Friday, August 01, 2014

Man Booker Goes Global

After a too-long hiatus, I’m re-entering the RPL blogosphere to write about books and reading, using my “What Are You Reading?” tag. One of my first posts (in 2010!) was about the Man Booker prize, so it seems appropriate to start out with it this time around as well.

The short list for Great Britain’s Man Booker Prize has always been one of my favorite sources for must-read literary fiction.  Since 1968, the award has been for books written in English by a citizen of The United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland, but beginning in 2014 it is open to any book written in English and published in the United Kingdom.  Included in the long list of 13 novels released last week are four by Americans, all available at RPL.

You may remember that RPL librarians nominated Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves for the “other” prestigious European literary prize, the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The Man Booker judges agree with us. You may have already read our enthusiastic endorsement, but it bears repeating here:
“Equal parts funny and heartbreaking, Karen Joy Fowler's sixth novel "starts in the middle" and takes the reader back to the murky world of 1970s behavioral psychology experiments through the unreliable memories of a young woman recalling a childhood trauma that drastically altered her and her family.  The novel deftly explores ethics, memory, animal rights issues, and the meaning of family.  With a knockout twist that the author masterfully conceals, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a breathless joy to read.”

Orfeo, by Richard Powers, was blurbed by its publisher as a “man on the run” thriller, perhaps in a commercial appeal to a wider American audience than Powers, author of the 2006 National Book Award winner, The Echo Maker, usually attracts. Peter Els is a 70-year-old composer, retired and largely forgotten. He has the idea that musical patterns can be encoded into the DNA of a bacterium, is mistaken for a bioterrorist by an overzealous Homeland Security Department, and becomes a fugitive.  But this premise is only an excuse: Orfeo is a novel about music and its transcendent possibilities.  Told largely in flashbacks that relate Els’s personal relationships (with his first lover, his ex-wife, a friend and collaborator, and his daughter) as well as his very personal relationship with music, the novel is also an exploration of 20th century music, from Mahler to Steve Reich and beyond. (I found his long descriptive passages of various works best read and and then re-read while listening to the works themselves, which I found on YouTube and in the library.) You don’t have to be a music lover to enjoy Orfeo, but if you’re looking for the thriller promised on the flap, you will be disappointed.

Art is also at the heart (and soul) of Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, my favorite of the four and the best book I have read yet this year.  Like Peter Els, Harriet Burden is an aging artist, also largely ignored and forgotten. Her assemblages received little critical attention in the art world, and her career as an artist was overshadowed by her role as the wife of a famous New York art dealer.  “Harry”, bitter and disillusioned, is convinced that were she a man her art would have received the attention and acclaim it deserves. Following her husband’s death, she tests this hypothesis by undertaking a trilogy of installations and presenting them as the work of three different male artists, who agree to the ruse for their own purposes, and with tragic results. Hustvedt’s ekphrasis* is as successful as Powers’s; her vivid descriptions of Harry’s works are richly imagined and fully convincing. If Orfeo’s structure is a symphony in four movements, The Blazing World is an assemblage of disparate materials -- journal entries, critical reviews, press releases, correspondence and interviews -- collected by an art historian after Harry’s death. Stay with it: the first 50 to 75 pages baffled me, but the compelling heroine and Hustvedt’s piercingly intelligent prose had me fully entranced and engaged thereafter.

Which brings us to Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Its first 50 to 75 pages were full of laugh-out-loud promise, but I was completely baffled and fully disengaged by its end.  Paul O’Rourke, a middle-aged dentist in New York City, is a lonely atheist in search of a religious tradition. He’s also a die-hard Red Sox fan, and a Luddite who despises “me-machines” (smart phones) and social media.  O’Rourke is alarmed to discover that someone has created not only a Facebook page for his practice, but an online persona who espouses the beliefs of an obscure sect (the Ulms) whose origins are described in a lost Old Testament book (the Cantaveticles) and whose fundamental tenet is doubting God’s existence.  Got all that?  The novel’s comic beginnings meander into long-winded pseudo-biblical discourse and angst-ridden rumination. I kept reading, but by the time I finished what had become an entirely different book from the one I had begun, I was questioning my own faith in the author’s promise.

Whatever I may have thought of the last, hats off to the Man Booker judges for recognizing this vibrant collection of American literary voices in their first global long list.

* What a great vocabulary word, and where better to use it than a library blog??


Meldon said...

Welcome back, Ellen!

Mary Reeves said...

Your descriptions tempt me to read - or try to read in the last case - them all.