THE 2018 MAN BOOKER PRIZE SHORTLIST BOOKS AT THE FIELD

Every year around this time, the Man Booker prize committee selects the shortlist for the prestigious award, considered to be THE prize for high quality literary fiction published in the English language.  The prize itself will be awarded on October 16, so watch this space for the winner. In the meantime, if you’d like to sample what the committee believes to be the best of the best, you’re in luck, because all of the shortlist nominees that are available in the United States are here at The Field Library (some of the books on the shortlist haven’t yet been published here).

The Mars Room, by Rachel Kushner, is about Romy Hall, a woman starting the first of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility in California, as a result of her killing a man who had been stalking her with increasing dangerousness.  Her lawyer was incompetent and she basically didn’t stand a chance of acquittal or even of a lesser sentence, so here she is, cut off from her former life and from her 7 year old child whom she probably will never see again. In the place of the world of San Francisco, her life of strip clubs and drugs, she’s now faced with a new society in prison, with the society and rules created and enforced by her fellow prisoners and her guards, and she has to do whatever she can to survive.  The book is narrated by many different voices (including that of the unabomber, and that of Romy’s stalker), which, together with its subject matter, makes is anything but an easy read, but Romy’s bitter reality is a terrific perspective for examining our whole justice system, our sense of crime and punishment.

In some ways, The Overstory, by Richard Powers, is the opposite of The Mars Room.  This book focuses on the outdoor world, specifically the world of trees and the people who interact with trees, but in the breadth of its characters and scenes and the vastness of its interconnectedness, it’s a good match for the vividness of The Mars Room.  I’ve already written about this book here, and if you haven’t checked it out yet, this would be a good time to do so.

The newest book to reach the shortlist is Washington Black, by the Canadian author Esi Edugyan. It just came out in September (last week, in fact), and it is an audacious historical novel about a boy born in slavery in Barbados in 1820’s Barbados, who becomes the assistant to an eccentric naturalist and explorer, and, as a result, manages to escape his background and discover his own unique artistic talents. It’s partly an adventure story (Wash, as he’s known, flies in a hot air balloon, a thing nearly unimaginable to him, and finds his way across the United States and even to the Arctic), but it’s also partly and more seriously a look at slavery and racism, a coming of age for a young man with extraordinary abilities and talents who will always be restricted from getting credit for his achievements because of his race. If you steer away from literary fiction or Man Booker Prize winners because you’re reluctant to deal with the narrative tricks and techniques many of them display (like Lincoln in the Bardo, with its confusing multiple voices), you should definitely read Washington Black.

It’s possible that none of these three will be the winner; there are three other books on the shortlist which aren’t available anywhere in the U.S. yet (though if a book wins the prize, odds are it will be published here in the near future), and one of them might win the prize.  Even so, you can have the pleasure of checking out some of the books the Man Booker committee feels are the best ones written in English this year.

 

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THE NOT SO LITTLE MERMAN: MERMAID BOYS

The high concept or logline description of Yomi Sarachi’s Mermaid Boys would be: imagine The Little Mermaid (either the original Hans Christian Andersen version or the Disney version) with the genders reversed.  

And there are a certain number of similarities between the two stories: in both versions there’s a member of the mermaid royal family who’s fascinated by the world of the humans, much to the chagrin of the rest of the royal family and the society.  In both versions there’s a human of the opposite sex who falls into the water and is nearly drowned, and the royal mermaid/merman saves the human’s life. In both cases, the human wakes after the mer-person is gone, and a human being of the mer-person’s gender appears to take the credit for the rescue.  In both, the mer-person makes a deal with an undersea magic-worker to become human for a time, at a cost which the mer-person pays, and then the mer-person has to win the heart of the person she or he saved.

However, despite all these similarities, Mermaid Boys is NOT merely a manga version of the popular story with the genders reversed.  This series is doing something more subversive and more interesting and, having read the first volume, I am now eager to continue with the series and see where the author goes with the characters.

