Sunday, 30 July 2017

The Sea, The Sea

'Behold the man. He shuffles out of Clappison's courtyard onto Sykes Street and snuffs the complex air - turpentine, fish-meal, mustard, black lead, the usual grave, morning piss-stink of just emptied night jars. He snorts once, rubs his bristled head and readjusts his crotch. He sniffs his fingers, then slowly sucks each one in turn, drawing off the last remnants, getting his final money's worth."

And so begins Ian McGuire's The North Water (2016). The man referred to is Henry Drax, a vile, murderous monster of a man without a moral compass. It is 1859 and Drax is about to board the Volunteer, a whaling ship headed to the Arctic Circle in search of blubber.

Another man about to set sail is Patrick Sumner, an Irish surgeon who joins the crew as a means of escaping his past. A former military man, he made a regrettable choice during the Siege of Delhi in 1857 which saw him ousted and disgraced. His nightly consumption of laudanum eases his conscience.

As the ship sets sail on a fateful voyage, the hey-day of whaling has almost past, with overfishing and a shift to whale oil substitutes like kerosene. The whalers know how dangerous their work is: as they battle against the elements, in small wooden boats against massive sea creatures. There is a lot that can kill you in the North water.

The two men at the heart of this novel are bound to come into conflict. When a boy is found brutally violated and murdered, Sumner discovers just how dangerous Drax is. It becomes a fight for survival on the ice.

This novel is not for the faint-hearted. The language is foul and visceral. There are graphic descriptions of rape, murder, illness, animal cruelty, primitive medical procedures, and the like - which cause the reader to wince or retch. (Indeed I found myself rushing past the clubbing of seals). I have never experienced a book like this before - where I could feel the cold in my bones from McGuire's descriptions, and literally smell the sick, stale air.

As a landlubber, I have no idea why I am drawn to nautical books. But I love tales of adventure set on the high seas - Patrick O'Brian, Joseph Conrad, Daniel Defoe, CS Forester, Herman Melville - and I regularly reread Hemingway's Old Man and The Sea. 

The North Water is a gripping novel and one that I would highly recommend. It was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2016.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

The Booker Longlist 2017

This week the Longlist was announced for the 2017 Man Booker prize. The thirteen titles nominated are diverse, with authors from America, Pakistan, India, Ireland and the UK.

I have not yet read any of these books but I have several on my 'to be read' pile. What I love about the Longlist is that it introduces me to many books I do not know. From last year's Longlist I discovered the remarkable His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet and Ian McGuire's amazing The North Water.

Let's take a look at the books that make up the longlist:

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster (USA)
American author Paul Auster is nominated for his first Booker. This is the story of Archibald Ferguson, the only child of Stanley and Rose, born in 1947. In a 'sliding doors' manner, Ferguson lives four distinct parallel lives. I have only read one book by Auster, his New York Trilogy (1986) which I wasn't overly enamoured with. At 880 pages, I don't think I will be embarking on this Auster any time soon.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Ireland)
In the 1850s, Thomas McNulty leaves Ireland for America and joins the army to fight the civil war. There he meets John Cole, a fellow soldier, and falls in love. They meet a young Indian girl and have to decide what path to take in their lives. Barry has previously been shortlisted for the Booker in 2005 for A Long, Long Way and this novel won the 2016 Costa Book of the Year award.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (USA)
This is a debut novel Fridlund introduces us to fourteen year old Linda, who lives with her parents in rural Minnesota. A family moves in nearby and Linda is drawn to them for their normality. They provide her with the sense of belonging she craves. I am intrigued by this book, as a love unreliable narrators, but I will have to wait a little while before I can get around to reading it.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistan-UK)
In the war ravaged Middle East a couple begin a romance and seek escape. Rumours spread of doors across the city which open to new cities - London, Dubai, San Francisco - so the couple search for their exit.  I met Mohsin Hamid briefly at the Sydney Writers' Festival in 2015 when he was promoting The Reluctant Fundamentalist.  I was impressed with his intelligent commentary on Islam, extremism and refugees. This is definitely on my list to read.

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Ireland)
Winner of the Goldsmiths Prize and the BGE Irish Book of the Year 2016, this novel has received much praise for its innovation. Told in a single sentence (over 273 pages!) McCormack narrates the thoughts of engineer Marcus Conway as he contemplates his life. I am definitely intrigued by the sounds of this book, and love a novel told in verse. But I don't know if I would be driven crazy by the lack of punctuation.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (UK)
A 13 year old girl goes missing while on holiday with her family. The local residents begin a search for the girl, media descends on the town. Time passes, life goes on, but the aftermath of the tragedy lingers. This is not a crime novel, but more of a reflection on life. McGregor has been longlisted for the Booker twice before, for If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2002) and So Many Ways to Begin (2006).

