Booker Longlist Mini Reviews
Tomorrow the Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced. I’d already read and reviewed four of the nominees (see my quick impressions here), and in the time since the longlist announcement I’ve managed to read another three and ruled out one more. Two were terrific; another was pretty good; the last I’ll never know because it’s clear to me I won’t read it.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
What a terrific, propulsive tale Burnet has woven out of a real-life (I think) nineteenth-century Scottish murder case. The seams between fact and fiction are so subtle you might forget you’re reading a novel, but it’s clear the author has taken great care in assembling his “documents”: witness testimonies, medical reports, a psychologist’s assessment, trial records, and – the heart of the book and the most fascinating section – a memoir written by the murderer himself. As you’re reading it you believe Roddy implicitly and feel deeply for his humiliation (the meeting with the factor and the rejection by Flora are especially agonizing scenes), but as soon as you move on to the more ‘objective’ pieces you question how he depicted things. I went back and read parts of his account two or three times, wondering how his memories squared with the facts of the case. A great one for fans of Alias Grace, though I liked this much better. This is my favorite from the Booker longlist so far.
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh
“I often felt there was something wired weird in my brain, a problem so complicated only a lobotomy could solve it—I’d need a whole new mind or a whole new life.” This isn’t so much a book to enjoy as one to endure. Being in Eileen’s mind is profoundly unsettling. She’s simultaneously fascinated and disgusted by bodies; she longs for her alcoholic father’s approval even as she wonders whether she could get away with killing him. They live a life apart in their rundown home in X-ville, New England, and Eileen can’t wait to get out by whatever means necessary. When Rebecca St. John joins the staff of the boys’ prison where Eileen works, she hopes this alluring woman will be her ticket out of town.
There’s a creepy Hitchcock flavor to parts of the novel (I imagined Eileen played by Patricia Hitchcock as in Strangers on a Train, with Rebecca as Gene Tierney in Laura), and a nice late twist – but Moshfegh sure makes you wait for it. In the meantime you have to put up with the tedium and squalor of Eileen’s daily life, and there’s no escape from her mind. This is one of those rare novels I would have preferred to be in the third person: it would allow the reader to come to his/her own conclusions about Eileen’s psychology, and would have created more suspense because Eileen’s hindsight wouldn’t result in such heavy foreshadowing. I expected suspense but actually found this fairly slow and somewhat short of gripping.
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
This is a most unusual mother–daughter story, set on the southern coast of Spain. Twenty-five-year-old Sofia Papastergiadis has put off her anthropology PhD to accompany her mother, Rose, on a sort of pilgrimage to Dr. Gómez’s clinic to assess what’s wrong with Rose’s legs. What I loved about this novel is the uncertainty about who each character really is. Is Rose an invalid or a first-class hypochondriac? Is Dr. Gómez a miracle worker or a quack who’s fleeced them out of 25,000 euros? As a narrator, Sofia pretends to objective anthropological observation but is just as confused by her actions as we are: she seems to deliberately court jellyfish stings, is simultaneously jealous and contemptuous of her Greek father’s young second wife, and sleeps with both Juan and Ingrid.
Levy imbues the novel’s relationships with psychological and mythological significance, especially the Medusa story. I don’t think the ending quite fits the tone, but overall this is a quick and worthwhile read. At the same time, it’s such an odd story that it will keep you thinking about the characters. A great entry I’d be happy to see make the shortlist.
[One I won’t be reading: The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee. I opened up the prequel, The Childhood of Jesus, and could only manage the first chapter. I quickly skimmed the rest but found it unutterably dull. It would take me a lot of secondary source reading to try to understand what was going on here allegorically, and it’s not made me look forward to trying more from Coetzee.]
As for the rest: I have All That Man Is by David Szalay and Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy on my Kindle and will probably read them whether or not they’re shortlisted. The same goes for Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, for which I’m third in a library hold queue. I’d still like to get hold of The Many by Wyl Menmuir. That leaves just Hystopia by David Means, which I can’t say I have much interest in.
