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text 2017-09-13 03:41
Thoughts on the Eve of the 2017 Man Booker Shortlist
Home Fire: A Novel - Kamila Shamsie
Exit West - Mohsin Hamid
Days Without End - Sebastian Barry
Autumn: A Novel - Ali Smith
The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead
Solar Bones - Mike McCormack
History of Wolves - Emily Fridlund

The Man Booker Prize shortlist announcement is hours away and I've been working hard to read my way through the list. Despite my best intentions, I was only able to completely read seven of this year's nominees as well as three others in part. That leaves three novels that are at this point a complete mystery to me, so I cannot speak on them. Here are some thoughts on who might make the list tomorrow.

I think Home Fire, Exit West, and Days Without End are the three strongest contenders from the ten I've read. I will be surprised if these three do not make the shortlist. I'll be really surprised if none of the three do.

Personally, I didn't enjoy The Underground Railroad much, but I think it also stands a good chance of being shortlisted. I'll be annoyed if wins the Prize given how much attention it has garnered this year, but a shortlist nomination would be accepted.

Rounding out the list is difficult. Autumn and Solar Bones are possible contenders.

I'd love to see History of Wolves on the list as it has been a personal favorite, so far. I know many readers had a very different reaction to this novel, however, so it's a long shot to make the list. (And it has zero chance of winning the Prize.)

If I had to put money on six and only six titles, they'd be
1. Home Fire
2. Days Without End
3. Exit West
4. The Underground Railroad
5. Autumn

6. History of Wolves (anything's possible, right?)

Have you been reading the Man Booker nominees? Have any thoughts on who might be shortlisted?

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review 2017-08-14 10:10
A contemplative look at the life of a village for those who love a different kind of writing.
Reservoir 13: A Novel - Jon McGregor

Thanks to NetGalley and to Haper Collins UK Fourth State for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I had never read one of Jon McGregor’s novels before but I was curious by the description of this novel and more curious when I saw it had been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The biography of the author intrigued me even more and I finally managed to read the book.

The book starts with the disappearance of a thirteen-year-old girl, a visitor holidaying, with her parents, to a village in Britain (not too distant from Manchester and also near enough to Leeds and Sheffield for those cities to make appearances, so probably in the general area where I live). Despite a large search party and much publicity and community effort, the girl does not appear. At first, everything is stopped: Council meetings, Christmas celebrations, the lives of her parents who remain in the village for a long time. Slowly, things go back to almost normal, with only the anniversary of her disappearance as a reminder that something tragic happened there. Life returns to its natural rhythms. There are births, deaths, people get married, separate, get new jobs, are made redundant, people move into the village and out, cricket matches are lost (mostly), the weather is very wet, and occasionally dry, the reservoirs are checked, the quarries exploited or not, there are pantomimes, well-dressing, Mischief nights, birds come and go, clocks go back and forth, foxes are born, bats hibernate, crimes are committed, crops harvested, farm animals looked after…

The novel (if it is a novel) is a slice of the life of the community of that village. The story is told in the third person from an omniscient point of view, and one that seems to be an objective observer that peeps into people’s heads (and observes animals) but without becoming over involved with feelings, just describing what people might think, but not going any further than that. The style of writing is peculiar, and perhaps not suited to everybody’s taste. There are very beautiful sentences and a particular rhythm to the paragraphs, which are not divided according to the different characters’ points of view or stories and can go from weather to animals to a person’s actions. Each anniversary of the girl’s disappearance marks a new year, but, otherwise, there is little to differentiate what happens, other than the chronology and the passing of time for the characters, the houses, and the village itself.

There are no individual characters that have a bigger share of the limelight. We have the youngsters, who had known the missing girl, and we follow them, but we also follow the female priest, the teachers at school, several farmers, a potter, the newspaper editor and his wife, the school keeper and his sister… We get to know a fair bit about each one of them but not at an emotional level, and we become observers too, rather than putting ourselves in the place of the characters to share their feelings and thoughts. It makes for a strange reading experience, and not one everybody will enjoy. It is as if we were supposed to let the words wash over us and explore a different way of reading, pretty much like the passing of life itself.

There is no resolution (there isn’t in life either) and I have read quite a few reviews where readers were disappointed as they kept reading waiting for some sort of final reveal that never comes. We are used to classic narratives with beginning, middle, and end, and being confronted by a different kind of structure can make us uncomfortable. This novel reminded me, in some ways, of the film The Tree of Life directed by Terrence Malick, although in that case, the story was more circumscribed and here it is more choral (and less involved).  Reviewers who know McGregor’s previous work are not in agreement about this novel, as some feel it shows a development of his style and is the best of his yet, whilst others prefer some of his earlier work. My advice to those who have never read him would be to check a sample of the novel and see how they feel (although, remember that the earlier focus on the search for the girl dies down later). This is not a spoiler as the author has said saw in quite a few interviews and it is clear from the description that this is not a mystery novel.

