Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Final Thoughts on the 2023 Booker Prize


As of last week's reading of Prophet Song, I'm finally ready to give a final ranking of the 2023 Booker Prize nominees as I experienced them for myself over the past few months. Obviously, my final ranking reflects only my personal experience with the nominated books. I took one final look at the list of nominees, and ended up doing a bit of last-minute juggling that I hadn't expected to be doing at all. 

I read and reviewed eleven of the thirteen nominated novels, and decided to DNF two others at about the 100-page mark of each. The DNF books are to be found, as you would expect, at the bottom of the list:

  1. Prophet Song - Paul Lynch (Reviewed on 4-14-24)
  2. The Bee Sting - Paul Murray (Reviewed on 11-18-23)
  3. The House of Doors - Tan Twan Eng (Reviewed 12-26-23)
  4. If I Survive You - Jonathan Escoffery (Reviewed 11-24-23
  5. How to Build a Boat - Elaine Feeney (Reviewed 3-18-24)
  6. Western Lane - Chetna Maroo (Reviewed 11-10-23)
  7. All the Little Bird-Hearts - Viktoria Lloyd-Barlow ( 1-17-24)
  8. Pearl - Sîan Hughes (Reviewed on 12-1-23)
  9. Old God's Time - Sebastian Barry (Reviewed on 10-27-23)
  10. This Other Eden - Paul Harding (Reviewed on 12-8-23)
  11. Study for Obedience - Sarah Bernstein (Reviewed on 2-24-24)
  12. A Spell of Good Things
  13. The Ascension

Links refer to my thoughts on each of the completed novels immediately after finishing them. I did not review or comment on the two nominees that I did not finish reading. This is one reader's response to Booker Prize 2023; make of it what you will.

Monday, April 15, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (April 15, 2024)

Seldom does my week go as far off course as this last one did, and it all started just two days after I posted my reading plan for that week. A routine doctor's appointment turned into two days of outpatient testing that I won't be getting answers from for another two weeks, but at least there was enough sitting around time in waiting rooms during the week for me to get a fair amount of reading done. As a result, I finished two novels that I really enjoyed: Eileen Garvin's Crow Talk and the 2023 Booker Prize winner, Paul Lynch's Prophet Song. That leaves me beginning this new week still messing around with a couple of books I seem to have informally tabled for a while (The Plague and Many a River) while also having made good progress on another, the Rebus novel A Heart Full of Headstones. I've also started two new ones that came out of nowhere to claim my attention: Forbidden Notebook by Italian author Alba de Céspedes and The Man Who Smiled by Swedish author Henning Mankell.

The Man Who Smiled is the fourth novel in Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallender series. I'm a fan of both television series featuring Wallender (one is in Swedish, the other in BBC English), but for one reason or another I've never actually read one of the books. Fortunately, I'm pretty hazy on the all the plot details of the TV shows by now, but I still retain a clear enough impression of the Wallender character that I have a little bit of a jumpstart when it comes to getting right into the books almost immediately. This one already strikes me as being very good. 

Forbidden Notebook first saw life as a serial novel published in an Italian magazine between December 1950 and June 1951. The edition I'm reading is this 2023 Ann Goldstein translation published by Astra House. The "forbidden" aspect of the notebook is that the woman who purchases it does so illegally by insisting that it be sold to her on a Sunday at a time when only tobacco could be sold in Italy on a Sunday morning...cigarettes being so essential a product, you know. But now she has to keep its existence a secret from her husband and children because she doesn't want them laughing at a woman her age (43) keeping a private diary. The very process of putting her innermost thoughts down on paper makes her reassess her life completely.

Those are the five books I expect (whatever that's worth) to be spending the most time with this week, but I've also just acquired a couple of other interesting ones:

Displaced Persons seems like an especially timely read to me considering everything that is happening in and around Israel today. I've read Joan Leegant before and enjoyed her writing, so I'm looking forward to this collection of short stories, about half of which occur in Israel, the other half in the U.S. The world is, of course, a very complicated place for all of us to live in, but I can't imagine anyone under more pressure right now than the people of Israel and those who have family living and working there. Displaced Persons is not scheduled for publication until June 1, so this one may end up sliding two or three weeks more. 

