When discussing the shortlist for this year’s prize I described how difficult it was to call who might win and I was surprised to see “Milkman” triumph last night. But I think this is a fantastic result for a number of reasons despite my heart’s wish to see “Washington Black” win and my finding Anna Burns’ novel a bit of a slog to read overall.

Many people will now buy “Milkman”, but I think the reality is that not many people will finish reading it. This goes to the centre of a longstanding tension between what you could term readability vs literary quality. Often we’re made to feel that challenging books are something we should force ourselves to read because they are “good” for us. Not many people would describe “Ulysses” or “Moby Dick” as delightful reading, but they’ve had an undeniable cultural influence and, of course, you can still find great pleasure in reading them. Many times challenging yourself to better understand a complex text can yield a lot of joy. My point is that I don’t think readability and literary quality are mutually exclusive. Also, we’re often made to feel if we don’t “get” a book we’re somehow less of a reader. If you’re not enjoying something don’t force yourself to read it. It simply might not be a book for you. Our relationships with individual books is complex. Sometimes it might be a question of timing or the circumstances in which you’re reading it. In this case, despite my reservations while reading “Milkman” I kept reading it not because I felt I had to, but because there were such insightful gems and moments of brilliance I wanted to see how the novel played out. I’m certainly glad I stuck with it because I really connected with the dilemma and justified indignation of its narrator, but if you gave up on it or start reading it now and decide to give up on it that’s a totally valid decision. And maybe you’ll want to try it again some day.

Here’s a special edition of the novel which the prize designed just for the author.

Here’s a special edition of the novel which the prize designed just for the author.

It also feels like “Milkman” being selected as the winner was something of a political choice. As has been often noted, a female author hasn’t won the prize since Eleanor Catton took the trophy in 2013. That Anna Burns is also from Northern Ireland feels significant as well – especially in the midst of Brexit. It’s great that the novel winning this award will bring more of a focus to female voices from this part of the world. If you’re interested in discovering more writers from Northern Ireland I’d highly suggest reading the anthology “The Glass Shore” which includes a wide range of short stories from many talented female writers from the North of Ireland. The fact that Burns’ gender or country of origin might have played a factor in the judges’ decision shouldn’t detract from the individual literary quality of “Milkman”. It’s a singular achievement (as all the novels on the shortlist are) so it just adds another dimension to the joy of this book winning.

I was lucky enough to be invited along to some of the parties last night so I also made a video discussing the shortlist a bit more and filming a vlog of my experiences on the night which you can watch here:

Let me know what you think of “Milkman” winning the prize this year? Have you read it or are you tempted to read it now?

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
2 CommentsPost a comment

It’s been such an interesting year for the Booker Prize, not only in its Man Booker 50 celebrations but also in the dynamic and controversial longlist that this year’s judges created. I’ve enjoyed reading so many of the nominated books and discussing the prize with other readers. While I’d have loved to see novels like Jessie Greengrass’ “Sight” or Sophie Mackintosh’s “The Water Cure” in the final running, this is an absolutely fascinating and impressive shortlist. In past years, I’ve been able to make fairly confident predictions about winners such as Marlon James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings” or George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo”. But I think it’s really too difficult to call this year! So I’ll try to weigh all the options that I’d consider if I were a judge.

“The Overstory” is so impressive for the way Powers’ language and style of writing changes the way the reader conceives of time by shifting focus to nature and the pace of trees. It’s also filled with such compelling characters and, while I didn’t think all the storylines worked, I was drawn into their complex emotional journey and the urgent message of their struggles. But I can already imagine the enormous outcry if another weighty American novel wins the prize since Yanks have snatched the trophy for two years running. It’s the novel most people are predicting will win, but I think we may be surprised.

There’s also the fact that a female author hasn’t won the prize since Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries” in 2013. While I don’t think gender should be a determining factor in picking a prize that simply seeks to honour “the best novel in the opinion of the judges” you have to hope that men won’t come out on top year after year. Thankfully, since there are four women on this year’s shortlist, the odds are in favour of one of them taking the prize. Certainly, “Milkman” is an equally impressive feat for the vivid way it immerses the reader into a culture of fear and distrust in a country so violently divided by politics and religion. It’s certainly a challenging read, but if it wins I feel like the judges would be declaring “Trust us. Stick with it. It’s worth it!” And they’d be right to make that statement because Anna Burns’ writing is incredibly moving and powerful in certain sections of the book.

“Everything Under” is also a uniquely challenging reading experience for the way Daisy Johnson presents a fragmented portrait of broken families and outside individuals. But her prose are so invigorating, lyrical and give such a unique perspective on identity and language that I found this novel so moving. And, given that Johnson is the youngest ever shortlisted author for this prize, it’d be very encouraging to see a new writer of such talent and who represents such a refreshing perspective win the Booker.

I have to say for me it feels like “The Mars Room” is the weakest novel on the list but (like with Anna Burns’ novel) I felt there were sections of it which shone very powerfully. I really admire the way Rachel Kushner chose to highlight the complex lives of incarcerated individuals, but I felt the novel wasn’t structured in the best way. I think rereading Kushner’s novel (as the Booker judges are meant to read all the novels on the shortlist multiple times) would probably emphasize the problems in this novel’s unnecessary subplots.

I’m guessing the opposite would be true for Robin Robertson’s “The Long Take” which is a book I would really like to reread at one point. It’s so clever how he pairs the narrator’s tortured journey meeting the beleaguered and forgotten people of America with flashbacks to his traumatic experiences in the military and his pre-war life with his family. All this is told with such poetic power that I’m sure revisiting this narrative (especially by reading it aloud) would emphasize what a beautiful piece of storytelling it is.

However, the novel I keep thinking back on and which really captured my heart is Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black”. It’s a book that takes the reader on such an immersive and imaginative journey that I was totally captivated throughout. Some readers may be sceptical about the borderline fantastical elements of the plot. But I think it’s making such a positive message amidst so much suffering that individuals who have little opportunity to realise their full potential can discover ways to traverse the narrowmindedness and oppression of their times. Leaving aside any politics or other considerations, I think it’s the most accomplished novel on the list. I hope it wins.

