David Szalay || All That Man Is

ManBooker 2016 Longlist

ManBooker 2016

In eight stories David Szalay paints a rather sobering picture of ‘man’. He takes us along in the lives of eight men, each at a different age. They range from adolescent to senior, the latter turning out to be the grandfather of the first. We meet them at moments that are definitely not the highlights in their lives. Admittedly, the editor of the newspaper who has an important scope involving a politician might find that an exhilarating moment, he does abuse his friendship with said politician. With one exception Szalay gives us men as we might encounter them. They are not special, not remarkable, they are just normal. The one exception, a succesful entrepreneur, is about to take his life because he has been humiliated and has ended up broke. All the others just potter on. Recognizable and as such confronting, they are just like us. Szalay does not improve on the world, he gives us what he sees. He does chose however not to select moments of happiness or bliss in those eight lives, which he could have easily done. It is a conscious choice to go for the all too ordinary and describe the sobering moments. The eight stories as a result make for a beautiful slightly depressive read.

all that man

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Wyl Menmuir || The Many

Man Booker Prize 2016 longlist

Serious Spoiler Alert!

The Many is about a dead adolescent: Perran. It is not quite clear whether he died from drowning of from swallowing polluted water. The fishing village in which he grew up has been banned from entering the water, the fisherman are no longer allowed to fish beyond a barrier created by a series of old cargo vessels.  The fish that are caught are deformed and far too thin. Some 10 years after Perran’s death Timothy moves into his house. At first he hardly talks to the villagers, after a while he kind of befriends one fisher, Ethan, a close friend of Perran’s. Ethan brings Timothy along on his boat, together they pass the barrier and for the first time in ten years bring home a decent – though weird looking – catch. By then Timothy has become obsessed with Perran. He wants to know more about him and does not accept that the village is not willing to talk about Perran. When he persists, they demolish the interior of the house. Next the village is hit by a mysterious flood wave, cracks start to appear in the beach, the street, the houses and the people. This is the moment Menmuir chooses to reveal that Timothy is morning his still-born son. The village appears to be part of a dream Timothy is having in which he is dealing with his son’s death. In this dream he has returned to a village he and his wife once stayed in, when they were still happy. It explains why Timothy has chosen this rather unfriendly place as his escape to the country. The apathy of everybody in the village, the way Ethan starts to fight circumstance, they appear to be an allegory for Timothy’s mourning.  At the end Ethan frees himself by diving into the sea, Timothy can finally acknowledge his son’s death. I cannot as yet explain the role of the pollution and the way the village is being controlled by outsiders. Might it be symbolical for the loss of control over body and destiny when a child is still-born? Or for the fact that the save womb turned out to be not save at all? I know for certain that by adding the pollution Menmuir led me astray. He did not write a brutally realistic novel about a fishing community destined to go down, he created an allegorical dream. That he described the grim community perfectly is an added bonus.  I doubt whether this novel will be a hit amongst a large audience. It’s magic-realism will not be appreciated by everyone. I needed some time to grasp that the novel is about the death of a still-born child and the ensuing mourning. The dream world becomes superfluous with acceptance of the facts. I have not got a clue by the way what the title means, it might come to me later.

TheMany

 

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Jessica Tom || Food Whore

Food Whore proves that a decent blog will not automatically translate into a decent novel. Jessica Tom blogged about food and restaurants for years, I can understand her wanting to take the next step and move on to novels. It has resulted however in rather bland chicklit. Tom follows its rules and uses all its ingredients not adding those spices however that would have elevated the novel to a special level. I summarize: nice girl moves to big city, she is accepted into a prestigious food school. Nice girl does not land the internship she has hoped for but one she did not even enlist for, in one of the cities best restaurants. The New York Times Food critic has secretly arranged this. He has lost his taste and can no longer do his job. He wants nice girl to come along, eat his food and write about it (which she does exceedingly well naturally). Girl is seduced by the power of four star food, designer clothes and the word. After the obligatory catharsis she realizes that there are more important things in life: a New job in an ‘ honest’ restaurant and real friends. At the end she does land the craved for internship, the perfect boyfriend is already lined up. This could have been quit the decent amusing novel if only Tom had known how to write. She has limited sense of words, follows the rules too strictly and her main character is downright annoying not showing any of the qualities that should make her the perfect chicklit heroine. I suspect Food Whore has become a hit in New York because restaurants and chefs might bear a resemblance to real life ones. It cannot have anything to do with the quality of this mediocre novel. The recipes Tom uses in Food Whore are condemned by the New York Times critic: no half-decent self-respecting chef would ever think them up let alone prepare them.

