Paulette Jiles || News of the World

News of the World isn´t exactly original. Jiles is not the first who has worked with the theme of a special relationship developing between the silent, aloof adult and a child. On their way to a destination far away facing danger and hardship on the road. Jiles did manage to make the story of captain Kidd, a Civil War veteran, and Johanna, taking captive when six years old by the Kiowa, enhancing.

Johanna has been returned by the Kiowa after having spent six years amongst them. They have come to realize that it is not in their best interest to have a German-American captive; it will have American government hesitate when it comes to handing over territory and livelihood. Johanna who has lost her biological parents has to say goodbye to her Kiowa-mother and is to be returned to her uncle and aunt by Kidd, who gets paid well in order to partake in the dangerous journey through Texas. Without ever pointing out things too specifically, Jiles manages to portray a country in turmoil in which law and order has not been restored yet.

Kidd realizes that Johanna will never get used to the civilized world (at least, the civilized world in our point of view) completely. Her life amongst the Kiowa’s has influenced her take on life too much for her to ever feel comfortable amongst her ‘own’ kind. She loves the roaming life, she frowns upon squandering produce, she has little awareness of ‘yours and mine’. This justified concern adds a bitter layer to the novel and prevents it from becoming just feel good.

It is evident that Kidd and Johanna survive all the dangerous encounters, not in the least because of Johanna’s inventiveness, and come to like and appreciate each other whilst travelling. Jiles surprises by occasionally unexpectedly adding Johanna’s perspective on things, which one might say has been influenced quite by her years living with the Kiowa. I would never have come up with her double use of dollars.

Kidds profession also adds a layer, at least for me. The former printer who has lost everything in the war travels through Texas. In the villages he visits he reads from newspapers. People pay for him to select interesting articles and read them aloud. A profession which is hard to imagine in our day and age. A profession that also makes you realize that a mere 150 years ago people looked upon their world in a completely different way.

Without revealing the specifics of the ending it will be obvious to the careful reader that Kidd and Johanna will stay together. Her Kiowa upbringing has made her unsuitable for the western world. They manage to settle in a nice enough life, they both know it could have been better. That is what I liked about Jiles and her News of the World, she has managed to add sufficient bitter edges to her novel to keep it from becoming mere feel good. News of the World might not be a masterpiece, it is definitely a good read.

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Eowyn Ivey || The Bright Edge of the World

I have a confession to make: one of the reasons I could just picture Alaska whilst reading The Bright Edge was that I am one of many viewers of Alaskan Bush People. I cannot begin to understand why people would want to live in such dire circumstances, I do love watching them making a go. The fact that Alaska is just absolutely beautiful does help.

The Bright Edge has several story lines: Army officer Alan Forrester who in the 19th century tries and finds the origin of the river Wolverine, his wife Sophie who has remained at home and develops into a pretty good photographer and the letters between distant relative Walter and the curator of the local Alaskan museum in Alpine, Joshua. The awe-inspiring landscape and the superstitions of the native Alaskans are omni-present.

In her novel Ivey expertly binds the threats together. Sophie at home waiting for news having to face prejudices (a woman! Taking and developing photo’s! What is society coming to!). Alan struggling with the rugged landscape, hunger and disease and having to come to terms with the fact that his journey is the start of colonization of Alaska. Including the introduction of alcohol and disease (already) running having amongst the native Alaskans. Joshua and Walter start to have their own ideas of what happened in the past whilst revealing more and more facts about their own lives in the 21st century.

The structure of the novel helps in a major way. The novel mostly consists of the journals of Alan and Sophie and the letters of Joshua and Walter. Since it is quite evident that Alan has survived his journey the novel concentrates on other aspects of this journey. The relationship between the three officers, their surroundings and the people they encounter. Alan’s journal furthermore shows he has not been completely honest to his superiors. He has neglected to mention several mysterious facts: the ominous shaman, the ‘goose-women’, the baby apparently born out of a tree. Joshua and Walter rationally explains the facts by referring to hunger and illness, they do both suspect there is another more spiritual reason.

Ivey has written a captivating novel that interweaves its story lines in an accomplished way. Her love for Alaska, the beautiful though harsh and uncompromising country, the all-invading light in summer can be felt throughout the novel. The rebuke that the search for wealth has been at the cost of the native inhabitants is subtly though undeniably present.

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Jami Attenberg || All Grown Up

On the cover of All Grown Up raving reviews make us believe the novel we are about to read is about an independent woman choosing to live her life on her own: ‘One of the smartest and truest novels I’ve read about being a single woman’, ‘a determinedly indepedent woman’, ‘Jami Attenberg writes what it is to be a single, sexual and childfree by choice’, ‘the single girl not as object to be fixed’. What a disappointment when it becomes apparent quite soon that this woman is traumatised and hurt, that the novel is all about her search for ‘a fix’.