I rarely feel like I have enough of a base of experience to make accurate predictions, but if I had to guess which six books would make it through tomorrow, I would pick:
His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
The North Water by Ian McGuire
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
That would be three men and three women, and a pretty good mix of countries and genres. I’d be happy with that list.
What have you managed to read from the Booker longlist? How do your predictions match up against mine?
A Booker Prize & Libraries Action Plan, Etc.
On Wednesday the Man Booker Prize’s longlist of 13 novels was announced. I never bother making predictions in advance of prize list announcements because inevitably I forget what was released during the eligibility period and I’m no good at squaring personal favorites with what a judging panel is likely to admire. See the Guardian’s photo essay and Karen’s thorough discussion at Booker Talk for more information about the nominees.
It turns out I’ve read and reviewed four of the longlisted books:
The Sellout by Paul Beatty for Shiny New Books: This is such an outrageous racial satire that I kept asking myself how Beatty got away with it. The Sellout struck a chord in America, but I’m slightly surprised that it’s also been received well in the UK.
The North Water by Ian McGuire for BookBrowse: A gritty, graphic novel about 19th-century whaling that traverses the open seas and the forbidding polar regions. It’s a powerful inquiry into human nature and the making of ethical choices in extreme circumstances.
Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves on Goodreads: I was meant to review this for BookBrowse but couldn’t rate it highly enough despite the competent writing. Between the blurb and the first paragraph, you already know everything that’s going to happen.
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout on Goodreads: I won a free copy through a Goodreads giveaway. I read this in one sitting on a plane ride and found it to be a powerful portrayal of the small connections that stand out in a life.
As for what’s next from the longlist, I finally have an excuse to read the copy of The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee I won from Goodreads many moons ago – a sequel to which (The Schooldays of Jesus) is among the nominees. It’ll be my first Coetzee; if I like it I’ll be sure to read the follow-up book when it comes out in September.
I already knew I was interested in Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh, a creepy debut novel about a misfit; All That Man Is by David Szalay, a linked short story collection about stages of men’s lives; and Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, set in Canada in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests. I’ve only read one novel each by A.L. Kennedy and Deborah Levy and wasn’t hugely keen on either author’s style, but the subject matter of both Serious Sweet and Hot Milk is more tempting. I might seek them out from the library.
And then there’s the books I’d simply never heard of. Of these I’m most interested in His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet, based on a true-life murder in Scotland in the 1860s, and The Many by Wyl Menmuir, a debut novella about a village newcomer.
The surprise omission for me is Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent. I might also have expected to see Julian Barnes, Adam Haslett, and maybe even Ann Patchett on the longlist.
We’ve found a new rental house and hope to move in on August 15, but we’re waiting for our reference check to be complete and the tenancy contract to be drawn up before we can start doing official things like hire movers, change our address with a zillion service providers, and start packing in earnest.
This past week I’ve busied myself with comparing removals quotes and doing pre-packing tasks I’ve tried to convince myself are useful, like sorting through drawers of mementoes, assessing what’s in storage under the beds, and shifting some unwanted possessions through Freegle, a local web forum for giving away free stuff. So far I’ve gotten rid of a spice rack, 11 empty bottles, 55 empty CD cases, a cat tower plus some food and toys our fussy cat won’t use, and a wildly popular picnic hamper (11 offers came through!). It’s really gratifying to see things go to a good home.
Alas, we did also have to take some items to the local recycling center this weekend, which always seems like something of a failure, but no one’s going to want a broken vacuum cleaner and printer. My hope is that the small appliances dumped there will at least be mined for parts, so it’s better than sending them to landfill.
The weekend has also included berry picking at the local pick-your-own farm and making a summer pudding, a labor-intensive but delicious annual tradition. Plus this afternoon we’re off to Northampton to meet our newest nephew, born on the 20th.
