Why I Don’t Always Want My Favourite Book to Win the Prize

Last night I went to the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize Award ceremony. It was a lovely evening, especially because everyone was gathered there to support fiction in translation.

Everyone wants their favourite to win, except me

But one thing that stood out was that everyone wanted their favourite book to win the prize. Everyone that is, except me. I wanted the best book to win and I recognised that the best book and my favourite were two separate things. I don’t think many people grasp the nature of subjectivity as there was a tendency for people to assume that their favourite was the best.

Taking last night as an example (although I see this pattern repeated as every book prize is about to be announced).

The shortlist was:

My favourite from the list was Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, but I can see that this is because I have a penchant for Japanese literature and I happened to read this book the week after I saw some school friends I hadn’t seen for 16 years – exactly as happened in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki . This coincidence meant the book resonated with me in a way it wouldn’t with anyone else. I can see that the book had flaws, but I was happy to overlook these as it meant so much to me in other ways.

The best book on the list was The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck. I didn’t really enjoy it, but could see that the writing quality was outstanding and the concept behind it was original. I know that I often struggle to bond with books that move forwards and backwards in time and those that are more experimental in nature. The fact I prefer a more conventional narrative style doesn’t mean I instantly dismiss everything else as terrible. Many people at the ceremony thought I was a bit odd for supporting a book I didn’t really enjoy.

IFFP

As the night drew on it became clear that everyone was happy. The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck won the IFFP. It was the favourite of almost everyone in attendance and I was equally pleased to see it take the crown. But as I travelled home after a wonderful evening I began to wonder if I’m a bit odd.

Do you always want your favourite book to win the prize?

Have you ever supported a book you didn’t really enjoy?

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Brilliance by Anthony McCarten

Brilliance

Five words from the blurb: invention, light bulb, Edison, electric chair, immorality

I’m drawn towards books with shiny gold covers so Brilliance stood out when I was browsing a local charity shop. I’d heard nothing about it, but the simple blurb persuaded me to give it a try:

A novel about the brightest and darkest sides of human invention.

I’m so pleased I took a chance on this book - it was entertaining, informative, and shocking in equal measure.

Brilliance is a fictionalised biography of Thomas Edison, showing the experiences of this famous inventor as he goes from the high of inventing the electric light, to financial lows as he fails to monetise his invention properly. Whilst at his lowest he is approached by the banker JP Morgan, who persuades him to invent the electric chair. This leads him into a disturbing new life, introducing a series of moral dilemmas.

I’ve read many books which mention Edison, but this was the first to really bring him to life. His relationship with his wife was touching to read about and I loved the way their hopes are fears were exposed. There was a real emotional depth to the text, made all the more special by the quality of the writing. 

It was also the first book to make me appreciate how groundbreaking the invention of the electric light was. I hadn’t realised how fearful the public were of this new product and how hard it was to change their minds. The scene from the Columbus Day parade was particularly revealing:

Families applauded and laughed from behind the cordons. But the happy shouts died away to silence and even fear as the Edison Electric Light Company’s new promotional exhibit rounded the corner.
At first, parents covered their children’s eyes. There were screams. Women put hands into their mouth. Men peeled off their bowler hats in slow motion. What was this? Were they witnessing a catastrophe?

There was a bit of science in this book, but it never felt dry or overly technical. It was all well-researched and came across as authentic for the time period. Some people might find the scenes involving the testing of the electric chair too distressing, but I felt they simply explained the facts, which are disturbing however you describe them.

Overall this was a gripping read that gave me a new insight into this period of history. Recommended, especially to those who appreciate good science in their literature. 

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The thoughts of other bloggers:

McCarten does more than rewrite Edison’s biography, he gives him a voice. River City Reading

If the book has any weaknesses it’s due to the fact that it’s not a full blown biography but if it were and had just stuck to the facts it would lose all its colour and charm. The Truth about Lies

It’s shocking in places, funny in others and I did find myself really feeling for Thomas Edison. Novel Kicks

Demons by Wayne Macauley

Demons

Five words from the blurb: friends, remote, stories, society, fiction

A couple of years ago I read Wayne Macauley’s debut novel, The Cook, and loved it; so when I was offered a review copy of his new book I snapped up the chance. Unfortunately Demons isn’t in the same league as The Cook and, although there were a few good aspects to the novel, it didn’t work as a whole. 

