The Shadow Jury’s Winning Book for the International Booker Prize 2021

We have read a lot of books since the International Booker Prize 2021 Longlist was released on March 30. “We” being the Shadow Jury comprised of Tony, Stu, David, Oisin, Vivek, Areeb, Frances, Barbara, and I. The books weren’t always easy, or comforting, or even necessarily fiction. But, they were all interesting in their own way and certainly reflective of societal issues today. I would say they reflected some political issues, but my fellow members felt that was extreme. At the same time, we agreed that perhaps it was fortunate for the official jurors that Minor Detail did not make their shortlist with the strife going on in Israel again, still, even now.

So, what was on the official shortlist? These six books pictured above. Our own shortlist was quite comparable, with the exception of two. We replaced The Dangers of Smoking in Bed and The War of the Poor with Wretchedness and Minor Detail. Many of us considered The Dangers of Smoking in Bed incomparable to the quality of writing found in Enriquez’ earlier collection, Things We Lost in The Fire. One of our “problems” with The War of The Poor is that a mere 112 pages can hardly be substantial enough to qualify as a prize winning novel.

Here are some of highlights from the perspective of the Shadow Panel:

  • We declared our tenth Shadow Winner this year.
  • Our choice is only the second winner, after Jon Kalman Stefansson’s novel The Sorrow Of Angels in 2014, not to appear on the official shortlist.
  • Our shortlist has books from Fitzcarraldo Editions as number one and number two. In fact, four out of the last five Shadow Winners have been published by them.
  • We were able to meet twice, via Zoom, to discuss each novel. It was fascinating to me to finally be able to put a face with these blogging friends who gathered from Australia, England, India and the U.S. to share our love of literature and the International Booker Prize books.

Of the six books listed on our shortlist, the Shadow Jury used the following scoring system: 10 points for our favorite, then 7, 5, 3, 2, 1 down to our least favorite. Coming in with the top choice for four of the Shadow Jury members was the book we chose, and only one person did not have it listed in his/her top three. What was that book? The novel the Shadow Jury feels most deserving of the International Booker Prize 2021 is Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, translated from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

For me, there was no other novel amongst the thirteen which carried the quality of writing, the impact of story, and the deep irony of title; really, is there such a thing as a minor detail within our lives? The least little thing seems to carry a major impact.

The breakdown of the scores for our shortlist is as follows:

  • 6th place: Wretchedness (25 points)
  • 5th place: At Night All Blood is Black (31 points)
  • 4th place: The Employees (37 points)
  • 3rd place: When We Cease To Understand The World (39 points)
  • 2nd place: In Memory of Memory (52 points)
  • 1st place: Minor Detail (68 points)

(I would like to point out that another personal favorite of mine was The Pear Field, which made neither the official, nor the Shadow Jury, lists. But, I loved it. I would also like to give a huge thank you to Tony, of Tony’s Reading List, as he led us through our decision from the beginning to the end. And now, I look forward to streaming the award ceremony on YouTube (or Facebook) at 12:00 noon in Illinois.)

The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith (Books 1 and 2 of 20 Books of Summer)

It’s a little odd to spend so much time with Tom Ripley. I alternate between being awed by his cool level-headedness, able to think his way out of any incriminating situation, and dismayed by his detachment from people. From women especially.

It seems that Marge, with her “gourdlike figure”, especially annoys him. I can’t help but think Tom is attracted to Dickie Greenleaf, whose father has sent Tom to Italy in order to bring home. Marge and Dickie are living a most comfortable life, by the sea, the only two Americans in Mongibello. They have seafood, and wine, and lazy hours to spend in the sun until Tom Ripley arrives and takes it all away. He inveigles himself into Dickie’s life, and before long, the two are living together, planning trips to Naples and Rome without Marge.

Tom lives in apparent envy and loathing, both vying for attention in his relationship to Dickie. He tries on Dickie’s suits, his shirts, and longs for the two rings on Dickie’s hand. It is somewhat surprising, then, that he drowns Dickie and abandons the boat they were on, spending the rest of the novel evading detection from Marge, Mr. Greenleaf, the police, and almost from Freddie (a most obnoxious friend of Dickie’s). I almost became confused myself trying to follow the leads and the responses Tom gives in explanation, for he does not readily falter.

