Monday, 13 October 2014

The narrow road to the deep north - Booker shortlist #5

I'm banging out posts this evening because I feel a moral obligation to have as many of my thoughts published as I can before the prize is announced.
No, I won't be getting through the whole list before tomorrow evening but will be trying to read a little more of the Mukherjee so I can make an official pronouncement of my view some time in the middle of the afternoon (glorious solipsism here, yes, I do truly know that no one could care less what my view is or when I express it, but it feels as though it matters to write as if someone did).

So, the Flanagan.
I don't know what to make of this one. I struggled to get going with it, but it did draw me in, and had me turning pages and even carrying it around like I was with the Smith. I cared (somewhat) about the people in it, and I shuddered where I was meant to at all the grim POW bits.

It's not taken my heart, though, and careful thought says this is for two reasons:

1. Somehow it seems calculating. Take a gruesome subject, or a subject that affords gruesomeness, and milk it in as much detail as possible, interspersing it with a "human interest" angle that makes the book seem more ambitious and hence a bigger achievement. This basic plan is there, and has been followed, but you can still see the pencil lines. I've a kind of distaste for books where a true story, or true situation, is milked for artistic return like this - it's the same as my distaste for Holocaust fiction, unless it's done incredibly, remarkably, heart-stoppingly well (I'm thinking of Fugitive Pieces here, which follows the same schema really, but does it with such perfect beauty that it doesn't matter).

2. Having said this, with the structure the author has chosen, the book just needed more editing. If you're going to flip-flop in time and between locations you need to do it really elegantly, and with an eye to the ease of your reader, unless you're deliberately introducing confusion as some kind of literary metaphor. It doesn't seem to me that it was deliberate in this case, more careless, and someone needed to take a pair of scissors to the MS and rearrange some of the early scenes in a different order.
Still on the editing, I recall reading once a simple piece of advice for writers not to give two of your key characters names beginning with the same initial. This sounds so petty, but actually it does matter. Unless you're really properly a well-established Great Writer, you need to remove all the impediments between your reader and comprehension - it's arrogant not to, to expect them to fight through this. No, Dorrigo and Darky aren't that similar, and thinking for a minute about the context is enough to work out who we're reading about now, but I resented having to put that minute in.

I'm perhaps not a writer's ideal reader: I don't treat the work with reverence, and I certainly don't set aside long silent concentrated hours for reading, ensuring I note subtexts, taking notes to aid my comprehension, and so on. Except, if a book earned it, I would. I read War and Peace with the dovegreyreader family tree bookmark slotted into the front of my e-reader, because I needed it, and the book repaid every bit of my investment in it. Even with shortlist #6, the Mukherjee, I groaned when I saw a family tree and a map at the start, but I'm using them, because there's something about the quality of the text that's making me want to.

If I'm in doubt, though, about whether these pages are earning each precious minute I'm spending on them, I want to read without deliberate barriers. I want to play guessing games about interesting stuff, like the characters' motivations, or whodunnit, or which bits of what the narrator says is unreliable - not about which D-person is which.

One more thing - I'll not write a spoiler, but there's a plot twist of sorts in there near the end which was a damp squib and, to my mind, added nothing.

I didn't really intend to devote a long post to sticking the boot into the Flanagan because I actually did quite enjoy it, and thought it had more literary merit than any of the others I've finished so far, apart from the Smith. I suppose it's that those two points above really held ,me up from finding it anywhere near as valuable as I could have done, and that's a big shame given that a good strong critical editor, and a long enough editing process that would allow time for this sort of issue to rise slowly to the surface, could have moved this from being a good book into a very good book, even if it couldn't reach the heights of greatness.

