The Golden Man Booker Shortlist Reaction & Discussion

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker, this year they’ve launched the Golden Man Booker, where five judges were each assigned a decade of past Man Booker winners and chosen what they believe is the most exemplary work of their decade.  Now those 5 books have been selected and it’s going to be put to a vote by the general public, to determine the best ever Man Booker winner.

When I first heard about this prize, I was quite excited, as I enjoy following the Man Booker and there are quite a few past winners I’ve been dying for a good excuse to read, as well as plenty that I believe would be very worthy winners.  I was already trying to make room for this shortlist in my June TBR.  But admittedly, when I saw this list my heart sank.  I’ll be honest: I am incredibly bored by this selection of books.  Is this really the best of the best?  Was breaking it up by decade the best way to go about this?  Anyway, let’s take a look at all of these:

 

In A Free State by VS Naipaul: I’ve never read any of Naipaul’s work, and I have no doubt that he’s a skilled and accomplished writer, but it is also well documented that he’s a misogynistic ass.  And look, we can talk about separating the art from the artist all day long, but at the end of the day, a prize like this is honoring the author just as much as the book itself.  And it’s not 1971 anymore.  In our current social climate, when #MeToo and #TimesUp are (rightfully) gaining traction, it’s an insult to shortlist a writer who’s openly disdainful of women in a prize which honors the best fiction of the past 50 years.  I might read this book eventually, especially if I ever commit myself to reading the Man Booker backlist, but it’s not something I’m feeling particularly excited about.  Anyway, I was really hoping Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea would be the 70s winner to finally give me a push to read it.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively: The only book I haven’t read that I both own and know exactly where it is, so this is the one I’m most likely to pick up.  Unfortunately the summary isn’t holding my attention terribly well… but at least it’s relatively short.  I’m particularly sad that my biggest horse in this race, Kazuo Ishiguro, wasn’t chosen in this category for The Remains of the Day, which I think is a phenomenal book.  But I’m glad to see two female writers on the shortlist.  Another one I’d have liked to have seen chosen is The Bone People by Keri Hulme, which I’ve had on my shelf for ages and which I’ve been dying to pick up.  It’s also noteworthy that Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children wasn’t the choice here, as it won the “Booker of Bookers” prize to celebrate the MB’s 25th anniversary.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje: Ok, this is admittedly ridiculous of me, but you know that Seinfeld episode where Elaine hated the film adaptation of The English Patient?  Elaine Benez is my fictional alter-ego so I have always taken for granted that I would hate The English Patient.  Talk about weird associations we make in our heads.  Anyway, I think I own this… somewhere… I will probably read it once it has been located.  My 90s vote would have been for any of these books that I haven’t read: Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle (a seminal Irish writer I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t read yet), The Ghost Road by Pat Barker (I have an ARC of her latest book but still haven’t read anything by her), or The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (which I’ve heard such wonderful things about).  I guess it says a lot about Kamila Shamsie’s objectivity that she didn’t go with The God of Small Things, as she and Roy were both longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year (Shamsie was shortlisted while Roy was not).

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel: This is such a polarizing book, but I have a feeling I’m going to like it.  I enjoy Tudor history as well as sort of dense historical fiction.  I’m not going to rush out to read it as it’s so long and seems like a bit of a time commitment that I just can’t give at the moment, but I fully intend to read it eventually.  I think The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood would have been a worthy choice (the only Atwood novel I’ve actually enjoyed), and I would have loved the excuse to read The Sea by John Banville over the excuse to read Wolf Hall, but oh well.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: This is the only winner on this list that I’ve read so far.  This is an interesting one.  It wasn’t my first choice to win, but I did appreciate it and was glad they gave the award to a book which succeeded in pushing boundaries and challenging genre conventions in a way I’ve rarely seen before.  But my bigger question is: in an award which endeavors to reward the book that has ‘stood the test of time,’ should last year’s winner even be in the running?  I’m not saying it shouldn’t – I really haven’t made up my mind.  But since the winner is going to a public vote, doesn’t it look likely that the book that most people have read – the most recent winner – is going to be the front-runner?  I can’t help but to feel like Lincoln in the Bardo would the most anticlimactic winner of the Golden Man Booker, if only because of its release date… but maybe that’s not fair.

