Tag: Jon McGregor

The Rest of the Books I Abandoned in 2017, and the Year’s Disappointments

My abandoned books posts are always perversely popular, garnering nearly twice as many views as many of my reviews. This seems to be because fellow readers are secretly (and a bit guiltily) looking for permission to give up on the books they’re not enjoying. I hereby grant you my blessing! If after 25 pages or so a book is not grabbing you – even if it’s a bestseller, or a book all the critics or bloggers are raving about – have no shame about putting it down. You can always change your mind and try it another time, but ultimately you are the arbiter of your own internal library, and only you can say whether a book is for you or not.

That said, here are all the rest of the books I’ve abandoned since May’s post (not mentioning again any that might have come up through my Library Checkout or monthly preview posts). I don’t write full reviews for DNFs, just a sentence or two to remind myself of why I gave up on a book. (In chronological order of my reading.)

 

Dear Mr M by Herman Koch: I didn’t even make it past the first few pages. I wasn’t at all engaged, and I couldn’t now tell you a single thing about the book.

 

Stay with Me by Ayobami Adebayo: I started this for a potential BookBrowse review and it felt derivative of every other African-set book I’ve ever read. It was difficult to see what made it original enough to be on the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. (DNF @ 15%)

 

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor: I feel bad about this one because so many discerning readers admire it. I thought I knew what to expect – lovely writing, much of it descriptions of the natural world and the daily life of a small community – but I guess I hadn’t fully heeded the warning that nothing happens. You hear a lot about Hardyesque locals you can’t keep straight (because what do they matter?) but never anything about what happened to the missing girl. Couldn’t hold my interest, but I won’t rule out trying it again in the future. (DNF @ 15%)

 

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent: I’d heard amazing things about this debut novel and was indeed impressed by the descriptive language and characterization. But if you know one thing about this book, it’s that it’s full of horrifically matter-of-fact scenes of sexual abuse. When I reached the first of these I couldn’t go on, even though I was supposed to review this for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Luckily my editor was very understanding. (DNF @ 6%)

 

Idaho by Emily Ruskovich: I’d heard a lot of pre-publication buzz about this book, which came out in January, and always meant to get around to it. The problem is likely down to expectations and a surfeit of information. Had I come to this knowing little to nothing about it, perhaps I would have been drawn into the subtle mystery. (DNF @ 7%)

 

The 7th Function of Language by Laurent Binet [trans. from the French by Sam Taylor]: HHhH was brilliant, but this one’s cleverness passed me by. I could probably sustain my interest in a playful mystery about linguistics and ‘the death of the author’ for the length of a short story, but not for nearly 400 pages. (DNF after 40 pages)

 

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich: This starts out feeling like the simple story of Cedar meeting her biological Native American parents and coming to terms with her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. It takes a long time to start resembling the dystopian novel it’s supposed to be, and the signs that something is awry seem too little and come too late to produce even mild alarm. I’d try something else by Erdrich, but I didn’t find her take on this genre worthwhile.(DNF @ 32%)

 

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: I think the central problem here was that I’d seen a theatre adaptation of the novel less than a month before and the story was too fresh in my mind; there were no plot surprises awaiting me, and the scenes involving the painting itself, which I was most interested in reading for myself, felt ever so melodramatic. (DNF after 70 pages)

 

The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart by Emily Nunn: After a dear brother’s suicide, a breakup from her fiancé, and a couple of spells in rehab to kick the alcohol habit that runs in her family, Nunn set off on a quest for what people across the country consider to be comfort food. She starts with a visit to a cousin in the South and some indulgence in ham biscuits and peanut brittle. Like Life from Scratch by Sasha Martin, this is too heavy on the sad backstory and not quite enough about food. (DNF @ 25%)

 

The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen [trans. from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw]: A subtle story of a fishing/farming family carving out a life on a bleak Norwegian island and dreaming of a larger life beyond. I can’t think of anything particularly negative to say about this; it just failed to hold my interest. I read over a third while on holiday in Amsterdam – reading it by the coast at Marken felt particularly appropriate – but once we got back I got caught up in other review books and couldn’t get back into it. (DNF @ 41%)

Favorite lines: “Nobody can leave an island. An island is a cosmos in a nutshell, where the stars slumber in the grass beneath the snow. But occasionally someone tries.”