To rise again at a decent hour - Booker shortlist #3

I'm posting not-in-order here, because I loved the Smith so much I had to write about it first.
Only a quickie on this one. Another good reason for leaving it a little while before writing about it was that it had struck me as ephemeral, and I wanted to give it chance to settle to test my instincts on that.
Those instincts turned out, for me, to be right. I can't say I didn't enjoy reading it - I read Ferris's first novel however many years ago when it came out, and this is very much the same tone, so it made me laugh, and is the only one on the shortlist to have done that.
But it's got so little substance that I couldn't possibly think of it as a prizewinner - there's no deeper meaning, no complexity of language, somehow not enough display of skill. I *know* writing funny prose is in itself a skill, but I can't help wanting something more writerly, when you're talking about a proper serious prize like the Booker.
Less than a fortnight after finishing this and all I could tell you about it is:
- the protagonist is a dentist who has a range of existential crises and supports the Red Sox
- there's some kind of weird conspiracy about a suppressed race who have suffered more than the Jewish people
- the dentist's receptionist is called Connie, and he used to date her
 - mobile phones are referred to throughout as "me-machines"

Honestly, I don't recall how it ended, or quite how the dentist was involved in the conspiracy, or the names of any other characters (including the protagonist, actually) - it just wasn't complex enough to leave any barbs in me. I still enjoyed it more than the Jacobson, and would endorse it as a beach read or something for a long train journey, but not a prize winner.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

How to be both - Booker shortlist #4

Skipping around a little here, because I've not written yet about the Ferris (short version - fine, made me laugh, but not prize-worthy) but tonight I need to get my feelings off my chest about the Smith, How to be both.

When books start with weirdly laid out text and half sentences and breathless stream of consciousness and self-conscious defamiliarisation exercises (think person from past seeing person from present using a small black object with a shiny front to render pictures, that kind of thing) I usually slam it closed. With this one, I started it late-ish one night and nearly gave up in disgust: in fact I was close to abandoning the whole Booker project since I couldn't see how I could possibly get through this modern, self-indulgent nonsense, and nor could I see how I could have any respect for a set of judges who'd chosen it for the shortlist.

Fortunately my focus on the task won, because I loved it, goodness, I loved it.

I loved both of the main storytellers (a historic and a modern), I believed in them, I trusted them, I felt their pain.
I loved the historic setting, and the world of art it took me into.
I loved the depictions of friendship and romance.
I loved the utterly convincing voices (particularly of Francescho).
I finished it and turned straight back to the beginning, because I wanted to look back at it with the perspective of the ending.
It's made me want to read about the paintings in question, and listen to the music.
 Most importantly, it's made me wish I'd written it, made me wish I could have half the skill and craftsmanship that Smith's shown here. I wish I'd ever written even one character as true as Francescho or George. I wish I was brave enough to use words in the ways she does, to try out things that are bold and challenging and difficult.

I still hate the front cover, although it's a picture that's mentioned in the book, so you can see why it's there, because it makes a thoroughly non-shallow book look shallow. And I'll stick to my original view that some of the defamiliarisation stuff really is clunky (though nothing like as clunky as in the Jacobson). But these are tiny things in the context of a book that pulled me in, had me reading on the stairs, reading with it propped open with my foot while reading Winnie's New Computer to my boys, reading as I danced the baby to sleep....this is what prize books should do to you, and it did.

Monday, 22 September 2014

J - Booker shortlist #2

Honestly, I don't want to waste any more time on this one. It's bogged me down, deterred me from my journey, made me sleep rather than read, made me irritable.
Trying to think of a sort of intelligent critique rather than just saying it's rubbish, I note the publisher's assertion that this is nothing like Jacobson's normal work, but respectfully disagree - it's like it, in that it's hard work to read, and a big old waste of paper.

Pretentious and try-hard, with all the classic mistakes of a very new writer.

Unnecessary world-building?  Yup
Lots of silly made up names? Got it
Conspiracy and "twists" laid on with a trowel? Absolutely
Hijacking of something that's actually important to make a book that just, well, isn't? In there!
Special affectation of typography, for this book alone? This is the "overindulged writer" special.

Really, I can't think of a redeeming feature, other than that it wasn't longer. It didn't make me laugh, or think; it didn't make me want to go and explore anything in the book; it didn't give me even a moment's pause after I closed the covers. It is, to me, lazy and silly and very very under-edited (just one example - he should have had a big pat on the head for managing so convincingly to write in the boring pompous voice of "Phinny", and then should have had it scored through with red lines, because convincingly boring writing is just boring, and that's not a merit).

