Tag Archives: Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

Quirky, spirited, screwball, all words used to describe The Portable Veblen, the second novel by Elizabeth McKenzie, an American writer. The book was inventive enough to catch the notice of the judges of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction last year, who placed it on their shortlist. The title is arresting and the novel includes a wicked example of what we used to call the military-industrial complex, a pair of lovers and their dysfunctional families, and a squirrel.

The story

There are three Veblens in this novel: Veblen is a Latin word for squirrel; the philosopher and economist, Thorstein Veblen, who was of Norwegian origin. He invented the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’. The third Veblen is a young woman, who for reasons that quickly become apparent, hides herself from many social challenges. She works as a temp, and for fun she is learning Norwegian and translating the works of her famous namesake.

The story begins in Palo Alto, California, when Paul Vreeland proposes to Veblen. He is a medical researcher, who is developing a drill to help brain-injured servicemen in the field. She is a temp at the hospital.

And what was her response to his proposal?

Her body quickened, like a tree in the wind. Later, she would remember a filament that passed through her, of being glad she had provided him with happiness, but not really sure how she felt herself.

‘Yes?’ the man said.

The squirrel emitted a screech.

‘Is that a yes? Paul asked.

She managed to say it. Yes. Two human forms became as one, as they advanced to the sidewalk, the route to the cottage on Tasso Street.

Behind them, the squirrel made a few sharp sounds, as if to say he had significant doubts. As if to say, and she couldn’t help translating it in this way: There is a terrible alchemy coming. (4)

This extract illustrates three themes of the story. First, Veblen has been trained to smooth the way for others, ensure they are happy; second she is not in touch with her own feelings; and third, the squirrel comments and provides both Veblen and the reader with judgements about events. Like the squirrel, the reader wants to say – don’t do it!

Both lovers come from very difficult families. Their attitudes and responses to others have been formed in childhood. The narrative is driven by the approaching wedding and marriage, and by Paul’s attempt to conduct his trials and the compromises he must make and are made on his behalf by the pharma company who pay for his research. Sinister events land him in hospital when he finds that his ambitions have led to compromises to the ethics of his research. Fortunately the big pharma executive gets her comeuppance in a very satisfactory way.

The writing

The first few chapters delighted me with their lightness of touch and the possibilities of the emerging story. The squirrel’s activities provide an amusing reflection on the couple’s different attitudes to squirrels, the natural world and to their forthcoming marriage.

Veblen talks to squirrels, has done since her troubled childhood. As she becomes more troubled by her approaching wedding she address him more and more frequently and finally takes him on a road trip to visit her father.

The best creation in the novel is Veblen’s hypochondriac mother Melanie. One reviewer (Scarlett Thomas) suggests she is worthy of Dickens, and Melanie is indeed an extravagant character. When Paul is taken to meet her the reader sees why Veblen is unable to push herself forward in conventional ways and seeks to please and appease people she cares for.

Cloris Hutmacher is another rich character, something of a caricature. She exploits the world and everybody in it to her advantage through her family’s company. She entraps Paul and his cranial device and precipitates the climax of the plot.

What I liked

Elizabeth McKenzie is delightfully creative. I enjoyed the squirrel, although as a narrative device he could be irritating.

A western gray squirrel (Sciurus griseus) by Aaron Jacobs, November 2005 via WikiCommons

Veblen’s anxieties about losing her independence and adjusting to another person in her life were a theme that was well developed through this novel. This extract gets to the heart of Veblen’s coping strategies. Veblen finds herself uninterested in her wedding and with self-searching to do.

Until this engagement, Veblen thought she knew what she was about. By thirty, she had managed to put away the simmering loneliness of childhood, finding relief in things outside herself, such as in skilfully tending family members who were scattered and needy, and becoming a secret expert on the life of Thorstein Veblen. To ward off uneasy feelings that crept in at unguarded moments, she’d drawn upon a wide range of materials and activities, keeping up with all major periodicals of the day, typing along to Norwegian films, clipping interesting pictures from magazines for some future project, taking brisk bike rides. And then came Paul and the whole enterprise of their future. Escapist feelings at this point showed a serious breakdown in self-discipline. And strangest of all, right at the moment she should be happiest. (219)

It’s about love, and families and written with great verve and quirkiness. The quirkiness reminded me of Where’d you go, Bernadette? By Maria Semple (2012), also shortlisted for the Baileys Prize (in 2013). I enjoyed The Portable Veblen less as it went on, but some bits were very funny indeed.

But why are there three different covers for the novel, this one for the American edition.

