Archive for the ‘2013 Booker Prize’ Category

2013 Booker Prize winner

October 15, 2013

Check KfC's review by clicking here

Check KfC’s review by clicking here

Eleanor Catton has won the 2013 Booker Prize for her 832-page doorstopper, The Luminaries. In one sense, it was a victory for Canada, our second international prize in less than a week after Alice Munro’s Nobel. On the other hand, to check the national chauvinism just a bit, while Catton was born here, her contacts since have been minimal — she grew up in New Zealand (where she now lives) and wrote this book while she was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. At the very least, we have to share the honor with our New Zealand friends. Only 28 years old, Catton becomes the youngest ever winner of the Booker. The Luminaries is her second novel — her first, The Rehearsal was equally impressive if you go back to my review. She is an exceptional writer who promises to deliver even more in the future.

The Luminaries is a Victorian melodrama/mystery. It opens with a death and an apparent suicide attempt, the arrival in a west New Zealand port of a stranger, and the gathering of a cabal of locals who are all somewhat involved in the deaths. We know all that early — Catton spends most of the novel sketching in the background and delays until the end the full details of her story.

It is also worth noting that the author uses two other devices within the novel. One that I did understand was the use of the golden mean of mathematics — each chapter contains half as many words as the previous ones. That means the first chapter is 360 pages — the last three (of twelve) total 17. Yes, it is a gimmick — but it does add momentum as we come to the conclusion in the novel’s final 150 pages. Her other device, a consistent reference to astrological symbols and relationships, completely passed me by — and I will admit I have read no review that explained why it added to the novel.

booker logoThe Luminaries would have been my second choice of those I have read on the Booker shortlist (I’ll be reading Lahiri’s The Lowland later; Ozecki’s A Tale for the Time Being has no appeal for me), after Jim Crace’s Harvest — and I will admit that one had a particular personal appeal as you will discover if you read my review. Certainly, I have no quarrel with the Booker Jury’s decision, although it is a surprise. By way of example, on Trevor’s Booker forum, the Crace had 11 out of 14 first place votes — Catton had only one.

Every bit as interesting for we Canadians, however, is what the Real Giller Prize Jury will have to say. The Luminaries was eligible — and did not even make the long list. I’m guessing, but I would suggest that Catton’s authorly “gimmicks” (I mean that as descriptive, not judgmental) landed well with the Booker Jury, but were a big problem for the Giller threesome.

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We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

September 24, 2013

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Junot Diaz chose to start his review of We Need New Names in the Boston Review by quoting the opening paragraph: “NoViolet Bulawayo’s honesty, her voice, and her formidable command of her craft — all were apparent from the first page.” While I come to quite a different conclusion, I can’t fault Diaz’s tactic — as much as I would like to be original, here is that opening paragraph;

We were on our way to Budapest: Bastard and Chipo and Godknows and Sbho and Stina and me. We are going even though we are not allowed to cross Mzilikazi Road, even though Bastard is supposed to be watching his little sister Fraction, even though Mother would kill me dead if she found out; we are just going. There are guavas to steal in Budapest, and right now I’d rather die for guavas. We didn’t eat this morning and my stomach feels like somebody just took a shovel and dug everything out.

The setting is present day Zimbabwe. The narrator is 10-year-old Darling — she and her running mates live in a shantytown but frequently head off to upper-class Budapest to steal guavas. They even have a rather sophisticated plan to “harvest” the fruit street by street, despite the fact that eating it so quickly leads to significant digestive problems. Food is food, after all.

booker logoChild narrators are a convenient device for authors, particularly in troubled settings like Zimbabwe, and it is easy to understand why. The pre-teen point of view allows the author to abandon nuance and concentrate on a few major themes (poverty, oppression) as they are experienced by a maturing youth. The problem, of course, is the very loss of that nuance — unless the major themes are drawn so precisely and deliberately, they read like a statement of the obvious.

The opening paragraph supplies one example, so let’s try another. The gang is on their way back to Paradise, the shantytown where they live:

Going back to Paradise, we do not run. We just walk nicely like Budapest is now our country too, like we built it even, eating guavas along the way and spitting the peels all over to make the place dirty. We stop at the corner of AU Street for Chipo to vomit; it happens most of the time she eats. Today her vomit looks like urine, only thicker. We leave it there uncovered.

One day I will live here, in a house just like that, Sbho says, biting into a thick guava. She points to the big blue house with the long row of steps, flowers all around it. A really nice house, but not nicer than where we just got the guavas. Sbho’s voice sounds like she is not playing, like she knows what she is talking about. I watch her chew, her cheeks bulging. She swallows, starts to peel what is left of the guava with her side teeth.

How are you going to do that? I ask. Sbho spits the peels and says, with her big eyes, I just know it.

It is election time in Zimbabwe and that plays a role in the novel as well. The families of the gang are on the wrong side (non Mugabe, although he is never mentioned by name) — that is how they ended up in the shantytown in the first place. Needless to say, the election does not turn out well for them,

And there is also the Sickness. Darling’s father returns from working the mines in South Africa, literally a mere shadow of his former self due to the Sickness. He retreats to a cot and his inevitable death.

While those kinds of themes occupy the first half of the novel, Bulawayo expands her canvas in the second half by sending Darling to stay with an aunt in America (Destroyedmichygen is her port of entry):

With all the snow, with the sun not there, with the cold and the dreariness, this place doesn’t look like my America, doesn’t even look real. It’s like we are in a terrible story, like we’re in the crazy parts of the Bible, there where God is busy punishing people for their sins and is making them miserable with all the weather. The sky, for example, has stayed white all this time I have been here, which tells you that something is not right. Even the stones know that a sky is supposed to be blue, so blue you can spray Clorox on it and wipe it with a paper towel and it wouldn’t even come off.

The child narrator story becomes a coming-of-age one in America — unfortunately the events that take place there are every bit as predictable as the ones in Africa were.

In the final analysis, predictability is the problem that I had with We Need New Names. Bulawayo certainly has her charming moments, but they are only moments. Corrupt politics, AIDS, racism in American schools and other weighty issues arise in predictable fashion and receive a treatment that supplies no surprises or insight — the story simply moves on. Perhaps if I had been able to more deeply engage with Darling I would have found more in the book; for me she was pretty much a normal 10-year-old facing challenging circumstances.