My edition from Everyman’s Library contains Ripley Under Ground following The Talented Mr. Ripley. This novel is not so much about Ripley himself under ground, as whom he puts there. The plot revolves around a painter, Philip Derwatt, who no longer exists. Either he has died, or is living incognito elsewhere, but he has left his friends with an art gallery and no more paintings to sell. Hence, Bernard takes up the task of mimicking Derwatt’s art, quite satisfactorily until an American collector notices the difference. He insists that the painting he owns is not authentic, having something to do with the lavender shade that one artist used, but the the other did not.

I found Ripley Under Ground a bit tedious. The tension is there, along with Tom’s psychotic self preservation. But, the novel drags on longer than it should. We know there is fraud in the art world, we know that a body has been buried under ground and how it got there; the problem is that three quarters of the way to the conclusion, we no longer care. We, of course, meaning me.

Belatedly, I now realize that I have begun 20 Books of Summer before Summer officially begins. Perhaps I will be forgiven with The Brothers Karamazov included in my list? Cathy did say it could count for three, so I’ll take that as permission for a head start. 😉

The Brothers Karamazov: “Seek Happiness in Sorrow” (Thoughts on Part 1)

Contemplator by Ivan Kramskoy

Dmitri Karamazov, in his confession to his saintly little brother, represents what I know of the Prodigal Son.

“I threw fistfuls of money around—music, noise, gypsy women…I loved depravity, I loved the shame of depravity. I loved cruelty: am I not a bedbug, an evil insect? In short—a Karamazov!”

But Smerdyakov, son of Stinking Lizaveta, is not a Karamazov. Born in the garden’s bathhouse, he is taken in by Fyodor Pavlovich’s servants Grigory Vasilievich and Marfa Ignatievna.

We are told that Smerdyakov resembles the Contemplator, pictured above. “…perhaps suddenly, having stored up his impressions over many years, he will drop everything and wander off to Jerusalem to save his soul, or perhaps he will suddenly burn down his native village, or perhaps he will do both.”

In Part 1 of The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky is giving us impressions of his characters. They are buffoons, like the father, or squandering sons, like Dmitri, or suspiciously silent like Smerdyakov. But, Alyosha? Alyosha believes that his father “is not just a buffoon.” He never remembers an offense. Alyosha is brave and fearless; he determines to live in a monastery under the care of his elder, Zosima, because it “presented him all at once with the whole ideal way out for his soul struggling from darkness to light.”

Another story within the novel involves romance. Both Fyodor Pavlovian and his eldest son, Dmitri, profess to love the same woman: Grushenka. Yet Dmitri is also involved with Katerina Ivanova, with whom he is engaged and from whom, to his great shame, he has taken three thousand roubles. He begs Alyosha to tell her that ‘he bows at her feet.’

The novel is full of scripture, although one wouldn’t necessarily recognize it if one was not familiar with the Bible. Clearly, Dostoevsky wants us to consider scripture, and faith, and purpose as he writes his novel. Here are some of my favorite quotes from Part 1:

“There is not and cannot be in the whole world such a sin that the Lord will not forgive one who truly repents of it. A man even cannot commit so great a sin as would exhaust God’s boundless love. How could there be a sin that exceeds God’s love? Only take care that you repent without ceasing and chase away fear altogether. Believe that God loves you so as you cannot conceive of it: even with your sin and in your sin he loves you. And there is more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ten righteous men.”

“If anything protects society even in our time, and even reforms the criminal himself and transforms him into a different person, again it is Christ’s law alone, which manifests itself in the acknowledgement of one’s own conscience. Only if he acknowledges his guilt as a son of Christ’s society — that is, of the Church — will he acknowledge his guilt before society itself — that is, before the Church.”

“Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed and with everyone watching…Whereas active love is labor and perseverance, and for some people, perhaps, a whole science.”

“Can there be beauty in Sodom? Believe me, for the vast majority of people, that’s just where beauty lies—did you know that secret?”

“Again I say, do not be proud. Do not be proud before the lowly, do not be proud before the great either. And do not hate those who reject you, disgrace you, revile you, and slander you. Do not hate atheists, teachers of evil, materialists, not even those among them who are wicked, not those who are good, for many of them are good, especially in our time. Remember them thus in your prayers: save, Lord, those whom there is no one to pray for, save also those who do not want to pray to you. And add at once: it is not in my pride that I pray for it, Lord, for I myself am more vile than all…”

It is hard to believe that I read this novel eleven years ago. For it falls on me entirely afresh, and I now eagerly embark on Part II.

