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Tag: literary fiction

The National Book Festival

I abandoned the political scientists for a few hours on Saturday to visit the National Book Festival, which is sponsored by the Library of Congress. Like so many public institutions in the capital, this is free and open (and welcoming) to the public. It used to be held on the Mall in tents, but this year it moved to the Washington Convention Center.

I had late afternoon commitments but my morning and early afternoon were free, and the panel that interested me the most was at 11am. This was a discussion with Aminatta Forna, R.O. Kwon, and Valeria Luiselli. It was in the Poetry and Prose stream and titled “Fiction Through A Different Lens.” Forna turned out to be the chair so she posed the questions and didn’t read from her own work. The panel was very well attended and the discussion and readings were engaging. I got a better sense of Luiselli’s approach and it made me want to read Kwon’s novel, The Incendiaries.

Of course the big draw that day was on the main stage, where Ruth Bader Ginsburg was doing a Q&A with Nina Totenberg. One of my friends who is a judicial politics scholar wondered if she’d make it given her recent treatment for cancer but she was there and good as ever. Or so I heard. The audience to get in was huge and the seats filled up in the session which preceded hers with RBG fans.

I had thought about going because it was an interview with Richard Ford and he was receiving an award, but 15 minutes after it started it was maxed out. Poor Richard Ford. I’m sure the audience was polite but he was reduced to being the warm-up act.

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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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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.

Booker Longlist Review: The Wall by John Lanchester

This is my first book by Lanchester, although I’ve been meaning to read his novels for ages. I’ve read his journalism regularly for years. This is very prescient, obviously, not just because of the wall that dominates the story, but also because of the intersection of climate change and the displacement of vast populations. The wall surrounds an island nation which is obviously Britain in the near or not-so-near future. Every young citizen is required to serve two years guarding the wall, except for the offspring of the very elite, who somehow escape this duty. Our narrator, Kavanagh, is just taking up his post when the story opens, and the first section of the novel chronicles his experiences as a Defender.

Being a Defender is relatively dull, but the consequences of failure are profound. Defenders are trained to prevent people called Others from successfully scaling the wall and entering the fortified nation. Although everyone is chipped, and therefore Others are fairly quickly discovered and apprehended, the penalty for Defenders who fail to prevent entry is to be put to sea in small boats, on a one-for-one ratio. In other words, if fifteen Others enter the country then fifteen Defenders and other culpable people must be sent away.

The first sections are taken up with the quotidian aspects of Kavanagh’s new life. He learns the procedures to follow, gets to know some of his fellow Defenders, goes back to see his parents on his off-rotation time, and generally settles into a set routine. The language is simple and Kavanagh doesn’t have particularly interesting thoughts. If Lanchester was aiming to portray military boredom through the writing style, he does so fairly effectively. I didn’t find it boring (although I’m sure some readers will), and while the world-building is minimal you do get a strong sense of how circumscribed people’s lives are. There is a generational divide between the older people who remember a time before the Change which brought about the wall and the younger people who have only known the time since.

The second and third sections are much more action-filled. I don’t want to spoil the book for people who haven’t read it, because I thought it worked well for me to go into it without much background. You can probably guess what happens. Kavanagh develops a romantic attachment which continues through the story, and we learn more about Others and the world beyond the wall. Other readers have observed similarities with Exit West, which I can kind of see, especially in the structure, but beyond that and the fact that they are both dystopian novels set in a recognizable future, I don’t see the parallels.

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