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. 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)