I did finally start boxing up books last night. Much as I love my print library, it’s dispiriting just how much space it takes up. It took five boxes just to empty the small spare room bookcase! Before packing anything I did another full inventory of unread books in the flat and came up with a total of 205, higher than last time but not too bad considering the review books I’ve acquired recently as well as the secondhand shopping I’ve done. I’ve made good progress in my attempt to read mostly books I own for the summer, but it’s a resolution that will have to carry over into the autumn and winter.
The one thing that might scupper me in that plan is that, although we’re only moving 45 minutes away, we’ll be in a new council area where library reservations are free! For years I’ve been a part of library systems where it costs 40 or 50 pence to reserve each book, so I’ve kept holds to an absolute minimum. But from now on you can be sure I’ll be putting myself on the waiting list for every new and forthcoming book that appeals to me! Expect the monthly Library Checkout posts to resume by September.
Any thoughts on this year’s Booker Prize longlist? How are you doing on reading from public libraries or from your own personal collection?
Reviews Roundup, April–May
Every month I compile the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to click on the link to read more.
The Good Guy by Susan Beale: You might think there’s nothing new to add to the suburban-angst-and-adultery storyline. What Beale does so beautifully in this debut novel is to put you right into the minds of the three main characters. This is a story about the differences between what’s easy and what’s right, and the quest to make amends wherever possible. It’s also a cautionary tale: be careful what you wish for, because that boring life you were so eager to escape may just be what you wanted after all. I also love the range of settings, from the dazzling Shoppers’ World mall to a beach house on Cape Cod. This is a delicious, slightly gossipy summer read with a Mad Men feel to it. I’d especially recommend this to fans of The Longest Night and Tigers in Red Weather. Releases June 16th.
Invincible Summer by Alice Adams: Four Bristol University friends navigate the highs and lows of life in the 20 years following graduation. Like in One Day, the narrative checks in on the characters nearly every summer. As happens in real life, even the closest friends gradually drift apart. Job situations and relationships change, and external events like the financial collapse of 2008 take a toll. Compared to some other similar recent novels (e.g. Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma), this debut somewhat lacks sparkle. Releases June 2nd in the UK and June 28th in the USA.
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell: O’Farrell’s globe-trotting seventh novel opens in 2010 with Daniel Sullivan, an American linguistics professor in Donegal. Spreading outward from Ireland and reaching into every character’s past and future, this has all O’Farrell’s trademark insight into family and romantic relationships, as well as her gorgeous prose and precise imagery. The disparate locations and the title suggest our nomadic modern condition. It’s the widest scope she has attempted yet; that’s both a good and a bad thing. I did wonder if there were a few too many characters and plot threads.
(A subscriber service, so I can only make excerpts available.)
The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church: In Church’s debut, an amateur ornithologist learns about love and sacrifice through marriage to a Los Alamos physicist and a relationship with a Vietnam veteran. Torn between two men who mean so much to her, Meri has to consider what her true duties are. “There was no good solution. No clear way out, no approach that would earn the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval,” she wryly observes. I instantly warmed to Meri as a narrator and loved following her unpredictable life story. Church reveals the difficulty a woman of that time had in choosing her own path and making it fit into men’s plans, and shows how love, as the title suggests, can be a burden but also a thing of reassuring substance. Meri longs, like one of her beloved birds, to take flight into her dreams. Whether she gets there, and how, is a bittersweet trip but one you’ll be glad you went along for.
The North Water by Ian McGuire: A gritty tale of adventure and murder set aboard a mid-nineteenth-century whaling ship. Archaic adjectives pile up in a clever recreation of Victorian prose: “The men, empurpled, reeking, drenched in the fish’s steaming, expectorated gore.” Much of the novel is bleak and brutal like that. There are a lot of “F” and “C” words, too; this is so impeccably researched that I don’t doubt the language is accurate. McGuire never shies away from gory detail, whether that’s putrid smells, bodily fluids, animal slaughter, or human cruelty. I thought the novel’s villain was perhaps too evil, with no redeeming features. Still, this is a powerful inquiry into human nature and the making of ethical choices in extreme circumstances. From the open seas to the forbidding polar regions, this is a journey worth taking.
