Man Booker Prize

Book Review – A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life is the “tragedy porn” equivalent of Fifty Shades of Gray. Prior to reading, I thought no author could write a more disturbing portrayal of human sexuality as a tool of cruelty than Elfride Jelinek. With this book, that torch has been passed to Hanya Yanagihara.

There’s an old adage in writing that an author should make the protagonist endure the worst possible thing that could happen to him/her. A Little Life proved that there are limits to this theory. The author pushed the envelope again, again and again when inflicting misery on Jude St. Francis. She did this so prolifically that the story degenerated into a caricature of itself.

I found the story premise beyond all bounds of believability. Jude had the most original career path I’ve ever encountered. He started out in life as a child sex slave. After being liberated from that ordeal, he became a prostitute. Then he moved on to the role of adolescent sex slave. Following this, he graduated law school and earned a reputation as a brilliant attorney. To make this even more remarkable, while working as a lawyer he pursued a master’s degree in Mathematics; at MIT, no less. Shortly, after this he ended up in a committed relationship with the most popular actor in the world. All this took place as he spent his evenings cutting himself.

I AM NOT making light of child abuse or people who cut themselves. To be clear, I thought the author’s description of the abundance and nature of Jude’s travails very difficult to accept. He endured more inhumane treatment than the ones I’ve described, as well. I’m limiting my examples so as not to reveal spoilers.

While I’m not a psychologist, I thought the character’s traits inconsistent. I understand that childhood abuse leaves scars that never heal. My issue with Jude emanated from him being a brilliant man capable of attending prestigious schools, performing a very challenging job in the face of a physical disability (the result of yet more abuse), and, still, he struggled so much in letting his close friends get to know him. I could understand with Jude’s mental state why he would be leery of trusting people. I couldn’t understand how someone who had his professional life so together proved incapable of opening up to people who clearly cared about him. In addition to his friends, one of his former law professors liked him so much he adopted Jude after he turned 30.

I could fathom that a victim of serial abuse would blame himself. That sort of inhumane treatment would warp anyone’s mind. With such a great social support system around him, I just couldn’t understand why Jude couldn’t let them know the reasons why he developed into the person he became.

I also found the book poorly written. The modern writing mantra is: “show, don’t tell.” A Little Life contained nothing but telling. The author used the third person limited point of view for most of the book. On occasion the author wrote chapters that followed the activities of Jude’s friends. I didn’t understand why. The whole narrative revolved around Jude. The behavior of the sculptor, artist and actor seemed boring compared to the protagonist’s journey.

I had another issue with the point of view. In some chapters the author used the first person point of view. She chose to write from Jude’s adopted father’s POV, not Jude’s. Let me assure readers I take no satisfaction in writing this: I have to admit that had it not been for the pronoun “I”, the voice would’ve sounded the same as it did in all the other chapters.

While I didn’t like the book, I loathed the title. It referred to something I found despicable. I didn’t enjoy being reminded of it every time I read.

The book should’ve been edited better. It came in at 720 pages. As I wrote above, the chapters that focused on Jude’s friends should have been excised. I also believed that had Jude only endured one of the myriad abuse situations, it would’ve made the book more realistic.

The true tragedy of this book centered on its potential. It could’ve been a great story about one man’s struggle to overcome childhood trauma. With some editing this could’ve been an outstanding narrative of his successes and failures as he battled his past. Instead, it evolved into a tedious slog.

With that noted, this book was a finalist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award. The Economist even ranked it one of the “Best Books of 2015.” I’m not looking forward to someone making a movie out of it.

 

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Book Review – Lazlo Krasznahorkai: Seiobo There Below

