BOOK REVIEW | The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner | Man Booker Prize 2018

3/5 stars

All of them were people who suffered and along the way of their suffering they made others suffer.

In this powerful novel about women in prison, Rachel Kushner touches on both issues within the correctional system, and the cycle of poverty and addiction that often leads women there. More than once, correctional officers allude to the women’s poor choices in life that led them to an existence under lock and key, with no regard for the circumstances which may have contributed to their crimes. An added layer of depth would have been beneficial here, as I feel in many ways this book only scratched the surface on this complex topic.

The story is focused on Romy Hall and the inmates she encounters while serving two consecutive life sentences at the Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility. We get a picture of Romy’s life before prison through recounts of her youth in San Fransisco, her drug use, and her experiences working as an erotic dancer at The Mars Room. I liked this book, and found many scenes to be especially powerful; Romy’s relationship with, and separation from, her son was the most affecting for me. Romy is not forgiven of her crime by Kushner, she murdered the man who was stalking her. Rather, we examine how Romy’s socioeconomic status may have led her to such a place.

There are many timelines and perspectives at play, which occasionally made for a disjointed read. I can only describe my relationship to Romy and the other characters as distant – there was a lack of emotional connection at work. I think focusing a little less on certain secondary characters, and honing in more on Romy’s emotional journey would have kicked this book up a notch for me. Romy seeps ennui about her life and crime, and it’s only when she realizes her son may be alone on the outside that we feel the retching pain that she must endure. An interesting addition to the Man Booker list, and a valuable read for those who have an interest in the mentioned topics.

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BOOK REVIEW | Snap by Belinda Bauer | Man Booker Prize 2018

5/5 stars

What a journey! This was a a fantastic crime read that packed an emotional punch in its last few lines. If you enjoy police procedurals and are looking for a unique story, this is a must-read. For readers that want to try the genre and are uncomfortable with the vast amounts of graphic violence in most crime novels (not me), this will satisfy as well.

Jack, Joy, and Merry are waiting by the side of the road in their broken down car: their mother had gone to call for help and would be back soon. An hour passes, and the kids decide go searching for her, unaware that they would never see her again – she was found stabbed to death days later. Three years pass, and the kids are living alone in their family’s house having slipped through all the cracks in the system.

Jack, the eldest at 14, turns to burglary to take care of his sisters. When he thinks he discovers a key to his mother’s death, he takes an unconventional approach to get the police to re-open the investigation. Meanwhile, a pregnant lady named Catherine, experiences a home invasion while her husband is away for work. These two narratives play out simultaneously, seemingly unrelated. Their stories, however, will soon collide.

There were a few elements that didn’t work for me; a secondary character named Smooth Louis, for example. He’s a mentor to Jack / petty criminal who is obsessed with removing all hair from his body. He’s always shaving it away, but we have no idea why. It’s never explained and his character doesn’t go anywhere. I’m all for weird for the sake of weird, but it just didn’t make sense in this book. Secondly, Bauer likes to call everyone fat. I can’t tell you how many times in this book her characters are described as fat and disgusting – it was a bit much. I’m sure there are more creative ways to describe someone’s size.

I sort of wanted to give this book 4 stars, but it was so damn addictive that I have to give it 5. This was an incredibly interesting choice for the Man Booker longlist – it’a an excellent crime read and I’m curious as to why the judges decided to include this genre into the prize for 2018. Looking forward to reading more of the longlist next!

BOOK REVIEW | The Sellout by Paul Beatty | Man Booker 2016 Shortlist Selection

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Paul Beatty’s The Sellout showcases a comic genius at the top of his game. A biting satire about a young man’s isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court, it challenges the sacred tenets of the United States Constitution, urban life, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and the holy grail of racial equality—the black Chinese restaurant.

Born in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens—on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles—the narrator of The Sellout resigns himself to the fate of lower-middle-class Californians: “I’d die in the same bedroom I’d grown up in, looking up at the cracks in the stucco ceiling that’ve been there since ’68 quake.” Raised by a single father, a controversial sociologist, he spent his childhood as the subject in racially charged psychological studies. He is led to believe that his father’s pioneering work will result in a memoir that will solve his family’s financial woes, but when his father is killed in a police shoot-out, he realizes there never was a memoir. All that’s left is the bill for a drive-thru funeral.

Fueled by this deceit and the general disrepair of his hometown, the narrator sets out to right another wrong: Dickens has literally been removed from the map to save California from further embarrassment. Enlisting the help of the town’s most famous resident—the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins—he initiates the most outrageous action conceivable: reinstating slavery and segregating the local high school, which lands him in the Supreme Court.

My thoughts:
I sit in a thickly padded chair that, not unlike this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks. 

I hated this book. I mean, I did initially. The entire first chapter was just too much for me: outrageous and over the top, and I couldn’t yet see it’s purpose. Who does Paul Beatty think he is? This book is ridiculous! After all, this is a story about a black man reinstating slavery to save his home town.

I continued reading, however, and then I got angry. When the narrator’s father dies at the hands of the police, I let out the long breath I had been holding. This book is so important and so relevant to what is going in America right now. I’m half black and a very proud Canadian, but I have black relatives living in American that I worry about. Whenever I turn on the news to see a young black man lying dead in the streets I think about my cousin, my uncle. Something must change.

While this book is mean to provoke, to engage, to enrage, it also contains moments of clarity and joy. These two quotes made me laugh out loud:

How come there aren’t any African-American mermaids?  Because black women hate to get their hair wet.

