Tag Archives: literary fiction

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.

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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

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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

The Literary Fiction Book Tag

I was tagged by Rachel for this one, and all of her answers are so spot-on that I highly recommend checking out her post if you’re looking for more lit fic recommendations and haven’t seen it yet! I’m also going to mention that Jasmine’s Reads is the creator for this post, so if you’re looking for a booktube version of the tag to check out, Jasmine’s original post is excellent, and a great place to start!

On to the prompts! (I’m trying not to repeat titles I’ve already seen used in order to spread the love more widely, which means some of my favorites have sadly been excluded. But even so, every book named here was a 4 or 5 star read for me that I highly recommend!)

1 – How do you define literary fiction?

agirlisahalfformedthing

This is, admittedly, a very slippery term to define, and seems to differ from reader to reader. For me, the main difference (while also acknowledging plenty of overlap in the middle) is that genre fiction is more focused on providing entertainment where literary fiction is more focused on testing the boundaries of its form by experimenting with language, structure, and style. Which isn’t to say that genre fiction doesn’t try new things and use meaningful themes that can be just as groundbreaking and impactful, or that lit fic isn’t entertaining; what I mean is that genre fiction is more constrained, aiming to reach a specific goal (to solve a mystery, to bring two lovers together, to explore a scientific hypothetical, etc.) using a repeatable formula, where literary fiction tends to wander off the known paths in favor of exploring the state of human nature or the world at large. I do not think literary fiction belittles genre fiction, but I do think both types approach their stories in different ways. Literary fiction is playful and experimental in a way that shows it is as aware of the fact that it is a book as that it is a story.

2 – Name a literary fiction novel with a brilliant character study

freshwater

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi is a book about a Nigerian person whose body houses several different spirits (ogbanje); though each of these is a separate entity with its own desires and motivations, the book as a whole is an exploration of identity and madness, of defining the self when none of the modern labels seem to fit. It’s both a very specific look at one character’s conflicting sense of self (with one foot solidly in Igbo culture), and a broader reminder that some identifiers- like gender, sexuality, and mental disorders- don’t always apply neatly.

3 – Name a literary fiction novel that has experimental or unique writing

womentalking

Women Talking by Miriam Toews is a short work of fiction inspired by a real (awful) event- the women of a Menonite colony have been subdued and raped by the men that are their husbands, brothers, and neighbors. What’s interesting about the writing is that several colony women have gathered to decide how to respond to their attackers, and the entire book is comprised of the recorded minutes of their meeting. Though some readers are put off by the fact that the women are unable to write and must thus employ one of the colony men for this task, I think his opinionated account and seemingly random tangents muddying the record further display the level of helplessness these women are dealing with and must overcome if they want their situation to change.

4 – Name a literary fiction novel with an interesting structure

fromalowandquietsea

From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan is one example of a structure trend that I particularly enjoy- the narrative is divided into three sections that each follow a different character. Their stories at first seem completely unrelated, and it isn’t until the final closing section of the novel that one action aligns the three men and intertwines their fates. Until that moment, the novel feels like a set of distinct vignettes or short stories, each interesting in their own right but so much stronger when woven together as a whole.

5 – Name a literary fiction novel that explores social themes

lostchildrenarchive

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli is a current Booker Prize nominee and former Women’s Prize nominee that highlights the conflict of immigration and nativism, and the current problem at the US southern border. This book also has an interesting structure and writing style, but what stood out to me most was its exploration of indigenousness both historically and as a crucial ingredient in today’s political climate.

6 – Name a literary fiction novel that explores the human condition

humanacts2

Human Acts by Han Kang is a hard-hitting novel about the 1980 uprising in Gwangju (South Korea). Though it describes some of the specific hardships (death, torture, and imprisonment, to name a few) suffered by the working class at this time, the book’s thematic focus is on the cruelty and vulnerability of human nature. Though the narrative arc follows the affects and aftereffects of one eventful month in one certain place, Kang’s speculations about humanity apply with much wider scope.

7 – Name a brilliant literary-hybrid genre novel

(I’m going to follow Rachel’s lead here and list a few, because I love these hybrids and it’s hard to choose.)

There’s Severance by Ling Ma, an apocolyptic (sci-fi) literary blend that features zombies and a running commentary on the perils of following the herd; it’s a satire on the mind-numbing routine of rote work and the pursuit of money over one’s dreams.

There’s also The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, a fantasy literary blend that alternates between an intergalactic plot full of revenge and assassins, and a tragic family saga full of ruination and death. The wildly different pieces of this story shouldn’t work together, but somehow they do- seamlessly. Ultimately it’s a tale of heartbreak and loss, and the unknowing ways we hurt the ones we love.

Then there’s The Need by Helen Phillips, a horror literary blend in which one frightening supernatural element (it’s best not to know specifics in advance) leads our main character into a spiral of uncertainty about who she is, what she will do to protect her family, where to draw the line between her self and her role as a mother. It’s an excellent dive into how much a parent can or can’t endure, and what we see when we look into our own souls.

