Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (Book 6 for the (Wo)Man Booker Prize)

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Frances loved it.

I could barely finish it.

While I found McCarthy’s style initially resembling the satire and wit of Edward St. Aubyn, I quickly tired of his pedantic prose. Oil spills, conglomerates, parachuters who die because their strings have become unattached, all the metaphors for business as usual in a world gone awry. For me, what could have been endlessly fascinating fizzled to a firecracker which wouldn’t explode.

And now I’m reading The Chimes, a book with beautiful, melodic phrasing. So far.

You can follow our progress at #ShadowWoManBooker should you choose.

The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan (Book 5 for the (Wo)Man Booker Prize)

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Another book about family. Written beautifully, to be sure, but like Anne Enright’s The Green Road, not worthy of the Booker.

An old woman named Anne, suffering from dementia and the loss of her life long love, Harry. She speaks to a rabbit, who isn’t real, and heats up tins of soup for him in the microwave.

Her grandson, Luke, who is a Captain with his troop in Afghanistan, led by the Major into a wedding feast which goes horribly wrong.

Her daughter, Alice, an aloof woman with some validity to her attitude as we come to find out at the conclusion of the novel.

The illuminations refer to more than the beautiful lights in Blackpool. They also refer to how we discover who we are, often with great pain. They refer to the peeling back of shadows under which we live our life in apparent illusion.

I like the concentric circles on the cover. I like how they indicate that we come from a core which is our family, imperfect at best. I liked this book. But, I didn’t love it. (Quite possibly nothing after A Little Life will be able to affect me in such a powerful way.)

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Book 4 for the (Wo)Man Booker Prize)

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And it wasn’t until a few weeks after that that I was able to open the letter he had left us on his table. I hadn’t been able to bear it earlier; I wasn’t sure I would be able to bear it now. But I did. It was eight pages long, and typed, and it was a confession: of Brother Luke, and Dr. Traylor, and what had happened to him. It took us several days to read, because although it was brief, it was also endless, and we had to keep putting the pages down and walking away from them, and then bracing each other–Ready?–and sitting down and reading some more. (p. 717)

If you asked me where I’ve been the last twelve days, I would tell you that I have been wrapping my mind around a new school year. Preparing for the twenty-eight children who will walk into my classroom next week. And I have been reading A Little Life in bits and pieces, as much as I can bear until I must set it down again, for it is the most tragic book I have ever read.

I thought that last year’s winner of the Man Booker Prize, The Narrow Road to The Deep North, by Richard Flanagan, was tragic. It is a deeply moving book about atrocities committed to men during war. But, A Little Life is even more moving, about the atrocities committed to an abandoned boy during childhood.

With each page that I read, I wondered how I could continue, and indeed I could not had Hanya Yanagihara not offset the story with hope offered by those few who knew how to love unconditionally. Their love to Jude was deep, and loyal, and faithful. But how can it overcome the damage which the evil from his childhood had done to him?

It is late tonight, for me. I am exhausted from the emotions which this novel wrung from where they had long been tucked away, for it uncovered many fears I unwillingly hold tight.

A Little Life is a book I have long avoided. The cover alone made me turn from picking it up when reviews starting popping up upon its publication. I did not know how I could bear the story contained within such a painful image. I still don’t know how to bear it. But, turning aside does not allow us to face that which frightens us. In fact, some of the very best literature is that which causes us to confront fear and sorrow within our lives, while remembering the good that has been offered.

That is what Hanya Yanagihara has done brilliantly. That is what makes me ultimately glad that I have read this novel through the tears it made me weep.

(Find thoughts from other (Wo)Man Booker shadow members here: Shelf Love, Of Books and Bicycles.

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Book 3 for the (Wo)Man Booker Prize)


I’d like to say I liked this book. That it deserves its place on the Man Booker long list. But, for me? It was another look at family, which while well written, had nothing particularly fresh to say.

There’s an overly dramatic mother, who favors one child over the others. There’s a conscientious oldest sister who tries to make everyone happy. There’s a son who goes overseas to help the poor and downtrodden. There’s a younger daughter who says she wants to be an actress, but all she really wants is to drink.

The novel tells each of the children’s stories in a chapter of their own, beginning with Rosaleen (their mother) taking to her bed when she hears that Dan wants to become a priest. Their lives are portrayed perfectly, I think. We can imagine each person in his or her surroundings, we can fully accept their thoughts as believable and even, in places, aligning with our own.