20 Books of Summer…2021

Hosted by Cathy at 746 Books
  1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dostoevsky
  2. Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka
  3. Cain by Jose Saramago
  4. Facing The Mountain by Daniel James Brown
  5. Double Blind by Edward St. Aubyn
  6. Madam by Phoebe Wynne
  7. The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsn
  8. We The Living by Ayn Rand
  9. The Foreign Girls by Sergio Olguin
  10. Seventeenth Summer by Maureen Daly
  11. The Therapist by Helene Flood
  12. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
  13. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
  14. Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith
  15. The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz
  16. Falling by T. J. Newman
  17. The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain
  18. I Is Another by Jon Fosse
  19. The Maidens by Alex Michaelides
  20. Prague by Arthur Phillips

See the sign up post here, to find what others are reading this summer. (June 1, 2021 through September 1, 2021)

Do Join Us!

Just in case you can never get enough of Russian literature, like me, feast your eyes on the small collection of Dostoevsky works above. (With an addition of a matryoshka doll from my friends Carol and Tom.) They normally abide on my Russian literature shelf next to Tolstoy, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Bulgakov, and other lesser known Russian authors.

You may notice a few tabs in my Pevear and Volokhonsky edition which I used a few years ago (2010) in another read-along. But now, Arti of Ripple Effects is hosting a fresh read-along of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and I must reread it with her. Not only do I appreciate her insights into what it is we read together (In Remembrance of Things Past, or Midnight’s Children, for example), I appreciate her pace.

Here is the schedule she has laid out for us:

  • Part 1: May 22
  • Part II: June 12
  • Part III: July 3
  • Part IV and Epilogue: July 24

That is quite feasible, is it not? I do hope you’ll join us, even if, as Tom said, “Didn’t we just read this?” 😉

The Dangers of Smoking In Bed by Mariana Enriquez, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell ( 2021 International Booker Prize Longlist)

I’m not usually a fan of short stories. I like best to be fully immersed in the depth of a novel. But, this collection from Maria Enriquez provides great intrigue. Each story is startling, unexpected, and in its own way, horrific; almost too much to handle if it had been written in novel form.

The first story, Angelita Unearthed, is about a ghost, the rotting corpse of a baby who had died at three months of age. This baby was a sibling of the narrator’s Grandmother, and clearly didn’t like being dug up in the backyard, for it followed her great niece “on her little bare feet that, rotten as they were, left her little white bones in view.” What a contrast this image is, with an innocent baby called Angelita…meaning “little angel.”

The second story, Our Lady of the Quarry, involves a crush of several girls on Diego, a muscled guy who falls for the older Sylvia. When Diego and Sylvia play a trick on the girls at the quarry, a dangerous place named the Virgin’s Pool, the revenge that one of them extracts is much worse.

The Cart tells of an old man who pushed his cart of rubbish, cardboard boxes and whatnot, into a neighborhood where he proceeded to pull down his pants and poop on the sidewalk. Those around him were incensed and reacted violently, all accept for a sweet woman who helped him escape. Before he left, he turned around to give a certain look at all the people except her, and subsequently the rest of the neighborhood was cursed. They found themselves in utter poverty and despair, until they burned the cart…and something that smelled like meat, but wasn’t, on the grill.

There are nine more stories included in this book, which I will not explain here lest I spoil the surprises for you.

I think of smoking in bed, which is not something I do. But, it seems to me to be a pleasure, for those who smoke, which is laced with added danger. What if the bedding catches fire? What if an ash falls somewhere unexpected, and lies there smoldering before erupting in flame? So many things, from a simple pleasure, can go entirely wrong. Such is the case, I think, with each of these stories by Maria Enriquez. Her world is a frightening one to consider, as the most ordinary thing can go dreadfully wrong.

Thank you to Granta for a copy of The Dangers of Smoking In Bed to read and review.

