three International Booker Prize 2021 reviews

I never end up paying as much attention to the International Booker as I want to, because of its unfortunate schedule overlap with the Women’s Prize. But because I’m not giving the Women’s Prize my full attention this year, I decided to take a break from that one over the last couple of weeks and dabble in the Booker. (It’s a little ironic that this is the year that I’ve been giving the International Booker any of my attention, because on the whole, I’m not a huge fan of the 2021 longlist: it’s a very white and European list and there’s a really perplexing number of titles that feel more nonfiction than fiction.) But I picked out five titles that appealed to me, and in a fortuitous twist of fate, my library had them all, so I’ve been reading through them: The Pear Field, The War of the Poor, Minor Detail, At Night All Blood is Black, and The Dangers of Smoking in Bed. I’ve read the first three and have library holds on the last two, so, here are my thoughts on the three I’ve read so far, all of which I enjoyed and any of which I’d be happy to see shortlisted, though I think Minor Detail is the only one that stands a real chance:

Minor Detail by Adania Shibli
translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jacquette
New Directions, 2020

Minor Detail is a novella in two parts: the first centers on the rape and murder of a Palestinian woman by Israeli soldiers a year after the War of 1948, and the second takes place in the present day, when a young woman comes across an article about this murder and becomes obsessed with it. This book is tiny but packs a pretty big punch — Shibli’s economy of language is seriously impressive, as is the brilliantly executed structure. An understated yet tremendously effective and intense read. 

The War of the Poor by Éric Vuillard
translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti
Picador, 2020

This book is slim and perplexing and if I were more invested in the International Booker this year surely I’d take more umbrage at its inclusion (I wouldn’t say I found it groundbreaking, and I honestly don’t fully understand how it was eligible), so on that level I do understand this book’s largely negative reception. But, however you’d classify it and whatever it did or didn’t do to earn its spot on the longlist, I honestly really enjoyed it.

The War of the Poor focuses on Thomas Müntzer, a controversial theologian at the heart of the Protestant Reformation, and I’d say that having some kind of interest in that period of history is a baseline requirement to getting anything out of this. This book reads, as some have noted, like a Wikipedia entry on Müntzer’s life and death and all the revolts in between, but I also think that comparison minimizes its efficacy. I think Vuillard’s writing is riveting and this is a much more thematically coherent project than its Wikipedia counterpart, and I also enjoyed the meta commentary on the ways in which we engage with history. I found it to be sharp, engaging, topical, and poignant — certainly worth a read if its summary sounds appealing. 

The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili
translated from the Georgian by Elizabeth Heighway
Peirene Press, 2020

The Pear Field is a book which almost demands to be read in one sitting, and I don’t mean that as a compliment; this is one of those books that names every minor character who’s as much as mentioned one single time, and it’s so much to keep track of that it’s a more efficient use of your time as a reader to read it all at once rather than coming back to it and having to figure out who everyone is all over again. That said, that was really my only complaint in a book that I otherwise quite enjoyed.

The Pear Field follows Lela, an eighteen-year-old girl who works at a boarding school for poor, intellectually disabled, and/or unwanted children, who becomes obsessed with the idea of an American family adopting Irakli, a nine-year-old student she’s quite protective over. This book is a stark and gritty portrait of a group of students on the fringes of Georgian society; I found it moving and eye-opening but skillfully not emotionally manipulative, given its difficult subject matter. Definitely worth reading.

Huge trigger warnings for sexual assault of a minor.

What are your thoughts on the International Booker longlist? What are you hoping to see shortlisted?

Man Booker International 2019 Longlist Reaction

This isn’t going to be as comprehensive of a reaction post as the one I wrote up for the Women’s Prize – while I love following the Man Booker International from a distance, I’m not quite as on top of reading translated fiction as I’d like to be.  So it wasn’t a huge surprise to see that I’d read zero of the thirteen longlisted titles this year when the list was announced last night.  I’d love to change that, but since I’m already reading the Women’s Prize longlist I doubt I’ll be picking any of these books up immediately.  But maybe in a couple of months I can jump on this bandwagon!  I just wanted to give a quick summary of my reactions:

So, I’d already heard of three of the longlisted books: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, and Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli, translated from the French by Sam Taylor.