Food Whore

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Anne Tyler || Vinegar Girl

Anne Tyler || Vinegar Girl

Anne Tyler is the author who almost clinically writes about family matters showing her edgy side whenever necessary. Since I like her style of writing I was looking forward to her retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare’s slightly outdated comedy about a shrew who has to find a husband. More than enough family matter to dig into one might say. I fear Anne Tyler was slightly in awe however of the task she was given: retell this exceedingly thin story in a modern way and try to honour world’s greatest playwright in doing so. The task might have been made even more awesome by the fact that others have done just so: think Kiss Me Kate but also the brilliant 2005 BBC-version. In that retelling the scenario writers showed that a thin story can turn out brilliantly if you dare let go. Viewers could enjoy ambitious and acrimonious Katherine on her way to become the second female prime minister, in want of the essential husband who entered in the shape of an impoverished failed lord. The chemistry between actors Shirley Henderson and Rufus Sewell took care of the rest. And there’s my problem. I also had to let go. Not from the Shakespeare original (I think I saw that once on German television featuring Klaus Maria Brandauer oozing charm), I had to let go of the BBC-version. The first part of Vinegar Girl had me wondering why Tyler had chosen to exaggerate her characters: father and Pjotr/Petruccio are caricatures, scientists with no sense of normal life, sister Bunny is the quintessential American adolescent, Kate is an unworldly almost autistic young woman who has dedicated herself to her family and who has strayed from her own path in doing so. Halfway through the novel Kate’s path becomes more important, at that point Tyler has got me. Kate is no longer Pjotr’s way to obtain a green card, Pjotr turns into her way of distancing herself from her family. I do not know whether there’s a format restricting Tyler and the other retelling authors to a mere 150 pages, I do know that I would have loved to have read more about Kate discovering herself. That discovery is interesting and exciting and writing about it makes Tyler shine. That Tyler can be a comedian by the way is shown in the marriage scene which might have been written with the chemistry between Sewell and Henderson in mind.

BBC 2015: Katherine and Petruccio meet

Vinegar girl

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Julia Heaberlin || Black-Eyed Susans

Some 15 years ago the bodies of four young girls were found in a field, covered in Black-Eyed Susans. One of them, Tessa, turns out to be still alive, The murderer has been found and convicted, he will be sentenced to death in a few months. A small group of people is trying to prove that he is innocent and to prevent him from being executed. Tessa is one of them. She is convinced he is not the man who abducted her and failed to kill her: somebody plants Susans underneath her bedroom window, it must be the killer, mustn’t it? This could have been an episode of Midsummer Murders (which I love by the way) if it were not for the fact that Heaberlin has constructed her novel and its characters too cleverly for it to be a mere Midsummer episode. We jump in time from adult Tessa doubting what she has always believed and known, young Tessa recovering from her severe trauma, there is a nice twist at 2/3rd of the novel and Tessa’s personality proves to be to be more complicated than one would have expected at first. Black-Eyed Susans is one of those novels that can be rightly called ‘ literary thriller’. Is is clever, well-constructed and its main character could just as easily have been part of a psychological novel. Definitely one to read if you’re into thrillers that force you to stay focussed.

Susans

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Tessa Hadley ||The Past

Sometimes you’re reading and you’re thinking ‘been there done that’. The Past is one of those novels. In it four siblings spend a last summer in their grandparents’ house in the archetypical British countryside. Their personalities and their mutual relationships are almost predictable. Even the fact that the Argentinian spouse turns out to be in some way involved in the Junta does not come as a surprise. It is as if Hadley, an American, has read too many British novels and watched too many British series. To be unkind: her main characters could turn up just like that in any British detective. There is no denying that Hadley writes well and that she depicts the main characters and their surroundings expertly. Towards the final pages the whole situation explodes as could be expected: one of the siblings makes an unwanted pass and the holiday comes to an abrupt end. That Hadley at the end almost casually refers to a lump found in a breast to make this sister appear less shallow I find extremely annoying. Or might it be that she is already planning The Past Part 2? Nice enough this novel but nowhere near making a lasting impression. Maybe Hadley should stick to her side of the ocean for her next novel and write about the people she knows best. Maybe she can depict them without resorting to clichés.