Given their interest in unusual structures, as shown by the longlist, I have trouble fathoming how the Booker Jury came to move this one on to the shortlist. The novel features a completely conventional structure, the story has been told before — We Need New Names is a readable book, but not one that will live on in memory.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

September 12, 2013

Available from McClelland & Stewart

Available from McClelland & Stewart

The Luminaries opens with Walter Moody innocently entering the smoking room of the Crown Hotel in the mining community of Hokitika on New Zealand’s west shore. The year is 1866 — while Moody has trained as a lawyer back home in the Mother country, he has just arrived in the port, following his father and brother to the colonies to seek his fortune as a hardscrabble miner in the latest gold boom where economic security for a lifetime is just one lucky nugget find away.

It is also fair to say that he is young enough to want some adventure before settling down and (conveniently for both author and reader) the crew in the room at the Crown will provide it:

The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met. From the variety of their comportments and dress — frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill — they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway — deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.

booker logoIndeed, Moody has stumbled upon a hastily-called conference whose participants have immediately retreated into silence upon his entry. Two weeks earlier, three things happened on a single night in Hokitika. A drunken hermit, Charlie Wells, was found dead in his cabin outside the town — the presence of a phial of laudanum and, even more important, £4,000 worth of smelted gold hidden away has made his demise suspicious. His body was found by Alistair Lauderback and his aides who are on their way across the mountain pass above the village — the West Canterbury area has earned a seat in Parliament and Lauderback is seeking to become its first member. Lauderback also features in the discovery of the second happening:

On the outskirts of Hokitika their company was further delayed. As they advanced upon the township they came upon a woman, utterly insensate and soaking wet, lying in the middle of the thoroughfare. She was alive, but only barely. Lauderback guessed that she had been drugged, but he could not elicit any kind of intelligence from her beyond a moan. He dispatched his aides to find a duty sergeant, lifted her body out of the mud, and, while he waited for his aides to return, reflected that his electoral campaign was off to a rather morbid start. The first three introductions he would make, in town, would be with the magistrate, the coroner, and the editor of the West Coast Times.

The woman is Anna Wetherell, a fairly recent (and very attractive) addition to the town’s supply of whores. She is charged with attempted suicide, once she comes to in the town gaol.

The third event of that evening is the disappearance of the town’s richest man, Emery Staines, a prospector in his early 20s who has found enormous fortune with some very significant strikes. No one knows whether he is dead, missing or simply departed back home.

A lot of questions have been raised during the two weeks since those events and each of the 12 men in the smoking room at the Crown has reason to be concerned. None is definitely guilty of anything, but each might be guilty of something — and collectively they might be guilty of a lot. While they had gathered to discuss strategy, the device of Moody’s uninvited arrival gives the author the chance to have a number of them relate their part in the background of the story. The group is a disparate lot — a banker, hotelier, shipping agent, Anna’s whoremaster (himself a goldfields magnate), and a Chinese who runs the local opium den are just a sampling of the spread.

Since the most readily apparent distinctive feature of The Luminaries is its length (832 pages), I don’t think it is a spoiler to say that it takes author Catton 360 pages to set the elements of her plot in place through the telling of those stories at the Crown. After all, if you are reading the book itself, you can physically tell that you still are not half way through by the time that first section is completed. The two excerpts that I have quoted illustrate her attention to detail on the micro-level — rest assured, she is equally as assiduous when it comes to character and the nuances of plot.

Having said that, don’t let the prospect of length put you off (unless, of course, the cascading sentence in that first excerpt has already done that — if it has, give the novel a miss). The Luminaries is a Victorian-style novel in the tradition of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life or one of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester books in that it chronicles the tale of an entire community with a large cast of characters, each of whom is given significant attention — although Catton’s community is a rough-and-tumble mining town not a class- and cleric-dominated English shire.

Indeed, perhaps a better comparison would be some recent Victorian-style mysteries such as Sarah Waters The Little Stranger or D.J. Taylor’s Derby Day both of which also found favor with Booker Prize juries and earned a place on the shortlist. These kind of novels may not be to everyone’s taste, but when well-executed they certainly impress some.

I have noted in my reviews of some other 2013 Booker titles that this year’s jury has an affection for books that use an uncommon structure: jury chair Robert Macfarlane confirmed that when the shortlist was announced this week, taking pride that they had produced a list of “novel novels”.

The Luminaries is one of those, employing a device I have certainly not seen before: Catton uses the golden ratio when it comes to determining the length of her chapters. There are 12: the first is 360 pages long, the second 158, the third 104 — and then you come to the tenth at 8, the 11th 6, the last 3. While that makes for some heavy sledding in the first few sections, it does have an interesting side effect. I can’t believe I am writing this, but the final 150 pages positively galloped along.

There is another aspect of The Luminaries on which I am totally unqualified to comment that deserves mention. You may notice from the review that there were 12 men in the Crown smoking room and 12 sections to the book. The novel has an astrological side as well: each section is introduced with an astrological chart, those 12 men each have a related house (both in the sky and on the ground) and sub-chapter headings continue the theme (“Jupiter in Sagittarius” is an example). My lack of interest in astrology is exceeded only by my complete lack of knowledge of it — those with interest and knowledge may find a theme that completely passed me by.

Eleanor Catton made a major splash with her first novel The Rehearsal, published when she was just 23 — you can count me as one of those who was mightily impressed as you can tell from my review. She is only 28 now and can already add a Booker short-listing to her resume. Not just that, but this novel, with its historical theme and all its complexity, is completely different from The Rehearsal. No one call tell at this point whether she is just experimenting with form or whether she intends to keep on doing that. What cannot be denied is that she is a young author of enormous talent — while either (or both) her books might not suit your taste, they are exceptionally well done.

Catton was raised in New Zealand and resides there now (although she wrote The Luminaries while at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop), but she was born in Canada and retains citizenship — which makes this novel Giller eligible. We will find out on Monday next if this year’s Giller jury (Margaret Atwood, Esi Edugyan and Jonathan Lethem) is as enthusiastic with this “novel novel” as the Booker Jury is. Personally, despite the non-Canadian subject matter, I would be surprised if it does not show up on the Giller longlist.

2013 Booker Prize short list and 2013 Shadow Giller Prize Jury plans

September 10, 2013

booker logoThe 2013 Booker Prize shortlist is out and, whatever its overall quality may be, the news is generally good for the KfC blog: two of the six have already been reviewed here, a third is due to be reviewed in two days, a fourth was already next in line for reading, a fifth is in the mail and the sixth is a novel that drew positive comments from visitors here when the longlist was announced. Here’s the list, starting with those I have reviewed.

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Harvest, by Jim Crace. My favorite of the six longlisted titles that I have read, this is an allegorical tale of a rural English village under threat (Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart has that same theme only it is set in a contemporary Irish village, but I digress). It has an almost European style to it, reminding me of several authors (such as Gerbrand Bakker) whom I have read in translation. The novel has a haunting feel throughout and the way that it deals with the theme of how a community and individuals cope with change coming from the outside has much current relevance.