I own a copy of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (how great is that title) and that book sounds ridiculously up my alley, so even though I still haven’t read Tokarczuk’s International Booker winning Flights, I definitely want to pick this one up soon.  I think I’m going to pass on Mouthful of Birds – I still haven’t read Fever Dream which sounds much more to my taste, and I keep hearing very mixed things about Mouthful of Birds… I’m just not convinced that I would appreciate it.  I haven’t read anything by Mingarelli either but I do own a copy of his novel A Meal in Winter, and I also want to pick up Four Soldiers at some point.

I added these four to my TBR after going through the longlist:

  • Love in the New Millennium by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen: I was getting major Chinese Milkman vibes from this book’s Goodreads summary, and while I’m sure that’s off base, anything described as darkly comedic that explores women’s lives under surveillance is something I need in my life.
  • Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf, translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright: I wasn’t initially sold on this one but this excellent post from Books and Bao made me reconsider – I think this could be striking.
  • At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell: I tend to enjoy Korean lit and while I haven’t liked the one book I’ve read translated by Sora Kim-Russell (I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin), I’m inclined to blame that more on the book’s content than the translation.
  • The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg, translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner: I’m vaguely interested in Valerie Solanas though I don’t know much about her – I’m not sure how much this fictionalization will rely on research and how much will be invented, but I think this could be fascinating.

So that leaves everything else.  At a glance none of these books appeals to me, but with a couple I’m definitely willing to be swayed if I start to see some overwhelmingly positive reviews.  Because none of these really falls into a ‘no way in hell am I touching that’ category.  I think they all sound fairly interesting, just some more-so than others.

I didn’t make a predictions post for this prize, but the titles I’m most surprised to not see here are Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Matthias Enard (I have a copy of this one so I was really hoping I could use this as an excuse to pick it up!), Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, Codex 1962 by Sjón, and Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami.  Haven’t read any of them so I have no clue what’s good and what isn’t, but they’ve all been getting a lot of attention.  I’m also sad not to see Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata which I think is a quiet little powerhouse of a novel, but I do understand its omission.

Here’s the full longlist with links to Book Depository if you want to read full summaries:

Jokha Alharthi (Arabic / Omani), Marilyn Booth, Celestial Bodies (Sandstone Press Ltd)
Can Xue (Chinese / Chinese), Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, Love in the New Millennium (Yale University Press)
Annie Ernaux (French / French), Alison L. Strayer, The Years (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Hwang Sok-yong (Korean / Korean), Sora Kim-Russell, At Dusk (Scribe, UK)
Mazen Maarouf (Arabic / Icelandic and Palestinian), Jonathan Wright, Jokes For The Gunmen (Granta, Portobello Books)
Hubert Mingarelli (French / French), Sam Taylor, Four Soldiers (Granta, Portobello Books)
Marion Poschmann (German / German), Jen Calleja, The Pine Islands (Profile Books, Serpent’s Tail)
Samanta Schweblin (Spanish / Argentine and Italian), Megan McDowell, Mouthful Of Birds (Oneworld)
Sara Stridsberg (Swedish / Swedish), Deborah Bragan-Turner, The Faculty Of Dreams (Quercus, MacLehose Press)
Olga Tokarczuk (Polish / Polish), Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Spanish / Colombian), Anne McLean, The Shape Of The Ruins (Quercus, MacLehose Press)
Tommy Wieringa (Dutch / Dutch), Sam Garrett, The Death Of Murat Idrissi (Scribe, UK)
Alia Trabucco Zeran (Spanish / Chilean and Italian), Sophie Hughes, The Remainder (And Other St)

So, needless to say I will not be reading this longlist as my heart belongs to the Women’s Prize (I hate that they overlap!), and this will probably be the only Man Booker International post I’ll make this year.  But I am so looking forward to following everyone else’s coverage and reviews!

What are everyone’s Man Booker International plans?  Any titles you’re looking forward to reading, or have read already?  Which books were you hoping to see longlisted?  Let’s chat!