 

The Woman on the Stairs by Bernhard Schlink [trans. from the German by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt]: I planned to review this for German Literature Month back in November. To start with it was vaguely reminiscent of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos and Me and Kaminski, with an artist trying to micromanage the afterlife of his painting and keep hold of the wife he stole off its owner, but it quickly tailed off. The narrator, who is the lawyer representing the painter, soon declares himself in love with the portrait subject – a sudden disclosure I couldn’t quite believe. (DNF @ 23%)

 

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado: I read 4 out of 8 stories. Machado writes bizarre, sex-saturated mash-ups of fairy tales and urban legends. My favorite was “Mothers,” about queer family-making and the abuse lurking under the surface of so many relationships. This author is absurdly good at lists, all through “Inventory” and in the shrine to queer icons in “Mothers.” But all the stories go on too long (especially the Law and Order, SVU one, which felt to me like pure filler) and would no doubt be punchier if shorter. Not a book for me, but one I’d recommend to others who’d appreciate the edgy feminist bent.

 

The Cat Who Stayed for Christmas by Cleveland Amory: A pointless sequel to what was already a rather lackluster story. I read the first chapter and gave the rest a quick skim. It feels like it’s been spun out of a real dearth of material for the sake of prolonging 15 minutes of fame. A whole chapter on how Polar Bear the cat doesn’t really like the trappings of celebrity? Yawn. I’m usually a cat book person, but not in Amory’s case.

 

Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, by Allen Ginsberg: I was most interested in reading “Howl,” having seen the wonderful James Franco movie a few years ago and then encountered Ginsberg earlier this year as a minor character in The Nix. I read up through Part I of “Kaddish” and that felt like enough. These are such strange poems, full of startling body and food imagery and alliteration, that they made me laugh out loud in astonishment. They’re awesome in their own way, but also so unsettling I didn’t want to read too much at once.

 


And a few books I was really looking forward to this year but ended up disappointed with:

 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan: Egan focuses on interesting historical side notes such as a woman working as a diver at Brooklyn Navy Yard during WWII, but in general her insertion of period detail is not very natural. I couldn’t help but compare this with her previous novel, the highly original A Visit from the Goon Squad. By comparison, Manhattan Beach is merely serviceable historical fiction and lost my interest as it went into flashbacks or veered away to spend time with other characters. My interest was only ever in Anna. Overall not a stand-out work. (Reviewed for The Bookbag.)

 

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss: Impressive in scope and structure, but rather frustrating. If you’re hoping for another History of Love, you’re likely to come away disappointed: while that book touched the heart; this one is mostly cerebral. Metafiction, the Kabbalah, and some alternative history featuring Kafka are a few of the major elements, so think about whether those topics attract or repel you. Looking a bit deeper, this is a book about Jewish self-invention and reinvention. All told, there’s a lot to think about here: more questions than answers, really. Interesting, for sure, but not the return to form I’d hoped for.

 

George and Lizzie by Nancy Pearl: There are some endearing characters and enjoyable scenes in this tale of an odd couple’s marriage, but in a desperate wish to avoid being boring, Pearl has too often chosen to be edgy rather than sweet, and experimental rather than thorough. I think she intended to tell an empowering parable that counters slut-shaming, but it’s so hard to like Lizzie. The writing is notably poor in the earliest sections, where the attempt at a breathless, chatty style is a distraction. Dutiful research into football hardly helps, instead making this seem like a weak imitation of John Irving.

 

Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn: An underwhelming King Lear adaptation. (Didn’t Jane Smiley already give us a less caustic version of this daughters-fighting-over-the-family-business scenario?) It is Dunbar and his emotional awakening and reconciliation with Florence (Cordelia) that power the book. The other two sadistic, nymphomaniac daughters and their henchmen are too thinly drawn and purposelessly evil to be believed.