The winner will be announced on the evening of Tuesday, October 16th. What book do you hope will win the Booker Prize this year?


Robin Robertson is a Scottish writer who has published several successful collections of poetry. His book “The Long Take” is described on the inside flap of the dust jacket as “a noir narrative written with the intensity and power of poetry.” I'm all for cross-genre novels and blended forms of writing. I don't think categorization of books makes an impact on the actual reading experience. But I do get slightly anxious when self-proclaimed poets write books which are classified as novels as I described in my post about Katharine Kilalea's debut novel “OK, Mr Field” because sometimes the lyricism of the language used can overwhelm the narrative. Robertson's story follows a WWII veteran named Walker who feels like he can't return to his home in Canada because the war changed him. Instead he treads the streets of NYC and cities in California where he becomes a journalist investigating the homeless and other dispossessed broken individuals who are churned under the wheels of progress. Interspersed with his conversations and encounters are italicised recollections of his time in battle and with his family. It forms a powerful portrait of an individual haunted by the bitter truth of war who casts a skeptical eye on a country determined to move forward while forgetting the past and its downtrodden people. The narrative is formed like an epic poem but completely works as a novel with many breathtakingly beautiful passages. 

Because Walker suffers from PTSD, he's highly sensitised to certain violent sights and sounds which trigger his memories. So it makes sense that the novel is layered so much in its passages where brutal actions seem to blend between past and present. What shone through the most for me were the voices of people who Walker meets. Their idiosyncratic speech springs out in dialogue that seems to fully encapsulate their characters. So even if there aren't descriptions of their physical characteristics I felt like I could see the person he was talking to. These exchanges veer from heartbreaking confessions to aggressive exchanges to comic observations such as when a woman on a bus shouts at her unruly daughter “I got two words for you. Be-have.” This made me feel like I was really experiencing Walker's journey with him when paired with his poetic observations of the streets and buildings surrounding him. 

Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame in ‘Sudden Fear’

Jack Palance and Gloria Grahame in ‘Sudden Fear’

Walker testifies to the reality of many soldiers who returned and found they couldn't find work or didn't receive adequate support for the physical and mental trauma they received in wartime. But he also observes the many casualties of change in LA and how the new physical structures of the city seem to reinforce its divisions: “It's the only city-planning there is – segregation.” He extrapolates from this to criticism of the country in general in its systematic oppression of racial minorities: “We're back to circling the wagons. This is our fear of 'the other' – Indians, blacks, Mexicans, Communists, Muslims, whatever – America has to have its monsters, so we can zone them, segregate them, if possible, shoot them.” He is determined to document the voices which aren't represented in the larger media and the mythology of the movies which seem to pave over the truth of ordinary citizens. At several points its as if the very nature of the physical locations he visits has been eclipsed by the role they've played in cinematic history rather than existing in reality. 

As the story progresses, Walker's character evolves and he reveals aspects of himself in a way I found really effective and it's why I think this book works so convincingly as a novel. Robertson perfectly encapsulates Walker as a forgotten figure when he writes “He's like the faded lettering on buildings, old advertisements for things you can't buy, that aren't made any more: ghost signs.” It's a striking portrait of a person and a country that's both powerfully heartfelt and relevant to our world today. 

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRobin Robertson
Christopher Isherwood Memorial Berlin.JPG

Over the weekend my partner kindly took me to Berlin as a belated birthday present. This is the first time I’ve visited the city and one of the highlights was taking a tour of the primary neighbourhood Christopher Isherwood inhabited when he lived there from 1929-1933. This tour was given by a gracious and informative man named Brendan who has an extensive amount of knowledge about Isherwood’s writing/experiences and life in Berlin during the interwar period and you can find information about his tours on the site Isherwood’s Neighbourhood.

I read “The Berlin Stories” when I was a teenager and, like many people, came to this book after watching the film ‘Cabaret’. So, even though Isherwood only lived in Berlin for a relatively short amount of time, he’s inextricably associated with the city in my mind. I reread sections of the stories to my partner while we were staying there. What I so admire about them is how lively and fun they are while also containing such an ominous feeling about this incredibly politically troubled city. There’s a glamour to the bohemian sensibility of the many freewheeling sexually-liberated characters, but also a melancholy edge to some like landlady Frl Schroeder whose position in society was so reduced due to rising inflation and the downfall of the middle class. And, of course, the encroaching control of Nazis in the city darkly colours all the stories.  


We weren’t able to enter the apartment Isherwood rented because it’s still privately owned, but there’s a plaque outside. Passages of the novel really came alive as we looked at the facades of the buildings, many of which were stripped of decoration from Nazi influence or which had to be rebuilt after wartime bombing. One of the most striking locations we stopped at was the former site of the Eldorado club, a nightspot popular with gay crowds and famous for its cabarets which featured performances from people such as Marlene Dietrich in the late 20s and early 30s. It was a venue that Isherwood undoubtably frequented and informed his writing. But it was bracing hearing about how this space of liberation was turned from such a lively club to the local headquarters for the Sturmabteilung, the Nazi Party’s paramilitary. This happened over the space of a few short years and its sobering to think about how quickly things can change.

Bebelplatz book memorial.jpg

Berlin is an absolutely beautiful and lively city, but it’s also filled with such a weighty sense of absence. This can be seen on both a large and small scale wherever you go. There’s the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church which stands badly damaged from a 1943 bombing raid and I also took a tour of the Tempelhof Airport which is enormous and largely empty, but the airfield is currently the site of a refugee camp as featured in Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel “Go, Went, Gone”. There’s the Stolpersteine which are small brass memorial plates inscribed with the names and life dates of victims of Nazi extermination or persecution that can be found throughout the city. I also visited the Bebelplatz, a square which was the site of the largest Nazi book burning ceremonies and now has a memorial of a glass plate set into the cobbles giving a view down below to empty bookcases with space enough for 20,000 books.

