book review: Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

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CAT’S CRADLE by Kurt Vonnegut
★★★★☆
Dial Press, 1998
originally published in 1963

 

This is one of those books that’s more interesting to think about than it is to read. The main word I’d use to describe this deceptively short book is tedious – though Vonnegut hits his mark with the humor more often than not, the meandering, repetitive style gets old, and even the once-funny jokes start to become stale. It’s also the kind of classic that hasn’t aged well, at all; jokes about dwarfism and sexist remarks abound – it’s inevitably going to induce more than a few cringes from the modern reader.

So, why 4 stars? Because it’s fascinating and smart as hell. This novel is filled to the brim with intriguing, relevant, timeless ideas: how religion adapts to suit the needs of the people, conceptions of social identity and what it means to belong to a group, the paradoxical role of science in how it’s used by humanity – both for medicine and for warfare. The interplay between science and religion in this novel is done so well, as is the bizarre fusion of absurdity and realism. This was my first Vonnegut, and I can’t help but to think I would have enjoyed his work a bit more if I’d read it when I was a teenager, but it was every bit as thought-provoking as I’d been led to believe and I’ll certainly be looking into reading more of his works at some point.

I read this novel as a part of the Traveling Book Review organized by Kaleena over at Reader Voracious: Kaleena shipped out her copy of Cat’s Cradle and a group of us are sending it around and scribbling notes in the margins while we read.  It was such fun!  I was only the third on the list, so I’m excited to see what everyone else thinks.

wrap up: October 2018

  • The Overstory by Richard Powers ★★★☆☆ | review
  • The Line That Held Us by David Joy ★★☆☆ | review
  • Washington Black by Esi Edugyan ★★☆☆☆ | review
  • The Whole Story and Other Stories by Ali Smith ★★★★☆ | mini review
  • The Long Take by Robin Robertson ★★★☆☆ | review
  • Dopesick by Beth Macy  | review
  • The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater ★★★★☆ | review
  • Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh ★★★★☆ | review
  • You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann ★★★★☆ | mini review
  • The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin ★★☆☆☆ | review
  • Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata ★★★★☆ | mini review
  • Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy ★★★★☆ | review
  • Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut ★★★★☆ | review

Favorite: Dopesick by Beth Macy
Honorable Mentions: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
Least favorite: The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

OCTOBER TOTAL: 13
YEARLY TOTAL: 110

After the spectacularly poor reading month that was September, I read over twice as many books in October.  Quality-wise it was a bit all over the place, but one huge milestone that I completed was reading the entire Man Booker longlist before the winner announcement – you can read my thoughts on the longlist here, and my reaction to Milkman winning here, in case you missed it.

Currently reading: The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (re-read), and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.

What was the best book you read in October?  Comment and let me know!

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book review: Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy

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FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD by Thomas Hardy
★★★★☆
William Collins, 2015
originally published in 1874

 

With how long this has been sitting on my currently reading shelf (a little over 4 months, I do believe) I’m sure you all were expecting me to come back with a scathing review. But it’s quite the contrary – I’m happy to report that this was wonderful. It’s just that I was in the mood to read this and then I wasn’t and then I was again, and that’s that mystery solved. This was my first Thomas Hardy, and I chose it because I’d already seen the Carey Mulligan film and fell very much in love with the elaborate soap opera that is Bathsheba Everdene’s life. Sorry if this is slanderous, but the frankly elaborate ways in which she and Oak are pushed together and pulled apart throughout this book are something straight out of EastEnders, and it was delightful.

But even though I already knew the story, I enjoyed watching it all unfold again. I also found Bathsheba to be one of the most complex heroines from any classic novel I’ve read, and her thoroughly compelling journey for peace and love as she came to better understand herself was just a constant source of joy to read. It goes without saying that this male-authored work from 1874 is not a Feminist Novel, but the sheer compassion with which Bathsheba’s character arc is crafted was something of a surprise to me, in a good way. I certainly wasn’t expecting lines like this:

“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”

Or this:

“‘But a husband–’
‘Well!’
‘Why, he’d always be there, as you say; whenever I looked up, there he’d be.’
‘Of course he would – I, that is.’
‘Well, what I mean is that I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband. But since a woman can’t show off in that way by herself, I shan’t marry – at least yet.'”

