Cannonball Read 6, Book 6: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

18269724I don’t quite know why I’m doing the Booker Longlist Challenge, since it’s really become a forced march of books I haven’t really enjoyed reading that much. I had high hopes for The Lowland, since the synopsis sounds aces, but it just didn’t do it for me. I found it a mostly frustrating read, difficult characters and an odd blank style don’t really mesh for me.

Subhash and Udayan Mitra are brothers growing up in Calcutta, born just fifteen months apart. It’s the politically tumultuous 1960s, and as they grow up, their lives take different paths. Subhash is a dedicated student who ends up studying in America, Udayan becomes heavily involved in the Naxalbari political movement before becoming even more radical. He rejects cultural traditions and marries the girl he loves into the bargain. He and Subhash occasionally write to each other until one day, Subhash receives the telegram simply stating “Udayan killed. Come if you can”.

Subhash returns to India to try and heal the wounds Udayan’s death has left behind, a healing which eventually takes him and Udayan’s widow, Guari, back to the USA. As Guari is pregnant by Udayan, Subhash does the only thing he thinks he can do, which is marry her and raise the child, Bela, as their own. I don’t think you need me to tell you it doesn’t end happily ever after for anyone, do I? By this point, we’re barely 100 pages in, so there’s still so far for all of them to go.

What I really took from it is this is a novel of people searching for their identity and for their place in their world, for somewhere to belong. It’s not an easy read, mostly because it’s so relentlessly downbeat and populated with miserable characters (Gauri in particular is vexing. I found myself wanting to reach into the pages and slap her upside the head on more than one occasion), but Lahiri doesn’t really thrill me as a writer either. It mostly feels like a blank, boring, straightforward read, which just meant I found it quite difficult to tune in when I was reading it. Often I’d get to the end of a paragraph and realise I hadn’t taken in a single word.

To make matters more perplexing, there are sections where Lahiri does seem to care about her characters (mostly the sections dealing with the Mitra boys parents) and some flashes of brilliance in her writing. When Gauri is taking stock of how wrong she went with a situation, she notes “with her own hand she’d painted herself into a corner, and then out of the picture altogether”. Later in the novel, there’s a beautiful moment with her otherwise painfully worthy daughter Bela, as she unburdens herself “finally she told him about Udayan. That though she’d been created by two people who’d loved one another, she’d been raised by two who never did”.

So for all that promise, all those moments of brilliance, I was left with an overwhelming sense of “and?” when I finally trawled to the end of this one.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 5: The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris

18224489It occurred to me while I was reading this book that I have been trying (and failing) to read the whole Booker Prize long list for a really long time now. The first time I attempted it was back in 2004, and I think the reason I have never succeeded in reading the full Booker’s Dozen of 13 books is that some of them I found to be incredibly boring. For every absolute gem (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I’ll Go To Bed At Noon, The Emperor’s Children, Mother’s Milk) there have been some absolute stinkers. Some have gone on to be winners (The Inheritance Of Loss bored me too much to read past 50 pages). So it’s a crapshoot is what I’m saying. The 2013 list has so far been mostly brought to you by the letters M, E and H. Alas, Chani’s titular nuptials don’t do much to alter that.

In the opening chapter, we meet Chani as she’s about to marry Baruch. She’s only nineteen, and as an Orthodox Jew, she has not touched Baruch and only had a handful of dates with him. After that chapter, we then flash back to how their courtship came about, as well as subplots (if you can call them that) with Baruch’s family as well as the wife of the rabbi who will be overseeing what the title of the book spells out. There’s a lot of detail on how difficult it is to observe the Orthodox faith in modern society and the initial setup of the Rebbetzin’s storyline is unflinching, to say the least. But as it all plods along, I couldn’t help get the feeling that this could have been a much shorter book.

