Tag Archives: booker prize longlist 2019

Review: Ducks, Newburyport

Lucy Ellman‘s 1,030-page novel, Ducks, Newburyport, was my 9th read from the Booker longlist, and my 3rd from the shortlist. Sadly, Ducks was not one of this year’s two Booker Prize winners, but I think it’s an incredible book fully worth the read anyway, so with any luck I’ll be able to convince you with this review, despite the length! (Fair warning: this review is long too.)

ducks,newburyportIn the novel, an unnamed woman baking pies and living with her family in Ohio shares her thoughts in a continuous mental outpouring that covers the events of her life over a couple of months. As most people are, she’s both unique and ordinary, set apart by a string of distinct circumstances but also incredibly relatable in many of her observations and opinions. Through this woman, we see what it’s like to be a mother of four, in a second marriage, working from home, worrying about the state of the world and its future, and most importantly, just trying to survive in 2019 America.

“…the fact that I think a lot of people think all I think about is pie, when really it’s my spinal brain doing most of the peeling and caramelizing and baking and flipping, while I just stand there spiraling into a panic about my mom and animal extinctions and the Second Amendment just like everybody else, twinge, bad back,”

The greatest obstacle, I think, in encouraging readers to pick up this masterpiece of a novel, is its size, combined with it’s run-on sentence structure, so I’m going to focus on addressing those aspects.

Ducks, Newburyport contains two alternating parts: one of them is indeed a single run-on sentence that begins on page 2 and does not contain any periods or paragraph breaks until page 988 (the end of the story in my copy- there’s some extra material at the back including a glossary of abbreviations, which is very useful!!). There is a 30-page stretch in the middle of the book where the narrator’s thoughts become verse-like, but even this segment is contained within the same single sentence without a change in voice or tone. Instead of full stops, there are commas aplenty, and the phrase “the fact that” marks the start of a new thought. (This phrase acts like the word “STOP” in old telegrams to mark the end of one sentence and beginning of the next, and once this structure becomes clear, the repeated words themselves fade into the background.) The sentence as a whole, and many of the individual phrases, do not necessarily make grammatical sense, but the style doesn’t leave the reader stumbling over meaning. The effect- that an entire life presents as one unending thought process- is worth it. In this all-encompassing sentence we see: statements, questions, statistics, quotations, lyrics, acronyms, names, individual words, numbers, and more. There are some lengthy movie spoilers in this running commentary (mainly for musicals and black-and-white classics that you’ve probably either already seen or aren’t going to). Additionally, the Little House on the Prairie series is as close as this woman has to a religious text, so you’ll fare well if you have some prior knowledge of Laura Ingalls Wilder, though it’s not essential to be an expert going in. All told, this main sentence is a wide mix of almost every subject and emotion imaginable.

The other component of this novel is a third-person omniscient narrative of a mountain lioness’s adventures and tribulations. These sections are properly punctuated, interrupting the Ohio housewife’s inner chatter every 50 pages or so and lasting no more than 2 pages each. The two storylines eventually overlap in content, and in the meantime often overlap thematically with observations on motherhood, animal nature, human impact upon the environment, etc. I wasn’t expecting to, but ended up loving these segments as much as the human element.

“Through her own extreme caution, she conveyed to the cubs that men are more dangerous than they look. They killed with ease, and didn’t even eat their prey. They plundered, lay waste, then abruptly retreated to their cars. They were not the true inhabitants of the forest, they were usurpers, dangerous visitors who roughly invaded the territory of others. They did not respect lions.”

Between the mountain lioness breaks and the use of “the fact that,” it’s easy to put this book down and pick it back up again without feeling too in-the-midst, though the continuous nature of the stream-of-consciousness narration flows beautifully from one thought to the next. Some thoughts seem to do little in the way of characterization or moving the plot, reading more like free-association lists, but many of these “random” sets of words offer interesting juxtapositions that are a sort of commentary in themselves, and still other groupings seem meaningless at first but are later explained. The narrator’s thoughts circle back to the things that are most important to her, and with time and repetition we gain further insight. For this reason, I think this would be an excellent book to reread, as words and phrases that are at first innocuous pick up significance along the way. It’s a book of many layers. Ellmann spent 7 years assembling this marvelous creation, and it shows.

So what is it about, you’re probably wondering by this point. There is a plot, but it’s best not to know the specifics before they are slowly revealed over the course of the novel. Essentially, it’s a story of motherhood and violence in Trump’s America. This is a mom working to make ends meet, in hopes of being able to afford to send her kids to college when the time comes. Baking has become a rote activity, so she she spends her days worrying about what she sees in the news and wondering whether her own family is safe. Among her thoughts are disturbing headlines and details of American crimes and tragedies, often involving shootings and deaths. Some of these can be hard to read, especially when strung together, and her anxiety honestly gave me a bit of anxiety as well, which leads me to believe this might be a difficult read for anyone who avoids  grisly stories in the news or is actively worrying about their own children’s safety already. There are some real gut-punches here.

“…the fact that I pretend to be coping, like all the other moms do too, but I think we all live in terror that some school shooter will line our kids up one day and make them beg for their lives,”

The political content is certainly timely and engaging, but most of these opinion bits stand independent of the plot and chronology; the parts of the book that gripped me the most were the pages that included specific events that provided an anchor to the narrator’s weaving thoughts. This book is  ingenious for the way that it plays the long game- with such a surplus of detail, the biggest hints of what’s to come hide in plain sight; it’s fascinating on the surface, but you have to wonder if it’s going anywhere. (Let me assure you that it is.) In scenes that play a shorter game, the narration is more immediately focused, with a common thread grounding our narrator’s thoughts. For instance, there’s a scene where the family is stranded at the local mall during a flash flood, and though the narrator’s thoughts continue to wander, the disaster at hand gives her train of thought something to come back to and allows the reader to feel that the story really is moving in some particular direction.

