Rating: 3.5

2014 Longlist: The Blazing World

18143974The Blazing World was a very unique novel – Hustvedt has created an entirely fictional character yet has written of her as though she were a fully-realized person. The reader fully expected Harriet Burden to be an actual person that blazed bright in the art world. We discover everything about Harriet and her fight to expose sexism in the art world, through personal journals, articles and notebooks, to accounts from those in the art world, her family members and people that have interviewed her over the years. We even have the use of footnotes providing further detail and information about Burden’s work and those that influenced her.  It was so utterly unique to me and I quite enjoyed embarking on this journey.

Harriet Burden is pissed that women, and most especially her work, is not considered or widely appreciated as those created by her male counterparts.

“Although the number of women artists has exploded, it is no secret that New York galleries show women far less than men. The figures hover around twenty percent of all one-person shows in the city, despite the fact that almost half of those same galleries are run by women. The museums that exhibit contemporary art are no better, nor are the magazines that write about it. Every woman artist faces the insidious propagation of a male status quo. With no exceptions, art by men is far more expensive than art by women. Dollars tell the story. After giving up on a public life as an artists, Burden decided to experiment with the perception of her work through the use of masculine personas. The results were striking. When presented as the work of a man, her art suddenly found an enthusiastic audience. (taken from Rosemary Lerner’s written statement.)

When opening the first pages of The Blazing World we are treated to an excerpt from the Editor that is writing this account of Harriet Burden. Here she explains how Harriet “used” three men to show three very different shows in art galleries. Each was met with resounding success and only after her death is it revealed that it was actually the work of a woman, Burden’s work. Henceforth, the countless articles written either denouncing, disproving and exposing what Harriet called her experiment.

However, as unique as Hustvedt’s own literary experiment was, for me there were moments when I began to skim through it, as the number of written statements and journal entries, etc., continued to increase, yet nothing new seemed to be added to the story. I will say however that I found The Blazing World to be one wonderful and very interesting read. I quite fell in love with Harriet. I also quite fell in love with Siri Hustvedt for creating and envisioning this remarkable woman. While the literary style used may not suit many, I thought it remarkable. 3.5 stars.

As Harriet is in her final days she continues to say great and wonderful things, and these pages were wonderful to read: “I have more to do. There are undiscovered worlds inside me, but I will never see them.”

“I, Harriet Burden, know I am going to die, and yet a piece of me refuses this truth. I rage against it. I would like to spit and scream and howl and punch the bedclothes, but these demonstrations would hurt this frail skeleton with its few putrid remaining organs far too much.”

Sadly, The Blazing World did not make the 2014 Shortlist. This is one I would have thought would have made the cut over a couple others that did, but what would the Man Booker’s be without some twists and surprises right?

This review was posted simultaneously on the Literary Hoarders.

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2014 Longlist: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

 

US   UK   audio

Rosemary Cooke can separate her life by “the time period before her sister Fern was there” and into “the time period when her sister Fern was not there”.

She can also divide it into time periods of when she used to talk (she talked so much a neighbour asked if she was training for the Talking Olympics, she was a Gold medal contender) to the time when she fell completely silent.

And then….the true identity of her sister Fern is dropped. Oh, she said she gave us clues here and there and that some of us may have figured it out. (Rosemary tells her story to us in a very conversational tone throughout). I actually didn’t pick up on it as I didn’t closely read the synopsis or any of the reviews for this book. Therefore, the reveal did have shock-value for me. Of course, this is where upon closer inspection of the audiobook cover art should have come into focus for me. The audiobook cover art and for most of the other covers, some of the family members are illustrated there. However, the UK version (the red and black cover posted below) gives none of it away.

Initally after this reveal of Fern’s identity, I did question (again) how We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves made the Man Booker longlist. As Karen at BookerTalk  comments – she doesn’t anticipate this one going further in the competition. I admit to feeling the same. While this is my first read from the 13 in the longlist, it still begged the question in my mind how this was worthy of a major literary prize nomination. Oh, but for certain, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a heartbreaking and emotional tale, and one that left me thinking with great sadness for Rosemary and her brother Lowell, and on animal research, notably when using chimpanzees. These aspects will rip your heart out while reading, but set up against some of the more literary works in this competition, I fail to see how this would have the literary stamina to proceed on to the shortlist.

Often times when reading, I thought of The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson, epecially after her first reveal of Fern’s identity and how Rosemary and her brother Lowell were expected and raised to consider Fern as their biological sister. In the Family Fang, the brother and sister are used in their parent’s experimental art installations and here, Rosemary and Lowell are being used in their father’s university research experiment. For both families, the psychological destruction is intense.

