Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

>> Tuesday, October 04, 2016

TITLE: Eileen
AUTHOR: Ottessa Moshfegh

PAGES: 272

TYPE: Fiction

Shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize

A lonely young woman working in a boys’ prison outside Boston in the early 60s is pulled into a very strange crime, in a mordant, harrowing story of obsession and suspense, by one of the brightest new voices in fiction.

So here we are. My name was Eileen Dunlop. Now you know me. I was twenty-four years old then, and had a job that paid fifty-seven dollars a week as a kind of secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys. I think of it now as what it really was for all intents and purposes—a prison for boys. I will call it Moorehead. Delvin Moorehead was a terrible landlord I had years later, and so to use his name for such a place feels appropriate. In a week, I would run away from home and never go back.

This is the story of how I disappeared.

The Christmas season offers little cheer for Eileen Dunlop, an unassuming yet disturbed young woman trapped between her role as her alcoholic father’s caretaker in a home whose squalor is the talk of the neighborhood and a day job as a secretary at the boys’ prison, filled with its own quotidian horrors. Consumed by resentment and self-loathing, Eileen tempers her dreary days with perverse fantasies and dreams of escaping to the big city. In the meantime, she fills her nights and weekends with shoplifting, stalking a buff prison guard named Randy, and cleaning up her increasingly deranged father’s messes. When the bright, beautiful, and cheery Rebecca Saint John arrives on the scene as the new counselor at Moorehead, Eileen is enchanted and proves unable to resist what appears at first to be a miraculously budding friendship. In a Hitchcockian twist, her affection for Rebecca ultimately pulls her into complicity in a crime that surpasses her wildest imaginings.

Played out against the snowy landscape of coastal New England in the days leading up to Christmas, young Eileen’s story is told from the gimlet-eyed perspective of the now much older narrator. Creepy, mesmerizing, and sublimely funny, in the tradition of Shirley Jackson and early Vladimir Nabokov, this powerful debut novel enthralls and shocks, and introduces one of the most original new voices in contemporary literature.
Poor blog must be feeling quite abandoned! Really busy time at work = no time or inclination to sit in front of a computer any more than I absolutely have to. Things have slightly calmed down, though, so as the announcement of the Man Booker Prize winner approaches, I'd better start getting my reviews posted.

Eileen is probably the book in the shortlist that has got the most lukewarm reviews, with many readers actively disliking it. I'm one of them, although I probably hated it more while I was reading it than afterwards, when I was thinking back about it.

This is the story of Eileen, a twenty-four-year-old young woman living a life she fantasises about leaving. She lives with her alcoholic and verbally abusive father, grudgingly taking care of him (that mostly means buying alcohol for him and maybe some tins of food). She's an admin worker at a youth correctional institution, a job where she's surrounded by people she detests. But for all that she hates her life and dreams of running away, it's clear she won't do it. Until a fateful Christmas Eve.

So yes, I had a horrible time reading this book and had to force myself to finish. The problem is that Eileen is one of the most unpleasant, pathetic, mean-spirited characters I've ever read. She's ugly, in that her character is ugly. She's utterly self-involved, but not in a narcissistic sort of way. Rather, she hates herself, from her personality to her physicality. The book positively revels in how repulsive everything is. There is a lot of focus on bodily fluids... the piss, the shit, the pus, the vomit, even the menstrual blood (which certainly felt different... male authors, who tend to be more into writing books with a lot of bodily fluids than women, are too squeamish for that, however much of a macho image they try to project). Everything is disgusting and repellent, and it's overpowering.

Once I was done reading, however, I was able to try to think about the book more objectively: does it do what it's trying to do successfully? Actually, for the most part, I think so. Much as she repulsed me, I found Eileen believable. The narrator, who's telling the story from the vantage point of being a 75-year-old who's lived a full life after she became a completely different person, is clear-eyed about just how pathetic she was back when she was 24. She's basically our omniscient narrator, and there's no obfuscation. She portrays Eileen almost savagely, pointing out her failings and all the many ways in which she's a horrible person. But she also makes it clear why it was so, and why Eileen is also pitiful, someone whose character is completely influenced by her circumstances.

