Archive for the ‘2014 Booker Prize’ Category

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

October 30, 2014

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

I finished reading The Bone Clocks in late August. It is a complex work that (I thought) required some contemplation before writing a review — although I did post a summary of my thoughts over at Mookse’s Booker Prize forum. When the Booker jury left Mitchell’s novel off its short list, I’ll admit that reviewing it here slipped down my list of priorities.

Two months later, I figured it was finally time to opine on The Bone Clocks here. And when I reviewed what I had said over at Mookse’s forum, I have to admit I couldn’t make many improvements. So here’s what I had to say only days after finishing the novel — I can only say now that in memory, these initial thoughts hold up very well:

While I have ranked The Bone Clocks as the best of the six Booker longlisters that I have read, that endorsement does come with significant caveats. Like the other five, it has weaknesses as well as strengths — for this reader, the strengths were enough to forgive the parts that did not land with me.

booker logoFor those who know Mitchell’s writing, this is much more like Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten than Jacob de Zoet or Black Swan Green — although it should be noted that some characters from his previous novels do reappear briefly here. Much like Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks is a series of linked novellas — six in this case, the first set in 1984, the last in 2043. Unlike Cloud Atlas, however, one character — Holly Sykes — appears in all six and is an important “physical” presence in each.

Novella one introduces us to her as a 15-year-old who runs away from her father’s pub in Gravesend to take up with her boy friend — whom she finds in bed with her alleged best friend. She runs away again and spends a few days on the lam where she has some weird experiences — and Mitchell introduces us to some characters who will play bigger roles in later sections.

The main character in novella two (set in 1991) is Hugo Lamb whom we meet as a Cambridge undergraduate. He is also a card cheat and a thief of valuable stamps (from a brigadier who has dementia). Mitchell applies his substantial satirical talents to good effect not just in Cambridge but in the Swiss Alps where the college toffs head for a Christmas holiday of skiing and drugs. In this one, Holly shows up as a lounge waitress on that holiday — she and Hugo spend a weird night together (this is Mitchell, so weird is another continuing presence).

In novella three (2004), war correspondent Ed Brubeck (whom we met in novella one) is the focus — he is Holly’s partner and they have a daughter. Mitchell again demonstrates excellent observational and narrative skills — this time around a family crisis (the daughter disappears at a family wedding) and some quite good scenes from various Mid-East conflicts.

Fading novelist Crispin Hershey is the “star” of novella four (2015). He’s another Cambridgite, had some early successes and is now struggling — his latest effort meant to mark his “return to form” has been savaged by one of the students we met in novella two who is now a well-regarded critic. Holly by this time has written a book about some of her paranormal experiences and the paths of the two cross at various book festivals. Again, Mitchell segues into some delightful writing about backbiting and outright back stabbing in the literary world which made this section highly readable.

I said Holly was the “physical” link in the books — this being the Mitchell of Cloud Atlas, there is also a paranormal, mystical one. In the first novella, a pre-teen Holly heard voices from “the radio people” and had some “precognitive” experiences (that’s what her own best-selling book is about). These other-worldly references become more prominent in the next three novellas and take over completely in novella five (2025). In this one, Holly gets hooked up with the Atemporal Horologists who wage a psychosoteric war with the Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Order of Sidelhorn Pass. I won’t even attempt to describe it.

Novella six (2043) returns to Holly, now in her seventies and living in a protected zone of Ireland — we are into serious post-apocalyptic, dystopian territory here as Mitchell ties up both the physical and paranormal threads.

I loved the first four novellas — Mitchell has an eye and a voice that acutely captures his version of reality. The final two were very much a stress — I have a deep aversion for “booga booga” novels and films (that is the phrase that Mrs. KfC and I apply when books or films head deep into paranormal, religious cult, mystical, dystopian turf). Having said that, I am quite aware that that is often where Mitchell chooses to head and I was hardly surprised. And I would have to admit that it is a tribute to his talents that I read through them with only a minimum of distaste as opposed to the loathing that I’d normally experience. And even those two sections had their bright moments, despite my negative bias.

As I said at the start, definitely some weaknesses for this reader — but the good parts were more than strong enough to offset them. I’d even rank The Bone Clocks above Cloud Atlas, which had been my favorite Mitchell up to this point.

Again, when I returned to these initial thoughts I found they held up very well. I usually include excerpts to indicate a writer’s style and tone — there are none here, because Mitchell uses a different version of voice in each of the six sections. And, for what it is worth, as much as I appreciated the eventual Booker winner (Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North), The Bone Clocks would have been my choice as the best of this year’s Booker offerings. With winter (and time for thoughtful reading) coming on, I would not hesitate to recommend it.

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2014 Booker Prize winner

October 15, 2014

2014 flanaganAustralian Richard Flanagan has won the 2014 Booker Prize with The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a dramatic novel centred on the experiences of the Australian prisoners of war who built the Siam to Burma railway under the cruel supervision of their Japanese captors.

While I think this year’s Booker Jury made some mistakes along the way (mainly with their choices of the first American authors to make the longlist and then leaving some very good books off the shortlist), I’d have to say they got it right in the end. I had some reservations about The Narrow Road to the Deep North, as you can read in my review, but it certainly would have been my choice from the official shortlist. And I would have had a hard time choosing between it and David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (I promise I will get a review up soon) as my favorite Booker eligible title this year.

A final note: I think there is some irony present in an Australian win. As you can see from comments on my post when the longlist was announced, some of us were concerned that opening up the Booker to American authors was bad news for Commonwealth writers. Usually, the longlist features two or more — Flanagan was the only one represented this year, while there were four Americans in the 13 longlisted titles. I’m sure some of my fellow Commonwealth types will be joining me in cheering at the final outcome.

booker logoDespite that positive note, I continue to feel that the Booker is stumbling around, searching for a new identity. I only read seven of the 13 longlisted titles (and three of the six on the shortlist) this year — most of the rest failed to spark my interest, although I may try to get to a couple of them (such as Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others) over the winter. And I can’t help but notice that debate around the Booker, not just here but elsewhere on the web, has declined dramatically in the last few years. As one who has been following the Prize for decades now, I am eager for it to get back on track.

