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review 2018-09-27 00:41
Review: Washington Black
Washington Black - Esi Edugyan

Washington Black is an imaginative novel that crosses boundaries, boundaries that exist in the story and boundaries that tend to hem in literature. It is a novel that is not easily classifiable, because it is very literary, but it also shows traits of fantasy and adventure. It is historical in setting, but does not allow this to confine its reach. A story of self discovery, Washington Black explores the topics of suffering and rebirth. It sounds like a fantastic novel, and the opening chapters prove this. What a perfect beginning! At 35 pages in, I knew I'd found the best novel of the year, an easy five-star rating. So what happened?

The fact is, Washington Black does little to sustain the wonder created in the opening chapters. The first several chapters are perfect. They're brutal, intelligent, and imaginative. I truly couldn't ask for more. The story opens with an amazingly drawn cast of characters, slaves and plantation owners on an estate in Barbados. We see the plight of the other slaves, as well as the conflicting natures of the plantation owner with his abolitionist-minded brother, through the eyes of young Washington Black—called Wash. The brutality of this particular plantation and the wonders set in motion by the brother, Titch, a scientist, create such a wonderful contrast. It's easy to imagine where this story might be going when Titch takes Wash under his wing, but it's a place that you, as the reader, want the story to go. It's magical, heartwarming, and full of imagery so palpable you can't deny its existence: a Vernes-esque journey around the world with a kindhearted scientist and his assistant, a child freed from slavery.

Unfortunately, this novel just can't maintain the forward movement it needs to claim its potential. The characters, while starting off great, did little to keep me invested in their stories. Sure, their adventure is wonderful, but their actions are wooden and their decisions based on inexplicable coincidences. They failed to carry me along on their adventure. The longer the story went on, the less I believed the magic the story was built on, the less I cared about the narrative.

In the end, I was left with too many questions, but not enough desire to find answers. What was really going on here? In a novel largely based on realism, it is easy to pick out the fantastical elements and analyze them. What was with the allusions to the spiritual personas of our characters: others that roam free of their selves? The existence of these “others” makes me wonder. Who was Washington Black? Was he a spirit of the self that existed in the opening chapters, a spirit making his way back to Dahomey? Was he reborn in the child Titch finds in Morocco? At the conclusion of Washington Black, I don't have any answers, only speculations. These questions display the intelligence of this novel and its author, but highlight the problem that it doesn't go far enough to provide answers or the will to learn the truth.

Washington Black is a powerful and imaginative story with so many great pieces. The writing is exceptionally powerful at times. It just doesn't keep it going, however, and the result is a firework that fizzles out long before the end. I recommend this novel to others, but with the caveat not to build your expectations too high in the beginning. Perhaps if I'd not done so, I would've walked away with warmer feelings regarding this story.


Thanks to the publisher, Knopf Publishing Group, for providing me early access to this title through NetGalley.

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url 2018-09-21 08:52
The Man Booker Prize announces 2018 shortlist
The Mars Room - Rachel Kushner
The Overstory - Richard Powers
Milkman - Anna Burns
Washington Black: Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018: Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018 - Esi Edugyan
Everything Under - Daisy Johnson
The Long Take - Robin Robertson

The List is out. Booked added. 

Author (country/territory)    Title (imprint)

Anna Burns (UK)                Milkman (Faber & Faber)

Esi Edugyan (Canada)       Washington Black (Serpent’s Tail)

Daisy Johnson (UK)           Everything Under (Jonathan Cape)

Rachel Kushner (USA)      The Mars Room (Jonathan Cape)

Richard Powers (USA)      The Overstory (William Heinemann)

Robin Robertson (UK)       The Long Take (Picador)

 

 

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review 2018-09-09 00:55
Review: The Mars Room
The Mars Room - Rachel Kushner

At the time Rachel Kushner's second novel, The Flamethrowers, was released, I was very much interested in the story. Before it had even hit shelves, I was enticed by the cover and the promise of a thrilling tale within. Well, curse the infinite to-read list. While I've held the best intentions of reading Kushner's work all this time, it took a Man Booker Prize nomination to finally make the commitment, a commitment to read her following novel, The Mars Room.