 


What books disappointed you this year? Were there any you just couldn’t finish?

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Final Thoughts on the Booker Longlist

On Wednesday the 13th the Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced. I’d already reviewed six of the nominees and abandoned one; in the time since the longlist announcement I’ve only managed to read another one and a bit. That leaves four I didn’t get a chance to experience. Here’s a run-through of the 13 nominees, with my brief thoughts on each.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber): I can’t see myself reading this one any time soon; I’ll choose a shorter work to be my first taste of Auster’s writing. I’ve heard mostly good reports, though.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland) (Faber & Faber): Read in March 2017. This is my overall favorite from the longlist so far. (See my BookBrowse review.) However, it’s already been recognized with the Costa Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, so if it doesn’t make the Booker shortlist I certainly won’t be crushed. 

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson): Read in March 2017. A slow-building coming-of-age story with a child’s untimely death at its climax. Fridlund’s melancholy picture of outsiders whose skewed thinking leads them to transgress moral boundaries recalls Lauren Groff and Marilynne Robinson. (Reviewed for the Times Literary Supplement; )

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK) (Hamish Hamilton): I don’t have much interest in reading this one at this point; I didn’t get far in the one book I tried by Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) earlier this year. I’ve encountered mixed reviews.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland) (Canongate): If you’ve heard anything about this, it’s probably that the entire book is composed of one sentence. Now here’s an embarrassing admission: I didn’t make it past the first page.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK) (4th Estate): I read the first 15% last month and set it aside. I knew what to expect – lovely descriptions of the natural world and the daily life of a small community – but I guess hadn’t fully heeded the warning that nothing much happens. I won’t rule out trying this one again in the future, but for now it couldn’t hold my interest.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals): Read in August 2017. Simply terrific. (See my full blog review.) Overall, this dark horse selection is in second place for me. I’d love to see it make it through to the shortlist. 

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India) (Hamish Hamilton): I was never a huge fan of The God of Small Things, so this is another I’m not too keen to try.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury Publishing): Read in April 2017. An entertaining and original treatment of life’s transience. I enjoyed the different registers Saunders uses for his characters, but was less convinced about snippets from historical texts. So audacious it deserves a shortlist spot; I wouldn’t mind it winning.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (UK-Pakistan) (Bloomsbury Circus): This is the one book from the longlist that I most wish I’d gotten a chance to read. It’s been widely reviewed in the press as well as in the blogging world (A life in books, Elle Thinks, and Heavenali), generally very enthusiastically.

Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton): Read in November 2016. (See my blog review.) While some of Smith’s strengths benefit from immediacy – a nearly stream-of-consciousness style (no speech marks) and jokey dialogue – I’d prefer a more crafted narrative. In places this was repetitive, with the seasonal theme neither here nor there. 

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton): Read in October 2016 for a BookBrowse review. The Africa material wasn’t very convincing, and the Aimee subplot and the way Tracey turns out struck me as equally clichéd. The claustrophobic narration makes this feel insular. A disappointment compared to White Teeth and On Beauty

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (US) (Fleet): Read in July 2017. (See my blog review.) I’m surprised such a case has been made for the uniqueness of this novel based on a simple tweak of the historical record. I felt little attachment to Cora and had to force myself to keep plodding through her story. Every critic on earth seems to love it, though. 

 


If I had to take a guess at which six books will make it through Wednesday and why, I’d say:

  • 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster – A chunkster by a well-respected literary lion.
  • Exit West by Mohsin Hamid – A timely refugee theme and a touch of magic realism.
  • Solar Bones by Mike McCormack – Irish stream-of-consciousness. Channel James Joyce and you’ll impress all the literary types.
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – Effusive in tone and cutting-edge in form.
  • Autumn by Ali Smith – Captures the post-Brexit moment.
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead – Though it’s won every prize going, the judges probably think they’d be churlish to pass it by.