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin. Definitely the surprise pick of the shortlist and that comment comes from someone who is a major Toibin fan. A number of readers question whether the novella-length book (104 pages) meets the Booker “full novel” requirement; others (check the comment discussion following my review) wonder about the worth of the work itself. The Testament of Mary started life as a monologue play — I’m inclined to think that was better than the book, but this year’s jury obviously disagrees. For me, the novella had curiosity value that made it worth reading but I expect more from a Booker shortlisted volume.

2013 catton The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton. A Victorian-style crime story set in New Zealand in the 1860s, this is the 2013 Booker doorstopper — Catton extends her tale to almost 850 pages (and in the hardcover version I read, those pages are lush and thick, not onion skin — it is a brick). It starts with a suspicious death and an apparent suicide attempt, quickly draws in a dozen semi-conspirators and then explores (at length) the cat’s cradle of links involving this cast. (My review will be posted in a few days.) Canadians take note: Catton was born in Canada (but raised and currently resident in New Zealand) so this novel is Giller eligible — we’ll see if it makes that longlist next week.

2013 bualwayo We Need New Names, by Noviolet Bulawayo. Another shortlist surprise, this debut novel starts with a 10-year-old in troubled Zimbabwe and then moves on to her “escape” to the hope of America, which she finds a bigger challenge than she thought. As the publisher describes it, a novel of “displacement and arrival”.
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2013 lahiri The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri. I’ve been looking forward to this one for months — it was just released today in the UK (two more weeks before its North American release), although apparently booksellers there have been “cheating” and putting copies on shelves ahead of time. Like many of Lahiri’s stories, it is set in both India and America and centres on two brothers, one rebellious, the other conventional, both of whom find themselves players in the conflict of politics and values in their homeland (and chosen escape). Lahiri is a writer of considerable talent and that outline promises she is on turf that she knows well.

2013 ozeki A Tale For The Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. Kudos to Dina and Brett — when the longlist was announced and I said this was one I would not be reading, they both commented that it deserved attention and I will be reading it after all. This one, also, has Canadian connections (Ozeki spends half the year on Vancouver Island) — a novelist named Ruth on a Canadian island discovers a lunch box (from the 2011 tsunami?) that contains the diary of a 16-year-old Japanese girl.

As I’ve noted, the shortlist does have a couple of surprise inclusions. And exclusions — when Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire and Colum McCann’s TransAtlanctic made the longlist it seemed the jury had a taste for populist conventional stories but neither has advanced. I liked both but can understand why they were left off. I am disappointed that Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart did not advance — it is the kind of book that deserves Booker attention.

2013 SHADOW GILLER JURY PLANS

11shadow logo

It has become a KfC blog tradition, that the Booker shortlist announcement also supplies the occasion to announce that year’s Shadow Giller Jury. It is year number 20 for the Real Giller, and year 19 for the Shadow Jury — for a bit of history on how we came into being, check out the 2011 announcement of Shadow Giller plans here.

This year’s Shadow Jury is the same as last year’s. Trevor from The Mookse and the Gripes in Utah and Kimbofo from Reading Matters in London will bring an international perspective; Alison Gzowski, an editor at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, will celebrate her 11th year as a Shadow Giller juror.

The Giller longlist is to be announced Sept. 16 and will be featured in a post here (let’s hope I have managed to read a couple). The shortlist is due October 8 which means we certainly cannot all read the entire longlist — as usual, we will try to make sure at least one of us has read each book.

Trevor, Kim and I all intend to review each of the five-book shortlist and Alison will check in with guest reviews or comments on the three blogs involved. We promise a full report on our deliberations — and the Shadow Jury choice — a few days in advance of the Real Giller announcement which takes place on Nov. 5.

Please join with us. Comments and opinions are certainly welcome on all three blogs.

The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan

September 6, 2013

Purchased from the Book Depository

Purchased from the Book Depository

The 2013 Booker longlist contains a number of examples of what seems to be a new favorite structure for contemporary authors: independent narrative streams telling the stories of different central characters which are eventually braided together. TransAtlantic by Colum McCann features three historical tales set 150 years apart — the unifying feature turns out to be a four-generation story involving characters who appear secondarily in each of the streams. Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw takes place entirely in present-day Shanghai but involves five different Malaysian fortune-seekers whose stories are developed independently but eventually overlap (not entirely convincingly, it must be said). The device is certainly not unknown in fiction but it seems to be becoming more common — or perhaps it is just that it appeals to this year’s jury.

In one sense, Donal Ryan’s debut novel, The Spinning Heart, represents an extreme use of the approach: the tightly-written 156-page novel consists of first-person vignettes from 21 different characters, many of them only four or five pages long. They all live in the same Irish village and are all involved (in varying degrees) with the over-arching events of the narrative, but each has a unique experience with them.

booker logoIn another sense, however, Ryan uses the device quite differently. Where McCann and Aw end up braiding the streams together, Ryan treats his 21 “chapters” like tiles of a mosaic — he lays them all out but leaves it to the reader to put the overall arrangement together.

It needs to be said that the novel is not as random as that description suggests. The opening chapter (“Bobby”) is the narrative of the closest thing the book has to a central character — Ryan is also wise enough to use it to introduce one man’s version of those over-arching events that affect the entire cast.

The most pervasive of these is the demise of Pokey Burke’s house construction “business” (where Bobby is the foreman), a product both of the economic collapse of the Celtic Tiger and Pokey’s criminality. We see its impact initially through Bobby describing fellow worker Mickey Briar’s response to losing his job:

He went over and started to beat the prefab door until Pokey opened it a crack and threw an envelope at him and slammed the door again, just as Mickey put his head down and went to ram him like an old billy goat. Mickey’s hard old skull splintered that door and very nearly gave way. Pokey must have shat himself inside. I want my fuckin pension you little prick, Mickey roared and roared. I want my fuckin pension and the rest of my stamps. Come out you bollocks till I kill you. For a finish he went on a rampage around the place, turning over barrows and pulling formwork apart and when he picked up a shovel and started swinging, we all ran for cover. Except poor innocent Timmy Hanrahan: he only stood grinning back to his two ears like the gom that he is.

And Mickey Briars lamped Timmy Hanrahan twice across both sides of his innocent young head before we subdued him.

Pokey hasn’t been keeping his accounts with the government square — as far as the authorities are concerned, the laid-off workers have never existed. Ryan may be using a contemporary setting but he preserves a frequent theme of Irish fiction: the powerful always punish the powerless (and the powerless tend to take their resulting anger out on each other).

