I don’t have a great track record with completing challenges. It seems the minute I commit to a list of books, my interest in them wanes and it begins to feel like a chore. So when Cathy at 746books.com launched the # 20booksofsummer challenge I wasn’t convinced I could achieve even the smaller target of 10 nothing ventured nothing gained eh? To make success more likely I went for a list longer than 10 titles so if one didn’t fit my mood at the time I had other options.
I’ve done way better than expected – with just over a month to go I’ve read seven and a half (the half is The Female Detective which I simply couldn’t be bothered to finish). I’m confident I’ll get to 10 by the cunning expedient of doubling up on some of these titles with two other reading projects running in August. Tree of Life by Maryse Conde is going to count for the Women in Translation project while A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford was chosen deliberately with one eye to the AllVirago/AllAugust challenge (hop over to heavenali’s blog to find out more about this) . Now if you are struggling with the arithmetic, let me help you out – this means all I need is to read one more and I’ll claim victory. If I manage to bring this off, it will be the first challenge I have ever managed to complete.
Here’s how things stand at the moment.
- This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell – Read –review posted here
- The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester. did not finish
- NW by Zadie Smith Read
- High Rising by Angela Thirkell Read – review posted here
- A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford
- Frost in May by Antonia White
- Last Orders by Graham Swift. Read
- The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis.
- Life & Times of Michael K by J M Coetzee. Read
- The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimanda Adichie Read
- An Elergy for Easterly by Petina Gappah
- Fear and Trembling by Amelie Northomb Read – review posted here
- Tree of Life by Maryse Conde
Of the ones I’ve read the stand out has been The Thing Around Your Neck, a collection of short stories by Chimanda Adichie. Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must be the Place was as enjoyable and readable as everything I’ve read by her previously. Of the two Booker prize winners, Last Orders was fine if not that memorable while Life & Times of Michael K by J M Coetzee was a beautifully written portrait of a man’s passive resistance to the civil disturbances in his native South Africa.
Onwards now to Maryse Conde I think.
First there were 155 contenders. Today’s announcement of the longlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize brought that down to 13. Come September 13, there will be just six left in the running before the big announcement of the winner on Tuesday 25 October.
When I saw the list initially it confirmed what I’d predicted a few weeks ago – that I wouldn’t be familiar with most of the titles (I’ve read just one of these books – My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout). After a few hours of reflection, I’m left with some positive reactions but also some niggles about the selection….
On the plus side …..
I’m delighted to see so many debut authors featured in the list because there’s always a risk with a prize as prestigious as the Booker that it will be dominated by the big names. Thankfully the judges saw past the great and the good to list four debut authors: Hystopia by David Means; The Many by Wyl Menmuir; Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh and Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves. Getting on the list may not translate into huge commercial success unless they also make it to the shortlist but what a confidence builder this will be. It’s refreshing to see that the list made up of names that always make it to the Booker list. Only 2 of the 13 authors (Coetzeee and Levy) have ever previously been long listed for the Booker. I know this means that big names like Julian Barnes, Rose Tremain and Don DeLillo are missing but every year we get similar comments about ‘such and such a name’ being snubbed or overlooked.
Also good to see smaller publishing houses featured once again. Last year independent publisher Oneworld was cock-a-hoop when Marlon James walked off with the ultimate prize A Brief History of Seven Killings. This year they’re back in contention with Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, described by the Guardian as “a galvanising satire of post-racial America”. Salt – a publisher whose output I’m getting to know slowly – also features on the list with Wyl Menmuir – as does a small independent crime fiction imprint Contraband with Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project
One thing I look to the Man Booker Prize to celebrate and applaud is innovation in narrative styles and storytelling techniques. I love the fact that they have selected a crime thriller this year – it’s a genre that often unfairly gets the sniffy treatment from the establishment as being somehow of a lesser standard than more highbrow ‘literary’ fiction. It’s not the first time a crime story has been selected – the 2013 winner Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries – was essentially in that vein. and it does seem that Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project is a cut above your average crime novel.
And yet …..
There is a worrying lack of geographic diversity in this list. It’s so heavily weighted towards UK and US authors (five from each country) that Commonwealth authors barely get a look in and even then 2 of the three hail from Canada. It’s left to J.M. Coetzee to represent the huge geographic swathes of Africa, India and Australasia. The Booker was criticised a few years ago when they changed the rules to allow entries by USA authors from 2014 with alarm bells raised that this would push out authors from the Commonwealth. And so it’s proved to be the case. Are the judges really saying there were no authors from any of those countries that were worthy of listing?? It’s the diversity of previous listed authors that I’ve appreciated, being introduced to writers and cultural perspectives that were completely new to me. I do hope this is a blip and we wont see a pattern emerging in future years.
