(Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel updates

I’m having a great time doing the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel with my fellow readers. The only frustration is that I don’t have enough time to post about my reading here and comment/respond to comments on other people’s posts. I’m too busy reading (and dealing with the rest of life) to blog about my reading properly. But since the last time I posted here, I’ve finished three more books, for a total of seven completed, six to go. I finished The Green Road on audio, and it definitely won’t be making my short list. I lump it in my mind with the Anne Tyler novel, except it’s not as good as that one. They are similar in their focus on family drama and in their straightforward realism. But I found the Tyler to be richer and more complex. I’m not sure that Tyler will make my short list — in fact she probably won’t. One of the things I’m discovering from this reading is that I value books that are something other than straightforwardly realistic family dramas. These books are valuable in their own way, but something in me doesn’t want to give them prizes. This is something I’ll be thinking about further.

I also finished Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family, and I also lump it in my mind with the Tyler and Enright as being another realistic family drama. But this one is the best of the lot. In fact if “realistic family drama” is a category I decide should be represented on my short list (not sure about this), then Clegg would get the spot. His novel is the sparest and most evocative of them all. He tells his story through many different perspectives, and the voices work alongside and against each other to add up to a complex whole. He touches on race, class, and sexuality in a manner that is both light and deep at the same time.

But then there is Marlon James’s Brief History of Seven Killings, which is another creature entirely. This one is definitely getting on my short list. It’s a large novel in multiple senses — long and ambitious. It’s about Jamaica in the 1970s and beyond, about politics, drugs, violence, gangs, music, and yes, family drama. The language is what stands out to me the most; we get many different voices and each one is unique. I felt like I was living in the minds of these characters, and I loved it, even when the characters were terrible, terrible people. It was a hard novel to take a lot of the time — it’s full of horrible violence and cruelty and definitely not for the faint of heart. It’s confusing at times. But James has control of the plotting as well as the language, and it all comes together beautifully.

It’s so hard to compare these very different books! James’s originality and scope stand out to me, and how could Tyler’s novel stand up to it? But Tyler has great facility with language and insight into human nature in her own way, even if it doesn’t stand out in the way James’s work does. But this process is making clear to me how much more I value attempts at ambitious newness than more familiar novelistic styles, even if they are done particularly well.

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A Spool of Blue Thread and The Moor’s Account

I have now finished books #3 and #4 in the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel, Lalai Lalami’s The Moor’s Account and Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which I listened to on audio. As a side note, the only way I’m making it through the 13-book list if I make it at all is by listening to some of them on audio, although I would prefer to read them in print. On the one hand, it’s hard to compare the experience of an audio book with sitting down with the printed text, but on the other hand I can squeeze audio book listening into parts of my day where the reading of a book or ebook is impossible. So I’ll be listening to Anne Enright’s and (most likely) Marilynne Robinson’s novels on audio as well.

I think audio book listening may have improved the experience of reading Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which I liked more than I expected. This is generally the case with audio books, that I’m less likely to be critical of them than print books, as the experience is more immersive and emotional with an actual person telling me the story. I’ve read a couple other Tyler novels and thought they were fine but nothing special, and I feel that way about this novel as well. Her prose is especially well-suited for listening, as it’s crystal clear, easy to follow, and never draws attention to itself. It’s always in the service of the story. I generally look for the opposite in novels — I like it when the language is interesting and new and even when it calls attention to itself, at least in certain ways. I’m not likely to be impressed by a novel that is a straight-forward story without anything interesting going on stylistically. I’m guessing that Tyler-like prose is much more difficult to write than it seems, but even so, I don’t think I’d choose it to win an award.

But Tyler can certainly tell a family story well. This is a multi-generational story, focusing particularly on Abby and Red Whitshank and their four children. It’s very much a story about their house, longed for and finally bought by Red’s father and now lovingly cared for by Red. There are the kind of rivalries, secrets, betrayals, and family lore that one expects from a family saga and it’s all insightful and true to human nature. The plot lagged a little in the middle, but the last quarter or so, which took the novel in surprising directions that I won’t spoil here, were satisfying.