Prince Naru, our protagonist, is the epitome of a privileged, even spoiled, royal at the outset of the story.  He’s gorgeous and knows it, he’s accustomed to getting all the attention for whatever he does, and he doesn’t even seem to realize that he is privileged.  He takes his good looks and the adoration of the mermaids for granted, to the point of being rude to the mermaids his parents parade before him as potential brides.  And while the traditional telling of the story would allow this kind of arrogant privilege to go more or less unnoticed, the twist the author gives to Naru’s deal with Mellow, the sea Sorcerer, brings his privilege front and center.  

Mellow offers Naru the Little Mermaid deal: you give me your voice and I’ll turn you human, but Naru has more sense than the Little Mermaid, immediately pointing out that if he can’t communicate with the girl of his dreams, there’s no way he can get her to fall in love with him.  Magic has to be paid for, of course, so Naru has to sacrifice something to get his human legs, and when Mellow offers to take Naru’s “hotness” in exchange for turning him into a human, Naru takes him up on it, only to discover, when he’s a human being, that he is no longer the gorgeous creature all the women flock to.  This is a big surprise for him, and part of the humor of the story is his trying to come to terms with his lack of status as a human being.

The other major and interesting difference between this and the classic story is the role of the beloved human.  When we first see Nami, the girl of his affections, we see her through his eyes and she is your classic manga young girl, all big eyes and long legs and long hair, cute and innocent, so we can be excused for assuming she’s as ditzy as she looks. However, and this is a big however, she is in fact a modern young woman, and she reacts to Naru’s inappropriate attempts to make her fall in love with him (which involve him throwing himself at her when he’s naked and calling her his “mermaid” and referring to her as his future wife before he even knows her name) the way a sensible young woman would: by screaming at him, calling him a pervert and throwing him away from her. He has to make her fall in love with him and he has no clue how to do it, not so much because he’s unused to being human as because he’s unused to having to earn anyone’s love.  Of course, she doesn’t know he’s a merman or that he was the one who saved her from drowning, but it’s still refreshing that she has enough sense of herself and her worth that she’s not going to fall in love with him at first sight, or even at repeated sights (since he’s staying in the inn she’s running). It’s going to be fun watching her react with jaundiced eye to his clumsy puppy dog efforts to win her.

The first volume of the series sets up the characters well, introducing complications into Naru’s situation (when he falls into salt water he turns back into a merman, he can’t tell anyone what he really is or he’ll turn into sea foam and disappear altogether, and there’s another boy who knows his secret and uses it to blackmail him into acting as a personal servant) while giving Naru opportunities to learn how to be a better person, and giving more and more depth to Nami. This is a lighter manga than other ones I’ve been reading lately, and I appreciate that, but I have the feeling there’s going to be some hidden depths here to balance the slapstick humor.

Whether or not you’re a fan of manga, if you’re familiar with The Little Mermaid and would like to see a different visioning of it, give Mermaid Boys a try, and you will be pleasantly surprised.

MYSTERIES INSIDE MYSTERIES: THE 7 1/2 DEATHS OF EVELYN HARDCASTLE

Just when you think the classic mystery has been done so many times, with so many variations, that there can’t be anything new to say about it, or any new way to present a whodunit, a new book comes along to surprise you.  Consider The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton, a surprising and fascinating take on the basic whodunit.

You have the basic elements: a house party at a fairly isolated place, a person killed at the end of the night, 1920’s era with all the restrictions that implies (no internet, no cell phones, limited access to the outside world), a limited number of possible killers, all of them known to each other. You’ve seen this story dozens of times, only you’ve never seen it this way.

Aiden Bishop is repeating that day, that party, over and over again, each time in a different “host.” If he can solve the murder and find the murderer by the eighth repetition, he will be freed from the repeats. If not, he goes back to the first repetition and has to go through this again and again.  Each of the people he inhabits is a quirky individual, and not all of them are straightforward or truthful. What he finds out from one person is contradicted by another, and even though the events are the same every time he’s there, he sees things and understands things differently because of his different perspectives.

