Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

I want to write something about this but I’m short on time and inspiration. Publisher’s blurb:


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Days Without End, by Sebastian Barry

As always when I listen to an audiobook, it’s hard to write about Days Without End in specific detail. But here is a line I rewound and replayed:

the little kingdom we have pitched up against the darkness

This is an image of the domestic life narrator Thomas McNulty builds with “handsome John Cole,” his companion, “my beau, my love.” Their kingdom recurs in periods of tranquility between horrors. It works as a description of the novel, too, I think, which is a strangely beautiful, humane and hopeful depiction of horror, which offers us love not as a fix for fear and violence and hatred, but as a force which will always exist alongside them, offering consolation. Continue reading

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Booker Aside (4 3 2 1)

Most of the Booker longlist novels are on the short side (250-320 pages), and since I hadn’t read any in advance of taking on this project, I am grateful for that.

Let’s face it, I was never going to real all 866 pages of Paul Auster’s 4 3 2 1. But I was hoping to read a shorter novel’s worth, enough to get a flavor of the four branching timelines of Archie Ferguson’s life. I did not. Because I was bored.

I’ll say just a little about it, but here are two proper reviews if you’re interested: Tom Perrotta’s, which is positive, and Laura Miller’s, which is somewhat more critical and gets at some of why I am abandoning this 87 pages in (“Auster’s habitual style, which is a top-down, summarizing narration that closes like a fist around the proceedings”). Continue reading

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The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

I finished this book this afternoon, listening to the audiobook read by Bahni Turpin. As with my last Booker read, the panel’s choice echoed the day’s news all too well. The legacy of slavery is with us.

The Underground Railroad has already won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, among others, so who needs to hear a lot about it from me?

The one thing I knew about this before I started reading was that Whitehead literalizes the railroad: it has underground stations, rails and trains, as so many of us imagined when we first heard about it as children. In some ways, this turned out to be the least interesting way in which Whitehead reimagines history. As Teresa writes in her review, the railroad functions almost like a time travel portal. Although the setting is clearly the ante-bellum US, it isn’t our US, and as Cora travels to different places, she travels through the ugly history of race in the US. There are places and episodes that evoke Jim Crow, eugenics and the Tuskegee experiments, arguments over gradual vs revolutionary change, respectability politics. Whitehead’s rails and Cora’s journey traverse a wider swath of American history than a more realistic novel could have.

Continue reading

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Autumn, by Ali Smith

Note: I just realized I spelled Elisabeth’s name wrong the whole way through this post, because I automatically typed it the way I spell my own name. I’m leaving it with the error noted rather than correcting the whole post.

Autumn is another novel composed of fragments. Call it a collage, fitting, since its muse of sorts is the Pop artist Pauline Boty, whose collages Daniel describes to Elizabeth.

Daniel and Elizabeth’s relationship is at the center of this novel, love of a sort, if not the romantic sort. In the book’s present-day timeline, the summer and autumn of 2016 (following the Brexit vote), Daniel Gluck is 101 and dying, Elizabeth Demand is 32 and a semi-employed lecturer in Art History.

They met when Elizabeth was a child given a school assignment to interview a neighbour. Daniel becomes a mentor of sorts, introducing to art and literature, going for walks on which they ponder truth and lies and story-telling. “What are you reading?” is his perennial greeting for her.

She buys classics from the charity shop and reads them as she sits beside sleeping Daniel in his care home. Elizabeth may choose these books more or less at random, but Ali Smith didn’t: A Tale of Two Cities, Brave New World, Metamorphoses. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Elizabeth reads. And Smith writes: Continue reading

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