Generational conflict is another constant in Ryan’s anonymous village. The author opens the book by introducing Bobby’s version of it:

My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in. I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down. He hasn’t yet missed a day of letting me down. He smiles at me; that terrible smile. He knows I’m coming to check is he dead. He knows I know he knows. He laughs his crooked laugh. I ask is he okay for everything and he only laughs.

Bobby’s description of his generational conflict may be a bit extreme but many of the 21 characters have their own version. The novel suggests that it is an inevitable by-product of a community where there is not much opportunity and not much changes.

And finally (for review purposes because other themes do get introduced), there is the tension between the sexes that also comes from being part of what is essentially a closed community. Here’s how Bobby describes meeting his wife, Triona:

I always knew Pokey Burke was a bit afraid of me. Triona say I exuded menace when she met me first. She has a lovely way of putting things. There was no one stopping her doing honors English. She says I stood against the bar inside in the disco in town and stared at her. Her friend said what the fuck is that freak looking at, but Triona knew the friend was only raging I wasn’t staring at her. Oh, don’t look back, for Christ’s sake, the friend said, he’s from an awful family, they live in a hovel, the father is a weirdo and the mother never speaks — but Triona looked back all the same and when I scowled at her she knew I was trying to smile, and when I hardly spoke to her on the way home she knew deep down that I was terrified of the lightness and loveliness of her, and when she said are we going to shift so or what, I thought I’d never again regain the power of movement.

I’ll admit that Bobby’s story had me engaged with this novel from the start — the sketches of those themes outlined above (and the others I have not mentioned) were ample enough structure for me. And in the next few chapters, Ryan broadens it aptly. We next hear the story of Pokey’s father which enhances the economic disaster background. And then comes Lily’s story of sleeping around. It is followed by that of Vasya, one of the immigrant workers dragged into Pokey’s economic web. The portrait of the village inhabitants begins to acquire depth.

My enthusiasm continued throughout the first two-thirds of the book, heightened as we are given the views of characters we have met in previous chapters.

Unfortunately, at about that point the challenges of Ryan’s dramatic structure start to exceed the author’s ability to deal with them. We have already heard from most of the central characters in the village story, so he needs to rely on increasingly peripheral ones. He also resorts to introducing a new plot line to keep his story going — it was not convincing to me and has drawn negative comment from others who have read the novel.

When it comes time to bring the book to a close (he has saved the stories of a few key characters), I was only too aware of the biggest drawback of the narrative approach. It simply does not allow for a robust enough development of characters (because this is a novel about people who are trapped in situations they do not control) for its conclusion to have the impact it deserves.

I would give Ryan an A for ambition in the way he has chosen to tell his story — I think anyone who reads much fiction would have the same reaction and the book is worth reading for that alone. Alas, the marks for execution are much lower. I did read the book twice because I wanted him to succeed — I’m afraid the second reading produced the same concerns that resulted from the first one. Is that an inevitable result of the structure or simply the author’s inability to deliver on it? I’m inclined to think the former.

The Spinning Heart deserved its Booker longlisting and I would be happy to see it on the shortlist — readers need to be introduced to authors who are willing to take chances. Alas, I would be disappointed if the jury is so enthusiastic about the effort that they choose to reward it with the 2013 Prize itself.

Harvest, by Jim Crace

August 29, 2013

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Let’s start by considering the notion of “harvest” as it is presented in Jim Crace’s novel bearing that title, since the few days surrounding that event are the sole source of joy presented in the book. It has been a long, hard-working summer with hostile weather a constant threat to the crop that will keep the community of 58 souls fed for the next year and now it is time to complete the work: “If we hoped for sufficient grain to last the year, we’d have to deserve it with some sweat.”

Reap and gossip. That’s the rule. On harvest days, anyone who’s got a pair of legs and arms can expect to earn supper with unceasing labor. Our numbers have been too reduced of late to allow a single useful soul to stay away. […] The broadest shoulders swing their sickles and their scythes at the brimming cliffs of stalks; hares, partridges and sparrows flee before the blades; our wives and daughters bundle up and bind the sheaves, though not too carefully — they work on the principle of ten for the commons and one for the gleaning; our creaking fathers made the lines of stooks, the sun begins to dry what we have harvested. Our work is consecrated by the sun. Compared to winter days, let’s say, or digging days, it’s satisfying work, made all the more so by the company we keep, for on such days all the faces we know and love (as well as those I know but do not like entirely) are gathered in one space and bounded by common ditches and collective hopes.

booker logo The work of the harvest is concluded with a night of feasting: meats and treats from the Master’s stock, much dancing and even more ale. That evening concludes with the selection of “our Lady of the Harvest. She’ll be our Gleaning Queen.” On the following day, she will lead the community on an even happier day: the gleaning of the one sheaf in 11 that has been left in the field, for it is this grain that will be the source of the porridge and home-made ale that are the only “luxuries” residents have to take the edge off winter’s harshness.

Even before describing those few days of joy, however, author Crace has introduced a number of disquieting elements. Two began with plumes of smoke that rose over the tiny community the night of the harvest. One came from just outside the bounds of the community:

It says, New neighbors have arrived; they’ve built a place; they’ve laid a hearth; they know the custom and the law. This first smoke has given them the right to stay. We’ll see.

The other came from Master Kent’s place and the community originally feared it was the manor house itself. When they rush to the scene, they discover it was his hay lofts and stable roofs — someone has set fire to “his pretty, painted dovecote”. The narrator of the novel is fairly certain it was a trio of troublesome community youth, brash under the influence of fairy cap mushrooms. He is out of step with his neighbors — they are convinced it was the intruders on the border.

Less obvious, but perhaps more troubling in the long run, was the presence of a stranger at the final day of harvesting, whom the working people dub Mr. Quill:

A gentleman we did not recognize was watching us reduce our barley field to stub; a visitor, a rare event, exciting and unnerving. We mowed with scythes; he worked with brushes and quills. He was recording us, he said, or more exactly marking down our land, at Master Kent’s request. He tipped his drawing board for anyone that asked and let them see the scratchings on his chart, the geometrics that he said were fields and woods, the squares that stood for cottages, the ponds, the lanes, the foresting.

Nothing is quite what it seems to be in Harvest so let me just indicate a few details to those ominous harvest events that Crace reveals as he develops his picture of the tiny community. The two men and one woman who built that rudimentary hut and lit the fire to establish legal residence just outside the bounds are an external threat that residents understand, because they are of the same stock — indeed, in short order the two men are placed in the literal stocks that represent the community’s version of gaol. Those fairy-cap-eating youth are just the tip of an iceberg — the tightly-knit community is beginning to disintegrate from internal tensions.