Past

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David Vann || Caribou Island

Spoiler alert!

Channels like Discovery make out the inhabitants of Alaska to be real pioneers: people who leave the crowded civilized world and build a new life in the wilderness with their own bare hands, being attacked by bears and enduring hardships willingly. That image is tackled efficiently by David Vann. Married couple Gary and Irene live a life that is as suburban as that of the average inhabitant of suburbia. It becomes quite clear that Gary would have preferred the more romantic pioneer image. He is determined to build his own cabin on an uninhabited island and live there. No amenities, just him and nature and oh, let’s not forget, Irene. It’ll surprise no-one that building the cabin is the beginning of the end. Gary turns out to be a person who cannot make up his mind, always on the lookout for a better life somewhere in his romanticized image of the wilderness and true pioneers; he has only a vague notion of what his cabin should look like, no clue of how to build it and even less notion of planning things.  As a result he and Irene build their cabin towards the start of autumn whilst rain and snow make their work almost impossible. Not having thought about the construction beforehand Gary only realizes that he misses quite the number of components whilst building, nowhere near handy shops.  The couple struggles with the rickety cabin and with each other. Irene ends up with a severe sinus infection and a headache that refuses to go away. There is no doubt that the headache is psychological, physical reasons having been deduced by the doctors.  It is fear that causes her headache: fear of living on an island in a one-room cabin without electricity, water, a decent bathroom or a toilet. Fear also of Gary wanting to leave her and of her starting to resemble her mother who committed suicide. Irene is having a major breakdown and only one person suspects, her daughter Rhoda. She has her own problems dealing with her fiancée, an opportunistic dentist showing the first signs of mid-life crisis. Brother Mark turns out to be the more life-like inhabitant of Alaska: work, earn money, have some fun, drink, blow and do not think ahead.  When Rhoda finally convinces him that something is wrong with their mother, she is too late. Irene has shot Gary with her bow and arrow and has hung herself.
Caribou Island is not a cheerful novel. Life in Alaska is not a romanticized picnic. David Vann depicts just plain regular lives and regular relationships, not necessarily happy ones. Vann depicts the countryside and the emotional turmoil of Gary, Irene and Rhoda beautifully though in a slightly too detached way. The novel never really got to me, which in a way is cleverly done. My incapacity to become involved corresponds nicely with the incapacity of Gary, Irene, Rhoda and Mark to get along, with each other, with life and with Alaska.

Caribou

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Howard Jacobson || Shylock Is My Name

This was my third and final Jacobson. I know that some people appreciate his sense of fun and laugh their heads off reading his novels, I am not one of those people. Shylock Is My Name did not make me smile even once. If it were not for the fact that I have been known to laugh out aloud whilst reading or watching novels, sitcoms and movies I would start to doubt my own sense of fun. If you strip away being able to laugh whilst reading Shylock what is left is a rather heavy handed novel with a severe message. To be clear: That message stands. Jacobson makes it very clear he is against racism and discrimination and is in favour of forgiveness and compassion,  whatever colour of skin, heritage or religion. I take his novel to be an allegory taking the strive between Jews and Christians as the symbol of racism and discrimination in general (if not, if the novel is just about the conflict between Jews and Christians he has me lost even more).  Shylock being an allegory I suppose the main characters are caricatures. Well, they are. Heiress Anna Livia Plurabella Cleopatra A Thing of Beauty Is a Joy Forever Christine aka Plurabella, being the summit. She is so out of this world she really has no clue what she is doing and does not hesitate to make a match between a fifteen year old girl and a man twice her age. The combination of message and caricature does not make for pleasant reading as far as I am concerned. The message might have come over better if Jacobson had not combined it with a father’s concern for his daughter. What father would not have worried about his 15-year old having an affair with a 30-year old man, regardless of religion. The daughter being Jewess and the man being a gentile does is hardly the point in this case. Jacobson does make it more about religion and that I do not get. It is not just that I do not find him funny, it is also that I find him lacking in working out his novels well.
Conclusion: Jacobson is not my cup of tea. I’m afraid I am not exactly the right person to advise anyone whether to read his novels. I can give you a clue tough: if you haven’t laughed a single time within the first ten pages, just quit. It’ll not happen.