“…the fact that America’s not a safe place for a girl, the fact that nobody’s safe in America,”

And now, let’s look directly at the book’s length. At the end of the day, I think Ellmann wrote Ducks, Newburyport as a thousand-page book because the idea of a book this long primarily featuring one housewife’s thoughts in a single meandering sentence is a highly intriguing one. It catches attention. It says women’s thoughts and experiences are important, even if the woman in question is a stay-at-home mom who bakes pie and rehashes her regrets and frets about the world without acting upon those worries. It’s absolutely stunning, conceptually. In actuality, I think Ellmann could’ve covered the same topics and themes to near or equal effect in about half the length. My biggest hang-up with this book is that it just doesn’t feel necessary for it to be quite this long, though I don’t think it ever could have succeeded as a short book- it does cover a lot of worthwhile ground, and the way it circles around its topics and doubles back at them hundreds of pages later (don’t worry- Ellmann makes sure you’ll remember what you need to) is a big part of what makes this so impressive. So even though I don’t think all 1,030 pages are strictly crucial to the overall story and purpose, somehow they work. I was never bored while reading. I never wished for fewer pages. So little is happening at some points, and yet I loved reading it every time I picked it up. It frustrates me that readers will avoid this book because of its length, when it could easily have been shorter.

Though there’s certainly a bit of fluff (a whole page of creek names that didn’t do anything for me, for example), so many of the words and phrases at play are clearly chosen with care. Ellmann can string two words together (for example, “ducks, Newburyport,”) that hold no meaning for the reader the first three times they appear; hundreds of pages later, we find out why they’re significant to this narrator, and their emotional significance to her then colors each context in which they appear. As many of our thought-tracks likely do, this narrator’s inner chatter is built of its own syntax. But despite the impression of impeccable literary construction, this book read like the most authentic stream of consciousness I’ve ever encountered.

Relatedly, I was able to forgive many of the small complaints I had about this narrator’s quirks because they felt like such organic offshoots of her personality. I didn’t always like reading about this woman’s nonsensical dreams, her constant remembrances of “Mommy,” her embarrassment every time the word “cock” crossed her mind, or her frequent self-corrections; but each of these annoyances felt like the little things that start to bother you when you’re living with someone new, for instance. No one’s perfect, and when you live with someone you get to know their small undesirable traits. Inhabiting this woman’s mind for 988 pages felt like that- nothing worth moving out over, but we’re bound to have our differences. And because I was able to rationalize most of my (very few) dislikes about Ducks, Newburyport in this way, they actually turned out to be additional reasons I thought Ellmann’s writing was effective; she absolutely brings this woman and all of her concerns to life- flaws included.

“…the fact that, personally, I think we underestimate dangers, the fact that we have to maybe, because it’s not practical to think about them all the time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there, it’s just that fear gets in the way when you got stuff to do, when you’re living on the edge,”

In the end, I think the patience required for the length poses the greatest challenge here. The prose is readable and engrossing, the arguments and themes stand fairly obvious, and our narrator really feels like an everywoman, at least in her general attitude. I think readers will know early on whether the style of this novel is going to work for them or not, and if it is, and you have a reasonable amount of stamina, enjoyability and sheer momentum are likely to outweigh the challenge of sticking with it, in my opinion. If you appreciate literary fiction and are interested in the current mental state of America, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

“…the fact that you’ll never know what sort of person you might have been if you’d read different stuff,”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had such a fantastic time reading this novel that it’s turned out to be one of my highlights of the year. Obviously I’ve nitpicked a few things, but they felt like small potatoes compared to my appreciation of the work as a whole. I think this would’ve made an excellent Booker winner, but I haven’t read Girl, Woman, Other yet, and am holding out hope that I’ll find that one worthy of the win when I pick it up soon as well. I’m also curious to try more of Ellmann’s work in the future.

Are you considering reading Ducks?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Testaments

At long last, after years of thinking of The Handmaid’s Tale as a stand-alone novel, after months of anticipation for its sudden sequel, after days of reading delays and blogging delays (oops), it’s time to talk about Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I won’t spoil anything from either book, but I’m going to assume that if you’re here, you’ve probably read The Handmaid’s Tale or at least have some idea of what it’s about.

I read this out of my own interest in Atwood’s writing and her portrayal of Gilead, but it was also No. 8/13 on the Booker Prize longlist for me, and 2/6 on the shortlist.

thetestamentsIn the novel, fifteen years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale, Aunt Lydia secretly pens an account of the horrifying trials she faced during the birth of Gilead, the questionable choices she made from her position of leadership in the aftermath, and her own solution to the problem of female oppression in the former United States. Interwoven with her narrative are the testimonies of two girls experiencing major life changes at that same time- one who grew up in Gilead under the Aunts’ teachings, and one raised in Canada amidst protests and outrage for conditions across the border. These threads, of course, weave together with time.

“Gilead is a slippery place: accidents happen frequently. Someone has already written my funeral eulogy, it goes without saying. I shiver: whose feet are walking on my grave?”

It’s finally happened: I’ve actually disliked a Margaret Atwood book. But before I get into the negatives, I’d like to say that I do think The Handmaid’s Tale is well worth the read even for those who choose to opt out of picking up this sequel, and also that I think this is a book that will work better for many readers than it did for me. Should you read The Testaments? Picture it this way:

The end of The Handmaid’s Tale is a door slammed shut. The narrative ends at a crucial moment that is either very good or very bad for the main character, but before telling us which, Atwood locks that door and walks away, with the truth standing on one side and the reader stuck firmly on the other, left to decide for themselves where the story goes next. Surprisingly, The Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel gives the reader a foothold, propping that door open just enough to offer certain implications, certain glimpses, into What Happens Next. There’s a big nod in The Testaments to the graphic novel’s final sequence. But ultimately, The Testaments throws that closed door wide open. Whether you’ll appreciate this sequel largely depends on whether you’re a reader who enjoyed imagining your own final solution when that door slammed, or whether you’re a reader with a lot of burning questions, pounding your fists on the door and wanting nothing left to uncertainty. It’s a choice each reader will have to make for themselves, rather than a flat verdict.