Where the book falls down is in the ending. Most of the book is just Eileen going round hating everything around her and in her, and nothing much happens. When things happen, it's very near the end, and it's revelation after revelation, with characters acting in ways that I didn't quite buy. The change was too sudden, possibly, and I thought it didn't work.

MY GRADE: So I guess Eileen tried to do something that really wasn't for me, but had some success in doing it, until it fell down in the end. Since my grades are about my personal enjoyment and appreciation of the books in question (I'm afraid I'll say that a lot in the next couple of weeks), I'm afraid I'll give this a D.


Fan the Flames, by Katie Ruggle

>> Thursday, September 01, 2016

TITLE: Fan the Flames
AUTHOR: Katie Ruggle

PAGES: 422
PUBLISHER: Sourcebooks Casablanca

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romantic Suspense
SERIES: 2nd full length title in the Search and Rescue series

He's a firefighter.
He's a Motorcycle Club member.
And if a killer has his way...he'll take the fall for a murder he didn't commit.

Ian Walsh is used to riding the line between the good guys and the bad. He may owe the club his life, but his heart rests with his fire station brothers...and with the girl he's loved since they were kids. Ian would do anything for Rory. He'd die for her. Kill for her. Defend her to his last breath?and he may just have to.

Every con in the Rockies knows Rory is the go-to girl for less-than-legal firearms. When she defends herself against a brutal attack, Rory finds herself catapulted into the center of a gang war, with only Ian standing between her and a threat greater than either of them could have imagined.

In the remote Rocky Mountains, lives depend on the Search & Rescue brotherhood. But in a place this far off the map, trust is hard to come by and secrets can be murder...
I've gone on and on about how much I loved the first full-length title in this series, Hold Your Breath... basically, enough to make me read a book with a motorcycle club in it (really, really not my thing). Unfortunately, this gamble didn't pay off, as Fan the Flames was nothing like Hold Your Breath.

The heroine, Rory, is the owner of the town's gun shop, while the hero, Ian, is a firefighter who happens to also be a member of the local motorcycle club. Ian has had a thing for Rory for years, but never made a move (why? no idea). When stuff starts to happen, with someone trying to get into her shop at night, he decides it's time to make a move and protect her.

My main problem was that I had huge ethical issues with what the hero and heroine did, and the narrative was trying to tell me it was all ok and nothing I should worry about. From what I could see in the first half of the book, which is as much as I read, the motorcycle club Ian is a part of is not a bunch of mostly decent guys who just happen to like riding motorcycles, or even tough guys who simply club together to protect each other. They are proper lowlifes, the sort of people who think nothing of assaulting and killing people. Ian doesn't seem to be like them, but I just could not accept as a romance hero someone who'd be part of that group. As for Rory, she sells guns to these people -illegally, since, as she says, they would not pass a background check. Both she and Ian should be in jail.

I also hated that the book read like an NRA pamphlet. Everyone in this story is obsessed with guns. It's not just that this was boring, just because this was an obsession I don't share. If it had been something else I'm not interested in (say, classic cars), that would have been boring, but ok. Guns are not neutral, though. Gun nuts like these people will probably hold certain political positions related to that interest, which is an element that's purposely left out here. The way Ruggle dealt with this element, though, you'd think guns were harmless trinkets, and that it's normal to have a veritable arsenal in your home. No. Just no.

As for the romance... well, there was very little of it in the sections I read, and it wasn't great. Ian is a much too high-handed with Rory for my tastes. He decides she needs him to stay at her house because an intruder is looking around, and that is that. And we're told that as soon as he adopts a masterful tone, Rory will just automatically obey, out of training from when her father was running drills when she was a child. Ugh.

Yeah, this was definitely not for me. I should have given up earlier, but this series has a continuing suspense thread (the famous Headless Dead Guy from book 1), and I wanted to know what would happen with that. If I do read book 3 (hoping it's more like book 1 than book 2), I guess I'll have to hope Ruggle provides some catch-up.



