book review: The Long Take by Robin Robertson

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THE LONG TAKE by Robin Robertson
★★★☆☆
Picador, 2018 (UK)

 

Hmm. I seem to be in the minority in not being completely enamored with this novel in verse, though in a lot of ways it’s certainly an impressive feat. Robin Robertson’s writing is elegant and immersive, the tone is achingly sad, and he uses the form to explore a myriad of subjects – PTSD, the development of post-war America, the advent of cinema… There’s a lot of content packed into this little book, but while I found myself impressed by many aspects of it, there was also something a bit empty about the whole thing.

So much of this endeavor is just very on the nose. The protagonist, Walker, is suffering from PTSD, so how do we show that? By interrupting the narrative with snippets of his flashbacks to the war. One of the central themes is the downside of the extreme modernization of Los Angeles that occurred in the 1950s, so how do we show that? By the characters narrating the ways in which the modernization of Los Angeles is negatively affecting their community. I think I just wanted this to be longer and more nuanced. There’s so much going on in this book, but it’s all there for you to see right on the surface.

This is ordinarily the sort of book I’d want to reflect on for a day or two before writing a review, but with the Booker announcement tomorrow I’m racing against time, so I will admit up front here that my thoughts on this may evolve over time, for better or worse. I also want to admit that I read this in very punctuated bursts over the span of a week which is just about the worst possible way to read a book like this – if you can, I’d implore you to try to finish it in one or two sittings – so that may have clouded my experience with it. And I did really enjoy it, for the most part; I just didn’t quite feel the magic.

All of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure
The Mars Room | Snap | Milkman
Everything Under | In Our Mad and Furious City
Warlight | Normal People | Sabrina | The Overstory
Washington Black | The Long Take

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book review: Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

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WASHINGTON BLACK by Esi Edugyan
★★☆☆☆
Knopf, September 2018

 

This is the Man Booker title that I was the most trepidatious about picking up this year, not because I doubted its quality, but just because there is nothing about a nineteenth century Caribbean and North American-set historical fiction adventure tale that appeals to me. So with that said, I guess I did enjoy this more than I expected to… just not enough to really understand its inclusion on the Booker shortlist over more structurally innovative and intellectually stimulating titles.

This book’s greatest asset ironically ended up being a detriment for me, and that was the fact that it’s incredibly well-written. The thing that immediately struck me about this book was how incongruously poised its first person narration is. Though the character Washington does show a natural intelligence throughout the story, one does have to question where an uneducated boy born into slavery picked up vocabulary words like unconscionable, inviolate, incandescence, leadenly, and disconsolate (these are only a portion of the ones I highlighted which jumped out at me, and I wasn’t even including dialogue from other characters). So while I would describe the prose as smart and pleasurable to read, and while I’d seek out more books by Edugyan in the future for this factor alone, I don’t think it suited this particular book.

But my bigger problem with Washington Black is the way that the plot seemed to drive the characters throughout the narrative, and not the other way around. To describe this premise and execution as contrived is an understatement. As I was reading, I felt like I could constantly see Edugyan’s hand manipulating these characters into the situations that they found themselves in, and this never ended up feeling like anything other than outlandish fiction. I have no problem with coincidences and fate being used by an author deliberately and thematically (see: The Heart’s Invisible Furies), but it’s a fine line to walk, and if this is what Edugyan was attempting, I’m afraid her efforts ended up seeming to me more like plot devices than divine intervention.

It’s a pacey and readable book from beginning to end (especially the end – I loved the last few chapters quite a lot), but the narrative structure of ‘character zips along from place to place, encountering quirky characters who quickly come and go’ will never be my favorite formula, and though there’s occasionally incisive commentary on the relationship between white abolitionists and freed slaves in the nineteenth century, none of it is really groundbreaking enough that I feel terribly enriched for having read this. I could have forgiven it a lot for being an entertaining story through and through, but despite the fact that I breezed through it in two days, it was a thoroughly lukewarm reading experience that I doubt will stay with me in any kind of significant way.