Because while The Testaments follows three new perspectives, we do find out here what happened to Offred.  Not every step of the rest of her life, but the general outline. This is going to satisfy a lot of curious readers, and alienate others.

Another divisive element is the fact that The Testaments is very much a book of its time. Where The Handmaid’s Tale is meant to horrify and frighten, its sequel is meant to empower and uplift. It’s not a book full of sunshine and happiness, but it tends toward female hope and perseverance in a way that its predecessor doesn’t. If this sounds like a tonal shift that interests you, odds are you’ll probably enjoy this more than I did.

But while I think opinions on whether this is a “good” sequel are going to vary wildly person to person, I think an argument can certainly be made that The Testaments is not Atwood’s best book. There are undeniably moments of brilliance in the writing, and Aunt Lydia is such a complex and intriguing character. I actually kept picturing her as Margaret Atwood while reading, though I think that has more to do with the fact that Aunt Lydia was the only character here who felt like she could have been a real person to me than any actual personality similarities (I do not know Atwood personally, obviously). For me, the pros ended there.

The cons were numerous. First, though there were some great lines, more often it felt like Atwood had lost all faith in her readers being able to pull meaning from her writing. Details are spelled out at an excruciating level:

“We joined a herd of other women: I describe it as a herd because we were being herded.”

“They were supposed to teach us how to act as mistresses of high-ranking households. I say “act” in a dual sense: we were to be actresses on the stages of our future houses.”

This lack of subtlety is not limited to the writing style itself; where The Handmaid’s Tale allows small plot details to speak for much larger problems in Gilead, The Testaments foreshadows it’s action-packed plot to such an extent that absolutely every major event and revelation actually feels anticlimactic. Additionally, the plot itself is such a standard dystopian arc that even without hints it would likely feel utterly predictable for anyone familiar with the genre, and everything comes so conveniently, impossibly easy to our heroines that I found it failed to even entertain at a basic level. Daisy and Agnes, the two younger perspectives, seem completely contrived and practically lifeless in the way that they react (or fail to react) to deaths, difficult tasks, and having their lives upturned. The format of the novel requires these women to look back on their experiences from some future point, but there’s no real attempt made at reflection, leaving even the structure feeling arbitrary and unrealized. Where is the crafting expertise Atwood utilized in The Blind Assassin? Where is the wacky, compelling plotting from The Heart Goes Last? Where is the care with which she created a new story from a beloved classic as in Hag-Seed? None of those skills seem to have carried over into The Testaments.

But you can take those opinions with a grain of salt, as many readers do seem to be loving this return to Gilead, or at least finding it wildly entertaining. Something that bothers me more than plot or characters, (something that I began to address in my review of The Handmaid’s Tale: A Graphic Novel based on its ending, which was built upon in The Testaments), is the way that this change of direction from The Handmaid’s Tale even seems to subvert the original message of that book. The Handmaid’s Tale is cautionary- it’s meant to alarm readers into considering what might happen if we grow too complacent (this is aside from the fact that the details of The Handmaid’s Tale come from real problems women have already faced or are facing elsewhere in the world, but that’s another matter); The Testaments, with all its hope, says, “there’s no need to worry, even if things go wrong everything will turn out all right in the end.” It’s a comforting theme, maybe an inspiring one in some circumstances, but it seems to speak directly against the “let’s not let this happen in the first place” spirit of that first novel. Gone is the outrage that these circumstances might affect even one woman- in fact, outrage isn’t much of a factor in this novel at all. The optimism of its final chapter may even suggest that we might benefit from our world going so awry, because it would give us the opportunity to rebuild a country that seems already cracked and broken. Politically, it’s a perfect fit for 2019, and probably has something better to say about the ultimate fate of female oppression than The Handmaid’s Tale, but for me the message here just wasn’t as strong and didn’t quite ring true as a answer to the brilliant novel that precedes it.

Though this worked as neither a sequel nor a story in its own right for me, I’m not entirely mystified by the fact that it is having more success among other readers. Atwood is a big name in the publishing world for a reason, and The Testaments is not entirely devoid of merit. It is never my intent when I write a negative review to scare off interested readers, and I didn’t find this to be in any way an offensive book- just a book that completely failed to live up to its potential. I hope that it won’t win the Booker Prize next month… but I also hope that if you’re picking this one up, you have more fun with it than I did. Every book deserves to find its audience.

“Aunt Vidala said that best friends led to whispering and plotting and keeping secrets, and plotting and secrets led to disobedience to God, and disobedience led to rebellion, and girls who were rebellious became women who were rebellious, and a rebellious woman was even worse than a rebellious man because rebellious men became traitors, but rebellious women became adulteresses.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I don’t want to think that I would’ve been against any possible sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, despite my appreciation for its ambiguous ending, but this really wasn’t it for me. I’m not surprised at its commercial success so far, but I am a bit surprised it’s doing so well with the Booker judges. If by some chance this book wins, I will believe to the end of my days that it passed on the strength of the original novel that should have been worthy of a Booker win, rather than on its own substance. But I suppose I should close before I get any more petty. I’m glad I gave this one a chance, but sad that it didn’t live up to expectations. Maybe next time, Atwood.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Wall

I’m sure that with its recent exclusion from the Booker Prize shortlist interest in John Lanchester’s The Wall may already be decreasing, but I didn’t quite finish reading in time to review it beforehand, so here we are. In any case, this review is more likely to make you feel relieved you didn’t get to this one before the shortlist announcement rather than persuade you to pick it up- I don’t have many positive things to say.

thewallIn the novel, Joseph “Chewy” Kavanagh reports for duty on the Wall (or, the National Coastal Defense Structure); it’s a two-year post of rotating shifts for training, defending the country’s border, and resting the eyes- the glare of the sun off the water makes watching the Wall surprisingly difficult. As the result of a major environmental and climate Change, beaches no longer exist and countries have closed their borders to outsiders- in this case, by conscripting all new adults into active service on the Wall, where they are tasked with shooting any Others who approach. As conditions worsen elsewhere in the world, contact becomes more frequent, and more dangerous for everyone involved- for every Other who crosses the Wall, a Defender is “put to sea.”

