Last year, two of my favorite reads came from the Man Booker shortlist. One of them, A Little Life, is one of my all-time favorite books. Like, possibly top 10. So of course I’ve been anxiously awaiting the longlist for 2016! There are 13 books on it, two of which I’ve already read and 1 of which doesn’t come out in the US until fall (The Schooldays of Jesus), so I read the other 10 back-to-back.
As for the two I’ve read, Eileen and The North Water, you can read my thoughts on those but… let’s just say I don’t think either deserved to be on the longlist (especially when David Mitchell, Don DeLilo, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, etc all had eligible books…).
Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy. Finished July 30th. Last year, I read the Man Booker shortlisted Satin Island and it was one of my favorite books of 2015. My feelings about Hot Milk are very similar to my ones on Satin Island, though I don’t know if objectively they are similar. There are overlapping themes (an anthropologist protagonist, a lack of general plot direction, lots of focus on social science-y themes) but in ways they are wildly different. Yet both are near & dear to my heart and I might not have read them without the Man Booker lists. So thanks, judges, even if I do think you’ve gone a bit off your rocker in 2016.
Hot Milk very much feels like “me as a book.” A directionless 25-year-old girl with a degree in anthropology struggles with her future and general life ennui. I identified very strongly with Sofia: I think for many readers she will come off as annoying but man, so many of her thoughts went straight to my heart.
This is one of those “is there even a plot here?” type of books. This is not an issue for me, and rarely is. This is a slow, dreamy, strange read: the “core” story is about Sofia’s mysteriously sick mother and her determination to find an answer. But this mystery takes a backseat to the strange characters and weird events that happen. This really plays with the idea of magical realism: many of the things seem so circumstantial, so strange, so dreamy that it almost couldn’t happen in real life. Yet there are no straight elements that you could say “oh yes, indeed, magical realism.” It’s all things that could, plausibly, happen. And the surreal mood is really what elevates this from like to love for me. I just… I floated along so happily in this novel. I was so absorbed in the mood and atmosphere and Sofia’s amazing internal monologue that I wanted for nothing.
If you like dream-like literary fiction, plots focusing on cultural anthropology, or “way past coming of age time yet still forever coming of age” type stories, I really can’t recommend this enough. If you loved Satin Island, you’ll probably love this.
The Sellout, by Paul Beatty. Finished July 31st. What a fantastic novel. It’s hard to make a book about racism in America absolutely hilarious, but Paul Beatty does it with style. It’s 24/7, no-holds-barred biting sarcasm, which is exactly my style of humor. Somehow this book manages to be totally laugh-out-loud hilarious but also makes some poignant and difficult comments on race relations, identity, and politics. I feel like this is a really important book: one that’s bound to be controversial, one that will touch a lot of sore spots for readers of any race, but one that opens up a discussion that needs to be had. It never feels preachy or like he’s trying to teach you a lesson: it just comes across as a frank, hilarious diatribe. Like the main character is just spilling out his heart and guts to you and all you can do is listen and try to understand.
His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Finished August 1st. This is a great literary crime novel with a refreshing structure, which is really the star here. The format is so interesting: we start out with a forward from the “author” who is compiling documents about a crime his ancestor committed. We get brief witness statements from people who saw the crime’s aftermath, a document from the killer about his life (which is the main bulk of the book), autopsy reports, a field report from a psychologist, a recreation of the trial, and finally an end note from our fictional “editor.” It’s a really fresh take on the genre: it presents many different sides of the crime, and also has that meta vibe I absolutely adore where you can spend all day picking apart the layers.
The crime itself is simple: a man, Roderick, kills 3 people. This is not a whodunnit: we know from the opening who the murderer is. Its not even, really, a whydunnit: Roderick’s “motive” is presented fairly early on as well. So what’s the draw here, besides the unique format and the historical setting (which, granted, provides some interesting insights into life in those times)? Well, we know why but we don’t know why. Roderick’s explanation for his motivation doesn’t really make sense, at least in the way a sane person would dissect a murder motive (and Roderick seems quite sane). Something about the whole story is very “off” and the novel spends a great deal of time toying with the reader’s expectations of motivation & twists in a crime novel. We expect a specific progression of events and a set reveal of motivations and hidden facts. There are certainly meaningful reveals here, but there’s no thriller-like twist. This is, in a way, a very realistic book: the WOW moment never comes, but somehow the reader is not upset. It’s oddly a very fulfilling story: by the end you still have questions, but at the same time it feels like we got the closure I needed.