Rediscovering the Immune System as an Integrated Organ by Peter Bretscher: A rigorous introduction to current immunological thought. Vocabulary terms are given in bold italics and defined in context on first use, and each chapter ends with a helpful synopsis. However, these summaries are almost as dense as the text itself, and the many acronyms are difficult to keep straight. Unlike a textbook, though, the book also contains welcome snippets of autobiography. Bretscher traces not just the evolution of immunological knowledge, but also the development of his own thinking. This will be an invaluable resource for students in search of a nonstandard immunology primer. With research under way into vaccinations against AIDS, tuberculosis, and cancer, the field has a bright future.
Crowning Glory: An experiment in self-discovery through disguise by Stacy Harshman: In 2005, Harshman decided to embark on a sociological experiment-cum-personal challenge: each week for six weeks she donned a different wig, and with the help of her assistant, Bonnie, she carefully recorded the reactions she received from onlookers and potential partners. Each day she chose three New York City locales, taking in events like lunch, happy hour, and late night socializing. Recalling the time she was hospitalized for a psychotic break in 2000, she marvels at how changing hairstyles could help her feel self-assured and sexy. The book is an appealing cross between a scientific study and a spy story.
All at Sea by Decca Aitkenhead: In May 2014, Aitkenhead, a Guardian writer, was on vacation with her partner Tony Wilkinson and their two young sons in Jamaica. A beautiful sunny morning turned disastrous when Tony swam out to rescue their son Jake and drowned. After the tragic events of the first chapter, this wrenching memoir retreats to consider the 10 years she and Tony (a former criminal and crack addict) spent as “the most implausible couple I have ever known.” More than half the book is devoted to the aftermath of Tony’s death, described in a matter-of-fact style that still manages to convey the depth of Aitkenhead’s pain. This is a unique combination of a journalist’s forthright storytelling and the ‘magical thinking’ Joan Didion introduced. Releases in the States on August 16th.
Diary of a Short-Sighted Adolescent by Mircea Eliade: This rediscovered Romanian classic is what you might get if a teenage Adrian Mole was studying for a philosophy degree. Before picking this up I knew of Eliade as a commentator on world religions. I didn’t realize he also wrote novels. This is particularly special in that it’s a lost manuscript he wrote as a teenager; it was only discovered in a Bucharest attic after his death in the 1980s. The novel’s chief detriments – the repetitive nature of the sections about his schooling, and his obsessive introspection – are also, ironically, what make it most true to the adolescent experience. I’d recommend it to fans of My Brilliant Friend and Melanie Sumner’s How to Write a Novel.
Quiet Flows the Una by Faruk Šehić: This autobiographical novel by a Bosnian poet and former soldier is full of poetic language and nature imagery. The narrator transcends his sordid war memories through his magical approach to life. Actual war scenes only come much later in the book; even then they are conveyed in such an abstract style that they seem more like hallucinations than remembered events. The lyrical writing about his beloved river provides a perfect counterpoint to the horror and absurdity of war. “We made this town, Bosanska Krupa, of black mire, yellow sand and green water borrowed from the Una. The tall towers of our town tickle God’s feet.” What most impressed me about passages like that one is the alliteration that shines through even after translation. I would highly recommend this to readers of Anthony Marra and Daniel Kehlmann.
Shelter by Jung Yun: A Korean-American family faces up to violence past and present in this strong debut. Finances and relationships just keep going from bad to worse, as the novel’s tripartite structure suggests: “Dawn” cedes to “Dusk,” which descends into “Night.” You wonder just how terrible things can get – will this really reach the Thomas Hardy levels of tragedy it seems to portend? – until, in the incredible last 10 pages, Yun pulls back from violence and offers the hope of redemption. I did wonder if there were a few too many secondary characters. However, the Korean-American culture of honor and shame makes a perfect setting. I would recommend this to fans of David Vann and Richard Ford.