Oh, yes, and by the way, Aiden is not the only one being cycled through different hosts. There are two other people who are experiencing the same thing, and only one of the three of them can actually solve the murder and be freed, so there’s some competition going on among them.

There’s the murder mystery itself, there’s the bigger mystery of how this repetition is occurring, there’s a crazed footman who’s attacking the different hosts as well, and there’s all kinds of worlds within worlds, twists on top of twists.  If you’re the kind of person who loves a complex plot and a high concept, if you’re the type of person who wants a book you can’t put down, you owe it to yourself to read The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.

LIFE AND DEATH, IRISH STYLE

If you take a look at My Father’s Wake: How the Irish Teach Us to Live, Love and Die by Kevin Toolis, and you decide not to read it because you think it’s going to be very dark, somber, maybe even morbid, you are doing yourself and the book an injustice.  If you fixate on the notion of an Irish wake and you’re thinking of the stereotype of lots of noise and drunkenness, you’re also doing the book an injustice. This is a terrific, beautifully written book, the kind of book you want to read slowly so you can savor the gorgeous language, the music in the words that practically begs you to read it aloud, and the sense of place that comes across vividly.

It is a book that is suffused with death; Kevin’s father dies in the first chapter, and he also talks about his mother’s death, his brother’s premature death, and his own close brush with the Grim Reaper (his description of the ward where he stayed with elderly men suffering from tuberculosis is like something out of a creepy dream).  It is not, however, a morbid book, or even a depressing one.

Aside from bringing to life a life lived on the very western edge of Ireland, a place that seemed as remote to me as the far end of the world, but that becomes as real and alive to me as my own neighborhood (though a lot more beautiful and raw), Toolis’ book aims to bring his readers face to face with the fact of death, to force us to step away from the whole westernized way of denying death by embalming and funeral homes and all the distancing rituals of death.  The simple rituals of death in rural Irish communities seem very foreign to me — the people wandering in and out of the dying person’s cottage, the vigil that people keep in the room where the body is laid out for a day and a night after the death, the family and friends digging the grave themselves and carrying out the body to the grave themselves. But at the same time, there’s something really warm and inviting about these rituals, and Toolis makes me think about how valuable it would be to have that kind of community around you at such crucial moments.  He also made me think about what we’ve lost in moving away from that kind of intimacy with death.

It’s a gorgeous read, one you want to read aloud so you can taste the poetic language and breathe in the salt air of his home island.  It’s not a memoir, exactly, nor is it exactly a sociological or anthropological study of a culture that’s different from ours. It’s worth reading, however close or far you might be from your own encounter with a loved one’s death.

RETURN TO WORLD WAR II IN FRANCE: THE NIGHTINGALE, THE FIELD NOTES BOOK GROUP’S NEXT SELECTION

After a scintillating discussion of The Feather Thief this past Saturday, raising questions about privilege and justice and obsessions, both those of the characters and the obsession of the book’s author, the Field Notes Book Group chose the book for October, 2018: The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah.

This long term bestselling book, a big favorite of book groups throughout the library system, follows the lives of two sisters, Viann and Isabelle, during World War II era France.  Viann, who had been living in Paris before the war, is sent to live with her sister and her sister’s daughter in the quiet French countryside when Isabelle’s husband is called up to fight at the front.  While the two sisters are very different in personality, they pull together in the crisis, only to discover that their new life during the occupation will test both of them, their sense of right and wrong, and their relationship with each other, in ways neither one of them could have dreamed of beforehand. A vivid portrait of the other side of World War II, with the kind of fully realized characters Kristin Hannah is known for.

Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk this week.  Our next meeting will be on Saturday, October 20, from 11:00 to 12:30 in The Field Library Gallery, and, as usual, we can promise snacks and coffee and lively discussion, so come in and join us.  

