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Tag: Man Booker prize

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann

This is one of my MBI Longlist reads. Poschmann is a highly acclaimed poet and novelist in Germany but her work does not appear to have been widely translated and promoted in the US or UK. This novel won a major German literary prize when it came out.

[Content Warning: discussions and suggestions of suicideal ideation and activity]

The story is narrated by Gilbert Silvester, a member of the academic precariat who wakes up one morning after having had a dream that his wife is cheating on him. He accuses her, she denies it, and he decides to leave her and fly immediately to the most remote place he can find: Tokyo. After a long and restless flight he lands in Narita and picks up a handful of Japanese classics in English, including a volume of the great poet Basho’s haikus.

Tokyo is not an obvious place for Gilbert to go: he is a coffee drinker flying to the ultimate land of tea, a scholar of beards as they are depicted in art and film in a land where men rarely wear beards, and without much of a plan beyond escaping his current trauma. But his journey is soon shaped by two events: he meets Yosa Tamagotchi, a young Japanese student who is afraid he has failed his exams and is planning to commit suicide; and a desire to reproduce Basho’s journey to the Pine Islands, famed for their natural beauty.

After persuading Yosa not to throw himself in front a train, Gilbert takes him back to his hotel room, where Yosa treats him with deference and politeness. Yosa has been consulting a book entitled The Complete Manual of Suicide and Gilbert persuades Yosa to postpone his plan and come with him on his journey. Yosa stipulates and Gilbert accepts the condition that they will visit sites of famous suicides that are described in the Manual and which are considered particularly memorable and beautiful. These combined destinations take the two men on a journey from south of Tokyo back to the city, then on past Fukushima and finally, late in the novel, to the Pine Islands, with stops at many sites of natural beauty along the way. Poschmann is known for her writing about the natural world and it is beautifully depicted and translated here.

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Milkman by Anna Burns wins the Booker Prize

I’m so happy. I really didn’t expect it to win, even though I thought it should. But the judges apparently chose it unanimously. The Guardian has a good rundown of the announcement here, alongside a rather ungenerous post by one of the Guardian Books people here. We get it, you wanted Sally Rooney or Daisy Johnson. But guess what? This was a flat-out better book. Val McDermid talks about the judging process in the Guardian and in the New York Times. I love the last line in the Times interview.

I really thought the New New Thing or the Big American Thing trends would swamp the Burns and the Robertson, which I ranked #1 and #2 on my short- and longlists. In reading my other longlist nominees and perusing reviews, discussions, and interviews, I’ve been struck by how much the industry is letting its desperation to hold onto its readership affect its decisions about what books deserve to be publicized and praised. Debuts win out over technically and substantively better novels by veteran authors almost every time. When they don’t, it’s often because the author herself is a Hot Commodity, someone who gets a lot of interview/profile press as part of the new release. I’ve read over half the NBA Fiction longlist and three books off the Giller longlist, and in both cases the second/third/fourth novels are better than the debuts, for all the reasons we would expect. Of course debuts are going to be less polished, on average. Yes, there are assured and impressive debut novels, but good authors tend to get even better because they hone their craft and learn to control their gifts.

I’m just about done with my long- and shortlist reading. I’ll read a few more NBA books but probably not all of them, and I’ll read one more of the Giller shortlist for sure and probably a couple of the longlisted books that didn’t make it. I’m a bit disappointed in the Giller shortlist. No First Nations books or authors (as far as I can tell) and three books by established, acclaimed authors which may or may not represent their best work. I loved last year’s list because I found new, interesting, quirky books. The established author won, but it was a challenging and interesting novel. I’m holding out hope for Eric Dupont’s Qu├ębecois novel, because otherwise the Heti or the DeWitt are really going to have to knock my socks off.

I have enjoyed reading all these nominees, and I’ll probably do it again next year. But I’m breaking up with the Tournament of Books; I’ll get reading ideas from the longlist but I won’t try to read the shortlist. After three years of close following and reading, I’ve learned my tastes and the TOB’s don’t really mesh. That leaves me the first half of the year to read much more from my TBR. Which is good, because I haven’t read nearly enough from it this year!

I’ve been out of town and away from the internet and/or super busy when in town, so I’m behind on posting here, but I’ll try to get back to posting reviews at least a couple of times a week. I’ve got plenty in the can, and I’m still reading.


September reading roundup

I’ve been reading pretty steadily all year, but the first month of the academic year is usually the time when I slow way down even if I’ve had a good summer of reading. This year followed that pattern, although reading the Booker longlist gave me a boost, and I had airplane/airport time, which always helps.

