Category Archives: Orange Prize for Fiction

A Visit from the Goon Squad – Jennifer Egan – 3/10

“Time’s a goon, right? Isn’t that the expression?”

As I find myself completely unable to understand this book, the summary comes from the back cover:

A Visit from the Goon Squad vividly captures the moments where lives interact, and where fortunes ebb and flow. Egan depicts with elegant prose and often heart-wrenching simplicity, the sad consequences for those who couldn’t fake it during their wild youth – madness, suicide or prison – in this captivating, wryly humorous story of temptation and loss.

I’ve seen at least 20 great reviews of this book (linked at the bottom of this page), and I know it’s been short-listed for a gazillion prizes and won quite a few of them (NBCC 2010, Pulitzer 2011, longlisted for Orange 2011), and I just don’t get it.

The characters are certainly vivid – Sasha, the kleptomaniac; Bennie, the sad middle-aged producer who seems intent on giving himself and his son heavy metal poisoning; La Doll, the misfortunate publicist extraordinaire and Lulu her daughter… but they were all unlikeable and unsympathetic – so set on being different, being “those who couldn’t fake it”. I didn’t want any of them to get out of their predicaments, I didn’t feel sorry for any of them.

The way Egan weaves these interlinked short stories together, moving back and forth through time and characters and media (including the now infamous Powerpoint chapter, 75 Powerpoint slides of Sasha’s daughter’s thoughts – I thought it was actually rather good, certainly unusual and absorbing), is clever and I like the idea (much as I enjoyed the linked vignettes of One Day). I just wish she’d used more likeable characters. Plot is near to non-existent – just some miserably parochial occurrences in the lives of the indifferent.

What did I miss that was so spectacular? So polarising? So prize-winning?

I do try to make a habit of linking to other reviews (otherwise why am I saving all the links?), but for this one I have split out the lovers and the haters.

The fans:

Fleur Fisher; Ready When You Are, C.B.; Literary Musings; Buried in Print; The New Dork Review of Books; Teadevotee; London Review of Books; Just William’s Luck; The Reading Ape; Hungry Like the Woolf; Sandi at You’ve GOTTA Read This; NPR; TIME magazine (Top 10 fiction books of 2010); Dorothy at Of Books and Bicycles; The Mookse and the Gripes; Keep Calm and Read a Book

The unconvinced:

JoV at Bibliojunkie; Simon at Savidge Reads; Verity; Kevin From Canada; John Self

(the ‘aye’s seem to have it.)

Other:

A profile at Beatrice.com; a spot of autocorrecting at Like Fire; interview of Egan after Goon Squad won the Pulitzer

Additional info:
Personal copy from Bookmooch.
Publisher: Corsair, paperback, 349 pages.
Order this from Amazon*
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – Marina Lewycka – 5/10

“You she-cat-dog-vixen-flesh-eating witch”

Nadezhka discovers that her 84-year-old father, recently bereaved, has become enamoured of a younger local Ukrainian woman and decided to marry her to save her from deportation. Nadezhka and her sister Vera attempt to set their father right, and when they are unable to do so, must watch the ensuing domestic mismatch. They rail against their stepmother with ever more inventive plots.

For a book that has won comedy prizes (Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize), this was bleakly un-humorous. I suspect that the comedy award was given on the strength of farcical descriptions – the image of Valentina tottering around the garden in her plastic high heels and heaving her enormous bosom about is quite funny, but the human tragedy of Nikolai’s situation, bereaved of a valued if not beloved wife, overwhelms the comedy.

The story of how the family came to England is actually a beautiful one and I wish it had been the centre piece of a very different novel. Similarly, the sisters’ petty heirloom battles and the attempts of the youngest generation to piece it together made for some interesting family drama.

Character development is cast aside in the pursuit of laughter – both sisters come across as embittered middle-aged women, Nikolai as a doddering old fool, a eminent (post-eminent?) engineer with incongruous fluctuations in his ability to make reasonable decisions, and Valentina as a witch with unclear motives. Perhaps my understanding of the Ukrainian emigrant psyche is insufficient to impose a pattern on Valentina’s behaviour – to me it appears cruel, haphazard and simply bizarre.

However, it can only be a condemnation of the relentless black comedy that I was willing the old man to die rather than endure any further nonsense from his daughters and partner.

Reviews by other bloggers: Jane of Reading, Writing, Working, Playing

Additional info:

 

This was one of two personal copies I had. I think I bought them both in Notting Hill.

 

Publisher: Penguin, paperback, 336 pages.

