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!

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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!

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

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

Man Booker 2018 Shortlist Reaction

Well, here we are!  I’ve read 10/13 so far and the shortlist was announced this morning.

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Photo from the Man Booker website.

Anna Burns (UK)  Milkman (Faber & Faber)

Esi Edugyan (Canada)   Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail)

Daisy Johnson (UK)   Everything Under (Jonathan Cape)

Rachel Kushner (USA)   The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape)

Richard Powers (USA)   The Overstory (William Heinemann)

Robin Robertson (UK)   The Long Take (Picador)

I posted my predictions on Twitter yesterday: In Our Mad and Furious City, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Overstory, Everything Under, Normal People, Milkman, so, I only got 3/6.  And I find it crazy that having read 10/13, all 3 that I haven’t read yet made the shortlist (Washington Black, The Long Take, and The Overstory which I started last night).  4/6 of the shortlisters are women; are we going to finally see another woman win??  Hopefully.

The one I’m most excited to see on this list is Milkman, which I thought was simply brilliant, if a bit niche, so I didn’t think it was likely that it was going to make the shortlist over some more conventional choices, but I ultimately did add it to my predictions list at the last second as I thought it was so deserving.  And, unless I end up really loving one of the three I haven’t read yet, it’s the one I’m rooting for to win.

The other two I’ve read, Everything Under and The Mars Room, I also really enjoyed – I gave 4 stars to both – but they’re not the ones I had been most hoping to see on the list.  Which brings me to what I consider the three major snubs:

In Our Mad and Furious City is literally the only one I’ve read so far where I’ve thought ‘yes, this is a winner.’  It’s a flawlessly written, unapologetic account of working class London told through the eyes of five different characters, and it’s fierce and frenetic and utterly unforgettable.  Its exclusion from the shortlist baffles me.

From a Low and Quiet Sea has the best sentence-by-sentence writing of any of the longlisters I’ve read, by a landslide, and while that alone shouldn’t guarantee a book a spot on the shortlist, it’s also a highly moving and intelligent work.  Ryan has been longlisted before but never shortlisted, and I really thought this was going to be his time.  This is actually the one I would have bet on to win, if I’d had to put money on one of them.  So, I’m glad I’m not the betting type.

Normal People was largely considered the favorite to win, if you’re interested in odds and all that, so its exclusion was probably the most surprising.  The hype is a bit extreme with this one, but even so, I ended up loving it, and thought it was one of the more emotionally complex things I’ve read in ages.  I’d been really warming up to the idea of this winning, so to not see it on the shortlist is rather odd.

Very relieved to see that Snap and Warlight were passed over.  And probably Sabrina as well… I finished it last night and I’m still working out how I felt about it; I did really enjoy it but ultimately don’t think it was shortlist material.  Also, while I enjoyed The Water Cure, I don’t particularly think that was shortlist material either, so I’m fine with the exclusion of that one.

But anyway, all things considered, I’m a little underwhelmed, but it’s also a little tricky to have a decisive opinion on the shortlist when I’ve only read half of it.  Which I still can’t believe.  10/13 of the longlist and I’ve only read half the shortlist.  Just my luck.  I’m going to keep at it though, I’ve got The Overstory out from the library right now, a hold on Washington Black, and I ordered The Long Take online.  Hoping one of them ends up being 5 stars for me.

What are everyone’s thoughts on the shortlist?  Comment and let me know!