The Mars Room is the story of Romy Hall and her fellow prisoners at Stanville Women's Correctional Facility. Though I have nothing more than a reader's perspective of what prison might be like, Kushner's story carries significant believability. This is a prison novel that seems wrapped in precision and one might assume, with the flood of details from both inside and outside of the prison walls, that the author has done her research. An article published in The New Yorker points to this attention to detail (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/20...). According to the article, this precision is indicative of her work. In each of her three novels, Kushner has immersed herself in the details of the story. For The Mars Room, Kushner began visiting prisons in 2014 and has utilized the help of consultants who've given her information that only an insider could possess, stories that are rendered in the novel with little alteration.

Some may argue that The Mars Room isn't strictly a prison novel as much of the action happens outside of the prison gates, but I get the impression that Kushner is painting the outside as a sort of prison, as well. Outside, there are a set of rules that restrict one from pursuing true freedom. Many of these characters were set on a path, some at birth, some because of something completely outside of their control, that had only one outcome. It's possible to get a sense that Kushner was hoping to establish a connection between the American prison system and the “Great American Dream.”

Outside of the vivid detail, what's most impressive are the characters. It's clear that Kushner spent some time with them. She knows them well, giving each a very developed voice and perspective. These characters go beyond Romy and the other prisoners of Stanville. Kushner tells the story of prison's teacher, of a corrupt cop, of a trans woman in a men's prison. Each of these stories carries with it a whole other world, completely rendered and discerning.

And this is perhaps where The Mars Room turns a bit sour. While these extra characters certainly show Kushner's great ability to work inside the minds' of a myriad of possible characters, their connection to the larger story is in some cases weak or entirely nonexistent. Some of the novel's best scenes certainly come from these diversions, but they detract from what is an otherwise solid narrative. When it becomes clear toward the end that these many threads are not necessarily joined, The Mars Room loses something of its believability in its loss of continuity. While there is a complete novel in here, it is joined by stories that are merely connected by theme.

Certainly, it didn't help that in the end, the story moves in a direction that deviates some from the overarching sense of realism. The conclusion isn't absurd, by any means, but it did strike me as slightly inauthentic. In fact, I'd say this ending would've been sufficient in the work of many less skilled authors, but coming from the author who'd established 300 pages of piercing authenticity, it had a bit too much of the made-for-tv-movie effect.

I will not be surprised or offended to see The Mars Room make this year's shortlist. There are probably too many strikes against it to take home the prize—primarily, or so I believe, that an American author cannot win a third year in a row. In a year when the longlist has been particularly sub par, in my opinion, I think Kushner has a decent chance of being invited to London this October.

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text 2018-08-30 16:11
Just when I think my Halloween Bingo reading list is stable...

...I wander into Waterstones to pick up a hardback copy of "The Readers Of Broken Wheel Recommend" because my wife and I decided that a book as good as this deserves to be on the shelf and not just on the iPad.  While I'm waiting Waterstones tempt me with this:

 

the last children of tokyo

 

The cover is exquisite. The plot is intriguing;

"Yoshiro thinks he might never die. A hundred years old and counting, he is one of Japan's many 'old-elderly'; men and women who remember a time before the air and the sea were poisoned, before terrible catastrophe prompted Japan to shut itself off from the rest of the world. He may live for decades yet, but he knows his beloved great-grandson - born frail and prone to sickness - might not survive to adulthood. Day after day, it takes all of Yoshiro's sagacity to keep Mumei alive.

As hopes for Japan's youngest generation fade, a secretive organisation embarks on an audacious plan to find a cure - might Yoshiro's great-grandson be the key to saving the last children of Tokyo?"

YokoTawadaP1040207It's by Yōko Tawada, a Japanese writer, currently living in Berlin. She writes in both Japanese and German and is probably best known for her "Memoirs Of A Polar Bear"

 

So, "The Last Children Of Tokyo" now becomes my choice for the "Doomsday" square in Halloween Bingo. 

I suspect it won't be the last change.

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text 2018-08-28 09:25
Reading progress update: I've read 2%. - I should stay silent but...
Normal People - Sally C. Rooney

...removing quotation marks around direct speech is not innovative or doing something daring with form. It's annoying and discourteous to the reader. 

 

I know that makes me sound like the grammar police but punctuation serves a purpose.

 

You'll be reminded of its purpose when you read a novel like this that ostentatiously leaves out quotation marks. Your reading slows down. You have to work harder to know not just who is speaking but whether anyone is speaking.

 

This is the writing equivalent of Brexit: I can see what it destroys but I don't see any benefits or any compelling reason to do it.

 

Rant over. I'll go back to the book now. Which is quite good by the way.

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