The book is set in a remote house where seven friends arrange to meet for the weekend. They begin to tell each other stories, but the line between truth and fiction is often blurred, with each tale mirroring aspects of their own lives.

… it might have been true, I don’t know – but I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear any more of her stories, or for that matter tell mine…I wonder if stories can change how things are in the world or if they’re just us telling others what we think the world looks like? 

The main problem was that there were too many characters so it was hard to differentiate one from the another; and almost impossible to remember how they linked together. Some of the individual stories were very good and I especially liked the one involving fake patients in a hospital, but overall it just felt disjointed.

The book was easy to read and most of it flowed quite nicely. I read it quickly, hoping for an outstanding ending that mirrored the one in The Cook, but unfortunately it was a big disappointment. It didn’t shock or surprise me in the way I’d hoped – instead it was just silly and I felt let down by the text. 

There were a few good observations on modern Australian society, but it was trying to question too much at once (topics covered included: materialism, obsession with being connected to the Internet/phone, dodgy politicians, problems with the health service, greed and lack of respect for Aborigines) so the whole effect was watered down. 

If you enjoy reading short stories then I’m sure you’ll appreciate the ones in here, but it didn’t really work as a novel.

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Golden Boy by Abigail Tarttelin

Golden Boy

Five words from the blurb: intersex, school, secret, damage, parents

I don’t often pick books at random from library shelves, but perhaps I should if this choice is anything to go by. For some reason it called to me and once I started reading I couldn’t put it down. Golden Boy is actually a YA book, but its central theme of acceptance is universal and it has an emotional depth that is hard to rival.

The book concentrates on Max, an intersex teenager, who is trying to understand his place in the world. The difficulties of adolescence are shown in unflinching detail and the complexities of teenage thought are so accurately portrayed that I was given a few flashbacks to my own teenage years. Max’s first experiences of love and romance were touching to witness and his vulnerability made these scenes especially moving.

I loved the way that the book was narrated by both Max and those close to him. This allowed the reader to develop a more complete picture of his life and added to the narrative tension. The emotional bond between Max and the reader was outstanding and by the end of the book I felt as though I knew him.

I cover my head with the duvet. Every thought I think convinces me a little bit more that I’m either insane or halfway there. My head feels so full of shouting voices that I can’t tell which one is my own. Which opinion is truly mine? Who am I? Does the fact that I don’t have a gender even matter? Or does it mean I am absolutely alone? Will anyone ever understand me just wanting to be me, or will they always think I’m a freak, forever,? Can I keep this secret? Or will the secret slowly poison my family?

The subject of intersexuality was handled with great tact and sensitivity. Facts about the condition were sprinkled through the text, but they never felt gratuitous or sensationalist. It gave the reader a greater understanding of this largely secretive condition; whilst showing that the problems of puberty are universal.

The book also showed the difficulties faced by parents as their children grow into independent adults. The grief of no longer being the centre of your child’s world was perfectly described and makes me cherish the time I have with own my boys all the more.

Overall this was an insightful book that has done more to explain the emotional complexities of being intersex than anything else I’ve read. 

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The Best Books for…Understanding the Darker Side of Society

Last week I reviewed The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanigahara and realised how much I enjoy reading about the darker side of our society. I love the ability to get inside the head of someone who commits evil acts and for some reason I like it even more if I am able to understand their motivation for committing a crime.

I began to think about other books which shared this property and before I knew it I had a list long enough to justify a full blog post!

Here are my favourite books about the more unsavoury characters in our society, but be warned, most of these books will make you feel very uncomfortable!

Note: Book titles link to my review; covers link to Amazon. 

