tree for its structure, starting with the roots, it is about the importance of trees. That may not sound very interesting, but Powers starts with a group of people who are all interested in trees in some way and begins to entwine their fates as he works his way up the trunk of his story. Although the ending was a little too abstract, I was fascinated by this book.

However, I’m going to pick Milkman by Anna Burns, which was also that year’s winner. I just loved it. It is a dazzling, exuberant novel about an Irish girl in 1970’s Belfast who is being stalked by a man she calls a “renouncer-of-the-state.” Much of its charm lives in the distinctive voice of the narrator. The judges got it right with this one.

Review 1705: The Mars Room

Romy Hall is on her way to prison at the beginning of The Mars Room, having received two life sentences for murder. Because she worked as a stripper and led a not so savory life, she has been denied the opportunity in court to testify that her victim had been stalking her, even following her from San Francisco to L. A., where she moved to get away from him.

On the way to the prison in far eastern California, one woman dies. None of the prison personnel pay any attention. This is just one example of the treatment the women—and sometimes girls—receive.

This novel isn’t just about Romy, though. We hear the voices of quite a few characters, all of whom are incarcerated or are connected to the incarcerated. None of these characters are all bad or all good, but what they have in common is that they have been silenced.

There is Doc, a corrupt cop who has killed just for the pleasure of it but befriends Serenity, who has performed her own sex change operation in jail and is trying to be transferred to the women’s prison. There’s Gordon Hauser, who comes to teach at the women’s prison but gets a little too involved with the prisoners and quits to become a social worker. There’s even Kurt Kennedy, Romy’s stalker and victim. In between, we read paragraphs from Ted Kaczynski’s writing, most of them chilling.

This novel explores some deep territory, the lack of justice for the poor, the futility and vindictiveness of the prison system, the lack of any chances most of the characters had in their lives to begin with. It is gritty, difficult to read, and sometimes heart-wrenching. In general, I’m not that much of a fan of Kushner, but this novel has some powerful moments. I read it for my Booker Prize project.

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Review 1693: An Orchestra of Minorities

An Orchestra of Minorities has an unusual narrator. It’s the chi, a guardian spirit, of Chinonso, a young Nigerian poultry farmer. The chi has come before a sort of heavenly court to plead for leniency for his host, who has harmed a pregnant woman.

The chi’s story begins when Chinonso prevents a young woman, Ndali, from throwing herself off a bridge. Later, they meet again and become lovers. However, Ndali’s family is wealthy, and they don’t consider Chinonso a suitable partner for their daughter. Ndali is ready to split with them, but Chinonso decides to go back to school and earn his degree so he can get a good job.

His friend, Jamike, is attending a college in Cyprus, so Chinonso sells his farm and gives Jamike the money to pay for tuition and board and open a savings account in Cyprus, all without discussing this with Ndali. When he reaches Cyprus, he finds he has been scammed, that Jamike only paid for one semester in college but not for board, and there is no savings account.

Some people in Cyprus try to help him, but the hapless Chinonso falls into one misfortune after another. It takes him four years to get home.

I really struggled with this novel for so many reasons. It incorporates Igbo mythology and culture, which can be interesting, but every chapter and most of the smaller divisions of the novel begin with a story or a series of sayings or other digressions that slow down the narrative.

Then there is the character of Chinonso. He has low self-esteem and is weak, he is unbelievably naïve, he falls into traps that we can see coming pages ahead, he makes poor choices, his reactions to meeting Ndali’s parents seem cowardly. This might be a cultural thing. I have no idea what wealthy displeased Nigerians might be able to do to poor ones.

Then there’s his relationship with Ndali. For all we know of her, she might be a cipher. She is pretty much just something he wants. He calls her Mommy, for god’s sake. This is not a cultural thing, because she asks him why, and his answer creeped me out. I won’t say what happens to her, but it’s not good.

The only way I can justify not personally detesting this novel is if I look at it as a character study of what happens when a weak person is pushed beyond endurance. I strongly feel, though, that this novel shows an underlying hatred of women. What do women do in this novel? One dies at his birth. One leaves him without explanation. One is a prostitute. One makes a false claim of rape. One is steadfast and suffers a horrible fate. None have a personality. Detestably, at least for me, this novel is described as one about a man who will do anything for the woman he loves. Right.

