Book Review: Harvest

Harvest-225x300From Goodreads: In effortless and tender prose, Jim Crace details the unraveling of a pastoral idyll in the wake of economic progress. His tale is timeless and unsettling, framed by a beautifully evoked world that will linger in your memory long after you finish reading.

But it wasn’t effortless prose.

As much as I wanted to like Jim Crace’s Harvest, a novel that is reported to be his last, I often found myself avoiding it.  Yes, the book’s prose was beautiful.  Yes, it was a tough and interesting premise.  Yes, there is no question that Jim Crace is a respected author who has written another novel that is being widely discussed across literary circles.  It just was not the book for me.

This story is told from the perspective of villager Walter Thirsk, and the entire narrative takes place over just 7 days.  Beginning with two plumes of smoke, Harvest slips the reader into an uncertain time of master and servant, villager and outsider, tradition and change. Walter Thirsk, a widower and the novel’s guide, shares his observations throughout the story and shares his misgivings about the shift that a farming village is facing from grain to sheep.  Change is never easy, and for the inhabitants of this village, fear of it pulses through their veins. This fear leads to everything from poor judgement to finger pointing, both of which smack of the potential to create an utter wasteland.  Clearly, when too much energy is used to resist change, the unintended result can be destruction rather than preservation. This parting message leaps from the latter pages of Harvest, which made the story’s lasting mark a sad one.

During the Bookermarks podcast, I noted that Harvest would be the perfect Literature assignment in High School.  Crace’s language deserves undivided attention, and the story provides multiple layers that can be peeled back for further examination.  Deeper meanings can be extracted from the simplest of Crace’s sentences, which is unquestionably the mark of intelligent prose.  I do not question the merit of Harvest as a literary accomplishment, nor do I wonder why it has its place on the 2013 Man Booker Shortlist.

Simply put, my trouble with Harvest was its pace.  While it was clear that every single word was chosen with great care, I found that the plot quickly became mired in its own language. The descriptions bogged down the emotion.  In other words, it just didn’t flow.  It wasn’t a book that I was anxious to pick up again, and while I will always appreciate beautiful writing, I also like to get lost in a story.  Harvest did not provide this escape. While I congratulate Jim Crace for a novel that this both poignant and complicated, it is not a novel that I will be picking up for a reread anytime soon.

3 Stars for Harvest.

This review was simultaneously published on Bookermarks.

2013 Man Booker Shortlisted: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

luminariesRating: 3 (3.5)

The Luminaries
A Novel by Eleanor Catton
2013 /848 Pages

You may have noticed on our side bar to your right that what I was “Currently Reading” was The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. It must have been showing I was “currently reading” it for well over a month, perhaps longer. For me, straight up and honest, it certainly felt like I was chained to this book for many, many months. Indeed, I easily and readily found a great number of times to put it aside and read other books all the while, four (4!) to be exact, and contemplated two others.

There is absolutely no contested doubt that The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton’s is a very ambitious and exquisitely written novel. There is no doubt it is stunning in its descriptive and delightful characterization. Yet, perhaps this is also its greatest flaw, perhaps it is too ambitious in its excessive description or for tying characters and their story to an obscure astrological calendar that I honestly did not care enough to research to see how it fit with this intricately written historical mystery (ex. what or how “Sun in Capricorn” fits). More than likely it is due to its excessive length and excessive descriptions of every thing, every one. My enjoyment continuously waned as I increasingly felt more like I was being “forced” to read it for our BookerMarks project. I’m certain I would have abandoned this one long, long before had I been reading it more for my leisure. Truthfully, The Luminaries was something I had looked forward to before its inclusion in the Man Booker Prize Longlist (& Shortlist) announcement(s).  But just as truthfully, it also became something I wished to abandon on more than one occasion. (Obviously, as I was able to ease in four other books in between.) It was too easy for me to put aside and read just this one here, and well, now this one has popped up, and oh! look I can read this one too!

By the time I hit Part Two I was exhausted and aghast to realize I still had 425 pages to slog through. And it was at this point that I truly stopped forcing myself to pretend and keep up any pretense I was enjoying this. I did complete it, I did read it. It was painful. But I did it. I gave up repeating to myself that yes, this was so good I so completely agree it’s wonderful! Up to a point I was enjoying it but only because of its richly and classically composed narrative. Yet, there is only so long I could hold to that. I began to resent this novel with a passion knowing that I still had the equivalent of approximately two-books-worth more of reading to do in order to reach completion.