So, by the logic I’ve just laid out, I think Lincoln in the Bardo or Wolf Hall is going to be crowned winner next month, but I wouldn’t be surprised by The English Patient.  I would be surprised by In A Free State, but I would be absolutely dumbfounded if Moon Tiger claims the victory.  That’s not an assessment of what I think is most and least deserving (as I’ve said, I’ve only read one of these books); just what I think is most and least likely.

I don’t think I’ll be reading the shortlist after all, and as such, I probably won’t be voting.  I liked Lincoln in the Bardo, but not passionately enough to confidently cast my vote for it.  But maybe eventually I’ll read all of these books.  Maybe I’ll put together my own Golden Man Booker shortlist, and choose the book from each decade that I’ve most been wanting to read, and make this my excuse to finally read them.  I won’t be doing that in June, I have plenty of other books I need to be reading, but maybe I can fit that in at some point in the second half of this year.  Would anyone join me if I did that?  Not with my list, necessarily, but in making your own and committing yourself to reading them at some point.

So anyway – what do you guys think?  Are you going to vote, and if so, who for?  What do you think of the shortlist in general?  Are you going to try to read it?  And what do you think of the inclusion of 2017 winner in a prize which is attempting to reward longevity in literary resonance?  Comment and let me know, I’d love to hear from you!

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book review: A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

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A BOY IN WINTER by Rachel Seiffert
★★★☆☆
2017, Pantheon Books

This is one of those books that didn’t inspire much of a reaction in me in either direction. There’s certainly not enough here to love, but there’s not much to strongly dislike, either. This felt to me like a bloated short story, whose subtleties would have perhaps been more effective in a shorter, more concise format.

A Boy in Winter‘s greatest strength is that it effectively downplays the grandiosity of the events it’s portraying. Though it is a World War II novel (and I know most people’s reactions to its inclusion on the Women’s Prize longlist was ‘oh no, another World War II novel’), it really doesn’t feel like one. It takes place over the course of three days toward the beginning of the German occupation of Ukraine in 1941. Seiffert deftly captures the sense of confusion and uncertainty for these characters who are unknowingly on the precipice of this massive historical event.

This is a quiet novel whose sparse, economical writing style suits its tone well. But the characters are forgettable and paper thin, the plot is nonexistent, the thematic resonance falls short, and the setting is rarely utilized to its full potential. I just don’t quite understand what Rachel Seiffert was attempting with this. There’s nothing terribly striking or unique or innovative or timely about this particular story that would recommend it over the sundry other Holocaust novels out there, or the exciting contemporary fiction that’s being published every day. This isn’t a bad book, but my experience reading it was a mostly hollow one. I’m a fan of quietly moving books, but there needs to be something that resonates for them to be effective, and that was just missing here.

book review: Almost Love by Louise O’Neill

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ALMOST LOVE by Louise O’Neill
★★★★☆
Riverrun, March 2018 (UK)

 

Almost Love follows Sarah, an aspiring artist who’s put her ambitions aside to become an art teacher at a private school, and it chronicles her highly dysfunctional relationship with one of her students’ fathers.

Asking For It is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year, so Almost Love had a lot to live up to. I actually expected to like it even more than Asking For It, as I prefer adult to YA for the most part. So I was surprised when it fell a bit short of Asking For It for me, but ultimately I did find it to be every bit as engrossing and incisive as I know Louise O’Neill is capable of.

The striking thing about O’Neill’s writing is the way she’s able to elucidate these hard-hitting realities that are so common to the female experience, but so often underrepresented. The reason Sarah stays with Matthew in this book is one that I see so little in fiction and so much in real life. The reader has certain expectations from the beginning: this relationship is clearly terrible, so there must be a concrete reason that Sarah is putting herself through this. The sex must be amazing (it isn’t), or Sarah gets something in return – money or social status (she doesn’t), or it’s clear that Sarah and Matthew love each other and their love is doomed by factors outside their control (this is not the case). Sarah stays with Matthew because his wanting her validates her sense of self-worth. Louise O’Neill confronts head-on the fact that women are socialized to believe that our bodies are not for our own pleasure; our own feelings are secondary; maintaining the relationship, however terrible, at all costs should be our main objective.