“I wanted this time to be over, yet when I tried to think hard about what would be next, there was a blank.”

I should start by admitting that nothing about this novel struck me as overtly problematic. Though I didn’t enjoy the read, I didn’t find anything about it infuriating or alarming- it just didn’t deliver.

Right from the beginning of the novel, the first sentences about Lanchester’s Wall are very reminiscent of George R. R. Martin‘s descriptions of another popular Wall; not in style, but in imagery and sensory detail, as well as purpose (holding back the Others). Though it certainly helps to plant a visual in the reader’s mind, the author’s choice to piggyback off of existing content indicated a level of laziness and lack or originality that sadly persisted throughout the rest of the novel. (Is it possible Lanchester didn’t know about Westeros and the Night’s Watch? Perhaps, but wouldn’t an editor or early reader have made the connection?)

“It’s cold on the Wall. That’s the first thing everybody tells you, and the first thing you notice when you’re sent there, and it’s the thing you think about all the time you’re on it, and it’s the thing you remember when you’re not there anymore. It’s cold on the Wall.”

The repetition and sluggishness to make a point persist as well.

In the second chapter, we begin to see small poems about the Wall (and one about a Christmas tree, completely unrelated to the story at hand) that are offered only as further descriptors of life on the Wall and then are abruptly dropped from the novel; these are the book’s only claim to an interesting structure or experimental style.

“cold:::concrete:::wind:::sky:::water”

The rest is so straightforward that I wonder if it might fare better with a YA audience. If there’s one good thing I can say about The Wall, it’s that I flew through it because of the fast-paced and easy-to-read prose. The catch is that it’s so quick to digest because its parallels to current social and political issues are obvious, but the narration fails to take them a step further by making any new observations or giving a fresh perspective to the real-world events it riffs off of. To me, the setting and basic scenario felt like a well-built home that no one had moved into yet; it lacks life.

I don’t want to say much about the plot, because that’s really all The Wall has going for it, and despite this ranty review, I don’t mean to turn anyone away from reading this book or spoiling it for anyone who is interested- it is a perfectly adequate read. I’m not sure it’s an adequate Booker Prize nominee, but I don’t doubt that readers will be entertained or will be able to find worthwhile messages between the lines. The author does none of the heavy lifting in conveying worthwhile themes here, but a determined reader could make just about anything from the bare bones of this story that they wanted to. Personally, I found the foreshadowing made the events of the novel predictable and the morals overly simplistic, but this isn’t to disparage anyone who takes more from the reading experience than I have. It simply didn’t work for me.

“I’d been brought up not to think about the Others in terms of where they came from or who they were, to ignore all that- they were just Others. But maybe, now that I was one of them, they weren’t Others anymore? If I was an Other and they were Others perhaps none of us were Others but instead we were a new Us. It was confusing.”

In spite of all of my complaints thus far, I might still have chosen a higher rating if the ending wasn’t such a non-ending. Again, I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll say only that it seemed to me like a convenient and temporary fix that offered no real substance to the storyline. It has nothing to say about the Wall or the Others, no lesson seems to have been learned or advantage gained, none of the core conflicts are in any way likely to be resolved by the main characters’ concluding decisions. They seem as devoid of emotion and opinion as they had through the rest of the novel’s events, and their lack of investment in any sort of future plan makes the derailment of their lives a cold reading experience with incredibly low stakes. “Chewy” doesn’t use his new circumstances to reflect on what he’s been through or the state of  his world. And perhaps this is a statement in itself, though it proved ineffectual for me.

Unfortunately, this title was another low point of the Booker Prize longlist for me.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I’d seen some disappointing reviews before I got around to picking this one up, but I do enjoy a good sci-fi/dystopian tale now and then and hoped at least to be entertained. Instead, I found myself counting pages until the end, even thought the experience was not particularly difficult or time-consuming. This was just… not at all what I expected from a literary prize nominee.

Have you read this one, or anything else from John Lanchester? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

Booker Prize Shortlist 2019

The Booker Prize shortlist was announced earlier today, so this seems like a good time to check in with my progress and plans for the rest of the Prize this year.

As soon as I saw the 2019 longlist I knew I probably wouldn’t be reading all thirteen books this year, so I’ve been taking it easy. That said, I do have a lot of fun chatting with the book community about the nominated books, and eventually I want to read the entire Booker longlist “on time,” i.e. before the shortlist announcement, so it seemed like good practice to read at least a few of this year’s nominees.