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure
The Mars Room | Snap | Milkman
Everything Under | In Our Mad and Furious City
Warlight | Normal People | Sabrina | The Overstory

book review: The Overstory by Richard Powers

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THE OVERSTORY by Richard Powers
★★★☆☆
W.W. Norton, 2018

 

The Overstory is undeniably brilliant, but it’s also hard work, and I’m not convinced the payoff was worth the effort. I wanted to be able to say that I was so struck by Powers’ genius that I was able to forgive the periods of abject tedium that characterized my reading experience, but that would be a lie. This is undoubtedly a fantastic book, but I don’t think I was the right reader for it.

Here I have to echo a sentiment that I expressed in my review of Lab Girl by Hope Jahren: there are only so many loving descriptions of trees a person can take after a while. What I’m interested in when I read is conflict and human interest and interpersonal dynamics, and when none of that is at the forefront of a book, I’m inevitably going to struggle with it.

While Richard Powers did create a host of distinct characters in The Overstory – the first section of the novel is eight different short stories, one following each of the main characters through defining moments in their early lives – it soon becomes apparent that their stories aren’t the ones that Powers is interested in telling. I had more than a few moments when I had to wonder why Powers chose to write this as a novel at all, when it would have arguably served its purpose just as well as a treatise on environmental activism.

Powers is a hell of a writer though, I’ll give him that. I can’t bear to go lower than 3 stars in my final rating because I can’t deny the admiration I feel toward Powers’ craft. On a sentence-by-sentence level, I lost track of the amount of times I paused and reread a particularly striking passage, and the amount of detail that Powers is able to pack into every page is incredibly impressive. And on a larger level, the thematic complexity that Powers is able to achieve with his anthropomorphic symbolism and thorough examination of disparate disciplines and philosophies is undeniable. When words like ‘epic’ and ‘masterpiece’ are being thrown around in conversation with this novel, it’s not difficult to understand why.

But at the same time, I’m just not convinced that it was all necessary. I don’t believe that this book is able to justify its length of 500 (very long) pages. It’s punishingly dense and bloated; I found certain characters to be extraneous and a lot of the detail to be superfluous. But it’s also punctuated by moments of such beauty that make it a worthwhile read, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this wins the Man Booker, but on a personal level, I can’t say this was my favorite reading experience I’ve ever had.

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure
The Mars Room | Snap | Milkman
Everything UnderIn Our Mad and Furious City
WarlightNormal PeopleSabrina

book review: Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

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SABRINA by Nick Drnaso
★★★★☆
Drawn and Quarterly, 2018

 

Sabrina is only the second graphic novel I’ve read in my life (actually I’m realizing as I type this that the other is Fun Home which is actually a graphic memoir, so, technically the first graphic novel I’ve read?), so between me being ridiculously out of my element and the fact that its inclusion on the Man Booker longlist caused quite the stir, I had no idea what to expect from this. And I’m writing my review without having settled on a star rating, so, we’ll see what happens with that. I really, really enjoyed this, but I have a few too many nagging criticisms to say that I loved it.

Sabrina doesn’t really follow its titular character, as she goes missing by the tenth page; instead it mostly follows Calvin who works for the U.S. Air Force, whose childhood friend Teddy comes to live with him. Teddy is Sabrina’s boyfriend, and he’s utterly broken up about her disappearance. We then follow an array of characters – Calvin, Teddy, Sabrina’s sister – all trying to come to terms with their loss, all while being confronted with wild conspiracy theories about Sabrina’s disappearance.

What this book excels at is creating an atmosphere thick with paranoia, in the most terrifying portrait of our modern society that I think I’ve ever seen in fiction. Littered throughout the background of Sabrina as contemporary set pieces are news articles and internet forums; there’s talk of mass shootings, conspiracy theories, fake news. The characters are so inundated to this constant and aggressive stream of tragic news that infiltrates their lives, that the stark contrast of their simply drawn, blank expressions is recognizable and haunting. This probably got under my skin more than anything else I’ve read recently; this is not a comfortable book on any level.