RETURN TO THE TROJAN WAR: THE SILENCE OF THE GIRLS

In the vein of Madeline Miller’s Circe, which looked at The Odyssey from the point of view of Circe, Pat Barker, a former winner of the Booker Prize, takes a different perspective on the Trojan War, and especially the events of The Iliad, in her newest book, The Silence of the Girls.

The protagonist of The Silence of the Girls is Briseis, who had been the queen of one of Troy’s neighboring cities before the Greeks attacked and sacked the city.  Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, not only led the destruction of the city but also murdered its king, Briseis’ husband, and all her brothers.  She herself was taken by Achilles as his concubine, to be a prize of war. The change in her life was radical, but Briseis had to adjust, as did so many of her fellow women in and around Troy, to the changing fortunes of war.  

Becoming Achilles’ concubine was difficult enough, but then Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces, demanded Briseis be turned over to him (to make up for his having to give back the daughter of a priestess of Apollo, which Agamemnon only did because Apollo sent a plague to the Greek camp as punishment) . The conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles over Briseis led to the events of The Iliad, in which Achilles stayed in his tent, refusing to lend his men or his prowess to the Greek efforts because of Agamemnon’s attack on his honor (as he saw it).  Briseis was in a unique position, able to observe the conflict from both sides, even as she’s seen as a prize, an object to be bartered back and forth, and not a human being with thoughts and desires of her own.

The book is unsparing; all the brutal stuff that’s left out of The Iliad or only referred to in passing is depicted in pitiless detail here.  This is war, and people are slaughtered before your eyes, as her family members were slaughtered before Briseis’ eyes. Women are raped, women are enslaved, women witness their children being murdered.  You should be aware, going in, that this book is not going to whitewash any of that.

But you get to see Achilles and Agamemnon and all the other “heroes” of the Greek story as the complex and often brutal people they were.  It’s a version of the story that makes it clear there are no “good guys” and no “villains,” because the men on both sides of the war were both.

Whether or not you’ve read The Iliad recently (like in the last decade) or your only familiarity with the story is through the Brad Pitt movie Troy, you’ll be able to follow the plot of this book and feel with Briseis the tragedy of war from the point of view of the people who are not making the decisions but suffering their consequences.

A BIZARRE DETECTIVE, A BIZARRE CASE, LOTS OF FUN

I knew I liked Edgar Cantero ever since I read his Meddling Kids, but I also knew, from that book, that (a) for him, nothing is sacred, and (b) what he writes is going to be a little off the wall (or a lot off the wall).  So I was eager, but prepared, for his latest book, This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us.

This is apparently a good year for parodies of the hard boiled detective novel; earlier we had Noir, by Christopher Moore, and a funny, warped book that was, and now we have Cantero’s contribution.  As a strict parody, using all or most of the elements of the genre, Noir is a better bet, but for sheer wackiness and a willingness to really go off the wall, the edge goes to This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us, if only because of the absolutely unique private detective who’s the protagonist of the book.  Or should I say, private detectives who are the protagonists of the book, because AZ Kimrean, our private eye, is actually two people in the same body, a left-brained male named Adrian, and a right brained female named Zoe.  

The explanation for how these two beings exist in one body is kind of sketchy, but you have to just suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride.  Adrian is the Sherlock Holmes type character, all intellect, no heart, brilliant but limited in his dealings with human beings. Zoe, by contrast, drinks and chases men and women, is intuitive and good with people though a bit disorganized. They’ve spent a certain amount of time in various mental institutions (it took a while before someone finally figured out that Adrian wasn’t just arguing with hallucinations, for instance), and they don’t really work together all that well, but half the fun of the book is watching the two of them apply their own unique abilities and perspectives to the case before them.

The plot is complicated, but basically it involves a California crime family whose members are being killed off, possibly by members of another cartel or possibly by someone else.  There’s an undercover FBI officer who calls in Kimrean for help, and there are all kinds of twists and turns and oddities, including Ursula, the young daughter of the leader of the crime family (one of my favorite characters, actually; at one point I seriously thought she might be the murderer, too), a ninja assassin, the question of whether a particular flower is a rose or a chrysanthemum and the like.