At this point, I’ve now read:

  1. My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – a fun spoof of a slasher thriller with an excellent sister dynamic and a strong undercurrent of feminist commentary. It’s short and readable but also offers some substance to sink the teeth into. Not an all-time favorite for me, but even so, 5 stars.
  2. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli – a dense book that perhaps takes itself too seriously at times, but ultimately offers a unique road trip story and a fresh perspective on the current border crisis in the southern US. I didn’t love every moment of my experience with this one, but it left a strong impression. 4 stars.
  3. Lanny by Max Porter – a dream-like story full of magic and experimental writing. The various parts of this book are very distinct from each other, and some of them seem stronger than others. Nevertheless, an interesting concept and an engaging read. 4 stars.
  4. Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry – a brief look into the troubled lives of two Irish criminals. I found the prose evocative and exquisite, though the story itself didn’t quite live up to the strength of the premise. 3 stars.
  5. An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma – an intriguing concept of injustice in Nigeria that was for me completely muddied by poor characterization and an ineffectual attempt at connecting the story to Homer’s The Odyssey. Though I thought Obioma had an excellent idea with this one, the execution fell completely flat for me. 2 stars.
  6. Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson – a superb exploration and continuation of themes from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This book lays an extremely readable fictionalization of Mary’s life alongside a modern retelling that speculates on the future of AI and includes a strong non-binary character. I loved every single page. 5 stars.
  7. The Wall by John Lanchester (full review forthcoming) – a quick dystopian read that pits natives against “Others” in a world that has survived a disastrous climate change. Though an intriguing concept, I found the plot and themes predictable and unexciting. Though not a problematic book, a sadly underwhelming one. 2 stars.

bookerprize2019

I chose these seven books to read (well, five, as I’d read two of them prior to the longlist announcement) primarily because they were the only titles readily available to me. I had to purchase two of them from Book Depository (so few of the longlisted books were published in the US at the time of the longlist announcement!) but I bought only the two I was most interested in at the time and only because they came at fairly low prices. I found the others through my library.

Since I had only read half the list and not found many titles I was invested in seeing advance, I posted a half-hearted shortlist wishlist to my Instagram feed rather than a thoughtful prediction post on my blog. I guessed three titles correctly.

In case you haven’t already seen the results, this year’s shortlist includes:

  • Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
  • 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak
  • Quichotte by Salman Rushdie
  • The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
  • An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Image result for booker prize shortlist

While I am thrilled to see four women on this list, I am not particularly excited by the group as a whole. To be honest, I wasn’t exactly thrilled by the longlist in the first place, so I haven’t been feeling entirely invested in the result of this year’s Booker Prize. At a glance, I’ve only read one of the shortlisted books so far, and I strongly disliked it. I’m disappointed that neither Frankissstein nor Lost Children Archive advanced- both of which I thought had a good chance and would have deserved a spot on the shortlist. I would gladly have swapped the Obioma for either. Otherwise, it’s difficult to say I have any strong opinions when I haven’t read the rest of the list yet!

I’m not sure I’ll be reading the entire shortlist, though. Here’s where I stand on the longlisted titles I haven’t read yet (titles linked to Goodreads, as I can’t give any sort of synopsis on these):

  1. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy – This is the only longlisted title I haven’t read yet that hasn’t been shortlisted. The reviews I’ve seen for it have been mainly mediocre, and my interest in the synopsis wasn’t high to begin with (thought I still think I could be persuaded by the right review). It’s not out in the US until October 15. If my library gets a copy and it ends up being the only longlisted book I haven’t read, I might pick this up… someday. Definitely not before the winner announcement, which is scheduled for October 14.
  2. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann – The title I’m currently most excited about. I’ve heard some great things that make this 8-sentence 1000-page behemoth sound right up my alley. I’ve been waiting impatiently for the US release date of September 10. I’m planning to read it as soon as I get a copy this month.
  3. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood – I’m certain about reading this one prior to the winner announcement as well; I’d pre-ordered (release date September 10) before seeing it longlisted, based on my general appreciation of Atwood’s writing and my enjoyment of The Handmaid’s Tale a few years ago. I’m definitely curious about this book.
  4. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – My interest in this title has grown in light of several positive reviews from other longlist readers, so I’m confident that I will read this one eventually. I’m not committing to reading it prior to the winner announcement because it is not released in the US until December 3, but anything could happen with this one.
  5. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak – My curiosity for this book is growing as well, though I’ve seen enough mixed opinions that I don’t think I’m confident enough to buy a copy. If I pick it up, I’ll wait until it’s US release date of December 3, when (if) my library gets a copy.
  6. Quichotte by Salman Rushdie – I’m torn on this one. I love literary retellings (Frankissstein = case in point) and am interested in sampling this major author I haven’t read yet; but I haven’t read Don Quixote, and I want to read that original classic first. I think I will read both works eventually, but I already have a few long books on the docket for September and October (starting with Ducks!) which means I probably won’t have time to read both Don Quixote and Quichotte before the winner announcement. But this title is available at my library, and if it turns out that I’m reading the rest of the shortlist before the end of the year, I might make more of an efort to fit this in as well.

Clearly my plans are still not set in stone. What I know for sure is that I will read Ducks and Testaments before the winner announcement, which will mean I’ll have read at least half of the shortlist by that time, and 9 titles from the longlist. I’ll post a reaction to the winner and a progress update in October.

If you’ve read any of the titles I haven’t picked up yet, please share your thoughts and convince me one way or the other!

Are you reading (or have already read) anything from the shortlist this year?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Frankissstein

CW: homophobia, transphobia, rape (on the page, plus other instances mentioned), misogyny, deaths of children (due to illness), unauthorized appropriation of severed body parts.

My Booker Prize adventure continues with a standout: Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein. This was my sixth read from this year’s longlist, and my favorite so far!

frankisssteinIn the novel, Mary Shelley waits out a rainstorm with her friends in 1816, participating in a challenge to create the most monstrous tale- the historical conception of her famed novel, Frankenstein. Alternatively, in Brexit Britain, Ry Shelley becomes acquainted with a couple of prominent men in robotics and AI. Victor is a scientist who believes artificial intelligence will become the next species at the top of the food chain- soon, and to the world’s benefit; meanwhile, Ron Lord is a businessman who’s found a lucrative career in selling sex bots to men. Each character’s career and personal interests circle around existential questions and also brush against matters of gender and identity.