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK)
This is the debut novel from Mozley and it is one I had never heard of. It is described on the Booker website as 'a lyrical commentary on contemporary English society and one family's precarious place in it, as well as an exploration of how deep the bond between father and child can go.' My initial thought is meh... not going to rush to read this.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (India)
In 1997 Roy won the Booker for her first novel The God of Small Things. Twenty years later, this is Roy's long-awaited second novel. I have heard mixed things about this complex novel filled with many characters. Roy is an activist and this is a critique of modern day Indian politics. I greatly admire Roy and have enjoyed her articles and non-fiction. There is a weight of expectation with this novel, after twenty years, but I think I will wait a little bit longer before deciding whether to read it.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (USA)
This is the first novel from short story writer Saunders. It follows Willie, the son of President Abraham Lincoln, who died at the age of 11. The dead boy interacts with his mourning father in this novel, which takes place over a single night. I have heard so many great things about this book. I have it and it has been creeping its way towards the top of my 'to be read' pile. Looks like I will have to get on to it soon.

Home Fire by Kamile Shamsie (UK-Pakistan)
This novel is inspired by Antigone by Sophocles. Largely set in London, Pakistani Isma raises her siblings after their mother dies and their father leaves to fight with the Taliban. The story addresses issues of identity, migration, religion, family, and love.

Autumn by Ali Smith (UK)
I always love the artwork on Ali Smith's books. Autumn features a lush Hockney painting of 'Early November Tunnel'. If I am to judge a book by its cover, this one is fantastic! Autumn is part of Smith's 'Seasons' series and it is a story about ageing and time. It begins with the line "It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times' - which draws the reader in. A previous Booker shortlister for How to be Both (2014), Smith is a formidable writer. Looking forward to exploring this series.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (UK)
This is a coming of age story about friendship and its end. Two girls grown up on a council estate, but their lives are different. In their early twenties, the friendship falls apart. Smith is said to have been influenced in this book by Elena Ferrante. Previously shortlisted for the Booker in 2005 for On Beauty, I have this book on my ereader and plan to read it this year.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (USA)
Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and many other accolades for this novel, so I was not surprised to see The Underground Railroad nominated for the Booker. This is the story of Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation. She risks everything to escape to the North via the underground railroad. This book is definitely on my reading list.

The shortlist will be announced on 13 September 2017, with the winner named on 17 October 2017.

Having read none of the titles, I am in no position to predict the winner, but I reckon the following will be shortlisted: Arundhati Roy, George Saunders, Moshin Hamid and Colson Whitehead. A complete guess, but that is where I will start my Booker reading.

Here's a short video released by the Booker judges.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Random Reads (16/07/2017)

My reading continues to be eclectic. World politics, technology, organisational development, literature and more have been filling my spare time. Also, now that I am a commuter I have been enjoying a range of podcasts. So here's a bit of what I have been up to.

With the G20 meeting in Germany and the recent revelations from Donald Trump Jr, politics and diplomacy have dominated my reading in the past fortnight. Highlights include:

  • David Brooks wrote a piece on the 'Moral Vacuum in the House of Trump' for the New York Times  in which he explores the Trump philosophy of winning at any cost. Of Jr he writes, "he seems to be simply oblivious to the idea that ethical concerns could possibly play a role in everyday life". This got me thinking about how someone can become "incapable of even entertaining any moral consideration". When does personal/familial ambition override morals and ethics?
  • The NYTimes Editorial Board wrote an opinion on 'Mr Trump, the Climate Change Loner' about how Trump has isolated himself by withdrawing from the Paris Accord, evident at the G20 (G19?) and in his recent meeting with President Macron. They write that it is unlikely that Trump will awaken to the evidence of climate science, or take on board the economic arguments favouring renewables. Rather, they hope that "someday Mr Trump will awaken to the fact that the leaders of the world, who again and again have demonstratively turned their backs on him, regard him with astonishment and dismay." I am not so sure. Trump seems to view the world in binaries and his ego is perhaps immune to opinions he does not subscribe to.
  • Time Magazine took the step of putting Jr on the cover to accompany David Von Drehle's article 'How Donald Trump Jr's Emails Have Cranked Up the Heat on His Family'. Drehle explores the question many people are asking - how bad is it? He goes on to explore the legal, political and reputation stakes as this saga unfolds. So while Drehle doesn't answer outright, I'm going to go with pretty bad, and there is no doubt more to come...
  • David Remnick writes a thoughtful piece in The New Yorker on 'Trump Family Values'. He considers how close the family is and how morally bankrupt they appear. He turns his attention to the Republicans, who will soon have to make a choice about whether to continue to back Trump and risk the 2018 mid-term elections. Remnick writes:
"The Republicans, the self-proclaimed party of family values, remain squarely behind a family and a Presidency whose most salient features are amorality, greed, demagoguery, deception, vulgarity, race-baiting, misogyny, and, potentially - only time and further investigation will tell - a murky relationship with a hostile foreign government."
Besides the Trump saga, I have been reading quite a bit about digital disruption, attention spans and learning. Here are some of the articles that drew my interest:
  • The rise of the robots has attracted my attention a few times this week. The Independent published an article by May Bulman suggesting that workers in lower socioeconomic groups may be disadvantaged by automation causing job loss and that a greater class disparity may arise from labour market changes. Likewise, an article by Fergus Hanson in The Australian spoke of the coming robot revolution.

  • Dr Patti Shank wrote an interesting piece on attention span, busting the myth that our attention span is getting smaller. Shank gets behind the 'research' and shows that the oft-cited statistics about attention have no merit and how learning designers can support memory and retention. It is available on the elearning industry website.
  • Lea Waters wrote in The Atlantic how 'Goofing Off Helps Kids Learn'. She writes about strength-based parenting and the need for children to pause and not be overly scheduled. Advocating play-based learning, and a 'less-is-more' approach, Waters prescribes free time to reboot young brains. I feel for those kids that have so many extra-curricular activities that they have no free time. 

Sunday, 9 July 2017

The Artist is Present

Heather Rose won the 2017 Stella Prize for her incredible novel The Museum of Modern Love. Set in New York in 2010, Rose has crafted an intricate story of love, loss and commitment against the backdrop of a real event.

Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic spent 75 days in residence at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Along with a retrospective of her work, Abramovic staged a piece called The Artist is Present in which she sat at a table in the centre of a gallery opposite an empty chair in which attendees could take a seat for as much or as little time as they liked. Abramovic would not speak, but would engage by looking into the eyes of those opposite. Photographer Marco Anelli captured the exchange with every sitter. Many celebrities - Alan Rickman, Bjork, Colm Toibin, James Franco, Lou Reed, Lady Gage - took their seat with Abramovic, as did many others who made the pilgrimage to sit with the artist, some on multiple occasions.

Inspired by Abramovic, Rose has created a novel which focuses on several characters who are intrigued by Abramovic's piece. Jane Miller, a recently widowed teacher, observes countless sitters and talks openly to people in the queue.  Film score composer Arky Levin is struggling to find his rhythm now that his ill wife has moved out of the house. Brittika is a Dutch doctoral student who is writing about Abramovic. Each is somehow entranced by The Artist is Present, by the way Abramovic can sit, motionless, for hours on end, staring into the eyes of strangers. Through their observations of this piece of performance art, they learn about themselves and what they are capable of.

Abramovic herself is an interesting character. Rose has drawn from interviews to create her version of Marina, and Abramovic gave permission to be fictionalised in this novel. We learn about Marina's art, her family, her love and collaboration with artist Ulay. I must admit I often don't 'get' performance art - and much of Abramovic's work is too wrought with physical and emotional pain to bear. But The Artist is Present grew on me and I came to understand and become slightly obsessed by it. I wonder what would have been revealed about me if I had spent time with Abramovic.

I absolutely loved this book. I started reading it in May, just before I went overseas. I was so engrossed in the story I debated taking the paperback with me. I ended up leaving it behind, but vowed to purchase another copy at Sydney airport to read on the plane, only to find none were available. So I had to wait five weeks to pick up where I left off, and during that time I thought regularly of all the characters and wondered what their fates might be.

Rose has done something wonderful in her blending of fact and fiction, and I think Abramovic would be delighted with the boldness and bravery Rose shows. This is an original work, and in the hands of a lesser writer it would have been a mess. But here we have a gently unfolding story, a meditation on what is art, and how art can save people.  I recommend this novel to anyone interested in art, love, and literature.