Some Booker Books

Inspired by Rosario and the bloggers of the Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Panel, I decided to read some of this year’s Man Booker longlist. Rebecca, one of the shadow panelists, has a good overview of the list at Book Riot.

I’d only read one book on the list–The Sellout, by Paul Beatty–so I don’t expect to be able to read them all before the shortlist is announced September 13. But once I started, I got a little obsessed. I requested whatever my library had available and bought several others. At least there is nothing quite as chunky as last year’s winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings, or A Little Life. The book I am most likely to take a pass on is Coetzee’s Schooldays of Jesus, which is both a sequel and post-apocalyptic.

There were intriguing connections among my first picks (totally on the basis of what came in first at the library) that came out of seeing them as elements of a single list. No proper reviews here, just reflections.

Michiko Kakutani compared Ian McGuire’s The North Water to The Revenant and Miriam at The Little Professor called it Moby-BearIt’s a grim adventure tale of a 19th-century whaling journey where pretty much everything goes wrong. There’s a nasty villain on board, a plot to sink the ship for insurance money, and then there’s Nature, definitely with a capital N and not in the least maternal. “Cinematic” is an apt descriptor: McGuire’s writing is vivid, his focus is on action rather than introspection, and his pace is breathless. The book isn’t billed as a thriller, but that’s more or less what it is.

I listened to the audio narrated by John Keating, and while his reading is good, I found his voice too tenor and nasal to suit the rough characters and salty language. (It didn’t help that he read Jo Walton’s Farthing series, which I ended up hating).

I zipped through this and it was definitely engrossing, but I guess for me it erred on the side of “life is nasty, brutish and short” without the balance of more positive human qualities. The main character, Sumner, is a disgraced Army doctor who did something that essentially makes him feel dishonored (whether it was really his fault is less clear). In embarking on this whaling voyage, is he looking for escape? redemption? (Miriam’s review is good on this question). He certainly doesn’t find redemption, and while he reinvents himself, he doesn’t escape anything. The book seemed to say “there isn’t a lot of decency in the world, and what there is can’t help us much.”

The North Water opens with a couple of murders and the sexual assault of a child (by the above-mentioned villain, Drax). My initial feeling was “not another neo-Victorian novel that insists on putting in all the sex and violence the Victorians supposedly left out to balance the scales.” (It also puts in almost every bodily fluid you can think of; pretty sure this wins the prize for most uses of “fecal” in any book I’ve read). This happens a lot of often leaves me feeling the balance has tipped too far–it renders the sex and violence mundane and uninteresting. But in the end I found McGuire’s book more complex than that. Colm Toibin has a really interesting review in which he suggests that

there is, behind the narrative, a theory being worked out of how historical fiction can be credibly managed now. Although there are no anachronisms in the book, there are also no long, wearying pages describing the clothing of the period, or the system of belief, or set pieces about the political or social background.

I think this is just right and a great strength of the book. We do see how whaling works, because McGuire focuses so much on action, but the book isn’t loaded down with exposition (which is perhaps part of how it eludes being a pastiche of Melville and Patrick O’Brien). This is a book that feels as if it accomplished exactly what it aims at, not a bad measure of prize-worthiness.

Work Like Any Other, by Virginia Reeves, is also historical fiction, set in 1920s Alabama. It’s more conventional than The North Water (but also mostly avoids “look at my research” exposition). I was intrigued by the premise: Roscoe Martin, a former power company employee, tries to save his wife’s family farm by illegally tapping into the power lines and electrifying the thresher. It works, too, until a young power company employee is electrocuted when he discovers Roscoe’s line. (It reminded me of the part of Robert Caro’s LBJ biography about how bringing electricity to the farms of Texas transformed people’s lives).

My favorite thing in this book was Roscoe’s time in prison, how it chips away at him in ways both good and bad–some of what he loses is ego. It’s another pretty grim story, but there’s some mercy and forgiveness here, too. It’s a fuller picture of humanity than McGuire’s, but at the same time I didn’t always find the characters and their motivations plausible: Roscoe’s wife Marie, for instance. It’s not a bad book, but I didn’t think it was special either.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen is essentially a character study that builds to a thrillery ending. Eileen is neither likeable nor admirable, though I did find her a little (horrifyingly) relatable. Like The North Water, this is a book full of bodily functions and the character’s ruminations on them. Hey, we’ve all had those moments. Haven’t we? Well, Eileen and I have, which somehow made me feel better.