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie 4th Estate (2016) 422pp

Over to you

The New York Times reviewer thought highly of it, describing it as ‘a novel of festive originality that it would be a shame to miss’.

Have you read it? Any thoughts to add?

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How to be both by Ali Smith

Even if you haven’t read How to be both, you probably know two things about it. First, it has been getting noticed for many literary prizes:BWPFF 2015 logo

  • LONGLISTED FOR THE BAILEYS WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION 2015
  • WINNER OF THE GOLDSMITHS PRIZE 2014
  • SHORTLISTED FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2014
  • WINNER OF THE 2014 COSTA NOVEL AWARD
  • WINNER OF THE SALTIRE SOCIETY LITERARY BOOK OF THE YEAR AWARD 2014
  • SHORTLISTED FOR THE FOLIO PRIZE 2015

The second thing you may have heard about this book is that it is in two halves and it is a matter of chance whether your copy starts with George’s story or Francesco’s. The reader cannot escape or answer the question of how it would have been different to start with the other story. And the reader must also ask themselves about the relationship between George’s and Francesco’s halves. This is the idea I enjoyed most about the book – its exploration of ambiguity. Are you looking at this? Demands Ali Smith, asking the reader to do some work.

What is the book about?

160 How to be bothPart One (in my copy) is about George, a teenage girl in the present day, who has recently lost her mother. Her father’s grief is expressed in drinking and the care of her younger brother Henry falls to George. It is narrated in the present tense as we follow George undertaking rituals and activities in response to her mother’s death. We also see the closeness of her relationship with her mother. So here’s a ‘both’. Her mother is dead but also very much part of George’s life. ‘Because how can someone just vanish?’

Despite her grief George is able to make relationships with Mrs Rock, her school counsellor, and with Helena Fisker, aka H, a school friend who is also something of an outsider. And her search to hold onto her mother leads her to follow the mysterious white haired woman, Lisa Goliar, and to Room 55 in the National Gallery, where there is picture by Francesco del Cossa of St Vincent Ferrer.

One of the joys of Ali Smith’s writing is her description, her ability to evoke a picture in words. This extract is from George’s close examination of the frescoes at Ferrara, also by Francesco del Cossa.

It is like everything is in layers. Things happen right at the front of the pictures and at the same time they continue happening, both separately and connectedly, behind, and behind that, and again behind that, like you can see in perspective, for miles. Then there are the separate details, like that man with the duck. They’re also happening on their own terms. The picture makes you look at both – the close-up happenings and the bigger picture. Looking at the man with the duck is like seeing how everyday and how almost comic cruelty is. The cruelty happens in among everything else happening. It is an amazing way to show how ordinary cruelty really is. (p53 in version starting with George’s story)

160 St VincentThe other Part One opens with the spirit of Francesco del Cossa emerging from the canvas to see a boy sitting in the Gallery in front of the painting of St Vincent Ferrer. The arrangement of the text on the page clearly tells us that Francesco’s story has a tortuous beginning. It recalls the mouse’s tail/tale in Alice in Wonderland. And the ‘boy’ is of course George, and there is a point to Francesco mistaking her/him.

Francesco’s biography is told in the first person; childhood talent with drawing, mother’s death, modest success as a jobbing painter, including the frescos at Ferrara which so enchanted Ali Smith (as they did George’s mother). You can find Francesco del Cossa’s April here.

Francesco captures a beautiful moment near the end of her part, observing George as she keeps watch outside her mother’s friend’s house. She has been doing this for many days, and previously an old lady has brought her tea or a blanket. The prose is odd because it is from a renaissance artist after all, but it is tender.

Today there will be blossom in the study the girl will make cause the trees in the street round this house she is looking so hard at have the beginnings in them of some of the several possible greens and some, the blossoming ones, have opened their flowers overnight, some pink among the branches, some loaded with white.

Today when the old woman came out of her house she brought nothing but for the first time sat down on her own poorly made wall behind the girl in silence and companionable.

There are bees : there was a butterfly.

That blossom will smell good to those who can smell blossom.

How the air throws it into a dance. (326 in version starting with George’s story)

Both parts subvert the idea that the world is divided into binary categories: male/female, dead/alive, old/young, gay/straight. Even your identity can be muddled with another’s, for example on a mobile phone.

What’s to enjoy about this book?

There is so much to enjoy in this book. In our book group, half the readers began with George’s story and the others with Francesco’s. Both liked the way they had entered the novel although we agreed that Francesco’s story has a more challenging opening.