As with Asking For It, the real triumph of Almost Love is the protagonist’s unlikability. Sarah is awful, and O’Neill doesn’t skirt around that. We aren’t supposed to ‘like’ Sarah, we aren’t supposed to want to take her out to dinner or bond with her. The fact that Sarah is an atrocious friend is pretty clearly established. What works about it is how O’Neill, again, is challenging this conception that a woman’s worth is tied up in her likability, in how she’s perceived by others. Yes, Sarah creates a lot of her own misfortunes here, but this situation is so intrinsically tied with how women are socialized from an early age, so it’s important to look at the bigger picture here while considering Sarah’s own situation. Maybe Sarah doesn’t deserve the world, but she does deserve common human decency in the way she’s treated by others. It’s not a particularly earth-shattering concept, but it’s one that O’Neill gets to the heart of deftly.

Where it fell a bit short for me was in being very dialogue-heavy, it did a lot of telling rather than showing. I thought the prose in Asking For It was quite mature for YA, but it was so startlingly similar in Almost Love that it almost suffered for that comparison I had in my head – that this worked for a YA novel, and I was expecting something a bit more… elevated here? Which is partially my own personal hangup with genre expectations that I’m trying to break away from, but anyway. This didn’t blow me away and shatter my soul the way Asking For It did, but it’s still an important and engaging book that I didn’t want to put down for a second.

discussion: Why I Don’t DNF

Today I thought I’d just write up some thoughts that have been on my mind recently, and explain why I tend to not DNF books, even if I’m not enjoying them.  Before I begin, I just want to say: if you DNF, I think that is great, and I’m not trying to convince you to change your ways, or that my approach is better.  Neither way is ‘better’.  But I do find that this is something I have to justify pretty frequently among fellow readers who like to point out that ‘life is too short to read books you don’t like,’ and believe me, I get it.  But maybe now you will get a better idea of where I’m coming from!

I find that there are 3 main reasons I don’t DNF.

1. Books get better.

Admittedly this is not the majority of cases, but the few times it is true, it makes it worth it.  I don’t click with all of my favorite books from the very first page.  Sometimes you need to invest in a book before there’s any kind of payoff.  For me, that’s what I sign up for when I read.  I don’t expect every book to grip me from page 1, because the nature of so much literary fiction as well as certain types of genre fiction is that it builds slowly.  A few examples of where this was true for me:

30688435Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: For the first third of this book, I can’t say I was getting much out of it.  I thought the writing was overly flowery, I thought the characters were hard to connect to, I thought the magical realism was jarring and heavy-handed.  If I were wont to do so, I would have given up on this book before the halfway point.  But I decided to stick with it, and I ended up adoring it.  The writing style eventually won me over, and I thought it was perfectly suited to the story.  The two main characters weren’t particularly noteworthy on their own, but the relationship between them was this novel’s main asset.  And the magical realism ended up being an allegorical choice that I really connected with.  This book is stunning, but it takes some time to get used to.

23437156Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo: Everyone recommended this to me, including my friends who know that I don’t enjoy YA fantasy, so I finally decided to give it a shot.  And for the first 20%, I did not like a single thing about it.  There were too many characters, too many made up vocabulary words I was supposed to care about memorizing, and too little plot.  But then I settled into it and ended up loving it – it’s fun, engaging, and the characters are some of the best developed I’ve ever ever read.  There’s just a bit of perfunctory world building that needs to be taken care of before we can get to the good stuff.

19161852The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin: I read this one for a book club, and, like Six of Crows, it was off to a rocky start.  I was overwhelmed, to say the least, by the amount of times I needed to flip to the glossary at the back of the book to make sense of anything.  It also begins with a chapter written in second-person, which isn’t my favorite stylistic choice, to say the least.  But it all begins to make sense – even the second-person POV – and I was so glad I didn’t give up on this book at the first sign of difficulty, as Jemisin is an incredibly skilled writer and her world building is beautiful and completely worth your time and investment.

2. I rarely regret having read a book.

I mean a number of things by this, so here are just a couple of examples:

3774496War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy: There was hardly anything I enjoyed about this book, but I read it months ago and have since moved on with my life, and now, how cool is it that I’m able to say I’ve read War and Peace?!  I think it was 100% worth it.

 

23513349milk and honey by Rupi Kaur: I knew from the very first page that this poetry collection wasn’t going to be for me.  But it only took about half an hour of my life to read, and since this is a book that everyone’s read and everyone has an opinion on, I like to be able to join in that conversation.  I think it’s valid to read some books purely out of that sense of FOMO.  On occasion.