There are chapters which go back to the 1980’s, to cover the early courtship of the rabbi and his wife. It’s not every interesting and it’s entirely superfluous. A far more key plot point to their early life is shoehorned in much later, which explains an awful lot and might have had more resonance if placed earlier in the novel. It feels quite drawn out and the jacket copy states as a final line “not to mention what happens on the wedding night”. We don’t get to that until the penultimate chapter, some 300 pages after we first read about the wedding itself. And when you get there, you know what? Not that interesting. The whole novel is obviously well researched and as a slice of modern Jewish life, to anyone who has no idea of that religion or culture, there will be a certain level of curiosity. But for me, that didn’t extend to the actual machinations of Chani Kaufman getting married.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 4: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

17307326There has been a lot of love for this debut novel. It’s averaging 4 stars on Amazon and Goodreads, the critics reviews were mostly rapturous love letters harping on about the distinctive voice Bulawayo had created in the ten year old narrator, and how gorgeous and touching and real the novel is, It has won some awards and made the cut to get on the shortlist for the Booker Prize. I’m not really sure what book all these people have been reading, but I am at a loss to see how it’s this one.

So yes, our narrator is ten year old Darling, a child in a Zimbabwean shantytown who is living a carefree life with her group of friends (with names such as Bastard and Godknows, which is why I thought the book had the title it does, but no). Even her friend being pregnant and her father dying of AIDS (which they call The Sickness) can’t dent Darling’s outlook on the world. Partway through, Darling is taken from the life she knows and loves and is sent to live with her aunt Fostalina in “destroyedmichigan”. So we veer from a child’s view of the day to day horrors of living in a place torn by civil war, to a child’s view of the day to day horror of trying to live in a country where people bully you for being different and you don’t have the first clue about the realities of their culture.

Which, as plots go, is fine. But it isn’t groundbreaking or original, as some of the rhapsodising would have you believe. I have read at least two other novels fairly recently that have similar arcs and are both narrated by children (Pigeon English and The Other Hand). Those two books also had tons of coverage when they were published, so I doubt they faded from the collective memory so soon (the former was even shortlisted for the Booker in 2011!). So I am really at a loss to see how people fell over themselves to talk about just how touching and wonderful and original this book is.

The first chapter of the novel was originally published as a short story (which in itself won awards, don’t ask me why). In expanding the characters and themes into her debut novel, Bulawayo has crafted each chapter so it could in fact in be a standalone short story. While that’s an endeavour which obviously takes a lot of careful crafting and planning and therefore should be applauded, it’s also not the first time an author has done that either. Famously, David Mitchell did it with Black Swan Green. There is maybe something to recommend in the opening section, when Darling is still in her shantytown. The carefree way Darling relates the horrors she encounters is effective enough. But it really all goes downhill for me when she arrives in the US and my patience with her and pretty much everyone in the book ran out entirely a good three chapters from the end. I spent the last 40 pages or so just wanting it to be over and was very thankful when it was.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 3: Harvest by Jim Crace

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Before I decided to embark on the Great Booker Prize Longlist of 2013 Challenge, I had not read anything by Jim Crace. He’s an author who gets talked about an awful lot, and with Harvest being his retirement novel, there was a groundswell of support for him to win the prize with it. He didn’t, and if his retirement plans hold true, then I guess he’s joining Beryl Bainbridge in Booker Bridesmaid Corner. Having now read the book, well, let’s just say I’m not exactly shocked he didn’t walk away with the big prize on the night.

Set over a seven day period in an unspecified bygone era, the novel is narrated by Walter Thirsk, a non-local in his unnamed village (Crace isn’t being coy. In the actually great opening chapters, Thirsk reveals that they all call it The Village, it has no name). The harmonious arable existence is badly upset when a trio of outsiders set up camp at the edge of the village and Bad Things start happening. The night they arrive, the local manor house is set on fire. The trio are held accountable and punished for the fire. And from there, it only gets worse….

Crace is a fine writer, there is no doubt. The language is rich, the prose immaculate, the whole novel is atmospheric and evocative. Unfortunately I couldn’t really get to grips with any of the characters, which meant I didn’t really care about any of them either. Consequently, I didn’t really engage with anything that happened to them, and found the whole novel to be a bit of a chore. It’s reminiscent of both The Crucible and Gathering The Water, and it’s not a terrible book by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just not necessarily for me.

If you are a fan of Jim Crace, you have already read this. If you like historical novels, then you should definitely read this. For my money though, if you’re ambivalent about the genre, Harvest won’t do anything to convert you.