What I didn’t love about Sabrina was that there is just so much going on, and it doesn’t all come together in a completely satisfying way. This is one of those books that builds and builds tension, but rather than culminating in a brilliant resolution it kind of just ends. After I put it down I wanted to give it 3 stars as I felt so dissatisfied with the ending, but upon some further reflection I do think this was so effective in achieving what it set out to do that I can’t help but to commend it for that.

Now, onto the Booker situation, because we clearly can’t end this review without touching on that. My feelings on this have run the gamut from ‘graphic novels are a form of novel and therefore should be eligible’ to ‘how can you compare graphic novels with literary fiction when they’re so substantively different and rely on fundamentally disparate storytelling conventions’ and you know what, I still don’t know where I stand on this. I understand both sides of the argument completely. At this very moment, I think I’m leaning toward the idea that graphic novels shouldn’t be eligible – not as a gatekeeping, elitist thing, because I absolutely do think that the merit of graphic novels has been dismissed for far too long; I’m just not sure how you can judge something like this against something like The Overstory. Judging is always going to be inherently subjective, but it really is an apples and oranges situation. And with Sabrina, the only text is in the dialogue and glimpses of emails and articles; there’s no prose outside that, which makes its inclusion on a literary award particularly perplexing. But, at any rate, I’m glad I took a chance on this one. Booker or no Booker, I see what the fuss is about.

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure
The Mars Room | Snap | Milkman | Everything Under
In Our Mad and Furious City | Warlight | Normal People

book review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

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NORMAL PEOPLE by Sally Rooney
★★★★★
Faber & Faber (UK)

 

Engrossing, complex, and emotionally honest, Normal People is an understated powerhouse of a novel. As this book ends up being so much more than the sum of its parts it’s particularly difficult to summarize, but basically, it’s a sort-of-love-story about Connell and Marianne, two young people growing up in small town Ireland together, who both move to Dublin for university in 2011.

There isn’t much going on in this book aside from Connell and Marianne’s ‘will they/won’t they’ relationship, but I wouldn’t describe this as a romance novel as much as a novel about being human. Sally Rooney highlights with razor-sharp precision the oddities and intricacies that complicate interpersonal interactions, even between two people who love one another. This book is about miscommunication, but not miscommunication as a plot device; miscommunication as an intrinsic part of the human experience, naturally calling into question the possibility of truly knowing another person. Connell and Marianne’s inability to open up to one another is so much bigger than these two individual characters; it’s about gender roles and socioeconomic differences and power dynamics and social status and preconceived notions and projections and misinterpretations, and Rooney examines it all minutely through the lens of this one ill-fated sort-of-couple. She also has the uncanny ability to cut to the emotional core of a scene without sensationalizing, and I think that’s what strikes me as the most accomplished element of this novel.

I think this book is inevitably going to be underestimated by some because of its premise, and because of all the hyperbolic claims that Rooney is the definitive voice of her generation. But it’s a deceptively clever book; it’s perceptive where it could easily be vapid, it’s clear-eyed where it could be melodramatic, and it has more intellectual and emotional depth than anything else I’ve read recently. A bit of an unconventional choice for the Booker longlist, but it fully earned its spot in my opinion, and I’d love to see it shortlisted.

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure
The Mars Room | Snap | Milkman | Everything Under
In Our Mad and Furious City | Warlight

book review: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

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WARLIGHT by Michael Ondaatje
★★☆☆☆
Knopf, 2018

 

You know those moments when you find an author you think you’re going to like, but you chose the wrong book of theirs to start with? That’s what happened with Warlight. This was not a good book, but I don’t think it’s over between me and Ondaatje. More on that in a minute.