Perhaps a better title for this offering from 2015’s Man Booker International Prize winner would’ve been Seiobo There Beyond Me as I struggled to follow this series of short stories that encompassed subjects from Japanese culture, Baroque music and the creative process that all artists work with and then the author added to that bizarre syntax, in fact even as a series of short stories comprised this book, I think the author only used two or three periods the whole time!? This made the reading very hard to follow both for content and presentation now that’s strange because the author repeated himself many times throughout the book which led to some dull reading and that could explain his liberal use of repetition but still I struggled to follow even though Krasznahorkai repeated himself over and over!? Funny I wrote that because one of the things that he really enjoyed overusing happened to be the !? punctuation mark and I don’t know why !? A period would’ve been nice once in a while but, this author for some reason disdains them for reasons known only to him, which is strange since I read myriad commas and semi-colons, that makes me guess the !? is more interesting looking in his mind and that’s his artistic call; since the book addressed numerous themes dealing with the arts maybe that works; well, whatever, that was almost the most engaging element of the entire book !? I know that’s mean, and not entirely fair since the author did have a few interesting lyrical flourishes, because of the book’s tone, the cryptic nature of all of them didn’t surprise me, such as “the Baroque is  the artwork of pain” (Page 354) and “he had attained what he dreamed of, and yet had not attained it at all” (Page 141) I’m not sure what the last one means, and from reading the context, I couldn’t figure it out which made me wish the author could have returned to that theme since he wasn’t averse to repeating himself in the book, oh yes, did  I forget to mention that !? Krasznahorkai repeated himself a lot, and I mean a lot, in Seiobo There Below which I suppose if he wanted to have sentences run on for pages that sort of thing is inevitable; but still Seiobo There Below made for extremely challenging reading between the esoteric approach to stream of consciousness writing and the obscure references that I knew nothing about; not that I should complain, the book kept me occupied for several days right up until every story’s Nihilistic end that came abruptly !?

Book Review – True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

What John Dillinger was to the American outlaws of the 1930’s Ned Kelly was to the ‘bushrangers’ of 1870’s Australia. Folk hero to some, vicious killer to others, his legacy is hotly debated to this day. In this creative tome of historical fiction, Peter Carey presented his take on this controversial figure.

Carey’s presentation reminded me of Mario Vargas-Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt. The author immerged himself in Kelly’s frame of mind. The narrative consisted of various ‘parcels’ written from Ned Kelly’s perspective. The entries included bad grammar, poor subject-verb agreement and downright awful writing. While difficult to understand and at times very tedious to get through, it gave the tale an element of authenticity. I felt like I read words written by Ned Kelly, himself. This made the choice of title an excellent one.

In real life Kelly faced execution before having the opportunity to meet his daughter. The protagonist recorded the memoirs so she could get to know him. For this reason, the author excised the bad language in the text. The word adjectival appeared numerous times. (As most reading this post are adults, I don’t feel the need to point out what four letter word it represented.) Once again, this made the writing even more realistic.

The book’s main strength also served as its major weakness. I found the text very difficult to get through. Keep in mind that I’m a guy. I like ‘bang-bang shoot ‘em up’ action stories. True History of the Kelly Gang didn’t lack any of that. The writing made it very hard for me to follow. I thought the transitions too abrupt. Various scenes ran together. I had to go back and see if I missed something. Most of the time, I hadn’t.

With the use of a first person semi-illiterate narrator, there weren’t many lyrical flourishes in the test. Carey did manage to include a few.

The memory of the policeman’s words lay inside me like the egg of a liver fluke and while I went about my growing up this slander wormed deeper and deeper in my heart and there grew fat. (Page 12)

These things are like the dark marks made in the rings of great trees locked forever in my daily self. (Page 19)

In the heat of the furnace metals change their nature in olden days they could make gold from lead. Wait to see what more there is to hear my daughter for in the end we poor uneducated people will all be made noble in the fire. (Page 265)

At one point the bushranger even added some alliteration to the narrative. He described the morning as a “damp, dripping, dawn.” (Page 231)

The other major criticism I had of this book concerned its one-sidedness. Most of it came entirely from Kelly’s perspective. The author did include a few newspaper clippings, but the story portrayed the protagonist as a victim and a martyr. I would suspect Carey had a political agenda in presenting the story this way. Most writers do (John Steinbeck comes first to mind) so I don’t fault him. I do think he would’ve developed more sympathy for Kelly if he’d presented the other side’s position. If the British provisional government persecuted people for no other reason than their Irish descent, Carey could’ve explained that easily by showing their point-of-view.

I would also add that the author included a colorful cast of characters in this story. I found Ned Kelly’s mother to be the most interesting. How can I put this delicately? She didn’t make the best choices when it came to men. In fact, they were so bad that I wondered if some of the original ‘your mamma’ jokes began in reference to her. But still: one has to respect a woman raising young children while incarcerated.

Peter Carey demonstrated an authentic use of voice in True History of the Kelly Gang. Unfortunately, he made it a very poor writer with little grasp of syntax. Because of this, an interesting story with unending action became a challenging slog. I’m hoping someone will publish a ‘normal English’ translation of this book in the near future.