(That may be the single most iconic exchange I’ve ever read.)

I occasionally found Hardy’s writing a bit overwrought, but the dialogue was lively and the pastoral setting was brought to life spectacularly. Despite the fact that this is a book filled with vibrant characters and dramatic plot twists, it’s ultimately rather slow-paced, so I don’t really regret the (excessively) languid pace at which I read it. I’m looking forward to reading more of Hardy, probably Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure next.

book review: The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

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THE WICKED COMETH by Laura Carlin
★★☆☆☆
Hodder & Stoughton, 2018 (UK)

 

The Wicked Cometh could have been a perfectly adequate novel had it been written by someone with a modicum more talent for storytelling. It’s unfortunate that a lesbian neo-Victorian thriller should be this devoid of passion and suspense, but as it stands, this was a rather dull and middling read.

From the very first page, everything about this book feels contrived. The premise is frankly absurd: a down on her luck young woman named Hester living in the slums of London gets into an accident one day and is rescued by a handsome and charismatic doctor who insists that she stay with his family to recuperate, and then be tutored by his sister so she has the opportunity to improve her station in life, and if that all sounds a little convenient, it’s because this entire book is driven by coincidence and plot devices. Characters go through the motions as if in a pre-rehearsed pantomime; no one at any point feels present. The decisions they make seem to be solely in the interest of driving the plot forward; all rationality and logic is utterly abandoned to tell this story.

The writing itself is both stilted and melodramatic, a combination that lends itself beautifully to 337 pages (not that I was counting) of telling rather than showing. There isn’t a single personality trait to be found in any one of these characters, but even so, we are simply bashed over the head with Hester’s heavy-handed narration in which she extols the virtues of her tutor Rebekah. But even that is a bit misleading, because I’m not sure what these virtues are, exactly; only that Rebekah is the greatest person to ever have lived. Hester also likes to spell out exactly what is happening at any given time, in case we missed it: “With one faithless action I have changed the direction of both our destinies and unwittingly discarded my chance of future happiness.” This isn’t the kind of thing you should have to say; you should have faith as an author that this is being communicated by the narrative itself. You shouldn’t need your characters to narrate the story to the reader as they’re living it.

I really did want to love this, but frankly the whole thing felt silly and ridiculous, and not at all the sinister and atmospheric gothic novel I had been hoping for. Two stars for the novelty of seeing an LGBT romance in a historical fiction novel where homophobia isn’t the main driving force in the narrative. Otherwise this was just stale and derivative.

book review: Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

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EILEEN by Ottessa Moshfegh
★★★★☆
Penguin Press, 2015

 

I didn’t love this quite as much as My Year of Rest and Relaxation, but I think I can confidently call myself an Ottessa Moshfegh fan now. She excels at crafting female characters who are sympathetic enough to warrant investment but abhorrent enough to shatter the conception that even the most contentious of antiheroines must above all else be likable. There’s nothing sexy or pleasant or charming about our titular Eileen, and it’s a breath of fresh air. The novel follows Eileen Dunlop, a 24-year-old friendless young woman living in rural Massachusetts in the 1960s, working at a boys’ prison she calls Moorehead by day and caring for her cruel alcoholic father by night. She daydreams of escaping the monotony of her everyday existence, until one day the alluring Rebecca takes a position as a counselor at Moorehead and Eileen finds herself with a new fixation.

In contrast to the richly textured Eileen, her foil Rebecca is drawn rather simply, but with precision. She’s beautiful and she wears all the right clothes and says all the right things. Eileen doesn’t allow herself to consider that Rebecca is anything less than perfect or that her intentions are anything less than noble, but as these events are being narrated to us by a much older Eileen, the reader is painfully aware that certain limitations in young-Eileen’s perspective are going to lead inexorably to a tragic conclusion. But we also know that both Eileen and Rebecca make it out alive, so the question becomes how their dynamic is able to culminate in catastrophe that spares them both.