Shylock

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Andrew Miller || The Crossing

Serious spoilers in this blog!

Maud and Tim appear to be a happily married couple with a perfect daughter Zoe, surrounded by loving family (on his side). Dangers are looming however. Tim is part of the Eton, Oxbridge tradition, Maud has a more humble background and fails to grasp the social codes of Tims environment. Pa’s drinking problem is never mentioned, mother’s failure to get in control of her household is laughed at, Tims choice to not start a career but dedicate his life to playing his guitar (a trustfond does come in handy) is never questioned. Everything is smothered in love and cash. Tims family is also extremely biassed. They frown upon Mauds choice to keep on working, she is a depraved woman for not wanting to take care of her child. Mauds parents, who have not exactly raised her lovingly, and who do not seem to care a lot about their child, do not make things any easier. Maud is an extremely private person and hard to grasp. She can get totally lost in her work and in her hobby, sailing. She is a loving mother who however does not show her love in an exuberant way, as is the way in Tims family. When Zoe is killed in an accident, Tims family turns against Maud. She is shunned and literally thrown out. They simply cannot understand that a person might close down through grieve; they fail to understand Maud and in doing so fail her. There is no compassion at all for the way Maud is coping with her numbing grief.

At a certain moment Maud decides to cross the ocean on her boat. No-one is looking after her, no-one  cares.  After a few blissfull weeks the boat is heavily damaged in a full-blown gale. After a few stressfull days Maud manages to reach land. At that point in the novel, Miller loses me. Maud ends up in a small village inhabited by children. Two of these children decide to exorcise Mauds grief by handling snakes (an obscure religious ritual from the deep south of the USA). The ritual works, Maud finally starts to cry. I was left wondering why Miller chose this far-fetched turn of events. I could have just as easily imagined Maud starting to cry on reaching land at last.  The children do not add to the story, they distract. A pity, The Crossing is a beautiful novel about grief and about the necessity to try and understand those you love, to accept that a relationship is give and take.

crossing

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Kate Tempest || The Bricks That Built The Houses

Kate Tempest writes plays, novels and poetry. The latter shows in The Bricks. Choice of words, rhythm, length of sentences, variation: it all works out very well. It results in a novel that convinces both on content, style and structure. The rough world the main characters dwell in, is re-inforced with vibrant imagery and almost raplike enumerations. These are effortlessly interchanged with introvert phrases that reflect the hopelessness and near-desperation of the main characters. The world Tempest introduces her readers to is completely alien to me: I did not grow up in a South-London housing estate, I was never tempted to earn a living selling drugs in the City and at parties, as is the case for main character Harry: she is  very fond of her poverty-stricken neighbourhood and is determined to start a pub aka community centre there with the proceeds of her trade. Harry knows what she wants and goes for it. One wonders what she might have accomplished if she had been as determined at school. Her brother Pete and his girlfriend Becky demonstrate that an education is no guarantee however. Pete finished college, but never succeeded in getting a suitable job, he goes from temporary job to temporary job; Becky was top of the class but did not succeed in succoring the much wanted position in a modern dance company. Earning a living working in her uncle’s cafe and as an erotic masseuse her earnest efforts at dance direction do gain her a growing credit in the world of modern ballet. Pete on the other hand has given up, he even begrudges Becky her few successes. Tempest goes back into the childhoods of Harry, Pete and Becky, in this way stating that the transformation from dime to quarter depends for an important part on the person trying to make the transition. The transition of the housing estate to modern, trendy place to be subtly illustrates chances coming along and being taken.
Tempest starts off The Bricks at a determining moment and then steps back in time. We are being led back to this moment and finally learn what has happened at the start of the novel. And then things go wrong. It is as if Tempest has become hasty and dashes off the story. She might have bungled of at purpose however: all ambition has been deserted, all the hassle has ended and everyone, more or less resigned, picks up their lives. The ending of the novel unfortunately parallels life, resulting in me finishing The Bricks slightly disappointed. I would have loved for Tempest to keep up the power works until the very end. I grew to care for Harry, I was pleasantly surprised with this stunning novel about the shady side of life.

Bricks

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