Book Review – The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje took the concept of creativity to unheard of levels with The English Patient. He presented a narrative about four totally unique characters’ lives intertwining. While that would be a superlative achievement in itself for many authors, he then set his main story in an Italian villa at the end of the Second World War. The characters then experienced flashbacks. This took the narrative into the deserts of North Africa during the 1930s. What a creative use of setting! In addition, he expressed himself so eloquently, that at times I thought the book a work of poetry.

Mr. Ondaatje wove a complex narrative about the coming together of four unique characters. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading about a cast this original. All of them added to the organic whole of the piece; none seemed contrived. Hana the nurse refused to leave the villa following the evacuation of all the patients save the title character. The author added a thief named Caravaggio to the mix. He then included Kip, a soldier from India, who defused bombs. Of course, the enigmatic character of the English Patient served as the center of the story.

The author sedulously researched this tale. On page 303 the author cited a number of sources he consulted regarding the desert and exploration of the North African region in the 1930s. It showed. Overall, the writing came across as very credible.

The author also made numerous references to Herodotus’ The Histories. The English Patient possessed that book when he turned up at the villa. He referred to the book repeated times throughout the narrative. The way Mr. Ondaatje wove it into the story I wondered if he knew its contents better than the original author.

The author utilized a very intriguing structure. He varied the points-of-view while including a series of flash backs. In spite of this intricacy, he kept the reader engaged. The main reason I read so intently centered on the use of language. For me, it defined the core essence of this book. At times the narrative read more like verse than prose. The elegant way the author described an affair affected me the most. It read:

She picks up a cushion and places it on her lap as a shield against him. “If you make love to me I won’t lie about it. If I make love to you I won’t lie about it.”
She moves the cushion against her heart, as if she would suffocate that part of herself which has broken free.
“What do you hate most?” he asks.
“A lie. And you?”
“Ownership,” he says. “When you leave me, forget me.”
Her fist swings towards him and hits hard into the bone just below his eye. She dresses and leaves. (Page 152)

I liked the passage’s eloquence. At the same time, I could visualize this happening. The author made the scene believable.

Another line from this book that grabbed my attention read:

But here they were shedding skins. They could imitate nothing but what they were. There was no defense but to look for the truth in others. (Page 117)

When I picked up The English Patient and read the blurb about it winning the Man-Booker Prize, I cringed. Many award winning books have left me feeling, well, frustrated. I struggle to understand them. Then I lose sleep trying to figure out why they got published let alone won anything. This book was a delightful exception. While the story interested me I found the fantastic language alone justified taking the time to read it. Since I now have a background and understand the overall premise, I look forward to reading this book again to see what else I discover in it. It’s not often I finish reading a book and get excited about doing so once more. For once, I can put in writing that I read a book that truly lived up to its reputation.

Book Review – The Gathering by Anne Enright

“Because, at this moment, I find that being part of a family the most excruciating possible way to be alive.” (Page 243) I have to disagree. The most unbearable way to live is by reading about the Hegarty family in Anne Enright’s The Gathering. Even for those wanting to read about sad dysfunctional families, this novel will be a challenge. It should come with a bottle of anti-depressants.

The Gathering began with Veronica Hegarty learning that her brother Liam killed himself. (I’m wondering if he read an advance copy of Ms. Enright’s manuscript.) Then the story became depressing: really depressing. The book stayed in Veronica’s point of view the whole time so there was no break from the angst. She reflected on her brother’s life and thought back about events that happened in her own: none of them good or life affirming.

I never thought anyone would be capable of writing anything gloomier than Theodore Dreiser’s Jennie Gerhart. In that sense, Ms. Enright deserves credit. I’d call this book morbid. I won’t give away spoilers for those who feel they’re too happy. I’m still trying to figure out the conflict in the story. Veronica’s goal wasn’t to avoid misery, that’s for sure.

I thought the usages of language in this novel bizarre.

I am a trembling mess from hip to knee. There is a terrible heat, a looseness in my innards that makes me want to dig my fists between my thighs. It is a confusing feeling—somewhere between diarrhea and sex—this grief that is almost genital. (Page 7)

I do have to agree on this point: I would call the sensation she describes as “confusing”, also.

I even found one passage in this book that offended me. I’m going to include it just so readers can see for themselves. They may make their own decision as to whether or not the segment below inappropriate.