Moshfegh rises to the challenge, as the whole thing slowly builds toward a chilling and mesmerizing climax, as dark as it is unexpected. My only hangup with this novel is the repetition in its descriptions of Eileen’s home life. Maybe it’s meant to reflect the tedium that Eileen herself feels, or maybe it’s an indication that this would have worked better as a short story, as others have suggested. But still, I really enjoyed this, as both a character study and a commentary on the bizarre and contradictory ways women are socialized to view themselves and others. This is better read as a character-driven literary novel than a thriller, but even so, I was thrilled by it.

My Bad Reading Habits

I was tagged by Callum to share some of my bad reading habits, so, without further ado…

Avoiding long books: Callum mentioned this one as well, and I think it’s fairly common in this community.  I think the pressures we all feel to read as many books as possible are for the most part self-imposed, because does anyone actually care how many books any of us read in a year?  But when you’re surrounded by the Goodreads reading challenge and quantitative monthly wrap-ups, and you’re constantly seeing how many books other people in this community are reading, it’s hard to stop yourself from chasing some arbitrary high number.  I met my 2018 Goodreads goal back in July, I think, but still I find myself reaching for shorter books solely because they’re shorter and I’ll be able to read more of them.  Which is absurd.  Especially for me personally, as A LOT of my all-time favorite books are 500+ pages (Les Mis, A Little Life, Of Human Bondage, East of Eden, The Pillars of the Earth, etc etc etc).

Counting down the pages until the end of a chapter: (This goes hand in hand with my hatred of deckled edges, which make this exercise more difficult.)  I am obsessed with casually thumbing through to the end of the chapter I’m on and counting how many pages I have left.  I’m not someone who has to read to the end of the chapter before putting the book down, but still, I don’t think I have ever started a chapter in my life without counting how many pages it is.

Hoarding books my friends have lent me: Does anyone else feel like going to the post office is a Herculean task or is that just me?  I don’t even know.  The plus side is that I will never lose your books; I have all my borrowed books in a pile and I know exactly where they are.  The downside is they will sit in that pile for up to three years unless you come to my house to collect them yourself.  Sorry Patrick.  I’m working on it.

Not reading what I want to read: This one feels especially ridiculous to type out because reading and blogging are both hobbies, so you’d think I’d allow myself the luxury of reading what I feel like reading at any given time, but I know I’m not alone in this.  I spread myself way too thin among all of my reading goals and obligations.  If you propose a buddy read, I’ll say yes; if there’s a literary award I’m interested in following, I’ll probably try to read the longlist; if there’s a community-wide reading challenge like Women in Translation Month or Victober or Nonfiction November, I’ll find myself bending over backward to try to participate.  The problem for me is that my reading tastes are so varied – I read everything from classics to thrillers to fantasy to literary fiction to memoirs – so I think I try to participate in multiple reading challenges to keep my reading as broad as possible.  But the downside is that if I’m ever in the mood to, say, go down a rabbit hole and read nothing but depressing Irish literary fiction for a month, I feel like I can’t do that, and I end up forcing myself to read a thriller when the last thing I feel like reading is a thriller.

I’d love to know the bad reading habits of Hannah, Patrick, Emily, Zuky, and Eleanor.  Feel free to pass of course, no hard feelings.

What are some of your bad reading habits?  Comment and let me know!

book review: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

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THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater
★★★★☆
Scholastic, 2012

 

I’m going to do something a bit odd here and base my rating for this book more on what I think it has the potential to become than how much I actually enjoyed it. Because this feels more like a 400 page prologue than it does an actual book. But I’m willing to overlook the spectacularly poor pacing and haphazard plotting if the rest of the series actually builds on the foundation Stiefvater set up here, and she definitely hooked me enough that I want to keep going with it.

