EDIT: It is going to be a hectic time for the next few weeks with four of us working on this 17 book list, so let’s start getting visitors used to it. Trevor has posted his review of The Free World, by David Bezmozgis — he liked it somewhat less than I did, but still found value. You can read his full review here. Here is a teaser from his opening paragraphs:
Last year The New Yorker included David Bezmozgis when they highlighted twenty young fiction writers in their “20 Under 40″ series. Bezmozgis’s piece, “The Train of Their Departure” was one of my favorites, a somewhat rare case when I felt like the excerpt from a novel worked as a complete and interesting short story. The novel it came from is The Free World (2011), which was recently placed on the Giller Prize longlist. KevinfromCanada considers this one of his favorite books of the year. I personally thought the short story was better (his debut, Natasha, was a highly regarded collection of short stories; The Free World is his first novel). However, don’t take that to mean I’ll be putting up a fight should this turn out to be a contender as the winner of the Shadow Giller; it’s a wonderful book.
The book begins with dislocation. We are on a train platform in Vienna, which is neither the origin nor the destination for the Krasnansky family. It is 1979, and, somewhat against the odds, they have just left Soviet Russia and are headed to Rome, thence to who-knows-where — maybe the United States, maybe Australia, maybe Israel, maybe even Canada. The first member of the family we meet is the philandering Alec. They family has arrived in Vienna and must transfer all of their luggage from one train to the next, but Alec takes a moment to look around at the many people in transit.
Head to Trevor’s site for more (and read on for my quick thoughts and a link to my original review). And now, back to a look at the entire Giller longlist:
The Real Jury (authors Annabel Lyon, Howard Norman and Andrew O’Hagan) have already produced their first surprise — a longlist of 17 books (including the Reader Choice addition) instead of the expected 10 to 12. Having had a quick scan of publishers descriptions, I would have to say they had a reason to include so many books, although they have set an impossible task for any individual who wants to read the entire longlist before the shortlist announcement Oct. 4. After my disappointment with this year’s Booker longlist, I am very much looking forward to this one and will get to them all eventually.
The lengthy list produces some challenges for the Shadow Giller Jury in making good on our promise to have at least one of us read each of the 17 titles before Oct. 4, but after some quick exchanges this morning, I am pretty sure we can do it. I have reviewed four titles already, have read three more (reviews will go up over the next week) and have two more on hand. Trevor Berrett at the Mookse and the Gripes knows his short stories so he will be our lead on the three story collections on the list (I’ll pick up what he doesn’t get to). Alison Gzowski and I will co-ordinate our reading to make sure we get to the titles from smaller publishing houses. And we are turning first-time juror Kimbofo from Reading Matters free to read what interests her (and is available — a lot of these titles are a challenge to get in the UK) at the longlist stage.
(A short aside on the Reader Choice addition, a contest run by media sponsor CBC and the Giller organization: The “winner”, Extensions, by Myrna Dey, comes from the small publisher, NeWest Press, and looks to be an interesting, if overlooked, title — rather than the result of some kind of online campaign.)
We do promise we’ll all do our best to read the entire shortlist when it is announced.
I’ve included links to my original titles on the four that I have read and have provided short descriptions of the others I have on hand. If you click on the cover image of any of the 17, it should take you to the publisher’s page on the novel. I hope visitors here will have as good a time as the Shadow Jury intends to with this prize — we are excited to be under way.
Reviews already posted here
The Free World, by David Bezmozgis. Undoubtedly one of my favorite books of the year, if this one does not make my personal Giller shortlist it means that there are some truly great books on this longlist. The Krasnanskys are Latvian Jews, part of the diaspora from the USSR in 1978. We meet them first on a railway platform in Vienna but most of the novel is set in Rome, the stopping off point where they await (and scheme for) their eventual destination — perhaps the U.S. or Canada or Australia or, by default, Israel. The patriarch is a Soviet hero with his own conflicted memories, the sons are looking to the future in their own selfish ways. The women, fortunately, have some sense of current reality to them. An excellent novel which reflects Bezmozgis’ own family history — he is a very, very good writer.
