Review 1861: Great Circle

After getting fired from a hit TV series with a cult following for damaging the brand, Hadley Baxter thinks her career might be over. However, she is approached about starring in an independent film about the life of Marian Graves, an early aviator who disappeared in 1950 while attempting to circumnavigate the earth via the poles.

Although the novel sometimes follows Hadley as she tries to figure herself out, its main focus is on Marian and her twin brother, Jamie. As babies, they are on their father’s ship when it sinks, and because he chooses to save them rather than go down with his ship, he serves time in jail. They are raised in Missoula, Montana, by their alcoholic artist uncle, who lets them run wild.

When a pair of barnstormers stop over, Marian is bit by the flying bug. She is already doing men’s work, so she begins working harder to earn enough for flying lessons. But no one will teach her until she meets Barclay Macqueen, a bootlegger.

Great Circle is a broad-ranging novel that takes us from bootlegging in the West to serving mining camps in Alaska to ferrying planes in England before the flight around the world. I found Marian’s story more compelling than Hadley’s but still found the novel fascinating. Since I read it, it has been nominated for the Booker prize, so is part of my project.

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Review 1826: The New Wilderness

Dystopian novels are coming out of the woodwork these days, and they are not really my thing, but I read The New Wilderness for my Booker Prize project. That being said, I have read some excellent dystopian novels, the Maddaddam trilogy being one of them.

All of the land has been put under production to support the population of the City except the Wilderness State and possibly the rumored Private Lands. The City has become dangerous, though, with such polluted air that Bea’s little daughter Agnes was dying. So, Bea and her scientist partner Glen proposed an experiment—to go with a small group of people to live in the wilderness without making their imprint.

At the beginning of the novel, the Community has lived in the Wilderness State for several years. They started as a group of 20, but several have died. They are living under strict conditions. They’re not allowed to settle anywhere or build structures. The Rangers appear periodically to tell them to move to another Post.

The group has been making decisions by consensus, but it’s clear that Carl and his partner Val would like to be in charge. Glen seems to have little control over his own experiment.

A lot of the novel is devoted to the relationship between Bea and her daughter, who is growing up a bit feral. Eventually, Agnes becomes the main character, which was unfortunate, as I didn’t find her very interesting. In fact, the characters are mostly just used as emblems. They aren’t very dimensional.

Life in the Wilderness State is so brutal that I couldn’t imagine the City being worse. I can understand the comparisons to The Hunger Games that I saw repeatedly on Goodreads, even though no one is trying to kill anyone. I see more of a legacy of Lord of the Flies in Community politics.

I found that my interest in the novel came and went, mostly with Bea. She is not in the book, however, for large portions of it. For me, this novel was mildly interesting at times, but I wasn’t sure I believed very much in how Cook makes her characters behave. Right at the beginning, for example, a couple of characters die and the reaction of the rest is sort of, oh well, these things happen. An explanation that when you’re so close to death, you get inured to it eventually emerges, but I think Cook gets that wrong. Maybe that happens in war, but I think that a hunter-gatherer group would feel the losses as much, if not more, than anyone else, because the group is so small. This struck me as wrong from the start.

One more comment—a quote from Publishers Weekly calls the novel “darkly humorous.” On the contrary, I didn’t think that the novel showed any humor at all or even tried to.

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If I Gave the Award

Since I have posted my last review of the shortlisted books for the Booker Prize of 2019, it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. The nominees for that year include a dystopian novel, several novels that experiment in form and two that experiment in narrative style, and one fantasy/satire.

I often start this post with the books I liked least, but in this case, I have a little problem with that, and that is to decide which ones I disliked the least. In fact, on the list for this year, there are none that I thought were entirely successful and several that I actively disliked.

So, I’ll start with the one that is freshest in my mind, Quichotte by Salman Rushdie. This fantasy/satire about an elderly man on a road trip (that doesn’t get anywhere) with his imaginary son was a DNF for me. I felt Rushdie constantly winking at me as he proceeded with his ponderous humor that wasn’t funny at all.

The other novel I disliked intensely was An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obiama. I thought this novel, about a man who will supposedly do anything for love, was riddled with sexism and outright hatred of women. Its hints of Igbo culture are interesting, but also slowed down the forward impetus of the novel.

Now, we get to the novels that I thought were ambitious but not quite successful. Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World tackles violence toward women in an unusual way, but I found its change in tone to be jarring. In addition, the concept of the first part of the novel, which represents the 10 minutes and 38 seconds of brain activity in a dying person in 200 pages (short period of time, long time of reading), just didn’t work for me.

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman was experimental by anyone’s reckoning. This novel, which is basically one 1000-page sentence (except for a few intervals that are written normally) broke every rule about writing I can think of. It was oddly compelling, enough to make me finish, but I’m not sure it provided much payoff for all the effort.

I didn’t actually say this in my review of The Testaments, but I really felt it was a bit of a sell-out by Margaret Atwood, only written to satisfy the fans of The Handmaid’s Tale television series. I felt it very conveniently wrapped things up and was far less of a landmark book than her original novel. It was also the most traditionally written book of the shortlisted novels for 2019. However, it was Atwood, so it was compelling reading.