Wretchedness by Andrzej Tichy, translated from the Swedish by Nichola Smalley (2021 International Booker Prize Longlist)

When I read novels like this one, I feel so foolish. “Just get a job!” I think. “Quit making stupid decisions!” And then I realize I’ve had parents who stayed together, made a home for my brother and I, and taught us the way we should go. But, the troubled narrator in the novel, Cody, reminds us of this:

You’re an adult but you see yourself as a damaged child. You see yourself as a victim and therefore feel that your right to this hatred, indiscriminate and to be honest pretty vaguely defined is unshakeable. You live fully on the shadow of your parents’ failures, their losses, their blind struggle. You’ve got kids to take care of yourself but you go to pieces, breaking down the moment you start thinking about your own childhood…Your self-image leads to a critical situation in which the most important elements are a paralyzing fatalism combined with an all-eclipsing defeatism.

p. 113

Cody is a cellist, walking down the road with a composer and a drummer, but not listening well to their conversation. Instead, he is reviewing his life, the horrors that he has chosen and endured. In reading Wretchedness, I see so clearly that living a successful life isn’t as easy as “trying hard”. Where do you go when you don’t belong anywhere? When you can’t escape the pull of alcohol and drugs, such that poor choices are all you can make because you’re caught in a vortex of poverty, shame, and despair?

The drugs, the crime, the death. Doing time, filthy mattresses and sofas, the hostels, the psych wards, the memorial gardens. The whole shebang. That life and that death. It’s true. But what does it mean? What do you think it means? Sure. Yeah. You’re right. It’s not some straightforward survivor guilt, if that’s what you were thinking. What I feel is only partly sympathy, empathy, understanding. I also want to smash their faces in. They disgust me.

p. 82

It’s music that gives him the greatest relief, I think. Even if the music described in this book is a heavy, dark, almost oppressive thing. The narrator goes for rap, as well as the work of Giacinto Scelsi and Arvo Part.

Then Christoph Maria Moosmann entered. I turned round, looked up at the organ and could just make him out as he sat down at the manual. He began to play Part’s Annum per Annum and everything seemed to close in, filling with weight and levity, and the room expanded and contracted as though it were breathing, and I breathed with it, and a few seconds after the first chord’s powerful vibrations I breathed out, before holding, lungs empty, for the rest of the minute the chord sounded. Then it ebbed away, and I drew breath, deeply and noisily, much too noisily in the quiet church, as though I’d been underwater and was now struggling up to the surface, up to the oxygen, just as the pause, the silence,was at its most intense, and when those first weak, light, playfully searching notes began to sound I couldn’t help once again thinking about Soot and about that last night, what I’d done, about what I was, about Kiki and Rawna, about that bus, on that roundabout, that circular motion and centrifugal force that pushed me out towards everything with such satanic power.

p. 94-5

There is no simple, straightforward answer for those who haven’t found a place in this world. Certainly they are excluded, yet in many ways, they exclude themselves. Sometimes, the vortex is just too strong to escape.

Thanks to And Other Stories for a copy of Wretchedness to read and review here.

Lady Joker, Volume 1 by Kaoru Takamura

Perhaps one of the best places to start thinking about this complex and intricately detailed novel is with the title: Lady Joker. It seems to imply whimsy and confusion both at once, for whoever heard of a female Joker in a deck of cards? Yet the name refers to just one of the characters who suffers from great misfortune. Lady is the daughter of Jun’ichi Nunokawa, who sits in the stands of the racetrack with her father, turning her head and flapping her arms as she utters incomprehensible syllables. Her favorite treats are cream buns and fruit-flavored milk, as her mother denies her sugar at home.

”By the way, Handa-San. Let’s give our group a name,” Monoi said, “What do you think of ‘Lady Joker’?”

”What’s that? English?”

”The other day, Nunokawa called his daughter the joker that he had drawn. That’s when it occurred to me. If a joker is something that nobody wants, then what better way to describe the lot of us?” (p. 258)

Poor Seizo Monoi. He comes from a tenant farmer family, and now he owns a pharmacy. But the opinion he holds of his life fills me with sorrow:

I never had a future. I didn’t escape anywhere after all. (p. 159)

Such is the despair and hopelessness of Monoi and the friends he gathers around him: a detective working in Criminal Investigation, a credit union employee, a truck driver, and a lathe operator. All of them are horse racing fans. All of them feel victimized by the rich and successful, and decide that they will make those who have made a fortune suffer. Thus begins their plan for revenge.