I’m still not totally sure what to make of this premise (apparently this series is about a group of students trying to find a dead Welsh king, WHO KNEW, not me), and I think the execution was a bit of a mess. The first 200 pages are total filler; the villain’s backstory is awkwardly shoehorned in without much exploration; perspective shifts aren’t employed effectively (sometimes I couldn’t tell whose head we were in until the end of a chapter); information that could have been withheld in order to build tension is readily offered up to the reader at all times; and the ending just kind of… plateaus without much of a climax. Stiefvater can clearly write (though I actually preferred her prose in The Scorpio Races) but I don’t think The Raven Boys is a well-constructed book at all.

But the characters I think are intriguing. By ‘intriguing’ I mean ‘have the potential to become interesting.’ Because right now a lot of them still feel like tropes – you’ve got the quirky loner girl, the leader, the asshole, the one with money problems, and… that’s just about it – but judging from others’ assessment of the series, it does seem like some character development is on the horizon. But what’s compelling me more than the characters themselves are the dynamics between them. So even though I wasn’t totally wowed by this book, it has a certain je ne sais quoi that makes me want to keep going with it… hopefully the second book picks up.

book review: Dopesick by Beth Macy

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DOPESICK: DEALERS, DOCTORS, AND THE DRUG COMPANY THAT ADDICTED AMERICA by Beth Macy
★★★★★
Little Brown, 2018

 

Compelling, informative, compassionate, and harrowing. Dopesick is a comprehensive account of America’s opioid crisis that has plagued disparate rural areas throughout the country, though Beth Macy mainly narrows down her research to her local Appalachia. She pieces together interviews with doctors, advocates, addicts, and individuals who have lost family members to the drug, to weave some kind of narrative out of the onslaught of factors which have contributed to the epidemic.

While the reality of the opioid crisis was not lost on me before this (a friend of mine from high school died of an overdose about a year ago, which spurred my interest in this subject in the first place), Dopesick fills in the disturbing details. How Purdue Pharma saturated the market with Oxycontin in the 90s and continuously shifted blame from the addictive nature of the drug to the addicts themselves; how doctors have been made to prescribe these highly addictive painkillers at the drop of a hat (mainly to white patients, due to racial stereotyping that they are less likely to get addicted, which is why the opioid epidemic has hit white communities the hardest); how the government has essentially turned a blind eye and continues to deny adequate funding to address this issue; how MAT (medication-assisted treatment) has been stigmatized to the extent that many rehab programs require patients to be clean before checking in; and how feeling ‘dopesick’ is so miserable that addicts will do anything to quell the incredibly painful withdrawal symptoms.

Beth Macy fuses thorough research with unfailingly compassionate anecdotes shared with her by mothers who have lost children to the drug. Their individual stories litter Macy’s larger narrative, most of them following the exact same trajectory: being prescribed oxycodone for a minor injury, developing a dependency, being cut off from their supply, turning to illegal means of obtaining the drug, trying to get clean, failing to get clean, overdosing. There’s one statistic that Macy repeats a few times throughout this book that stayed with me – on average it takes an addicted person eight years of recovery before they’ve gone a full year without relapsing. That is how impossible it is to quit this drug.

Since this crisis isn’t going anywhere any time soon, between a lack of funding, the refusal to acknowledge MAT as a legitimate rehabilitation technique, and incarceration of drug users and dealers as the primary tool being used by the government as a band-aid solution, Dopesick is well worth reading as a starting point, for anyone wondering how this crisis has reached such a critical state with so little government intervention.

Man Booker 2018 Winner – Anna Burns

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Huge congratulations to Anna Burns for winning the 2018 Man Booker with her subtly powerful novel Milkman, which will be published in the U.S. by Graywolf Press in December.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, 2018 Chair of judges, says: ‘None of us has ever read anything like this before. Anna Burns’ utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose. It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance threaded with mordant humour. Set in a society divided against itself, Milkman explores the insidious forms oppression can take in everyday life.

