Tough reads in 2017
With the exception of one book on the following list, these books were either longlisted or shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. One of them actually won the prize. That sounds like a sound recommendation of a good book to read. But as we all know, prizes can be awarded for turkeys. This applies even more so in the case of the Turner prize for Art. In both competitions, the views of the panel of judges can sometimes end up with some surprising and disappointing results. Against my better judgement, perhaps, but hoping for the best, I ventured between the pages of the following. Sadly, I struggled to get to grips with any of these, and my review, at times a rant, reflects my considerable disappointment.
1. The Sellout by Paul Beatty – Winner of the Man Booker prize 2016
My expectations of a great read here were sky high. They very quickly plummeted. The book has been described (mostly by the blurb and the excerpts from reviews inside the cover) as a brilliant satirical work. “The most lacerating American satire in years” according to The Guardian. Sorry, I just didn’t get it. What I did get was a loathing for a story that frequently depended on the use of the ‘N’ word and relies on copious helpings of self-deprecation and all round low life. All mixed up in a complex, pseudo-intellectual, self-referential haze; satirising (I suppose) a white supremacist’s venom. Sorry, this book does not work for me. Can we move on from this please? I like to think I am broad minded, and able to empathise and take on board diverse points of view, but this book, this style, this language seems designed to block certain readers and groups of readers from gaining and entry. Is that the point?
There is a section headed ‘THE DUM DUM INTELLECTUALS’. I think that says it all. But there is more. There is another entitled ‘TOO MANY MEXICANS’. Is this a pre-Trump, Trump thing? A rage against the real life visceral hatred that came out in the most stupid election campaigns in the United States of all time?
I could try and read the book again but I have already wasted too much of my time trying to find a way in, and I suspect I will only hit the same brick wall. A lacerating, satirical brick wall.
2. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien – shortlisted 2016
I was really looking forward to this one, too. A dynasty of ordinary lives at the time of the Chinese cultural revolution. The dominance of the state. Tiananmen Square. Chairman Mao. This book was described by The Times as “a magnificent epic of Chinese history”. It sort of is. Not so magnificent, actually. The family connections are confusing. The character names are a bit weird: Sparrow, Big Mother Knife and Wen the Dreamer. There is a lot of wandering. The role of the music is not significant for me, and that is supposed to be one of the leading themes of the book. I am sensing I have been a bit shallow here. But to me, there are a lot of pages that don’t really take us very far. Or maybe they take us all over the place, within communist China, and the story seems to get lost in the settings and the unfulfilling relationships. I made a real effort with this book, twice. And each time I ended up thinking I would rather walk along the Great Wall of China. That would give me so much more pleasure. Naggingly, I have to accept this suggests a fault in me as a reader. Ah well.
3. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – shortlisted 2015
This book is excruciating. And very long. 720 pages. I managed about 550 before finally realising that I had taken in everything I needed to in order to realise this was not the book for me. Before reading, a contact on Twitter had said to me: “Be prepared to be devastated”. Subsequently, I was devastated, but probably not in the way he meant. There is so much suffering in this story. I can handle that. I like disturbing works. What I can’t accept is endless repetition of the same suffering. Drawing out a fairly limited storyline across hundreds of pages. Visiting and revisiting and peddling the same stuff over and over again, at incredible length. This was torturous. I spent way too much of my own life following the sad life of Jude St Francis and his friends and abusers and their dysfunctional lives. I lost so many hours in my life to this book that I will never get back. I am truly devastated. This is not even the most depressing book about a man called Jude. Never let this book fall into my hands again. Please, I beg you.
4. Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila – longlisted 2016
I’ll try to be quick with this one. It’s written in an experimental style. But an experiment that has previously been tried and has failed. The blurb implies the book is an antidote to the typical squalor, poverty and violence all too often ascribed to Africa literature and to Africa itself. This book is supposed to be different. But instead we get sleaziness by the bucket load. Lots of music, too. Modern day jazz. And references to writing. The plight of a writer trying to make a living. People drinking, dancing and abandoning themselves. I didn’t find myself being taken in. Didn’t feel attracted to these scenarios. Most of all, I really objected to one particularly annoying line, said over and over again by call girls: “Do you have the time”. Unfortunately, I had too much time for this book. I finished reading it, somehow, but only just. I wish I hadn’t had the time.
5. Welcome to Lagos by Chibundo Onuzo - 2017
This is an exception here. Everything I had seen and heard about this book was exciting. It was all over Brittle Paper and other African literature sites. The author is a genuine star. It seems wrong to not like her book. Makes me think I don’t know how to value contemporary African literature at all. I hate to reveal my lack of appreciation of this book, but I really did not get that much from it. The bustle of Lagos. Sure. An expose of corruption in Nigeria. Fine. A contemporary take on one of the worst aspects of government abuse of the people. I get it. But it was all a bit limited for me. The highlight was the criminal use of state education funds for genuine education projects, when initially the money had been stashed away by a greedy politician. That was quite clever. Otherwise, I found very little in the story to excite me. Hustle and bustle was not enough. At times, I’d say it came across as all rather humdrum. I’d quite like to give this story another chance, but I have lent it to a friend to take on holiday, and I think I said she could keep it, alas.
A historical extra:
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad - 1899
One other book I struggled with. Before reading An Image of Africa by Chinua Achebe (1975), a rebuttal of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, I read Conrad’s story.
I found this to be very tough read. At first I struggled to pick out what was so objectionable about Conrad’s description of Africa. The book was just not a very readable book. But on closer inspection, it really was as shocking as Achebe pointed out. This really is a colonial nightmare. Worse still, if that’s possible, it’s about a man who transports ivory for a living. An exploration of what constitutes barbarianism and civilisation, with no sense of self-awareness or appreciation of others, and unconstrained levels of ignorance.
This list may startle some. Connected Cultures is normally a portal for positive reviews – articles and features on people, things, and events that I like or admire or respect. Just this once, I have felt moved to write about things that have troubled me this year. Books that I really have not appreciated. I intend no animosity towards the authors. I accept that we cannot enjoy every book ever written. I just feel that I have spent rather too much time on some of these, and I cannot lose my opinion that they are much too highly valued in prize competition circles and beyond.
My advice to myself: Choose more wisely next time. Seek personal recommendations rather than book industry hyperbole.
See the Connect Cultures feature: My Year in Books 2017
See the Connected Cultures feature: Happy New Reading Year 2018
© Eddie Hewitt 2017