Author (nationality) – Title (imprint)
Paul Beatty (US) – The Sellout (Oneworld): described as a satire of post-racial America
J.M. Coetzee (South African) – The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker): this will not be published until September 30 so little is known about it other than it is something of a follow-up to his 2013 novel, The Childhood of Jesus.
A.L. Kennedy (UK) – Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape): a London love story between two decent but troubled individuals that is told over the course of 24 hours.
Deborah Levy (UK) – Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton): described as a“richly mythic” tale of mothers and daughters
Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) – His Bloody Project (Contraband): Features a brutal triple murder in a remote northern crofting community in 1869.
Ian McGuire (UK) – The North Water (Scribner UK): a closely detailed story of violence that breaks out between desperate men on a doomed whaling expedition into the Arctic
David Means (US) – Hystopia (Faber & Faber): the novel imagines a history in which John F Kennedy was not assassinated, the Vietnam war drags on and returning soldiers have their traumas wiped.
Wyl Menmuir (UK) –The Many (Salt): the novel tells the story of a man who moves to an abandoned house in an isolated Cornish fishing village. The longer he stays, the more uncomfortable and bizarre life becomes. Apparently he wrote this after attending a creative writing course where his tutors were less than enthusiastic about his effort.
Ottessa Moshfegh (US) – Eileen (Jonathan Cape): set in the 1960s, this tells the story of an unhappy young woman and a bitterly cold Massachusetts winter.
Virginia Reeves (US) – Work Like Any Other (Scribner UK): Set in rural Alabama in the 1920s, it tells the story of a pioneering electricity engineer sent to prison for manslaughter after a young man stumbles on one of his illegal power lines.
Elizabeth Strout (US) – My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking): a striking story about a relationship between mother and daughter. Simply one of the best novels I’ve read so far – see my review here
David Szalay (Canada-UK) – All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape): I’m not clear whether this is genuinely a novel of a collection of stories about a different stage of “man’s” life.
Madeleine Thien (Canada) – Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books): relates the story of musicians who suffered during and after China’s Cultural Revolution.
Through the power of 24-hour international news coverage, the world saw the devastation and human tragedy caused when Hurricane Katrina moved ashore over southeast Louisiana and southern Mississippi early on August 29, 2005. It was one of the deadliest hurricanes ever to hit the United States, causing an estimated 1,833 deaths and leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless.
What the world didn’t know was that at New Orleans’ Memorial Hospital, right in the centre of the maelstrom, life and death decisions were taken that would become the focus of a legal battle. At the heart of the battle lay challenging questions on whether medical practitioners have a duty to protect lives at all costs or whether – in exceptional circumstances – it is acceptable to ease the path of patients to death.
I would have been ignorant of that battle but for an article in The Sunday Times magazine in 2012 (based on Sheri Fink’s award-winning book Five Days at Memorial) which revealed the horrendous conditions at the Medical Centre where thousands of people were trapped for five days without power. Doctors and nurses worked tirelessly in humid, fetid conditions to care for their patients and to get them out as soon as rescue looked possible. But then those very medical staff were arrested and charged with murder when suspicious amounts of morphine were found in the bloodstream of 20 of the 45 patients who died.
Five Days at Memorial grew from a Pulitzer Prize-winning article written by Fink and published in The New York Times Magazine in 2009. She was drawn to the subject because of her experience as a doctor working in areas of conflict and as a journalist reporting on hospitals in war zones. It’s a deeply impressive piece of journalism which draws on more than 2 years of research and interviews with some 500 plus people, from patients to their family members and from hospital staff to legal representatives.
The story she pieces together from emails, phone logs, witness testimonies and floor plans, traces the events from shortly before the hurricane hit land. All her research points to how hopelessly inadequate were the plans of both the hospital, its owners, federal agencies and the city government. Lack of investment in flood water protection and drainage coupled with bad design decisions taken decades earlier meant the hospital quickly lost power for lighting, air conditioning, sewer systems and essential medical equipment. Day after day those trapped in the building waited for rescue by helicopter or boat. Controversially, staff adopted a triage system which saw those with “do not resuscitate” orders placed last in the list for evacuation. What happened on the fifth and final day is clouded with ambiguity. According to prosecutors some medical staff decided to hasten the death of the most critical patients with lethal injections of morphine. Those arrested protested their innocence but for more than two years multiple murder charges were pursued against one doctor and two nurses.
In part 2 of the book, Fink focuses on the investigation against those staff members (a Special Grand Jury refused to indict the three so the charges were dropped) and then examines the ethical issues surrounding euthanasia and health care in disaster scenarios.