And let’s not even mention the mistreated gosling that we hear way too much about. I read this novel for my Booker project.

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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 1636: Everything Under

Best of Ten!
Everything Under is a powerful rendering of the Oedipus myth, but don’t let that put you off if you’re not interested in stories based on myths. I found this novel to be truly affecting, and I’m guessing it will be on my best of the year list.

Water is an important motif in this novel, which is set mostly by rivers and canals, and the shifting narration reflects the fluidity of this story about human depths and gender identity.

Gretel has found the mother who deserted her years ago when she was 16. Periodically during her adult life, she has searched for Sarah, but recently she received messages from her asking for help. Finally found, Sarah is fairly deep into dementia. But she has lucid moments, and Gretel has questions, especially about what happened to Marcus, whom she last saw when they moved away from the canal.

During her search for Sarah, Gretel finds a couple with Marcus’s last name, Roger and Laura. When she visits them, she learns that the couple have been searching for their daughter, Margot, for years. She left home at 16 after their neighbor Fiona, who claims to be a psychic, told her something. Fiona, a transgender woman who now lives in Roger and Laura’s shed, refuses to tell what she told Margot.

Several times the novel checks in with Margot as she comes to live nearby a canal. There she takes on the identity of Marcus and is befriended by a blind man living on a canal boat. Marcus also hears rumors of a creature living in the canal who is eating animals and even people. Abut the community of people wo live along Britain’s canal system, this novel is atmospheric and interesting. I read it for my Man Booker Prize project.,

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Review 1626: The Overstory

Best of Ten!
When I read Richard Powers’ Orfeo a while back, I remember thinking he was quite a bit more intelligent than I am, perhaps a little intimidatingly so, yet I enjoyed his book. Reading The Overstory hasn’t changed my impression of that, except that it blew me away.

The novel is about trees. When am I ever going to write that sentence again? The metaphor for its structure that I’ve seen used is that it’s like the rings around a tree as you go inward, but that’s not the metaphor Powers actually uses. He starts in a section called “Roots” and works his way up the tree.

That doesn’t sound very interesting, but it is. He starts with a group of characters who have all formed an interest in trees. Nick Hoel’s ancestor planted some chestnuts on their farm in Iowa, and his father began a giant project of photographing the last one standing every month for years so that you could see its growth if you used the photos like a flip book. Nick, an artist, has re-created these photos as drawings. Mimi Ma’s father Winston brought with him from China an ancient scroll about trees and took his family out to enjoy the national parks. Adam Appich is a budding natural scientist until judges in a science fair think he cheated and he ends up in psychology. Still, his father planted a different tree for each of his children. Douglas Pavlicek is saved by a tree when his plane crashes in Vietnam, and so on. These lives are described as fables on the cover of the book, but the characters felt authentic, which they seldom do in fables.

In the next section, “Trunk,” Powers begins to intertwine the lives of these characters with each other and with the issue of what is happening to the trees in our world and what the consequences will be. Along the way, Powers tells us all kinds of interesting and astonishing things about trees.

The novel takes place between about the 50’s and 60’s to the present, but the meat of it is in the 70’s or 80’s when there was a lot of activism around the protection of our forests. Some characters’ stories begin earlier with their parents or ancestors.

But the novel is really about the trees, and as Powers’ sections go up the tree, the view becomes a little more abstract, while not losing sight of the human characters. I had a few issues with it. The role of Neelay Mehta, a boy of Indian descent who becomes a master computer programmer, doesn’t really fit well into the story. I understand his role but find it unconvincing. Finally, the last section is so abstract, it’s a bit above my head, although I enjoy Powers’ tendency to present readers with lots of ideas.

Overall, though, I was just entranced by this novel, so much so that I fear for our species. If anything is going to make you pay attention to climate change, it’s this book. Now that I live in a state where clear cutting is going on all around me, not just in the national and state forests but by the purchasers of practically every plot of land, who think nothing of devastating their lots for the money, I have been more struck by what we are doing to our forests. This is an incredible novel. I read it for my Booker Prize project, and it won the Pulitzer.