 

8 – What genre do you wish was mixed with literary fiction more?

This is tough, because I like so many genres that I would really read any literary/genre mix. But I suppose I especially enjoy the dark and bizarre, so anything frightening, otherworldly, or just plain weird is something I want to see a literary version of. So… horror? Sci-fi? Fantasy?

Tagging:

Katie, Portia, and Diana. (No pressure, of course, but I’d love to see your answers if you decide to try the tag!) Also tagging anyone who hasn’t been tagged yet and wants to jump on board! Please link back if you do, so I can see your fave lit fic books! šŸ™‚

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Human Acts

Last year I readĀ The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, which I found quite powerful and have been returning to often in thought ever since. This year (and just in time for the end of WIT month!) I picked up my second novel from this author/translator duo, Human Acts. Though quite a different work, I found it equally brilliant.

humanacts2In the novel, the events and impact of the Gwangju uprising in 1980 South Korea unfold in a sequence of interconnected vignettes. Dong-ho, a fifteen year-old boy, is the link that connects them all. After being caught in a violent government-sanctioned attack on civilians, the boy tries to take a more active stance in aiding the victims and fighting for justice. From here, the story leaps through the next three decades in an examination of the aftereffects of the riots.

“Why would you sing the national anthem for people who’d been killed by soldiers? Why cover the coffin with the Taegukgi? As though it wasn’t the nation itself that had murdered them.”

This book is absolutely brutal. Though I found The Vegetarian psychologically disturbing (in the best way), Human Acts is a very different beast because it tackles a historic event. There is no way to dismiss the horrors that these characters describe- though the characters themselves are fictional- because these horrors are born not from the imagination but from reality. I knew nothing about Gwangju before reading this book, but now I am positive I will never forget about it.

“What had proved most incomprehensible was that this bloodshed had been committed again and again, and with no attempt to bring the perpetrators before the authorities. Acts of violence committed in broad daylight, without hesitation and without regret. Commanding officers who would have encouraged, no, even demanded such displays of brutality.”

What impressed me most about Human Acts is the way that Kang focuses the narration not on the grisly details of the uprising itself, but on the physical and mental affects that result from them. We are told about deaths and torture tactics, but instead of wasting space trying to convince readers of how awful these experiences are, she focuses instead on how the characters try or fail to cope with what they’ve been through- which somehow makes it all the more awful. For example, one chapter follows an ex- factory girl; a few sentences sum up the worst of the trauma she experienced after being arrested as part of a labor union, but the chapter revolves mainly around her attempts to visit an old factory friend and her incapability of sharing her own story. This was the section I found most moving, though each contains at least one gut-wrenching moment that leaves an impression.

Throughout the novel, there is much focus on the body, though Kang never lets the reader forget that the villains here are human too- there is an incredible and unsettling message evident that cruelty is as much a part of human nature as suffering. We hurt, and we are hurt. It’s devastating to think that this might be the human norm.

“Is it true that human beings are fundamentally cruel? Is the experience of cruelty the only thing we share as a species? Is the dignity that we cling to nothing but self-delusion, masking from ourselves this single truth: that each one of us is capable of being reduced to an insect, a ravening beast, a lump of meat? To be degraded, damaged, slaughtered- is this the essential fate of humankind, one that history has confirmed as inevitable?”

Something I liked a bit less is the use of frequent perspective shifts. Each chapter highlights a different character’s experience, and many of them are referenced in different ways, depending on the chapter. In the first section, we follow Dong-ho, who is addressed in the second person, as “you.” In the next section, we follow Dong-ho’s best friend, who is an “I” telling his story to Dong-ho’s “you.” The factory girl is also a “you” in her section, though other characters use the first person “I” or the third person “she/he.” I thought some of these POVs were more effective than others, and found the constant changes a bit tedious and confusing. Ultimately, I am not sure the effect was worth the effort.

But that’s a small complaint. Overall, I found this an engaging read full of unrelenting pain and haunting beauty. It’s a piece of world history worth knowing about; I’m sure I’ll remember the lesson, but I don’t think it will stay with me in quite the same manner that The Vgetarian will; while Human Acts opened my eyes to a real event and a deep level of human suffering, it seems to me aĀ  self-contained story, speculations on human nature aside. The Vegetarian, though less grounded in history, struck me as an inventive masterpiece of fiction with more widely applicable themes. It’s difficult to say I “liked” either one better than the other, or would recommend one more highly than the other, as I think they are quite opposite pieces of work. Both entirely worth the read.

” ‘The soldiers are the scary ones,’ you said with a half-smile. ‘What’s frightening about the dead?’ “

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I should have picked this book up sooner. I believe there is only one more Han Kang book translated into English so far, The White Book, which I’ve already added to my TBR. I want to read it right away, but also I’ll be sad to run out of new works to read from her- at least for now. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll get to my other WIT reads before the end of the month either, though I’m still planning to pick them up soon anyway; I need more translations in my life.