I’d love to spend longer than a weekend in Berlin and learn more about it. I feel like my knowledge of German literature is seriously lacking so if you have any suggestions for books about Berlin I’d be grateful to hear them.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
6 CommentsPost a comment

I’ve been hesitant about reading Richard Powers for years because some readers I know have dismissed his writing as pretentious. I know I shouldn’t have let this put me off. He’s produced such an impressive body of work with weighty highly-praised novels that have won him the National Book Award, a Pushcart Prize and made him a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His recent shortlisting on the Man Booker Prize finally pushed me to give his writing a try and I’m so glad I did because this novel is magnificent. What’s more it’s much more approachable and enjoyable than I thought it would be. It’s a truly epic tale primarily about ecological activism, family heritage and the surprising interconnections between people and the natural world. I was immediately enthralled by the long separate stories of nine individuals which vary so wildly in subject matter. They range from tales about a Chinese immigrant to a farmer that embarks on an ambitious photography project to a boy with a flair for writing code at the dawn of the computer age to a college girl with a hazardous bad-girl streak. He frames these stories through the lens of trees so time is altered to recount events at their pace of life. The stories initially leap through years and big events are recounted in brief. While they seem so disparate at first they gradually thread together throughout the novel to tell a much larger story. Powers structures the novel like a tree itself from the roots to the trunk to the crown to the seeds. While I don’t think every storyline or device he used worked, I was nevertheless astounded by the ambitious scope of this novel and found it continuously engaging despite its considerable length.

It’s quite a challenge to get humans to think on a timescale like that which trees experience, but Powers accomplishes this in such an inventive way. One character photographs a certain tree at a particular time for many years and its observed how “The generations of grudge, courage, forbearance, and surprise generosity: everything a human being might call the story happens outside his photos’ frame.” In this way, Powers trains the reader to think beyond the emotions which rule our daily lives and consider the way which trees bear themselves throughout time and in the world. His mission for doing this is admirable because it encourages the reader to really feel the central concern of the novel which is the rapid destruction of our natural world.

One scene vividly describes the soulless task of working in a mega website’s fulfilment centre.

One scene vividly describes the soulless task of working in a mega website’s fulfilment centre.

Powers even seems to doubt the ambition of his mission within the course of the book. Late in the novel he observes how “To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.” It’s so challenging for us to conceive of the larger struggles of the world which is why watching news about depressing world events feels important to us, but doesn’t often motivate us to instigate any actual changes. What I think Powers is attempting to do in this novel is compel us to re-view how we look at time and nature in a radically different way – while also doing that exact thing of compelling his readers with the stories about a few lost people.

I was most strongly drawn to the story of Adam who possesses unique psychological insight because he found it so difficult to connect with other people as a child. It’s so moving how Powers describes that for Adam “Every hug is a small, soft jail.” Equally, I really enjoyed the story of Neelay whose physical disability compels him to vividly conjure alternate lives. It’s also very effective how Powers shows the trajectory of student Olivia’s life and how he frames this within sections of the novel. But I was somewhat put off by the story of Ray and Dorothy’s relationship. Their sections aren’t badly told, but the progression of their story felt somewhat cliched to me and noticeably separate from the intertwining stories of the other characters. I’m not sure the way in which the characters’ stories mix together was always believable either. But they are so dramatically told and contain such fascinating insights drawn from a wide range of subjects. I was glad sink wholeheartedly into this wildly energetic and impressive novel.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRichard Powers

I’ve not read “Orlando” since university so in my memory it felt like one of her more flighty and playful novels focusing on gender. It is that but there is so much more in the novel I’d forgotten about or missed when I read it the first time. I think Woolf’s highly stylised prose that are packed with so many ideas make her an especially interesting author to revisit at different stages of your life. Orlando is famously about an individual who begins as a teenage nobleman in the Elizabethan era and who lives through a few centuries aging little and swapping genders. It’s remarkably inventive and forward thinking. The character was perfectly realized by Tilda Swinton in Sally Potter’s 1992 film and I recently visited the Charleston Trust where they are currently celebrating the book’s 90th birthday with different events and exhibits. I relish visiting the Charleston House and Monk’s House whenever I can. I saw writer Olivia Laing and the artist/writer La JohnJoseph give an interesting performance responding to the book. Seeing different modern takes and interpretations of the novel has given me a whole new appreciation of Woolf’s vision alongside revisiting the text itself.

Something I didn’t recall from my first reading of the book was the way Woolf pokes fun at and satirizes being a writer throughout the novel. Orlando aspires to be a poet working on a poem about an oak tree for a few centuries. But Orlando’s opinions about writing and the literary community change over time. Orlando encounters Alexander Pope and other literary figures who disillusion him/her about being a writer and Woolf marks how writers’ reputation and stature changes dramatically over time. The book recounts how insular some literary circles can be (how little has changed over time!) and how Orlando is drawn to only writing for himself and then abandoning writing altogether to just appreciate nature, but Orlando is eventually drawn back to working on that epic poem. There’s a lot of ironic humour when Woolf contemplates how “once the disease of reading has laid upon the system it weakens it so that it falls in easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the inkpot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing.” Woolf herself is such a fixture in the literary canon now that I feel this statement really humanizes her. The way she writes about conflicted feelings about the meaning and pursuit of literature makes me consider how she must have felt so conflicted herself despite her stature as a highly stylized writer devoted to the arts.

Connected to that is the whole premise of “Orlando” which is ostensibly a biography of this fantastical figure. The novel frequently makes references to the problem of writing a biography and the difficulties of trying to summarize someone’s life when really a person is infinitely more complex than recounting the facts about their history. This feels especially poignant since Woolf’s own father Leslie Stephen was a biographer himself. When Orlando considers biographical information about Alexander Pope it’s observed how “every secret of a writer’s soul every experience of his life every quality of his mind is written large in his works. Yet we require critics to explain the one and biographers to expound the other. That time hangs heavy on people’s hands is the only explanation of the monstrous growth.” It’s so interesting how Woolf seems to be skewering literary criticism and biography here which can only give a subjective interpretation of a writer’s work. But also the observation about people having too much time on their hands when Orlando is in some ways plagued with an immortality which forces him/her to continue forth without ever discovering answers or true revelations. All that changes is the proliferation of literature which increases when the development of mass printing takes place and Orlando studiously orders all the latest literature available.