The only germ of readability in it was some of the pages of verbal wrangling between the two key characters, but even that is so sparsely distributed, and becomes so contrived and dull by the end, that its value is lost.

The blurb also says the novel is "to be talked about in the same breath as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World" - well, yes, in the sense of "if you would like to read a dystopian novel, put aside this nonsense as quickly as you can and read one of those two, because they're both much much much better". 



Thursday, 18 September 2014

We are all completely beside ourselves

Booker shortlist time! My favourite time of year!
Honestly, I have no time to read, can't even manage to get through Saturday's paper, and yet somehow at Booker time I find these little pockets of time, squeeze in a few pages here and there, ponder the contents in between, with only a little bit of neglect of my children.

I got my Book People bundle on Tuesday, and despairingly put them all aside to do my parent volunteering morning at the playgroup, but I'd managed to arrange them in length order.

So....in order, I'll be reading

We are all completely beside ourselves - Karen Joy Fowler
J - Howard Jacobson
To rise again at a decent hour - Joshua Ferris
How to be both - Ali Smith
The narrow road to the deep north - Richard Flanagan
The lives of others - Neil Mukherjee

My prediction from the covers is that it has to be the Flanagan or the Mukherjee. Jacobson just can't win again (it was a travesty last time); Ferris is a lightweight; the Smith cover looks like a cheap movie spin-off.

And the Fowler?

It didn't start promisingly - enjoyable enough, but a bit too much like any old stoner college romp.
The "twist", though, which I might be the only person who read it without knowing about, makes it a bit more special.
I don't really want to ruin the book for anyone who's reading this not having seen it, but her sister is a chimp - there you go. They were brought up together and then Fern (the chimp) was removed from the family home - the book is the narrator's exploration of what happened surrounding Fern's leaving.
Interesting idea, engaging tone, but for me something was missing. I think it's perhaps just that the whole thing tried slightly too hard. Unreliable narrators are my favourite, and an adult retelling a child's story is prime territory for this, but it was all done so self-consciously, with too many interjections about maybe this didn't happen, perhaps I've remembered this wrong. It was almost as though the author lacked the confidence either in herself as a writer or us as readers so she had to write UNRELIABLE in ten-foot letters across each page - when she could have trusted us to see this.

I also found the ending a little glib - almost as if there was a page count to be reached, and once she'd got there the author just rushed to come up with a conclusion to all the loose ends, without thinking too hard about how she'd got there.
I don't know, it was an enjoyable read, and made me want to look at some of the extra information that she linked to at the back, but I don't think it was great literature, and I can't imagine wanting to read it again. For me, both of these rule it out as a winner - it's just not momentous enough, or ambitious enough, or skilled enough. Almost, I thought "I could write that", where what I want is to read things where I think "I wish I could write that", or where I'm desperate to work out how they did it so I can have a go, or where I slam the book closed in despair that I'll never write that.

So onto the Jacobson - I couldn't be doing with the Finkler Question so am hoping this one's got a bit more going for it. Less than a month till the prize is announced!

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

So big

Not an original observation, but one that needs to be made.

He was my baby, my precious tiny firstborn. I've written elsewhere about the astonishing levels of intimacy in our relationship, with perhaps the most surprising thing for me being the physicality of it. Of course there's breastfeeding, but it's more than that - we owned each other's bodies, with no clear line between us. He weaned during my second trimester, painlessly, seemingly resigned to the absence of milk and open to discovering the joys of food. We still slept together, though, usually squeezed into his single bed, him nestled into my back as my bump grew.

In a trite moment, this shifted so completely. Baby 2 arrived, and baby 1 become boy, suddenly, one Sunday morning. Now he's massive. Not just his enormous hands, huge head, the hair on his legs, but the way he holds himself and how he moves.

