Monthly Archives: September 2017

The Goldsmiths Prize Shortlist 2017

I’m new to the Goldsmiths Prize. It’s a prize given to a novel that breaks the mould for how a novel should be written. It’s only open to writer in the UK and the Republic of Ireland – that explains why Lincoln in the Bardo isn’t a contender, otherwise it really fits the criteria!

The blurb from Goldsmiths says:

The six shortlisted books offer resistance to the received idea of how a novel should be written. Variously, they break the rules on continuity, time, character arcs, perspective, voice, typographical conventions and structure. As such, there is a wildness to all of our chosen books that provokes in the reader a joyful inquiry about just what a novel might be there to do.” (Dr Naomi Wood, Chair of Judges)

Previous winners are:

2016: Solar Bones – Mike McCormack. This was longlisted for the Man Booker prize this year, and I have a copy waiting to be read because it sounds really great. It’s one sentence. One sentence!!!

2015: Beatlebone – Kevin Barry. I haven’t read this, but I bought a few copies to give as xmas gifts for people a few years ago – on the strength of several reviews I read. I wasn’t reading much myself back then, so didn’t get around to reading it myself.

2014: How to be Both – Ali Smith. Ahhh one I have read, and one of my earliest reviews, from before I really started blogging.

2013: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing – Eimear McBride. I just bought a copy of this a few weeks ago. Must read it soon. Must read it soon.

From the shortlist this year I have only read Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor. Hmmm it wasn’t a book I liked, as you can tell from my review, but it sure has an unusual structure! From the rest of the shortlist there’s a few books I’ve been interested in reading: First Love by Gwendoline Riley, and Phone by Will Self (I read Great Apes a few years ago and really enjoyed it). As happens far too often, time and other books have got in the way.

Here this years shortlist (click for links to more information):

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I look forward to seeing who wins on November 15th.

Which ones have you read, and who do you want to win?

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Book Review: Queen of Spades – Michael Shou-Yung Shum

I received a pre-release copy of Queen of Spades from Netgalley. It’s a reworking of Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades – a book I also didn’t know anything about. So after reading this I have got a copy of the Pushkin version to read so I can compare the two.

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Queen of Spades is a book with a slightly, magical-leaning look at gambling. It’s set in a pacific north west USA town (Twilight country in my mind), in a casino called The Royal. We focus on a dealer called Arturo Chang and his obsession with a mysterious Countess who comes to the Royal every night to watch the high stakes game Faro. She rarely gambles, though does occasionally, and no one can figure out her system.

I’m not a gambler, I don’t go to casinos and I don’t know the rules of these games. Queen of Spades doesn’t require any of this knowledge and it doesn’t get bogged down with the games. We learn early on that there is one legendary game of Faro played at the Royal, and we are building up to this game and its consequences.

You get to know a whole cast of characters who are all associated with The Royal and it’s a really enjoyable read. There’s a dealer with a gambling problem, his ex-wife who attends a support group for gamblers, his bookie and his bookie’s goons – who really just want to open a salon and gym! It’s nice to read something about such different characters to the ones I normally read about.

I enjoyed reading Queen of Spades and recommend it of you want an interesting look into a world of gamblers.

Family Film Time – August 2017

Every week we have enforced family film watching time. Its partly to try and have a couple of hours down time, partly to be able to share our love of film with our kids, partly to have a tradition we hopefully will continue in the future. We take turns to pick. The participants are currently 39, 37, 7 and 4.

Another mixed up month, huge family stuff going on, plus a camping holiday, means we only managed to watch two films in August. They were good uns though.

The Jungle Book

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Everyone really liked this update to the Jungle Book. I was worried the realistic animals might be too scary, but it was all good! It’s not as cutesy and singy songy as the Disney cartoon, but you still get your sing-a-long favourites in it!

Monsters University

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Monsters University is set before Monsters Inc. when Mike and Sulley are at University trying to become scarers. It’s fun, and funny and everyone loved it.