All Grown Up is in the category of American novels about people dissatisfied with their lives and mostly preoccupied with themselves. Andrea would have loved to have been a painter, she ends up in a job she constantly reminds us she is merely in for the money. She chooses to live alone, her description of her youth makes clear that the unhappy marriage of her parents has influenced this choice in a major way. That she not persists in trying to be a painter is quite obviously because of her father, a wanting musician who dies of an overdose. She does not want to go his path.

Being an American novel with a high level of feel good, at the end Andrea naturally realizes she has to change her ways. After having purposely neglected the fatal disease of her young niece for years, she finally joins and supports her family when the girl dies.

I am a single woman and I felt rather pissed off that Andrea would be seen as a strong and independent woman. Does this reflect the view the world has of single women? Something needs to be wrong with them! Why else would they not have their own cosy family nucleus? I am fortunate to know several strong and independent singles who lead great lives and whose choices have not been determined by childhood traumatic experiences. They might be more interesting main characters than sad traumatised Andrea (sorry Andrea, you cannot help being made into this dismal creature by Jami Attenberg).

Does this make All Grown Up a bad novel? I do not know. I just know that I was lead to expect an entirely different main character. In this case the raving reviews did not do All Grown Up and Andrea any justice. It makes one wonder about those reviews and the persons writing them. Would any of them have really read All Grown Up? I doubt it.

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Tracy Chevalier || New Boy

New Boy is one of the Shakespeare rewrites we have been presented with over the past few years. Some surprise in a positive way, some disappoint. New Boy is amongst the latter ones. Not for the novel being written badly, for being hard to fathom.

Chevalier has moved Othello to the seventies in prominent white Washington. A young boy from Ghana, Osei, arrives at the school playground for the first time. He falls in love at first site with one of his classmates, Dee. So far so good. I am willing to accept that the class bully Ian will do his utmost to sabotage this young love, which undermines his position in class and on the playground. I cannot believe all of this takes place in a mere day at school.

Between Osei and Dee falling in love and Osei furiously throwing himself at the ground (from a slightly too high position) are a mere six hours. In those six hours Ian gets Osei to doubt Dee, to become incredibly jealous and to feel rage for the first time in his life. Chevalier explaining in the mean time that it is hard on a Ghanaian boy to find his place in predominantly white society. Osei’s rage appears to be caused by a series of humiliations on previous schools; liking Dee that much has caused him to overreact.

The play Othello convinced because of the fact that Shakespeare had Othello’s jealousy grow and grow. After Iago had planted doubt in Othello’s mind it took some time for him to actually act upon it and kill Desdemona (or I should reread Othello because I’ve apparently missed some crucial information). In Shakespeare a flaw in character and Othello’s complex position at court work together and combine to an explosive end. This joining of forces fails in New Boy.

Chevalier rushing the plot cannot be explained by a cumulation of humiliations or the rather volatile minds of adolescents. I can accept that Ian is in a hurry to protect his position on the playground, I cannot accept things running out of hand with deathly consequences this quickly.

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Man Booker Prize 2017 || My favourite


To be quite honest, I do not really have a favourite novel this year. None of the six novels I read have the ‘wow’-factor (or the absolute ‘I loathe this one’). In previous years I finished reading novels feeling almost bereft that I could not continue or absolutely relieved I had made it to the end. This year I felt mostly lukewarm. Auster and Saunders bored me with their overload of (historical) facts, Fridlund and Mozley came close but both their novels had their flaws, Hamid at a certain point became a reporter instead of a writer, Smith lacked in mingling present day politics with the rest. Nevertheless I do feel she should be announced the winner on Tuesday.

Autumn has two aspects I really appreciate and applaud. First of all Smits’ guts to write poetic almost psychedelic texts. She does not care about traditional ideas of what a novel should be. Furthermore her novel makes me curious about what is to follow. What will Winter, Spring and Summer add, will Smith continue to surprise? I hope she ‘ll win, not just for Autumn but for her continuous quality in changing our idea about what constitutes a novel. I will root for her.

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Mohsin Hamid || Exit West

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Man Booker Prize Shortlist 2017

In Exit West reality and dream meet. Reality as in the world of war and civil conflict in which people try to find a new home, dream as in the worm holes that allow one to step into a new possible home through an opening door. Main characters Nadia and Saaed use a door to escape from the conflict in their home town. Whilst one might suspect the conflict to be a present day one, at some point in the novel it becomes clear that Hamid is referring to conflict in a more universal sense.