The Kindly Ones

The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell

The Kindly Ones is one of the most controversial books written in recent years. It is fictional biography of Max Aue, a senior SS officer, present during the Holocaust. It graphically describes his brutality, but also has a strange way of making you understand how he came to be that way. It’s deeply disturbing.

Rupture by Simon Lelic

Rupture is a like a cross between Notes on a Scandal and We Need To Talk About Kevin but this book makes you have real sympathy for the teacher who shoots his pupils. It’s thought provoking stuff!

Beneath the Darkening Sky

Beneath the Darkening Sky by Majok Tulba

This brave book explains exactly how innocent children are turned into ruthless killers. The plight of child soldiers is a difficult subject, but Tulba handles it with great sensitivity. This book deserves a much wider audience.

Lost Memory of Skin

The Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

If you don’t think you could ever have sympathy for a registered paedophile, read this book and see if you’re wrong!

The Wasp Factory

The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

The Wasp Factory contains one of the most disturbing characters I’ve ever read about, but for some reason I still have sympathy for this violent child. Does that make me weird?!

Tampa

Tampa by Alissa Nutting

This sexually explicit book is disturbing in the way it makes you question whether or not female paedophiles are worse than male. It’s thought provoking stuff!

The Sinner 

The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr

A young mother stabs a man in front of her family and friends during a quiet picnic by the lake. I was surprised by how much sympathy I had for her in the end.

Out

Out by Natsuo Kirino

This book isn’t for the squeamish, but I loved the way I became attached to the central character, who dismembers her husband. Would you help your friend to hide body parts around your local area?!

Beside the Sea

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi

I can’t explain exactly what happens in this book without spoiling it, but this dark book will give you some insight into the difficulties of parenting.

Monster Love

Monster Love by Carol Topolski

A couple hide their child in a cage. Topolski’s career as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist gives the reader a scarility realistic insight into their minds.

Mountain People

The Mountain People by Colin Turnbull

This real-life account of a society that leaves its young and old to die when times get tough is difficult to read, but it raises many important questions. I highly recommend it!

Which are your favourite books for understanding the darker side of society?

 

 

Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage Shortlisted for the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel

Five words from the blurb: friends, school, death, connections, reason

Tsukuru is 36, but as a teenager he was part of a group of five friends. One day they stopped talking to him and he felt abandoned. He hasn’t seen them for 16 years, but continues to be haunted by the mysterious way he was ostracised from the group. His girlfriend sees the pain this is causing and persuades him to track down his friends to discover the real reason that they blocked him out of their lives all those years ago.

I think I read this at exactly the right time in my life. I am also 36 and, coincidentally, was also part of a group of five in school. I married one of them, so am well aware of the way relationships effect the dynamics within a group. Last week we went to a wedding and the five of us were together again for the first time in fifteen years (although we have seen them all individually occasionally since then). Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage perfectly captures the feelings of meeting people that you were once very close to. Discovering how old friends have changed is a strange thing, and imagining how small decisions from the past could have changed the course of your life is hard to get your head around. 

Murakami delves into a range of emotions, explaining them beautifully: 

Jealousy – at least as far as he understood it from his dream – was the most hopeless prison in the world. Jealousy was not a place he was forced into by someone else, but a jail in which the inmate entered voluntarily, locked the door, and threw away the key. And not another soul in the world knew he was locked inside. Of course if he wanted to escape, he could do so. The prison was, after all, his own heart. But he couldn’t make that decision. His heart was as hard as a stone wall. This was the very essence of jealousy. 

The first 80 pages of this book were very slow, but then Tsukuru started to meet his friends and the plot picked up pace. I was completely absorbed by the mystery and loved the way each character had a slightly different relationship with the others – I don’t think I’ve read many other books that have captured teenage group dynamics with this realism.

This book didn’t contain any of the strange mythology that Murakami is famous for, but it provides an insight into the lives of ordinary Japanese people. It isn’t necessary to know anything about the culture before reading this book, so is a good choice for those looking to try Japanese literature for the first time.

Overall, this is a strong book that deserves its place on the IFFP shortlist. The ending was perfect and I highly recommend it to anyone who has lost touch with old friends.

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