From time to time, Adrian knocks out Zoe so he can manage to concentrate on the issues before him without her distracting presence, and I have to say I was pleased when she finally turned the tables on him, though her method of solving the case was hair-raising and incredibly dangerous to all concerned.

This is not the sort of mystery where you can see all the clues and try to outsmart the private eyes, because while Cantero plays fair (mostly), the focus isn’t on the actual way the mystery is solved but on how the characters interact (or don’t).  That said, I was surprised (but not annoyed, as I would be if the solution came completely out of left field) at the identity of the assassin and the reason for the murders, and the ending was quite satisfying, too (a hard thing to achieve these days, as far as I can see).

So if you don’t mind a certain amount of weirdness and violence (not Jo Nesbo level, but there are murders and attempted murders and a lot of people getting punched and knocked out and the like), and you have a taste for a very different take on the classic private eye novel, check out This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us.

MERCHANTS, COURTESANS AND 18TH CENTURY ENGLAND: THE MERMAID AND MRS. HANCOCK

If you’re in the mood for an intriguing historical novel that peers into all the shadowy places of England in the early stages of the British Empire, and that brings to life characters you don’t ordinarily encounter in historical fiction, then take a look at The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowen, a debut novel that will take you to a different world.

Jonah Hancock is a prosperous merchant in 1780’s London.  One night he’s startled to learn that one of his ship’s captains has sold the entire ship (without Hancock’s knowledge or consent, of course) in order to buy something unique: a mermaid.  When the captain shows Jonah the “mermaid” in question, it’s not what he expects (nor what we expect): instead of a beautiful woman with the tail of a fish, it’s a dead creature, the size of a baby, brown, with scary teeth and claws and a fish tail.  Since he can’t get back his ship, Jonah makes the best of what he’s got, and decides to charge people to come and look at his mermaid.

His mermaid becomes a sensation, and he is invited to display it at a very exclusive house run by one Mrs. Chappell. What he doesn’t realize until after he’s brought his mermaid there is that this is a house of prostitution (one of many things he’s never had any experiences with before).

Angelica Neal is a beautiful and desirable woman, sophisticated in the ways of a certain segment of London society.  She is in fact a courtesan who, until very recently, was the mistress of a rich man who died and made no provision for her after his death.  That’s not an unusual situation for someone in Angelica’s position, but it does put her in a position where she needs to make a change and take care of herself when she meets Jonah and his mermaid.

While Jonah is a fairly traditional and strait laced sort of man, ultimately he ends up marrying Angelica, and even hunting for a real mermaid for her, as the book takes a slight turn into magical realism (from the realism that fills the rest of the book).

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock has been compared to the works of Charles Dickens, and, for a more recent example, of Sarah Waters, for its large cast of fascinating characters and its  immersive rendering of the world of late 18th century England.  Take a vacation from the 21st century in the very capable hands of Imogen 

A DIFFERENT KIND OF URBAN FANTASY: TRAIL OF LIGHTNING

There are certain kinds of things that come to mind when you hear the term “urban fantasy”: usually a heroine who’s kind of kick-ass strong, a world beneath and/or alongside our accepted reality, various kinds of supernatural beings, often fae or werewolves (or other kinds of were’s) or vampires. The protagonist gets involved with these supernatural beings, sometimes antagonistically and sometimes in a friendlier way, and that turns the plot.  Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse, is a different kind of urban fantasy (though it does share the strong heroine archetype), because it’s set in a post-apocalyptic world in which the survivors are the Navajo people of the Southwest.

Intrigued already?  It gets better. The backstory is that there was a terrific flood, caused by massive global climate change, and one of the only places left is Dinetah, formerly the Navajo reservation. Gods and heroes walk the earth, but there are also monsters from the oldest Navajo legends.  People inherit great powers depending on the clans into which they were born, and technology is fading quickly.