And Mr. Quill is indeed the most serious threat of all. Master Kent is master only through marriage. His wife has died and an urban cousin related by blood has been found (it’s hardly Downton Abbey, but the primogeniture principle is the same). Using the land to support a marginal grain-farming settlement doesn’t interest him — he intends to convert the land to more lucrative sheep herding which means support for far fewer people.

Crace spends the first third of Harvest developing that picture. In the second third, all those threats come to violent ends — by the time this section concludes, the community residents have fled, both masters are headed off to get the sheep that will take over the property and the narrator is left to oversee it in virtual isolation.

That’s just a sketch of plot but I hope it provides enough evidence to support the assertion that Harvest is a novel that allow for many allegorical interpretations, e.g. didn’t the UK’s coal mining communities or North America’s rust belt cities face exactly the same issues in the late 20th century? Or how is globalization any more disruptive than converting grain farming land to sheep pastures?

While I was interested enough to contemplate those possible allegories, my positive personal response to the novel came from an entirely different thread: the increasing isolation and loneliness of the narrator. We learn early on that he arrived as the manservant of Master Kent — while the two are on good terms, there is certainly a level of isolation in the class relationship as one is clearly master, the other a servant. He left the master’s manor when he married a local girl, who died some years ago. Despite his continued presence in the community, since her death he has been regarded with suspicion as an outsider who may be a spy for more powerful interests, i.e. the master.

A couple of personal accidents as the plot unfolds mean the narrator is on the sidelines for the “action” of the novel, but still very much present as an observer, which increases his personal isolation. All he can do is help Mister Quill, for whom he acquires substantial respect — indeed he harbors a dream that he will be able to escape to another world as Mister Quill’s assistant when this assignment is finished.

For the first part of the final section I was frustrated by the bleakness of the story but began to fix more and more on the utter loneliness of the narrator and his response. The collapse of the community is mirrored by the collapse of his own limited certainties — the few things that he could hang on to have all literally disappeared.

That is only one interpretation of the novel, but for me it is a powerful one. The portrayal of the collapse of the community was almost as impressive — on a second read, it might be even more moving. A number of visitors here read more translated fiction than I do but throughout the book I was reminded of a number of “non-English” comparisons. The portrayal of the community — and more important, its collapse — reminded me of the settlement at the centre of Laszlo Krasznahorki’s Satantango, a novel that has become more impressive in memory than it was when I just finished it. And the narrator’s loneliness and frustration took me back to Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin, another very impressive book. Crace’s Harvest compares very favorably with both.

I have another possible allegorical interpretation that I intend to explore when I reread Harvest. It is an even more speculative notion than what I have outlined here and could be seen as a misleading spoiler — if you don’t care about spoilers, or have read Harvest, I have sketched it out in the first comment following this post. I’d emphasize that until I reread the book it is more an intriguing idea than a firm thought on how the book might be read. If you have read the novel, I’d be interested whether you think it has any value at all.

The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín

August 26, 2013

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

I arrived at my reading of The Testament of Mary bearing two significant pieces of mental baggage and it is only fair to reveal them, since both undoubtedly effected my impression:

I am not a religious person and generally don’t react well to fiction based on religious themes — Marilynne Robinson is a good example of an excellent novelist who falls victim to this bias for me. So despite my appreciation of Colm Toibin (this is the fourth of his works reviewed here and I have read others pre-blog), I was not inclined to buy this 104-page novella when it appeared in October last year.

On the positive side, I was intrigued by the project’s history. The Testament of Mary began literary life as a monologue at the 2011 Dublin Theatre Festival. Toibin adapted that script for this volume. The dramatic version also was mounted on Broadway earlier this year, to decidedly mixed results — while it garnered three Tony nominations (including Best Play), small audiences meant it closed after only two weeks of a scheduled 12-week run.

booker logo The novel opens in Ephesus where Mary is living in exile years after the Crucifixion. Two of the disciples are serving as her protectors/keepers/jailers, each probing her experiences for inclusion in their particular Gospel. The conceit of the monologue is that it is Mary’s real thoughts on her life as the mother of Jesus — she has no intention of sharing those with her guardians.

That supplies the most distinctive feature of The Testament of Mary — Toibin’s Mary is very much a cranky, grieving mother, not the Blessed Virgin of conventional religion. She is adamant in seeing herself as the mother of a child named Jesus, not the Mother of the Son of God. (That helps to explain the two-week New York theatre run: the monologue not only does not appeal to the non-religious, believers find it anti-Christian.)

Consider for example her characterization of the “misfits” her son attracts, known as disciples to the faithful:

But I should have paid more attention to that time before he left, to who came to the house, to what was discussed at my table. It was not shyness or reticence that made me spend my time in the kitchen when those I did not know came, it was boredom. Something about the earnestness of those young men repelled me, sent me into the kitchen, or the garden; something of their awkward hunger, or the sense that there was something missing in each one of them, made me want to serve the food, or water, or whatever, and then disappear before I had heard a single word of what they were talking about. They were often silent at first, uneasy, needy, and then the talk was too loud; there were too many of them talking at the same time, or, even worse, when my son would insist on silence and begin to address them as though they were a crowd, his voice all false, and his tone all stilted, and I could not bear to hear him, it was like something grinding and it set my teeth on edge, and I often found myself walking the dusty lanes with a basket as though I needed bread, or visiting a neighbour who did not need visitors in the hope that when I returned the young men would have dispersed or that my son would have stopped speaking.

I suspect even more upsetting to Christian believers is Mary’s reaction when her two guardian disciples explain the virgin birth to her:

I must have looked perplexed.

‘She does not understand,’ he said to his companion, and it was true. I did not understand.

‘He was indeed the Son of God,’ he said.

And then, patiently, he began to explain to me what had happened to me at my son’s conception as the other nodded and encouraged him. I barely listened. I had other things to do. I know what happened. I know that my own happiness in those first months when I was with child felt strange and special, that I lived in a way that was different, that I often stood at the window and looked at the light outside and felt that the new life within me, the second heart beating, fulfilled me beyond anything I had ever imagined. Later, I learned that this is how we all prepare ourselves to give birth and to nurture, that it comes from the body itself and makes its way into the spirit and it does not seem ordinary. So I smiled when they spoke because they seemed to know something that was true about the light and grace that came at that time and for once I liked how eager and sure they were.

The Testament of Mary revisits a number of events in Christ’s life, seen through the eyes of that unconventional version of Mary — the marriage at Cana, the raising of Lazarus, the trial, crucifixion and resurrection. In all of them, Mary’s main interest is an attempt to get Jesus away from his preaching and so-called miracles and back to a simple, safe life in Nazareth.