Fink doesn’t pull any punches in her assessment of what went wrong at Memorial, seeing it as a microcosm of the larger failures that assailed New Orleans during Katrina, “with compromised physical structure, compromised operating systems, compromised individuals. And also instances of heroism.” She also points to a broader issue in America at that time with emergency preparations skewed, in the light of post-9/11 fears, towards acts of terrorism, not natural disasters.
By 2005, more than a billion dollars had been made available to the nation’s roughly 5,000 hospitals to promote bioterrorism preparedness. Memorial’s most detailed and by far its longest emergency planning scenario was written shortly after the 2001 attacks. This bioterrorism plan ran to 101 pages, as opposed to the 11 pages devoted to hurricanes.
Nor does she let the owners of Memorial off the hook, showing from email traffic how responded with indifference until the acute nature of the problem was staring them in the face. Staff felt their employer had abandoned them despite the extraordinary dedication they had shown in those five days. They received no thank you letter for their efforts and only partial pay when the hospital was closed for a six month clean up.
What lessons can be learned from the events at Memorial, Fink asks in the final sections of her book. She is in no doubt that some kind of crime took place at the hospital though she tempers this with respect and sympathy for the exhausted medical team and the conditions they endured. They took action for the best of intentions but in the absence of any agreed protocols to decide how to ration medical aid, how could they be sure those were the right decisions? “Moral clarity,” she writes, describing the moment the patients were injected with a powerful cocktail of drugs, “was easier to maintain in concept than in execution.” And therein lies Fink’s key point, ethical questions of this magnitude cannot be resolved in the heat of the moment, under what are effectively war time conditions when judgements can be clouded.
To the extent that protections and plans have been put in place since Katrina, recent events have shown them to be inadequate or misguided. Life and death in the immediate aftermath of a crisis most often depends on the preparedness, performance and decision making of the individuals on the scene.
It is hard for any of us to know how we would act under such terrible pressure.
But we have the luxury to prepare and resolve how we would want to make the decision
Five Days at Memorial is a masterful and compelling piece of journalism though not a comfortable reading experience given its subject matter. It was tough going at times because of the sheer weight of information – I became quickly lost in a fog of names of doctors and patients and the finer points of the responsibilities of each federal agency – but the desire to want to know what happened and why kept me reading. The reviewer for the Star Tribune in Minnesota exactly captured my reaction when he described it as “an important book that will make your blood boil no matter which side of the issue you support”
Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink was published in the UK by Atlantic Books in 2013
Ever had one of those days where you can’t seem to settle on anything? After some enjoyable summery days its back to grey skies and rain here in Wales today so the garden is out of bounds. Maybe that’s affected my mood or it could be the signs I might have a cold coming on (I hate summer colds more than winter ones) but I can’t seem to settle to anything this morning.
It’s not like I don’t have plenty of things to do. I have a backlog of about eight reviews to write so I thought I’d give this some concentrated effort but after false starts on two of them I’ve abandoned that. I don’t know how you all approach writing your reviews/thoughts on books but I have to strike the right note from the first paragraph otherwise it becomes a painful exercise. And today my muse has deserted me.
So then I thought I’d make some progress with one of the short story collections on my 20booksofsummer list but although I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around My Neck, the next story in the sequence didn’t grab me as much. Another abandoned activity.
Right I thought, time for a change of tack. Crime fiction I find is wonderful escapist reading and I’ve been eying the British Library crime classics series ever since they started to be re-released in 2014. The success of these releases has been astonishing when you think none of the authors are around to help promote the titles in the way we’ve become used to with contemporary novels – perhaps our appetite for nostalgia and the gloriously painterly covers tell us something about the mood of the country right now? I’d had been hoping someone in the family would think to buy me a few to beautify my bookshelves but no such luck. A recent post over on HeavenAli about The Hog’s Back Mystery – which sounded wonderful – reminded me that indeed I did have have one of the titles in the series via NetGalley.
Ugh is all I can say about The Female Detective by Andrew Forrester.
Originally published in 1864 it is reputedly the first novel in British fiction to feature a professional female detective. in the firm of Miss Gladden, also known as ‘G’. The new edition includes an introduction by Mike Ashley and a foreword by Alexander McCall Smith in which he positions Miss Gladden as the forerunner of more modern-day female detectives like his own character Mma Ramotswe. Ashley’s introduction provides interesting context for the significance of this book – apparently there were no female police officers let alone detectives in the British force in 1864 and indeed they wouldn’t materialise for another 50 years. The Metropolitan Police Force was still rather in its infancy having been established only in 1829, Scotland Yard (the plain clothes detective branch wasn’t created until 1842) and the term detective didn’t actually pass into common usage until 1843. So by creating a protagonist with such an unusual role , Forrester was truly pushing the boundaries.