I wish I could remember what first brought Amy Jo Burns's Mercury to my attention, but it was on hold for so long at the library that I've forgotten where I learned of it. It's a strange coming-of-age story about a seventeen-year-old girl who comes to Mercury, PA, all on her own to start a new life and ends up being the glue that holds a family of three roofing brothers together after they lose their mother and their family roofing business starts to fall apart around them. It has a certain amount of mystery involved, too, but I'll know more about all of that when I pick it up in a day or so. 

I do still have another handful of library books that are aging rapidly, and I might end up plucking one or two of those from that stack this week. That's the plan anyway, but life is, after all, one big surprise after another and I love the serendipitous things that happen along the way. I'll probably be just as surprised by what I end up reading as you are. (Happy Income Tax Day, America.)

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Prophet Song - Paul Lynch

Ironically enough, Paul Lynch's 2023 Booker Prize winner, Prophet Song, is the last of the thirteen nominated novels (I did abandon two of them at around the 100-page mark) that I've read. I still find it difficult to understand why Prophet Song was only published in the U.S. after the Booker winner was announced, but that's exactly what Atlantic Monthly Press managed to do with it. And then my library system was slow to purchase enough copies of the novel to meet the demand for it, so it's been a long wait for my turn at this one. But, as it turns out, Prophet Song was well worth the wait.

"We were offered visas, you know, to Australia, and we turned them down, my husband said no, plain and simple, he said it was impossible to go at the time and I suppose he was right, and how could we have known anyhow, how could any of us have known what was going to happen, I suppose other people seemed to know, but I never understood how they were so certain, what I mean is, you could never have imagined it, not in a million years, all that was to happen, and I could never understand those that left, how they could just leave like that, leave everything behind, all that life, all that living..."

Prophet Song is one of the most haunting novels I've read in a long, long time. Whether by design or not, the story's full impact sneaks up on the reader just as gradually as what is happening to the main characters of the novel who do not realize the full extent of what is coming for them and their country (Ireland) until it is much too late to escape without suffering irreparable damage. Luckily for readers, in place of the permanent damage suffered by the fictional Stack family, they get to experience a novel every bit as powerful  as George Orwell's 1984.

 It all starts for the Stack family on the night that Eilish Stack opens the door to find two officers from Ireland's new secret police force, the GNSB, looking for her husband, a prominent trade unionist suspected by the GNSB of "serving enemies of the state." For Eilish, her husband Larry, and their four children, Ireland's accelerating drift toward a tyrannical government is about to become personal. Eilish is nervous, Larry is in denial about why the police would even want to talk to him, and their children are oblivious to it all. Surely this can't be happening in a country like Ireland, can it? Things like this just don't happen in the West.

But they do happen. And Eilish, even as her two sons (a seventeen-year-old and a twelve-year-old) begin to slip from her grasp, realizes that it is up to her, and only her, to make the right choices if her family is to survive at all. 

At first glance, Prophet Song can be a little intimidating because of the author's densely packed page style. The book is a series of three-or-four-page paragraphs comprised of very long sentences, and the author uses no quotation marks to flag his dialogue. That style, however, works very well here because Lynch is such a precise and clear writer that there is never any doubt about who is speaking or, no matter how long the sentence, what is being said. I found as I began reading the book's last two chapters that I was turning pages as quickly as if I were reading some mass market thriller; I couldn't wait to find out how it was all going to end for Eilish and her children. 

But what I will probably remember longest about Prophet Song is the realization of how true this is today:

"...the world is always ending over and over and over again in one place but not another and that the end of the world is always a local event, it comes to your country and visits your town and knocks on the door of your house and becomes to others but some distant warning, a brief report on the news, an echo of events that has passed into folklore..."

Perhaps it's time that we all take those warnings more seriously.


