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Booker longlist review: An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma

This is the fifth longlist choice I’ve read and the second by a Nigerian author. I haven’t read Obioma’s debut, which was shortlisted for the Booker a few years ago. This novel has received generally positive reviews from book critics and more mixed reviews at GR, so I wasn’t sure how I’d do with it. And it did take me a little time to get into the rhythm, because it’s a more ornate style of writing than I generally read.

The protagonist of the novel is Chinonso, a poultry farmer in a smallish city. Chinonso’s parents have died and his sister married an older man, moved to Lagos, and became mostly estranged from her family. Chinonso’s closest relative is his uncle, who lives in a different city but visits occasionally. The narrator of the novel is Chinonso’s chi, or spirit, who inhabits his body and communicates with him but cannot direct his behavior. The novel’s beginning and major sections are bracketed by the chi’s appeals to the gods to have mercy on Chinonso in the afterlife because the bad deeds he committed need to be understood in the larger context of his life and its trials.

That life is fairly uneventful until Chinonso prevents a beautiful woman from throwing herself off a bridge. She drives away but he doesn’t forget her. In the meantime he meets other women and starts to think about life beyond the chicken coops and vegetable rows. When Ndali comes back into his life they begin a relationship that is fraught from the beginning: Chinonso is a modest chicken farmer who never went to college, while Ndali is the daughter of a Chief and is studying to become a pharmacist. When their relationship progresses, Ndali brings him home to meet the family, with predictable results. Chinonso is not ashamed of who he is, but he knows it’s not enough for her ambitious and haughty father and brother, so he resolves to turn himself into someone they will accept. Ndali worries about the ramifications of his choice, but she knows it will be nearly impossible for them as things currently stand.

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ReaderWriterLinks: How To Read a Book edition

One of the things I’ve noticed about online media, both legacy and online-origin, is that a particular story idea will spread across several sites in a short time. Sometimes it’s generated by a research paper, like this one about how the TV you watch affects your political leanings. Or at least researchers found that what Italians watched when Berlusconi both headed up RAI and was a political leader affected their political attitudes. I could write a whole post on how one study does not a general theorem make, but that’s for another day; you can understand why this one went viral; it’s catnip for mediasplainers.

Today I have links from two major and historically respected newspapers which are designed to help people read books again. As you may have noticed, book coverage has changed to being about book culture rather than book reviews. I wrote about this a while back. And book culture is mostly about social media these days. Here’s the Guardian on how to love reading again. Presumably this is aimed at people who used to love reading but now find themselves not reading much, as opposed to people who were scarred by required reading in school and are just fine with not reading for pleasure, thankyouverymuch:

1. Follow book accounts on social media
If you’ve been away from reading for a while, it can be hard to know where to start. It can also be really tough to go from living your life online to building a separate one. By following Instagram accounts that regularly post about books, you’ll get ideas: try Book of the Month, Books on the Subway and Strand Bookstore for beautifully shot recommendations.
2. Read what you want to
If you haven’t read in a while, it can be tempting to set yourself lofty goals. For many of us that’s unrealistic, so instead: are there particular topics you’d love to read a non-fiction book about? Is there an author you’ve found easy to read before who has other books? Is there a favourite you can reread? When I’m finding it tough, I often punish myself by trying to slog through something hard before I let myself enjoy something that’s 200 pages and a laugh. But it’s enjoying the 200-pager that gets me in the swing of things, and makes it easier to concentrate on something tougher.
3. Join a library
Libraries are dying, and it’s partly because a lot of people don’t seem to consider them an option. But if finances are holding you back and you can trek to a library, it’s worth it. You can get recommendations, read for free and give up on books you can’t get into. Many have book clubs, too. For readers in the UK, you can find your nearest library here.

There are three more suggestions, and as the comments BTL (below the line) point out repeatedly, several of these involved using social media to get over your social media distractions. Yeah, that works well. But then this is someone who thinks libraries are dying because people don’t go to them, rather than because they are being starved of money. But I guess if the idea is to make reading trendy, pointing to social media is the way to go.

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Mini-reviews of recent reads

I’m still woefully behind on my 20 Books of Summer reading, but I managed another Harlequin TBR review which counted, as well as a mystery from the library which didn’t. They were a nice break from the Booker longlist, which while rewarding can get kind of grim.

A Regency Invitation to the House Party of the Season by Nicola Cornick, Joanna Mailand, and Elizabeth Rolls

I was in the mood for another Regency trad and I pulled this anthology out of the virtual stack. I have at least one Rolls full-length novel there as well, but while I’ve always meant to read her I haven’t done so yet. An anthology with one sure bet (Cornick) and two new authors seemed like a good strategy. Unlike the old holiday anthologies, these stories are all intertwined. The setting is, as the title tells you, a house party at an estate, and each story focuses on a different couple with all the other characters recurring across their individual storylines. Cornick’s opening story features a couple whose marriage is being arranged because the hero needs a fortune and the heroine has one. They don’t expect to like each other but of course they do. I preferred the hero to the heroine (she was a bit ditzy and overly naive at times), but Cornick does a very good job of setting the stage and introducing the cast.

