“What did you think …?”

A friend (A… ) and I had a conversation recently about two prizewinning books, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, and The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Both are long, in the region of 800 pages. Both have won major prizes this year: The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; The Luminaries won the Man Booker.

The Luminaries

I really liked The Luminaries, and wrote about it here. A… didn’t like it at all, found the characters unmemorable and the story repetitive – it ended back where it had begun, she said, reprising what was told in the beginning. The most positive thing she said about it was that she learnt a bit about gold-mining.

I didn’t take to the protagonist in The Goldfinch, found the descriptions of both settings and drug use overdone to the point of tediousness and thought it redeemed only by some interesting discussion near the end about the endurance of art (as distinct from a human life) and how it can make us see beauty in the world where we hadn’t seen it before. On the other hand A… thought it was a terrific, widely-encompassing book with a number of compelling scenes that endured well beyond the reading.

The GoldfinchWe both read a lot. I respect A…’s opinions (she has taught English literature, I have not). We neither of us changed our opinions about the books.

The conversation reminded me of times when I have felt like a minority opinion in liking – or not – a film/ book/ television show that everyone around me had an opposing view of. What I really liked, though, was that talking about why I admired one book and not the other with someone who disagreed made me articulate what I based my opinion on. That happens when my partner Prue and I talk about a book we have both read, too. And it’s one of the things I like about being in a book group.

Talking about books can be just about as much fun as reading them.

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Literary Crushes

I have three. My literary crushes are a combination of admiration for the person’s writing, along with being drawn to the person, the public person obviously, by qualities I respond to. I find something original, compelling, accomplished—or likely all three—in their published work and their persona.

Stein

In the case of Gertrude Stein, it’s her certainty about herself, and her role in the literary world, taking writing to somewhere it had never been before. The sheer cheek of believing so thoroughly in her own genius and her persistence in the writing she so thoroughly believed in, is compelling. Something about the definiteness of her opinions and  conceit appeals, even when biographers point out that she wasn’t always in charge in her relationship with Alice B Toklas.

Sontag

I first saw Susan Sontag in the film of “Town Bloody Hall” the famous New York debate chaired by Norman Mailer in 1979. (The one where Jill Johnstone snogged with a woman—or was it two?—onstage.) Sontag stood up from the audience to ask a question. I don’t remember the question, I do remember the woman I later found to be Susan Sontag, standing there, asking it. Since then I’ve read all her books and now I’m devouring the  journals edited by her son; so far, two volumes. I love her conviction about her ideas, her persona and style, her insistence on being a public intellectual, without an institutional base.

Catton

And now I’m taken with Eleanor Catton, in spite of my initial inclination to dislike her and her writing; call it writer envy if you like, she’s young and successful. I remember being mystified by The Rehearsal, and liking it a little bit. My notes from 2010 when I read it (yes, I keep a reading journal) don’t say a lot. I bought and started The Luminaries, which I wrote about in an earlier blog (23 September 2013) when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and had long finished by the time it won.

I’m impressed by her thoughtfulness throughout countless interviews, her clarity regarding the complicated structure of The Luminaries and her capacity to respond to sometimes silly questions with apparent calm and common sense. She’s deeply intelligent, I think. So, I’ve moved from a somewhat petty envy to outright admiration.

PS Actually, I’ve got more than three literary crushes and they do vary a bit. Stein and Sontag are, so far, the most enduring.

The Luminaries

Would I have read this book so carefully (and quickly) if it had not been long- then short-listed for the Man Booker Prize? Probably not. Did I enjoy reading it? Yes. It’s a page-turner.

The Luminaries

The way Eleanor Catton leaks out bit of information relevant to the unfolding of the plot is brilliant. Did I figure out all the celestial stuff? No, but as it was mainly at the beginnings of chapters, in titles and diagrams,  that didn’t seem to matter. Any implications of it threaded in the text simply escaped me and I wasn’t bothered by it. My loss, maybe.

Would I have picked the fact that each chapter is half the length of the one before? (I knew this from a review before I started reading.) Probably  not. I would have just noticed that the chapters got shorter, not the precise relationship.

There are a lot of characters, so the list at the beginning is helpful, but I mainly kept track of them while reading. There’s also an invisible narrator, who from time to time says things such as, “But our point has already been made; we ought to return to the scene at hand.” I like this, it gives a sense of someone being in control of the whole enterprise of the story, and this one is particularly complicated, so it’s good to be reminded that there’s a guiding hand.

Would I be pleased if it won? Of course. The writing is good, the plot is solid, it’s daring. Would I be even more pleased if Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale For The Time Being won the prize? That’s hard to answer. I’d maybe be just as pleased; A Tale For The Time Being is my book of the year, to date.

I haven’t read the other four long-listed books yet, though I have bought Jumpha Lahiri ‘s The Lowland and NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. Cólm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary And Jim Crace’s Harvest will likely make the top of my reading list in due course.

John Key has indicated many millions of dollars in support of a defence of the America’s cup, if “we” win. I wonder what he’ll announce by way of contribution to New Zealand literature if The Luminaries wins the Man Booker Prize?