 

30212107Days Without End by Sebastian Barry: I think when we’re reading for fun, we have a tendency to reject books that require a lot of effort on our parts.  And I totally get that – especially if you’re still in school or raising a family, who wants to read a book that turns their brain to sludge in their free time?  But for me, I’m not still in school and I’m not raising a family.  I have free time, and I don’t have a lot of intellectual stimulation in my life since I graduated a few years ago.  Days Without End challenged me, and I ultimately was not rewarded for the energy I put into reading this book since I didn’t particularly like it at all, but it was an intellectually rigorous book and I did learn a lot from it.  I also felt like I was able to fully articulate my problems with it in my review, and with each review I write I’m striving to improve.  Any book that helps me become a better reviewer, in however small of a way, is definitely worth my investment.

31624992Gone Without a Trace by Mary Torjussen: Listen, I’m not going to pretend to be a totally altruistic person who’s willing to let any book prove its worth to me.  I hate-read this book, occasionally reading passages out loud to my mom and my friend that I found particularly hilarious, and it was fun.  This book was pretty awful in a ‘how did this get published’ kind of way, and ended up going on my worst books of 2017 list, but anything that can make me laugh, however unintentionally, isn’t a total waste of my time.

3. It’s a personal project.

Contrary to everything you’ve just read in this post, I must admit something about myself: I’m a quitter.  If I’m not perfect at something right away, I’ll give up on it before I give it a proper chance.  I get lazy.  I get bored.  A very abridged list of things I have abandoned, or have convinced myself that one day I will un-abandon: learning the piano, learning the guitar, horseback riding, teaching myself German.

This is not something I have ever liked about myself, and I want to get better.  For me, finishing books is a small but significant way for me to fight the overwhelming part of myself that says ‘why bother, who cares, what’s the point.’  Finishing a book you hate may seem daunting, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s just a book.  It’s just a few hours of your life.  It’s a hurdle I’ve proven I’m able to jump over, time and again.  And I like that feeling.  I like pushing myself through something that’s challenging and saying ‘see, I’m capable of finishing something.’  So maybe it seems like reading bad books is a waste of my time, but I actually think it’s a good mental health exercise for me, which is why I’m going to keep it up.

So, what do you guys think?  Do you DNF?  Why or why not?  I’d love to hear everyone else’s opinions about this, particularly your reasons!

book review: Watching Edie by Camilla Way

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WATCHING EDIE by Camilla Way
★★★☆☆
Berkley, 2016

 

I hadn’t known anything about Watching Edie before picking up the audiobook – I only chose it because I enjoyed Fiona Hardingham’s narration of Under the Harrow so much, so I scrolled through her titles before settling on a cover that looked like it might also be a suspenseful thriller. And it was a pretty good choice, for the most part – it’s an interesting story about two friends, Edie and Heather, who were once close in high school but who drifted apart for reasons we don’t find out about until later.

I have a frequent issue with books (especially of the thriller variety) withholding information from the reader for too long; stories kind of meandering along without a hook until there’s a last minute twist played for shock value. And that’s kind of my issue here, but it’s also not really the full extent of it. It’s not that this story was dull; on the contrary it was consistently interesting in a quietly captivating way. But I feel like this book robbed itself of an inherent complexity that the reader should have been grappling with much sooner than 20 pages from the end, when the secret between Heather and Edie is finally revealed.

This twist was harrowing, and nothing like what I’d been expecting. But what was the point in keeping it from the reader for so long? What was the point in writing a decently entertaining but ultimately mediocre story that culminates in this one huge ‘oh my god’ moment, when you could have shown that card much sooner, allowing it to flavor the narrative with depth and complexity as events unfold?

Here’s the impression I got from Watching Edie. I felt like Camilla Way wanted to write a psychologically driven character study about how one traumatic event shaped the lives of two friends. But then someone at some point told her ‘there’s no market for that, you should just make it a thriller.’ So she had to backpedal away from the event that should be at the center of this story, and add all these extraneous details in order to create some sort of air of mystery. I mean, that’s probably not what happened. This was probably conceived as a psychological thriller. But the psychology was done so well and the thriller aspect was so lackluster, it’s hard not to wish she had just gone about telling this story in an entirely different way. That ending and that twist were incredibly hard-hitting and will stay with me, but it felt like Camilla Way just dropped a bomb and walked away, which just feels like a waste when I imagine she would have been so capable of handling the aftermath.

book review: The Summer Children by Dot Hutchison

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THE SUMMER CHILDREN by Dot Hutchison
★★☆☆☆
Thomas & Mercer, May 22, 2018

Well. All I have to say about Dot Hutchison’s Collector series is: nothing gold can stay.