We have been trying to pick U-rated films and not move on to slightly more grown up ones. I picked well with this one. But surely we’re nearly ready for some Bill and Ted? ūüėÄ I’m writing this quite late on in September, and so can already tell you I picked a September film that was a GREAT BIG FAIL. Terrified the children and even drove one to read a book instead… oops. More next month!

Book Review: The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

It feels wrong to say I enjoyed reading The Underground Railroad, although I did, because it’s subject matter is so harrowing, yet so important. ¬†The experience of Cora, a plantation slave who tries to escape to the North, in civil war era USA, is heart breaking and captivating. The description of her time on the plantation was very difficult to read. It’s not that I was ignorant to what slavery must have been like, it’s just never been presented to me in such a visceral, clear way. The text feels so immersive to Cora’s daily life. It’s stark and awful. And you can not fail to make links with modern day America with this in their recent history.

When the work was done, and the day’s punishments, the night waited as an arena for their true loneliness and despair.

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Colson Whitehead’s work is not an attempt to make a strictly factual account of slavery in America, but the experiences of the characters are firmly rooted in fact. The Underground Railroad is a physical underground railroad in this story, but in reality it refers to the network of moving escaped slaves around to get them out of the south and into the north, where slavery was illegal (sort of…).

After Cora escapes she makes several stops in different states, each state has a very different set up with regard to the treatment of slaves, or freed slaves. This set up of the different systems in each state is not historically accurate – but each thing described is something that happened – just not in the neat state by state way it appears in The Underground Railroad. For example, in one state there is secret medical testing on the black population. This reflects the experience of people much later on – but is still a thing that happened and is still yet another example of how freed people were not really free after all.

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Fitting a bit of reading in at lunchtime.

The Underground Railroad opens with Cora’s Grandmother Ajarry’s story. She is captured in Africa, and brought to America. I was glad that the slave ship had come from Liverpool because I think it’s too easy for British people to frame slavery as an American thing that we were nothing to do with.

Cora’s experience after leaving the plantation is of a life full of danger and uncertainty (as was her daily life on the plantation). I’m deliberately not going into the specifics of the situations she finds herself in, because I don’t want to reveal more of the plot than is necessary to discuss the main themes. She experiences freedom where she feels more restricted and confined that she ever did on the plantation. She questions what it means to be free (spoiler alert: she will never be free because of the society all around her). She feel responsible for tragedy that befalls most people who try to help her. She is frequently so close to danger and The Underground Railroad is a really gripping read in addition to being a great emotionally moving novel.

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Friday night reading. 

The Underground Railroad won this years Pulitzer Prize for literature. It was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but hasn’t made the shortlist. All I can say is the ones that did must be spectacular!

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Love this author picture at the back of The Underground Railroad. I like to think he’s thinking ‘my book is amazing, and now you know it too’. Hoorah!

I loved reading The Underground Railroad and would highly recommend it. It’s an emotionally difficult read, but the prose is not complicated. It’s going to be one of those novels that stays with me for a long time. This has to be the thing i remember about it the most though:

The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.

Book challenge 2017 update

Wow! This is not going well! I am learning that I can’t plan my reading very in advance. Too much amazing new shiny stuff catches my eye. Still, I’m reading lots, and I won’t feel bad for reading what I feel like ūüėÄ

The idea behind this reading challenge is detailed here. I read one book off the list over the last three months! Holidays On Ice – David Sedaris. I still want to read more of them – and have copies of quite a few waiting on my bookshelves.

Wonder if I can beat my record over the next three months and maybe read two more? ūüėÄ

Here’s the updated list.