As a literary exercise, that approach to Mary had enough curiosity value to make the 75 minutes it took to read the book worthwhile. I felt throughout that the stage version would probably have been a better experience — a talented actress would use intonation and gesture to add depth to the text. Anyone who is interested in the project might want to consider the audio version of the book which is narrated by Meryl Streep, since I suspect it would capture at least part of that dramatic value.

I’ll admit that I would never have picked up The Testament of Mary if it had not been longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. The two pieces of mental baggage I confessed to at the start of this review were augmented by a third: What could a literary jury have found in this book that caused them to rate it as one of the 13 best novels published this year?

After reading the book, I have no answer to that question. Toibin’s considerable literary skills are certainly apparent in the testament, but at best it is an unorthodox look at a story that has spawned countless other versions (and some very fine art). I can understand why it would provoke outrage in some but that hardly seems to warrant a prize-listing. In the final analysis, I am left scratching my head wondering just whom the author thought his audience would be.

Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw

August 22, 2013

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

For the most part, cities with exploding economies and those with imploding ones are studies in contrast, but they do share one characteristic: both represent attractive territory for novelists who want a contemporary setting. This year’s Booker longlist contains examples of each type. I’ll get to the collapsing economy nominee, Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart based on fallout from the end of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger, in a few weeks — for now, let’s look at life in the booming world of Shanghai as presented in Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire.

In little more than a generation, Shanghai has evolved from being the backward trading port of a near-feudal economy to arguably the world’s current leading example of market economy run wild with all the corruption, shady dealing and trauma that that kind of over-heating inevitably brings with it. Aw is interested in that bigger picture only for context purposes, however — his concern is in looking at examples of the type of people who are attracted to that kind of world and what it does to them.

booker logoIn fact, the author narrows his focus even further, reflecting his own background. While Aw was born in China (Taipei) he grew up in Malaysia. And while most of the millions who are descending on modern Shanghai to seek their version of fortune are from rural China, all five of the characters whose stories he develops in this novel are emigrants from Malaysia or neighboring countries in South-East Asia.

The author develops those story lines independently so let’s sketch the worlds of each of the five characters:

  • Phoebe started her life in China in a down-market apparel factory in Guangzhou — while there she picked up a self-help book, (Secrets of a Five-Star Billionaire), that advised keeping a “Journal of Your Secret Self”, daily writing down your terrors on one page and your dreams on the facing one. The promised job that brought her to Shanghai (in search of either/both fortune and a rich husband) turned out not to exist, making the journal even more important in capturing her challenges and hopes:

    Sometimes Shanghai bore down on her with the weight of ten skyscrapers. The people were so haughty; their dialect was harsh to her ears. If someone talked to her in their language, she would feel attacked just by the sound of it. She had come here full of hope, but on some nights, even after she had deposited all her loathing and terror into her secret journal, she still felt that she was tumbling down, down, and there was no way up. It had been a mistake to gamble as she did.

  • Gary grew up in a town of two hundred in Malaysia and rocketed to fame at age 17 in a television talent competition, viewed by four million people. In eight years since in Taipei, he has released four albums, each of which sold more than three million copies. He collapsed just before a concert a few months back (fatigue and anemia, it was said) but a strict regime since has led his management company to conclude he is ready for the even bigger market of Shanghai:

    The giant billboards that stood along the elevated highway bore the poster announcing Gary’s groundbreaking concert in Shanghai. MUSIC ANGEL HAS ARRIVED! THE ANGEL OF MUSIC IS HERE TO SAVE US…. His image was spread across each billboard — his newly gym-toned torso showing through a shirt that had been strategically slashed to display his abdominal muscles, which were the result of eight months’ work with a personal trainer. His head was bowed to show off his thick black hair, which looked slick with sweat, and computer trickery had provided him with a giant pair of angel wings that gave the impression that he was landing gently on earth after a celestial journey. It was impossible to miss these posters.

    Alas, that breakdown a few months back was more than fatigue and anemia — growing older is catching up with teen-age fame and Gary is going through his own Lindsay Lohan/Justin Bieber “breakdown” with substance abuse and porn his self-medications of choice.

  • By contrast to Gary’s instant fame, Yinghui (the daughter of a Malaysian minister accused of corruption) has made her own way. Her first business, a Malaysian “artsy” café, may have been an economic disaster but things have been looking up on her ventures in Shanghai, as is shown when she does her daily email review:

    There were, among other upbeat messages, an invitation to the opening of a new hotel on the river in Shiliupu and an interesting proposition from someone wanting to build a carbon-neutral cultural center in the middle of town. New contacts and possibilities revealed themselves nowadays without her even having to seek them out. What a change, she thought, as she finished her coffee.

    Yinghui’s current business is two upmarket lingerie stores which are flourishing but she has more ambitious plans — a teenage clothes chain (FILGirl — Fly in Love Girl), an Internet-based cosmetics brand (Shhh) and a luxury spa modeled on a northern Thai village. She is one of those entrepreneurial types who is forever in search of the next, even bigger opportunity.

  • On the other hand, Justin C.K. Lim is the Asian version of “old money”. The sprawling conglomerate, L.K.H. Holdings, was founded by his grandfather — this is how the Business Times described Justin just before the family firm sent him to Shanghai:

    Property clairvoyant. Groomed from a young age to take over the reins of the real estate division of LKH. Steady hands. Wisdom beyond his years.

    Unfortunately, the year of his arrival is 2008 and the global real estate collapse takes LKH Holdings down with it. Despite the continuing good prospects in Shanghai, the family has no chance to seize them. And Justin’s “wisdom beyond his years” does not include surviving in tough times — like Gary the “angel” singer, he is hopelessly floundering in a sea of opportunity.

  • And finally there is the Five-Star Billionaire of the title, who also happens to be the author of the book Phoebe found, although he wrote it under a female pseudonym to avoid public attention (which he hates). He too started life in poverty in Malaysia but has already made a massive fortune in a series of ventures, mainly property. His sections of the book are written as direct messages to the reader — like many successful entrepreneurs, he too is always looking for the next gamble. In his opening contribution in the novel (“How To Achieve Greatness”), he concludes with a summary of his latest idea:

    Some might say that my beginnings are irrelevant; that, wherever I came from, a man like me would still have been a success. Who I am today cannot be attributed to that little school. But that would be ungenerous, and I wish to acknowledge those early days, because when I look back at them I feel something. Not much, but a faint glow of recognition nonetheless.

    Despite the charitable nature of its aims, my project will not be modest. It will not be a modern version of the old village school. Its reach will be wide and deep and long lasting. A hundred years from now, it beneficial impact should still be felt. Every venture needs a physical space, its own village school, as it were. I think I know where mine will be situated — I’ve drawn up a short list of cities — and I am in the process of considering a suitable architect. At the moment I am leaning toward Rem Koolaas, or perhaps Zaha Hadid. Someone iconic, in any case, whose work, like mine, will last well into the future.