In sum, this is a novel for people interested in new and post-modern writing, rather than for those looking for a conventional story. If you are annoyed by head hopping and strange writing techniques and like to find a clear ending, then stay away from it. If you enjoy meditation and savouring every moment and are prepared for a different type of reading, you might be in for a treat.  

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text 2017-04-10 00:11
Authorial Encounters: NoViolet Bulawayo
We Need New Names: A Novel - NoViolet Bulawayo

   NoViolet Bulawayo recently appeared in my city. (I took this picture on my iPod.)

 

She read, of course, from "We Need New Names," and I learned something very important about the book: How the main character's name sounds. Of course, if you've read the book, you know her name is Darling. To my Midwestern ears, that's a distinctly two-syllable word, with the accent on the first syllable, a true trochee, in poetic terms. "Dar," like car; "ling," like swing. I suppose if you live in other parts of the country, you might say it differently: "dah-ling," "darlin'," etc.

 

For Ms. Bulawayo, who still carries a strong accent of her native Zimbabwe, Darling's name is almost a spondee. She gives a little bit less stress to the first syllable, so technically, it's an iamb, but both syllables get quite a bit of stress. And to my ears, it sounded very close to the name "Darlene." I heard "Dar-LING." So now I know. 

 

Her reading was beautiful. The book was fascinating. And she answered my question in the q&a! Can't wait for more from her.

 

-cg

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review 2016-12-14 20:24
The Siege of Krishnapur
The Siege of Krishnapur - J.G. Farrell,Pankaj Mishra

Later, while he was drinking tea at the table in his bedroom with three young subalterns from Captainganj a succession of musket balls came through the winder, attracted by the oil-lamp . . . one, two, three and then a fourth, one after another. The officers dived smartly under the table, leaving the Collector to drink his tea alone. After a while they
re-emerged smiling sheepishly, deeply impressed by the Collector’s sang-froid. Realizing that he had forgotten to sweeten his tea, the Collector dipped a teaspoon into the sugar-bowl. But then he found that he was unable to keep the sugar on the spoon: as quickly as he scooped it up, it danced off again. It was clear that he would never get it from the sugar-bowl to the cup without scattering it over the table, so in the end he was obliged to push the sugar away and drink his tea unsweetened.

The Siege of Krishnapur sounded fascinating - a depiction of the fall of the British Empire illustrated  in a small town in Northern India. 

I don't know whether this book fell victim to my reading slump, or whether it just missed the mark with me, but I could not get interested in any of the characters or the story, and on finishing, I don't even know whether I would have finished it at all if it had not won the Booker in 1973. 

 

It seems to me that The Siege of Krishnapur is one of those books that may have made more of an impression at the time it was written, but that has lost some of its appeal over time. Maybe the expectation of the book is to defy any nostalgia towards imperialism in its reader. But what if there is nothing to left to defy?

 

I don't know. This book maybe just wasn't for me. 

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review 2016-11-09 21:06
Review: His Bloody Project
His Bloody Project - Graeme Macrae Burnet

So the Man Booker Prize happened. And once again, I failed to read the entire shortlist before the prize was announced. This year was the closest I have ever come, however, as I finished five and was a third of the way through my sixth, His Bloody Project. This is the first year since I started this yearly tradition that all six were published in the US before the prize was announced; three of those were published in the preceding two weeks, so it was still a chore to read and review the entire list. For what it's worth, here are my thoughts regarding Graeme Macrae Burnet's contribution.

A few years back, the Man Booker committee was criticized for not offering enough titles with commercial appeal. I believe His Bloody Project is this year's answer to that call. Though it's set in a quiet village in a time before the world became overly noisy, this novel about a brutal murder bears much similarity to your run-of-the-mill murder/courtroom drama story that has saturated the airwaves for decades. That's not to say His Bloody Project lacks depth or literary merit, but it's certainly the Man Booker Prize nominated novel most likely to be adapted to screen in recent years. In grisly, heartbreaking detail, the story in the first half of this novel moves swiftly. The psychology of the characters and their stories, though told in simplistic fashion, are fascinating. Personally, I'm not a fan of court drama, however, so when the second half segued into testimonials and arguments, examinations and cross-examinations, my interest waned. Those who live for Law and Order will likely enjoy this novel thoroughly.

His Bloody Project was in many ways captivating, but it didn't strike me as a Man Booker contender. It was well written, but there was nothing unconventional about its form or breathtaking about its delivery. Long term, it will likely outsell its shortlist contenders. Had I finished this novel before the prize and had time to consider its probability of winning, I would've placed it in the middle of the pack, less likely to win than Do Not Say We Have Nothing and Hot Milk, but a stronger contender than Eileen and The Sellout. It's okay to be wrong sometimes.

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