Orfeo, by Richard Powers

September 22, 2014

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

A lot of readers whom I respect have nothing but good to say about Orfeo. It received very positive reviews in the professional press. Just last week, it was named to the National Book Award longlist. Earlier, it was one of the first four novels by U.S. authors to be named to the Booker Prize longlist, although it failed to make the shortlist. And at Trevor’s Booker forum, five of the 10 people who read it at the longlist stage ranked it best overall.

I’ll cut right to the chase and admit that I am an outlier on this one. For this reader, Orfeo was difficult, disappointing and unrewarding — it was a real chore getting to the finish.

Powers introduces us to the book’s central character, Peter Els, in his home microbiology lab, “clad in mufti, protective goggles, and latex hospital gloves”, where he is engaged in his project to alter and reconstruct DNA:

No one thinks twice about the quiet, older bohemian in the American Craftsman at 806 South Linden. The man is retired, and people take up all kinds of hobbies in retirement. They visit the birthplaces of Civil War generals. They practice the euphonium. They learn the tai chi or collect Petoskey stones or photograph rock formations in the shape of human faces.

But Peter Els wants only one thing before he dies: to break free of time and hear the future. He’s never wanted anything else. And late in the evening, in this perversely fine spring, wanting that seems at least as reasonable as wanting anything.

That quiet retirement is about to change dramatically. Peter’s dog, Fidelio, has just died. Obviously in the early stages of dementia, Els has called 911 — even though all he wants to do is bury his faithful companion wrapped in a treasured quilt in the back yard. While the EMTs tell him to call Animal Care and Control, they also take quiet note of the lab paraphernalia and pass those observations along to Homeland Security authorities.

booker logoEls is an adjunct professor at Verrata College, an avant-garde composer who still teaches a music appreciation course at a nearby senior citizen’s residence. It is while there that he hears his house has been surrounded by police and yellow tape, invaded by haz-mat-suited scene of crime officers determined to find out just what kind of terrorist science is going on here.

In fact, Els has just been pursuing a lifelong interest in the inextricable links between the roots of music and science. Rather than returning home to explain that, he chooses to take flight — one can’t help but think that dementia is having its way with him again.

Okay, that premise had promise, particularly in the way that Powers develops some of the background. One of the reasons that Els loved Fidelio so much was that “music launched her into ecstasies…when any human sustained a pitch for more than a heartbeat, she couldn’t help joining in.” For Els, music (and chemistry for that matter) isn’t something that is “composed” it is just “there”, waiting to be discovered. And we return to the young Peter, who even at age eight was equally fascinated by his clarinet and chemistry set.

While the investigation of Els and his flight will remain a constant backdrop in the novel, Powers soon reduces it to a secondary role. Els’ decision to flee is accompanied by a kaleidoscopic return to his past and how he has come to where he is — and it is the process of that where the author’s real interest lies. And while along the way we meet some worthwhile secondary characters in his wife and best friend (a musical director, rather than composer) from college, they too are only supporting factors in the novelist’s over-riding story.

Unfortunately for this reader, much of that is expressed in pages long explorations of avant garde classical music and the deeper meaning of its attachment to events. I am paraphrasing but Els comes from a school that feels that “beautiful” music is a trite travesty — they want atonal (you can insert other adjectives here — I love music, but I come from the beautiful is just fine school) compositions that disturb, not comfort, listeners. And for what it is worth, I like to make up my own mind about what music (or art for that matter) has to say rather than assuming there is some complex version of reality behind it that I have to discover.

Powers’ first excursion into a lengthy explanation linking music with harsh reality, how Messaien came to compose Quartet for the End of Time when he was a prisoner of war, initially sparked some interest on my part — but halfway through I was unconvinced and finding it a dreadful slog. Alas, that was merely a sign of more to come — we go through similar excursions into Els’ youthful compositions, a John Cage experience while at college and an opera that he was commissioned (highly improbably, since he is unknown with no established record) to compose for the New York City Opera.

Those who have an affinity for avant garde music undoubtedly might find something in these passages. I am afraid my response was much like that of his separated wife (who is one of the people he seeks out in his flight). While she was initially impressed and interested in his search for music, his failure to find anything eventually caused her to urge him to take up a real life — and when he didn’t, she took off with his daughter in tow.

Powers also indulges in some digressions into the relationship between music and chemistry (the search for a mathematical formula that results in both) which I found equally unrewarding. Again, as the reviews and response from other readers show, that negative response may well say more about me that it does about the novel.

If your response to all this is “well, KfC just wasn’t up to this one”, I’ll have to admit you may well be right. I did finish Orfeo, but after the opening quarter, it was an exercise in frustration.

2014 Booker Prize shortlist — and 2014 Shadow Giller Jury plans

September 9, 2014

booker logoThe 2014 Booker Prize Jury has done it again: completely befuddled KfC with its shortlist. I had read six of the longlist (reviews of Orfeo and The Bone Clocks are still to come) and figured at least four of those would be on the shortlist. Not so fast, Kevin — only two, one of which I hated. Whatever, here is the official list.

Already reviewed here

2014 flanaganThe Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. A truly worthwhile novel that will likely end up being my choice for the Prize. Dorrigo Evans is an Australian doctor, the senior officer at a POW camp involved in building the Siam to Burma railway for the brutal Japanese. The highly dramatic POW experience is bookended with less satisfying (for me at least) sections on Dorrigo as a love-struck youth and as an unworthy, yet heroic, survivor of the war, damaged forever by his prison camp experience.

2014 ferris1To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris. I couldn’t understand how this disappointing novel made the longlist — a shortlisting is totally beyond me. Paul O’Rourke is a successful Park Avenue dentist — the rest of his life is pretty much a disaster. The downward spiral gets worse when a reasonably accurate website for his practice that he has nothing to do with suddenly shows up, soon to be followed with Facebook and Twitter accounts. That “identity theft” part of the novel is actually quite funny, but it heads into absurd (and thoroughly non-entertaining) territory when those social media accounts start to quote “scripture” from a long lost, forgotten Israeli tribe and the book becomes a cult exploration.

Reviews to come

2014 mukharjeeThe Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee. I have a fondness for multi-generational Indian sagas (Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance remains my favorite novel), so I was personally not disappointed to see this one on the list, even if it has met very mixed (actually, mainly negative) reviews from readers whom I respect. The Ghosh family starts out rich but is headed into decline as the novel opens. That produces a wealth of inter-family disputes. And when one son heads into radical politics, the door is opened to exploring the abuses and brutality of the Indira Gandhi era.