  • The Five People You Meet in Heaven¬†by Mitch Albom
  • ¬†Little Women¬†by Louisa May Alcott
  • The Kitchen Boy¬†by Robert Alexander
  • Brick Lane¬†by Monica Ali¬†¬†
  • Oryx and Crake¬†by Margaret Atwood¬†¬†
  • Emma¬†by Jane Austen¬†¬†
  • Sense and Sensibility¬†by Jane Austen¬†
  • Oracle Night¬†by Paul Auster¬†¬†
  • Fahrenheit 451¬†by Ray Bradbury¬†(review)
  • Jane Eyre¬†by Charlotte Bronte
  • The Master and Margarita¬†by Mikhail Bulgakov¬†¬†
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay¬†by Michael Chabon
  • The Awakening¬†by Kate Chopin¬†(review)
  • The Meaning of Consuelo¬†by Judith Ortiz Cofer
  • Heart of Darkness¬†by Joseph Conrad
  • Fat Land¬†: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World¬†by Greg Critser
  • Cousin Bette¬†by Honore De Balzac
  • Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems of Julia De Burgos¬†by Julia De Burgos
  • The Red Tent¬†by Anita Diamant¬†¬†
  • David Copperfield¬†by Charles Dickens
  • Crime and Punishment¬†by Fyodor Dostoevsky¬†¬†
  • An American Tragedy¬†by Theodore Dreiser
  • The Bielski Brothers¬†by Peter Duffy
  • The Count of Monte Cristo¬†by Alexandre Dumas
  • Ella Minnow Pea¬†by Mark Dunn¬†
  • The Name of the Rose¬†by Umberto Eco¬†¬†
  • Middlesex¬†by Jeffrey Eugenides
  • The Sound and The Fury¬†by William Faulkner
  • Time and Again¬†by Jack Finney
  • The Great Gatsby¬†by F. Scott Fitzgerald¬†¬†
  • A Passage to India¬†by E.M. Forster
  • Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl¬†by Anne Frank
  • Bee Season¬†by Myla Goldberg
  • Lord of the Flies¬†by William Golding¬†¬†
  • Autobiography of a Face¬†by Lucy Grealy
  • My Life in Orange¬†by Tim Guest
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time¬†by Mark Haddon¬†
  • The Scarlet Letter¬†by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Sacred Time¬†by Ursula Hegi
  • The Sun Also Rises¬†by Ernest Hemingway
  • Siddhartha¬†by Hermann Hesse
  • Seabiscuit: An American Legend¬†by Laura Hillenbrand
  • Rescuing Patty Hearst¬†by Virginia Holman
  • A Quiet Storm¬†by Rachel Howzell Hall
  • The Polysyllabic Spree¬†by Nick Hornby¬†(review)
  • Songbook¬†by Nick Hornby
  • The Kite Runner¬†by Khaled Hosseini
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame¬†by Victor Hugo¬†¬†
  • Brave New World¬†by Aldous Huxley
  • How the Light Gets In¬†by M. J. Hyland
  • The Lottery: And Other Stories¬†by Shirley Jackson
  • Nervous System¬†by Jan Lars Jensen¬†¬†
  • The Metamorphosis¬†by Franz Kafka¬†(review)
  • The Story of My Life¬†by Helen Keller¬†(review)
  • On The Road¬†by Jack Kerouac
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo‚Äôs Nest¬†by Ken Kesey
  • Flowers for Algernon¬†by Daniel Keyes
  • The Secret Life of Bees¬†by Sue Monk Kidd¬†
  • A Separate Peace¬†by John Knowles
  • Extravagance¬†by Gary Krist
  • The Namesake¬†by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Devil in the White City¬†by Erik Larson¬†