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Review 1593: The Long Take

When I opened up The Long Take, which I was reading for both my Walter Scott prize and Booker prize projects, I was not delighted to discover it is mostly a poem. However, it is fairly easy to read, so my next challenge was a search for the plot.

Walker, a World War II veteran from Nova Scotia, first arrives in New York City in 1946. He haunts skid row and dive bars as he tries to find a place for himself. Later, after an invitation, he travels to Los Angeles and gets a job with a newspaper.

This novel is more atmospheric and thematic than plot-driven. It is about droves of homeless ex-soldiers occupying the downtown areas of all the large cities Walker visits. It is about Walker’s feelings about what he saw and did in the war. And it is about the gutting of downtown Los Angeles to make room for parking lots and freeways and the racism underlying the planning decisions.

The Long Take is beautifully written. It is not a noir work, as described on the cover, but it is gritty and depressing.

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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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If I Gave the Award

Having reviewed 4321, the last of the Man Booker Prize shortlist for 2017, I find it is now time for my feature where I explore whether I think the judges got it right.

Sometimes, I will choose the most experimental book as my favorite, which in this case is a toss-up between Paul Auster’s 4321 and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo. Well, really, of those two, Lincoln in the Bardo, the winning book for 2017, is most experimental, so let’s look at it first. With the conceit of the dead being a sort of combination chorus and driver of the plot, and moreover that the preoccupations of the dead manifest themselves physically, I found myself first amused and then annoyed. Ultimately, I found it a little tiresome, so this is not the book I would have picked.

I found 4321 interesting in concept and the story more or less absorbing, but I also thought it was at least 100 pages too long. Everything about it was verbose, and really, what is that interesting about adolescent boys that you would have to explore in detail their every thought and obsession?

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is certainly timely, with its story of immigrants, but I felt it was too concept driven. It is not so much interested in the experience of immigrating itself than in the isolation after immigration. It also did not do much with its characters.

Ali Smith’s latest entry, Autumn, has Brexit as one of its central themes. It is also much harder to define. I found it interesting and intellectually challenging, but it did not stick with me like some of the other books.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, about a teenager who witnesses something she doesn’t understand, did stick with me more. I thought the novel was thought-provoking but also confusing and included a lot of things that didn’t pan out.

In case you didn’t figure it out, this time I’ve been going from my least favorite to my most favorite of the novels (well, not exactly, because I liked 4321 a little better than Exit West), so I end with what would have been my winner, Elmet by Fiona Mozley. It is deeply atmospheric and tells a compelling story. It may be the least experimental of the choices for 2017 (although History of Wolves isn’t really experimental either), but it resonated with me and has a distinctive narrative voice.

 

Review 1497: Elmet

Best of Ten!
My very brief research on Elmet tells me that it was a Welsh kingdom in what is currently West Yorkshire, but the Wikipedia article says that Bede refers to it as “the forest of Elmet.” This reference is certainly apt for the novel Elmet.

Daniel, his father Daddy, and his sister Cathy live in the deep forest in a house their father built. Daddy has claimed the land, which the children’s mother owned when she died.

Before they lived there, the children stayed with their grandmother while Daddy was gone for long periods. But Cathy was being harassed by local boys until she finally beat them up. When Daddy took Daniel and Cathy to report the repeated bullying to the head teacher, he could see that she already believed that the attack was unprovoked, believed the middle-class boys’ lies over the poor children’s truth, that is. So, Daddy took them away to the forest and told them he wouldn’t leave them again.

At first, their life seems idyllic as they live mostly off the land, but we know from the beginning that Daniel is running away from some horrible event. So, a feeling of dread builds.

Daddy is an uneducated giant who makes a living fighting illicit bare-knuckles boxing matches. In his past, he also did violent work off the edges of legality, but lately he has used his great strength to help out poor people against injustices by landlords and former employers. Because of his past, however, he can’t seek out legal means to sort out his problems, and the worst one appears with Mr. Price, a man known to have cheated locals out of their land and a poor landlord. He claims that the kids’ mother sold him her land before she left the area.

This novel is stunning in its beauty, full of dread, dark, and wonderful. Set in the present, it depicts life so violent and exploitative for the locals in poverty that you would think it was feudal times. It’s not often I read a book this good. I read this book for my Man Booker Prize project.

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