We found the main characters, George and Francesco to be very sympathetic and wanted to know what would happen to them as they confront their difficulties. Although there is not a great deal of action, the novel is carefully plotted, without being obvious, and the structure echoes the theme of ambivalence and ambiguity, simultaneously being different things, being both.

I enjoy a novel that treats the reader as intelligent and makes demands. I also enjoy wit, cleverness and intriguing titles, dialogue and names. I hope you noticed the names. And the prose, even when it needs close attention, is inventive and lively. There are many small linguistic sparkles.

This book took me to Room 55 in the National Gallery to consider Francesco’s painting of St Vincent Ferrer. And now I would like to visit Ferrara as Ali Smith described in an article in The Observer. Some of fresoes are reproduced in the article.

I enjoyed this review of How to be Both on the blog called JacquiWine’s Journal.

I have enjoyed two previous books by Ali Smith: The Accidental and There but for the. In both these novels existing social groups and ordinary lives were disrupted by intruders. Look, she says. Can you see that.

 

How to be both by Ali Smith (2014) published by Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Books) 371pp

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Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015

BWPFF 2015 logoHere’s the shortlist for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction:

Rachel Cusk: Outline

Lissa Evans: Crooked Heart

Patricia Ferguson: Aren’t We Sisters?

Xiaolu Guo: I Am China

Samantha Harvey: Dear Thief

Emma Healey: Elizabeth is Missing

Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven

Grace McCleen: The Offering

Sandra Newman: The Country of Ice Cream Star

Heather O’Neil: The Girl Who Was Saturday Night

Laline Paull: The Bees

Marie Phillips: The Table of Less Valued Knights

Rachel Seiffert: The Walk Home

Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone

Ali Smith: How to be Both

Sara Taylor: The Shore

Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread

Sarah Waters: The Paying Guests

Jemma Wayne: After Before

PP Wong: The Life of a Banana

Dates?

The short list will be announced on 13th April

The winner will be announced on 3rd June.

Prizes, who needs prizes?

What are the arguments for a women only prize in fiction? See this post from June 2013.

And the arguments for having prizes at all? Another post here.

Reviews on this site:151 E missiing cover 3

Emma Healy Elizabeth is Missing

My next post (in the next few days) will be a review of Ali Smith’s How to be Both. Look out for it.

Another list:

A wishlist list for the prize was posted by A Life in Books last week. Now you have two lists of books by women (some overlap) to feed your reading habit. Happy reading.

Anyone want to predict the shortlist or even the winner? Any serious omissions?

 

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5 books for World Book Day

Thursday 5th March is World Book Day. At my grandson’s pre-school they are asked to dress up as a favourite character from a book. I wonder what people would think if I accompanied my Gruffalo to pre-school down the village street dressed as Elizabeth Bennett.

Remove that thought and consider instead five world books – my contribution to the celebrations.157 book pile

  1. Stone in a Landslide, by Maria Barbal (2008) Peirene Press. Translated from the Catalan by Laura McGoughlin and Paul Mitchell

The story concerns Conxa who at the age of 13 leaves her too-big family to live with her childless aunt in a nearby village in the hillside. It is the early 1920s. She lives a patient and level headed life, marries Jaume and has three children by him. The village community is everything, with its customs, rituals, tolerances and slow change until the Civil War intervenes and her husband is taken from her.

157 Stone coverThis is the quiet story of a woman living close to subsistence level, valuing family connections, friends, differences, and respect built up by years of honouring and community. Large events shape life, as do poverty, seasons, the demands of land, family and animals.

Each stone in the landslide is necessary to the existence of the landslide; each stone is affected by others around them; a landslide is dangerous.

One of my bookish pleasures is my subscription to Peirene Press, which each year brings me three novellas, translations of European fiction. Here’s a second Peirene publication.

  1. Under the Tripoli Sky, by Kamal Ben Hameda (2011) Peirene. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

157 Triploi coverA boy grows up in Tripoli before Gadafi comes to power. The heat of the city, the poverty of many families, the iron conventions that ruled the lives of women are all evoked. The child is lonely and spends much of his time with women. The novel is suffused with affection for women, their humour and warmth (including physical warmth), their resilience and their resolution in the face of bad treatment and abuse by men. We are treated to the physical sweet smelling environment of women, together with much spicy and tasty and sweet food. This is a book about the divisions of life between male and female, and adults and children in Libya at the time.