I couldn’t believe it – not only did I predict the winner which I think is a first-time occurrence for me, this is exactly the result I had wanted.  I do think that any of the other five would have been perfectly worthy winners – there isn’t a single one that would have made me angry had it won, even my least favorite Washington Black, which I do see the merit in even though I wasn’t crazy about it personally – but I wouldn’t have been excited by any result other than this one.  So, I had a 1 in 6 chance of my 2018 Man Booker journey concluding on a happy note, and I got it.  I’m so thrilled.  I thought Milkman was a quiet powerhouse of a novel, which comprehensively examines the reality of living as a young woman in a community divided by civil unrest, under the constant and pervasive threat of violence.  It’s funny and unsettling and intelligent, with one of the most unique voices I’ve read in anything recently, and I absolutely loved it.  Full review here.

Also, I said this before on Twitter, but I just want to reiterate that this was my first year reading the entire Man Booker longlist, and part of what made it such a fun experience were all the wonderful people I’ve met and the fantastic conversations I’ve had across social media about this year’s list.  So, if we’ve chatted at all about the Man Booker this year, I just wanted to say thank you for making this such a fun endeavor for me.

What did you think of Milkman, and which book did you want to win this year?  Comment and let me know!

Man Booker 2018 Recap & Winner Prediction

We made it!  The Man Booker 2018 winner announcement is coming up tomorrow and I have officially read all 13 longlisted titles and I had such fun doing so.  This is actually my first time ever completing a longlist, and I while I had a lot of ups and downs with it, I thought this was a rather solid list, with the majority of the books earning a 4 star rating from me.

But it wasn’t quite everything I had hoped it would be and more.  From an interesting and innovative longlist, I found the shortlist selection rather lacking, and there’s only one winner possibility that would really excite me.  But before we get to that, let’s take a look at the entire longlist, ranked from worst to best in my opinion:

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13. Snap by Belinda Bauer
Quick summary: Jack’s mother disappears and a week later is found dead, and years later Jack is looking after his younger siblings while attempting to get to the bottom of her murder.
Quick review: Val McDermid, we’re not mad because a thriller was on the longlist; we’re mad because it was a shit thriller.
Full review HERE ★★☆☆☆

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12. Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
Quick summary: Blah blah post-war London blah blah family secrets.
Quick review: Beautifully written but narratively and thematically vapid.
Full review HERE ★★☆☆☆

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11. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan** shortlisted
Quick summary: 11-year-old Washington Black was born into slavery on a plantation in Barbados, but when his master’s eccentric brother begins to use him as an assistant, Wash’s life is turned upside down and he embarks on a thrilling journey.
Quick review: Not quite sharp and insightful enough to have real literary merit and not entertaining enough to be a fun mindless read, Washington Black exists in my mind in total literary limbo.
Full review HERE ★★☆☆☆

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10. Sabrina by Nick Drnaso
Quick summary: A woman named Sabrina goes missing, and the people left behind struggle to make sense of her disappearance in the first ever graphic novel to be longlisted for the Booker.
Quick review: While it excels at creating an atmosphere thick with paranoia and tension, it doesn’t use its momentum to really go anywhere.
Full review HERE ★★★★☆
(*I am aware that my star rating for Sabrina is higher than my star ratings for these next two, but I wouldn’t hand Sabrina the Booker over either of these so I felt like I had to put them in this order.)

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9. The Overstory by Richard Powers** shortlisted
Quick summary: Nine disparate narratives are eventually connected into a thematic treatise on environmentalism.
Quick review: While Powers’ prose is gorgeous and his ideas are rich and stimulating, The Overstory meanders along and never quite justifies its length, or its choice to be written as a novel rather than a nonfiction essay on the same subject.
Full review HERE ★★★☆☆

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8. The Long Take by Robin Robertson** shortlisted
Quick summary: A Canadian war veteran travels across the U.S. and lands in an increasingly modernized Los Angeles while suffering from PTSD.
Quick review: Gorgeously written and ambitious, but deceptively basic in its execution in spite of its innovative format.
Full review HERE ★★★☆☆