Halfway through the novel the perspective shifts from these unfortunate friends to the kidnapping of Kyosuke Shiroyama, the president and CEO of Hinode Beer. We never hear exactly which of the five have taken him to a hideout, fed him fruit-flavored milk and cream buns, or released him with the demand for two billion yen while holding the beer itself hostage. But, we know that he is personally involved with more than one scandal.

The first stems back from 1990, when his niece’s boyfriend was interviewing with Hinode Beer. He had gone through several interviews successfully, until it was determined that he came from a Buraku background. Suddenly, he was told he would not be considered for employment within the company, and a few days after that he died in a car crash. To make matters worse, the young man’s father later committed suicide by stepping in front of a train after submitting a tape documenting Hinode Beer’s discrimination.

The second scandal involves the Okada Association, which is a group of corporate extortionists.

Through the working class, and executives, the police force and media, author Kaoru Takamura brings to her readers a Japan which is complicated and often corrupt. The disenfranchised working class who commit a crime seem no better (or worse) than the corporate executives who commit crimes in their own, more subtle, ways. Neither Americans, nor Japanese, are above the horrors of discrimination, crime, or the search for power.

From the publisher, SoHo Crime: “Since its Japanese publication in 1997 Kaoru Takamura’s sublimely detailed epic of crime and decline has pushed beyond the stigmas surrounding genre and shattered the Japanese literary glass ceiling. Lady Joker, Volume One is a novel about the sweeping dissatisfaction felt by those left behind by a culture whose new god finds no sacrifice too insignificant, no cost-cutting measure too inhumane, and no individual indispensable. Spurned and ostracized, driven to grief and desperation, the criminals at the heart of this groundbreaking heist story want what society has denied them: belonging. Dignity. Power. Revenge. They will purchase this with fear and outrage and pay whatever it takes.”   

In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova, translated from the Russian by Sasha Dugdale (2021 International Booker Prize Longlist)

Although In Memory of Memory is listed in Google under the genre of Biography, and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions with a white cover (which means nonfiction, typically an essay), it has been longlisted for the 2021 International Booker Prize. And that does not disappoint me nearly as much as Annie Ernaux’s book, The Years, which had been shortlisted for the prize in 2019. In fact, I was hooked on In Memory of Memory from the very beginning, in which the author describes her aunt’s diaries.

Notebooks are an essential daily activity for a certain type of person, loose-woven mesh on which they hang their clinging faith in reality and its continuing nature…Break open a notebook at any point and be reminded of your own reality, because a notebook is a series of proofs that life has continuity and history, and (this is most important) that any point in your past is still within your reach.

“Exactly!,” I thought. Maria is getting exactly at what I have felt about all the journals I’ve kept since I was five years old and couldn’t spell Winnipeg when I went there with my grandmother. It didn’t stop me from recording our trip though, and I will never forget studying the Golden Boy so that I could write of him in my little leather book.

Written in the margins of my Midori, as weekly tasks, I will often find the words: Sort! Minimize! Purge! You would think I had learned my lesson when I threw away all the photo albums and letters my first husband wrote me, as if by throwing them away I could erase the subsequent pain at his death. Instead, all I did was erase those years of my life.

…far too often my working notes seem to me to be heaped deadweight: ballast I would dearly love to be rid of, but what would be left of me then?

Stepanova knows, what it has taken me many decades to learn, that what we have written down, what we have saved, what we collect is who we are; these things document our history.

She even hints at what Marie Kondo emphasizes, perhaps too heartily, that things ought to be gotten rid of if they no longer are useful or “spark joy.”

Paradise for the disappearing objects and everyday diversions of the past might simply exist in being remembered and mentioned.

Maria Stepanova says that she began writing this book when she was ten; the second time she started to write it, she was sixteen. She is the sort of person to whom I can so personally relate, the one who needs to record ‘ “selected impressions”: details, assemblage points, the turns (our) conversations took, the phrases (we) used.”

In Memory of Memory takes us through journals and photograph albums, visits to family homes, objects, and memories. In looking at Maria Stepanova’s memories, I am forced to look at mine, and perhaps the very inaccuracy of what we recall turns this book from nonfiction into literature. It certainly tells a story, at any rate, about “the way memory works, and what memory wants from me.”