    When planning any venture, always think of how it will be remembered by future generations.

  • It is no spoiler (although it does require granting the author substantial artistic licence) to say that all five of those stories will eventually become linked in the economic stew of modern Shanghai. Since all four of the aspirants want to become a version of “Five Star Billionaire”, it is appropriate that he eventually sits at the centre of each of their futures.

    A word of warning for those considering this novel: if you are looking for a novel that captures the political, human rights and democracy issues that are part of China’s economic emergence, this is not the book for you. While author Aw uses the city as his setting, he makes no attempt to explore those elements — his interest is much more in trying to capture the drives (and disasters) that come with the entrepreneurial personality.

    As a summer read, Five Star Billionaire succeeds on that restricted ambition. Flawed as they all are, the five characters are more than adequately developed — the exaggerations and coincidences that are required for the plot are easily tolerated. Having said that, the novel is much closer to being a “beach read” than it is an “expose of entrepreneurial ambition” — an entertaining enough excursion but not one that calls out for a second reading to explore any deeper meaning.

    TransAtlantic, by Colum McCann

    August 15, 2013

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    Purchased at Indigo.ca

    I think it is a fair assumption to say that you could fill quite a large bookshelf with nothing but novels based on the Irish diaspora to North America. It is a genre that shows no signs of abating: Sebastian Barry’s On Canaan’s Side (2011) and Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn (2009) are but two recent examples. Both earned Booker longlist recognition.

    So it is no surprise to see TransAtlantic by Colum McCann on the 2013 Booker longlist. He himself is part of the contemporary diaspora, born and raised in Ireland, now living in New York City. This version, however, comes with a distinct twist. In Book One of the three part novel, McCann turns the premise around, developing three story threads based on “returns” to Ireland, all featuring non-Irish central characters. While the three threads span 150 years, the author does not present them chronologically and I will respect that here:

  • The first (“Cloudshadow”), set in 1919, is the story of Alcock and Brown flying from Newfoundland to Ireland in a modified Great War bomber, a Vickers Vimy, with a bag of letters, the first trans-Atlantic “airmail”. Much of this section is set in St. John’s as the frustrated pair wait for appropriate weather to take-off — there is a prize for the first crossing and they have competitors. The latter part does provide an account of their struggles with storms in the air…and their near-crash landing in an Irish peat bog.
  • The second (“Freeman”) turns the clock back to 1845-46 and tells the story of the escaped American slave, Frederick Douglass, and his historic visit to Ireland. He is on a mission to promote the abolitionist cause, raise funds for it and, perhaps most important, promote his own book (to acquire enough money to buy his freedom). We meet him first in Dublin, uncomfortably resident in the home of his Irish publisher; he eventually moves on to Cork in Northern Ireland. Throught his stay, he grapples with the comparisons between his own slavery of being “owned”, the slavery imposed by Irish class behavior and the slavery resulting from the potato blight.
  • The third (“Para Bellum”) moves to 1998 and centres on Senator George Mitchell, born to parents of Irish lineage but raised by a Lebanese family after being orphaned in childhood. We meet him as he prepares to depart New York for Belfast for the crucial weekend of negotiations that will eventually produce the Good Friday Agreement that finally brings relative peace to Northern Ireland — most of the section concerns his personal activities during those high-tension days.
  • booker logoAll three of those threads feature real-life individuals who emerge as heroes in real-life events — McCann wants to make it clear that Ireland does not just send people to North America but that at least parts of Ireland’s history are reflected in the outcome of “return voyages”.

    In Book Two, however, the author returns to the traditional flow, as he begins to weave his three strands together. While those opening parts outlined “global” stories based on individuals known to this day, the central characters in this section are ordinary, very Irish, individuals, all of whom were introduced as minor accessories in the first third of the book.

    The most important is Lily, whom Douglass first met as an indentured maid in the house of his Dublin publisher. She later showed up at the Cork house where he was staying: inspired by his speeches, she has “escaped” servitude and is on her way to America. We pick up her story a couple of decades later in “Icehouse”; she is married to an American who harvests ice in northern Missouri in the winter and prospers by hauling it to St. Louis in the warmer months.

    In the Alcock/Brown thread, McCann also introduced a Newfoundland reporter, Emily Ehrlich, and her photographer daughter, Lottie, who are covering the departure (“Alcock and Brown have been warned to be on their guard, since the mother and daughter have, by all accounts, a tendency towards nostalgia and firey Irish tempers.”) Despite that warning, Brown has developed a respect for Emily. In fact, on the morning of the departure, she hands him a packet of sandwiches and a sealed envelope to carry on the “first airmail” journey, a bit of “illegal” commerce in the enterprise. In this later section, we follow Emily and Lottie on their first trip to Europe, a six-month magazine assignment that starts with a first-class ocean liner trip and ends with a visit to the aging, alcoholic Brown in Wales.

    Daughter Lottie is also the central character in the third thread of Book Two — now a grandmother she is teaching her grandson tennis at the same Belfast club where Sen. Mitchell relaxes in stolen moments from the peace negotiation process.

    Having updated and braided his threads together in Book Two, McCann moves to 2011 in Book Three (“The Garden of Remembrance”) to bring all the stories into the present day. I won’t try to describe this section here beyond saying I found it the weakest part of the novel — while sympathetic, interesting characters were the strength of the first two books, in this one tidying up story lines seems to take precedence. Alas, that seems to be an issue that most authors of “widescreen” novels have to face.

    I like to provide excerpts from books I review so visitors here get at least a sense of the author’s style. Unfortunately, McCann’s prose approach makes that hard to do — I noticed the same thing in the only other McCann that I have read, the multi-prize-winning Let The Great World Spin. Still, I’ll give it a go. Here’s an example of his detached, almost formal, approach to story narration, in this case Emily and Lottie watching Alcock and Brown’s Vimy as it leaves St. John’s:

    She stands with her daughter at the third-floor window, hands on the wooden frame. They are sure at first that it is an illusion, a bird in the foreground. But then she hears the faint report of the engines, and they both know they have missed the moment — no photograph either — yet there is also a strange exaltation about seeing it from a distance, the plane disappearing into the east, silver, not gray, framed by the lens of a hotel window. This is a human victory over war, the triumph of endurance over memory.