The Border of Paradise by Esmé Weijun Wang: Mental illness haunts an Asian-American family in this offbeat multi-generational saga. Wang’s debut novel opens in 1968 with David Nowak reporting from the motel room where he plans to kill himself. Succeeding portions of the novel are narrated from other perspectives: David’s wife Jia-Hui, aka Daisy, whom he met in Taiwan; then their son William and his half-sister Gillian. Jia-Hui’s narrative is the most entrancing. Presented as a translation, it includes occasional foreign characters or blank spaces where she couldn’t quite catch what someone was saying in English. Her sections are full of foreboding about the family legacy of madness. I was reminded most of A Reunion of Ghosts and All My Puny Sorrows. Something about this book left a slightly bitter aftertaste for me, but there’s no doubt Wang has fine plotting, character building, and prose skills.
The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly by Luis Sepúlveda: Zorba, a fat black cat, will be alone this summer while his boy’s family go on holiday – convenient given the adventure that’s about to befall him. Kengah, an exhausted and oil-drenched seagull, lands on his balcony and lays a final, precious egg. She makes Zorba promise he will not eat the egg but will look after her baby and teach it to fly. He enlists his motley group of fellow cats at the port of Hamburg to help him figure out how to raise a chick. Sepúlveda, a Chilean author, was jailed under the Pinochet regime and was later on the crew of a Greenpeace ship. The environmental message here is noticeable but not overpowering. Geared towards confident nine- to eleven-year-olds, this might also be read aloud with younger children.
Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu by Yi Shun Lai: Marty Wu is an advertising account executive for a NYC retirees’ magazine but dreams of opening her own costume shop. This debut novel is her Bridget Jones-esque diary, often written in a kind of shorthand style contrasting her goals with her seemingly inevitably failures, as in: “Crap. Is 4:00 a.m. Have breakfast meeting. Must sleep.” She’s constantly quoting to herself the advice and wisdom she’s gleaned from various motivational books she picked up in hopes of self-improvement. Lai writes engagingly about the contrasts between Taiwan and the States, especially the complexities of family roles. This is a lighthearted, summery read. Watch Marty ditch self-help books and start living the life she wants anyway.
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue: A nurse investigates the case of an Irish girl surviving without food for months: miracle or hoax? The novel draws on about 50 historical cases of “Fasting Girls” that occurred in Europe and North America in the 16th to 20th centuries. It sets up a particularly effective contrast between medicine and superstition. Donoghue writes convincing, vivid historical fiction, peppering the text with small details about everything from literature to technology. This is the fifth book I’ve read by her, and it’s by far my favorite. With the two-week time limit and the fact that most scenes take place in the cabin – with just a handful set in other village locales like the bog and the pub where Lib stays – this has something of the flavor of a locked-room mystery. Releases September 20th.
Football by Jean-Philippe Toussaint: A nostalgic tour through a soccer fan’s highlights. Over the years Toussaint has realized what he loves about the sport: its seasonality (the World Cup “comes round every four years with the regularity of a leap-year seasonal fruit”) and the rituals of attending a match. On the other hand, he recognizes downsides, such as temporary permission given to chauvinism and the fact that it doesn’t age well – it’s an instant thing; one doesn’t tend to watch repeats. My favorite chapter, set in 2014, is less about sports and more about a hard time in the author’s personal life: he had recently lost his father and finished a ten-year novel sequence, leaving him unsure what to do next. I enjoyed his introspective passages about the writing life and the sense of purpose it gives his struggles. I was not the ideal reader, given my general antipathy to sports and my unfamiliarity with the author. All the same, I can see how this would appeal to fans of Fever Pitch.