I was also excited by noticing imagery and symbolism in Orlando which recurs in other books by Woolf. So, as in “To the Lighthouse” she makes the same metaphor about a lighthouse beam temporarily illuminating something just as our fleeting thoughts give a fleeting insight into our being. She also portrays an individual observing waves and toy boats at the Serpentine and then imaginatively inflates these to much larger events and occurrences in civilization. The character of Rhoda does the same thing rocking paper ships in a basin of water in “The Waves”. It’s interesting seeing how Woolf reworked certain metaphors over her different novels to assiduously probe the questions about life which were most central to her endeavours. Also, since I read Cavendish’s “The Blazing World” for the first time this year I was struck by how part of “Orlando’s” boundary-breaking imaginative influence must have come from this earlier 17th century novel. This is despite Woolf’s dismissive tone about how Cavendish “frittered her time away scribbling nonsense and plunging ever deeper into obscurity and folly” as she wrote in her essay “A Room of One’s Own”.

Orlando frequently refers to an emerald frog throughout the novel

Orlando frequently refers to an emerald frog throughout the novel

Of course, one of the brightest and most striking things about the book is how Orlando changes sex halfway through. But I’d forgotten how several other characters in the book also have a more fluid sense of gender and swap their sex at certain points. One of the great points that Laing and La JohnJoseph made in their talk was how enlivening it is to read a story about a character who swaps genders without their being oppressed for doing so and there’s something liberating and freeing about the way Orlando simply wakes up one day as a woman. Of course, Orlando does experience social trouble for the way the question of his/her gender is taken to court, there’s the issue of property ownership and how restrictive female clothes become for Orlando over time. But overall, it’s seen as a positive natural thing. One of the strongest statements Woolf makes about this is “Different though the sexes are they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness while underneath the sex is the very opposite from what it is above.” This powerfully marks the subtly of gender identity, but I was struck by how Laing observed that Woolf also frequently makes moving statements about how (as well as the question of gender) she portrays the way we’re all ever-changing beings beneath the identity on the surface. Later on in the book, Orlando frequently changes back and forth between male and female clothes and takes on a proliferation of identities to suit Orlando’s mood and the occasion. It feels like this character is an early proponent of how everything about the way we socially present ourselves is a form of drag.

I really appreciated the emotional and intellectual pleasures of this novel by revisiting it after such a long time. As much as I’m inspired by many aspects of it, I could also argue with Woolf’s perspective and point of view. One of the most notable the privileged and classist attitude Woolf exhibits through the novel and her other writing. She makes questionable statements about the worth of teaching the working class to read and at one point when Orlando goes out to try to appreciate the world he/she condescending exclaims “I like peasants. I understand crops”. But it would be easy to argue that Woolf is highly aware of writing from a position of privilege and mocking this state within the novel. Nevertheless, these opinions make Woolf all the more interesting and worthy of revisiting as a writer who contains infinite complexity and who is endlessly enjoyable to discuss.

You can watch more of my reaction to revisiting Woolf in this video:

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesVirginia Woolf

There’s something so invitingly intoxicating about the way Sarah Perry blends the tone of classic Victorian literature with a modern sensibility. Her previous novel “The Essex Serpent” was actually set in the Victorian era and new novel “Melmoth” is set roughly in present-day Prague. But they both employ a self-conscious authorial control over the narrative that contemplates many moral questions while (most importantly) telling a riveting gothic-inflected story at the same time.

“Melmoth” centres around the story of Helen Franklin, an English woman with a guilty secret working as a translator of mundane manuals in the Czech Rep. But the novel also includes many fictional documents from the past detailing Nazi occupations and the forced migration of different ethnicities. All these accounts are tied together with occasional sightings of a figure called Melmoth, a dark-clad woman with bleeding feet who legend claims roams the Earth for eternity seeking to assuage her piteous loneliness. As Helen surveys these documents from different cultures about individuals who make dubious choices in times of political unrest, she gradually confronts her own past and the possibility that Melmoth is now pursuing her.

Helen goes to a dramatic production of the opera Rusalka about a water sprite from Slavic mythology

Helen goes to a dramatic production of the opera Rusalka about a water sprite from Slavic mythology

Perry creates a menacing sense of atmosphere filled with unsettling natural phenomena and things which seem to be lurking in the shadows just out of sight. The question of whether Melmoth is real or not is teased out in quite a unique way where her presence is both feared and invited. At one point Helen contemplates how “I wasn’t only scared. I wanted something to be there – I wanted to see something waiting for me – do you think you can long for something that scares you half to death.” There’s the dark desire to be titillated by what scares us the most and there’s the conscience-stricken belief we deserve to be punished. Helen is challenged over the course of this tale to radically confront and judge herself. This is a richly evocative novel that provokes unsettling questions about our obligations to people in need and what we do with our guilt when we’re all on our own.  

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSarah Perry
My Year of Rest and Relaxation.jpg

Ottessa Moshfegh has a particular talent for writing about vile characters in an engaging way. Her novel “Eileen portrayed an excruciatingly self-conscious protagonist recalling a dark mystery from many year ago. But where the protagonist of that novel was repulsed and embarrassed by her own body, the unnamed narrator of “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” takes easy pride in her beauty and size two figure. But she doesn’t see this as an advantage as she slyly observes “Being pretty only kept me trapped in a world that valued looks above all else.” She’s an art history graduate that comes from a privileged background who sets herself the goal of sleeping as much as possible for a year. Her reasons for this goal are elusive at first and appear to be nothing more than the whim of a jaded spoiled young woman, but gradually it takes on more poignancy as she describes her difficult relationship with her mother and the disappointingly shallow experience of working in an art gallery. This takes place in New York City over the years 2000-2001 and she seems to be asking during this ominous period in which George Bush Jr takes office whether it’s more sensible to sleep through life than live it. Reading this novel is perversely pleasurable with its weary view of the world and the narrator’s overwhelming devotion to her hero Whoopi Goldberg who embodies for her the idea that “Nothing was sacred.”