I am sitting at a street café table, with perhaps my fifth latte of the day, when some American kids pass by, two girls and a guy. One of the girls is saying, ‘You know what really sucks? What really sucks are those button flies, when you miss a button?’ and the guy says, “And you’re like…this, you know?’ with his hands crossed at the wrist in front of his crotch, like a picture of the flagellated Christ. (Page 83)

If anyone can explain what the crucifixion of Jesus has to do with button fly jeans, please drop me a line.

Here’s a line I don’t think any romance writers will copy. I doubt it possible that anyone will describe love making in a similar fashion.

Tom had sex with me the night of the wake – as if Liam’s death had blown all the cobwebs away: the fuss and the kids and the big, busy job and the late nights spent strenuously not sleeping with other women. He was getting back to basics: telling me that he loved me, telling me that my brother might be dead but that he was very much alive. Exercising his right. I love my husband, but I lay there with one leg on either side of his dancing, country-boy hips and I did not feel alive. I felt like a chicken when it is quartered. (Page 40)

We won’t be seeing that last line on a Valentine’s Day card any time soon.

The Gathering also had the weirdest plot twist I’ve ever read. Veronica remembered her grandmother Ada’s courtship with a man named Nugent. After building this up for several pages she commented, “She did not marry Nugent, you will be relieved to hear. She married his friend Charlie Spillane.” (Page 22) That was the first time in the book she mentioned the character of Mr. Spillane. The author should’ve referenced him prior and added some foreshadowing. When I read the sentence I cited I had to go back and review it several times. It jarred me.

I’m not sure what else I can add here. While I thought the structure interesting, the story unsettled me. Are readers to believe that nothing positive ever happened to anyone in the Hegarty family? When I reached the end of the book I felt like Liam was the lucky one. I predict The Gathering will be gathering a lot of dust on bookstore shelves in the future.

Book Review – The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

E. M. Forster once wrote, “One tends to praise a long book because one has gotten through it.” With the greatest of respect to Mr. Forster, I wonder if he’d have expressed that sentiment had he read The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.  What this book lacked in substance it made up for in volume coming in at a monumental 834 pages. I thought the overall premise dull and the amount of time it took to tie the whole story together ridiculously taxing. While awarded the 2013 Man-Booker Prize, this is not a book for everyone.

The novel began with a mystery involving a death in a cabin, an opium addicted prostitute and some missing gold. The story then developed through twelve different characters all of whom had some degree of involvement with at least one of the elements just mentioned. The signs of the zodiac served as the cohesive theme linking the whole narrative together, with each character and event having some relation to it. While this may appear interesting, I think the overall story itself fell short of the promise.

I didn’t enjoy the way the author presented the narrative. It took place in a New Zealand mining town in 1866. The writing style mimicked that of a nineteenth century author. It included the use of d—n as opposed to writing out the word damn. I found this to be annoying and a bit out of synch with the complete writing of words such as whore and prostitute. If the author intended to write a modern version of a Victorian novel, I would’ve appreciated more consistency.

As any modern writer knows, two things that good authors avoid are telling and back-story. Catton littered The Luminaries with an abundance of both. To make this even worse, she provided lots of back-story for all the characters. It distracted and took me away from the main story too often. I’m not going to cite examples. A reader can open to just about any page and see what I mean.

I thought some of the prose difficult to understand. Try unraveling this mind twisting paradox on page 502.

…if I am interested in those truths that are yet unknown, it is only so that they might, in time, be made known—or, to put it more plainly, so that in time, I might come to know them.

Did Eleanor Catton work as a speech writer for Donald Rumsfeld before becoming a novelist?

The book’s structure made it unnecessarily challenging to follow. I mentioned that events and characters in the book revolved around the signs of the zodiac. As if that didn’t make matters confusing enough, the author varied the last several chapters between the present and the past.  I read the entire book, but the last hundred pages tempted me to put it down. I thought they belabored a novel that cried out to be ended.

The overall concept required that the author utilize at least 12 characters. I really thought some of them could’ve been eliminated in favor of accelerating the plot. Specifically, I thought the roles played by Te Rau Tauwhare and Quee Long could’ve been assigned to other characters. It also would’ve shortened the book’s length. Unfortunately, the complexity forced the author to drag out a number of elements in order to include all these characters.