I’m so fucking tied of black women always being described by their skin tones! Honey-colored this! Dark-chocolate that! My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, café-au-lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown!

There isn’t much I can say about this The Sellout that hasn’t already been said, and it’s incredibly difficult to comment on satire, but this book worked for me. Paul Beatty has an MFA in creative writing and a MA in psychology, and I can feel the depth of his education in these pages. The Sellout is both wildly imaginative and incredibly smart.

If you’re struggling to get into this book, try it out on audio! The audio helped me get into it, and I picked up the book shortly after.

BOOK REVIEW | The North Water by Ian McGuire | 2016 Man Booker Long List

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4.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
A 19th-century whaling ship sets sail for the Arctic with a killer aboard in this dark, sharp and highly original tale that grips like a thriller.    

Behold the man: stinking, drunk, brutal and bloodthirsty, Henry Drax is a harpooner on the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaling ship bound for the hunting waters of the Arctic Circle. Also aboard is Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon with a shattered reputation, no money and no better option than to embark as ship’s medic on this ill-fated voyage.    

In India during the Siege of Delhi, Sumner thought he had experienced the depths to which a man can stoop and imagined he’d find respite on the Volunteer, but now, trapped in the wooden belly of the ship with Drax, he encounters pure evil and is forced to act. As the true purposes of the expedition become clear, the confrontation between the two men plays out in the freezing darkness of an Arctic winter.

My thoughts:
“Their world is hard enough, they think, without the added burden of moral convolution.”

I really love books about bleak landscapes such as John Irving’s the Last Night in Twisted River or Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, and now I can add the North Water to the list.

This is the tale of the men aboard the whaling ship, the Volunteer. All of these men are foul in their own ways, but this story focuses primarily on Drax, a harpooner, and Sumner, a drug addicted medic. From the realities of survival on a whaling ship, to the descriptions of the violent cold, the North Water is beautifully crafted.

This book is brutal and vile, but it works because the writing is so damn good and the story is incredibly engaging. This is my top pick (so far!) for the Man Booker 2016 award.

BOOK REVIEW | Hot Milk by Deborah Levy | 2016 Man Booker Long List

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3.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Sofia, a young anthropologist, has spent much of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s unexplainable illness. She is frustrated with Rose and her constant complaints, but utterly relieved to be called to abandon her own disappointing fledgling adult life. She and her mother travel to the searing, arid coast of southern Spain to see a famous consultant–their very last chance–in the hope that he might cure her unpredictable limb paralysis.

But Dr. Gomez has strange methods that seem to have little to do with physical medicine, and as the treatment progresses, Sofia’s mother’s illness becomes increasingly baffling. Sofia’s role as detective–tracking her mother’s symptoms in an attempt to find the secret motivation for her pain–deepens as she discovers her own desires in this transient desert community.

“Hot Milk” is a profound exploration of the sting of sexuality, of unspoken female rage, of myth and modernity, the lure of hypochondria and big pharma, and, above all, the value of experimenting with life; of being curious, bewildered, and vitally alive to the world.

My thoughts:
This book is certainly not going to be for everyone, but I really enjoyed it. Levy has crafted a delicate story with a rich cultural landscape – it’s easy to get lost in this one. Sofia is both easy to admire and easy to dislike; ultimately, I am rooting for her happiness. As a fellow anthropologist, I can relate to her struggle to find her space in the world, as well as her affinity for analyzing those around her.

Oh, and the unruly curly hair, I can relate to that too.

This would make a great last minute summer read, or a winter read when you feel the need to get away.

BOOK REVIEW | My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout | 2016 Man Booker Long List

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2/5 stars

From the publisher:
Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for many years, comes to see her. Gentle gossip about people from Lucy’s childhood in Amgash, Illinois, seems to reconnect them, but just below the surface lie the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of Lucy’s life: her escape from her troubled family, her desire to become a writer, her marriage, her love for her two daughters. Knitting this powerful narrative together is the brilliant storytelling voice of Lucy herself: keenly observant, deeply human, and truly unforgettable.

My thoughts:
I generally love books about the human condition, and have no problem at all with stories that are slow to build and are subtle in their intent. That said, something was missing for me with this one. It was so close to being a book I really loved! I wanted to see Lucy and her mother go just a little bit deeper, I was waiting for that breakthrough. There were some lovely moments, but it missed the mark for me. Strout definitely has amazing insights and I will probably pick up some of her other works soon.

BOOK REVIEW | Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh | 2016 Man Booker Long List

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

3/5 stars

From the publisher:
The Christmas season offers little cheer for Eileen Dunlop, an unassuming yet disturbed young woman trapped between her role as her alcoholic father’s caretaker in a home whose squalor is the talk of the neighborhood and a day job as a secretary at the boys’ prison, filled with its own quotidian horrors. Consumed by resentment and self-loathing, Eileen tempers her dreary days with perverse fantasies and dreams of escaping to the big city. In the meantime, she fills her nights and weekends with shoplifting, stalking a buff prison guard named Randy, and cleaning up her increasingly deranged father’s messes. When the bright, beautiful, and cheery Rebecca Saint John arrives on the scene as the new counselor at Moorehead, Eileen is enchanted and proves unable to resist what appears at first to be a miraculously budding friendship. In a Hitchcockian twist, her affection for Rebecca ultimately pulls her into complicity in a crime that surpasses her wildest imaginings.

My thoughts:
Eileen, you strange little bird. This is the sort of book that makes you feel itchy while reading it, it’s just so vile. This is a quick and entertaining read, with a disturbing conclusion. I liked it, and will likely look for other books my Moshfegh in the future – no doubt her voice is unique!