Eileen is a young woman working in a boys’ prison and living with her alcoholic father, whom she keeps provided with gin but otherwise mostly ignores. The house is a mess, she’s wearing her dead mother’s clothes, she’s miserable and stuck. Until the beautiful Rebecca comes along and changes Eileen’s life in a matter of days. I won’t spoil how. Nothing much happens until that last day, but because the book is narrated by an older Eileen, we know something will happen to change her situation, and this built enough tension to keep me going through the early chapters.

I found Eileen a somewhat unreliable narrator: old Eileen both mocks and sympathizes with young Eileen. I wasn’t sure if she was sometimes exaggerating her youthful woes, just how bad her childhood was, but also wasn’t sure how much the older Eileen had changed and learned, how clearsighted she was about her earlier self. Maybe she just moved on. That ambiguity added a lot of interest to the book. It made me think about whom we sympathize with, and what routes out of a traumatic childhood we admire and celebrate. Not Eileen’s–and yet, she survives and finds a way out.

Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton reminded me of both earlier Strout books I read and liked: like Amy and Isabelle, it’s a mother-daughter book, and like Olive Kitteridge, it’s a book of vignettes (though less fully worked out than Olive’s short stories) that moves back and forth in time. In the central time of the book, the early 80s, Lucy is in hospital and her mother, whom she has not seen in years, comes to visit. Her mother tells, and Lucy remembers, stories from her childhood. And we also see glimpses of Lucy’s future, because like Eileen it’s a retrospective first-person narration. I love Strout’s quiet voice and her humane, unsentimental perspective on ordinary relationships and human failings. She’s tender to her characters (and in this way, very different from McGuire). I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Kimberley Farr, but I want to go back and read it so I can appreciate it better.

I contrasted this a lot with Eileen because I listened right after finishing that book. Both Lucy and Eileen are women who have escaped difficult, even traumatic childhoods where they didn’t feel loved. Lucy has done so in a far more conventionally admirable way: she stayed after school to study because it was warm there, and thus won a scholarship and escaped via college and marriage. She’s a successful writer living in New York, and clearly prosperous (she mentions, for instance, having “a doctor who keeps me from looking like my mother”). But this life is something we only see in glimpses and allusions; it is surprising in its absence. Strout is more interested in how Lucy can never really escape her past–none of the characters in these books can–how she carries it with her, is marked by it, retells it. It is her story, her identity. I loved this about the book, the way trauma is not something to be transcended or triumphed over, but something she must live with, however resilient and successful she is.

If you read this far, and you’ve read Lucy Barton, what did you think was going on with the references to AIDS? It sometimes felt to me that they were meant to have a symbolic resonance to Lucy’s suffering, and I wasn’t comfortable with that since, after all, she survives.

Up next? I’ve got Hystopia by David Means from the library. But at the moment I’m taking a Booker break and reading Nnedi Okorafor’s Hugo-winning novella Binti.

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15 Responses to Some Booker Books

  1. rosario001 says:

    I’m ridiculously excited by the fact you’re reading these too! So far, we’ve managed to start with a completely different selection of books, except for The Sellout (I’ve gone back and reread your review of that one, and I think I felt very similarly about it. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the book meant, before just giving up and accepting that was not the point!).

    The North Water sounds like one I should probably leave till last and read only if it gets to the shortlist. I finished His Bloody Project last night and went to read the discussion about it at a goodreads group ( , you might find it interesting, if you haven’t found it yet), and someone compared it to The North Water. It sounds from what you say that they are very different, though. His Bloody Project does provide an excellent picture of a time and place (life in a tiny Highlands croft settlement in the mid 19th century), but although horrific triple murders are at the centre of the plot, you don’t get that “life is nasty, brutish and short” feel from it). It’s my favourite so far.

    I’ve started The Many now, but Work Like Any Other and Lucy Barton might be next.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I love reading your posts, and the discussions/debates of the shadow panel. It’s even more fun than talking about a single book you have both read, because you are comparing and deciding what you would put on a shortlist. Even though prizes are kind of ridiculous.