  • The Song of Names¬†by Norman Lebrecht
  • The Fortress of Solitude¬†by Jonathan Lethem
  • Small Island¬†by Andrea Levy
  • Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West¬†by Gregory Maguire
  • A Month Of Sundays¬†by Julie Mars
  • Life of Pi¬†by Yann Martel¬†
  • Property¬†by Valerie Martin
  • The Razor‚Äôs Edge¬†by W. Somerset Maugham
  • The Nanny Diaries¬†by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†
  • Quattrocento¬†by James McKean
  • Death of a Salesman¬†by Arthur Miller¬†¬†
  • Beloved¬†by Toni Morrison¬†(review)
  • Speak, Memory¬†by Vladimir Nabokov
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books¬†by Azar Nafisi
  • The Time Traveler‚Äôs Wife¬†by Audrey Niffenegger¬†¬†
  • How to Breathe Underwater¬†by Julie Orringer
  • 1984¬†by George Orwell¬†
  • When the Emperor Was Divine¬†by Julie Otsuka
  • Bel Canto¬†by Ann Patchett¬†(review)
  • Truth & Beauty¬†by Ann Patchett
  • The Portable Dorothy Parker¬†by Dorothy Parker
  • My Sister‚Äôs Keeper¬†by Jodi Picoult
  • The Bell Jar¬†by Sylvia Plath¬†¬†
  • Complete Tales & Poems¬†by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Fountainhead¬†by Ayn Rand
  • Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers¬†by Mary Roach
  • The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters¬†by Elisabeth Robinson
  • The God of Small Things¬†by Arundhati Roy
  • Empire Falls¬†by Richard Russo
  • The Catcher in the Rye¬†by J.D. Salinger¬†(review)
  • Sybil¬†by Flora Schreiber
  • The Lovely Bones¬†by Alice Sebold
  • Holidays on Ice¬†by David Sedaris (review)
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day¬†by David Sedaris¬†(review)
  • Hamlet¬†by William Shakespeare
  • Pygmalion¬†by George Bernard Shaw
  • Frankenstein¬†by Mary Shelley¬†(review)
  • Unless¬†by Carol Shields
  • Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress¬†by Dai Sijie
  • The Jungle¬†by Upton Sinclair
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn¬†by Betty Smith¬†(review)
  • Of Mice and Men¬†by John Steinbeck
  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde¬†by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Uncle Tom‚Äôs Cabin¬†by Harriet Beecher Stowe
  • The Opposite of Fate¬†by Amy Tan
  • Vanity Fair¬†by William Makepeace Thackeray
  • Anna Karenina¬†by Leo Tolstoy¬†¬†
  • A Confederacy of Dunces¬†by John Kennedy Toole
  • The Song Reader¬†by Lisa Tucker
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn¬†by Mark Twain
  • Just a Couple of Days¬†by Tony Vigorito
  • Galapagos¬†by Kurt Vonnegut¬†(review)
  • Ethan Frome¬†by Edith Wharton
  • Night¬†by Elie Wiesel¬†(review)
  • The Picture Of Dorian Gray¬†by Oscar Wilde¬†¬†
  • The Code of the Woosters¬†by P. G. Wodehouse
  • Old School¬†by Tobias Wolff
  • The Shadow of the Wind¬†by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Man Booker Prize Shortlist!