I wish he’d spent more time creating some compelling stories in which she is the investigator. I’e now read three and they’r rather dull, not helped by the dan-pan, colourless nature of the prose. I’ll give it another 30 minutes but if it’s failed to ignite by then it’s going to get abandoned and become the second book this year I couldn’t finish.
Hm, I could always tidy up the sock drawer I suppose…..
Around this time of the year I’m dusting down my crystal and trying to predict what will be announced as the longlist for the Booker Prize. But with only a few days to go (the list will be announced on Wednesday, 27th July) I’m struggling. Mainly the issue is that I’ve been so focused on reading what I already own from previous years that I haven’t devoted much time to contemporary works.
Of the very few I have read, My Name is Lucy Barton is Elizabeth Strout could be a contender now that American authors are eligible. Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must be the Place is surely going to be on the list? I suspect Gail Jones A Guide to Berlin won’t make it ( the fact that I couldn’t finish it says a lot though I know others rated it more highly than I did).
Fortunately other bloggers who have their fingers on the pulse more than I do, have come up with their own predictions. Take a look at the lists from:
- A Life in Books which also highlights the Elizabeth Strout. Her list has a number of books that are on my wishlist but just haven’t got around to – yet…. http://alifeinbooks.co.uk/2016/07/my-2016-man-booker-wish-list/
- The Readers’ Room This blog is going to be running a shadow Booker event so the judges have made individual predictions. Interesting to see Annie Proux and Louise Erdich on the list – both highly acclaimed authors but because of the eligibility rules in the past were never considered for the Booker. Will this be the year they crack the barrier? https://thereadersroom.org/2016/07/18/2016-man-booker-longlist-predictions/
I’m surprised not to see Dave Eggers’s Heroes of the Frontier on any list. This is a kind state of the nation novel set in contemporary Alaska which has had good reviews so far. I think its not yet out in UK but should make it before the publication cut off date of September 30. Also from the American stable comes Ann Patchett’s The Commonwealth which is a tale of how an unexpected romantic encounter irrevocably changes two families’ lives. It’s due out in the UK on September 8. I haven’t seen any reviews for it yet but if it’s anything like the standard of Bel Canto which I read recently, it will give many other authors a run for their money.
If you feel any of your favourite authors are likely to be overlooked and yet they deserve attention, you can always put their names forward for the highly popular alternative Booker prize event hosted by the Guardian. Nominations are now open at https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/jul/18/not-the-booker-prize-2016-vote-for-your-favourite-book-of-the-year
This year was meant to be the year I completed my self-imposed project to read all the Booker Prize winners. At the start of the year my tally was 28 of the 48 winners and one that I couldn’t finish, leaving me with 19 (I’m not counting the winner of the 2016 prize which has yet to be announced). Since then I’ve read four. so if I keep up this pace I still won’t cross the finishing line by year end. Does that matter? Well not really in the scheme of things. No Booker Prize police are going to come storming my house demanding to know why I didn’t finish by the due date. But equally I don’t want to drag it out for ever.
I put three Booker winners on my list for 20booksof summer as a way of giving myself a kick up the rear end. Which is how I ended up reading the 1996 winner Last Orders by Graham Swift this week. I’m familiar with the story because of the film version featuring Tom Courtenay, Michael Caine and Helen Mirren. It’s actually a rather simple plot: four men spend a day travelling from London to the coastal resort of Margate to scatter the ashes of their friend Jack Dodds, as he requested just before his death. The book’s title comes from the idea that these men are fulfilling Jack’s final request but it’s also a play on the phrase used to signal closing time in the pub, which is where all these men spend a lot of their time.
Three of the men; Ray, Lenny, and Vic; knew Jack for most of their adult lives and come from the same working class part of London. The fourth, Vince, is Jack’s son. As they journey to Margate their histories, thoughts and feelings are revealed in a series of short chapters each told from one of the character’s point of view. So far it’s rather easy reading and I’m wondering why this Swift’s novel was considered better than Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance which were on the shortlist.
Here’s what I still have left to read. Some of them are going to be more challenging, then others namely How Late It Was, How Late, Vernon God Little and G so I’m likely to leave these to last. Anyone have some recommendations for me from this list of what I should get to earlier?
2015 – A History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)
2010 – The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson)
2004 – The Line of Beauty (Hollinghurst)
2003 – Vernon God Little (Pierre)
2001 – True History of the Kelly Gang (Carey)
1997 – The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy)
1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (Kelman)
1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)
1992 – Sacred Hunger (Unsworth)
1988 – Oscar and Lucinda (Peter Carey)
1986 – The Old Devils (Kingsley Amis) – on my 20booksofsummer list
1983 – Life & Times of Michael K (Coetzee) on my 20booksofsummer list
1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)
1972 – G. (Berger)