The narrator has an all-consuming scepticism about human emotions and can’t engage in meaningful exchanges. She reflects “I felt nothing. I could think of feelings, emotions, but I couldn’t bring them up in me.” Her only friend is an old college buddy named Reva who is perpetually insecure, suffers from an eating disorder and aspires to obtain the narrator’s privilege and waist line. But the narrator barely tolerates her and breezily ignores Reva when she confesses that her mother is suffering from cancer or that she has an unwanted pregnancy. Equally any emotion Reva displays towards the narrator is awkwardly accepted like when Reva hugs her at one point and the narrator observes how “I felt like a praying mantis in her arms.” The narrator regularly sees a quack psychiatrist named Dr Tuttle (when she doesn’t sleep through their scheduled appointment) but only in order to obtain worryingly strong doses of sleep medication to aide her in sinking into an unconscious oblivion. Hilariously her doctor can’t even recall that the narrator’s parents are both dead even after she’s told this multiple times and makes extensive notes.

“Wherever she went, everything around her became a parody of itself, gauche and ridiculous. That was a comfort to see. Thank God for Whoopi. Nothing was sacred. Whoopi was proof.”

“Wherever she went, everything around her became a parody of itself, gauche and ridiculous. That was a comfort to see. Thank God for Whoopi. Nothing was sacred. Whoopi was proof.”

It’s rational to assume at first that the narrator’s desire for sleep is connected to the loss of her parents, especially her emotionally absent mother who she only ever felt close to when they were unconscious in the same bed. But this easy interpretation of the narrator’s goal is refuted when she reflects about her mother’s death: “the particular sadness of a young woman who has lost her mother – complex and angry and soft, yet oddly hopeful. I recognized it. But I didn’t feel it inside of me. The sadness was just floating around in the air. It became denser in the graininess of shadows.” Instead of building relationships or looking for a sense of self-worth when she’s conscious she only seeks to lose herself in an endless stream of rewatched VHS tapes of movies from the 80s and 90s. It gives her a temporary sense of detachment from reality that can only be perfectly realised in “Good strong American sleep.”

While it can be enjoyable to indulge in the narrator’s frank and nihilistic view of the world, the novel took on more poignancy for me as I pondered why Moshfegh set it at this particular point in American history. It’s a period leading up to an event which is ominously foreshadowed throughout the novel when it’s casually mentioned the narrator’s ex-boyfriend works in the Twin Towers. It ultimately began to feel like the author wished she could wake up from the string of tragic events and toxic culture that has plagued the country in the 21st century thus far and dismiss it all as a nightmare. Looking at it this way, it begins to make sense that the narrator considers “I would risk death if it meant I could sleep all day and become a whole new person.” The great tragedy of this novel is that the narrator can’t ever escape herself or the history she’s trapped in.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
5 CommentsPost a comment

When I started this blog I never thought it’d become such a big part of my life. Barely a day goes by when I’m not posting about a book or responding to a comment or email or chatting with someone on social media about books. I’ve written 452 book reviews for the blog thus far and met countless readers – some of you I’ve even met in real life! And I really value all the chats about books we’ve had. 

Of course I’ve always been a reader, but keeping this blog and interacting with other readers online has given me such a deeper appreciation for what a social activity reading is rather than seeing it as a strictly solitary act. It’s not an accident that so many avid readers are introverts - although, certainly not every reader could be classified this way. But I am someone who enjoys solitude and the process of reading demands this. So much alone time can cause a creeping glumness where I feel too disconnected from other people and I think this is partly why a sense of loneliness can overwhelm me at times.

I clearly remember a summer in my teens where I took a month off from working and school. For whatever reason, I was lucky enough to have freedom at that time to mostly sit at home and read. So I ardently read Dostoevsky and Faulkner for hours on end day after day. And one afternoon I looked up and thought: I AM SO DEPRESSED. Ha. Of course I was! Yes, it’s important to go out in the world now and then, but I think if I were online then interacting with other readers it would have made me feel a lot better. Hearing opinions and book recommendations from other readers and getting involved in so many bookish activities goes a long way to alleviate this occasional sadness and recognize how empowering solitude can be. So thanks for chatting with me about books!

I keep quotes from five wonderful authors in the side column of this blog to remind myself about the distinction between loneliness and solitude. It’s important for readers to remind themselves that there is a strength and connectedness that comes with the activity of reading when we’re alone. Since you’re also a keen reader I’m glad you understand what I mean. Thank you for being here.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
16 CommentsPost a comment

Something unsettled me amidst reading Rachel Kushner’s novel “The Mars Room” which focuses primarily on a young mother named Romy Hall who has just been convicted for two life sentences. We’re given a highly detailed and unflinching look into the lives of an array of individuals who have been incarcerated in a California state prison for women. Scenes veer from instances of horrific violence and suffocating devastation to humorous depictions of the women’s characters and interactions. This tragicomic balance is no doubt both true to life and necessary for a novel’s structure, but it felt somewhat voyeuristic in a way that made me uncomfortable.

That there is a whole population of people locked away from public view and the justice system is fraught with problems is something that shouldn’t be ignored. I believe fiction can be a means by which we can better empathize and understand the lives of people who were born into and are trapped in circumstances radically different from our own. And I have no doubt about the sincerity or meticulousness of Kushner’s labour in creating a novel that sympathetically represents people whose voices are too often ignored or suppressed. But I felt there was something awkward about the way she’s rendered these lives with such artistic control by also incorporating different third person narrative strands about a few male characters. While it didn’t stop me from being emotionally engaged at points or admiring many of the insights “The Mars Room” gives, it left me somewhat estranged from what I felt the core of this novel was trying to do.