Walk On Earth a Stranger, by Rae Carson

>> Tuesday, August 30, 2016

TITLE: Walk On Earth a Stranger
AUTHOR: Rae Carson

PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Greenwillow Books

TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: Starts Gold Seer trilogy

The first book in a new trilogy from acclaimed New York Times-bestselling author Rae Carson. A young woman with the magical ability to sense the presence of gold must flee her home, taking her on a sweeping and dangerous journey across Gold Rush era America. Walk on Earth a Stranger begins an epic saga from one of the finest writers of young adult literature.

Lee Westfall has a secret. She can sense the presence of gold in the world around her. Veins deep beneath the earth, pebbles in the river, nuggets dug up from the forest floor. The buzz of gold means warmth and life and home—until everything is ripped away by a man who wants to control her. Left with nothing, Lee disguises herself as a boy and takes to the trail across the country. Gold was discovered in California, and where else could such a magical girl find herself, find safety?

Rae Carson, author of the acclaimed Girl of Fire and Thorns series, dazzles with the first book in the Gold Seer Trilogy, introducing a strong heroine, a perilous road, a fantastical twist, and a slow-burning romance, as only she can.
I loved Carson's previous Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy, so I picked this up as soon as it came out. Walk On Earth a Stranger is the first in a new trilogy set during the Gold Rush, which made me really happy.

Leah Westfall lives with her parents in 1849 Georgia. There used to be lots of gold in their area, but by the time the story starts, no one is finding much at all. No one but Lee, that is, but that's because she has a special ability. Leah can sense gold, and that allows her to find any nugget and tiny piece anywhere around. Over the previous years she's found enough that people would suspect if they were to take it into town to sell, so the Westfall's fortune is just hidden in their cabin.

And then tragedy strikes and Leah is left alone in the world. It appears her abilities are not a secret from her evil, greedy uncle, and he's determined to use her to find even more gold than he stole from Leah's family. Faced with that prospect, Leah decides to turn into "Lee", a boy looking for adventure, and follow the crowds to California, where it's rumoured there's plenty of gold for everyone, and someone with her abilities would be able to build a life quite easily.

Walk On Earth a Stranger tells of Lee's journey West, and Carson really doesn't sugarcoat things. Things start out well. There are loads of people going, all sorts of convoys, and everyone is well-prepared for what they know will be a difficult trip. Only they're not quite prepared for just how tough things get.

It was really interesting, particularly because I wasn't quite prepared for it, either. This is not a part of US history that I was too familiar with. I'd heard of the California gold rush and I knew the journey West was not an easy one, but no more than that. It was fascinating to see just why it was tough, and just how much so.

I also liked how Carson brings alive the people in the convoy Lee is travelling with, and their interesting interactions. It's a convoy made up of several distinct groups who didn't know each other before the trip but decided to club together at the start point to give themselves a better chance. So it's basically a small collection of tribes, and when the going gets really difficult, the tensions between working together as a group and each person choosing the welfare of their own little group and doing their own thing come to the forefront.

The only real problem with the story is the villain, Lee's uncle. Carson is pretty subtle with most of her characterisation, but not with him. He's just over-the-top evil, and in one of my least-favourite tropes, he's the sort of all-powerful villain who seems to be able to find his prey anywhere. Hmmm....

The other thing I should mention is that this book doesn't really feel like a whole story itself (although the journey sort of functions as one), but as the setup for the real story. There's a sense that the story about the girl who can sense gold is only going to start once Lee gets to California, and this book only serves to get her there, ready to start the real thing in book 2 (nothing much is made of Lee's gift here). That didn't bother me that much, although it did make the ending feel a bit anticlimactic.

Book 2 is coming in September, so if you haven't read this one and it sounds interesting to you, now might be a good time to pick it up.



The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

>> Sunday, August 28, 2016

TITLE: The Sellout
AUTHOR: Paul Beatty

PAGES: 304
PUBLISHER: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Fiction

A biting satire about a young man's isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, Paul Beatty's The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. It challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality—the black Chinese restaurant.