 

By contrast, if I were asked for the six I would prefer to be on the shortlist, and why, it’d be:

  • Days Without End by Sebastian Barry – Pretty much unforgettable.
  • History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund – A haunting novel that deserves more attention.
  • Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor – Though it’s not my personal favorite, I support McGregor.
  • Elmet by Fiona Mozley – A nearly flawless debut. Give the gal a chance.
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – Show-offy, but such fun to read.
  • Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – Timely and well crafted, by all accounts.

That would be three men and three women, if not the best mix of countries. 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?

The Booker Dark Horse: Elmet by Fiona Mozley

The dark horse in this year’s Man Booker Prize race is Elmet, a brilliant, twisted fable about the clash of the land-owning and serf classes in contemporary England. I’d love to see this win the Booker, or make the shortlist at the very least. You’d hardly believe it’s a debut novel, or that it’s by a 29-year-old PhD candidate in medieval history. The epigraph from Ted Hughes defines “Elmet” as an ancient Celtic kingdom encompassing what is now West Yorkshire. The word still appears in a few Yorkshire place names today. Metaphorically, Hughes notes, the region was a “‘badlands’, a sanctuary for refugees from the law.” That’s an apt setting for Mozley’s central characters: a family living on the edge of poverty and respectability – off-grid and not quite legal.

Daniel and Cathy Oliver – 14 and 15, respectively – live with their father, John Smythe, in a simple house he built with his own hands in a copse. They mostly eat whatever they can hunt. Daddy is a renowned pugilist not above beating people up when they owe his friends money. Feisty Cathy is bullied by boys at school; when teachers don’t believe her, she has no choice but to hit back. There’s a strong us-against-the-world ethos to the novel, but underneath that defensiveness there’s a sense of unease: Daniel, the narrator, isn’t a fighter like his father and sister. He’s a sensitive soul who’s happiest cooking and playing with his dogs.

Like the reader, Daniel watches in grim fascination as Mr. Price, a powerful local landlord, starts issuing threats. Price warns Daddy that his family is trespassing. If they don’t leave he’ll make life difficult for them. A group of tenants, many of them just out of prison and barely getting by, bands together to take revenge on Price, planning to withhold rent and farm labor until conditions improve. No longer will they accept £20 payments for 10-hour work days. At first it seems their fight for rights might be successful, but Price and his goons retrench. Things come to a head when Price promises to sign their plot of land over to Daniel – if Daddy agrees to call off the strike and fight one last climactic match in the woods.

The final 70 pages of Elmet blew me away: a crescendo of fateful violence that reaches Shakespearean proportions. This knocks all those Hogarth remakes (which generally, with the exception of Hag-Seed, adhere too slavishly to the plots and so fail to channel the spirit) into a cocked hat. Though oddly similar to two other novels on the Booker longlist that unearth disturbing doings in a superficially pastoral England – Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor and Autumn by Ali Smith – Elmet achieves the better balance between lush nature writing and Hardyesque pessimism. Mozley’s countryside is no idyll but a fallen edgeland:

And if the hare was made of myths then so too was the land at which she scratched. Now pocked with clutches of trees, once the whole county had been woodland and the ghosts of the ancient forest could be marked when the wind blew. The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed up through the undergrowth and back into our lives.

The characters usually speak in Yorkshire dialect, but where many authors would render the definite article as “t’,” Mozley simply elides it. For instance, here’s John shaking his head over the injustice of land ownership:

It’s idea a person can write summat on a bit of paper about a piece of land that lives and breathes, and changes and quakes and floods and dries, and that that person can use it as he will, or not at all, and that he can keep others off it, all because of a piece of paper. That’s part which means nowt to me.

The author is not entirely consistent with the transcription of dialect, though, and sometimes her use of spoken language is off: too ornate to be believable in certain characters’ mouths, like Cathy or a man who comes to the door to deliver bad news late on. These are such minor lapses of authorial control that I barely think them worth mentioning, but take it as proof that Mozley will only get better in the years to come. This is a gorgeous, timeless tale of the determination to overcome helplessness by facing down those who might harm the body but cannot destroy the spirit.

My rating:


Elmet was published in the UK by JM Originals on August 10th. With thanks to Yassine Belkacemi and Katherine Burdon at John Murray Press for the free review copy.