2014 fowlerWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. I had every intention of giving this one a pass, but a couple of positive comments here from visitors when the longlist was announced have convinced me it deserves a try. Still…the story of a 20-year-old whose parents decided to raise her with a chimpanzee for a sister? By the author of the best-selling Jane Austen Book Club? Doesn’t seem like my cup of tea, but I guess that on occasion I should try one of these more “populist” works.

2014 smithHow to be Both, by Ali Smith. I have respect for Smith’s work and planned on reading this one (it is just out) but early reviews from acknowledged Smith fans say it is not up to her usual standard, so I am somewhat concerned. The novel is actually two linked novellas — one set in Italy in the fifteenth century, the other in modern day Cambridge. Then again, I do like “art” books and there is an art theme to this one.

And one I won’t be reading

2014 jacobsonJ, by Howard Jacobson. I don’t like Howard Jacobson books (see my troubles with his Booker-winning The Finkler Question). And I loathe dystopian novels. So this dystopian tale by Howard Jacobson (promoted on its cover as a new 1984 or Brave New World — although there are rumors Jacobson writes his own blurbs) has no appeal whatsoever. Here’s a link to Mookse’s Booker Forum discussion of J for those who want more data — so far those who have read it seem to share my distaste.

All in all, I find this quite a bizarre shortlist. I thought Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World was an amibitious effort, even if it had some weaknesses. Niall Williams’ History of the Rain was an impressive “Irish village” novel. And I’ll tease my upcoming review of The Bone Clocks by saying it is my new favorite David Mitchell novel — and I have read every one that he has written. So I really can’t understand what the Booker Jury was thinking — perhaps the Booker and KfC are finally parting ways.

11shadow logo

On to a more positive note: the 21st Giller Prize Jury will announce its longlist one week from today. And that will open the deliberations of the 20th year of the Shadow Giller Jury, chaired by KfC. I’ve repeated the Shadow Giller story so many times here that I won’t be doing it again this year — if you are new to this site, here’s a link that tells the story.

For the first time in history, the Shadow Giller Jury last year was so unimpressed with the Real Giller shortlist that we were forced to “call in” an additional title for our own shortlist deliberations — and Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda emerged as the Shadow Giller winner. Let’s hope this year’s Real Giller Jury shows better judgment than their predecessors (or this year’s Booker Jury for that matter).

This year’s Shadow Jury will be the same as it has been for the last four years: Our American judge, Trevor, who blogs at The Mookse and the Gripes; Kimbofo, our London-based Australian ex-pat, who blogs at Reading Matters, Alison Gzowski from the Globe and Mail (who doesn’t blog but comments on the three who do) and KfC. We are even more international than the Real Giller Jury.

As is usual with only three weeks between longlist and shortlist, the Giller is a challenge for the Shadow Jury — we try to make sure at least one of us reads each longlisted book before the shortlist is announced, but our real action doesn’t start until then. Trevor and Kimbofo will be posting their thoughts on shortlisted titles on their blogs — I will offer excerpts from those reviews here and there will be a sidebar on the right where you will find links to reviews from all Shadow Jury members as they are posted.

And, of course, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Please join us for another exciting Giller Prize year.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan

September 1, 2014
Purchased from the Book Depository

Purchased from the Book Depository

Richard Flanagan opens The Narrow Road to the Deep North with a series of literary snapshots that serve as a virtual executive summary of what is to come.

First we have a quick picture of Dorrigo Evans in the kitchen of his Tasmanian home in the 1920s. The five-year-old has dropped a rock on his thumb, creating a blood blister under the nail. While his mother pierces the nail to relieve the pressure, a visiting Jackie Maguire laments the disappearance of his wife the week before. The young Dorrigo remembers seeing his much older brother Tom with Mrs. Maguire the week before she vanished: “…his brother with his hand reaching up inside her skirt, as she — a small, intense woman of exotic darkness — leaned up against the shed behind the coaching house.”

Next, we meet Dorrigo eighteen years later, lying in bed with Amy in a third floor room of a run-down hotel in Adelaide — by this time, he is studying medicine at the University of Melbourne. The two have an idle lovers’ conversation that turns suddenly serious: “Will you leave Ella?…Will you leave Keith?” The conversation ends abruptly when Dorrigo tells Amy he is shipping out to the war the next Wednesday.

And finally we meet Dorrigo Evans, now 77, again in a hotel bed, this time with 52-year-old Lynette Maison, the wife of a close colleague:

Inexplicably to him, he had in recent years become a war hero, a famous and celebrated surgeon, the public image of a time and a tragedy, the subject of biographies, plays and documentaries. The object of veneration, hagiographies, adulation. He understood that he shared certain features, habits and history with the war hero. But he was not him. He’d just had more success at living than at dying, and there were no longer so many left to carry the mantle for the POWs. To deny the reverence seemed to insult the memory of those who had died. He couldn’t do that. And besides, he no longer had the energy.

Whatever they called him — hero, coward, fraud — all of it now seemed to have less and less to do with him. It belonged to a world that was ever more vaporous to him. He understood he was admired by the nation, if despaired of by those who had to work with him as an ageing surgeon, and mildly disdained and possibly envied by the many other doctors who had done similar things in other POW camps but who sensed, unhappily, that there was something in his character that was not in theirs which had elevated him far above them in the nation’s affection.

That memory arises because the Dorrigo has just finished writing the foreword for a book of illustrations that were done by a fellow POW in the camps and it has brought on a flood: “For good reason, the POWs refer to the slow descent into madness that followed simply with two words: the Line.” Flanagan concludes this extended overview of his story with some memories of incidents of brutality that were a daily feature of life on the Line.

booker logoWhat follows (and forms the bulk of the novel) are three extended sections that effectively flesh out the summary.

The first is the story of Dorrigo and Amy. He is doing his final training as an army medic in late 1940 when he receives a telegram from elder brother Tom urging him to visit their uncle Keith who runs a pub in Adelaide. Tasmanian Dorrigo knows almost no one in Australia, so he decides to make the trip. Shortly before, however, he has an enigmatic and entrancing encounter with a beautiful young woman at a book launch in Melbourne. Dorrigo is engaged to Emma in what is best described as a “contract of convenience” — his response to meeting this girl underlines the fragility of that engagement.