The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt. Already short-listed for the Booker Prize, this novel is the stunning success of 2011. A noirish Western (a natural for the Coen brothers to make into a movie, but the rights went to John C. Reilly), the brothers of the title are two hired killers on their way to gold-rush California to “execute” a contract. The narrator, Eli, is questioning his violent trade, his brother Charlie shoots first and asks questions later. From those who have read it, there is virtually unanimous agreement that deWitt has produced a highly readable novel, even for those who don’t much care for the traditional genre. Check out Trevor’s review here.
Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan. Author Edugyan landed the daily double today — this novel also made the Booker shortlist. Set in Berlin and Paris as the Nazis make their move in 1939, the perspective of the novel comes from three black jazz musicians who had gone to Europe to escape Jim Crow America. I had some problems with the novel on first read, I admit, but I am looking forward to giving it a second read. And I am delighted for the author — the book was scheduled for publication early this year, but got lost in the Key Porter publishers shutdown. Thomas Allen & Sons have rescued it and deserve thanks for making such an interesting volume available to readers.
Touch, by Alexi Zentner. My favorite of this year’s New Face of Fiction titles, this is a multi-generational frontier story, set in north-eastern British Columbia — an Anglican priest returns to the gold rush country community founded by his grandfather, developed by his father and where he was born and raised — the return sparks a train of memories. It is a humane and touching story that impressed many UK readers on the Man Booker forum, although it proved too challenging for that jury to put on its longlist.
Reviews to come soon
The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje. Yes, it would have been a surprise if this book was not on the longlist. It has strong autobiographical overtones — an eleven-year-old boy boards a ship in Ceylon on his way to school in England in the 1950s, although the point of view of the novel comes from many decades later. An excerpt (which is faithful to the book) was published earlier this year in the New Yorker — for a fuller description and discussion, check out Shadow Giller juror Trevor’s post here.
A World Elsewhere, by Wayne Johnston. The Shadow Giller already owes Wayne Johnston $50,000 from 1998 when we awarded him the prize for The Colony of Unrequited Dreams — the real jury gave theirs to Alice Munro. Johnston opens his novel in his native Newfoundland but most of it takes place on the author’s version of the Vanderbilt estate, Biltmore, in North Carolina — he calls his family and estate Vanderluyden, in tribute to the Van der Luyden family of Edith Wharton’s exceptional novel, The Age of Innocence. It does have echoes of both Wharton and Henry James.
A Good Man, by Guy Vanderhaeghe. I am a Vanderhaeghe fan from a way back and this was my “most looked forward to” book of the fall — I’ve read it and it met my high expectations. The third volume in his loose Western trilogy (The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing were the first two — you don’t have to read them first), this one set in 1876 takes up “settler” life in Western Canada’s Cypress Hills country and Montana shortly after the Sioux massacre of Custer and his troops. The author again does an excellent job of exploring the tensions between European settlers and the First Nations of the West — a far different take on theWestern novel than deWitt’s, set in a different area but same era.
The Antagonist, by Lynn Coady. Given what has happened with National Hockey League “enforcers” in the last few months (three have died over the summer and there is substantial controversy in the hockey world), Coady has produced a timely novel if the jacket description is accurate: “Against his will and his true nature, the hulking Gordon Rankin (“Rank”) is cast as an enforcer, a goon, by his classmates, his hockey coaches, and especially his own “tiny, angry” father, Gordon Senior. Rank gamely lives up to his role — until tragedy strikes, using Rank as its blunt instrument.” I am a sports fan, so the premise intrigues me.
The Little Shadows, by Marina Endicott. This novel is not scheduled for release until Sept. 27. Endicott made a splash with her first novel, Good To A Fault, which was Giller short-listed among other honors. This one features three teenage sisters who are in the world of vaudeville in the World War I years — an intriguing premise, I must say.
Reviews to come later