This month we begin with The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki, which recently won the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It happens to be my least favourite of her books that I’ve read so far, but I was pleased to see her work recognised nonetheless. (See also Kate’s opening post.)
#1 One of the peripheral characters in Ozeki’s novel is an Eastern European philosopher who goes by “The Bottleman.” I had to wonder if he was based on avant-garde Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek. Back in 2010, when I was working at a university library in London and had access to nearly any book I could think of – and was still committed to trying to read the sorts of books I thought I should enjoy rather than what I actually did – I skimmed a couple of Žižek’s works, including First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (2009), which arose from 9/11 and the global financial crisis and questions whether we can ever stop history repeating itself without undermining capitalism.
#2 In searching my archives for farces I’ve read, I came across one I took notes on but never wrote up back in 2013: Japanese by Spring by Ishmael Reed (1993), an academic comedy set at “Jack London College” in Oakland, California. The novel satirizes almost every ideology prevalent in the 1960s–80s: multiculturalism, racism, xenophobia, nationalism, feminism, affirmative action and various literary critical methods. Reed sets up exaggerated and polarized groups and opinions. (You know it’s not to be taken entirely seriously when you see character names like Chappie Puttbutt, President Stool and Professor Poop, short for Poopovich.) The college is sold off to the Japanese and Ishmael Reed himself becomes a character. There are some amusing lines but I ended up concluding that Reed wasn’t for me. If you’ve enjoyed work by Paul Beatty and Percival Everett, he might be up your street.
#3 “Call me Ishmael” – even if, like me, you have never gotten through Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851), you probably know that famous opening line. I took an entire course on Nathaniel Hawthorne and Melville as an undergraduate and still didn’t manage to read the whole thing! Even my professor acknowledged that Melville could have done with a really good editor to rein in his ideas and cut out some of his digressions.
#4 A favourite that I can recommend instead is Moby-Duck by Donovan Hohn (2011). It’s just the kind of random, wide-ranging nonfiction I love: part memoir, part travelogue, part philosophical musing on human culture and our impact on the environment. In 1992 a pallet of “Friendly Floatees” bath toys fell off a container ship in a storm in the North Pacific. Over the next two decades those thousands of plastic animals made their way around the world, informing oceanographic theory and delighting children. Hohn’s obsessive quest for the origin of the bath toys and the details of their high seas journey takes on the momentousness of his literary antecedent. He visits a Chinese factory and sees plastics being made; he volunteers on a beach-cleaning mission in Alaska. (I’d not seen the Ozeki cover that appears in Kate’s post, but how pleasing to note that it also has a rubber duck on it!)
#5 Alongside Moby-Duck on my “uncategorizable” Goodreads shelf is The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (1978), one of my Books of Summer from 2019. A nature/travel classic that turns into something more like a spiritual memoir, it’s about a trip to Nepal in 1973, with Matthiessen joining a zoologist to study Himalayan blue sheep – and hoping to spot the elusive snow leopard. He had recently lost his partner to cancer, and relied on his Buddhist training to remind himself of tenets of acceptance and transience.
#6 Ruth Padel is one of my favourite contemporary poets and a fixture at the New Networks for Nature conference I attend each year. She has a collection named The Soho Leopard (2004), whose title sequence is about urban foxes. The natural world and her travels are always a major element of her books. From one Ruth to another, then, by way of philosophy, farce, whaling, rubber ducks and mountain adventuring.
Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.) Next month’s starting point is a wildcard: use the book you finished with this month (or, if you haven’t done an August chain, the last book you’ve read).
Have you read any of my selections? Tempted by any you didn’t know before?
Tomorrow, the 20th, the Man Booker Prize shortlist will be announced. This must be my worst showing for many years: I’ve read just two of the longlisted books, and both were such disappointments I had to wonder why they’d been nominated at all. I have six of the others on request from the public library; of them I’m most keen to read The Overstory and Sabrina, the first graphic novel to have been recognized (the others are by Gunaratne, Johnson, Kushner and Ryan, but I’ll likely cancel my holds if they don’t make the shortlist). I’d read Robin Robertson’s novel-in-verse if I ever managed to get hold of a copy, but I’ve decided I’m not interested in the other four nominees (Bauer, Burns, Edugyan, Ondaatje*).
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
(Excerpted from my upcoming review for New Books magazine’s Booker Prize roundup.)
The first word of The Water Cure may be “Once,” but what follows is no fairy tale. Here’s the rest of that sentence: “Once we have a father, but our father dies without us noticing.” The tense seems all wrong; surely it should be “had” and “died”? From the very first line, then, Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel has the reader wrong-footed, and there are many more moments of confusion to come. The other thing to notice in the opening sentence is the use of the first person plural. That “we” refers to three sisters: Grace, Lia and Sky. After the death of their father, King, it’s just them and their mother in a grand house on a remote island.