This intense heartbreak continued with Fowler’s narrative on the use of other experimental primates brought into people’s homes, labs, and how they were later turned out. She continues with the stories of what happened to them once they were no longer wanted, needed, or required. It is devastating and leaves a long imprint on your thoughts and mind.

However, there were many times where random and unnecessary filler litters the story and where my focus wandered and strayed from it. There is also some silliness included, especially to this ventriloquist’s doll named Madame DeFarge.  Madame DeFarge is given a voice and used in the storyline too often and only worked against the seriousness of the story, and causing further perplexity as to why this was nominated for a Man Booker Prize. (That’s starting to sound like a broken record here, my apologies.)

I will say however, that I was very pleased to have listened to the audio production of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Orlagh Cassidy’s narration is very appealing, well suited and perfectly cast to narrate the part of Rosemary. As Rosemary is sharing her story in a very conversational manner, the audio narration works very well here. I do not think I would have enjoyed this as much or enjoyed this style of writing had I read the text version.

The shortlist comes out in 3 weeks and I will be quite surprised to find this title on it. An enjoyable and heartbreaking read overall, certainly, just not solid enough for a major literary prize, and notably for one as “serious” I suppose as the Man Booker.

This will be posted simultaneously on the Literary Hoarders site.

2013 Man Booker Shortlisted: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo #5

We_Need_New_NamesRating: 3.5
We Need New Names
A Novel by NoViolet Bulawayo
2013 / 298 pages

Darling is a 10 year old girl from Zimbabwe. She and her family have been forced out of their home and now live in a shanty town (called “Paradise”). Her father has gone off to South Africa (to find work/money) and her mother is trying to scrape together what she can so they don’t starve while he is away. Since there is no longer a school to attend, Darling and her gang of friends (Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho and Stina) are free to spend their days waiting for the NCO truck to arrive with supplies and gifts. In the meantime they hunt for guavas, play intricate games (find bin Ladin, Country Game, War Lord) and get into mischief in the “white” section of town all while avoiding the men with the machetes. They are trying to make the best of what they have but it is hard when they have known a different life– before the bulldozers came; before 11 year old Chipo got a baby in her belly.

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2013 Shortlisted: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton #5

The_Luminaries_USRating: 3.5
The Luminaries
A Novel by Eleanor Catton
2013 / 848 pages

The Luminaries was a looooooooong book– a whopping 848 pages, at least 20 main characters and a complex structure featuring the phases of the moon, the alignment of the planets and the signs of the zodiac. It took me a while to read this one. There was detail up the wazoo– every ship in New Zealand was mentioned by name, every building or tent was described in full, every dirty fingernail was picked, every speck of gold dust was included as a main character– but essentially this was a pure mystery novel with a little bit of “magical realism” thrown in.

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2013 Longlisted: The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris

The_Marrying_Of_Chani_KaufmanRating: 3.5
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman

A Novel by Eve Harris
2013 / 350 Pages

Chani Kaufman is only 19 years old, but she already has major responsibilities.  She was raised in a very conservative Jewish family in London, and between her religious duties and her job as an art teacher’s assistant, poor Chani barely has time to prepare for her wedding.  Chani and Baruch went on just four dates before he proposed, which is apparently typical of Jewish dating customs, and now Chani oscillates between feeling lucky and blessed and completely terrified.  Mrs. Kaufman already has 7 other children to care for, so she barely has time to answer her young daughter’s questions about life and marriage.  Chani attempts to gain answers from The Rebbetzin (The Rabbi’s wife), but she has just suffered a terrible miscarriage at the age of 44 and is therefore grief-stricken and preoccupied.  Their religious customs prohibit Chani from speaking too openly about intimate things like sex, marriage, childbirth, and birth control, so she must do what the women before her have done – become a wife and figure it all out little by little.

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2013 Longlisted: Unexploded by Alison MacLeod

UnexplodedRating: 3.5
Unexploded
A Novel by Alison MacLeod
2013 / 352 Pages

Unexploded is a story of a marriage exploding at the seams at the same moment when the German’s impending invasion of Brighton Beach is set to occur.

“In those weeks, bombs dropped like leaves of autumn.”

It is also an exquisitely drawn tale featuring four distinct and individual characters coping with loss, love and an ever-increasing threat of invasion. Evelyn, Geoffrey, Philip and Otto are wonderfully placed in this WWII historical fiction piece.

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