Born in the "agrarian ghetto" of Dickens—on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles—the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: "I'd die in the same bedroom I'd grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that've been there since '68 quake." Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father's pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family's financial woes. But when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that's left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.

Fuelled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town's most famous resident—the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins—he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.
Another of my Man Booker reads.

The Sellout is satirical exploration of race in a supposedly post-racial USA. The plot, such as it is, involves the narrator's efforts to bring back the city of Dickens, a poor suburb of LA wiped off the maps by city planners too embarrassed by it to acknowledge its existence. So how will he do it? Why, by bringing back segregation and slavery!

The plot doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's not really meant to. Because the plot is not the point here. It's simply a backdrop for what's basically (and I'm totally stealing this from several amazon reviewers) an extended standup routine.

And it's great standup. The humour is ceaseless, with devastating one-liners and images coming fast and keeping coming. It's not the kind of humour that makes you laugh-out-loud, but the kind that makes you wince, because it's a bit too true. Beatty creates a fully-realised world, populated by characters who feel real even when they accept the absurdist occurrences Beatty throws at them with complete naturalness.

My only "issue" is that this is very much a book about the US experience of race, so at certain times I felt that I was missing some of the references (this book is so dense with meaning that I could very well believe that every single word and image choice is chosen for a very particular reason). But I got enough that the book worked perfectly well for me, anyway.

I should also mention that I listened to this one on audio, which might well be the best way to read it. The narrator, Prentice Onayemi, is fantastic, and the audio emphasises the "standup" element.

MY GRADE: A strong B+.


And Then There Were None, by Agatha Christie

>> Friday, August 26, 2016

TITLE: And Then There Were None
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

PAGES: 320

SETTING: 1930s England
TYPE: Mystery / Thriller

"Ten . . ."
Ten strangers are lured to an isolated island mansion off the Devon coast by a mysterious "U. N. Owen."

"Nine . . ."
At dinner a recorded message accuses each of them in turn of having a guilty secret, and by the end of the night one of the guests is dead.

"Eight . . ."
Stranded by a violent storm, and haunted by a nursery rhyme counting down one by one . . . as one by one . . . they begin to die.

"Seven . . ."
Which among them is the killer and will any of them survive?
The BBC broadcast a much-talked-about adaptation of And Then There Were None last Christmas. I missed it (oh, poor me, I was sunning myself in Uruguay instead!), but the raves about it made me want to reread the book.

This is one of the non-typical Christie books, the kind which you read and love and then are disappointed when you realise there aren't any more quite like it in Christie's oeuvre. An odd group of people are lured to a mansion on a lonely island off the coast of Devon. None of them know any of the others, and it turns out none of them know the person who invited them. This becomes clear right the first night, when a recording suddenly starts playing, accusing each of them of a crime they've so far got away with.

Ridiculous!, they all cry. This U.N. Owen or Una Owen or whatever their host is really called must be playing a joke, but it's in bad taste, and they will all be leaving in the morning. When one of their group dies, it's a bit worrying, but it must have been an accident, surely. They'll just be careful and leave as soon as they can. But then another person dies, and another, and all in exactly the way coyly described in the nursery rhyme prominently displayed in each of their bedrooms:

Ten little Indian boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Indian boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.
And then the next morning there is no boat to take them away, and there is a storm, so there's not much they can do. And after a thorough search of the island makes it clear they are all alone and there's no master villain hiding anywhere, picking them off, the remaining guests start eyeing each other nervously...

This really is a masterful book. The plotting is top-notch: incredibly tense and well put-together, and running like clockwork. There is no way anyone will guess whodunnit, and yet when you find out and you go back and reread, Christie hasn't cheated at all. It's all there.

I was also really impressed by her characterisation. You get 10 people who are basically a type: the soldier of fortune, the hanging judge, the drunk doctor, the athletic, ambitious young woman, the rigid spinster. And yet they are all impressively distinct right from the start. At no point did I confuse them, wonder "Oh, so is X the doctor or the judge?". Even more impressive: I remembered most of them from the time I last reread this, many, many years ago.