So, I can’t really explain why I rated this 3.5 instead of 4 or 5 stars. I really enjoyed it, I can’t think of any overt flaws. It had an interesting and playful structure, the writing was both engaging and beautiful. Yet I came away thinking, “wow, I really liked that, 3.5 stars!” I think if crime fiction or historical fiction is a genre you love this is easily a 5-star book. It really does everything right and I understand why such an underrated, small-press book was nominated for the Booker prize. But for some reason I came away really enjoying it, appreciating all the work that went in, but just liking it–not loving it.
The Many, by Wyl Menmuir. Finished August 3rd. A book that will leave you scratching your head long after you’ve finished it. The basic story, of a man (Timothy) who moves to a dying seaside village to fix up a house, seems very “been there done that.” You expect the themes of urban vs rural, the story of the outsider. But The Many is unlike any other book I’ve read. It’s so surreal and dream-like and unsettling.
First off, there are about a million questions raised. A lot of the plot focuses on Perran, the man who lived in the house Timothy buys. What was he like? How did he die? What kind of person was he? Why is the fisherman Ethan so obsessed with him ten years after he’s passed? What is Timothy’s connection to Perran? Then there’s Timothy’s wife/girlfriend, Laura. Why isn’t she at the house with him? What is she waiting for? What really happened on the vacation Laura and Timothy took to this town a year ago?
The background of this book, the seaside village, has its own set of questions. Does this even take place in our current world? Because here, the sea water is poisonous and full of chemicals. There is a strict border in the ocean that the fishermen cannot cross. Their catch is strange, sickly fish no one has seen before. Every catch is bought sight-unseen by a shady group of well-dressed strangers. Is this some sort of weird post-environmental-disaster setting? Is it just the regular world? The past? The future?
If you want a book full of answers, don’t come looking for them here. I think I can count on one hand the things that are actually resolved. And as the book goes on, more and more questions come up. Events get increasingly surreal to the point that you’re not sure anything is even happening. How much of this is Timothy’s dream? There are also flashbacks to Timothy & Laura’s past that get more and more strange. How could any of this be happening? I spent a large chunk of this book just like, “what the fuck.” But in a good way.
I feel like this is the type of book that will linger with me, the type where I’ll look back at the end of the year and still be thinking about it. So my rating is very likely to change, depending on how many of the unanswered questions stick with me.
My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout. Finished August 3rd. Sometimes I look at reviews and wonder if I read a different book than everyone else. Because this has really great reviews, mostly 5 and 4 stars. But I HATED it. Like, this book is now on my shit list. If it wasn’t on the Man Booker longlist I wouldn’t have made it past 20 pages.
First off, the writing is bad. Here’s an example:
“There was a man in the class who had recently lost his wife to cancer, and Sarah was nice to him, I saw this. We all, I felt, saw this. We saw that this man fell in love with a student in the class who was a friend of Sarah’s. It was fine.”
This is like… a 5-year-old telling a story. Dull, repetitive, childish. The entire book is like that. Lucy will go, “I remember x event. Here’s a boring details of x event. I remember this. Or maybe it happened a different way, but this is how I remember it.” Thanks, I didn’t get that you remembered it until the 3rd time in one paragraph that you mentioned it! And the repetitiveness continues through the whole book. She mentions 4 or 5 times that the AIDS epidemic was “a terrible thing.” Do you have no other descriptors? Not to mention that at one point she is jealous of the gay men who died during it because they had “a community.” Lucy is a boring narrator and also kind of a shitty person.