While the definite pros of the book lay in her beautiful, beautiful prose and the synopsis of events at the start of every chapter that leads to her slow reveal (with incredible attention to every detail) of each of those events. There was not one detail that was left unnoticed or described, not one fold of a pocket, one glance of an eye, not one size, shape, texture of their mutton chop. Beautifully detailed. Yet…..after 326 pages of reading about those folds, colours, textures, appeals of the suit or dress they are wearing starts to wear you down. Certainly, it did for me.

Did I mention it’s too long? I’ve read door-stoppers before, but I haven’t felt the anxiety and drudgery with those that I felt with this one. In the context of The Luminaries, it is definitely too long and padded down with more filler than necessary. I started to read the reviews on Goodreads (likely I was thinking it would be a way to cheat and see if the mystery was solved in 250 words or less!)  and many mentioned that it could easily have been cut short 250 pages. I couldn’t agree more. What a tremendous slog this became. What also stung was the slip from two of our BookerMarks bloggers in saying the ending was a bit of a letdown. Seriously? So you’re telling me now that I’m suffering through this only to become even more disappointed with its end? All of these points I could not get out of my head and it certainly hindered any attempt at enjoyment of it for any longer (and, so you know, to say the ending was a “bit”of a letdown is a gross understatement in my opinion).

For me, The Luminaries sits firmly between the 3-star and 3.5-star rating. “Good, recommend with reservations” to “Very good”. Very good for the obvious beautiful, descriptive and classical prose but recommend this with strong reservations due to the sheer investment of time required to read through this tome to its end and because that investment of time results in an abysmal ending. In terms of winning the Man Booker Prize? It’s not my choice, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a thing. For myself, I’m just so delighted I finally reached the finish line. Whew!

This will be published simultaneously on BookerMarks.

Book Review: Saturn’s Daughters

satThank you Midas Public Relations of London for sending a copy of Saturn’s Daughters.  The novel, written by Jim Pinnells, revolves around late 19th century Russia and the birth of terrorism.  As noted in the novel’s description, sometimes terrorism works, and sometimes it does not.  But what happens to the terrorists after repeated failures and infighting?

In the 1880’s, the People’s Will had a single goal: to overthrow the Romanov dictatorship in Russia.  Their plan to assassinate the Tsar was organized by Sonya Perovskaya; a woman completely devoted to her cause.  But how do people change when assassination is their ultimate goal?  What happens if things do not go as planned?  What happens if they do?

For the People’s Will itself, the campaign of terror was moral suicide.  In destroying the Tsar the terrorists destroyed themselves, their lives, their integrity, their very ideals.  Saturn’s Daughters is the story of this failure.

What I did not realize when I started this book was that the focus would largely be on one woman: Evgenya Antonovna Grishina.  Eighteen years of age at the novel’s start, this young woman became involved in the cause of the People’s Will via a romantic link with her cousin Vitya.  Deeply involved with the campaign, Vitya worked closely with Sonya Perovskaya.  His working relationship with Sonya was certainly to the detriment of his feelings for his cousin, but the cause called.  This was clearly written as an unrequited romance, with great attention paid to the changes that these two individuals experienced. As they grew with the cause, would they find themselves closer, or driven further apart?

I have to confess that this is where I began to feel a wedge between myself and the story.

Wildly curious about love and the adult world, and living a fair distance from her cousin, Evgenya began to change.  The sweet but curious girl began to find empowerment via somewhat meaningless sexual encounters.  Her own crusade became personal liberation.  When Vitya discovers Evgenya’s wanderings and proceeds to get angry, Sonya explains to him that the promiscuity had a purpose: “Evgenya – shameless and beautiful.  It is a kind of revolution, Vitya.”  (p. 212)

While I understand the inherent purpose of Evgenya’s liberation, my opinion was that far too much time was spent on it.  I wanted more cause, less personal strife.  About 350 pages into the book, I realized that while the story was well written and carefully researched, I felt no connection to any of the people within the pages.   How the cause changed the people was evident.  It hardened them and made them isolated.  The message that being devoted to a violent purpose can wreak havoc with one’s psyche was not lost on me.   Lacking empathy for the characters, however, forced me to keep the story at arm’s length, which left me a bit cold.