Cannonball Read 6, Book 2: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

 
17678674Donna Tartt is an odd fish, isn’t she? Her first book, The Secret History, pretty much changed my life. I absolutely could not believe how awesome it was. I could not put it down and have re-read it several times. The last revisit has burned the ending so strongly into my brain that I want to Eternal Sunshine myself, just so I can experience it for the first time all over again. And then we all waited ten years for her next book, only for her to deliver the universally reviled (and rightly so) The Little Friend. 

It’s fair to say that the unmitigated tedium of her follow up has meant that the anticipation of and desire for another novel from her is nowhere near the heights it was in the decade after her debut. But it’s still an event, and The Goldfinch had a lot of noise made about it when it was published in October last year. The reviews were mixed, so it was already doing better than her previous effort. So I decided, what the hell? Let’s see if she can win me back over.

Our narrator is Theodore Decker. When the novel opens, he is thirteen years old and his mother is about to be killed in a terrorist bomb blast in an art museum they’re both visiting. In the aftermath, Theo comforts the dying uncle of the cute red headed girl he was eyeing up before the bomb went off, takes the titular painting and begins a long descent from wayward teen to fraudulent adult with a whopping great drug habit. The journey takes him from the Upper West Side, where he briefly lives with the incredibly rich family whose middle son he is good friends with, to the Lower East Side, where he ingratiates himself with the business partner of the dead uncle, all via Las Vegas, where he lives for a few years with his deadbeat father and befriends a crazy Russian teen named (of course) Boris.

Still with me? Theo keeps the painting with him, paralysed with all kinds of emotions about it, unable to return it or sell it or even look at it, he keeps it under wraps for years on end. And that is the first problem with the book. Apparently it’s full of “thrilling suspense” as Theo is dragged into a “criminal underworld” with his painting. Yet the painting itself disappears for swathes of the book at a time and the underworld doesn’t even begin to feature until about 500 pages in. Instead, we have endless navel gazing from drug addled Theo for pages and pages and PAGES, none of it massively interesting, all of it in need of a ruthless edit. The actual plot revolving around the painting would barely fill an episode of CSI. But the novel is bloated to nearly 800 pages by Tartt thinking her “unforgettably vivid characters” jabbering to each other in broken English is just the most absorbing thing you could possibly ever want to read. It really is not.

It also doesn’t help that Theo is such a charmless tool, so while he is endlessly, relentlessly banging on about whatever situation he finds himself in, you don’t feel any sympathy for or connection with him. I mostly felt varying degrees of impatience or irritation with him as he harped on and on about everything. Similarly, his best friend Boris is the kind of hyperactive idiot you’d avoid at a party, so spending page after page after page reading his witless gabbling just makes you long for someone to stride into the conversation and punch his lights out. And when the actual “criminal underworld” story arc does get going, it’s kicked off by a plot twist so precarious, I don’t know whether to admire Tartt’s daring, or marvel at her stupidity. Either way, it underlines what an absolute dick Boris is and makes it very difficult to accept that Theo wouldn’t just cut his losses and walk away, rather than follow him into the lion’s den.

Speaking of cutting your losses, if you do read this book, in the hope you love it as much as you did The Secret History, ditch it fifteen pages from the end. The final coda is so horribly pretentious and completely unnecessary that any goodwill you might be harbouring towards the book will evaporate. One of the more scathing reviews I read ended with “Remember the suicidally long, dope-fuelled follow-up novel that Grady Tripp is writing in Chabon’s Wonder Boys? Well, guys, here it is.” While I don’t think it’s quite THAT bad, it’s certainly ponderously overwritten and in desperate need of a filleting. But still, it’s better than The Little Friend. 

First Book of 2014: You Are One Of Them by Elliott Holt

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Kicking off my second Cannonball with a Not So Big Book. Is that cheating? This is one of many books that has been talked about over on Flavorwire and ended up on my to read list because of it. It tells the story of two friends in 1980s America. Sarah Zuckerman and Jenny Jones. Guess which one is a shy self doubting wallflower and which one is the perky All American popular girl. In the grip of the Cold War propaganda, they both write to Russian president Andropov. He responds, but only to All American Jenny, who is soon some kind of Child Ambassador for Peace & Harmony, while Sarah glowers from the sidelines. But then, before relations can be patched up, Jenny and her parents are killed in a plane crash. Or ARE they?