So the majority of this book is Lucy sitting in a hospital room with her estranged mother. Her estranged mother who beat her, never said that she loved her, and did things like lock Lucy in a truck with a snake when she was bad. Yet all Lucy thinks about is how much she loves her mother (the phrase “I love her/I love my mother” is used at least once every 10 pages). Like, I don’t care about the reconciliation between two shitty people when it’s presented as sentimental crap. None of the characters are self-aware. It’s just dozens and dozens of pointless anecdotes that have nothing to do with Lucy and her mom. It’s all “this neighbor got divorced, this neighbor is dead, your cousin billy bob had a heart attack” FOR 200 PAGES. Nothing that happens matters, either to the reader or the plot. I mean, there’s no plot. Sick woman sees her mom and swaps stories. That’s the fucking plot.
This book is trying so hard to be some sort of… I don’t know, chick lit sentimental “think of the family” type of thing. But honestly, it’s so badly written that even if you like that type of novel I can’t see enjoying this. But hey, 90% of people love it, so maybe I did get a defective copy that slipped through the paws of a copy editor.
Work Like Any Other, by Virginia Reeves. Finished August 4th. This is the type of book I absolutely would not have picked up if it wasn’t on the Man Booker shortist. Historical fiction about an electrician in 1920′s America who accidentally electrocutes someone and goes to jail? Not my cup of tea. And while I definitely can’t say that this is one of my favorites from the list or that I loved it, I found it a very enjoyable read.
The format here is a little different from your average historical fiction. We have chapters set in the past/when the crime happened that are in 3rd person, and chapters from Roscoe (the electrician) in jail. This is definitely a book that relies on characters and emotion rather than plot, because aside from “Roscoe goes to jail” there isn’t a ton going on. But it is, emotionally, very effective. I started off hating Roscoe (a position the author wants you to take, because one of the first scenes is him abusing his son & screaming at his wife) but by the end my heart was breaking for him. I still didn’t like him but I felt his heartache right alongside him, which just shows how talented Virginia Reeves is.
Hystopia, by David Means. Finished August 5th. I read a lot of books during Man Booker season that I wouldn’t normally have touched. This is not one of them. In fact, I found the synopsis so appealing that I took it out from the library a few weeks before the longlist was ever announced! It’s an alternate history book-within-a-book written by a Vietnam vet with PTSD. The ‘author’ of Hystopia, Eugene Allen, comes back from the war a broken man and floods his feelings into his writing. At the beginning and end of the book we get snippets of interviews that show how Hystopia mirrors Allen’s own life, making it a book of many layers.
The core text is interesting enough on its own. Kennedy survives the assassination attempt and serves a third term, America is still mired in the Vietnam War, and the government has come up with a drug that “enfolds” PTSD-triggering memories and seals them inside a person (this idea is based, of course, on some of the real-life fucked up shit that MKULTRA did). But on some people, enfolding fails and they turn out the worse for wear. The story follows a failed enfold, Rake, who is on a murder-tour of America, and the agent trying to track him down. Snippets of our fictional author Allen can be clearly seen: Rake kidnaps a girl named Meg, Allen had a sister named Meg who was (potentially) kidnapped by a crazy childhood friend and then wound up dead. The man who ties all our characters together, Billy-T, is Allen’s real-life friend and Meg’s boyfriend who died in the war. So while yeah, the story of Rake is interesting, it’s more fun to unravel how all the threads are connected.
Towards the end, the book-in-a-book starts to fall apart. This is clearly intentional, and an intelligent choice. The author himself comments on it, and it mirrors his psychological state since he killed himself shortly after finishing it. I mean, a book falling apart doesn’t exactly make for a ‘good read’ in the objective sense but it was an amazing and bold stylistic choice. Hystopia isn’t a book you enjoy reading. It’s not fun, it’s brutal, it’s messy (in both plot and writing), but it’s also undeniably brilliant. And one I definitely want to re-read… probably so many nuances I missed the first time around.
Do Not Say That We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien. Finished August 9th. If you want a book that will break your heart and leave you feeling like life is a series of tragedies we can’t escape, boy oh boy do I have the book for you! Do Not Say We Have Nothing takes place over the most tragic moments of China’s recent history: the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and Tiananmen Square. Though these ae obviously big, sweeping events, our story focuses on one family and how greatly these things affected them.
