Sunday, September 7, 2014

Weighing in on the Man Booker Prize Longlist 2014

I'm back with another attempt to weigh in on one of the major literary prizes - the Man Booker Prize.

The longlist was announced 23 July 2014, and the shortlist will be announced Tuesday, 9 September 2014. Maybe I'm strange, but I like to decide for myself without the sway of an award that has already been given.  The time frame is pretty short and some of these books are not yet out in the USA, so I only was able to read half of the longlist.

That said, let's examine the list.  The books I have not yet read because of their forthcoming status or because of some other delay (some of these I'm the next in line at the library) include:

how to be both by Ali Smith (published just this past Thursday. I didn't get to it.)
J by Howard Jacobson (okay, this was published in August, I wonder how I missed that!)
The Dog by Joseph O'Neill (will be published 9 September)
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee (published in June)
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (published last September)
Us by David Nicholls (will not come out until the end of September)
To Rise Again At A Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris (out and on hold at the library)

I want to spend my time discussing the books I have read.

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth
I was intrigued by the idea of this novel, but I didn't last long in trying to read it.  The author, in his first novel, decided to write a faux Middle English to tell the story of the Norman Invasion and its aftermath.  My poor head just couldn't do it.  I tried consulting the author's very scarce glossary of terms after realizing that the words weren't just phonyms (if that's the word) but sometimes completely different in meaning.  But not all words are included in the glossary.  I tried reading it out loud to get into the rhythm of it, but felt I was missing too much of it.  And then the headaches started.  I'm not really a fan of gimmicks in my books.  Perhaps they could create a separate award for linguistic experiments?

Here is a sample from the first page:

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
This was the only book from the list that I had already read by the time the longlist was announced.  It was a finalist for the Nebula Award this year, which is what originally prompted me to read it.  The Nebula Award included more than one book considered to be crossover into literary fiction, or primarily literary, the other being The Golem and the Jinni.  The award went to a space opera novel, but I was as happy to see it on the Nebula list as I was to see it on the Booker.  Fowler has had a busy year, also winning the PEN/Faulkner Award in April for this novel.  Another interesting observation - this is one of two novels on the longlist to include science and Bloomington, Indiana. That must be what happens when you include American authors! You will notice I'm not talking much about this book, and you shouldn't read reviews of it before you read it.  A review, even a summary, would give you enough information to ruin the reading experience.

History of the Rain by Niall Williams
I had not heard of this author prior to seeing the list, although I have noticed they often include Irish authors in the nominations.  This was a novel I expected to like far more than I did, in fact I took a significant break after the first 100 pages to read other things.  It is about a daughter getting to know her father through his library, but there were Too Many Things Capitalized For Importance.  Somehow it was the style that I didn't like.  I usually love books about books.  Still puzzling over why I didn't care more.

Orfeo by Richard Powers
If you're keeping score, this is the other novel with science as a theme, as well as a partial setting in Bloomington, Indiana.  This is also a novel about music composition, music theory, and leaving a legacy.  It is told in alternating chunks from the present and looking back.  I had never read anything by Powers and I was hooked on his style.  I've heard him criticized as the "best worst writer" or something like that but I'm willing for that criticism to reflect on me as a reader because I loved it. I stayed up late into the night to finish it.  There was so much connecting the story to my own life that it was even a bit eerie.

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt
This is a complex novel about a female artist who put out her work through men, told through posthumous journals, interviews with family, friends, and frenemies, and scholarly works.  I admired the complexity and enjoyed trying to piece out what could be believed and what had actually happened, while hating the main character.  There is a bit of coldness to this one, and while it didn't stop me from getting wrapped up in the story, I didn't personally connect with it the way I did with some of the others.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
One of the highlights of my reading life this year was getting to meet David Mitchell at a reading/signing he did in the spring. (I really should blog about that one of these days.) He is one of the few authors I buy books from, sight unseen, the day they are out, and I'm happy to see him back on the longlist.  Here's to hoping this book makes the cut to the shortlist!  This book came out on Tuesday and I am not finished with it yet. I was worried I'd read it too quickly.  It is wonderful, and reminds me of Murakami in the way he is winding little threads of fantasy into the novel.  He does like his threads, much like Cloud Atlas, there are certain things that continue throughout.  There are also little easter eggs for those of us who have read and remembered his other novels, but I'll leave you to discover those for yourself.

I do not envy the Booker judges this year.  And they seem to have a different focus depending on the group. I remember one year where they decided they needed an adventure novel, that was a strange departure.  Last year went more the direction I expect from the Booker - a long, complicated, historical novel (Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries).

I'm hoping this year is the year of the complex novel. I'd include Mitchell, Hustvedt, and Powers for sure. I'd leave out Kingsnorth and Williams. I'm not sure what they will think of Fowler! They also have the full slate of the longlist to choose from, and I am looking forward to seeing that list.  I imagine I will still make the attempt to at least read the short list before the award is announced mid-October. 

1 comment:

  1. This is a book for the Bengalis. Though non Bengalis will also find the book entertaining, but it will resonate deeper with a Bengali. The language, the terms that have been used (there is a detailed glossary), the food, the uniqueness of the relationships of a joint family and the hierarchy, the latent anger, vicious revenge, unfulfilled desires, the class consciousness at every turn, is something that a Bengali will instantly identify, because though the above themes are universal human traits, in this book all of it is depicted in the context of a Bengali family. The book also attempts to unravel some mysteries. E.g. a lot of Bengalis state as a fact (albeit regretfully), that Bengalis can never be successful business people. The book actually painstakingly shows how the patriarch of the Ghosh family, Prafullanath, sets up a very successful paper manufacturing business, It even shows the ambition of this person in trying to consolidate and diversify his business, an ambition no different from a Marwari. However, the second generation fails. Though there are genuine macro reasons like degrading economic and political environment, rising labor militancy, huge corruption arising out of the license raj that slowly started making business noncompetitive etc. the chief reason cited by Prafullanath was the inability of the family to stay together as a one unit to take control of the business and expand. Something the Marwaris excelled. Therefore, a successful business venture rose in one generation and went down with the next. I don't remember any book written in Bengali or English that has been written about this aspect of the Bengalis. The second most powerful aspect of the book is, the detailed journey of the revolutionary, Supratik. This aspect has been held very dearly by Bengalis. The story of the "lost generation", where "brilliant" boys (somehow all of them were brilliant students) left everything and "dived" into something based on a belief. There have been stories written in the past with Naxal protagonists, but all written from the outside, depicting the manifestation of the phenomenon. Either it talked about the devastating impact of the immediate others around the protagonist during the peak of the movement, or the aftermath. But very little about what goes on in the mind of such a character. There were stories of characters going "underground" after which it stopped. But next to nothing about actually what these boys did while "underground" or in the villages. The constant self doubts, the physical alienation from the main movement which was very urban-centric, the constant struggle to overcome the class characteristics, the sheer physical discomfort of living the life of a landless farmer, failures, successes, what led to the annihilation strategy, descriptions of such annihilation (which were essentially murder, devoid of any revolutionary rhetoric, and that comes across) all these and more, has been depicted for the first time. At the end of it all, what you come out with is a tremendously textured experience. And this is the success of the book. Please go for it. It's a ride


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