Dark, twisted, and gripping, I thought The Butterfly Garden was altogether pretty brilliant. But Hutchison’s followup novel, Roses of May, provided a starling (and in my opinion, utterly grating) tonal shift, abandoning a lot of the creepiness of the first novel and coming across as ultimately rather juvenile. I was hoping The Summer Children might bounce back and show a hint of The Butterfly Garden‘s greatness, but I’m afraid this had nothing to offer but more of that obnoxious fan-servicing cutesy humor that plagued Roses of May. I mean, in theory, The Summer Children should be dark. It follows FBI agent Mercedes Ramirez as she investigates a series of murders by someone who’s attempting to ‘rescue’ children from abusive households by killing their parents. The last thing I should be thinking is ‘why does this have to be so goddamn twee,’ but here we are.

This kind of goes hand in hand with my criticism of the book’s tone, but what’s so insufferable about Roses of May and The Summer Children is how obsessed Hutchison is with her own protagonists. Sure, they’re all flawed (in super palatable ways), but they’re also the most competent and considerate people in the universe, and we need to be reminded of it again. and. again. There are entire scenes that serve no narrative purpose but to self-congratulate. Is it not bad enough that we have to revisit Mercedes’s proclivity toward being honest with the children she works with on about twenty separate occasions, do we really have to laud it each time?

Maybe it’s just me, but I like stories that dig into human imperfections – characters who say the wrong thing and can’t take it back, characters who react inappropriately in dire situations, characters hurt the people they love by mistake. There is none of that here. Mercedes and her team can do no wrong, and we need to pat them on the backs every time they know exactly what someone needs at exactly the right time. And that’s another thing – the found family trope is usually one of my favorites, but the way Hutchison writes it is so heavy-handed I spent most of this book cringing with secondhand embarrassment.

Speaking of cringing – this is a passage I highlighted not only because of the corny writing, but because it was probably the fourteenth or fifteenth time the word ‘scar’ had jumped out at me in this book. “Scars mean we survived something, even when the wounds still hurt.” Anyway, so I did a search on my Kindle, and do you know how many times the word ‘scar’ is used? Twenty-seven. Talk about being bashed over the head.

Bottom line is that I was not the target audience here, and I ordinarily don’t hold this kind of thing against the book as much as I am doing right now, but I can’t help but to find it irritating that all the maturity of the first book sort of evaporated in the second two. I guess this can’t technically be classified as YA as the protagonist is in her thirties, but trust me, if you do not enjoy YA, read The Butterfly Garden as a standalone and move on.

Thank you to Netgalley, Thomas & Mercer, and Dot Hutchison for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy

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WHEN I HIT YOU: OR, A PORTRAIT OF THE WRITER AS A YOUNG WIFE by Meena Kandasamy
★★★★★
Atlantic Books, March 2018

When I Hit You is a brutal and uncompromising look at one woman’s abusive marriage in India. I’m at a complete loss for words with this book – I just want to shove it into everyone’s hands who has ever asked ‘if the relationship is abusive, why doesn’t she just leave?’ Kandasamy answers that question with unapologetic candor, in this semi-autobiographical novel that fuses lyricism with forthrightness in a way that’s utterly striking.

The narrator in When I Hit You is an aspiring writer and a self-proclaimed feminist, who falls in love with a university professor who, to all outward appearances, is intelligent and charming. Not far into their marriage he begins to show his true colors, physically and verbally abusing in an effort to bully her into submission. She eventually escapes – we know this from the first page – and the book flits back and forth between before and after, though not necessarily in a linear chronology that alternates the two. Past and present coexist for this character in a way she endeavors to reconcile, the two bleeding into each other as she tells her story.

Of all the Women’s Prize shortlisted titles I’ve read so far (I only have one more left, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock), I think there’s some seriously fierce competition, but When I Hit You still stands held and shoulders above the rest for me. It’s the most unflinching look at the psychology of those who endure domestic violence that I’ve ever read. But it’s also politically charged, and keen to examine the broader role of women in contemporary society, and it also critically examines any kind of ‘feminist’ discourse that places blame upon those who are unable to escape abusive relationships. Ultimately, this is thought-provoking, incisive, and beautifully written, and I think it would be a most deserving winner.