This is not to say that the detail provided wasn’t interesting, nor does it mean that the story itself wasn’t an incredibly well-researched mix of real and fictional characters.  There’s no question that Saturn’s Daughters was a thorough narrative of a terrorism campaign.  I respect and admire the attention to detail and the impact of the overall assassination goal.  It was a glimpse of a bleak reality, and the aftermath of destruction.  When one has a cause that is deemed more important than friendships, loyalties and love, then part of the soul simply goes the way of the campaign.

Truly, if a violent cause is successful, then what is the outcome?  A grand celebration of murder?  In the end, how many must die for the cause?  Certainly it would not just be the single target.  Is any amount of human sacrifice appropriate?  At times, it seemed that the success of the campaign would inherently be more harmful than the failure.  When life is sacrificed, so too is character.  That in itself requires some thought.  While I felt great distance between myself and the plight of the characters in this novel, I did note with great certainty that even the most valiant attempts for freedom can result in a black mark on the self.

3 stars for Saturn’s Daughters.

2013 Longlisted: Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

16071831Rating: 3.0
Five Star Billionaire

A Novel by Tash Aw 
2013 / 400 Pages

I read the synopsis for this one about two weeks before I started reading thinking that a humorous look at rich Asians in Singapore would be just the thing to ease me into this year’s BookerMarks project. As I got to about the 3rd or 4th chapter (still waiting for the hilarity to kick in) I realized this wasn’t the book I thought it was (Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan). Five Star Billionaire is actually a kind of boring book about depressing Malaysian immigrants pretending to be people they are not living in Shanghai. Oops! My bad!!

The story begins with Phoebe a young girl who wants to change her fortune by moving to China. She has been promised a job by an old friend who is a no-show when she gets there. She decides to stay anyway and (somehow) finds a place to stay (with Yanyan– the jobless, Hello Kitty pyjama wearing room-mate who reads her diary and eats ice cream with Justin Lim). She works odd jobs off the grid and becomes fixated with finding a boyfriend to take care of her. She eventually steals another girl’s ID card and becomes sophisticated enough to get a job in a hoity-toity spa. She is very successful until she meets a man.

Yinghui is an ex-hippy coffee shop owner who left Malaysia following the death of her political failure of a father and the break up with her fiance (the notorious Lim family’s cherished youngest son C.S– brother of Justin). She has somehow become a famous and successful business woman in Shanghai (she owns a chain of high-class spas and has hired Phoebe to be one of her managers). She has bad hair but decent fashion sense and realizes that she has been faking her way in the business world. She tries to prove herself by throwing herself wholeheartedly into a business project with a man who she hopes will become more than just a business partner.

Justin is the first son of a “business family” (read– mafia) and has been pegged to be the new closer of the family business now that Sixth Uncle is getting up there in years. He has a sense for picking the best areas of town for development and is in Shanghai to make a deal. Rumours circle that the family business is now bankrupt so he decides to lay low at a cheap building where he meets Yanyan and buys her ice cream. He happens to run into his brother’s ex-fiance (Yinghui) at a business function and remembers that he has always had a crush on her. He must reinvent himself and tell her that he loves her.

Gary is a washed up pop star who hasn’t left his hotel room for about 6 months. He is obsessed with chatting on-line with girls and watching porn. He meets Phoebe in a chat room and thinks that she has changed his life. She chats him up, boosting his confidence and belief in his own music. He is determined to tell her who he is but then she disappears for a few weeks. In the meantime he is discovered again (by Justin) and is set to play at a grand opening. Phoebe finally returns to the chat room and Gary reveals who he is (the FAMOUS Gary!). She doesn’t believe him and tells him “Goodbye, you FREAK” and they actually never meet (the whole Gary part could have been left out of the story and it wouldn’t have been missed).

And in the background, touching all of these lives is Walter Chao– the Five Star Billionaire whose story from humble beginnings to billionaire status is peppered in between chapters. Turns out he is a fake, a crook and was only interested in revenge and humiliation.

Lessons Learned: money is everything; better to be a fake than unsuccessful; Shanghai is a cut throat place to live. That is it.

I waffled between giving it a 2.5 (Meh, take it or leave it) and 3 (Good, recommend with reservations) and decided on the  higher rating because I did enjoy the descriptions of the city of Shanghai and it didn’t take me as long to read as I thought it would.

You can’t stay in a city like Shanghai forever. You will leave too, and so will I.


This review was simultaneously posted on BookerMarks.