I was also pleasantly surprised by something else, which was how well it's held up. Oh, it's very much of its time, starting with the title (the previous one, Ten Little Indians was changed to And Then There Were None for obvious reasons, but that was the second one, changed to after the first one, which used the N word instead of "Indians", became clearly inappropriate even earlier), but continuing on with some of the attitudes expressed. Oh, so the accusation is that you abandoned some natives in Africa to die? But they were only natives, says the character we come to think of as our heroine to the soldier of fortune. The thing is, it turns out she's not our heroine (I hope that's not too much of a spoiler), and we're not being told this by the narrative. The narrative is not insisting that some of these characters are innocent, the narrative is telling us they're guilty and responsible for the consequences of their actions, even the spinster whose rigid morality led to the death of a young servant in her house who 'got herself in trouble'. That's actually a remarkably modern worldview.

The characters were not all I remembered from all those years ago. I fully remembered the resolution, and the fact that I still enjoyed it as much as I did is a testament to just how good this is.



Serious Sweet, by AL Kennedy

>> Wednesday, August 24, 2016

TITLE: Serious Sweet
AUTHOR: AL Kennedy

PAGES: 528
PUBLISHER: Jonathan Cape

SETTING: Contemporary London
TYPE: Fiction

A good man in a bad world, Jon Sigurdsson is fifty-nine and divorced, a senior civil servant in London who hates many of his colleagues and loathes his work for a government engaged in unmentionable acts.

Meg Williams is a bankrupt accountant—two words you don’t want in the same sentence, or anywhere near your résumé. She’s forty-five and shakily sober, living on Telegraph Hill in London, where she can see the city unfurl below her.

Somewhere out there is Jon, pinballing around the city with a cell phone and a letter-writing habit he can’t break. He’s a man on the brink, leaking government secrets and affection for a woman he barely knows as he runs for his life.

Poignant, deeply funny, and beautifully written, Serious Sweet is about two decent, damaged people trying to make moral choices in an immoral world, ready to sacrifice what’s left of themselves for honesty and for a chance at tenderness. As Jon and Meg navigate the sweet and serious heart of London—passing through twenty-four hours that will change them both forever—they tell an unusual and moving love story.
Another read from the Man Booker longlist.

Serious Sweet tells the story of a day in which two damaged people try to meet up and find something good in a world that's otherwise full of cruelty and indifference.

He is Jon Sigurdsson, a disenchanted senior civil servant who's been rebelling against what his department is doing by leaking information. Jon is recently divorced from a woman who treated him with cruelty and contempt, and as a reaction to this, took to writing kind and sweet letters to women. He set that up as a sort of service (advertising it and charging a modest amount for a dozen of bespoke hand-written letters), but he gets as much, if not much more, out of it than his correspondents.

Not that his correspondents don't get quite a lot out of his letters. The second person is one of them, Meg Williams, a woman who's struggling to rebuild her life after a few years in which alcoholism cost her both relationships and career. Jon's letters touched her and helped her, enough to make her take the uncharacterstically bold step of finding him in person.

Jon was just as drawn by Meg's replies to his letters, so that was the first of a couple of meetings. So the meeting on the day of the story is just one more, but as circumstances conspire against their getting together, this one becomes more and more significant.

The bare story told here was one that appealed to me. These are good people who have been deeply wounded, and I was rooting for them to find something good, the kindness and tenderness each desperately needed. At its heart this is a romance, and the relationship was one I believed in. The tone was sad and yet hopeful, and this worked well.

However. Oh, however. My main issue was the writing. It's very challenging. That's not a problem per se; the thing is, it was not challenging in a good way. There's lots and lots and lots of internal monologue interspersed throughout any dialogue or action, and that felt overpowering. It often starts fine, but then devolves into stream of consciousness nonsense. I confess to a prejudice against this particular narrative technique. I accept it can be done well, but I find it all too easy to lose interest when it's not. And I didn't feel it was great here. There are some nuggets of sharp observation, yes, but it felt like wading through treacle to get to them. And there was such a lot of pointless treacle. I really had to force myself to keep going.