I am still regularly entranced by this whirlwind of a boy, with his captivating thought processes, his articulacy, his exuberance and creativity and spontaneous affection, but physically it's so so tough, as if someone has hacked apart the Lyra/Pan bond. Today I woke him from a sleep and he cried so hard, tried to sit on my lap and curl back into me but he didn't fit, he couldn't nestle how he wanted to, and however much he tried to get me to position my hands for his wishes, it wouldn't work. He wasn't satisfied, but worse, I was irritated and un-tender. Why was this big lump trying to act like a baby? His skin's not smooth (it is), his eyes aren't disproportionately big (they are), he doesn't smell sweet and milky (actually, this one's true, he's usually a bit whiffy, in the way of 3 year olds), HE'S NOT A BABY which somehow, if you're not careful, becomes HE'S NOT MY BABY.
Oh precious firstborn, you are, you are. My body doesn't cry out for you like it did, because it's being poured into the care of another, who is soft and smooth and fuzzy and smells perfect and whose head fits in my collarbone. I swing behind me and swipe your feet off my back when you crawl into my bed in the night, all without breaking the curl around the other baby. I sometimes flinch a little bit when you come and sit on me naked straight after going to the toilet. And tonight we fought about bed, driven by my desperate desire to spend some sweet time with my new one, alone putting him to sleep, without having to indulge your needs. But honestly, I know it, even if I forget it, I know you're only three, I know your language is ahead of your emotions and that you need me as much as you ever did. I know that when I push you away you just come in closer and harder, that I'm still your prop against a confusing world, and I don't want you to be forced out there alone, bullied into growing up before your time just because an interloper has arrived.
I want to cherish my little boy even though someone else is now my baby, and I want to see him for the size he is. Can anyone press the pause button for me so we can get this sorted out?

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

You see, I see

You see a frazzled looking woman on the train with a young baby.  The baby is fussing and niggling and occasionally howling - she doesn't seem to know how to settle him, and nothing she's trying is working.
It's not helping that she's juggling him with a hot drink (how dangerous!) and is stuffing her face with food whenever she gets a hand free.
And she looks appalling, dressed all dark, hair doesn't seem to have seen a brush for a while.
As for the constant checking of her phone, honestly, don't these people know that babies need their attention?


I see a mother making frantic efforts to keep it together.
The long train journey is unavoidable, for sad reasons. 
She was up four times the night before with her baby, and another two times with her three year old, and started her day half an hour earlier than she needed, so that she could give the boy his breakfast before leaving him.
The hot drink is her only caffeine of the day, a prop to get her through; the food is another. No time for her own breakfast before she went out, uncertainty about when she'll get to have lunch, a breastfed baby to sustain.
The baby won't settle but she's not giving up. She's patiently working through the range of things that might help him, again and again. He's sad and uncomfortable quite often, but she knows eventually she'll hit the sweet spot of jiggle, hold, feed, stroke, and he'll drift off to sleep, all 14lb of him in the carrier on her chest, snuggled in close, an extra weight she'll hold all day. She's not ignorant about baby-settling, but it's not an easy environment to calm him in, not while she's trying to spare the other passengers the noise, and make sure they're not sprayed with her milk.
She's messing around with her phone so that she can do a running interpretation of her left-at-home-boy's needs for his dad, so sad to have left him without her. It's the longest time she's ever left him, 12 hours, and she's already missing him desperately. At the same time, she'd hoped so hard that the baby would sleep on the train, this was going to be a chance to sit in silence and read, away from the questions for once.
So when she looks wild-eyed, it's sleeplessness, low blood sugar, grief, anxiety, worry about the baby, worry about the noise, longing for her boy, regret for the slipping-away chance of an hour's peace...send her some hope, some reassurance, some respect that while all this is happening she's moving, adjusting, tending, nurturing, patiently helping the baby to rest, mothering through all of it even when there are only fragments of her left.

(Note to lady who told me my baby was beautiful and I was handling it all wonderfully, I could have both kissed you and cried. Thank you)
(Note 2. The way home was even worse)