Two books from the Man Booker list

>> Sunday, September 27, 2015

Quick catch-up post covering two books from my Man Booker prize readalong. Not great successes with me, I'm afraid.

TITLE: The Fishermen
AUTHOR: Chigozie Obioma

The Fishermen is one of the six books that made it through to the shortlist. It tells the story of four boys living in a small Nigerian town in the 1990s. When their strict father is sent by his employers to work in a distant town and leaves the boys with their mother, they take the opportunity to skip school and go fishing in the forbidden river. And that's when the trouble starts.

I'd heard nothing but good things about this book. Everyone seems to love it. Me? Not so much. I just didn't connect with the writing or the characters. I was interested in what it sounded like the story was about, but I didn't really like how it was told, and the characters annoyed me. I read maybe about 40%, but that was enough for me. Also, I'll be completely honest: if I'd picked this up right at the beginning of my Man Booker reading, I might have persevered for a bit longer. However, I came to it close to the end, and knowing I still had 2 bricks to read, I didn't see the point in keeping on with something I wasn't enjoying.


TITLE: Sleeping on Jupiter
AUTHOR: Anuradha Roy

Sleeping on Jupiters is a very disjointed book. There are three story threads. There's a young woman, Nomi, coming back from Europe to the temple town where she was brought up, trying to find the ashram that was the site of her abuse as a young girl. She's ostensible there to work with a guy called Suraj on a documentary. There's the three old ladies taking a last trip together to the seaside, two of them worried that the third is slowly succumbing to dementia. There's Badal, a local guide, sexually obsessed by a young man. I think these threads are supposed to come together in some way, but they just don't. I have no idea why they were together in one book or what the point of them was.

I also didn't think any of the threads were particularly good on their own. I somewhat enjoyed the story of the old ladies, but things just fizzled out completely. The other two threads were basically predictably dreary stories peopled by characters who did not behave with any internal coherence. I did make it to the end with this one, mainly because the beginning was quite promising, but I wish I'd abandoned it as soon as it started unraveling.



Satin Island, by Tom McCarthy

>> Saturday, September 12, 2015

TITLE: Satin Island
AUTHOR: Tom McCarthy

PAGES: 192
PUBLISHER: Jonathan Cape

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Fiction

Meet U. - a talented and uneasy figure currently pimping his skills to an elite consultancy in contemporary London. His employers advise everyone from big businesses to governments, and, to this end, expect their 'corporate anthropologist' to help decode and manipulate the world around them - all the more so now that a giant, epoch-defining project is in the offing.

Instead, U. spends his days procrastinating, meandering through endless buffer-zones of information and becoming obsessed by the images with which the world bombards him on a daily basis: oil spills, African traffic jams, roller-blade processions, zombie parades. Is there, U. wonders, a secret logic holding all these images together - a codex that, once cracked, will unlock the master-meaning of our age? Might it have something to do with South Pacific Cargo Cults, or the dead parachutists in the news? Perhaps; perhaps not.

As U. oscillates between the visionary and the vague, brilliance and bullshit, Satin Island emerges, an impassioned and exquisite novel for our disjointed times.

Another book from the Man Booker Prize longlist. U (yes, just "U") is an anthropologist working for a consultancy. His big, overarching project is to deliver a Great Report, which will use cutting-edge anthropological theory to decode the world. And while he's supposed to be hard at work on that, he muses on stuff. Nothing much really happens to U. He becomes fascinated by a series of news stories about parachutists having accidents. He delivers a lackluster presentation and fantasises about what he should have said instead. He gets involved in a project where he doesn't really do anything and yet he gets fĂȘted. His tepid relationship with a woman limps along, and she tells him a weird anecdote. One of his colleagues dies.

