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Tag: buddy reading

Booker longlist reading: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry is a highly respected and fêted Irish author, and this latest book has already won the Costa Best Book award for 2016. I’d been on the verge of buying it all year, and I’m not sure what held me back. I finally bought an ebook version and started with that. I also picked up the audiobook to finish the last few chapters.

This book has received a mixed reception among our little Booker longlist reader community. Liz loved it but it didn’t work for Teresa or Rosario, and I’ve seen similar criticisms in a Goodreads New Fiction group I lurk on. I’m a sucker for Western-set litfic, both historical and contemporary, so I was pretty sure I’d like this and I did.

The story opens in 1851, when the narrator, Thomas McNulty, meets his future friend, lover, and partner, John Cole, under a hedge in Missouri. They’re both young and broke and join together to find ways to support themselves, falling in love along the way. After a couple of years masquerading as young women to serve as dance partners for miners, they outgrow their roles and join up with the Army. As soldiers they remain side by side, experiencing the Indian wars on the western plains of Nebraska and Wyoming, the Civil War in Maryland and Virginia, Andersonville prison camp, and finally farm life in Tennessee (with interruptions along the way). They adopt an American Indian orphan, Winona, and together the three of them make a family that does its best to stick together through some of the country’s most turbulent times.

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Booker longlist reading: Autumn by Ali Smith

I’d been looking forward to reading this novel for months and the Booker longlist gave me the push I needed. It has been described as the “first Brexit novel,” and it is that, but it is much more as well. Liz and Teresa have written terrific posts about the book and you should definitely go and read them. Teresa notes the dreamlike quality of the (excellent) writing, and Liz draws attention to the way the emphasis on the artist Pauline Boty’s collage style is reflected in the novel itself, something I hadn’t noticed as I was reading but should have.

I’m a pretty literal reader, even of writing that is more abstract and experimental. What stood out for me in the book were the different relationships and the context in which Elisabeth was navigating a challenging life of academic precarity, apparently without much of a support structure. She and her mother love each other but they don’t seem to have a lot in common, and although she has renewed her important relationship with Daniel, it’s temporary and somewhat one-sided as he nears the end of his 100+ years.

Smith is an amazing writer, and the way she incorporates Brexit and the current political climate is somehow both direct and subtle, in the sense that it’s very present but it doesn’t feel heavy-handed. There is a chilling sequence where Elisabeth is applying for a passport renewal and the post office clerk behaves like someone out of 1984, or Terry Gilliam’s movie, Brazil:

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Booker longlist reading: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Hamid’s novel marks his second recognition by the Man Booker committee; The Reluctant Fundamentalist made it to the shortlist and while it didn’t win, it won a slew of other prizes. I had very conflicted feelings about that book. Stylistically it was impressive, but substantively it fell short in a number of ways for me. I hadn’t planned to read this one (I skipped the book he wrote in between, which was also well-reviewed), but as I said before, it kept staring at me from the New Fiction shelf and I read a couple of interesting exchanges about it on blogs and at Goodreads.

I started out thinking I’d read 40 or 50 pages and see how I felt about it, and I finished it within the day. Teresa’s review does an excellent job of capturing many of the novel’s strengths, so I’ll direct you to her Shelf Love blog for an overview. If you want a formal review, this one in the Sunday NYT Book Review by Viet Thanh Nguyen is absolutely brilliant.

I loved the way Hamid made the settings both specific and general. Knowing he was from Lahore, I assumed from the opening chapters that the novel was set in Pakistan, but then when the civil war intensifies the setting feels more like what we’ve seen happening in Syria over the last few years. The gradual breakdown of civilian life and the need to get out is captured vividly, even though his style in rendering scenes of loss and horror is often matter-of-fact:

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Reading the Man Booker longlist

I know, I’m surprised too. I’ve followed the Booker Prize awards for decades, and I’ve read quite a few of the winners and nominees, but until a couple of years ago it wouldn’t even have occurred to me to read the long and shortlist nominees in real time. But I’ve really enjoyed Liz McC’s and Rosario’s posts on their reading experiences, as well as a few other readers I learned about. Last year I bought a number of the books but of course failed to read most of them before the prize announcement in October (I’d only read the eventual winner, which I loved and admired almost unreservedly).

This year, since I’ve been reading a lot this summer and following various litfic conversations and challenges, a number of the books were familiar to me and/or ones I’d been considering reading. I sincerely doubt I could read all of them by the time the shortlist is announced in early September, but here’s the full list and how they stack up in terms of my interests:

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster. This was available at the library so I picked it up, but it’s 800+ pages of bildungsroman and seems to be based on the author’s life. I’m already in the middle of two 700+ page books about Men of Privilege and they are more interesting to me than the premise of Auster’s novel, so I doubt I’ll get to this one.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry. I’m a sucker for dark literary westerns, so I almost bought this at the beginning of the summer. And it’s not long! It’s definitely on the must-read list.

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