Warlight was almost unbearably boring. I’m sorry, I know that ‘boring’ is the kind of pedestrian critique that we try to stay away from while reviewing, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that felt this utterly pointless. There’s no conflict, no character development, no intrigue, no payoff. This book meandered through the narrator’s recollections of his youth in post-war London, halting all too briefly on defining moments, claiming to imbue them with weight but never willing to properly examine them in any kind of broader context. The nonlinear chronology could have been used effectively, but it served only to create such a distance between present-day-Nathaniel and past-Nathaniel that the chapters about his childhood lacked any sort of spark or passion or urgency. The one question that Ondaatje never seems interested in answering is why the reader should care about any of it.

The one saving grace for me was the prose. Ondaatje’s writing struck me as both elegant and effortless. There is no question that this book is well-written, and I found myself pausing at certain sentences, impressed by their construction and insight:

You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing.

But despite these flickers of profundity in the sentence-by-sentence writing, there isn’t a whole lot of emotional depth to this novel on the whole. For a novel purportedly about memory and perception and unearthing the truth, far too much remains unexhumed. The whole thing is bizarrely perfunctory and passionless, and there is no doubt in my mind that Warlight‘s inclusion on the Booker longlist is an homage to Ondaatje’s illustrious career more than a reflection of the quality of this particular novel. But, again, I’m willing to read more Ondaatje in the future, as I refuse to believe this is the height of what he’s capable of.

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure
The Mars Room | Snap | Milkman | Everything Under
In Our Mad and Furious City

book review: In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne

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IN OUR MAD AND FURIOUS CITY by Guy Gunaratne
★★★★★
Tinder Press, 2018 (UK)

 

In Our Mad and Furious City is a frenetic and imperfect but unforgettable feat from debut writer Guy Gunaratne. Set in London over the course of two days, it tells the story of three boys and two of their parents, against the backdrop of an incipient riot caused by a local boy killing a British soldier. Yusuf, Selvon, and Ardan are three friends who live in or around a Neasden housing estate, trying to make a future for themselves in a city fraught with violence and extremism.

This book is a defiant look at the classism, racial tensions, and anti-immigration sentiment that plague not only post-Brexit Britain, but also the previous generation’s Britain; it deals in the enduring and intractable nature of violence and the ways in which that ties into national identity for the second-generation immigrants whose voices propel the novel forward. The violence in this novel isn’t specifically tied to one race or religion – one of the older characters reflects on fleeing Northern Ireland during the Troubles; another remembers arriving in London from the Caribbean only to find himself confronted with the Keep Britain White movement in the 1950s. Gunaratne’s depiction of the cyclical and relentless nature of violence can be disheartening, but this novel is more about the choices the characters make, the strength it requires to turn away from brutality and not engage with it.

Written entirely in different dialects whose cadences and vocabularies vary depending on whose point of view chapter it is (one family is from Ireland, another from Montserrat, another from Pakistan), Gunaratne’s prose is gritty and colloquial but also elevated to the level you’d expect from a literary novel (something that Sebastian Barry failed to do convincingly in Days Without End, I thought, but which Gunaratnre manages with aplomb here – I was simultaneously convinced by the authenticity of the narration and impressed by the prose).

So here it all is, this London. A place that you can love, make rhymes out of pyres and a romance of the colours, talk gladly of the changes and the flux and the rise and the fall without feeling its storm rain on your skin and its bone-scarring winds, a city that won’t love you back unless you become insoluble to the fury, the madness of bound and unbound peoples and the immovables of the place.

But, as I mentioned above, I don’t think it’s a perfect novel; the frantic pace leads a few unwieldy moments, like the awkward inclusion of a sixth point of view character for only a single chapter, or Gunaratne not giving the novel’s climax much room to breathe. I couldn’t help but to think it could have been improved by another 50 or so pages, but at the same time, it’s such a snapshot piece that in a way I admire all Gunaratne was able to achieve with its brevity.

Only halfway through the Booker list, but this one feels like a winner.

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure
The Mars RoomSnap | Milkman | Everything Under