Have you read any of Han Kang’s work? Do you have a favorite?

 

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,Ā  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.

 

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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 asĀ  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?

 

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Review: Lanny

CW: death (mentioned, not detailed), missing child, child in danger, ostracism

I’m finally getting into some Booker Prize 2019 nominees! I’ve discovered over the last year that I really enjoy reading from prize lists while they’re fresh, but I am taking it a bit easier with this one. Even so, There are some titles on this year’s longlist that I’ve been really looking forward to picking up, and Max Porter’sĀ Lanny was first up.

lannyIn the novel, Lanny’s mother arranges for a local artist to give her young son private art lessons. Lanny’s father questions the man’s intentions in spending lots of unpaid and unsupervised time with a child, but otherwise it is an ideal situation for everyone- the man and the boy are fast friends, and Lanny’s informal lessons mean less time for him to spend at home where his mother works, or wandering the small village and its surrounding landscape alone, which he does often. At this time Lanny is perhaps closer to nature than people, and fascinated with a local mythic being called Dead Papa Toothwort; this magical creature, though seemingly an extension of the land, is fascinated by human civilization- and Lanny.

“Then Dead Papa Toothwort leaves his spot and wanders off, chuckling, jangling in his various skins, wearing a tarpaulin gloaming coat, drunk on the village, ripe with feeling, tingling with thoughts of how one things leads to another again and again, time and again, with no such thing as an ending.”

Though short on plot, Lanny has plenty of heart. This is a charming book with lovable characters that’s half magical realism, half literary fiction- sometimes a perfect blend of both, though most often the ratio is skewed either one way or the other.

This story is divided into three very different sections.

In the first, we become acquainted with Lanny and his parents, the outcast artist, and the village where they all live. We begin to see the dual faces of the community, in which newcomers and oddities are accepted publicly though perhaps not sincerely. Dead Papa Toothwort’s magical presence ebbs and flows, seeming at first rather whimsical but gradually spooling into something larger and more complex that will take up real space in the narrative. Dead Papa Toothwort catches bits of conversation that he spins together into an impressive tableau of modern human life; these are beautifully rendered on the page as the fragments curl and bend and even overlap each other, but as the bits and pieces are not strictly cohesive they seem to lend a tone to the narrative rather than supply useful content, which makes them a bit dry to read, despite their visual draw. I found this section a bit boring, to be honest, as nothing much is happening yet and the style felt a bit gimmicky to me at this point.

The second part introduces a calamity to the plot. In this portion, the magic takes a step back as the narration instead shifts from person to person, most of them anonymous, showing the many varied opinions and actions prompted by one disastrous event that both unites and divides the community. This portion of the book is absolutely brilliant- a nuanced study of how we react to tragedy, how living in a group shapes and reshapes our experiences, how wide an umbrella “human nature” may be. I also found the crisis itself very moving and compelling at this point. If the entire book had been written this way, it would surely have been a 5-star read for me.

Instead, the third portion brings the magic back to the forefront as a wild daydream guides our characters to a conclusion they’ve proved unable to reach without Dead Papa Toothwort’s assistance. The resolution of this tragedy throws realism entirely out the window- which is fine, though I tend to prefer magical realism that leans toward ambiguity.

There is a final passage- a sort of epilogue- from several years farther out; this I appreciated nearly as much as Part 2. These final pages ease back on the magic again and bring together the full implications of Dead Papa Toothwort’s role and reach. They suggest an intriguing theme that, despite the excess of magic in the lead-up, is really not so far-fetched or unheard of. Porter manages to approach a familiar point of curiosity in an entirely new and innovative way.

“I am thinking of my baby lying next door asleep. Or possibly he’s not asleep. Possibly he’s dancing in the garden with the elves or the goblins. We assume he’s asleep like a normal child, but he’s not a normal child, he is Lanny Greentree, our little mystery.”

All in all, I foundĀ Lanny a mostly enjoyable read; though I didn’t love every moment I spent with it, I am impressed with what it accomplishes. It’s a story full of fascinating dualities- the community and the self, human and nature, life and death. It’s style is unique and captivating. I can fully understand the enthusiasm it has been met with, and its placement on the Booker Prize list.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a quick read with plenty of depth despite its foray into magic. Some parts were quite a bit stronger for me than others, which made this one hard to rate; I’ve been wavering between 3 and 4 stars. (I’m also still wavering on a final rating for my previous read- clearly I’m having an indecisive week!) In any case, I appreciated Lanny enough that I’ll want to readĀ Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers as soon as possible.

Links to my other Booker Prize longlist reviews: Lost Children Archive, My Sister, the Serial Killer

 

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The Literary Elephant