      Thanks for that link! I had a hard time getting a hold of His Bloody Project, which isn’t out here, but it was finally back in stock at the Book Depository and is on its way. I’m interested in that setting and I like books that are collections of documents. Curious to see your next Booker thoughts!

    • Janine Ballard says:

      His Bloody Project looks really interesting. I’ll look forward to your reviews of it, Rosario and Liz!

  2. Melissa Beck says:

    I’ve read Hot Milk and thought it was okay. I have Serious Sweet and All That Man Is on my TBR pile.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I have Hot Milk and Serious Sweet, which aside from Lucy Barton seem like the ones that are most my kind of book. But part of the fun of a reading project like this is getting hooked by or finding something fascinating in a book that you would not normally pick up.

  3. Sunita says:

    How fun that you are doing this! I’ve been reading and enjoying Rosario’s Booker longlist reviews, and I love to see what readers I share interests with have to say about award nominees.

    The only book I’ve read from the longlist is The Sellout, which I loved and thought was brilliant; it’s one of the best books I’ve read in years and it’s stayed with me in the months since I’ve finished it. I’d be surprised if it wins the Booker, in part because the reviews by people who don’t think it’s all that seem to find it lacking in similar ways. I totally disagree, obviously, but I can see how it happens. Rosario’s point (in her review today) that it is very rooted in the US experience of race is a good one. Of course a great book is often great in part because all kinds of people can connect with it, but in this case I think that if you don’t know that much about not just race and US black culture, but also California at a particular point in time, you’re going to miss some of the layers and the dazzling bits are going to seem less moored.

    P.S. Rosario, I loved your review of the Beatty. I think you totally nailed a number of things about it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It’s very fun–I have a little bit of that Tournament of Books vibe. Good conversations, interesting seeing other people’s responses. I think The Sellout will probably be my top choice in the end, but it IS very American, and that would make me a bit sad to see it win. As Rebecca commented, this is not a very Commonwealth list; it’s dominated by US and UK books and very white (even more so because Eileen is about white characters).

      I always enjoy Rosario’s responses to these books!

      • rosario001 says:

        Thanks, both! 🙂 The Sellout has stayed with me quite a bit, too. I wrote my review as soon as I finished it (it posted a few days later), and I keep thinking about it. I might like it even better now. I wouldn’t mind it winning at all. I agree that it’s very American, but it’s not a part of American life you tend to see in the mainstream, so that’s fine by me!

        • Sunita says:

          I agree, Rosario, if it wins the Booker I’ll be over the moon despite the fact that it’s an American entry. As you say, it’s not mainstream, and Beatty has been writing strong fiction for years without getting widely noticed. If one of the Jonathans were up for the award I’d feel differently, but this book strikes me as sharing some important qualities with the Commonwealth books that have regularly been nominated.

  4. Janine Ballard says:

    I don’t really get the appeal of bodily fluids in fiction, whether it’s literary fiction or horror genre fiction (the other place I’ve encountered it). I think it’s often intended to be a way to add grittiness and realism to a book, but it reads like a shortcut to those things to me. Repelling the reader with something like that is the easiest thing in the world to do.

    I enjoyed Binti (with a couple of minor caveats). I will be curious to see what you think of it, Liz. I am really looking forward to the sequel, too.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, it can feel like a cheap trick. In North Water, I thought it fit because it is such a very *physical* book. I was less sure about Eileen, though part of that is how much she hates her own body. She wasn’t loved, so doesn’t love herself (it’s not presented in such a simplistic way). And also how very narrow her world is–her body is all she has to think about.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        I can see that it might work in these books, but I’ve read enough books in which it didn’t add enough that when I hear a book uses it, I lose some of my interest in reading that book.

  5. Kaetrin says:

    @Sunita – when you said “one of the Jonathans” who were you referring to? #curious 🙂

    • Sunita says:

      I realized after I wrote it that I was too cryptic and provincial. 🙂 I was thinking of US authors, specifically the Jonathans Franzen, Lethem, and Safran Foer, all of whom have received massive amounts of press and many accolades, and none of whom, in my not-so-humble opinion, need to become more famous and acclaimed by winning the Booker.

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