Making Plans (and Book Lists) for America

On Tuesday we leave for two weeks in America. It’s nearly a year and a half since our last trip – much too long – so we’ll be cramming in lots of visits with friends and family and doing a fair bit of driving around the Mid-Atlantic states. I’m giving myself the whole time off, which means I’ve been working flat out for the past two weeks to get everything done (including my U.K. and U.S. taxes). I’m nearly there: at the 11-day countdown I still had 12 books I wanted to finish and 12 reviews to write; now I’m down to five books, only one of which might be considered essential, and all the reviews are ready to submit/schedule. What with the holiday weekend underway, it should all be manageable.

I’m a compulsive list maker in general, but especially when it comes to preparing for a trip. I’ve kept adding to lists entitled “Pack for America,” “Do in America,” “Buy in America,” and “Bring back from America.” But the more fun lists to make are book-related ones: what paper books should I take to read on the plane? Which of the 315 books on my Kindle ought I to prioritize over the next two weeks? Which exclusively American books should I borrow from the public library? What secondhand books will I try to find? And which of the books in the dozens of boxes in the closet of my old bedroom will I fit in my suitcase for the trip back?

I liked the sound of Laila’s habit of taking an Anne Tyler novel on every flight. That’s just the kind of cozy reading I want, especially as I head back to Maryland – not far at all from Tyler’s home turf of Baltimore. I browsed the blurbs on a few of her paperbacks I have lying around and chose Back When We Were Grownups to be my fifth Tyler and one of my airplane reads.

I’m also tempted by Min Kym’s Gone, a memoir by a violin virtuoso about having her Stradivarius stolen. I picked up a proof copy in a 3-for-£1 charity sale a couple of weeks ago. And then I can’t resist the aptness of Jonathan Miles’s Dear American Airlines (even though we’re actually flying on Virgin). I’ll start one or more of these before we go, just to make sure they ‘take’.

I almost certainly won’t need three print books for the trip, particularly if I take advantage of the in-flight entertainment. We only ever seem to watch films while we’re in America or en route there, so between the two legs I’ll at least try to get to La La Land and The Light between Oceans; I’m also considering Nocturnal Animals, Silence, and the live-action Beauty and the Beast – anyone seen these?

However, I’ll also keep my Kindle to hand, as I find it easier to pick up and put down on multi-part journeys like ours to the airport (train ride + coach ride). Some of the books on my Kindle priority list are: The Day that Went Missing by Richard Beard, Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta (out in August), The Power by Naomi Alderman, Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor, The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy, See What I have Done by Sarah Schmidt, You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann … and the list continues, but I’ll stop there.

My book shopping list is an ongoing one, as the many cross-outs and additions on this sheet show. Finding specific books at my beloved Wonder Book can be a challenge, so I usually just keep in mind the names of authors I’d like to read more by. This time that might include Arnold Bennett, Geoff Dyer, Elizabeth Hay, Bernd Heinrich, W. Somerset Maugham, Haruki Murakami and Kathleen Norris. In addition to the couple of secondhand bookstores we always hit, I hope to visit a few new-to-me ones on stays with friends in Virginia.

As for those poor books sat in boxes in the closet, I have plans to unearth novels by Anita Brookner, Mohsin Hamid, Kent Haruf, Penelope Lively, Howard Norman and Philip Roth – for reading while I’m there and/or bringing back with me. I’m also contemplating borrowing my dad’s omnibus edition of the John Updike “Rabbit” novels. From my nonfiction hoard, I fancy an Alexandra Fuller memoir, D.H. Lawrence’s travel books and more of May Sarton’s journals. If only it weren’t for luggage weight limits!


On Monday I’ll publish my intercontinental Library Checkout, on Tuesday I have a few June releases to recommend, and then I’m scheduling a handful of posts for while I’m away – a couple reviews I happen to have ready, plus some other lightweight stuff. Alas, I read no doorstoppers in May, but I have a list (of course) of potential ones for June, so will attempt to resurrect that monthly column.

Though I may be slow to respond to comments and read your blogs while I’m away, I will do my best and hope to catch up soon after I’m back.