That woman is Amy — and it turns out she is the youthful second wife of Uncle Keith. Dorrigo does visit the pub/hotel and the two begin a passionate affair that means Dorrigo spends all his free time in Adelaide. This youthful life experience — and this section of the book — comes to an end with two near simultaneous events: Dorrigo’s shipping out to war and an explosion and fire that destroy the pub, taking four lives in the process.

Section two of the book is the longest and by far the most intense. The combat portion of Dorrigo’s war does not last long and we next find him in a POW camp. While the Brits had contemplated building a railway linking Siam and Burma (one version of the “narrow road to the deep north” of the title — Basho’s poetic travelogue would be another), they abandoned the idea as an impossibility. The Japanese, eager to invade India, have declared it a necessity and further that it must be completed in 18 months. It will be built by POWs and forced labor from Asian countries the Japanese have conquered.

All of this section takes place in the POW camp and be forewarned it is truly brutal. Dorrigo is the senior Australian officer in the camp and the Japanese masters respect hierarchy. Daily, it falls to him to determine which prisoners will be sent off to build the Line and who will remain in camp in the tents of the dying and near-dying — once he has “assigned” the work force (the Japanese decree just how many hundred that will be each day), Dorrigo spends the rest of his day trying to keep the near-dying as alive as he can.

I won’t go into detail, but this is definitely the best-realized portion of the book — I’d love to offer an excerpt, but I am afraid each incident goes on for pages and a paragraph or two would be an inadequate illustration. Flanagan develops three-dimensional characters of both prisoners and their keepers. A wide assortment of atrocities and brutalities are described in excruciating, painful detail. Certainly, there are examples of what would qualify as “heroism”, but mainly it is a picture of living hell.

And finally, there is the post-war section of the book. Dorrigo is not the only prisoner survivor — we also return to the stories of others who are every bit as emotionally damaged as he is. And Flanagan also follows the stories of some of the Japanese prison minders who managed to escape post-war prosecution, mainly because the Allied winners just didn’t have the time to get to them all. It brings us up to date with the Dorrigo Evans we met in the opening sketch that summarized the book.

As much as I admire the ambition and much of the execution of the novel, I have to admit that I have some disappointment with the overall result — basically, the POW section is so powerful that it makes the other two seem woefully weak in comparison. Dorrigo’s affair with Amy is a satisfactory presentation of youthful infatuation (and sexual attraction) when you read it — it seems empty once Flanagan gets to the prison camp.

The final section suffers from the same flaw. We know from that opening part that Dorrigo has become an Australian success as a surgeon, not to mention war hero — but that 50 year portion of his life is left curiously under-developed in the novel. Certainly the war has left him severely emotionally damaged but he seems to have recovered well enough to manage a string of recognized accomplishments — Flanagan just does not create the tension that shows how he managed to do both. Alas, the Japanese tormenters who were three-dimensional in the prison camp also become two-dimensional in this part of the novel.

I do realize that at least part of this was deliberate on the author’s part: war damages the psyche of all who are involved, be they temporary “winners” or the final ones, and all combatants live damaged lives from then on. But I can’t help but wonder if Flanagan was as emotionally exhausted in the writing following the powerful portrayal of the POW camp as I was in the reading. I was more than ready to discover how Dorrigo had become a nationally recognized, if personally conflicted, success — and that just didn’t happen. When I started that final section, I was quite prepared for The Narrow Road to the Deep North to emerge as a truly stunning novel; instead it slipped to being just a quite good one.

History of the Rain, by Niall Williams

August 27, 2014

We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling. That’s how it seems to me, being alive for a little while, the teller and the told.

Purchased at the Book Depository

Purchased at the Book Depository

Ruth Swain pens that credo on the opening page of her personal opus which will become History of the Rain. By age 15, the precocious Ruth was a “sufferer of Smart Girl Syndrome” (Ruth uses a lot of capital letters, as her writing coach notes). But when she headed to Trinity College, she collapsed and came home again: “I have had Something Amiss, Something Puzzling, and We’re Not Sure Yet.”

So Ruth is confined to her bedroom in the attic of the Swain family cottage in Faha, Ireland, in search of something to do. Her room has two distinguishing features — two skylights that let her track the rain (and occasional welcome sun) and 3,958 books (carefully catalogued by her father who collected them) in tottering stacks that virtually surround her. It is those books that inspire her project to tell the Swain family story.

Mainly, she wants to recount the story of her father’s life, but to do that she needs to go back as far as her great-grandfather, the Reverend Absalom Swain of Salisbury, Wiltshire, who created the foundation axiom of the Swain family:

What the Reverend bequeaths to our story is the Swain Philosophy of Impossible Standard. In the year eighteen hundred and ninety-five he leaves it to his son at the christening, dipping the boy into the large cold name Abraham, and stepping back from the wailing, jutting the jaw. He wants his son to aspire. He wants him to outreach the ordinary and be a proof to God of the excellence of His Creation. That is how I think of it. The basis of the Philosophy of Impossible Standard is that no matter how hard you try you can’t ever be good enough. The Standard raises as you do. You have to keep polishing your soul ahead of Entering the Presence. Something like that.

booker logoWe will learn more about the Reverend (including his affection for the Pole-vault — “firing himself into the sky”), but that is probably indicator enough for review purposes. The Reverend sends Abraham off to Oxford to read the classics and Prepare for Life, which pretty much comes down to “waiting to get The Call”. A Call does come, but it is not from the Almighty — rather it is the arrival of the Great War and Abraham’s decision to enlist.

Abraham’s war does not last long. He is seriously wounded on his very first offensive, before he has even fired a shot. His life is saved first by a sympathetic German soldier who applies a tourniquet rather than finishing him off with a bayonet — and then by a young English doctor, Oliver Cissley, who “has come to war to save lives”.

Abraham will spend the rest of the war in a home for injured soldiers and Cissley will die in it — but saving Abraham’s life has left a mark that will stretch on. The doctor’s mother visits Abraham in the home and shares with him her son’s letters and his pride in saving Abraham. The Cissley family has done well out of the war (they manufactured “two million Mills grenade bombs”) and wants to give Abraham a house and lands in Ireland that they own in memory of their son.