The doors create an essential difference in the refugee problem: refugees do not concentrate on that one country close by or easy to reach, they spread all over the world. Nadia and Saeed go from their home town to Mykonos to London to California. The doors make world-wide human migration possible effecting society all over the planet. They offer escape from not just violence but also daily routine, they offer new chances. Human beings all over the world get used to someone stepping into their homes through the doors. Or exiting themselves.

Saeed and Nadia cope differently with escaping through the doors and trying to find a new home. Through them Hamid shows us that there is not one refugee, not one perfect solution. He describes their budding romance in a considerate and at the same time almost detached way. He uses this combination of empathizing and distancing as well to describe the violence Saeed and Nadia have to confront. Apparently casual remarks on objects we daily use through their casualness emphasize the consequences of the conflict.

I was impressed by this almost casual way Hamid determines the violent conflict. I was disappointed when at a certain point this turned into reporting, thereby making the novel lose energy. It turns into a (well-written) report. Towards the end Hamid recovers his initial pertinent writing. The combination of main characters one can identify with, the absolute genial use of the worm holes and the pertinent, accurate style of writing make for a special though flawed novel.

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Fiona Mozley || Elmet

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Man Booker Prize shortlist 2017

Elmet is not about action, it is about the world Mozley describes: an area where poverty has lead to early-medieval situations. A few rich men have all the power, the others have become the 21st century equivalent of serfs.

In Elmet a family lives on the edge of society. The two children Cathy and Daniel are being taught by a neighbour and learn to live of nature, father John has built their home illegally in a copse and feels that by maintaining the copse he is paying his due. He earns his living in illegal fist fights, people fear and respect him for his strength. Mother has disappeared, she might have committed suicide or taken an overdose.

The owner of the copse, Price, does not accept the family making a home on his property. He will agree if John were to return as his strong man, bullying and maiming tenants to get what he is due. John refuses, he no longer cares for this position, he thinks he has a right to the copse which used to belong to his wife. She sold it to Price when in want of money.

Price has become wealthy by buying and acquiring land and houses. His power in the area grows and grows. People fear him and work for him because they owe him money and know that he will not hesitate to use violence. He is become a force to reckon with. John by refusing to obey him disturbs the equilibrium, changing all. The consequences are dire.

I suspect Mozley has named her novel for a former Celtic kingdom for a reason. She shows the longing for past times, when people still cared and helped each other. She also makes it very clear that in 21st century Elmet the powers to be and violence yet again determine living conditions. In this world people, John and Cathy for instance, accept that because of who they are people will judge them negatively. And will act in accordance of what people think of them. Daniel is different: he is willing to learn, he listens and contemplates his world. He does not automatically think people will consider him less. His father and sister endanger his chances of evolving by their bias.

Mozley writes beautifully, her descriptions of nature, of the family moments border on the poetic. And shocks by ruthlessly describing violence and abuse. Nevertheless I would sooner call Elmet unassuming than straight in your face. At the end of the novel an almost mythical feeling of hope prevails.

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Emily Fridlund || History of Wolves

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Shortlist Man Booker 2017

Spoiler Alert

I found myself struggling to write this blog. I wanted to really appreciate History of Wolves – it had been nominated for the most prestigious literary prize had it not? -, but could not deny that I liked History of Wolves but did not think it a masterpiece worthy of being nominated let alone winning the Booker. Her choice to illustrate her theme (‘what’s the difference between what you think and what you end up doing  versus what’s the difference between what you want to believe and what you do?’) by elaborating on it in three story lines has backfired.

Main character Madeline is a loner: character and upbringing have made her keep her distance. She has hardly any friends and allow few people to come actually closer. She is definitely not one of the popular girls.When she is 15 years old two events influence her life: a teacher is accused of sexual misconduct by a fellow student, her 4-year old neighbour dies. The difficult relationship between Madeline and her parents being present throughout the entire novel.

Fridlund has grown-up Madeline looking back on the events and the people who they concerned. As a result her distance, her loner character comes out even stronger. Madeline as a grown-up, still the loner, adds insights to the events she could not have had as a young girl.

Fridlund combines sexual misconduct with religiously orientated physical neglect. At first there seems to be no relationship between either storyline. Only at the end of the novel, when Fridlund has Madeline comment on the difference between thinking, doing and believing, it becomes clear that the events exemplify this comment. I find myself having difficulties accepting Madeline’s way of supporting her classmate. I did not have any difficulty at all accepting that as a young girl Madeline could not defend her young neighbour against his zealous parents, Her ways of trying to comfort her class mate are just too grown up, too influenced by Madeline’s memory in looking back. Or, another possibility, I just do not get adolescents.