The actual structure is very interesting. There is a ‘framing narrative’ of a girl in our modern times who is looking for her cousin who came to stay with her after Tiananmen Square. There are current-day snippets of her search, but the majority of it focuses on the stories the cousin tells our narrator: the story of their shared family history during the Cultural Revolution. It’s poetically told, and the character names (Sparrow, Swirl, Big Knife) lend it an air of unreality, like maybe it’s a fairy tale or fable. But the events are firmly rooted in reality, and absolutely tragic.
It’s a stark look at the harsh realities of life in China during those times, but as we see in the modern-day narrative, many of these problems have barely been fixed. There’s very little hope here: there’s moving romance, close family bonds, but it is all overshadowed by the way events out of their control can ruin even the most intimate and private aspects of your life. It’s definitely a rough read, and events tend to get worse when you think nothing more tragic could possibly happen, but it is an absolutely stunning book. So beautiful, so touching, and worth it if you have a strong (emotional) stomach.
All That Man Is, by David Szalay. Finished August 10th. This book should be called “All That White Middle-Class/Rich White Man Is.” This ~novel~ is a collection of 9 short stories that are “thematically linked” (aka dude with no drive suddenly finds ~so much meaning~ in his already full life) and reading it was like some kind of special boring torture. The stories follow a very specific pattern: we’re introduced to a white man (there is cultural diversity though, as it covers several European countries) who feels lost in his life. Some of them have very little, some of them have a lot, some of them are young, some are quite old, but in general they all have an existential problem. Some event happens, and voila, they’re struck with the answer to their problems! Or at least a realization of what their problems are. Rinse and repeat.
My main problem, besides the monotony, was how focused this was on women as accessories. There is a LOT of focus on how fuckable/young women look (a man calls his sister haggard, for example. His own sister). How sleeping with a woman can totally change a man. How important it is to judge every single female immediately based on her appearance. None of the women seem like full characters: they’re props for the male to grow. This is decidedly not true of the other side male characters, so it’s obviously a choice the author made. To make women seem like things men use to further themselves. And the focus on appearance is really, really icky.
There is one exception: the last story, about an old man coping with the loss of mental and physical abilities, was beautiful. His daughter was a great character. He had complex, unique relationships. I really liked it. But the other 8 I really didn’t enjoy. I think a specific type of reader will love this, especially if you are a young man who feels afloat–it’d be easy to identify with the characters. But for me, it offered very little.
Serious Sweet, by A.L. Kennedy. Finished August 12th. This is a very strange book. It takes place over 24 hours, and is a back-and-forth story between two characters who at first seem totally unconnected. And by “at first” I mean for 50% of the book, when we finally get some clues to how they are linked. A weird stylistic choice for sure, because this behemoth is 500+ pages and a LOT of it seems unconnected to the overall plot (aka “how will these two meet?”). My main critique is that this is easily 200 pages too long. I think as a slim, 250-300 page book it would work a lot better. As it is now, it’s basically just the boring days of two people and their thoughts on various things.
I actually liked our female narrator, Meg, though she got a bit grating towards the end. Both Jon and Meg are distinct, unique characters that feel very real. They have flaws, a lot of flaws, but very consistent personalities. With Jon, it’s maybe not an… interesting personality (I found his whole “I am a protector of women!” thing frustrating as hell) but he sure is a fully realized character.
Now, it’s hard for me to say I liked this book, but it’s also hard to say I disliked it. I didn’t care about the plot. I found it incredibly, overly long and stuffed with boring mundane events. I wasn’t in love with the characters. But the writing is gorgeous and rich. I was totally smitten with it. You can read pages of drivel written like this and it’s still a really pleasant experience. I had to stop highlighting quotes because it ended up being practically whole pages. I really just wish it was written about something different, if that makes sense.
So, that’s that! The last Man Booker novel comes out in 2 days, but I needed a little bit of a break before I tackled it so it’ll be in a separate wrapup. I have a few obvious favorites: Hot Milk, The Sellout, and Do Not Say We Have Nothing are my picks for the win, though I’d be quite happy with Hystopia or The Many as well. I’d be downright unhappy if it was Eileen, My Name is Lucy Barton, or All That Man Is.