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.

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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.

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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.

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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 na├»ve, 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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