It is on Christmas Day that everything comes to a head. The five are gathered, with a spouse and grandchildren of the oldest daughter, and as so often happens during the holidays, a lovely dinner turns frantic. Rosaleen has suddenly left in her little Citroen, without any advance warning, to travel down the green road. True to form, she seems to think only of herself, and when the children finally roust themselves to come looking for her, indeed in a panic, they find themselves truly a family for at least that evening.

The Green Road reminded me vaguely of A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. But where I feel that Anne Tyler returned to her magically told stories, I feel that Anne Enright portrayed far more power in her novel The Forgotten Waltz.

Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy (Book 2 for the (Wo)Man Booker Prize)

Sleeping on Jupiter

Jarmuli radiated outward to Asia, the world, the solar system, the universe – it was every child’s incantation in school, and even now, when he wanted to be out of the reach of his aunt and uncle, he dreamed of living on Jupiter and sleeping under its many moons. When his teacher had told their class it had sixteen moons he had wanted to ask her if this meant that there was a full moon on Jupiter every night. Or were there crescent moons and half moons and round moons all at once in that other sky?

Sleeping on Jupiter. It’s a rather odd title, perhaps. But if your life has been so harshly effected by those around you, if every day means pain and suffering, Jupiter may be the very place you long to go for respite.

How brave it is, then, for Nomi to back to the place which caused her the most pain in her life. For it is in the ashram run by Guruji that she is told one thing, but lives another.

“You think you have nobody,” his voice said over my head, and I could feel its vibration enter my body. “That is not true. I am your father and your mother now. I am your country. I am your teacher. I am your God.”  He said it like a chant, as if they were words often repeated, and always the same…”I have prayed for you. Whenever you are frightened, think of my face. I will keep you safe. You have come to my ashram now.”

How can a young girl, whose father was brutally murdered in the family’s hut, whose mother and brother have disappeared in their attempt at escape, not believe these words of hope? How can she know that they are lies? She is hopeful, at first, until the actions of the Guruji prove who he really is.

Interwoven with her story are those of several others. There are the three old friends, Vidya, Latika and Gouri, who meet Nomi on the train from Calcutta to Jarmuli. They are bewildered by her hair wrapped in beads, multi-colored thread, and braids. They cannot imagine how such a person looks this way, especially as they struggle with the day to day lives of their own which are so different from hers.

And there is Johnny Toppo, an old man who runs the tea stall by the beach in Jarmuli, offering customers tea with ginger and cloves, tea with lemon, tea with milk and sugar, and if they wish, sweet or savory biscuits. (The care with which he takes to make his tea caused me to long for a cup so badly that I had to go to our local Deccan Spice for a cup of my own.) But his name has not always been Johnny Toppo, and he has not always operated a little tea stall to serve those who come to the beach.

There is Suraj, son of Vidya, who has unbeknownst to her also come to Jarmuli in order to report on the temple for the television company which employs both him and Nomi. He carves little boats every year, as his father and he would do when he was young, and set them off to go where they may. He can barely contain his temper, or his drink; his emotions threaten to overcome his reason nearly every day.

But, it is Nomi’s life which is the focal point. Nomi’s life which caused me to highlight passages again and again in my kindle. Her courage to face her past, to triumph over the tragedy that her childhood was, is a fascinating story. And while I may say to myself, “This is just one little girl’s story, one little girl who lived in India under the cruelest conditions,” I find that Anuradha Roy has made her heroine’s life one for us to relate to. The elegance and beauty with which she writes takes my breath, and causes me to realize again how rare it is to find a book whose writing, story and relevance are equal in excellence.

This novel surely deserves its place on the Man Booker long list. And as so often happens to me when I read from such a prize list, the first book I read is the one that wins. I would not be surprised, nor disappointed, if Roy took the prize for 2015. My thoughts on it here can not possibly do it justice.

(Sleeping on Jupiter was first published in Great Britain in 2015 by MacLehose Press. It has been long listed for the Man Booker Prize this year. My thanks to Quercus Books for a review copy of this book.)

The (Wo)Man Booker Prize Shadow Panel as Assembled by Frances

While I walked through the Art Institute of Chicago with my mother this morning, admiring the Degas exhibit and alternately checking my iPhone for a call from my ENT, I noticed a message from Frances. She proposed a very happy reading idea, in that we read the nominations for the Man Booker Prize before September 15, 2015. Having read them, we can review and choose our favorites before the prize is officially announced on October 13, 2015. Ah, some of the best reading I do all year is that which I do with others, and how I long to begin the following list which was announced yesterday:

Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg

The Green Road by Anne Enright

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

The Fisherman by Chigozie Obioma

The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy

The Year of The Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

The Chimes by Anna Smaill

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

So keep tuned in, for thoughts from the (Wo)Man Booker Prize readers: Frances, Teresa, Nicole, Rebecca, and I.