Kushner has spoken in interviews about her proximity to correctional facilities such as this, friends who are serving long prison sentences and how Romy’s background is similar to girls she knew in her own childhood. There’s a potent logic in how we follow Romy’s journey from first being processed into permanent incarceration where she reflects about large swaths of her coming of age in a side of San Francisco much different from the popular understanding of that city in the 70s and 80s. This is a place of gritty urban decay, poor education and violence that almost inevitably leads Romy into a life of drug addiction and working at a strip club. However, interspersed with her memories and present experiences in prison are accounts of a dirty ex-cop named Doc and a Thoreau-loving man named Gordon who encourages inmates to get their GEDs while occasionally getting too touchy feely. These sections didn’t make much of an impression on me other than making grand statements that Kushner couldn’t give in the confines of Romy’s tale and serving as devices to feed into the plot working towards the novel’s somewhat melodramatic conclusion.

The content and musings within these third person accounts about men are sometimes interesting but jar against the larger narrative about Romy and other female inmates. For instance, at one point Gordon muses how “A man could say every day that he wanted to change his life, was going to change it, and every day the lament became merely a part of the life he was already living, so that the desire for change was in fact a kind of stasis that allowed the unchanged life to continue, because at least the man knew to disapprove of it, which reassured him not all was lost.” The devastating logic of this is really meaningful and speaks to universal ideas about human nature. Nevertheless, it felt too often like Kushner was striving to faithfully balance the lives of men against the female population of the prison. The only instance where it felt really effective was towards the end in how she rendered the misogynistic thought process and self-justification of a male stalker. But overall the balance Kushner tried to strike faithfully depicting all her characters’ stories felt unwieldy to me.

Romy recalls going to a museum and sees Henri Matisse’s painting ‘The Girl with Green Eyes’ which she feels connected to.

Romy recalls going to a museum and sees Henri Matisse’s painting ‘The Girl with Green Eyes’ which she feels connected to.

I gravitated towards Romy’s voice the most and wanted to stay with it. There are many punchy short lines which brutally convey the way a prison environment leads to paranoia and isolation: “You can’t believe anything people say. But what they say is all you have.” Kushner also has a skilled way of emotionally drawing you into this character’s experience and then stating how you are still really different. At one point Romy observes “A lot of history is not known. A lot of worlds have existed that you can’t look up online or in any book, even as you think you have the freedom to find things out that I cannot, since I don’t have access to the internet.” I admire the way she makes a large statement about the hidden aspects of history and then reminds the reader how Romy is excluded from trying to research information in the way we’re now accustomed to because she can’t search for things online. The way in which the reader is drawn into relating to Romy’s human experience but is also made aware of the significant differences in terms of opportunities and freedom is really powerful. I just wish Kushner had stayed true to that rather than striving to create a panoramic view of society like in a Dostoevsky book who she heavily nods towards in this novel.

For a different look at the lives and mentality of people in prison, I’d really recommend reading the anthology “Prison Noir” which is a collection of powerful stories written by people who are in prison or have been incarcerated.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRachel Kushner
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Here are the six books shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. I’m so thrilled to see “Washington Black” and “Everything Under” on the list, but quite disappointed that “The Water Cure” and “Normal People” didn’t make it. Like I explained in my post about “Milkman” there are parts of it which are so brilliant and mesmerising, but other sections were a slog to get through so I have mixed feelings about it. I also felt conflicted about “The Mars Room” for different reasons. But I am glad to see them both on the list because it means more people will be discussing them and giving their opinions. I’m currently reading “The Overstory”. And “The Long Take” is a novel I’m so intrigued by so I’m glad I have an excuse to go buy a copy now. It’s tough to say, but initially I feel like the winning book will be a race between Esi Edugyan & Richard Powers

How do you feel about the shortlist? If you want to watch more of my thoughts comparing nominated books and discussing the prize I made a video you can watch here:


Like many people, I was hugely impressed by Sarah Moss’ previous novel “The Tidal Zone” for the way its story meaningfully drew the past into the pressing concerns of its characters in the present. She uses a similar technique in her new novel “Ghost Wall” but in a much more compressed form that combines a tense story with a strong statement about issues in modern Britain. Teenage Silvie is taken on a unique archaeological trip in Northern England by her parents along with a few students and a professor. Rather than searching for artefacts they seek to recreate the feeling of living in Iron Age Britain as closely as possible. This means wearing nothing but burlap sacks, foraging for what food they can in the forest and living in primitive shelters. It also includes antiquated rituals like building a wall out of skulls and other unsavoury acts which grow increasingly alarming and bizarre. The values that Silvie’s father holds are skewed towards an outdated ideal of masculinity and gender dynamics which Silvie gradually comes to question. For such a short novel, this book builds up to a thrilling and memorable conclusion.

Since the vote for Brexit there’s been a lot of discussion about what Britain means as a country and a concept. Silvie’s father is an extreme example of someone searching for an ideal form of citizenship which retains a cultural purity without any outside or foreign influences. He’s angry about “Foreigners coming over here, telling us what to think” and longs to return to some pre-Roman Celtic tribe: “He wanted his own ancestry, wanted a lineage, a claim on something. Not people from Ireland or Rome or Germania or Syria but some tribe sprung from English soil like mushrooms in the night.” Of course, such reactionary desire to inhabit some mythically primitive form of being British is exactly what stirs fear, xenophobia and isolationist thinking. Sarah Moss dramatically and poignantly shows how such inclinations are both spurious and absurd.