That brings us to Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, a cowinner of the award with The Testaments. This novel of linked short stories about women is also experimental in form, having hardly any periods. I called it a semi-successful experiment in form and writing style, but it did include some powerful stories. In a year that was hard to pick favorites, I guess this would be my pick. Since this novel was a cowinner of the award, I guess that makes the judges half right.

Review 1818: Quichotte

I was fairly sure I was going to hate Quichotte. I did not much like Midnight’s Children or Don Quixote for that matter, which Quichotte retells. However, this novel is part of my Booker project, so I opened it with hope.

Quichotte is Ismail Smile, an elderly consumer of all things TV who becomes infatuated with Salma R, a young TV star. He decides to go on a quest to earn the love of his beloved. This is a road trip, and for a partner he takes Sancho, his imaginary son. To add another layer, Quichotte is himself an imaginary character, created by Brother, a writer of spy novels who has decided to change his genre.

This novel is one full of circumlocution. As we meet each character—and we meet a lot of them—we go off on the tangent of that person’s life story. Further, there are lots of subplots, for example, the one about Smile’s cousin and employer, whose pharmaceutical company has developed a drug even more dangerous than OxyContin and who has himself developed a similar model to that of the makers of Oxy, delivering it in huge quantities to small rural communities.

The genre for this novel is fantasy and of course satire. Fantasy is not my genre, and although I wouldn’t have thought the same was true about satire, I have not enjoyed the satirical entries on the various shortlists. They all feel the same to me: ponderous, overblown, and written by old men. Definitely lacking subtlety. Even the reviewer from The Guardian remarked that the book was funny but not as funny as Rushdie thought it was. That is exactly how I feel about it, except I didn’t think it was very funny. I sensed Rushdie winking all the time.

Still, I was enjoying parts of the novel, although it didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Then Sancho decided he wanted to be a real boy, and guess who popped up? Jiminy Cricket. At that point I had to restrain myself from throwing the book across the room (only because it was a library book), and I stopped reading.

The Finkler Question

You & Me

The Broom of the System

If I Gave the Award

Cover for Bring Up the Bodies

Now that I have reviewed the last shortlisted book for the 2012 Booker Prize, it’s time for my feature where I decide whether the judges got it right. This shortlist is another mixed bag of genres, two historical, two set in the 1970’s, and two contemporary. One is experimental enough to render it almost incomprehensible while another sometimes reads as if pages were taken from a textbook.

As I often do, I’ll start with the books I liked least. My least favorite of the nominees was Umbrella by Will Self. With an idea that should have been interesting, based as it is on Oliver Sacks’s Awakenings, this novel is so concerned with its devices that it is very difficult to read. It shifts point of view in mid-sentence, sometimes in mid-word, and uses stream-of-consciousness confusingly.

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil is set in late 1970’s or early 80’s Bombay, about a young man exploring the city’s opium dens and brothels. Although I found some of the characters interesting, I was not interested in the overall subject matter, and when the novel became philosophical, it read as if it came out of a textbook.

My main objection to Swimming Home by Deborah Levy is that I found the situation unbelievable. When vacationers find a disturbed girl occupying their vacation house, they invite her to stay even though she is clearly a fangirl of the poet husband. The entire atmosphere of the novel is foreboding, and the placement in time of an initial scene is confusing.

Cover for The Garden of Evening Mists

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore is another menacing novel, about a sad, gray man who goes on a hiking trip out of nostalgia for happy times with his father. He unwittingly gets into a situation between a woman and her jealous husband. Although I didn’t like any of the characters, I found this novel oddly compelling.

I enjoyed The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng about post-World War II Malaya. It immersed me in the story of a Malayan judge suffering from aphasia who is revisiting her memories.

That leaves the winner of that year’s prize, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantell. This novel was the second installment of Mantell’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, dealing with Anne Boleyn’s frantic attempts to hold onto her throne and her life. It is an absolutely enthralling story of Tudor politics and intrigue. So, this time, yes, the judges got it right.

Review 1791: The Lighthouse

Hapless Futh is recently separated from his wife and is taking a vacation that he is ill prepared for—a walking trip in Germany when he hasn’t been hiking in decades. This holiday, like many things in his life, he has chosen because it reminds him of one of the few happy times with his father. Personally, he seldom picks up on nuances and misses many things.

After a series of odd encounters on the North Sea ferry and in the Netherlands, Futh arrives at the starting point of his walking tour—Hellhaus. There, a misunderstanding at his hotel results in his being ejected before breakfast. He has arranged his tour in a circle with his luggage being transported day by day to the next hotel, so he must return to Hellhaus.

As he proceeds on his tour, contemplating his mother, who left him and his father when Futh was a young boy, and the history of his marriage, we check in periodically with Ester, the landlady of the hotel in Hellhaus. Even though her husband is jealous, she occasionally sleeps with the guests. Years ago, she left her fiancé for his brother Bernard, but now she feels unappreciated.