The other thing that didn't work for me was the... I guess I could call it "setting" of Jon's life. Jon's supposed to be a senior civil servant, and quite a lot of the plot, such as it is, revolves around that. I was actually drawn by this, because this is my world, and it's not one I see portrayed in fiction very often. There was an initial thrill of recognition: Oh, his office is in Tothill Street? That's probably Caxton House, I wonder if he's supposed to work in DWP. Oh, he clearly does! But that was all it was, superficial recognition of some of the trappings of his life. I didn't really recognise the characters. Jon didn't feel like any senior civil servant I know, with his dithering and seeming isolation (funny thing is, I actually know someone who used to do the job I'm guessing Jon is supposed to be in!). The world of the civil service Kennedy portrays is the stereotype: faceless, anonymous, middle-aged white men. That's not what I see day to day, and it was disappointing.

The whole thing was disappointing, actually. And the most frustrating thing is that the book demonstrates what Kennedy can do. There are these little vignettes at the ends of chapters, basically showing us little scenes around London, and these are fantastic. They are sharply observed and interesting and poignant. I wanted more of that, less of the waffle.



Ice and fog

>> Monday, August 22, 2016

TITLE: On His Watch
AUTHOR: Katie Ruggle

After reading and loving Hold Your Breath, book 1 in Ruggle's Search and Rescue series I went looking for more books and discovered all that was out there was a free prequel novella. I really wanted a bit more time with Ruggle's voice, so I downloaded and started reading it immediately.

On His Watch happens right before Hold Your Breath. The Search and Rescue team are at a school for careers day, demonstrating what ice diving rescue entails. Derek Warner is part of that team, and he's pretty distracted by the presence of one of the teachers, Artemis 'Artie' Rey. Derek and Artie were once together, and Derek is still madly in love with her. When things go pear-shaped and two of the kids get lost, Derek and Artie pair up as part of the search team, and spending time together leads to them finally talking and sorting things out.

I'm afraid the romance here was fine, but a bit lackluster. Nothing to be offended by, but nothing to be excited about, either. The voice was the one I enjoyed so much in Hold Your Breath, though, full of gentle humour. And I loved the glimpse of Lou and Callum, the protagonists of that book. We see here how they met and how the dynamic I enjoyed so much in their own book got started, and it's hilarious.

I think if I'd started with this one I'd probably have decided to buy Hold Your Breath on the strength of the voice and the Lou and Callum scene, and in spite of the lukewarm main romance, but I can't be sure. The perils of the introductory novella when it's clearly not the author's strongest skill!


TITLE: The Tiger in the Smoke
AUTHOR: Margery Allingham

Allingham is the only one of the famous "Golden Age" mystery writers that I hadn't tried yet. I think I saw this one mentioned somewhere and thought I'd start here.

What started as a strange plot where a young woman is about to get married and starts getting letters from her supposedly-late husband quickly turns into a story of underworld characters and a dangerous killer on the loose. I liked the former, but the latter got old really quickly. The sections with the criminal gang are preposterous and horribly dated, and I honestly didn't care (or really get, to be completely honest) about any of the characters or what was going on.

I gave up at about the halfway point. Having read some reviews after, it appears that: 1) Quite a lot of the secondary characters here are recurring characters. I'd probably have got a lot more joy out of them if I'd read previous books, but I hadn't. 2) This is very different from Allingham's other books. I might have to give her another try. I might just start right at the beginning.

MY GRADE: This was a DNF.