Paul Lynch jacket photo


Thursday, April 11, 2024

Crow Talk - Eileen Garvin


Crow Talk is one of those books that sneak up on you as you read them. I was slow to warm up to Mary Francis O'Neill, the young woman at the heart of Crow Talk, and early on she is so geographically and socially isolated that I began to wonder if I ever would. It's not that "Frankie" is an unimpressive woman. As noted in the novel's very first paragraph, Frankie is first in her University of Washington graduate school class, was the first female from her high school to win a "full ride" to that school, and was even the first in her family to earn a bachelor's degree of any kind. And then there's the revealing kicker: she's also the first on either side of her family to reach the ripe old age of twenty-six without giving birth. 

Frankie has come to June Lake to regroup. She's frustrated and she's running from something, and the empty family cottage feels like her only refuge, a place where she can finally finish her thesis before getting on with the rest of her life. But there is obviously more to the story, and layer by layer, Frankie's past, her family dynamics, and the shakiness of her future are revealed. Frankie is unemployed (and perhaps unemployable), homeless, friendless, barely speaking to her family, and simply out of options. It is June Lake or nothing, even if she is the only one on the isolated lake as winter approaches. 

Then Aiden, a little autistic boy who suddenly stopped speaking a few months earlier, and Charlie, a baby crow with an injured leg, change everything. Frankie might not be able to heal herself or her family, but she's a natural when it comes to Aiden and Charlie, both of whom seem to recognize just how important Frankie might turn out to be in their own worlds. And maybe, just maybe, Aiden and Charlie Crow can return the favor.

It was only after finishing Crow Talk that I realized how fully invested I had become in the Frankie O'Neill character and how real she felt to me. Eileen Garvin has created a unique little world here filled with people I hated to see leave my own. Sure, her story is heartwarming and inspirational, but it's more than that. Much like Garvin's previous novel, The Music of Bees, Crow Talk is a painless science lesson. I came away from The Music of Bees understanding and appreciating more about the importance of bees and the intricacies of beekeeping than I ever expected to know. Crow Talk taught me about the fascinating life cycle of crows and the way that crows can interact with humans, even to recognizing the faces of their "allies." 

Eileen Garvin has become an author I trust, and I can't wait to see what she has to teach me next time around.

Eileen Garvin author photo

Look for Crow Talk on April 30.

Monday, April 08, 2024

What I'm Reading This Week (April 8, 2024)


I can hardly believe that finally, after weeks and weeks of waiting for my turn at a library copy of the 2023 Booker Prize winner, Prophet Song, is in my hands.  I even managed to make a good start on it last week, and it looks like Prophet Song is going to have been a novel worth waiting for. Right now, I don't see it moving all the way up my personal 2023 Booker ranking list to the top spot, but that's certainly still a possibility at this point. 

As for last week's reading, it's three books finished (You Can't Joke About That, Charming Billy, and Falling by Kat Timpf, Alice McDermott, and T.J. Newman, respectively) and five in progress as I start the new week:

  • Crow Talk - Eileen Garvin
  • The Plague Albert Camus
  • Many a River - Elmer Kelton
  • Prophet Song - Paul Lynch
  • A Heart Full of Headstones - Ian Rankin
For those unfamiliar with Ian Rankin's John Rebus series, A Heart Full of Headstones is book number twenty-two in a series that has been entertaining me for more than two decades now. By this point in his life, Rebus is an unhealthy ex-cop still living in Edinburgh where covid restrictions are driving him nuts. What particularly intrigues about this one is that it opens with Rebus in the dock hoping to keep himself out of prison. Rebus's problems all seem to have started when he agreed to do a favor for his old arch-nemesis, a man even more seriously ill than Rebus who has suddenly found a conscious and wants to undo a few of his past sins with a little help from John. 