These are sad, gray lives. Even so, this novel is oddly compelling, and my feeling of dread built with every step back toward Hellhaus. It is also elegantly spare in style.

I read this novel for my Booker project.

Swimming Home

Hot Milk

Umbrella

Review 1771: Umbrella

Some of the reviews of Umbrella refer to modernism, as in “a magnificent celebration of modernist prose.” This kind of encomium shivers me timbers. And then I think, isn’t modernism over? Aren’t we into postmodernism now? Apparently not.

Umbrella has a plot, but don’t expect the book to leap into action, because it’s more concerned with its devices. Self uses few paragraphs, and the ones he inserts aren’t necessarily making the expected division, some of them positioned in the middle of a sentence. Self uses three points of view, but they shift without warning, sometimes in the middle of a word. Stream of consciousness is used abundantly and confusingly, and Self loves his allusions, most of which I did not get. What Self isn’t very concerned with is being easy on his readers.

The novel is inspired by Oliver Sach’s Awakenings. In 1971, psychiatrist Zack Busner realizes he has a group of patients who are post-encephalitic, and they are stuck repeating activities that are meaningful to them but at such fast or slow speeds that they are difficult to detect. He gets permission to administer L-DOPA to them, and they unfreeze, or wake up. Among them is Audrey Death, the oldest patient in the mental hospital.

Aside from following Dr. Busner as a young psychiatrist, we also follow him as an old man. We see from Audrey’s point of view as a girl and a young woman and from her young brother Stanley’s during World War I.

Sometimes the narrative gets carried away into ridiculous flights that last for pages, such as the one involving Stanley falling into a subterranean existence. I didn’t know what to make of it. Although critics have foamed at the mouth in admiration of this novel’s style, I’d call it self-indulgent. I had to make two attempts before I finally managed to read this novel.

This is one of the books I read for my Booker prize project.

Ducks, Newburyport

There but for the

As I Lay Dying

Review 1754: Narcopolis

The narrator of Narcopolis arrives in Bombay in the 1970’s or early 80’s after he’s been thrown out of the United States. He finds Rashid’s opium den, where he meets such characters as Dimple, a hijra, or transsexual woman, who prepares the opium and works in a nearby brothel; Rashid, who has the best opium in Bombay; and Rumi, a low-level criminal. The novel is made up of linked short stories that follow the various characters until returning to the narrator many years later.

Pimps, pushers, and junkies are not my favorite subject matter, and I would not normally choose this book to read, but it is part of my Booker prize project. By around page 50, when the narrator attends a ridiculous lecture by a poet/artist named Xavier, I realized I had no idea what was going on and almost quit reading. However, soon I was taken up by the much more interesting stories of Dimple and Mr. Lee.

I was jarred to find one Goodreads reviewer referring to this gritty book as nostalgia, considering it mostly deals with drug addiction and sexual exploitation. Still, by the end of the novel, which takes place closer to the present, things are so much worse that I got his point.

I felt that the characters’ speech, when philosophical, sounds like it comes out of a textbook, and in other moods is unrealistic in other ways. I also thought that there was no reason to subject readers to such things as Xavier’s speech, the entire plot of the book written by Mr. Lee’s father, most of the characters’ dreams (I hate reading about dreams in fiction), the long description of a new form of poetry, and so on.

Did I like this novel? Not very much.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Sea of Poppies

Arctic Summer

Review 1752: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

Elif Shafak is one of the most widely read Turkish women writers. I have only read one of her books so far, so when I saw 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World on my Booker prize list, I was interested to revisit her. However, I’m not entirely sure what I think of this unusual novel.

The convention of the first part of the novel is that Leila, a sex worker in Istanbul, has been murdered. Her brain is active for 10 minutes and 38 seconds while she revisits scenes from her life, each chapter representing a minute of brain activity. These chapters are separated by short sections about the lives of her five friends, who all in some way live on the fringes of society.

My first reaction was an impatience with this idea, that 10 minutes was to be represented by nearly 200 pages of text. I have a real problem with attempts like this in fiction to represent a short amount of time with several hours worth of reading. In this case, though, I got used to the idea but felt that the sections introducing the friends are an inelegant solution to our barely seeing them in the first part of the novel while the second part deals with how they handle the aftermath of Leila’s death.

And the change of tone in the second part is what bothered me most. For, we go abruptly from an elegiac tone in the first part while we learn about Leila’s difficult life to one of almost madcap comedy as a bunch of lovable misfits try to give Leila an ending she deserves. To me, this felt like a grinding change of gears.

It is brave of Shafak in her country to write about violence against women, especially since I understand she is being investigated by the Turkish authorities for it (or was when I read this months ago), but her supporting characters seem almost like caricatures to me, possibly because we don’t see that much of them in the first part. I felt like the second part of the novel almost undercuts the first part.

The Bastard of Istanbul

The Towers of Trebizond

Dance with Death

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.