 

Order this from Amazon*

 

* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use this link, which goes towards giveaways.

 

 

 

Bel Canto – Ann Patchett – 9/10

“I was taught to love beautiful things. I had a language in which to consider beauty”

(from the blurb) Kidnappers storm an international gathering hosted by a poor Latin American country to promote trade. Unfortunately, their intended target, the President, has stayed home to watch his favourite soap. The takeover settles into a siege, bringing together an unlikely assortment of hostages.

I picked this up at my favourite cheap second-hand book haunt, the title and author both unfamiliar to me, on the strength of an Orange Prize victory in 2002 and that the plot involves an opera singer. I was encouraged to read it by Dorothy Of Books and Bicycles, Emily Brewer and Lizzy Siddal and was able to do so over Easter weekend at the in-laws’ in Edinburgh, mostly in front of a gas fire and under a fleecy blanket!

It wasn’t a terribly challenging read, but the farcical plot (initially unappealing) turned out to simply be a construct in order to bring together an eclectic and fascinating cast of characters. Patchett primarily gives the focus of the narrative to the translator, which is particularly appropriate as he is required for almost every character interaction. The multilingual setting seems unnecessary but actually limiting the characters’ communication in this situation where they are all physically confined together is rather clever as no mass interaction is possible, so we are treated to a story which stretches over several months but is told in vignettes and relationships rather than events.

Patchett has been careful with her characters and it shows. The soprano is un-stereotypically generous and sweet, not the diva we expect. The translator is a quiet, unassuming and invaluable man: “Gen was an extension, an invisible self”. The Vice President of the sorry little country is a wonderful character – on the verge of farce, but tender in his reminiscences of his time with his wife, and a dutiful host, continuing to clean and cook throughout the hostage situation. Carmen, the beautiful terrorist, is another shy, beautiful person in an unfortunate situation. Simon Thibault, the French ambassador usurped for the post of ambassador to Spain, loves his wife so single-mindedly – Patchett wrote some beautifully romantic lines for him.

The author must be multilingual or else she had access to a translator who had the rare skill of conveying what it is like to operate in multiple languages:

“Conversations in more than two languages felt awkward and unreliable, like speaking with a mouthful of cotton and Novocaine”

“If his concentration lapsed even for a moment it all became a blur of consonants, hard Cyrillic letters bouncing like hail off a tin roof”

“Gen, in his genius for languages, was often at a loss for what to say when left with only his own words…He had the soul of a machine and was only capable of motion when someone else turned the key… Sitting alone in his apartment with books and tapes, he would pick up languages the way other men picked up women, with smooth talk and then later, passion… He read Czeslaw Milosz in Polish, Flaubert in French, Chekhov in Russian… then he switched them around: Milosz in French, Flaubert in Russian, Mann in English.”

She also picks up the beauty of music, the power of a talented singer to force anyone to appreciate the music:

“All of the love and the longing a body can contain was spun into not more than two and a half minutes of song, and when she came to the highest notes it seemed that all they had been given in their lives and all they had lost came together and made a weight that was almost impossible to bear.”

The primary ending is a little surprising but I found it fitting, but I was disappointed by the prologue. It seemed an unnecessary piece of romantic indulgence, bringing together two people who did not belong together.

This novel touched on two of my great loves – opera and languages – and so my reaction to it is perhaps predictable, but this is a beautiful novel, not heavy or dark but emotionally refreshing.

Additional info:
I purchased this in paperback from the Notting Hill Book and Comic Exchange
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 318 pages (paperback)
Order this from Amazon* 
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use these links, which goes towards giveaways.

Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living – Carrie Tiffany – 5/10

Set mostly in the Mallee (the dried-out
plains of north-western Victoria in Australia), this little book tells the
story of Jean’s time working as a dressmaking instructor on the Better Farming
Train in the late 1920s and early 1930s, before the depression came to
Australia and farmers were starting to realise the potential of “modern”
farming methods, and of her life as a farmer’s wife in the Mallee during a
horrendous drought which eventually drove the farmers off their land.

We read along with Jean’s hopes on the
train, as she meets her husband (the title refers to his empirical approach to
life as well as farming) and as they settle down to domesticity together. I
found the book a little depressing on the whole, but I think that is a result
of the author’s intention to convey Jean’s depression, boredom and
disappointment in the country. I didn’t find her husband a likeable character
and couldn’t understand why she married him – there was very little expounding
upon her feelings at the crucial stage.

What I thought was very well done was the
sudden insight into her husband’s character – his background in his home
country and the reason for his obsession with farming.

Not really worth bothering with, I don’t
think.

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