Our protagonist,  Maggie Hoskie, is one of those gifted people.  She’s a supernaturally talented monster hunter and killer, so when a girl goes missing and other methods fail, the people of the girl’s home town call upon Maggie to find her.  Of course, it turns out that there’s more going on than one missing person, and the forces arrayed against Maggie are sufficiently serious that she finds herself working with Kai Arviso, a young medicine man, and the two of them start digging into old legends for clues, exchanging favors with trickster gods, and running into old friends and enemies from Maggie’s past, just to make things more complicated.

If you’re one of those people who’s interested in more diverse reading, or if you’re getting bored of the same old monsters and vampires and creatures of northern European folklore, check out Trail of Lightning, and get a taste of a very different, unique and fascinating world of fantasy.  

SCANNING A CENTURY: NEW HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD FOR SEPTEMBER

When it comes to historical fiction, there are so many different periods you can experience, and three new books that just arrived at The Field Library will give you diverse and fascinating views into the past.

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, by Sarah Bird, shows us an aspect of African American history we don’t often see. Based on a true story, it starts in pre-Civil War Missouri, where Cathy Williams has been taught by her mother to never see herself as a slave, but as a prisoner, the daughter of a daughter of a queen in Africa, a warrior who is destined by her blood to escape her captivity. With that attitude, she joins the service of Union General Philip Sheridan, and, by the end of the war, makes the momentous decision that she’s not going back to servitude.  She disguises herself as a man and joins the U.S. Army’s Buffalo Soldiers. She knows what would be likely to happen to her if her deception is discovered by her fellow soldiers, so in addition to the dangers that come with being a soldier in general, and fighting Native Americans on the frontier in particular, she has to navigate the dangers of keeping her gender a secret, and at the same time, she’s looking for her mother and sister, from whom she was separated when she left the farm in Missouri. Cathy is a real heroine, a woman who won’t let anyone get in the way of her doing what she needs to do, and if you’re in the mood for a wild ride through late 19th century American history, then you should check out Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen.

Moving ahead in time, The Glass Ocean, written by Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White, turns on the fatal last voyage of the RMS Lusitania.  The book twines the life of a woman in the present day with the lives of two women who were on the Lusitania in 1915.  Sarah Blake opens a locked chest belonging to her great grandfather, who died in the German attack on the Lusitania, and discovers a secret that might change history.  She travels to England to meet up with a disgraced Member of Parliament whose family archives might have a clue that will clear up the mystery. Back in 1915, two very different women are traveling on the ill-fated Lusitania.  One, Caroline Hochstetter, took the voyage to try to re-spark her marriage with her industrialist husband, only to meet up with an old friend (the ancestor of the Member of Parliament Sarah is meeting with in the present time) who’s causing her to re-evaluate her whole life and decide whether to change everything.  The other woman, Tennessee Schaff, is masquerading as an English lady returning home; she’s a con woman pulling what her partner claims is one last scam before they can retire, but she feels there’s something wrong with this scam, and with her partner, something he’s not telling her. The three lives intertwine, with the tragedy of the Lusitania looming large over all their fates.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris, takes us into the darkest days of World War II. Lale Sokolov is a Slovakian Jew transported to Auschwitz.  When the Nazis discover he speaks numerous languages, they put him to work as a tattooist for all the incoming prisoners. Imprisoned there for two and a half years, Lale is witness to the worst of human behavior, and some of its brightest moments.  He figures out ways to exchange jewels and money from murdered Jews to get food to keep others from starving to death, risking his own life (and his privileged position in the camp) to do so. He meets a fellow prisoner, Gita, and while he’s tattooing her number, he falls in love with her and determines that he’s going to survive and make sure she survives so they can escape the camp and marry.  Based on a true story, The Tattooist of Auschwitz gives us a different view into the horrors of the Holocaust, and the human will to survive and love even in the darkest times.