  1. Zebra Crossing, by Meg Vandermerwe (2013) Oneworld

157 Z Crossing coverFrom the southern end of the African continent comes a novel by a Zimbabwean about migration into South Africa. It’s a grim story of exploitation of immigrants and life on the underside of poverty.

Chipo is an albino Zimbabwean, who following the death of her mother from AIDs escapes with her brother George by crossing to South Africa. They live in a shared room with twins from their home village.

It is the year of the World Cup and there are rumours of xenophobic violence after the final. Chipo and her brother cook up a scheme with Dr Ongani to use Chipo’s appearance to cast magic for people who bet on the World Cup. This leads to her exploitation, imprisonment and eventual abandonment.

Recommended on Annecdotalist’s blog.

  1. In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs (2012) faber and faber

148 Orchard coverI reviewed this book in January 2015, recommending it for its fragility and poetic qualities.

In northern Pakistan the unnamed narrator has returned to his family farm and the pomegranate orchard, which he loved as a child. Everything has changed for he has been in prison for 15 years, since he was a boy of 14. He sits in the orchard and writes.

The novel asks, what sustains people in extreme pain? And what heals them?

  1. Americanah, by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) 4th Estate

Shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014.

This is a long book about Ifemelu and her childhood boyfriend Obinze growing up in Nigeria at the time of military dictatorship. Both aspire to escape as soon as possible. Ifemelu goes to America where she stays for 17 years. Obinze tries to follow her, can’t get a visa, so goes to the UK and is deported. At the time of the story Ifemelu is planning to return to Lagos, and Obinze is a married man, made rich by some suspect property deals for a man known as Chief.

The story is framed by Ifemelu’s trip to get her hair prepared for her journey home, which takes hours and she has to travel from Princeton to a less salubrious part of New Haven to find the right shop. She reflects on her life in America, as a student, attempting to find work, even taking some sex work, and then beginning her blog, which is successful enough to bring her an income.

Obinze in the meantime has had to demean himself in the UK, rent the identity of another person to work and live in pretty squalid conditions. He is on the point of getting the right to remain through marriage when he is deported.

157 Americanah coverThe more interesting themes of this novel are to do with identity and home country, race, blogging, the effects of life on relationships, and vice versa. Much of the story is about the on-off communications between Ifemelu and Obinze during her absence, and then when she returns. In the end … Well it is a love story.

 

What world books would you recommend?

 

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Books by women that changed my life

Guess which book written by a woman was voted the most influential! Following the announcement of the winner of the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize this year (Eimear McBride for A Girl is a Half-formed Thing) the organisers launched a campaign to find novels ‘that have impacted, shaped or changed readers lives’. The top 20 were reported in the Guardian in July.

136 Mockingbird coverTop of the list was To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee. I suspect that some of its influence is due to the 1962 film of the book, starring Gregory Peck. It’s also a book that is often on the school curriculum, despite Michael Gove’s attempts to promote British fiction over all others. (For readers outside the UK, Gove was the Conservative Secretary of State for Education until recently.)

The top 10 most influential books in the Baileys’s poll:

  1. To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  4. Harry Potter by JK Rowling
  5. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  6. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  9. I Captured the Castle by Dodie Smith

136 Pride & PrejI loved To Kill a Mocking Bird when I read it. But it is not my first choice for the ten most influential books. Indeed my choices are very different from the full list of 20.

My list of 10 most influential books by women:

Some of these I have mentioned before in a post called Ten books that made me think. That list included books by men, but this list is confined to women. It is #Readwomen2014 after all.

These are in chronological order, rather than reflecting any hierarchy of influence.

  • What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge: a manual for growing up a good girl, now rejected!
  • The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff: perhaps the source of my enduring love of history and the reason it was the focus of my first degree.
  • Greengage Summer by Rumer Godden: adolescence anticipated.
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: nothing to be said except it is #6 on the Baileys’s list.
  • Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy: a world where gender was not predominant fed into my growing feminism.
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot: another classic and #16 on the list.
  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing: more feminism.
  • The Women’s Room by Marilyn French: yet more feminism.
  • Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G Heilbrun: see my post about this one, here.

49 Golden nbook

What I like about this topic is that it bypasses any notion of favourite. What would be on your list of influential books by women?

 

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The Bear by Claire Cameron and more on the Baileys Women’s Prize

We know the bear attacks the family. We know this from the publicity, the blurb and from the Author’s Note which briefly retells the events of October 1991 when a couple who had pitched their tent on Bates Island in Alonquin Park, Canada, were attacked and partially eaten by a black bear. The author had worked as a summer camp counsellor in Alonquin Park around the time of the attack. She tells us,

The Bear is based on my memories and research of this bear attack. I added the children.