Prophet Song, the 2023 Booker Prize winner, was not even published in this country until after the winner was announced (way to go, Atlantic Monthly Press), and then the library system here decided only to purchase a handful of copies...so the wait has been a long one. Prophet Song is set in modern Ireland and reminds me a bit of Orwell's 1984 (including some of the cover art I've seen on various editions of that novel). With its multi-paged single paragraphs, this one is kind of a tough read, but the prose is more straightforward than I would have expected from that style, so it all kind of balances out in the end. 

I'm only relatively near done with one of the five I'm reading right now, so I probably won't be adding anything unexpected this week as I still have those three library books on hand that I mentioned last Monday...and the clock is ticking away on those. But who knows? I certainly didn't expect Prophet Song to show up as suddenly as it did, and it was only its immediate availability that saw the Ian Rankin novel jump the TBR queue out of nowhere like it did three days ago. Anyway, here's hoping everyone has an enjoyable reading week. Let's get started. 

Saturday, April 06, 2024

You Can't Joke About That - Kat Timpf


Let's begin with three things you should know about Kat Timpf, author of You Can't Joke About That:

  • She is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and it's often hard to tell which of the two parties she thinks is run by the biggest group of idiots. 
  • She is a libertarian comedian, columnist, and television commentator/personality - despite being labeled by those who don't like her message as "just another Fox News channel regular." It's actually rather surprising that she's even on Fox News at all.
  • She is one very smart woman.
The subtitle of of You Can't Joke About That makes very clear what to expect from the book: Why Everything is Funny, Nothing is Sacred, and We're All in This Together. If that were not clear enough already, Timpf restates the book's theme within its first few pages this way:
"The darker the subject matter, the greater the healing that laughter can bring, disarming the darkness and making the people who are feeling isolated by their trauma feel less alone."

Anyone can make claims like this one; the old cliché about "talking the talk" as opposed to "walking the walk" works pretty well in this case. Timpf may be only thirty-five years old, but she has experienced near fatal health issues that resulted in some of the most humiliating situations imaginable, experiences that would likely leave emotional scars for most people with twice her years and experience. And she did it by laughing at the absurdity of it all - and how others reacted to the way she handled those moments. 

As Timpf points out, comedians have always been the one to hold the powerful accountable for their actions. Ridicule and public embarrassment are powerful tools that the powerless cannot afford to have taken away from them, and the current governmental and societal drive to censor comedians, especially of the stand-up variety, terrifies Timpf. As it should terrify all of us.

I don't know if Timpf wrote her own chapter headings. If not, she should give that person a fat bonus because those headings are some of the strongest I've ever read. Among them are these:

  • "Intention Absolutely Matters" 
  • "Don't Erase Anything"
  • "No One Wants to Hear You Whine"
  • "Words Are Not Violence"
  • "Safe Spaces Aren't Real"
You Can't Joke About That is one of the most quotable books of its type I've read in a while, so rather than try to explain Timpf's arguments in my own, certain-to-be less insightful words, I'll just share these quotes with you:
"Erasing a joke to make the past look better amounts to lying about the past...The limitation of lying is that the truth is always going to be true anyway. The kinds of jokes that people told during a time can really tell us a lot about that time."

"The words are violence crowd doesn't want conversation - at least not one on a level playing field."

"When you say that words are violence, you inherently are saying that violence is an acceptable response to words, because violence is universally considered an acceptable response to violence."

"Claiming 'words are violence' is a tool to dictate and control, all while engaging in a massive fraud that they are on the side of compassion."

And finally, my favorite point/quote of all:

"The best part of ensuring that your own voice is heard and understood is not aiming to change the way other people talk about theirs; it's to talk about yours, and to encourage other people to be able to talk about it with you and learn. The answer isn't less speech, it's more."

 It's a dirty (not so secret) shame that cancel culture has made most of us afraid to do that anymore.

If you share any of the concerns that Timpf addresses, You Can't Joke About That is a book you will want to read. Timpf pulls no punches here, and her language is sometimes crudely expressive in nature - but she has a lot to say that makes a whole lot of sense, and thank goodness she's not afraid to say it (even though she admits it makes her very, very nervous sometimes to do so).