There are frequent flashbacks to times when damaged women used to come here for therapy that sounds more like torture. The sisters still engage in similar sadomasochistic practices: sitting in a hot sauna until they faint, putting their hands and feet in buckets of ice, and playing the “drowning game” in the pool by putting on a dress laced with lead weights. Despite their isolation, the sisters are still affected by the world at large. At the end of Part I, three shipwrecked men wash up on shore and request sanctuary. The men represent new temptations and a threat to the sisters’ comfort zone.
This is a strange and disorienting book. The atmosphere – lonely and lowering – is the best thing about it. Its setup is somewhat reminiscent of two Shakespeare plays, King Lear and The Tempest. With the exception of a few lines like “we look towards the rounded glow of the horizon, the air peach-ripe with toxicity,” the prose draws attention to itself in a bad way: it’s consciously literary and overwritten. In terms of the plot, it is difficult to understand, at the most basic level, what is going on and why. Speculative novels with themes of women’s repression are a dime a dozen nowadays, and the interested reader will find a better example than this one.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Conversations with Friends was one of last year’s sleeper hits and a surprise favorite of mine. You may remember that I was part of an official shadow panel for the 2017 Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, which I was pleased to see Sally Rooney win. So I jumped at the chance to read her follow-up novel, which has been earning high praise from critics and ordinary readers alike as being even better than her debut. Alas, though, I was let down.
Normal People is very similar to Tender – which for some will be high praise indeed, though I never managed to finish Belinda McKeon’s novel – in that both realistically address the intimacy between a young woman and a young man during their university days and draw class and town-and-country distinctions (the latter of which might not mean much to those who are unfamiliar with Ireland).
The central characters here are two loners: Marianne Sheridan, who lives in a white mansion with her distant mother and sadistic older brother Alan, and Connell Waldron, whose single mother cleans Marianne’s house. Connell doesn’t know who his father is; Marianne’s father died when she was 13, but good riddance – he hit her and her mother. Marianne and Connell start hooking up during high school in Carricklea, but Connell keeps their relationship a secret because Marianne is perceived as strange and unpopular. At Trinity College Dublin they struggle to fit in and keep falling into bed with each other even though they’re technically seeing other people.
The novel, which takes place between 2011 and 2015, keeps going back and forth in time by weeks or months, jumping forward and then filling in the intervening time with flashbacks. I kept waiting for more to happen, skimming ahead to see if there would be anything more to it than drunken college parties and frank sex scenes. The answer is: not really; that’s mostly what the book is composed of.
I can see what Rooney is trying to do here (she makes it plain in the next-to-last paragraph): to show how one temporary, almost accidental relationship can change the partners for the better, giving Connell the impetus to pursue writing and Marianne the confidence to believe she is loveable, just like ‘normal people’. It is appealing to see into these characters’ heads and compare what they think of themselves and each other with their awareness of what others think. But page to page it is pretty tedious, and fairly unsubtle.
I was interested to learn that Rooney was writing this at the same time as Conversations, and initially intended it to be short stories. It’s possible I would have appreciated it more in that form.
My thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.
*I’ve only ever read the memoir Running in the Family plus a poetry collection by Ondaatje. I have a copy of The English Patient on the shelf and have felt guilty for years about not reading it, especially after it won the “Golden Booker” this past summer (see Annabel’s report on the ceremony). I had grand plans of reading all the Booker winners on my shelf – also including Carey and Keneally – in advance of the 50th anniversary celebrations, but didn’t even make it through the books I started by the two South African winners; my aborted mini-reviews are part of the Shiny New Books coverage here. (There are also excerpts from my reviews of Bring Up the Bodies, The Sellout and Lincoln in the Bardo here.)
Last year I’d read enough from the Booker longlist to make predictions and a wish list, but this year I have no clue. I’ll just have a look at the shortlist tomorrow and see if any of the remaining contenders appeal.
What have you managed to read from the Booker longlist? Do you have any predictions for the shortlist?
In case you haven’t already heard, the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2016 is
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
He’s the first American winner of the Booker Prize, for which I must express a modicum of pride. Yet I’m gobsmacked by the judges’ decision. Do you know that lovely bit of British slang? It means, roughly, astounded. You see, I would have placed The Sellout fifth out of six in terms of its likelihood of winning (ahead of only Eileen).
When I reviewed it for Shiny New Books back in early June, I expressed my doubts that this outrageous racial satire would strike a chord in Britain as it had in the States. It’s a zany, irreverent take on racial politics in America today, crammed with old stereotypes of African-Americans. For me, the satire wore thin and I yearned for more of an introspective Bildungsroman. But it’s clear that, with police shootings of black men in America a seemingly daily news phenomenon, the Booker judges chose a timely and incisive winner.
Here’s a taste of the sort of audacious lines the book is chock-full of:
“I understand now that the only time black people don’t feel guilty is when we’ve actually done something wrong, because that relieves us of the cognitive dissonance of being black and innocent, and in a way the prospect of going to jail becomes a relief.”