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7. The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner** shortlisted
Quick summary: A young mother Romy receives two life sentences for murdering her stalker, and we follow her and other inmates in a woman’s prison as they grapple with the difficult realities of their new life.
Quick review: Both nuanced and thorough, The Mars Room went above and beyond what I was expecting from its premise, but unfortunately a handful of POV characters end up being extraneous and Kushner is never able to justify their inclusion or integrate their voices into the narrative in a cohesive way.
Full review HERE ★★★★☆

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6. The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
Quick summary: Three sisters are raised on the outskirts of society by an eccentric father who has raised them to fear all other men.
Quick review: Quietly powerful and thematically subtle, this not-quite-dystopia is let down by its comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, but it’s a strong and unique work that stands on its own just fine.
Full review HERE ★★★★☆

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5. Everything Under by Daisy Johnson** shortlisted
Quick summary: A lexicographer reflects on her fractured relationship with her mother, thinking back to a period in their life when they lived together on a river boat and were visited by a stranger for a month one winter.
Quick review: Johnson’s prose is accomplished and lyrical, and the depth to this novel is rewarding and unexpected, though unfortunately the awkward integration of a magical realism element did not work for me at all.
Full review HERE ★★★★☆

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4. From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan
Quick summary: Three disparate short stories eventually dovetail into a narrative which connects the lives of a Syrian refugee, a young Irish boy, and an older Irish man.
Quick review: Achingly sad and flawlessly written, Ryan once again shows off his prowess at lyrical prose and complex characters.
Full review HERE ★★★★☆

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3. Normal People by Sally Rooney
Quick summary: A subversive take on the will they/won’t they premise which follows two young lovers in contemporary Ireland.
Quick review: Perceptive and surprisingly intelligent, Normal People transcends its simple premise a hundred times over.
Full review HERE ★★★★★

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2. Milkman by Anna Burns** shortlisted
Quick summary: Set in an unnamed city that’s probably Belfast against the backdrop of the Troubles, Milkman follows an unnamed protagonist who’s presumed to be having an affair with the milkman, who isn’t actually a milkman.
Quick review: Unnervingly placid on the surface, Milkman‘s power comes from its comprehensive examination of how to navigate daily life in a community torn apart by civil unrest.
Full review HERE ★★★★★ (I changed my rating from 4 to 5 stars – this one just keeps rising in my estimation)

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1. In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne
Quick summary: Three boys growing up in a housing estate in London want to make something of their lives, but struggle to break free of the violence and radicalization that are threatening their community.
Quick review: Frenetic, emotionally charged, and utterly unforgettable, In Our Mad and Furious City is the most deserving winner by a mile in my book, and the fact that it wasn’t shortlisted is rather criminal.
Full review HERE ★★★★★

As for my winner prediction… to recap, we’re looking at the following: The Mars Room, The Overstory, Everything Under, Milkman, Washington Black, and The Long Take.  I could make a case for any of these.  From an optics standpoint, obviously Washington Black would look the best (black female non-American author) and The Overstory would look the worst (white male American author – and he would commit the sin of being the third American winner in a row).  I don’t think Washington Black is going to win; I just don’t think it has the literary caliber of the rest of the list.  And while my gut tells me that The Overstory is the most Man Booker-y book on this list, I don’t think it’s going to win either.  The judges aren’t living under a rock; they know as well as anyone that ‘American man wins Man Booker third year in a row’ isn’t a headline anyone wants to see.  So, what are we left with?

40106338Winner prediction: Milkman by Anna Burns.  Is this wishful thinking?  Yes.  Am I officially jinxing it with my complete inability to accurately predict literary prize winners?  Also yes.  Sorry, Milkman.  But I think it ticks all the right boxes.  Topical (feminist undercurrents; thorough depiction of social unrest; plus it’s officially been 50 years since the conflict that started The Troubles broke out so the topic itself is arguably more resonant this year than it would be any other year), structurally innovative, challenging, and poetic… I think it’s got what it takes.  And I certainly hope it wins.  I think I’ll feel a strong sense of anticlimax if any of the others take the prize.

Which book does everyone else think is going to win tomorrow, and which would you like to see win?  Let’s discuss!