At the centre of the story is Silvie who was named after an ancient British goddess Sulevia. She develops a friendship (and attraction?) to student Molly who is from Southern England. She is headstrong, dismissive of the group’s blatant machoism and hilariously bunks off from gathering edible weeds and berries to buy prepacked food from the local convenient store. Molly has grown up with very different values from Silvie who feels that it’s natural that “Children’s bodies were not their own, we were all used to uncles who liked to cop a feel given half a chance and mums who showed love in smacked legs.” But Silvie also refuses to be seen as a rural working class stereotype and is wary of patronizing views about their lifestyle. It’s a tense dynamic and it raises a lot of challenging questions for the reader about the difference between cultural sensitivity and doing what’s ethically right. These questions are just as haunting as the image of Bog People performing a sacrifice in the Iron Age which prefaces this short, razor-sharp novel.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSarah Moss

Sally Rooney is a writer that stands out as the voice of young Ireland. The natural milieu of her characters are intellectual college educated women and men in their teens and twenties. From her first novel “Conversations with Friends” to her new Booker longlisted “Normal People” she presents their stories about grappling with relationships and finding a place in society with deceptively straightforward prose. While this runs the risk of appearing to have a parochial view of the world, it moreover reads as emotionally honest and engaging in a way that few writers can pull off. This new novel is the story of Marianne and Connell who come from very different socio-economic backgrounds. Connell's mother works as a cleaner at Marianne's family home. The differences in class seem an inconsequential part of their relationship at first, but as they get older it has more of an effect on how they connect to each other. The story charts the staggered journey of their bond from 2011 to 2015. You can read this novel for the insights it gives into modern life and the plight of a section of an emerging generation, but it's moreover a modern romance which meaningfully engages the reader in the characters' growth as individuals and tantalizes with the question: will they or won't they get together? 

Before I recently read this novel I went to literary event and bumped into the excellent writer Ruth Gilligan who remarked how it's not been remarked in many reviews how at its core “Normal People” works as a really gripping romance story. I wonder if literary critics are hesitant to acknowledge this fact out of a fear that Sally Rooney will appear like a less intellectual writer. It's something Rooney herself seems to grapple with as her character Connell discovers Jane Austen's novels and the pleasure of an old fashioned romance story. “Normal People” is really an updated version of “Pride and Prejudice” or “Emma” for the way it takes seriously the struggle to find a real emotional connection amidst societal influences. It asks questions such as to what degree does social perception factor into our private relationships? How does wealth and power influence our connection to each other? In what way are our current relationships hampered by the emotional baggage of our pasts? But these larger questions linger in the background without intruding upon the pleasures to be found in the plot of Rooney's story. Marianne and Connell's relationship is on a par with that of the great tortured romances in literature like Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler whose evident passion for each other is also stymied by circumstance and tragic misunderstanding. 

Rooney has a particular talent for writing about the quiet emotional core and inner conflicts of her characters without any flourishes or elaborate language. This struck me following the journey of her character Frances in “Conversations with Friends” and it's even more powerfully portrayed in Marianne whose complex toxic family situation is slowly revealed over the course of the novel. At one point she observes of Marianne that “She wants to tell him things. But it’s too late now, and anyway it has never done her good to tell anyone.” Rooney describes in this powerfully understated way how the most significant things are often left unsaid and how we hinder ourselves from forming lasting connections out of a fear of truly revealing ourselves. At the same time she shows how the nature of being dictates we are all locked in a struggle between our inner and outer realities: “In just a few weeks’ time Marianne will live with different people, and life will be different. But she herself will not be different. She'll be the same person, trapped in her own body. There's nowhere she can go that would free her from this. A different place, different people, what does that matter?”

It feels like Rooney is deeply suspicious of the elitism of some literary circles. At university avid reader Connell develops a desire to become a writer himself but he's wary that the apparent insights fiction appears to give might be false. As someone from a working class background he's especially cognizant of how class factors into who consumes literature. When attending a reading he observes: “It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.” At the same time, literature is a method of creating a cultural dialogue that he still wants to participate in. But I wonder if this instance also gives an insight into why Rooney is so steadfast in writing about characters that are young, intelligent and Irish rather than imaginatively inhabiting the lives of people who are radically different from herself. I can't imagine Rooney writing about the plight of a Syrian refugee as Donal Ryan does in his accomplished novel “From a Low and Quiet Sea”. I imagine this would feel to her like an act for the sake of appearances and showily engaging in cultural dialogue. That's not to say Connell's feelings are necessarily her own, but that it's striking in the two novels Rooney has produced that she's stuck to writing about the lives and concerns of a limited set of people. This doesn't demonstrate a lack of imagination, but the conscious intent of a talented writer. 

Since Donal Ryan is also longlisted for the Booker prize, it also seems interesting to compare “Normal People” to another Irish longlisted title “Milkman” by Anna Burns. Rooney and Burns have very different styles of writing and focuses - “Normal People” is set in rural Ireland and Dublin while “Milkman” is set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. But there's a striking coincidental parallel between the novels in that they both feature socially outcast female protagonists who read constantly to consciously escape their surroundings and develop relationships with men unwilling to label that relationship as committed. I don't know if this says anything significant about Ireland, modern social culture or the dynamic between men and women, but it's an interesting connection. While we can easily debate about the inherent worth of the Booker prize and the choices that the judges have made in their longlist this year, I enjoy how the prize has prompted me to read these new novels in close proximity to each other. But regardless of book prizes or literary culture in general, “Normal People” is a wonderfully engaging novel. 

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSally Rooney

Daisy Johnson's debut book of short stories 'Fen' was a bewitching example of how modern-day real-world issues could be given a darkly imaginative fairy tale spin. So I've been greatly anticipating her debut novel which references both 'Hansel and Gretel' and the myth of Oedipus. Before reading it I went to see Johnson speak at a Waterstones event focused on modern reimaginings of myths (since it's a literary trope so in vogue at the moment given recent novels from writers such as Kamila Shamsie, Madeline Miller and Colm Toibin.) It was a relief to hear Johnson explain that she wrote “Everything Under” in such a way that no knowledge of the Oedipus myth is necessary to understand this new novel since my only familiarity with Sophocles' tragedy is mainly through the complex made famous by Freud. Nor have I read the original fairy tale of 'Hansel and Gretel' since I was very young. 

So I went into reading this novel focusing purely on the story itself rather than how it relates to these classic tales. I wasn't disappointed because I'm so drawn to the universal themes she writes about, her characters who are outsiders on the margins of society and her strikingly distinct writing style. The beginning is so powerful in how it beautifully describes the sense of how we are tied to a sense of home which has forgotten us. However, I was quite confused throughout sections of this novel which jump through large periods of time and between characters. The story involves adoptions, gender fluidity, the disorientating effects of dementia and an elusive mysterious river monster named 'The Bonak'. But, by the end of the novel, I was fully engrossed and moved by how the pieces of the story slid together to form an impactful conclusion. It's the sort of book which I know will benefit from a rereading now that I understand its characters/plot better and the classic myths which were reworked into its structure.