It’s Man Booker Prize shortlist day! Woo hoo!

Here’s the short list from the Man Booker Prize website

4321 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (UK-Pakistan) (Hamish Hamilton)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury Publishing)
Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)

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Picture of the shortlist from the Man Booker Prize website.  http://themanbookerprize.com/news/man-booker-prize-announces-2017-shortlist

I’m glad to see Lincoln in the Bardo on the list. It’s the only one I’ve read from this list and I loved it (review here). So I’m currently backing this one.

The only other longlist book I’ve read and really, really liked was Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (Review coming soon). It has won its fair share of awards already, so I suppose it’s nice to give others a go.

I have quite a few of these ready to read (Autumn, History of Wolves, and Elmet I think) so I’ll try and get through them in the next month (spoiler alert: I probably won’t manage many).

Which is your favourite to win?

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

Lincoln In The Bardo is a lovely, interesting, odd book about the transition of Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son, Willie, between the world of the living and the world of the dead. While he is between these worlds – in the Bardo – he meets many of the other inhabitants of this in-between place. Over the course of his first night in the Bardo, his father visits his corpse several times. The backdrop to these events is the American Civil War.

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I listened to an audio book of Lincoln in the Bardo. It starts of as an extremely difficult listen – this could probably be avoided by knowing something about the unusual structure of the book before beginning to listen to it. A lot of the first 15 short chapters are quotes from other sources. My thought process through this hour went something like: What is going on? Are these quotes from real books, or imaginary ones? What even does the phrase ‘op cit’ mean? I’ve heard it 1000 times already and I’m quite worried that something has gone wrong with the audio book and I’m just being read a long list of footnotes.

Once you get into it you realise that all the chapters dealing with the historical setting are presented as a series of quotes from other texts. These make up about a third of the book – there are over 100 chapters in total. Through these we learn about Lincoln and his wife having a state banquet while their beloved son is gravely ill upstairs. We learn about the civil war and about Lincoln as President. In fact, any action that isn’t taking place in the Bardo is presented in this ‘quotes from other sources’ form.

In the Bardo, Willie meets many other ghosts (best word I can think of to describe them!). They change form depending on their feelings and most have an appearance relating to their death, or their opinion of themselves in life. Our main characters are Mr Bevins, a young, gay man who changed his mind during a suicide attempt, but was too late to be saved. He appears as a human with multiple eyes, ears and arms. The number of these changes frequently. We also have Mr Vollman, a man of advancing years who took a younger wife. He was kind to her and expected no intimate relationship, but she fell in love with him over time. She indicated she was ready to consummate their marriage, when he was unfortunately killed before he went to meet her in bed. His form in the Bardo is himself with an overly large engorged member, to put it politely. It’s size changes throughout the book. We find out these facts early on in the book, I’m not giving away any spoilers here.

There are many other residents of the Bardo. They are, to different degrees, confused about their current state. They refer to their coffins as sick-boxes, and many harbour a belief that they will return to their former life. Willie is unusual because, they tell us, most young people go over to the other side very quickly. Willie, 11 years old, resists and this marks him out as unusual.

There are 166 characters in the book and they are all voiced by different actors. The stellar cast is what drew me to the audio book over the print one (Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Lena Dunham, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, Don Cheadle). Though I could only pick out Nick Offerman and David Sedaris as they are Mr Vollman and Mr Bevins. George Saunders voices the third main character The Reverend Everly Thomas. Even though I initially had a difficult time with the audio book, I ended up really glad I had listened to it over reading the print book. I ended up being really helped by recognising characters voices. I would have really struggled to recognise repeat characters if I was just reading it.

In the Bardo, there ends up being a battle of sorts to keep Willie in the Bardo, giving him chance to see his Father again as he visits his body.

I ended up loving Lincoln in the Bardo. It’s an exploration of parental love and grief. It’s about the death of one compared to the death of many (through chapters focussing on events in the civil war). It’s about living a good life, and what that even means. It’s about friendship and death. It’s written beautifully and is so lovely and poetic. Because I was listening to the audio book while driving I couldn’t keep track of my favourite quotes.

The death of one is a tragedy, the death of millions is just a statistic.

Marilyn Manson, The Fight Song.

Yes, I know. It’s a great song though and this concept is beautifully explored in Lincoln In The Bardo by Lincoln having to deal with the death of his beloved child at the same time as having to make decisions about the civil war that result in many, many deaths.

I have to be honest, a cursory look at my Learned League stats will tell you I have awful knowledge of american history. It’s currently my worst category and I have only 3/35 questions correct on this topic. It shouldn’t be a surprise to find that my knowledge of Abraham Lincoln extends from this:

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It’s probably not supposed to be what you get from Lincoln In The Bardo, but I really enjoyed learning more about Lincoln.

Lincoln In The Bardo is primarily occupied by death, yet I found it to be an uplifting read. It’s partly historically educating, quite funny, sad, hopeful, and a beautiful read. I would be interested to hear how anyone got on with reading the print book, over listening to the audio book?