It’s all fine, but nothing I get excited about. I felt the same way about The Moor’s Account, although I liked it less than the Tyler. Lalai Lalami’s novel is historical fiction, telling the story of Mustafa al-Zamori, called Estebanico by others, who is sold into slavery and sails from Spain to the Gulf of Mexico. The expedition is in search of conquest and gold, and Estebanico is in a complex position as a member of the (supposedly) conquering party but only a member as a slave. The expedition fails spectacularly and the process of things falling apart is compelling, at least for a while. The history was interesting and I enjoyed getting a glimpse of what life in that time and place might have been like. The novel’s writing was fine, although, like Tyler’s, not particularly noteworthy. I enjoyed the first half or so, and then my energy and attention flagged. When it comes down to it, historical fiction is not really my thing. I like imagining the past, but if there comes a point — as there did in this book — where the described world is pretty well established and all that remains is the unwinding of the plot, I begin to lose interest. By the end, I just didn’t care what happened to the characters. I agree with Teresa’s assessment that this is not the kind of book I’d expect to see on the long list of a major prize.

Now I turn to Bill Clegg’s Did You Ever Have a Family and Anne Enright’s The Green Road on audio. As things stand now, I would put A Little Life on my short list and maybe The Fishermen, but definitely not The Moor’s Account and A Spool of Blue Thread only if the others were no good at all. Which I know is not the case!

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A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

My second book for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel was Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I figured I should get one of the super-long books out of the way, particularly since this one is bound to be a subject of much discussion when the Shadow Panel gets its deliberations underway. And what a reading experience it was. I’m still sorting out my thoughts about the book; it strikes me as the kind of novel I might feel differently about a month or a year or a decade from now. We’ll see. But I was thoroughly absorbed in the story, all 700+ pages of it. I kept happily reading even as I noticed some awkward things about it — strange point of view shifts, repetitions, sections that went on too long, odd descriptions. But for me, the story retained its power, even though I started to feel itchy reading about so much wealth and privilege, so much about huge New York City lofts, about jaunts around the world, about fabulously expensive apartment remodels. There is so much suffering alongside the wealth; the central drama of the novel is the slow uncovering of the main character Jude’s horrific abuse as a child and the effects this has on himself and his circle of friends. Jude lives in constant pain, both physical and mental, and his three best friends, whose lives the novel follows through the decades, only gradually discover this. A Little Life is a novel about pain and suffering but equally about friendship, the various types of friendship and how they can change and develop over time. It’s about the pleasures and the limitations of friendship, and about the unfortunate way our society doesn’t take the relationship seriously enough (close friendships can never, ever be as good as marriage, supposedly). It’s about the extent to which it’s possible to recover from trauma and how much other people can and can’t help the victim.

The novel is probably too long, but I stayed under its power the entire way through. I liked the way Yanagihara slowly revealed the characters’ histories. I appreciated her willingness to take her time with the characters’ lives, even when they followed the same pattern again and again. The novel made me think more deeply about what it’s like to suffer from chronic pain. This is something a long novel is particularly well-suited to do, to really get into someone’s mind and show us what it’s like to live there. The experience of living in Jude’s mind over the course of an intense week of reading made me feel compassion for him in a way I might not have otherwise.

I don’t think I’d want to reread this book, though. It seems like the kind of novel that is something to experience — whether you like it or not! — just one time. I wonder whether it has staying power, whether the rewards make the book’s length worth while. But, at any rate, I feel under this book’s spell. I’m not sure how hard I would fight to get it on a prize short list, but it seems worthy of serious consideration. But where I stand on this depends on the quality of the other books I’m about to read. Up next is Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account, as well as further listening to Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread on audio.

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The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma

I’ve finished my first book for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel: The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma. I’m going to follow Frances’s example and keep my posts on these books short, mostly because of my normal time constraints, which are now compounded by this reading project. I didn’t fall under the spell of this book, which I was hoping to do, especially since I suspect it casts a spell on some of, maybe many of, its readers. I admired it, didn’t love it. It’s self-consciously working in the tradition of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, so much so that the book becomes a plot point. This means, of course, that I can’t help but compare it to Achebe’s masterpiece and it’s not surprising that it doesn’t live up to it.

The novel tells the story of a family in Nigeria, specifically about four brothers in that family and what happens after they hear a prophecy from a local wandering mad man. The novel can be read as the story of what happens when the father-figure moves away, so about the loss of patriarchal power — the removal of their father leads the boys towards greater and greater rebellion against their mother and against the family rules generally. I’m guessing it’s possible to read the novel as a political fable as well, as a story that gives insight into Nigeria’s history, but I don’t know enough about the subject to say for sure. It’s also about the power of prophecy and of superstitions and folk beliefs and the relationship of these things to Christianity.