All That Man Is, by David Szalay

>> Saturday, August 20, 2016

TITLE: All That Man Is
AUTHOR: David Szalay

PAGES: 448
PUBLISHER: Jonathan Cape

SETTING: Various European contemporary settings
TYPE: Fiction

A magnificent and ambitiously conceived portrait of contemporary life, by a genius of realism

Nine men. Each of them at a different stage in life, each of them away from home, and each of them striving--in the suburbs of Prague, in an overdeveloped Alpine village, beside a Belgian motorway, in a dingy Cyprus hotel--to understand what it means to be alive, here and now. Tracing a dramatic arc from the spring of youth to the winter of old age, the ostensibly separate narratives of All That Man Is aggregate into a picture of a single shared existence, a picture that interrogates the state of modern manhood while bringing to life, unforgettably, the physical and emotional terrain of an increasingly globalized Europe. And so these nine lives form an ingenious and new kind of novel, in which David Szalay expertly plots a dark predicament for the twenty-first-century man.

Dark and disturbing, but also often wickedly and uproariously comic, All That Man Is is notable for the acute psychological penetration Szalay brings to bear on his characters, from the working-class ex-grunt to the pompous college student, the middle-aged loser to the Russian oligarch. Steadily and mercilessly, as this brilliantly conceived book progresses, the protagonist at the center of each chapter is older than the last one, it gets colder out, and All That Man Is gathers exquisite power. Szalay is a writer of supreme gifts--a master of a new kind of realism that vibrates with detail, intelligence, relevance, and devastating pathos.
As I've done for the past few years, I'm aiming to read as many of the books on the Man Booker prize longlist as I possibly can before the winner is announced. This year's list actually has quite a few that sound really intriguing to me, and I almost randomly chose All That Man Is to get started.

There's been some low-level controversy about the inclusion of this book in the longlist, as the rules call for novels, and this is more of a short story collection. The only connection between the stories here is in theme and, I guess, sensibility. Whether that is cohesive enough to move this from "collection of works" to "a work" I don't know and, to be honest, I don't care.

Each of the stories gives us a portrayal of a man at a certain point in his life. These are different men, from different backgrounds and nationalities, and at different stages of their lives (we start with a 17-year-old and the central character gets a few years older in each story, until we finish with one close to the end of his life). We see these men in some sort of crisis, somehow displaced from their regular lives and contemplating the meaning of those lives in some way.

These are more vignettes than full stories. The point seems to be to examine a character, rather than to tell a full story. There are no real resolutions here; the stories kind of fade away, rather than come to a climax. I didn't mind this at all, actually, because the observation is well done. Internal lives (and there's a lot of internal contemplation) feel true and well observed, and I liked the little external details reflecting those internal lives. And the key thing is that we're observing these people and the prose is remarkably value-free. We're not judging, we're observing and understanding.

Now, the problem with this is that a secondary effect of the detailed focus on these men is that the female characters are not rendered to the same standard. They don't feel as layered and nuanced as the male characters, but more like objects, characterised only in terms of what function they serve in the male protagonist's story. One could say this is only a function of what Szalay is trying to do here, but I don't think I'd agree with that. Better characterisation of the female characters would not have interfered with the focus on the central characters.

The tone is a melancholy one. Szalay's is a pessimistic view of what man is. It seems to be that man is lonely and adrift, struggling with feelings of meaninglessness. I'm more of an optimist myself, someone who thinks one can find meaning and joy in mundane things, so for all that I liked the detailed observation of the characters, the book probably resonated less with me than it might with others.

The length of the stories really works. The characters are, by necessity of the theme, self-involved. In small chunks, it's just right for the reader to care and not just want them to get over themselves.

The other element that I liked was the European theme. This is basically "All That (European) Man Is". Although there's always some English link, the stories happen all over Europe. There's a French guy from Lille taking a holiday in Crete and meeting two English women. There's a Danish tabloid journalist meeting a Danish politician in Spain. There's a couple of Hungarians going to London for work. There's a Belgian guy taking a car to Poland and meeting up with his Polish girlfriend in Germany on the way. But this is the mundane side of globalisation. If you think "lots of European locations" you probably get the impression things will be all glitzy and glamorous, but here, they mostly really aren't. We do get luxury hotels in London and a yacht in the Mediterranean, but we also get industrial estates in Lille, bargain-basement mass holiday hotels in Crete, and flimsily-built condos in the French Alps. There are plenty of very regular people here, and their stories are not dramatic. But these days regular, unglamorous, commonplace people also get to travel and treat exotic-sounding European locations as commonplace. You get the point of just how far European integration has gone. Reading this right after the shock of the referendum result, it felt very bittersweet.



Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

>> Thursday, August 18, 2016

TITLE: Aurora
AUTHOR: Kim Stanley Robinson

PAGES: 466

TYPE: Sci-fi

Our voyage from Earth began generations ago.

Now, we approach our destination.

A new home.


Brilliantly imagined and beautifully told, Aurora is the work of a writer at the height of his powers.
I really didn't know what to expect when I started this book. You might have noticed that the blurb is pretty cryptic, and the person who recommended it flatly refused to tell me much more than the basic premise. I will now do the same, because I really do think that's the best way to read this. So all I'll say is that the story starts as, after over 150 years of space travel, a generation ship approaches the planetary system where its inhabitants plan to settle.

Although we do focus on particular characters, the scope of the book is not narrow, but wide. The story that is being told is that of the mission to establish a colony in a new planetary system, not the story of particular persons. That's very much a stated premise: with some minor exceptions, what we're getting is the product of the ship's Artificial Intelligence being asked to produce a story of the mission. This works wonderfully, as this AI has slowly been becoming self-aware, and you see that increasing "humanity" as its narration develop. It's a nice, organic development of the concept of storytelling making us human.

Also, I listened to this on audio, and the narrator does an excellent job of the narration. The voice sounds quite machine-like, with slightly odd pauses and a somewhat monotone tone. This description of it sounds like it could be unbearable, but the narrator somehow manages to keep it really "listenable".

Is it hard science fiction? There is a hell of a lot of hard scientific detail... a bit too much, to be honest (although the balance gets better as Ship gets more self-aware), but I thought Robinson was just as interested in the social science. The hard science is important, but mainly for the impact it has on the ship's society and how they react when things happen. That's where the drama truly comes from, and I was gripped.

It works because Robinson gets the characterisation right. The people whose story he's telling are all human. Some are arseholes, but there are no cartoonishly evil characters running around purely for the sake of creating conflict. The conflict feels real and understandable and like something that would actually happen, given human nature.

I'd recommend this.



Two Russian non-fiction DNFs

>> Tuesday, August 16, 2016

TITLE: The Romanovs: 1613 - 1918
AUTHOR: Simon Sebag Montefiore

I started this with genuine excitement. It's the story of the Romanov tsars, from the birth of the dynasty in 1613, until Nicholas II's execution in 1918. The introduction promised some truly wild stories and larger-than-life personalities. I was fully on-board. I happily opened the first chapter...

...and encountered some of the flatest and deadest prose ever. The first chapter is basically a recitation of facts. This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. And I'm not paraphrasing that much! We get no sense of the people involved. Even worse, the recitation of facts is so bare-bones that there's not enough there for the reader to understand how one thing led to another or why things happened. It's all "And then the next year Poland invaded". Why? No idea.

The positive reviews talk about how the characters come alive, so I wondered if things would get better in later sections, when there is more source material available. So I continued to try to plow through the first sections. I didn't succeed. I'd read 2 or 3 pages, get bored to tears, and stop. And when I put the book down I felt no interest in picking it up again. I had to force myself to do so. This went on for over a month before I gave up.


TITLE: Travels in Siberia
AUTHOR: Ian Frazier

Clearly I'm on a Russia kick, because I soon as I gave up on The Romanovs, I picked this one up. Travels in Siberia is also non-fiction, a mix of history, social commentary and travelogue. Frazier first visited Siberia when invited to join exiled Russian friends several decades earlier, and that made him obsessed with the place.

Unfortunately, although there are interesting snippets in the approximately 100 pages that I read, the writing style is really dull, particularly on the travel sections. There's a lot of "I did this, and then I did that", in way too much detail about the mundane and not enough on what we readers are interested in.



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