The second story, by Maitland, features a young woman who has disguised herself as an abigail in order to look for her missing brother. She meets the hero, who is himself hiding out to avoid being arrested (for something he didn’t do, naturally). Their story deepens the larger story arc. They’re an enjoyable couple, although the maid-masquerade required massive suspensions of disbelief. We also get more of the great-aunt-Gorgon who was announced in the first story, and she’s the real star of this anthology. She plays a major role in the third installment, by Rolls, which uncovers the mystery of the host’s missing wife. She ran away as a newlywed, right before Waterloo, and society generally believes her husband had a hand in his disappearance. Needless to say, they’re wrong and he’s a more than upstanding hero. All three storylines are wrapped up neatly; I could see the wife coming in Maitland’s novella but that was OK, it was a mystery not a romance. I thoroughly enjoyed all three parts and look forward to the full-length Rolls I have (I don’t think I have any by Maitland in the TBR, but the library may be able to help me out). This counted as Harlequin TBR #466.


Malice by Keigo Higashino

And now for something completely different. I really liked the mystery by Higashino that I read a couple of months ago, so when Liz’s read of this popped up in my GR feed I borrowed it. It features the same detective, Kaga, as Newcomer, but it was written earlier. Luckily you don’t really have to read Kigashino’s series in order. This is more of a whydunit than a whodunit, although there were points at which I wasn’t sure if the murderer was really the murderer. An author is killed in his house and discovered by his wife and his good friend. Kaga quickly deduces who the killer is, but the motive is unclear, and the more Kaga investigates the reasons behind the murder the more confusing the case becomes. At various times it’s difficult to decide who is the good guy and who is the bad guy.

I enjoyed all the twists and turns, although Liz’s comment that she had trouble caring much for the characters is completely understandable to me. It’s not that they are just vehicles for ideas or plot twists, but everything seems to happen at a remove, probably because the story is told in flashback or dialogue, rather than the reader being able to watch the events unfold. It’s an interesting approach, and it creates the distance and suppressed emotional tone that I often find in Japanese novels (both genre and non-genre). The way the story and characters were finally wrapped up wasn’t what I was expecting, and I can see why Higashino is such a bestselling author in Japan. I definitely want to read more of his work.

Booker Longlist Review: Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

This is the fourth book I’ve read from the longlist. I had read Luiselli’s previous nonfiction work, Tell Me How It Ends, which describes her experiences as a translator for children apprehended at the border, and I thought it was excellent. This is a much longer and more complex work of fiction, with multiple storylines and themes. It may have too much going on, but its ambition should not be held against it.

This novel falls squarely within the current trend of autofiction and combines a road trip, a marriage that is ending, and twin stories of children becoming lost in the southern Arizona desert. As I said, there’s a lot going on. The characters in the main storyline comprise a blended family of four who are traveling from New York to southern Arizona on a long, fairly leisurely automobile journey. The husband and wife are documentary sound specialists, by which they mean scholars and artists who record all kinds of sounds that help them understand and illuminate the built and natural worlds in which we live. The father is embarking on a new project set in Apacheria, the part of the United States that was the home of the Apache nation before they were massacred by Americans (and previously Mexicans) and relocated to reservations. The mother is continuing a project that records the sounds of unaccompanied children and southern border migration. Their two children, a girl aged six and a boy aged ten, are with them on the trip.

The family road trip aspect of the novel is structured by the journey and their work, which is contained in seven bankers’ boxes in the back of the station wagon. They contain supplementary material, including archival resources, and also the children’s selections for the journey (toys, books, photos). Along the way the mother reads from a book, Elegies for Lost Children, which tells the story of seven unaccompanied children who are riding La Bestia, the train to the US border, and that journey serves as something of a parallel roadtrip. The two storylines are brought together in the last section of novel, which is told from the son’s point of view; all the preceding narrative has been from the mother’s perspective.

The mother’s narrative ranges far and wide, from mundane and not-so-mundane observations of people and places along the road, to recollections and quotes from scholarly and creative books she’s read, to internal monologues about her husband and marriage. The husband is present as the driver and fellow artist, but he’s almost entirely silent, except for a few times when he talks directly to the children and less often to her. Luiselli namechecks many writers and thinkers, which fit into the flow of the story for me because I knew who most of them were. But if you aren’t as familiar with this literature it could be distracting or annoying. Some readers found it self-conscious and pretentious. I enjoyed it.

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August is Women in Translation Month

There are many, many book prizes out there, and I follow an awful lot of them. It is heartening to see the variety of work that is being published, but it also means that I am constantly aware of how many books I’m never going to get to.

I became aware of Women in Translation Month and the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation last year. Unlike just about every other award, the prize administrators put out a Google Doc of all the eligible entries, which you can find here (dreaded PDF format). A shortlist will be announced in a few weeks and the winner will be announced in November. Of the 92 entries I’ve read a grand total of 6:

I do have a number of them on the TBR as well, and while I doubt I’ll read them this month, I’ll read and then post reviews here on the blog as I work my way through my list. On the TBR:

  • Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
  • Katalin Street
  • Love in the New Millenium
  • The Remainder
  • Tokyo Ueno Station

And I’ve read other books by authors listed here, notably Samantha Schweblin and Leila Slimani.

I like this prize because it combines two categories that I try to read in: literature written by women and translated literature, and I always find books I’ve never heard of but which sound up my alley.