Ireland (well, at least the Ireland of fiction) is notorious for having land that is hostile to farming and the plot that Abraham Swain is given is even more resistant to cultivation than most. While he struggles along for some years, slowly but surely he develops an obsession with salmon fishing. He records every catch he makes in succeeding decades and eventually produces a book, The Salmon in Ireland, with “Seventy-eight Illustrations from Photographs and Two Maps” — the novel features a number of excerpts.

Ruth’s father, Virgil, has no better luck farming the plot than his own father did and, like Abraham, develops his own obsession (hopeless obsessions are an essential of the Swain Philosophy of Impossible Standard). It starts with collecting and reading books (those 3,958 volumes that are Ruth’s constant companions) and evolves into endlessly writing poetry. He never actually gets any poetry published, but the people of Faha do regard him as the town laureate.

There is a fourth generation of male Swains present as well in the History of the Rain, Ruth’s twin brother, Aeney. She tells us early on that he is no longer with us — she takes a fair while to tell the story of his death.

That family history is the superstructure of this book, but it would be wrong to imply that that is all there is to it. Ruth’s manuscript is as much written contemporary oral history as it is historical story — each chapter opens in the here-and-now with incidents from her own confined life, be it the visit of townsfolk, domestic crises or the latest on her mother’s mother, the ninety-seven-year old Nan (or is she ninety-nine?) who continues to rule the Swain cottage from her seat by the fire.

Indeed, it is those contemporary thoughts that supply History of the Rain with one of its most distinctive features. Ruth is a product of all those ancient books she has read (Dickens is a particular favorite) and her prose when she is writing about her ancestors reflects that — to the reader, for the most part it feels as through the book was written many decades ago. And then, out of the blue, there come references to Facebook or the latest economic collapse and we are abruptly reminded that Ruth’s chronicle is very much being written in the present by a 20-year-old girl.

All of this made for a pleasant enough read. While this is the first Niall Williams I have read, it is his ninth novel — and, as I have come to expect from Irish authors, he certainly knows how to use the language. As the novel went on, I came to quite like and appreciate Ruth — her pictures of the male generations of the family were not quite as well developed but they too become real-enough characters.

The problem is that History of the Rain is what I call an “Irish village” novel and that sub-genre has some challenges of its own. “Irish village” novels do acknowledge that there are global issues at play (be it a famine, the Great War, the Troubles or the latest economic collapse) but those are so remote and beyond the influence of the book’s characters that they are just “there”. Of far greater consequence are the localized, personal issues (such as Ruth’s illness or Nan’s latest problems) that do genuinely impact on day-to-day life. Alas, there is an inherent limitation in focussing on the “small” while only acknowledging the “large” — and it takes some special skill to make it memorable.

All of which means that while I found History of the Rain to be an entirely worthwhile read, this fan of “Irish village” novels would have to admit that it did not measure up to the best in the genre. I would point to John McGahern’s That They May Face The Rising Sun, John Borderick’s The Pilgrimage and even Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart (which was Booker longlisted last year) as better examples of the sub-genre. (And Colm Toibin has more than one that would be worthy of including on that short list.)

Don’t let that put you off History of the Rain — but if you don’t yet have your own list of “Irish village” favorites and want to expand it, there are better places to start than this one.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris

August 12, 2014

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Imagine a youngish chef (say in his late 30s) who has decided he has had enough of all traditional cuisine, be it French, nouvelle or any of the more recent fusions. He’s going to create his own — he’ll still use a stove, pots and pans and knives but this mix of Inuit, Brazilian and Eritrean is going to be something special. A few of his customers end up thinking he is brilliant, many at least appreciate the creative effort and some (more than a few it has to be said) think the whole thing is just plain silly.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is the third novel from 39-year-old Joshua Ferris, but I’d say he has already “typed” himself as a writing version of that young chef. I sampled his first, Then We Came to the End (2007), and found it an enjoyable, if somewhat frothy, romp. Set in a failing Chicago ad agency, it had some truly comic moments and diversions, enough to offset the parts that just didn’t make sense — other readers had a much more negative reaction than mine. I was not tempted by his second, The Unnamed (2010), because reviews indicated it was more of the same. And I would have given this one a pass as well had it not been one of the original American novels to make the Booker longlist.

So just what story “cuisines” does Ferris try to fuse together in this one?

booker logoThe foundation one is dentistry of all things. The central character, Paul O’Rourke, is a Park Avenue dentist of some repute, with five treatment rooms (no office — the rent is expensive and that would mean one less chair) and a thriving practice. He’s proud of his work, so don’t think as a reader you won’t get some dental treatment reading, painful as it might be. As well, all but one of the other story threads are rooted in aspects of the dental practice.

Next into the mix is Ferris’ comic strain — and I knew from his debut (and some New Yorker stories) that he is a fine comic writer. Dentist O’Rourke, despite his reliance on his “me-machine” (that’s what he calls his cellphone) is techno-fearful and has always resisted the creation of a website for his practice:

I was a dentist, not a website. I was a muddle, not a brand. I was a man, not a profile. They wanted to contain my life with a summary of its purchases and preferences, prescription medications, and predictable behaviors. That was not a man. That was an animal in a cage.

And then one day, Paul’s receptionist/office manager (and ex-lover), Connie, calls him to the computer station: on-screen is a website for O’Rourke Dental, complete with accurate information and real, if dated, pictures of the staff. The novelist spins this out not so much as “identity theft” but “identity virus” — the website eventually is supplemented with a Facebook page and Twitter account. Given Paul’s own fascination with his me-machine, this particular thread supplies the platform for some quite good satire on modern social media.

Stream three springs from the clinic staff — in addition to Connie (Jewish, but not observant), there is his hygienist, Mrs. Convoy (who is a devout Catholic) and Paul’s aide, Abby, who appears in the novel only behind her pink paper mask and never says a word. Ferris doesn’t use this threesome so much as characters as he does metaphors for Paul’s historical love life:

I don’t get pussy whipped. I get cunt gripped. I get cunt gripped and just hope to get out alive. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, as the saying goes — so you can look forward to that one irrecuperable battering ram of a ballbreaker that will finally do you in.

To be cunt gripped means to show up at the door unannounced. It means calling at all hours. It means saying “I love you” far too soon, on or around the second date, and saying it all too frequently thereafter. When they caution that I might be moving too fast, I double down and send them flowers and fruit. To be cunt gripped is to believe that I have found everything heretofore lacking in my life.