    Out there, the blue sky lies cloudless and uninterrupted. Emily likes the sound of the ink rising into her fountain pen, the noise of its body being screwed shut. Two men are flying nonstop across the Atlantic to arrive with a sack of mail, a small white linen bag with 197 letters, specially stamped, and if they make it, it will be the first aerial mail to cross from the New World to the Old. A brand-new thought: Transatlantic airmail. She tests the phrase, scratching it out on the paper, over and over, transatlantic, trans atlas, trans antic. The distance finally broken.

    Description, by contrast, is almost stream of consciousness. This excerpt follows immediately from the passage quoted above:

    Floating icebergs below. The roughly furrowed sea. They know there will be no turning back. It is all mathematics now. To convert the fuel into time and distance. To set the throttle for the optimum burn. To know the angles and the edges, and the spaces in between.

    Brown wipes the moisture from his goggles, reaches into the wooden compartment behind his head, grabs the sandwiches, unwraps the waxed paper. He passes one to Alcock who keeps one gloved hand on the yoke. It is one of the many things that brings a smile to Alcock’s lips: how extraordinary it is to be munching on a ham-and-butter sandwich put together by a young woman in a St. John’s hotel more than a thousand feet below. The sandwich is made more delicious by how far they have already come. Wheat bread, fresh ham, a light mustard mixed in with the butter.

    Despite the awards, Let The Great World Spin provoked a mixed response from readers and I am sure Transatlantic will as well. On the one hand, McCann likes the “grand” — a grand city in the former case, grand global events in this one. But his real passion in both books is ordinary people and the way they form part of that “grand” scheme — if that scheme represents the impressive oak tree towering above the ground (more than 150 years old in this novel), those characters are part of the essential ball of roots that sustains and grows it.

    Some readers (that includes me) take to that approach while others find it frustrating. For me, McCann’s characters — both the grand and not-so-grand ones — are multi-dimensional, their stories both comprehensive and interesting. And I fully support the concept that the tallest, broadest tree needs roots that we don’t ordinarily see but should appreciate. There may be a bookcase full of previous Irish/North American novels but space deserves to be made for this one as well.

    2013 Man Booker Prize

    July 23, 2013

    booker logoThe 2013 Man Booker Prize longlist is out — and KevinfromCanada has not read a single volume on it! I am not totally surprised at that since I did not make much of an effort to follow new UK fiction this year, although I did expect to see Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life or Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man on the list. Perhaps an even bigger surprise is the absence of two-time winner J.M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus, although that is one that I did not intend to read even if it had won.

    Following the Booker has been a feature of this blog since it started in 2009, but I will admit that I considered abandoning that this year. I read less than half the Booker longlist last year and ended up reading only one shortlisted book — the rest (including the winning Bring Up The Bodies, I’ll admit) had no appeal and it was obvious the jury and I simply had very different tastes. So I was pleasantly surprised when the 2013 list came out this morning to find that a large number of titles held appeal, including a few not yet published (Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland) that I have been eagerly awaiting.

    So here’s the plan:

    Longlisted novels I’ll read for sure

    The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin. Toibin is a personal favorite with three books already reviewed here. This short novel (only 112 pages) has been out since last October (and already turned into a New York play) — I just had not got around to buying it yet.

    Transatlantic, by Colum McCann. I quite liked McCann’s prize-winning Let The Great World Spin and had every intention of getting to this one. The publisher’s description says McCann weaves together three stories (all involving Ireland and America) spread across more than 150 years.

    The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan. This is another short novel (160 pages) that has been on the radar since its appearance in the UK last fall (it still has not been released in North America). The story promises to explore the tensions created in an Irish town following the economic collapse of the Celtic Tiger — the Irish have always done national tragedy well and the latest one has already produced some fine fiction.

    Harvest, by Jim Crace. Crace is a well-respected British novelist and I have felt guilty that I have read only one of his works (All That Follows). He announced that this would be his last when it appeared and I’ll confess that any novel that starts with the burning of a manor house has immediate appeal.

    Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw. It is an indication of the current state of the world that every Booker list needs to feature both a novel set in a declining Western economy (seen The Spinning Heart above) and another set in an exploding Asian one (e.g. Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning The White Tiger a few years back). Aw’s book is this year’s version of the latter set in the booming economy of Shanghai.

    We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo. A novel that seems to fit my “African longing” category — young Zimbabweans who dream of a better world elsewhere and discover that the dream turns out not to be true.

    Books not yet released that I intend to read

    The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton. I have been looking forward to this one (it is not due out in Canada until Oct. 15) as a Giller contender, so now have even more reason to read it. The Booker announcement called it a debut novel which it is not — Catton’s The Rehearsal made multiple prize-lists in 2009-10 (including the Orange). As I noted in that review, Catton is a good example of the new “global citizen” author — born in Canada, raised in New Zealand and residing in the U.S. the last I heard.

    The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri. Another one I have been looking forward to (publication date is Sept. 24) since I have read and liked all Lahiri’s books (sorry — all read pre-blog, so no reviews here). Like many, I was surprised to see her on this list since I did not know she had dual citizenship — she won the Pulitzer for The Interpreter of Maladies and needs to have U.S. citizenship to win that. As with her previous books, this one promises to again explore the conflict of Indian immigrants in America.

    Almost English, by Charlotte Mendelson. Mendelson is another Brit author whom I have been meaning to get to and this seems a good opportunity. Due out Aug. 15, Almost English is another “immigrant” novel, this one featuring Hungarians in West London and the pressures of adjusting felt by its 16-year-old heroine — Linda Grant had a similar theme in the Booker short-listed The Clothes on Their Backs a few years back.

    Longlisted titles I’m not likely to read

    The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, by Eve Harris. Due out Sept. 19, the publisher description holds no appeal for KfC: “19 year-old Chani lives in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community of North West London. She has never had physical contact with a man, but is bound to marry a stranger.”

    Unexploded, by Alison MacLeod. Scheduled for Sept. 5, an English couple and their 8-year-old await the German landing at Brighton. I feel I’ve read enough versions of this story already, although if it makes it to the shortlist I might be tempted to pick it up.

    The Kills, by Richard House. “A political thriller and bravura literary performance” of 912 pages, featuring four books, with multi-media extras. That’s three strikes against it as far as KfC is concerned.

    A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. The Booker announcement was excited that the authors on the list included a “filmmaking Zen-Buddhist priest” — I’m afraid that is a negative and not a positive for me. Both the description of the book (a depressed 16-year-old Japanese decides to document the life of her Buddhist nun grandmother before doing herself in) and a dreadful cover indicate that this simply is not my kind of book.

    Incidentally, if you have ever thought you might want to be a Booker judge check out this picture of the stack of submitted titles. I read a lot of books but contemplating reading that many titles (many of which are quite dreadful, I am sure) in only six months would utterly defeat me.


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