“In some ways machines are easier to deal with. If I had just told machine intelligence that I am now a man, although I was born a woman, it wouldn’t slow up its processing speed.”

I might as well say up front that I loved everything about this novel, and that my existing love for Shelley’s original Frankenstein probably predisposed me toward complete enjoyment of Winterson’s homage. Though I do not think one necessarily needs to have read or really known anything about Shelley’s classic to enjoy Frankissstein, appreciation for the former will certainly improve your chances of appreciating the latter. The reason for this is that Winterson is not simply recreating or retelling Shelley’s gruesome story, but expanding upon it and paying tribute. Enough details from the original story and Shelley’s own background are provided alongside Winterson’s modern storyline that any casual reader should be able to pick up on the similarities, but the experience is likely richer for those entering Frankissstein with some prior knowledge. I certainly found it so.

The format of the book is a mishmash of pieces that are not divided neatly into chapters. The timeline bounces between a fictionalization of Mary Shelley’s real past (the sections I preferred) and Ry’s present romance with Victor. There is also a smattering of related-but-detached quotes that crop up between sections of the story. It is a rather confusing format that can seem a bit arbitrarily divided at times, but the effect fits the topic- monsters built from real humans (in this case, Shelley’s bio) and a spark of creation. The parallels are obvious, but seem stitched together in fragments rather than sculpted neatly as a whole- instead of a gripping plot, it’s a series of vignettes that study characters and themes. Nonetheless, every single narrative shift had me excited to see what would come next.

One of the biggest changes between Frankenstein and Frankissstein is the new novel’s focus on gender. Winterson further blurs the line between life and death that Shelley grays in her original work, but then takes matters a step further by using characters that represent and support non-binary gender identity and sexuality to further her narrative speculation on the possibility of uploading the human brain to extend life through computers; the central question being: to what extent is our “life,” our consciousness, connected to our physical bodies? If we could project ourselves into any body or machine, would we choose the forms we were born with, alter our bodies, or abandon biology altogether? I’m not trans, so I can’t speak personally about the accuracy of the coverage in Ry’s character, but I thought his identity as a trans person was considerately handled in a way that showed Winterson had done her research. I loved the gender commentary running through this novel, especially from the unique mortality angle that Winterson tackles it from. I’ve seen some criticism for Frankissstein‘s political commentary hitting a bit too on-the-nose, but I thought the way everything tied to Shelley’s original exploration of recreating life after death kept it fresh and morbidly engrossing. I have never felt more aware of my physical body and its doomed fate.

“Medically and legally, death is deemed to occur at heart failure. Your heart stops. You take your last breath. Your brain, though, is not dead, and will not die for another five minutes or so. Perhaps ten or fifteen minutes in extreme cases. The brain dies because it is deprived of oxygen. It is living tissue like the rest of the body. It is possible that our brain knows we are dead before we die.”

The writing itself is excellent throughout- readable and engaging, and packed full of one-liners. I even laughed a fair amount. The future counterparts Winterson has provided for Lord Byron, Claire, and Polidori are hilarious and apt, and I loved seeing Victor as a part of this tale, right alongside his creator. Mary Shelley does seem slightly modernized (though it is worth remembering that her mother was a well-known advocate for women’s rights back in the late 1700s), but I think any liberties taken are clear and beneficial, a way of emphasizing how challenging Shelley’s life must have been and how the creation of Frankenstein, her own monster, might have haunted her. The account of her life depicted here is quite moving, as we see a young woman full of dreams weighted down with societal rules, responsibilities, and tragedies that would have been difficult for any person to cope with. The recap of her trials and tribulations provided in a first-person perspective brings Frankissstein to life.

Though I preferred the historical timeline right from the atmospheric beginning, I also appreciated the ways in which Ry’s conversations and experiences bring current political matters from the modern world into the text. Just as the scientific developments of Shelley’s time must have played a role in the creation and reception of her story (I’m flashing back to a college research paper, yikes), so too are the details of our time stamped upon Winterson’s.

“What is sanity? he said. Can you tell me? Poverty, disease, global warming, terrorism, despotism, nuclear weapons, gross inequality, misogyny, hatred of the stranger.”

Obviously, I don’t know Mary Shelley’s mind, but I really think this is a response to her work that Shelley would have been delighted to see. In any case, I know I am.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I want to reread this. I want to reread Frankenstein. I want to read so much more of Winterson’s work (how have I never read anything else from this author? I have been aware of her work and somehow just never picked anything up?!). I haven’t read enough of the longlist yet for a serious opinion of the whole or accurate ranking of my favorites, but I can confidently say that I will not be disappointed if this one wins. I certainly hope to see it shortlisted.

More of my Booker nominee reviews: My Sister, the Serial Killer, Lost Children Archive, Lanny, Night Boat to Tangier, and An Orchestra of Minorities.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: An Orchestra of Minorities

My sampling of the Booker Prize longlist continues with Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities. This one sounded so grandiose in concept that I was expecting either a major hit or a total miss, and sadly it did end up being a miss for me.

anorchestraofminoritiesIn the novel, Chinonso lives on a Nigerian poultry farm, alone with his beloved fowls. His immediate family is dead or estranged, so when an uncle suggests to him that a wife would give him some companionship, Chinonso doesn’t need much persuading. His first few attempts at love are rather naive and don’t pan out, but then he encounters a woman staring over the side of a bridge, apparently preparing to throw herself over and die. Neither of them are considering romance during this encounter, but a fledgling bond takes root all the same. Unfortunately, her family disapproves of him. As the lovers navigate their new relationship, they are thrown into increasingly difficult circumstances that teach them just how far they are willing (or not) to go for each other.

