Warlight – 3/5 Stars
Warlight is the latest novel by Michael Ondaatje, most famous of course for The English Patient which won the Booker Price 25 years ago and recently won a kind of reissue Booker Prize and of course the film version of the movie won Best Picture at the Oscars and I really like the movie and plenty of people do not.
So this book has also been nominated for the Longlist of the Booker Prize. Like a lot of late novels by very good novelists, this one just isn’t as strong, but in a lot of ways it is a very rich novel. For me, the characters and their actions and motivations are interesting and the writing is still good, but his writing has become more and more novelistic over the years and less poetic and beautiful. The result is a perfectly competent novel that I will largely forget in the coming months.
The premise of the novel is a brother and sister born in the late 1920s and early 1930s in England are sort of abandoned by their parents “for a posting overseas” which becomes quite clear, especially to the son (who is the narrator of the novel and looking back decades hence). Because of events we don’t have just yet and because of his coming realizations, it’s clear that rather than a foreign diplomatic posting, their parents and especially the mother are involved in covert statecraft. The abandonment leaves them with Walter “The Moth” and puts them in the sight of The Darter, both of whom are earnest and quite loving men, who have no business watching over vulnerable children. And so the kinds of troubles kids who want to get into becomes quite easy to get into with no real consistent supervision. The book then carries us up to their adult lives and the kinds of adults they’ve become.
Sabrina – 3/5
This is the first graphic novel to be longlisted by the Booker Prize. I am not sure I agree that it’s good enough to be first and I worry that being first might convince voters to elect it the winner. My issue is that it’s just not good enough to win. It’s whatever the nice way to say gimmicky, which I suppose is “contrived” also not a very nice way to describe a book. My issue with it is that it’s topical and like topical books, it has a hard time being about and saying things about anything beyond that topic. The topic here is a missing woman and the ways in which the directly and indirectly affect people handle the trauma, and then of course how in high-octane newscycle how the, and let’s be clear here almost exclusively alt-right/far right monsters begin to hash out conspiracy theories ala crisis actors etc. This would be a very interesting topic for a tv show where the visuals of the topic and the focus of television allows for the kind of showy unnuanced portrayal can work. In a novel, it’s clunky and frustrating to feel over and over again that we’re being told to LOOK at a thing and consider it within a media and political landscape. Books can certainly be about things, but there’s a constant feel of an author making choices to show us something without letting the narrative and story drive us. And because the focus is on these media and political implications it feels forced and inauthentic.
Pictures from an Institution – 4/5 Stars
I bet you’ve all read at least one Randall Jarrell poem. This one, most likely:
The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
Randall Jarrell, 1914 – 1965
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
And now you have! If you hadn’t!
I read Randall Jarrell in college for an intro to literature class both because of his poetry and because of a children’s book he wrote called The Bat Poet, which you might also have read since Maurice Sendak did the art.
Jarrell is famous for his poetry but also famous for being a famous poet. He worked at Vanderbilt, where he was after the war and sort of took over for very famous literary critic John Crowe Ransom, also a poet. And they, along with some authors like Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren became famous for their “Fugitive Poet” school.
This novel, his only, dives into the politics–intellectual and personal–of small private colleges. In this book, the school year is punctuated by the arrival and departure of an acerbic new creative writing teacher who immediately turns her eye to the college itself. His book reads or looks like it would read like a typical academic novel like Nell Zink’s Mislaid or Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, but I found it to be much more erudite and thoughtful and felt closer to something like John Williams’s Stoner, which is also funny, but in a secondary way.