The main narrative drive of this book centres around Sarah, now 22 years old and still living in Jenny’s shadow thanks to her agoraphobic mother starting a foundation in Jenny’s name after her death. She receives a letter from someone connected to the foundation, who knew Jenny when she was the all smiling child of peace and the letter seems to hint that maybe the plane crash was staged and  Jenny is still very much alive.

Sarah is intrigued enough to relocate to Moscow and see if she can uncover anything else about whether Jenny lives on or whether the crash really did kill her. Moscow is full of half truths and shadows, fakes and cover ups, making it difficult for Sarah to really find out anything concrete. It doesn’t help that she is hardly the most stable or reliable of narrators either. As the book wears on, Sarah’s grasp on her own sanity seems to become ever more tenuous. The Moscow she describes feels so authentic, it’s no surprise to find that Holt lived and worked there. The language, the customs, the craziness, all feels very real. Which helps us believe Sarah’s situation, since it’s so completely unreal.

Weirdly, this has drawn comparisons to Nancy Drew, but I don’t see that at all. It’s not a mystery or a detective novel and it certainly doesn’t take all the loose ends, tie them up in a nice big shiny bow and pat the reader on the head in the final pages. It’s a fucked up twentysomething girl trying to both exorcise and make sense of her past. Whether or not she achieves that is up for you to decide. It’s a great book, it whips along at a heck of a pace and if you find yourself just unable to wait for The Americans to come back on TV, this should fill the void very nicely.

2014: The year of Big Books

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And not just big books, but ACTUAL books. I have been an absolute Kindle evangelist for the last three years, but lately I’ve been drawn back to reading more and more books and now I think the split is about 50/50. Last year, racing to a double cannonball meant that some of the meatier books of the year were discarded as I wouldn’t reach my goal. This year I’m interspersing these big bastards with some more sensibly sized ones too. Sitting on the Kindle, I have The Kills (1100 pages) and It (1400 pages) too, so really. The big question is can I read these AND hit 52 books in one year. Let’s see.

Cannonball Read 5, Book 106: Speaking From Among The Bones by Alan Bradley

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Oh, Flavia De Luce. As literary creations go, she’s probably my most favourite of the past few years. She had me at “will nobody rid us of this turbulent pastry chef?” in her first outing. But I still find myself waiting for a plot that is even half as engrossing and satisfying as her gung-ho narration. I’m also still waiting for her to start ageing and now at five books in, it’s really just not conceivable that this much murder and mayhem can befall one small village in under 12 months. I mean, I know there’s Midsomer Murders, but come on.

The book opens with Bishop’s Lacey preparing for the quincentennial of St Tancred, an occasion to be marked by opening his tomb in the local church. Naturally, Flavia is there and of course she finds a recently deceased church organist where a 500 year dead saint should be. Most 11 year olds would be traumatised, but with four successful murders solved, Flavia is galvanised to be at the forefront of this one and sets about trampling all over the investigation with her signature blunt and precocious style.

It’s a very tricky tightrope to walk, making your protagonist insufferable within the story but absolutely charming to the audience. It’s one that is rarely achieved for me, as I generally find myself as annoyed as all the other characters. Notable exceptions include the two most recent Sherlocks, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. And now, Flavia De Luce. Pretty much everyone who speaks to Flavia in the books ends up wanting to throttle her. But I found myself enchanted and cackling away at her brilliantly pithy commentary.

As for the mystery itself, it’s all bogged down in with missing jewels and love triangles and lead poisoning (!) and if it weren’t being relayed with as much gusto, it would really be shown up for the sub-par Agatha Christie it really is. The murderer is fairly obvious from quite early on, but Bradley thinks he’s filling the pages with red herrings. He isn’t. There is another storyline running throughout this instalment though; the de Luce’s impending financial ruin. They are so broke they have to put their mansion up for sale. I really thought seeing Flavia in such circumstances could really shake the next book up but Bradley decided to throw in a curve ball to end the book. It’s a top notch cliffhanger and hopefully a game changer. We shall see.

 

And that is a WRAP for Cannonball Read 5! Stay tuned for my first review for Cannonball 6.