It's been a week or so since I finished this book, and I really don't know what to make of it. On one level, it's exactly the sort of modernist crap I detest: pretentious, self-indulgent, uncaring of the reader. But on another, at least it's not actively hostile to the reader. While the themes are modernist and avant-garde and the form is somewhat experimental, at least it's accessible. Also, I found quite a bit of the content strangely compelling. There were images that stuck in my mind, and some moments that felt true. The Minister in her tiger-striped shoes, rubbing them together to button and unbutton them all through a boring meeting. The rocks made more rocky by an oil spill. Parachutist mysteriously falling to their deaths. A man dying of cancer speaking of how he'd always lived interesting and important events in his life thinking of how he was going to tell people about them, and disturbed that he was about to go through the biggest one, death, and wouldn't be able to tell anyone. Those moments were what kept me reading.

Sometimes U would go on and on about something and I'd struggle to make sense of what on earth he was on about. But some of U's ponderings were actually quite interesting. The thing is, even that didn't feel comfortable to like, like I wasn't meant to find them interesting. Was McCarthy genuinely interested in this or were these sections merely telling me about U and about his world? I got the feeling somehow that they were supposed to be making the point of just how banal and stultifying these sorts of anthropological disquisitions were, and that by finding them interesting, I was proving just how bourgeois and intellectually puny I was. There's a line in the Guardian review that resonated with me: "Perhaps McCarthy’s primary purpose after all is to expose as an empty delusion the bourgeois reader’s pitiable need for alluring characters, emotional heights and narrative closure." Well, who knows.

MY GRADE: A B-. Not mediocre, but very mixed.


Falling in Love with Hominids, by Nalo Hopkinson

>> Friday, September 04, 2015

TITLE: Falling in Love with Hominids
AUTHOR: Nalo Hopkinson

PAGES: 240

SETTING: Various, mostly contemporary
TYPE: Short story collection

Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring, Skin Folk) has been widely hailed as a highly significant voice in Caribbean and American fiction. She has been dubbed “one of our most important writers,” (Junot Diaz), with “an imagination that most of us would kill for” (Los Angeles Times), and her work has been called “stunning,” (New York Times) “rich in voice, humor, and dazzling imagery” (Kirkus), and “simply triumphant” (Dorothy Allison).

Falling in Love with Hominids presents over a dozen years of Hopkinson’s new, uncollected fiction, much of which has been unavailable in print. Her singular, vivid tales, which mix the modern with Afro-Carribean folklore, are occupied by creatures unpredictable and strange: chickens that breathe fire, adults who eat children, and spirits that haunt shopping malls.

Nalo Hopkinson is a new author to me. This short story collection was mentioned in a podcast I listen to and it sounded great, so I picked it up straight away.

The book collects some 20 stories written and published over the last 15 or so years. They all mix, to varying degrees, the realistic and mundane with the fantastical. What I particularly liked was the nature of the fantastical that Hopkinson uses. It's not your usual; it feels innovative and imaginative and fresh and often wonderfully weird. I also loved the matter-of-fact diversity of the characters.

That said, I liked the first half of the collection a lot better than the second. In the first half, there was more of the reality. The fantastical was still a huge part of things, but the stories seemed more rooted in reality and a recognisable world. In the first half we get stories such as the very creepy and tragic Easthound, a sort of post-apocalyptic zombie/werewolf story, Emily Breakfast, where Hopkinson combines the sweetly domestic with chickens which are descended from dragons in a very real sense, and Old Habits, where ghosts wander in the shopping mall where they died, periodically reenacting their deaths.

The stories in the second half were much more into the magical realism realm. They were much more fantastical, with weird things happening without anyone batting an eye or reacting how a normal person would. Magical realism is not my favourite thing in the world. I tend to prefer it when there are rules in my fantasy, when it's clear the author has an alternate world fully formed in their mind, and that this world makes sense. When absolutely anything can happen, I tend to stop caring. What's the point? Good magical realism somehow gets around this, and it can work for me, but Hopkinson didn't really pull it off, I'm afraid.

I thought the stories might be arranged chronologically, and that this would explain the difference between the first and second half, but from looking at the copyright dates, it doesn't appear that this is the case.

MY GRADE: A B-. The first half was more of a B+/A-, but the second half was a C, if that.


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