“All who have been chained and beaten, whose lands have been plundered, whose civilizations have been destroyed, who have been silenced, raped, shamed, and killed. With all these people, he’d come to share a common fate. They were the minorities of this world whose only recourse was to join this universal orchestra in which all there was to do was cry and wail.”

First off, An Orchestra of Minorities is a book that purports (in its jacket copy! in the text itself!) to be a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey. This claim was one of the biggest draws for me, so the fact that I didn’t think Obioma’s novel compared well to The Odyssey is probably my greatest disappointment here. This story is divided into three “incantations,” but it is not until the second of these that the connection to Homer’s epic begins to surface, and not until the third part (over 300 pages into the novel!) that Chinonso becomes a man stuck abroad, struggling to return to his home and the woman he loves. Plot-wise, the comparison ends there. Without the narration’s insistence on blatantly drawing a link between Chinonso and Odysseus, I suspect any narrative similarity would have gone largely unnoticed; but that’s just one reader’s opinion.

“And I must say, humbly- Chukwu- that I may have helped save my host’s life! For my words- What if she still loves you like Odysseus’s wife?- filled him with sudden hope.”

My love for The Odyssey is 50% appreciation for the tragedy, 50% appreciation for Odysseus’s craftiness in circumnavigating each of the obstacles placed in his path. Though Chinonso’s story certainly includes plenty of tragedy, he responds to his hardships with more crying and wailing than attempts to outsmart his enemies. Though Chinonso’s inability to fight back against his oppressors makes a powerful statement about how hard it must be to escape injustices like those that he faces in Nigeria (and in Cyprus, likened to “Africa in Europe”), it also leaves An Orchestra of Minorities feeling like an overly long and uneventful book in which things only happen to the main character. The format of Chinonso’s “chi” giving this story as testimony to the Igbo gods grounds the reader in Nigerian culture and harks back to the Greek’s singing muses, though the prose’s tendency to philosophize (which admittedly fits the myth comparison) also contributes to the sense of longwindedness.

“A word spoken stands as truth, firm, unless it is revealed to be a lie. Truth is a fixed, unchangeable state. It is that which resists any touching, any fiddling. It cannot be adorned, nor can it be garnished. It cannot be bent, rearranged, or moved about. […] Speak only what you know. If a fact is thin, do not feed it to make it fat. If a fact is rich, do not take from it to make it lowly. If a fact is short, do not stretch it to make it long. Truth resists the hand that creates it, so that it is not bound by the hand. It must exist in the state in which it was first created.”

Some readers will find these moralizing moments more endearing than I did, surely. To me they seemed tangential and gimmicky. I liked that the dialogue is written in dialect, but the frequent untranslated phrases of Igbo were a step too far for me. There are also many names mentioned, of places and deities and such, whose significance I had a hard time understanding because they are not always explained clearly for the layperson. In many ways I thought An Orchestra of Minorities a brilliant snapshot of a place and culture, but there are certainly details that went over my head, as well. I think someone more familiar with Igbo and Nigeria might best comprehend everything Obioma is doing with language and structure in this novel, but I also think the content and themes are aimed more at those who are unfamiliar, in a way that is meant to raise awareness of some of the gross racial injustice still evident in the world today. I’m not sure who the happy middle audience might be.

“I know what they did to you was not good. They disgraced you. But, you see, these things happen. This is Nigeria. This is Alaigbo. A poor man is a poor man. Onye ogbenye, he is not respected in the society.”

Another major barrier for me in this book is Chinonso himself. I do think a case can be made that the toxic masculinity on display in his character is an intentional, calculated writing choice meant to reflect the poor environment Chinonso has been raised in and the increase of struggles piled upon him. In the end, the narration’s failure to address this possibility even in the most subtle way made it hard to see this element in any sort of constructive light, and I found myself more annoyed with its inclusion than sympathetic- it could definitely have been handled better. So could a few other sensitive topics that come up in the story: prostitution, depression and suicidal thoughts, alcoholism… Chinonso meets a string of characters with problems of their own,  but never sees these issues as more than plot points in his own narrative. As a consequence, Chinonso is the only character that feels fully fleshed out. This bothered me with Ndali in particular, as she plays such a vital role; Chinonso meets her a real low point in her life, as a failed relationship leads her to that bridge- even when her relationship with Chinonso must appear to her to be headed down the same path, we see only Chinonso worrying that she’ll let another man touch her breasts.

But for all my complaints, I do need to say that I admire the concept behind this story. Though the execution fell entirely flat for me, I think this book was born from a strong and worthwhile idea (which I’ve mostly avoided talking about to spare you from any spoilers- it’s best not to know what’s coming). Because he is Nigerian, because the lessons life has taught Chinonso are not the same lessons people learn in other countries, he is vulnerable in particular ways. Because he is Nigerian, his word does not matter when someone accuses him. Because he is Nigerian, assumptions are made about him, lies are spread, and his life is less his own. Though this is not a new theme in literature, I think Obioma frames and addresses the issue in a new and interesting way. For a reader who enjoys Obioma’s writing, I think this story leave a much better impression. Personally, I’m left with a few aspects to appreciate from a reading experience that was just not at all enjoyable for me.

“Look at our economy; see our cities. No light. No jobs. No clean water. No security. No nothing. Everything, price of everything is double-double. Nothing is working. You go to school suppose take you for four years, you finish after six or seven, if God help you even. Then when you finish you find job so tey you will grow gray hair and even if you find it, you will work-work-workn and still not be paid.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. I think this was my low point in this year’s Booker longlist- a 2-star rating is unusual for me in any circumstance, and particularly frustrating with a prize nominee. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone who gets on with this one better than I did, but this is the title I least want to see advance, at the moment. If more of the longlist had been available to me, I’m not sure I would have finished this one. I don’t think I’ll be reading further from this author.