I admired how the author handled the point of view, which is from the perspective of the youngest of the four brothers, Benjamin. Seeing the story through his eyes increases the sense of dread and powerlessness that pervades the narrative. The novel has emotional power — there were scenes that made me gasp — but there were also enough moments that seemed awkward or meandering or with unnecessary detail that I kept a certain amount of distance from it as I read. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect the tightness of the storytelling in Things Fall Apart, but that’s what happened to me. Still, there’s lots to think about here. Perhaps enough to justify its inclusion in the Booker long list.

And so now it’s time to start my next read, which I think will be A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I’m concerned about taking on such a long novel, but as soon as I finish my current audiobook read, I can start listening to some of the books on the long list, including the Anne Tyler and Anne Enright. That way I’ll be able to read two books from the list at once.

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Better get reading…

So it appears I’m doing this? Craziness.

Yes, I’m going to try to read the Booker long list in the next six weeks and be a part of the (Wo)Man Booker shadow panel. I’m almost certainly going to fail to get all the reading done, but I’m going to have fun trying, and I’ll be in good company, with Frances, Teresa, Nicole, and Bellezza.

I’ll be posting here about my reading, although only very briefly, because I have lots of books to read as well as other reviews to write.

And now back to the books!

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Reviews and podcasts

First of all, I’ve had some reviews published elsewhere that I haven’t yet linked to here. I had two reviews appear at Full Stop: Samantha Harvey’s amazing novel Dear Thief and Virginie Despentes’s feminist take on crime fiction Apocalypse Baby. At Bookslut I reviewed Helen Garner’s This House of Grief, a rivetting account of a Australian murder trial. And, finally, I’m proud to make my first appearance in Open Letters Monthly with a review of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s dark, troubling novel Hausfrau. Check them out!

I’ve written about podcasts here before, but not since the success of the amazing podcast Serial. I was hooked on Serial, as were so many, many other people. Last night I had the chance to see the host and producer, Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, at an event in Hartford, Connecticut. It was really great. Koenig and Snyder told their story in a casual but polished way, keeping it light with their jokes — I was surprised at how much I laughed — but giving a good sense of how tremendously strange, difficult, and anxiety-inducing the whole experience was. They had no idea how popular the podcast would get and how strong people’s responses would be. They couldn’t have anticipated how other people would pick up the investigation they began and take it in different directions, often without their careful journalistic standards. They seemed distressed that personal information about the people involved in their story became public and their lives were changed. But they made a strong argument for the importance of what they were doing and are now hard at work on Seasons 2 and 3.

All that was great, but the evening will also be memorable for another event. As I watched people enter the auditorium and take their seats, I noticed a woman who looked vaguely familiar. It occurred to me that she might be Julia Pistell, one of the hosts of my favorite bookish podcasts, Literary Disco, and someone I know from listening to the podcast lives in the area. After I heard her very distinctive laugh, I was almost certain it was her. So afterwards I mustered up the courage to ask if she is indeed Julia. I always agonize about this sort of thing. I like meeting people but worry about saying the wrong thing or looking silly, or bothering someone who doesn’t want to be bothered. This situation was particularly odd, since Sarah Koenig had just talked about the experience of being recognized by her listeners and how it can make her feel uncomfortable. The whole thing was just a little too meta — I wanted to introduce myself to a podcaster at an event about podcasting in which the podcaster talked about people introducing themselves to her. Strange! But I did it, and Julia Pistell was lovely. In fact, she was super-excited and thought it was hilarious that I recognized her by her laugh. So thank God, I hadn’t made an ass of myself and instead have a fun podcasting experience tucked inside another podcasting experience to remember.

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Books I want to read NOW…

…except I don’t own them and don’t have much time to read them in. But if I did have the time and felt like going on a book-buying binge, I’d buy:

  • Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock. I loved this interview with Julavits on a new podcast called Lit Up, and her book sounds fascinating — a diary of sorts, with a unique structure.
  • Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Yanagihara appeared on the Lit Up podcast as well, and that conversation was great (the podcast is excellent so far — and run entirely by women. I love it). The truth is I own a copy of her first novel The People in the Trees that I need to read first, but ideally that would be followed by reading her second book in short order.
  • Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Nelson is just the best. I’ve read two of her books so far (Bluets and Jane: A Murder). Both are amazing.
  • Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk. I’ve read lots of grief memoirs (for no particular reason — probably just because I read a lot of memoirs and memoirs are often about grief), but this one sounds particularly good.
  • Elisa Albert’s After Birth. A novel about childbirth and motherhood? I’m in.
  • Patricia Park’s Re Jane: A Novel. This is a retelling of Jane Eyre set in Queens. Sounds like it could be fun.

Well, maybe this summer I’ll get to these…

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