This has happened four times in Paul’s life. The first two were in puberty and don’t really count at this stage of the story. The third, Sam Santacroce, came in university; the fourth was Connie. And we soon discover that Paul’s fascination was not with either Sam or Connie as individuals, but with their families, specifically their religious commitment and the “community” that that created — rabidly Catholic in Sam’s case, Jewish in Connie’s. Paul is not religious at all but he has a desperate compulsion for the security of the formality, ceremony, structure and discipline, above all discipline, that comes with fervent religious belief, whomever the particular superior being might be.

That desire fuels the fourth thread of the novel, which segues off both it and the “identity virus” and becomes the dominant one for most of the book. Whoever has created the website and other social media for O’Rourke Dental is a sect leader and excerpts from the religious texts of a lost Levantine tribe subject to frequent attempts at genocide start to appear on the various social media vehicles of the “virtual” Paul. Without giving too much away, the source of the identity virus is the founder of the religion of Ulm (whose central tenet is doubt in everything, starting with whether or not there is a God — not atheist or agnostic, just doubtful) and who is identifying and recruiting individuals (like Paul) whom he has decided have ancestral roots in the lost tribe.

And finally, just to put some icing on the cake and add some offbeat spice to the story (sorry about that — couldn’t resist extending the mixed metaphor, but Ferris has that effect on me), Paul is a lifelong Red Sox fan who watches, tapes and saves every game but always absents himself from the room for the sixth inning. Actually, he was more a fan of the Curse of the Bambino — since the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, his enthusiasm has ebbed but old obsessions are hard to shed.

Much like Harriet Burden in the last book and first Booker longlister reviewed here (The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt), Paul is a character searching for his identity (which makes the “virtual” one perhaps the most innovative aspect of the novel). Unlike Harriet, however, who has a number of substantial identities that she is trying to meld into a single one, Paul’s quest is self-evidently hopeless from the start.

And, for this reader at least, silly.

While the early parts of the novel had their moments — especially the bits around social media — once the real and pseudo religious ones took over, it became positively distasteful (okay, my metaphor is now totally out of control — blame Ferris). And I would have to say that the twist that Ferris uses to end the book said to me that he was every bit as confused by his fusion as I was and had to grasp to find a conclusion.

I could accept To Rise Again at a Decent Hour as an acceptable, if failed, effort at literary risk-taking that deserved to be published. For the life of me, I can’t understand how the Booker Jury decided it was one of the thirteen best novels of 2014.

The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt

August 7, 2014

Purchased from Indigo.ca

Purchased from Indigo.ca

Harriet (“Harry”) Burden is the widow of a prominent New York art dealer, Felix Lord. She is herself an artist who exhibited to little notice in the 1970s and 1980s — she stopped exhibiting but remained very much part of the art world, even if merely (at that point) as “spouse of Felix”.

Harriet was convinced that her work was overlooked primarily because she was female and after Felix’s death embarked on a project titled Maskings: “…declaring that it was meant not only to expose the antifemale bias of the art world, but to uncover the complex workings of human perception and how unconscious ideas about gender, race, and celebrity influence a viewer’s understanding of a given work of art.”

Maskings involved Harriet engaging three males to serve as “fronts” for exhibitions of her work (I’d describe them as installations which grow ever more complex): The History of Western Art (1998) by Anton Tish, The Suffocation Rooms (2002) by Phineas Q. Eldridge and Beneath (2003), by an artist known only as Rune. In one sense, she proved her point: all three exhibitions were well received. In another, she failed dramatically — Rune insists that he was the creative force for Beneath, acknowledged as the most complex of the three. While she is generally given full credit for the first two, critical debate continues around who really created Beneath.

booker logoThe reader learns all this (and much more) in the opening pages of The Blazing World, which come in the form of an Editor’s Introduction from I.V. Hess, an academic who has pursued Harriet’s story and produced this book. Harriet is dead at this point, but she has left behind 24 journals devoted to subjects ranging from autobiographical items to notes on reading to “quantum theory and its possible use for a theoretical model of the brain” to thoughts on the study of monsters.

Perhaps the most relevant of the journals cited in the Introduction are the two devoted to Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673), who served as Harriet’s alterego (the novel’s title comes from one of Cavendish’s works) and who also felt “brutally constricted by her sex”:

Snubbed by many with whom she would have liked to engage in dialogue, Cavendish created a world of interlocutors in her writing. As with Cavendish, I [Hess] believe that Burton cannot be understood unless the dialogical quality of her thought and art is taken into consideration. All of Burden’s notebooks may be read as forms of dialogue. She continually shifts from the first person into the second and then to the third. Some passages are written as arguments between two versions of herself. One voice makes a statement. Another disputes it. Her notebooks became the ground where her conflicted anger and divided intellect could do battle on the page.

Burden complains bitterly about sexism in the culture, the art world in particular, but she also laments her “intellectual loneliness”. She broods on her isolation and lashes out at her many perceived enemies. At the same time, her writing (like Cavendish’s) is colored by extravagance and grandiosity: “I am an Opera. A Riot. A Menace,” she writes in an entry that directly discusses her spiritual kinship to Cavendish. Like Cavendish, Burden’s desire for recognition in her lifetime was ultimately transmuted into a hope that her work would finally be noticed, if not while she was alive, then after her death.

Hess does not just discuss the notebooks in the Introduction, she (I’m assuming Hess is female — we aren’t told) outlines her own investigative process. She’s discovered that Harriet/Harry wrote some critical reviews of her own work under the pseudonym Richard Brickman (and perhaps some others). She has had full access to conversations and interviews with Harriet’s two children, Maisie and Ethan, and their work (both are involved in the art world as well). She has researched and interviewed the three frontmen/collaborators, Harriet’s childhood best friend, her post-Felix lover and a host of others.

The most dominating characteristic of The Blazing World is its structure, so let’s pause to outline that here. After that introduction, the novel proceeds in “chapters” that range from excerpts from the notebooks to interviews with those who knew Harriet to essays from Maisie and Ethan to relevant articles culled from academic journals. While the arrangement is roughly chronological, the voice, style and specific subject matter all change from chapter to chapter. My mental image while reading The Blazing World is that it is a literary version of doing a massive jigsaw puzzle: the Editor’s Introduction is the helpful full picture on the box but after that we are left to figure out where the detailed pieces themselves fit in that picture. And in this particular puzzle, the “pieces” come in a welter of different sizes, shapes and artistic styles which makes the “solving” even more difficult than usual.