But to end on a brighter note, I’m really loving the next longlist title I’ve picked up- Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein!

Links to my previous Booker longlist reviews: My Sister, the Serial Killer, Lost Children Archive, Lanny, and Night Boat to Tangier.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Night Boat to Tangier

I’m back to the Booker Prize longlist with Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier. The synopsis of this one sounded excellent to me, but my expectations may have been a bit too high- the book didn’t quite live up.

nightboattotangierIn the novel, two Irish gangsters- Maurice “Moss” and Charlie- wait at a ferry terminal for a boat carrying the estranged daughter of one of the men. Whether she is coming or going from Tangier is unclear to them, but they are confident about recognizing her or encountering (and successfully intimidating) someone who knows her. While they wait, they recount lives of violence, loss and betrayal- events that have both pushed them apart and bound them together.

“They look into the distance. They send up their sighs. Their talk is a shield against feeling. They pick up the flyers and rise again. They offer them to passersby- few are accepted. Sympathy is offered in the soft downturn of glances. The missing here make a silent army.”

I must say that Barry’s prose in this novel is exquisite. It’s lyrical, peppered with Spanish and Irish lingo, and brimming with metaphors that almost always hit the mark. The narration is a third person omniscient, which allows the reader to see into both men’s lives (though the focus is clearly on Moss) but also gauge others’ perceptions of them. The timeline bounces between the wait at the port and some of the earlier events that have led our characters to this day.

The story itself is where things started to go a bit downhill for me. Quality writing is a huge determining factor in whether I’ll appreciate a book, but it’s not the only factor. And sadly, neither plot nor characters quite matched the perfection of the prose for me.

To begin with, almost all of the action occurs in the past timeline- the present is reserved for reflection and… waiting. Though Charlie and Moss do have a few encounters at the port station, the fact that they are waiting for someone specific makes those early conversations with other characters feel superfluous. I might still not have minded that Night Boat to Tangier is slow on action if the action hadn’t been so very expected. I think Barry does a great job of circling around the drug trafficking aspect that lies at the heart of this story and instead focusing on its myriad affects in the lives of those involved- the relationships that are formed, the lifestyles required, the attitudes adopted. But I expected a pair of aging Irish gangsters to make for a grittier read, and instead found the usual drug use, infidelity, bad parenting, etc. presented with such a lack of nuance and originality.

“It was a fucking joke life. It was fucking beautiful. They never caught us- that was the important thing.”

In the end, I think my biggest impediment came in the form of the characters; though Moss and Charlie are criminals who’ve made plenty of bad choices, they are clearly supposed to draw on the reader’s heart. They’ve had a rough time of it, and perhaps had less choice about the careers they began than they can admit, and in any case are now trying to do The Right Thing. The book’s focus on love and attempts to mend important relationships seems an encouragement for the reader to overlook Moss and Charlie’s criminality and see only their emotions. In almost every review I’ve seen for this book, readers have been prepared to forgive just about anything that didn’t quite work for them because they became so attached to Charlie and Moss. I’m clearly in the minority- but I thought these two men seemed like such cardboard cutouts of gangsters that I really could never bring myself to care about them at all. Though their fascinating friendship should be the highlight of the novel, my lack of belief and interest in them as people barred me from making as much of their dynamic as other readers seem to do. Dilly was the only character I found very convincing, and Barry doesn’t give us much of her.

“She can see her mother, in the hotel bed […] turning again and again in a hot, awful soak, and she can feel the heat off her, it radiates, she’s like a brick oven, and Maurice sits by the window, it’s very late, it’s summer and such a humid night, and he’s looking out to the car park, smoking a number, and very lowly, under his breath, he’s going / fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck / and she knew then that they were definitely not like other families.”

None of this is to say that I was bored while reading. The chapters are short, and the scenes switch often enough that even where it is predictable the story is never a slog. I’ve already mentioned that I adored the writing style- I marked so many stunning passages that I could have filled this review just with quotes and not lost any length. There’s one superb scene that will surely stick with me, in which Charlie and Moss are having a public confrontation narrated entirely through the eyes of other patrons in the bar who become aware of the tension in the room and wait expectantly for something to happen. Something does, of course. The dynamic between Charlie and Moss is certainly fascinating; though they’ve been in competition with each other for so long and have so many reasons to see each other as enemies, still they have maintained a friendship stronger than anything else that has come and gone for them in the intervening years. I would’ve loved to see this story explored further in every direction.

“He wanted to leave the place again but was rooted to it now. Fucking Ireland. Its smiling fiends. Its speaking rocks. Its haunted fields. Its sea memory. Its wildness and strife. Is haunt of melancholy. The way that it closes in.”

Though this was a fun read, I didn’t feel that it left me with any new perspective of the world or food for further thought. If I had picked the book up on my own for a quick escapist read, it might have fared better, but as  part of the Booker Prize longlist I had hoped for more thematic depth than “smuggling illegal goods can ruin your family.” But Night Boat to Tangier is a good time at the very least, and many readers seem to be finding more to praise it for than I have, so if the synopsis interests you don’t let my mediocre review steer you away from giving it a chance.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m really disappointed I didn’t like this one more. Maybe I’m missing something, as it seems to be receiving a lot of love from other reviewers. In any case, a reread (even just for that wonderful writing) isn’t out of the question, and I am curious to check out more of Barry’s work based on the strength of his prose alone. I don’t really see this one making the shortlist despite its crowd popularity, but I’ve been wrong before. In any case, flaws and all, I had a better time with Night Boat to Tangier from start to finish than I’m having with my current Booker Prize read, Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities.

Links to my previous Booker Prize longlist reviews: My Sister, the Serial Killer, Lost Children Archive, and Lanny.

How is the Booker Prize longlist going for you so far?

 

The Literary Elephant