I read 6 1/2 books in September:

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney. I read this from my TBR because Rooney’s Booker-longlisted novel is frequently discussed in tandem with this 2017 debut. I reviewed it here on the blog. I still like this one better than Normal People, and I’m still a bit befuddled by the “Salinger of the Snapchat Generation” moniker being repeated unironically. For a genre reader the tropes she mashes together are pretty obvious, but her distinctive voice makes it her own.

Milkman by Anna Burns. Another Booker longlist that made it onto the shortlist and my co-favorite of the ones I’ve read from the longlist. This is why I keep reading prize nominees, even when I get a run of 3-stars in a row or am disappointed by the shortlist and/or prize choices. My review is here, and the only thing I can add is that I’m still amazed by how good it is. Also, a book that gives you “The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal” as a metaphor for divided society is a great, great novel.

Normal People by Sally Rooney. This is the Booker longlisted novel. I think I’ve said enough about Rooney in reviews, Goodreads threads, posts and comments here, and probably while doodling in seminars. My review is here.

Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon. This is the first Maigret mystery, which I picked up in a Kobo deal earlier this year, and I used it as a palate cleanser between Booker and NBA nominees. I’m late to Maigret but I like the character very much, and Simenon is wonderful with atmosphere. This is set in 1930s Paris, when the Marais was still a seedy neighborhood. It’s amusing and depressing to read about specific run-down streets when you know them primarily as tourist havens with temples of consumption. It’s a good-not-great book, best for Maigret completists.

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Booker Longlist Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

This is a book I knew nothing about until it was longlisted for the Booker prize, but once I read it I put it at the top of my list. Burns has been nominated for other awards, and this novel was reviewed in the Guardian, but I didn’t remember that until I went looking for reviews and interviews.

The narrator of the book is an unnamed 18-year-old young woman living in an unnamed city in the 1970s, trying to navigate her life amidst social conflict and violence. The city is basically Belfast, the Narrator is part of the Catholic community, and the time period is the Troubles. Narrator’s primary interest is getting through life and not getting caught up in the maelstrom around her, for reasons she lays out early on:

Knowledge didn’t guarantee power, safety, or relief and often for some it meant the opposite of power, safety and relief — leaving no outlet for dispersal either, of all the heightened stimuli that had been built by being up on in the first place. Purposely not wanting to know, therefore, was exactly what my reading-while-walking was about.

And she is largely successful until the Milkman, who is very much part of the conflict, decides he wants to get to know her better (and perhaps more). Narrator fends him off as best she can, but the nature of his position and the way everyone must be classified, categorized, and assigned a position in an us-or-them world makes it impossible. From being a slightly eccentric but largely unnoticed person, she becomes part of the beyond-the-pale group, one which is marked and viewed with suspicion. And suspicion is easily transformed into danger in this world.

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Booker Longlist Review: Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

Johnson’s debut novel (after a collection of well-received short stories) has been longlisted for the Booker Prize and has mostly quite positive reviews, so I’m in the minority in seeing it as a very mixed bag. It has some lovely turns of phrase and the descriptions of nature (and the characters’ relationships to nature) are striking and often very effective, but the overall project just didn’t work for me. The novel feels both over-egged and under-baked.

It’s over-egged because there is just too much going on that doesn’t feel entirely under the control of the author. It’s about a mother-daughter relationship, growing up in an unusual community, mysterious mythical creatures who sow fear and dread in that community, family secrets, and the reworking of Greek myths in contemporary terms. That’s a lot of freight for one short novel to carry. While the character of Gretel does most of the narration, the fulcrum of the book is her mother, Sarah, whose choices and actions shape much of the forward momentum of the past and present storylines. She gets an assist from the character of Fiona, a transgender woman who sees the future and feels compelled to warn those in danger. Fiona’s premonitions bring two storylines together in a way that is surprising unless you haven’t been told of or figured out which Greek myth is being reproduced here.

The under-baked part comes from the sketchiness of opacity of many of the characterizations, with some of the characters seeming to exist primarily to further the plot. Sarah, whose character is essential to giving meaning and depth to the story, remained frustratingly out of reach. I was told she was charismatic and nearly irresistible, but I rarely saw why. Margot’s family was strongly on page when Gretel needed them for information and when Fiona’s part in the story was at the forefront, but they weren’t fleshed out much beyond that, and even in the scenes in which they appeared they felt half-drawn. Charlie came across the same way to me.

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