The Luminaries is not a book that would appeal to everyone. The author created a unique and sophisticated structure that sacrificed the quality of the story. I found the book unnecessarily long and dull. The pseudo-nineteenth century writing style didn’t help matters, either. But, maybe it’s me. After all, there’s a full moon tonight and Aries is in the descendant.   

Book Review: Barry Unsworth – Sacred Hunger

“Nothing a man suffers will prevent him from inflicting suffering on others.” (Page 613) I found it rather apt that this historical novel chronicled the voyage of a slave ship. For the author himself took readers on a journey. Not a voyage to some foreign locale, but a sojourn to define the very core of human nature itself.  

The title of the book derived from the following line delivered by Delblanc, a secondary character, of all things.

‘Money is sacred, as everyone knows,” he said. ‘So then must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it. Once a man is in debt he becomes a flesh and blood form of money, a walking investment. You can do what you like with him, you can work him to death or you can sell him. This cannot be called cruelty or greed because we are seeking to recover our investment and that is a sacred duty.’ (Page 325)

This story reminded me of works such as William Golding’s sea trilogy, To the Ends of the Earth, and Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. I recognized their influences as I read the section where Captain Thurso threw ill slaves overboard so he could collect insurance money. I recalled the author’s description of the Captain as a man who “despised cruelty, as he did compassion, and all other redundant shoots of the human spirit.” (Page 114) Unsworth also portrayed the captain as, “a simple man, being an incarnation, really, of the profit motive, than which there can be few things simpler.” (Page 382) While doing a lot of cringing, I had a pretty good idea where Unsworth would take his narrative. But, like the truly great ones, the author sprung a magnificent plot twist that completely changed the tone of the whole story. I won’t ruin the pleasure for readers by spoiling it here.

My favorite plot twists are the ones I don’t see coming, but still don’t feel cheated as a reader.  That’s how I would describe the one Unsworth used in Sacred Hunger. The only real foreshadowing I noticed occurred in the section where Unsworth described, “the man who was to have been his father-in-law.” (Page 385) This brought to mind the writing of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. I always enjoy reading well-read authors.

Sacred Hunger provided some vivid depictions of the better angels of human nature, to paraphrase James Madison. Unsworth’s deft skill as a writer shone in such sections. Many authors struggle to do this well in a book detailing happy event. Few could write such prose in a story involving a slave ship. One of the most moving passages read:

Love does not stand still, as everyone knows; it is always adding to its own shape whether by advance or retreat. Wounds can be absorbed, but only like elements embodied in a story; they are always there, part of the meaning. (Page 226)

Another memorable line read, “That a man engaged in this cruel trade still deserved not to be treated with cruelty seemed a mystery to Paris rather than a truth; but it was one that contained a strong imperative for him.” (Page 266)

I thought this book engrossing and difficult to put down. The author did an exceptional job stimulating my curiosity to find out what would happen next. I did have a few critiques. Above I cited some examples of how the author used language beautifully. I located some other parts that should have been much better. Here’s an example.

But Hughes, high up on the mainmast top setting the small sails, and Morgan, who was standing outside the galley to get some air, and Wilson and Sullivan smoking on the forecastle, and those of the slaves who happened to find themselves against the starboard rail…(Page 347)

Please. While reading this my mind was thinking, “And then this one time at band camp…” This blurb contained a lot of unnecessary detail that broke the narrative flow. In addition it came at a tense point in the story.  Unsworth won the Man Booker Prize for this novel in 1992. I’m hopeful that used some of the prize money to hire a better proofreader for his next book.

My main criticism involves the epistemiological paradigm Unsworth applied to the book. He thoroughly covered the issue of race relations between Europeans and Africans. He even explored European relations with Indians in the New World towards the end of the book. I thought his lack of attention to gender relations glaring. His described a utopian community in the Florida wilderness not just male dominated; no female voice spoke in this section. Due to the nature of the settlement I found this very bewildering. I really wanted to know what the female inhabitants thought of the living arrangements there. As Unsworth used the omniscient point-of-view I’m not sure why he didn’t explore this in more detail. It would’ve made the book much more interesting. (Read it and you’ll understand exactly what I mean.)

Sacred Hunger provided readers with a portal into the core of human nature itself. I came away with a deeper appreciation for dignity and a more positive outlook on human nature. As Unsworth wrote, “Grief works its own perversions and betrayals: the shape of what we have lost is as subject to corruption as the mortal body.” (Page 7) To anyone looking for a deeper insight into the human experience look no further than Sacred Hunger.