There is another characteristic which for readers is every bit as important. As the author’s note at the end of the novel reveals (and fans of Hustvedt probably already know), the novelist herself is a multi-disciplinary creature. This is her fifth novel, but she also lectures on artists and theories of art. She has published a non-fiction work, The Shaking Woman or A History of Nerves, “an interdisciplinary investigation of the mind-body problem”. And she has lectured at international conferences “on neuropsychoanalysis, neuroethics, and neurophysiology”. All of those interests show up in The Blazing Woman — this is one of those novels that features some lengthy footnotes and numerous citations of other books ranging from poetry collections to philosophy.

Given that the shifts in voice, person, text and scholarly (or narrative) point of view occur every 15 pages or so, all this makes The Blazing World a very difficult book to read. By the halfway point, I found myself skimming almost as many sections as ones that I was reading closely — neuropsychoanalysis, obscure theories of art and digressions into centuries-old philosophical disputes are pretty much ventures into opacity for this reader. There were so many threads being presented and I was finding only a few of them worth the attention. Indeed, were it not for the novel’s presence on the Booker longlist (and it was my first read from that list), there was a powerful inclination to abandon the novel — an inclination that I suspect many readers will indulge.

I kept on, however, and in the final analysis I am glad that I did. At about the two-thirds point, I found that the threads that were important to me kept popping up more and more often. And, despite the odd structure of The Blazing World, I found it was developing an entirely worthwhile structure of its own.

Harriet (or Harry or Richard or whomever) — artist, journal-keeper, reader, polemicist, philanthropist, spouse and mother — is a creature involved in a lifelong struggle to find her identity. Only is this case, it is not a search for “An Identity” but rather how to meld together the numerous fully-formed identities that are part of her character (in that sense she is a reflection of Hustvedt) so that they form a single individual. As her death approaches, that struggle/challenge has not been answered and acquires an increasing urgency.

Given all the parts that I skimmed, that suggests that I would find much more if I went back and gave The Blazing World a second read — and I am sure that I would. Despite my overall positive assessment, I won’t be doing that: my own struggles and challenges on the first read were enough for me. I am sure that budding academics in the future will be spending many months, even years, paying attention to the many threads that are twined together in this novel and producing lengthy theses that purport to represent the whole cloth.

How did this novel come to the Booker longlist (one of four that represent the first American contingent under the new Prize rules)? I am guessing that that “academic” reference I just made might be the answer. This year’s jury features a number of academics whose life work consists of the kind of investigation that I.V. Hess has undertaken with Harriet Burden — and I suspect Hustvedt’s portrayal of that process made the novel a better read for them than it was for me. I won’t be pressing The Blazing World onto a lot of friends as a “must read” but if interdisciplinary academic searching is something that strikes your fancy, you might want to give it a try. And I will admit that the picture of Harriet “Harry” Burden that finally came together for me is one that will remain in memory.

2014 Booker longlist and KfC’s plans

July 23, 2014

booker logoFirst, the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris (Viking)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Serpent’s Tail)

The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)

J, Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)

The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)

The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell (Sceptre)

The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)

Us, David Nicholls (Hodder & Stoughton)

The Dog, Joseph O’Neill (Fourth Estate)

Orfeo, Richard Powers (Atlantic Books)

How to be Both, Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)

History of the Rain, Niall Williams (Bloomsbury)

Coverage of the annual Booker competition has been a feature of this blog since its inception in 2009 — if you scroll down the sidebar on the right you will find full long and short lists from the last five years, with links to my reviews. In the first few years, I managed to read every longlisted book. I gave up that completist chore a few years back (too many books that I knew going in would not interest me) but still have found that more than half the list interests me enough to read and review — and I’d say that will be the case this year.

For those who follow the Booker, the question awaiting the longlist this year was “how many Americans will be there?” — this being the first year that the prize is open to American citizens. The answer is four — Joshua Ferris, Siri Hustvedt, Richard Powers and Karen Jay Fowler. That is about the number that I would have expected but there is a side effect that I lament: Commonwealth writers have virtually disappeared from the list (Australian Richard Flanagan is the only representative). I’m sure I’m not the only Canadian who rues this development — particularly since the Americans are hardly unknown talents that we have never heard of before.

Indeed, I would say another side effect of the new rules is that debut writers have fallen by the Booker wayside. While longlists usually featured a couple — sometimes even more — there is nary a one on this year’s list. The U.K. vs U.S. duel is pretty much the only theme.

I have not read any of the 13 novels, but ordered six this morning and intend to get to them as quickly as possible: Ferris, Flanagan, Hustvedt, Powers, Williams and Mukherjee. As far as I can tell five of the 13 have not yet been released (Mitchell, Smith, O’Neill, Jacobson and Nicholls) — Mitchell, Smith and O’Neill would have been on my list to read even without the Booker. That means there are four (Fowler, Kingsnorth, Jacobson and Nicholls) I don’t think I’ll be contemplating reading — your comments or a promotion to the shortlist could change those plans.

The Booker shortlist will be announced Sept. 9; the prize winner on Oct. 14. I’ll update on both those events.

And please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts — on Booker listed novels or those that did not make the longlist cut. With the new rules, this year is a brand-new experience. While I can’t say that I particularly like what I see so far, maybe that is just a case that the negatives are obvious and I haven’t discovered the positives yet.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell

July 28, 2010

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

My bookies today posted their odds for the 2010 Man Booker, and as I expected David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet at 9/2 has joined two-time winner Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America at 4-1 at the top of the list as near co-favorites to win this year’s prize. (Remember bookmaker odds are not an estimation of quality; rather they are a reflection of where the betting public is putting its money.) Mitchell’s novel received enthuiastic reviews when released in the UK earlier this year and an equally positive reception with its North American release a few weeks ago — no less a star than Dave Eggers enthused about it in the New York Times.

I am a serious David Mitchell fan and when 2010 dawned this book was at the top of my “looking forward to it” list. I have read all four of his previous works; Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten were exceptional; Number9dream and Black Swan Green well above the norm. While the latter has a fairly traditional structure, the first three mentioned established some Mitchell characteristics — multiple story lines, intricate plots and language and a rare ability to continuously engage the reader in a kaleidoscopic experience.