Fridlund is a writer who knows how to express things, who knows how to structure a story. The combining of the story lines however is too far-fetched, too artificial, Madeline because of the grown-up perspective ends up even more at a distance. Her loneliness becomes a mere mechanical thing. As a result Fridlund does not manage to strengthen the real combining factor: the loneliness of Madeline.

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Paul Auster || 4321

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Man Booker Shortlist 2017

In 4321 Auster takes us along in four variations on the life of Archibald Ferguson, descendant of a Jewish-Russian immigrant who grows up in New York and her suburbs in the fifties and sixties of the 20th century. In this way showing us how a fluke can change somebody’s life. Whilst American history remains unchanged in the four versions of Archie’s life, that life changes differently each time because of differences in fate.

The changes in Archie’s life are major changes for him, but not necessarily for his readers. They are confronted with four story lines that deviate only slightly. It is not the mind-blowing events that determine a life-changing moment it is the ordinary stuff: a divorce, moving, death. As a result the 850 pages kind of gurgle along.

Archie is confronted with ordinary developments common to a majority of growing children and adolescents. One should not expect spectacular plots, 4321 is about daily life, about growing up in America – four times. The world Archie lives in does change spectacularly. Political assassinations, growing racial awareness and violence, violently quenches student protests, Auster describes them in detail. Again showing that a chance meeting, a chance occurrence can lead to the personal choice to participate (or not) in the (political) movements of America in the sixties,

The concept of 4321 is interesting, I am not sure whether the end result is exactly to my liking. I am just not into novels with detailed descriptions of history, I know there is a large group of readers who do appreciate this. Archie living four ordinary lives makes for ordinary stuff coming back again and again, especially when he is just a young kid. The moment he grows older and consciously starts to face major decisions on his future life, the novel becomes more and more interesting. It is also when Auster’s talent as a writer kicks in. His writing is excellent throughout the novel, in those chapters Archie is facing life-determining decisions construction of sentences, choice of words and metaphors all work together. Auster the gifted writer uses language to give a voice to growing up, its many insecurities and doubts.

I have my doubts about this Auster. 850 pages that do not enthral from start to finish make for a labour intensive read. Some pruning might have resulted in a novel that to me felt less like work.

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Ali Smith || Autumn

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Man Booker Long List 2017

Ali Smith is a master when it comes to doing magical things with prose and images. Autumn is full of beautiful examples of her talent. I do have to admit however that I am not quite sure what to make of Autumn. I think I grasp what Smith is trying to convey, I am not entirely sure I am right and if the attempt is successful.

In Autumn Smith explores several story lines that are related to each other in some kind of way. The dreams 101 year old Daniel Gluck is having while in a coma is one story line. The dreams combine the magical with true British history, at least for those who have a picture of cold war versus roaring sixties and who can (vaguely) remember the impact one Christine Keeler had when she turned out to have been the mistress of a British politician and a Russian diplomat. I can imagine that for those people who have no clue whatsoever to the ensuing scandal Keeler is just a name, a dream sequence.

In the second story line Elizabeth Demand, the previous neighbour of Gluck, visits him in the hospice. She reads to him and remembers those days they talked endlessly about topics she as a young girl had no clue to. Her passion for forgotten Beatnik painter Pauline Boty started because of Gluck who described one of her paintings to Elizabeth, a painting relating to Keeler. In searching for Boty Elizabeth is also in search of her own life.

The third story line, I suppose, is the effect of Brexit on Great Britain. Smith adds scenes in which Elizabeth is thwarted when applying for a new passport, in which a mysterious fence arises close to the coast. Those scenes seem to comment on the fear of the unknown, the fear of those who do not conform to the majority. Gluck, a Jewish-German World War 2 escapee, appears to be Smith’s answer to Brexit.

For some kind of reason the story lines do not flow together well. The rather enforced chapters on the passport or the fences do not seem to belong in the novel. The worlds of Elizabeth and Gluck come together perfectly, reality jars. It could be that Smith intended this element of her novel to jar. Still, I could have thought someone with her talent could have made it jar in a literary more beautiful way.

Autumn contains beautiful prose and imagery, the friendship between Elizabeth and Gluck builds up preciously, the references through Keeler and Boty to an age in which the cold war made the entire country suspicious work well. That might have done it, the other scenes might have just been left out, I am not sure. I look back on Autumn with mixed feelings. Maybe I’ll reread the novel in the hope of getting the point in a second read.

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