A character named Gretel is at the centre of the story which primarily focuses on her quest to understand the past she's consciously forgot and find her mother Sarah who she's been estranged from for many years. The reason for Johnson's jigsaw style of storytelling seems to be rooted in a belief of how memories are necessarily distorted and also on a philosophy of life which is asserted by a character named Charlie. He claims that “life is sort of a spinning thing. Like a planet or a moon going round a planet… Sometimes it’s facing one direction but only for a second and then it’s spinning and spinning, revolving on its base so fast it’s impossible to really see. Except sometimes you catch a glimpse and you sit there and you know that’s what it would have been like if things had gone differently, that is the way it could have been.” Her characters can clearly envision different paths for their lives but find themselves curiously fated to follow trajectories that lead to dissolution and loneliness because of the bodies, families and circumstances they are born into. They are fettered by the past rather than liberated by a deeper understanding of it: “The past was not a thread trailing behind us but an anchor.”

It's interesting how Gretel's profession as a lexicographer seems to be a reaction against the instability of her upbringing where she and Sarah were so isolated they created a language for themselves: “They cut themselves off from the world linguistically as well as physically. They were a species of their own.” It's a compelling example of the way groups of people continuously splinter off from society, form cultures of their own and fold back into larger civilization to better inform and transform it. Just like time and language, gender and sexuality are never constant things in this novel. I really appreciated the complex way Johnson shows how her characters feel their way into inhabiting their bodies and expressing who they really are. Unlike most coming of age stories, there's a dark-edged violence to the anticipation of sex for Gretel when her mother Sarah gives a condom demonstration using a knife which tears through the material. Johnson excels at creating disturbing and tantalizing imagery which shakes the reader out of a complacent understanding of the world and this novel is a wondrous black gem of a book.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDaisy Johnson

It felt somewhat surprising to me that the fact a graphic novel has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for the first time has proved to be so controversial. I don't believe there's ever been any rules in the prize's guidelines saying a graphic novel can't be submitted and if none have been listed for the prize before I can only assume that publishers haven't submitted many in the past since they are only allowed to submit a very limited number of books. It feels like there's been an elitism and snobbery expressed by some who don't believe graphic novels are as great an art form as pure prose fiction. I get the point if people feel that reading a graphic novel is a totally different experience from reading a novel composed entirely in prose, but I think it's great that the prize is challenging people to read different forms of story telling and it might introduce some to an entirely new genre. I've certainly not read that many graphic novels before, but have really appreciated ones by Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore/Melinda Gebbie, Howard Hardiman and Chris Ware. So I'm glad the prize has introduced me to Nick Drnaso's work because I found “Sabrina” to be quite a powerful and bracingly melancholy read about current American society. 

A woman named Sabrina has gone missing. The novel focuses on the lives of Sabrina's sister Sandra and her boyfriend Teddy as they try to deal with her sudden absence and the aftermath when the shocking truth of what happened to her is revealed. The drawings which accompany the dialogue and text are very understated in how they convey the scenes with little detail or facial expressions in the characters. In the context of the story this has the odd effect of imbuing them with even more emotion because its all submerged and the characters are stuck in a state of inaction/confusion. Many of interior and outdoor spaces portrayed are also very muted or stark as if the environment is just as barren and sombre as the characters who are dealing with their grief. The conversations are clipped and awkward as the well meaning people in Sandra and Teddy's lives try to console them. All this evokes a tone of stripped down emotion as the characters are surrounded by a jaded society that's become accustomed to a bombardment of horrific news and a culture rife with conspiracy theories. Ironically, the only colourful and busy images in the book are reproductions of scenes from children's activity books which suggest a world of motion and light that's in stark contrast to the inertness of reality.


The story also involves a man named Calvin who takes his old friend Teddy in and tries to help him deal with his sudden loss. Calvin works in computer security for the US military and is trying to formulate a plan to relocate so he can be closer to his ex-wife and daughter. While his actual job doesn't involve any combat he spends his time out of work playing video games with his colleagues that simulate military battles and he keeps guns locked away in his house so that he's “well-protected if anyone tries anything.” This combined with radio broadcasts and disturbing threatening letters sent to Sandra and Calvin suggest how society has become so consumed with paranoia about intangible threats. But the only threats that are actually portrayed in the stories are the ones which come from within when the characters are under so much anxiety that they appear to contemplate harming themselves or others. As part of his job, Calvin must routinely fill out a medical evaluation survey which is designed to gauge his mental health. While his stress levels fluctuate in his answers portrayed on these forms throughout the book he never admits to thoughts of depression or any personal circumstances which might affect his duties. Why would he when he knows it would risk his employment and possible promotion? So it gives the feeling that there are structures in place to try to support people's emotional health, but in reality little attention is given to the intricacies of their wellbeing.

Small details in the drawings poignantly portray the fraught condition of these character's lives. For instance, Calvin and Teddy basically live off from fast food and its highly suggestive how Calvin often brings home bags with a smiling star on them which could stand in for any generic fast food brand but which you know won't provide them with much nourishment. Also, nighttime or nightmare scenes are drawn in such a way that evocatively invoke a sense of space where the characters are wrestling with the unwieldy complexity of their feelings. While the overall tone of the novel is quite dark and sombre there are some lighter moments as well in the form of a slanket which Calvin has become accustomed to wearing or a vending machine at work which breaks down so much it's become an office gag. There are also many moments of simple kindness shown throughout the story which gives a hopeful sense for our ability to be our best selves in situations where we aren't so physically removed from each other. Running alongside the story of Sabrina's disappearance is that of Calvin's cat who vanishes without the characters noticing. This neglect parallels with the way Calvin has become so estranged from his daughter that his ex-wife tells him not to bother attempting contact anymore. It suggests how we can sometimes be careless about the things and people that matter to us most until we suddenly realise we've lost them for good.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNick Drnaso
2 CommentsPost a comment