“When a white bitch got problems, she’s a damsel in distress! When a black bitch got problems, she’s a welfare cheat and a burden on society. How come you never see any black damsels? Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your weave!”
Amid the laughs, you still get a sense of how important it is to Beatty that race remain a topic for public discussion. An exchange the narrator has with a police officer could just as easily describe the author’s purpose:
“It’s illegal to yell ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre, right?”
“Well, I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.”
No whisper, this, but a brazen shout.
Did the panel get it right this year?
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?
If you haven’t already come across it, let me commend to you the UK-based web magazine Shiny New Books. It’s been around for two years now and has just released Issue #10. Each installment is stuffed full of terrific reviews and features. I suggest setting aside a bit of time each day for a week or two, say a half-hour tea break, to browse what the site has to offer. It specifically highlights what’s been recently published or reprinted in the UK, so in some cases these will be books that are already available in North America; in others these will be sneak previews of books not yet published there. You’re sure to find plenty that appeals.
I’m proud to be part of the stellar (if I do say so myself) team of SNB reviewers. Somehow I just kept volunteering for things and ended up with – whoops! – a whole five pieces in this latest issue: four reviews (two fiction, one nonfiction, and one classic reprint) and an interview. Two of the novels were fantastic, among my best reads of the year so far, while the other two books were worthwhile, even very good in places. Here are tasters of my reviews; click on a title to read the whole thing – and then spend some good time browsing the site.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Twenty-two-year-old Tess arrives in New York City by car in June 2006. Two days later she interviews at a restaurant in Union Square and gets a job as a backwaiter and barista. Camaraderie makes the restaurant not just bearable but a kind of substitute home. Tess is most fascinated by two colleagues who stand apart from the crowd: Simone, the resident wine know-it-all, and bartender Jake. Try as she might, Tess can’t work out the dynamic between them. To mirror her one-year taste apprenticeship, the book is broken into four seasonal parts, headed by short sections in the second person or first-person plural. Everything about this novel is utterly assured: the narration, the characterization, the prose style, the plot, the timing. It’s hard to believe that Danler is a debut author rather than a seasoned professional. It captures the intensity and idealism of youth yet injects a hint of nostalgia. I’m willing to go out on a limb and call Sweetbitter my favorite novel of 2016.
I also interviewed Stephanie Danler over e-mail.
My Son, My Son by Howard Spring
My Son, My Son opens in working-class Manchester in the 1870s and stretches through the aftermath of World War I. Like a Dickensian urchin, William Essex escapes his humble situation thanks to a kind benefactor and becomes a writer. His best friend is Dermot O’Riorden, a fervid Irish Republican. William’s and Dermot’s are roughly parallel tracks. Their sons’ lives, however, are a different matter. Oliver Essex and Rory O’Riorden are born on the same day, and it’s clear at once that both fathers intend to live vicariously through their sons. My Son, My Son struck me as an unusual window onto World War I, a subject I’ve otherwise wearied of in fiction. A straight line could be drawn between Great Expectations, Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, My Son, My Son, and The Goldfinch: all four feature a simultaneously sympathetic and enraging protagonist who overcomes family difficulties to dream of fame and fortune. No mere period or local interest piece, this is a book for the ages.
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
This is such an outrageous racial satire that I kept asking myself how Beatty got away with it. Not only did he get away with it, he won a National Book Critics Circle Award. The novel opens at the U.S. Supreme Court, where the narrator has been summoned to defend himself against a grievous but entirely true accusation: he has reinstituted slavery and segregation in his hometown of Dickens, California. All the old stereotypes of African Americans are here, many of them represented by Hominy Jenkins. This reminded me most of Ishmael Reed’s satires and, oddly enough, Julian Barnes’s England, England, which similarly attempts to distill an entire culture and history into a limited space and time. The plot is downright silly in places, but the shock value keeps you reading. Even so, after the incendiary humor of the first third, the satire wears a bit thin. I yearned for more of an introspective Bildungsroman, which there are indeed hints of.
The Abundance by Annie Dillard
Dillard was raised a Christian in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but her writing expresses an open spirituality rather than any specific faith. For readers who are reasonably familiar with her work, the selection given here might be a little disappointing. Why reread 60 pages from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I thought, when I have a copy of it up on the shelf? Rather than reading long, downright strange portions of For the Time Being and Teaching a Stone to Talk, why not go find whole copies to read (which might help with understanding them in context)? None of Dillard’s poetry or fiction has been included, and the most recent piece, “This Is the Life,” from Image magazine, is from 2002. I wish there could have been more fresh material as an enticement for existing fans. However, this will serve as a perfect introduction for readers who are new to Dillard’s work and want a taste of the different nonfiction genres she treats so eloquently and mysteriously.