Who might be so busy reading I won’t have time to teach this fall.

Of Things in August Hoped For

I abandoned The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende today. I had intended to read it for both Spanish Lit Month and the Japanese Literature Challenge 9, but I tired of feeling I was  outside of the book, separated from the characters by a relentless narrative of facts. Normally, Allende’s writing completely engrosses me, particularly with The House of Spirits, and I’m not sure if it’s her or if it’s me to blame for becoming frustrated.

For I am rather excellent at being frustrated these days. The sinus infection from a tooth implant gone awry has lasted my whole entire summer, which I wouldn’t mind so much if it didn’t have an accompanying thump in my upper jaw. And with the arrival of August is the arrival of a new school year, at least in my part of the world; the first day of school for the dear children and I is August 20. Twentieth. Which is still summer as far as I’m concerned.

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Lest I continue my bitter complaints, let me point out some positive things about August. There’s Austen in August for which I purchased this gorgeous annotated edition of Emma for $3.00 at our library. (‘Cause if it isn’t Nora Roberts, they don’t keep it on the shelf.)

And, there’s Women in Translation month for which I plan to read the third book of the Neopolitan novels, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. I hope to get in another Japanese novel as well, quite possibly Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto.

imageAnd, I’m folding the most beautiful stars for my classroom. There are many, both big and small, which I will string on invisible thread to cascade down from the ceiling at the back of my room. Because if you’re going to be hot, in an un-air-conditioned upper room at school when you should be at the beach, you should at least have something pretty to look at.

The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa for Spanish Lit Month

Dear Spider Extortionists,

Although you’ve burned the offices of Narithuala Transportation port, a business I created with the honest effort of a lifetime, I’m publicly informing you that I will never pay the amount you demand to give me protection. I’d rather you kill me. You won’t receive one cent from me, because I believe that honest, hardworking, decent people shouldn’t be afraid of crooks and thieves like you but should face you with determination until you’re sent to prison, which is where you belong.

Signed,

Felicito Yanaque (I don’t have a maternal surname)

What courage it takes Felicito to write this letter, and further to publish it in the newspaper! He refuses to concede to the extortionists who try to scare him into giving them $500.00 per month for “protection”. In fact, he takes them on with a vengeance, refusing to acquiesce even when his transportation business is burned down and his lover, Mabel, is kidnapped.

Why won’t he give in to their demands? Because of his father. The memory of his father, who was the very pillar of strength in Felicito’s eyes, will not permit him this betrayal.

“His father might have been poor but he was a great man because of his upstanding spirit, because he never harmed anyone, or broke the law, or felt rancor toward the woman who abandoned him, leaving him with a newborn to bring up. If all of that about sin and evil and the next life was true he had to be in heaven now. He didn’t even have time to do any evil, he spent his life working like a dog in the worst-paying jobs. Felicito remembered seeing him drop with fatigue at night. But even so, he never let anyone walk all over him. According to him, that was the difference between a man who was worth something and a man who was worth only a rag. That had been the advice he gave him before he died in a bed with no mattress in the Hospital Obreco: “Never let anybody walk all over you, son.”

Parallel to Felicito’s story is the story of Don Ismael Carrera (boss of Rigoberto who is the manager of Don Carrera’s insurance office). In stark contrast to the relationship with his now deceased father that Felicito holds dear, is the one that between Ismael and his twin sons. From their youth, these boys (Miki and Escobita) have done as they pleased which included carousing, lying, stealing and even rape. They become furious when their widowed father marries his housekeeper, Armida, as she is the one who will inherit his fortune, because all they want from their father is his money.

Perhaps more than anything, to me, this novel is about what it means to be a good father, to be an honorable son. We read of the sharp contrast between one son who holds his father’s teaching so dear that he himself will not bend when threatened, and two other sons who are simply waiting for their father to die so that they can be rich. We read of yet a third son who sees nothing wrong with brutally mistreating the very man who raised him. What are we to make of this? It leads us to the meaning of the word hero.

In this novel, a hero is one who upholds his father. One who won’t let himself be walked over. One who stands in the face of adversity with courage and strength and honor. My favorite kind of guy.

The Discreet Hero was originally published in 2013, and published in English with a translation by Edith Grossman in 2015. I read it for Richard and Stu‘s Spanish Lit Month, and as my first introduction to Mario Vargas Llosa, I can say it was a brilliant one. He has given me so much to ponder about Peru, but even more importantly about the power of a discreet hero.

Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa for Spanish Lit Month


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This is is a novel I would not have discovered without the review at seraillon. And it is without a doubt a book I would have sorely missed had I not read it. At sixty-four pages, it can be read in a single evening…for some of you, in a single hour. But, it is not a book to be rushed.

Is it a mystery? Is it an ode to the love of literature? Is it a romantic story of one bookseller’s passion for a beautiful woman who comes in and steals his books? It is all three.

Our narrator owns a bookstore named La Entretenida (literally, The Entertaining) into which Severina walks one day. When she leaves, she has “slipped two little books from the Japanese section into her bag.” Every time she comes to the store she takes a few books. Every time she takes a few books he records the missing titles along with the date and time. But, he does nothing to stop her.

In fact, he falls in love with her.

It is almost with obsession that he follows her and her grandfather, whom he has been told is her husband by another bookshop owner, to their pension. Even though he knows where she lives, temporarily, and rents a room there for himself, she remains elusive. From what country does she come? How have they remained in Spain with false passports? All of her belongings fit into one small backpack, for she seems to live on books alone.

Of course that is fantastical. But it is a suggestion that I feel Rodrigo Rey Rosa offers up. And as a fellow bibliophile, I find myself not questioning the veracity of this story at all, especially as her grandfather explains it quite clearly below:

I ought to begin by pointing out, though it shouldn’t come as any surprise, that we’re really quite ordinary people. I have my ideas, and she goes along with them, but in her own way, of course. Books have always been my life. Both my father and grandfather lived exclusively from books, each in his own way – books of all sorts. And I’m not speaking metaphorically: books are our sole means of subsistence,” he said and then fell silent.

A Heart So White by Javier Marias for Spanish Lit Month

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Javier Marias often writes sentences that are full paragraphs, and while some require me to read them several times over for clarity, others make me reach for my pen to record them in a journal I keep for exquisite quotes.

“Look,” I said, “people who keep secrets for a long time don’t always do so out of shame or in order to protect themselves, sometimes it’s to protect others, or to preserve a friendship, or a love affair, or a marriage, to make life more tolerable for their children or to shield them from some fear, of which they usually have many. Maybe they simply don’t want to add to the world a story they wished had never happened. Not talking about it is like erasing it, forgetting it a little, denying it, not telling a story can be a small favour one does to the world. You have to respect that. You might not want to know everything about me, later on, as time goes by, you might not want to, and I won’t want to know everything about you either.”

This is, perhaps, a strange thing to say to one’s new bride. But it gives an indication of the depth of secrets contained within Juan’s story. From the very beginning, when Teresa who would have been his aunt had she not shot herself in the breast before Juan was born, there is a sort of veil which covers everything. “Why did she kill herself?” we ask ourselves, filled with apprehension as we read to the end of the book. “Why are there so many secrets the couples keep from one another?” For each of the couples in this novel have a relationship within which something is hidden.

On his honeymoon in Havana, Juan overhears a woman named Miriam arguing with her lover in the hotel room next door. She is told that his wife is dying, and Miriam says that has been the case for a very long time. And then she asks Guillermo to kill his wife. “If you don’t kill her, I kill myself. Then you get one woman’s death on your hands, either her or me.”

Perhaps equally tragic was the relationship of Juan’s friend, who desperately seeks love through a dating service. Each person sends a letter, and often an accompanying video of himself, to the person with whom a potential match is made. But, the man responding to Berta’s letter will only be satisfied with a video showing all of her personal parts; he makes it quite clear that he will sleep with her only if she is attractive. How tragic to me that she responded to his request, so great was her need for relationship.

Threats and empty promises, wounding one another through lies and deceit, these are how Marias’ couples seem to interact.

The lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth appear throughout the novel, for it is from one particular phrase that it takes its name.

“She (Lady Macbeth) likens herself to him, thus trying to liken him to her, to her heart so white: it’s not so much that she shares his guilt (of murder) at that moment as that she tries to make him share her irremediable innocence, her cowardice.”

Yet, can one partner cover another’s guilt? Conversely, does one’s guilt shade another’s heart so white? This is the struggle which Juan faces as he uncovers his personal history involving a father who has been married three times, and not one wife is still alive.

“It was simply a matter of accepting the belief or superstition that what one doesn’t say doesn’t exist. And it’s true that the only things never translated are those never spoken or expressed.”

A Heart So White won the Dublin IMPAC prize for the best novel published worldwide in English in 1997. Find other thoughts from JacquiWine’s Journal, A Little Blog of Books, and Tony’s Reading List. Other friends who read it this month are Frances from Nonsuch Book and Scott from seraillon.