I thought when I retired that I’d not only have oodles of time available to read but that I’d be quite prompt with my reviews. Neither has proved to be the case.
Instead of filling my days with reading and blogging, I’m juggling Pilates classes, the gym, gardening, National Trust volunteering, coffee shop visits with friend. Not that I’m complaining. It just means I have less time available to write content for the blog.
It’s been getting steadily worse over the last two years. Despite best intentions about wanting to do justice to each book I know I’m never going to catch up if I try and write full reviews for everything.
So I’m going to be sharing some mini reviews until I get the backlog down to a reasonable level.
Let’s start with three books that turned out to be so disappointing I had to abandon them well before the end.
Reading Through the Night by Jane Tompkins
Published by University of Virginia Press., June 2019. My copy was provided by Net Galley in exchange for a fair review.
Jane Tompkins was a literature professor but when she succumbed to myalgic encephalomyelitis (also known as chronic fatigue syndrome), reading was about the only activity she could manage.
Her relationship with books and the experience of reading changed substantially. She began to examine whether instead of reading for pleasure, a close examination of a book could provide profound insights into her life.
Her path of introspection begins with Sir Vidia’s Shadow by Paul Theroux, a memoir of his friendship and falling out with the Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul.
The book contains a detailed discussion of this book and Tompkins reactions to different episodes.
I happen to have read – and thoroughly enjoyed – Theroux’s book so I could relate to some of Tompkins’ comments. But she went overboard with page after page of commentary and analysis. I had been expecting to learn about the power of reading to sustain people through difficult times. But this felt more like an academic paper tracing patterns of feelings and behaviours.
I kept thinking surely she would move on to other books or authors. But not a bit of it. Tompkins became so enthused by learning about Theroux that she then progressed to another of his books (The Old Patagonian Express) . And so we were treated to yet another detailed analysis.
At which point (about 25% of the way into the book) I decided enough was enough.
The Midwife by Katja Kettu
Published by Amazon Crossing 2016. My copy was provided by Net Galley in exchange for a fair review.
The synopsis of this book sounded promising. It takes place in the final years of World War II when the Soviet Union and Germany are fighting for control of Finland. This is the backdrop for a romance between a woman nicknamed “Weird-Eye” ,who works as a midwife, and a war photographer who works for the SS.
Unfortunately the author seems to think her readers are deeply interested in the details of Finnish history at this time. Her book begins with a detailed timeline of events the significance of which was lost on me. When the narrative does get underway it becomes even more confusing – the narrative is written in the first person but it switches perspectives between different characters whose identity is not immediately obvious. Too confusing to be a pleasurable experience. Abandoned after 10%.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Published by OneWorld Publications in 2015.
This won the Booker Prize in 2015. It relates the story of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley (never referred to by name, only as “the singer”) and its aftermath. I knew it was written partly in Jamaican patois but once I ‘tuned in” that didn’t present a problem.
The real difficulty was that it has a vast array of characters – the cast list at the beginning shows 75 names. Around a dozen of these jump in to tell their story. One is an American journalist, another is a kid called Bam Bam who saw his father shot in the head. There are several gangsters and a prostitute. Since their appearances are often short, I kept forgetting who they all were. That plus the non linear narrative made the whole book far too confusing.
I gave it a good shot but in the end decided I had far more enjoyable books waiting on the shelves.
No, not the title that’s been the bookie’s favourite and had oodles of critical acclaim with one or two notable exceptions (I talk of course of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara). Nope. The winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize announced tonight is the Jamaican writer Marlon James with A Brief History of Seven Killings. He becomes the first writer from Jamaica to win the award, thus demonstrating despite fears that the Booker was selling out to the Americans, that it is still carrying the torch for Commonwealth writers.
James was apparently the unanimous choice of the judges who reached their decision in just two hours. They called the novel “the most exciting” book on the shortlist and “full of surprises”. Inevitably the choice will not be welcomed universally – some readers will be disconcerted by the fact it has more than 70 characters, makes liberal use of Jamaican slang and profanities and a stop-start structure. I’ve not read it – yet – and I suspect I’ll find it tough going just to keep up with all those characters and three decades of the turbulent world of Jamaican gangster life and politics. But I’m delighted the Booker didn’t settle for a safe option as the best novel of the year.
I should learn from this experience two things however : 1. don’t embark on reading the shortlist thinking that by doing so there’s a fair chance I might be reading the winner 2. don’t rely on me to pick the winner. I fail every time.
I admit defeat. I am clearly not skilled in the art of book prize predictions. When the Man Booker prize judges announced their 2015 longlist today I found that none of the titles that came up in my crystal ball yesterday made the cut. Not one. I had floated briefly with nominating one of the titles that did get chosen: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Not that I’ve read it yet (I’m planning to take it with me on holiday in a few weeks) but it has been getting a lot of exposure recently and sounded like the kind of novel the judges would choose.
My reactions to the list are rather mixed.
On the plus side I was relieved that Kazuo Ishiguro and Kate Atkinson were not listed but disappointed that Colm Tóibín didnt get get selected.
On the plus side I’m delighted that the list contains so many authors that are new to me. But the diversity seems to have dissipated. Last year there were no long listed titles from the Commonwealth countries but five from USA. This year we have five USA authors again but only one each from Jamaica, New Zealand and India.
- Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape) by Bill Clegg, a literary agent from USA. This is his debut novel
- The Green Road (Jonathan Cape) by Anne Enright. The Dublin-born author is a previous Booker Prize winner with The Gathering in 2007
- A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications) by Marlon James, born in Kingston, Jamaica
- The Moor’s Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing) by Laila Lalami, born in Morocco and now living in USA. This novel was shortlisted for the 2015 Pulitzer Prize
- Satin Island (Jonathan Cape) by Tom McCarthy, a Londoner
- The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press) by Chigozie Obioma, Nigerian born now living in North America. This is his first novel
- The Illuminations (Faber & Faber) by Andrew O’Hagan, the Scottish born author is a previous Booker shortlisted author with Our Fathers, in 1999
- Lila (Virago) by Marilynne Robinson, winner of the Pulitzer prize in 2005 for Gilead
- Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus) by Anuradha Roy, born in Calcutta, India
- The Year of the Runaways (Picador) by Sunjeev Sahota, born in Derbyshire, UK.
- The Chimes (Sceptre) by Anna Smaill, a New Zealander. This is her debut novel
- A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus) by Anne Tyler, American born, previously nominated for a Pulitzer prize
- A Little Life (Picador) by Hanya Yanagihara, the second novel by this American author
Im not sure I’ll get to read many of these before the shortlist is announced on October 13. My interest is leading towards The Year of the Runaways, The Illuminations and The Fishermen.
For other views on the list take a look at:
Tags: 2015 Man Booker Prize, Andrew O'Hagan, Anna Smaill, Anne Enright, Anne Tyler, Anuradha Roy, Bill Clegg, Chigozie Obioma, Hanya Yanagihara, Laila Lalami, Marilynne Robinson, Marlon James, Sunjeev Sahota, Tom McCarthy