So why am I so disappointed by The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet? I started and abandoned it twice, believing that either too high expectations or the wrong reader attitude might be to blame. I persevered to the end the third time through and while it was a better experience, I still find the book wanting. I will try to explain why — at the very least, the review may provide some guidelines to potential readers on what to look out for.

First, a very brief outline of the plot. The Jacob De Zoet of the title is a Dutch clerk whom we meet in 1799 as the ship he is aboard approaches Dejima, an artificial, fan-shaped island off of Nagasaki, 200 paces long, 40 wide. It is basically a collection of warehouses and is the cloistered Japanese Empire’s sole port — once a year a ship from the Dutch East Indies Company arrives for a trading session of some weeks, when it departs a handful of Dutch are left behind to manage things and get ready for the next visit. Jacob has signed on for a five-year term, the only way he could persuade the father of Anna back home that he would have the means to be a worthy husband. He has another, far trickier assignment. As the assistant of the new Chief, Vorstenbosch, he is to rigorously examine the books of previous years to document the corruption the company is certain has been taking place.

Few Japanese, beyond the Empire representatives and members of the Interpreters’ Guild, are allowed on the island. Only one, Orito, is a woman. Her face badly scarred by a childhood burn, she is a practicing midwife who has saved the magistrate’s child in a difficult birth. As a reward, she is allowed to train with Dr. Marinus as his only female student — he also trains a handful of Japanese, looks after the Dutch, but mainly pursues his interest in botany.

Complications ensue — the book is 479 pages after all (Mitchell tends to write long books). Scores of other characters are introduced, new schemes of varying import are hatched regularly and there is a fair bit of violence, but all of those bigger picture stories are viewed through the lens of these two characters.

Which, for me, is the first and perhaps most serious of author Mitchell’s problems. He is an incredibly meticulous and detailed writer, who builds his story one intricately detailed block at a time, with immense amounts of necessary background — not unlike the Russians, say Dostoevsky, who take 300 pages to establish the elements of the story before they actually begin it. That trait, in fact, is one of the very real strengths of Cloud Atlas. But that novel has six different story lines, set in different eras spread across centuries, all in different places with different casts of characters — and it is a joy to hold all those elements together in your mind as the author gets ready to start. In this book, there are only two central stories and two lead characters, a clerk and a midwife, and that simply isn’t enough structure on which to impose Mitchell’s impressive mounds of detail.

A welter of voices, intricate prose and a cat’s cradle of narration, it turns out (at least for me), require an equally complex web of stories — and this novel simply doesn’t have that, which makes the reading all too often tedious and annoying, You know something big is eventually going to happen (it is no spoiler to say it does), but the process of getting there is wearisome.

That concern could be set aside if the prose style and language are so strong as to carry themselves (and those who like the book do salute the prose) but that sure didn’t work for me. Mitchell frequently sets his detail in dialogue, so consider this example from midway through the book:

“‘Master Ueda replied that the Koyamas were well aware of my origins as the daughter of a shrine but saw no objection. They want a daughter-in-law who is dutiful, modest, resourceful, and not a'”– Orioto’s voice is joined by sisters who lovingly recite the sobriquet — “‘prissy sherbet-guzzling miss who thinks “hard work” is a town in China. Lastly, my master reminded me that I am a Ueda by adoption, and why did I suppose the Uedas to be so very far below the Koyamas? Blushing, I apologized to my master for my thoughtless words.'”

“But Noriko-san didn’t mean that at all!” Hotaru protests.

Hatsune warms her hands at the fire. “He is curing her shyness, I believe.”

The blizzard of punctuation in that quote, incidentally, is another frequent effect, which I found jarring. When you are having trouble with prose, it is the little things like that that eventually really get to you. Here is another example from just two pages later:

“The story goes,” Yayoi says, curling Orito’s hair around her finger, “that when I was born with these” — Yayoi taps her pointed ears — “the Buddhist priest was called. His explanation was that a demon had crept into my mother’s womb and laid his egg there, like a cuckoo. Unless I was abandoned that very night, the priest warned, demons would come for their offspring and carve up the family as a celebratory feast. My father heard this with relief: peasants everywhere ‘winnow the seedlings’ to rid themselves of unwanted daughters. Our village even had a special place for it: a circle of pointed rocks, high above the tree line, up a dry streambed. In the seventh month, the cold could not kill me, but wild dogs, foraging bears, and hungry spirits were sure to do the job by morning. My father left me there and walked home without regret.”

(Potential spoiler coming up.) I went to the middle of the books for those quotes because it sets up my final grumble (for the review — I have others). In both those quotes, Orito and Yayoi are sharing their background — the two are effectively imprisoned at a “nunnery” in a shrine where they are “engifters” who are “gifted” by the masters and accolytes and the resulting offspring are taken from them. Remind you of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood? Or perhaps Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro? It certainly reminded me; both those authors did it better and I say that having liked neither book. Again, it may have been a case that my frustration with Mitchell’s book caused me to make exaggerated criticisms but every section of the book seemed to be derivative of something done better by someone else — and I got no sense that these were homages or references to those authors, because they just go on too long to be a nod of honor. Besides, Atwood and Ishiguro are still writing and not yet ready to be elevated to Patrick O’Brien-like imitation (yes, that is a hint to another derivative section).

Mitchell does eventually set the active part of the novel going for the last 100-150 pages and, when he is in a go-forward mood, he is quite good at action. Again, I am out of step with most of the people who like the book — they admit the ending is weak, I found it the best part of the book. Perhaps I was just relieved at approaching the finish, but when Mitchell did get into an active voice here, he reminded me why I liked his previous books. (For a recent, excellent discussion of how he makes all this style work successfully check out Hungry Like the Woolf’s review of Cloud Atlas here.)

End of KfC rant. Despite the positive critical reception for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, I should note that I am not the only dissenting voice. My fellow Shadow Giller juror, Trevor Berrett at themookseandthegripes had some similar concerns in his review although he does end up much more positive than I did. And a couple of readers whom I respect on the Man Booker debate site have also said they abandoned it. For a much more positive assessment (with a far more complete look at the plot than I have provided) and an interview with David Mitchell, check out John Self’s Asylum thoughts here.

I very much wanted to like this book and again note that others found much in it. Despite my respect for Mitchell, I honestly don’t think my problems with it are my fault. All of which probably makes it a certain 2010 Man Booker winner. Oh well.


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