We know, too that the children will survive. (No novelist could kill children aged 5 and 2 and be longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.) So the tension of the story is not in the question of whether the children will make it, but how they will manage this.

98 The BearIt took me a long time to read this novel because I found that I could only read a chapter at a time, so powerful was the emotional force of the tale being told by Anna. Each chapter was quite short and required a little work to turn the child’s description into a sense of what might be happening. This made it especially vivid.

Here’s how it begins:

I can hear the air going in and out of my brother’s nose. I am awake. He is two years old and almost three and he bugs me lots of times because I am five years old and soon I will be six but it is warm sleeping next to him. I call him Stick. He always falls asleep before me and I listen to the air of his nose. I can hear my parents’ voices. They are further away than I can reach and whispering because they think I can’t hear. I let out a squeak to let Mummy know I am awake and she says, ‘We’re right here’ from too far away. I squeak again and the zipper undoes and I can see the sky in the crack. Her cool hand brushes my hair and her fingers touch my cheek. ‘Sssh, Anna,’ she says, and the sky zips away again. When I am inside the tent the outside is far away. (p3)

Here is a child who already has fears. And we must follow her through a bear attack and an escape with responsibility for her brother. And we also know, from this first paragraph, that Anna is a loved child, and one who feels safe in contact with her family. How will she survive when they are not there to support her?

Even before this question has much time to form we are into the chaos of the bear attack, the stowing of the children so that they survive and their escape hours later to find ‘mess mess mess’. The details of the mess leave the reader in no doubt about the horror that has taken place.

Anna proves very resourceful, protecting her brother and herself from further attack, and managing to defeat the real and imagined dangers of the lakeshore. She achieves much of this following the guidance that her parents established, and by remembering what her parents had done, or told her to do in the past. Anna’s thoughts repeatedly return to the importance of being more than one, even if it is only to be two with her little brother. So when she loses her brother we know she is in for a dark time.

I call him and he doesn’t say anything back. I wait and I think he will come and he doesn’t come. I feel a big cry in my eyes and my stomach goes around. ‘Stick!’ I yell again and no one answers me. I am one. (p136-7)

98 Claire CameronThis is a writer who knows children and the fears of parenthood. She is able to convey the emotions that Anna is not yet old enough to name through the physical symptoms. It is one of the major achievements of this novel. Another is that it celebrates the voice of the child, and demonstrates the importance of paying attention to what children say. What does a child understand, what are they capable of, how can they articulate what they have experienced?

A particularly telling creation is the crayon lady, who appears in the hospital after the children have been rescued. Anna is reluctant to draw Mummy as she last saw her on the island, but because she likes to please she tries to draw something. Eventually Anna takes the red crayon, prompted by the crayon lady’s.

She hands me the red.

There is a lot of red left and surprise because so much is on the lady’s mouth and I wish she would go away so I want to take her red. I put it in my fist like a baby holds a crayon and I start to press hard and make the paper go as red as I can and all over the place. … I don’t like the lady and I hope she feels sad because I used her red and I look at her to see. She is looking at the picture and she has one hand on her chest and one on her mouth and she says, ‘Oh, we’ll need to work that through.’ (p168)

This works in several different ways, not least because this child will indeed have much to work through. But Anna is also capable of rejecting the well-intentioned but mistaken assumptions of the therapist. As readers, we know what she has witnessed, but the crayon lady holds on to her preconceived ideas.

Through the same voice, we pick up Anna’s ambivalent feelings about her younger brother, as well as her ignorance of the danger they had endured.

The novel celebrates the resourcefulness of young children, and the importance of their voice.

And here’s a link to a video clip of Claire talking about the book on You Tube.

98 Line PainterI decided to read this book because I met Claire in Toronto. But I am very pleased to recommend it, and also her first book: The Line Painter.

The Bear is a very unsettling book, and one that deserves its place on the longlist of Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014. I was sorry it didn’t make it through to the shortlist, but the novels that did are as follows:

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah
  • Hannah Kent – Burial Rites
  • Jhumpa Lahiri – The Lowland
  • Audrey Magee – The Undertaking
  • Eimear McBride – A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing
  • Donna Tartt – The Goldfinch

The winner will be announced on Wednesday 4th June.

My reading group will be reading A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing next and has also put The Bear on its list.

Have you read any of these? Have you read The Bear? What were your responses?

 

Author photo borrowed from ifoa website (International Festival of Authors).

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