Book Briefs: The Sellout, The Nix and Himself

Book Briefs - The Sellout - 4-6-17
Five Stars

Author Paul Beatty is the first American to win the prestigious Man Booker Prize since the competition expanded to an international field in 2014.

According to Wikipedia the prize was originally known as the Booker–McConnell Prize, after the English company Booker, McConnell Ltd began sponsoring the event in 1968; it became commonly known as the “Booker Prize” or simply “The Booker.”

When administration of the prize was transferred to the Booker Prize Foundation in 2002, the title sponsor became the investment company Man Group, which opted to retain “Booker” as part of the official title of the prize.

Previous competitions were limited to writers who lived within the borders of the British Empire.

Past winners include “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy in 1997; “The Blind Assassin” by Margaret Atwood in 2000; “The Sea” by John Banville in 2005; and “Wolf Hall” (2009) and “Bring Up Bones (2012) by Hilary Mantel.

The Man Booker prize has often been compared to the Pulitzer when it comes to prestige.

Although winning doesn’t necessarily translate to automatic best-selling status, authors who win the Man Booker are universally lauded in literary circles and their work is likely to be assigned reading at the university level.

This year, Beatty took the Man Booker with a scathing, sometimes brutal look at race in modern America. His tour de force also won the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction.

Beatty’s narrator – we never learn his name – grows up in Dickens, an “agrarian ghetto” on the outskirts of Los Angeles, with his father, a whacked out sociologist whose cruel experiments on his only son are disastrous, with long-lasting consequences.

The narrator, now an adult, farms a plot of land, specializing in artisanal marijuana, watermelons and a rare type of peach that has an almost mythical effect on those who eat it.

After his father dies in a most spectacular fashion and Dickens is swept off the map, our narrator sets about to fix things, with the unlikely assistance of the sole remaining Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins.

This story is not for everyone. It’s way beyond politically incorrect. It’s irreverent and crude, bordering on sadistic at times. The language and situations are not meant for polite society, as my grandmother might say.

But, if you enjoyed John Kennedy O’Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” (1981 Pulitzer Prize winner), you might find “The Sellout” right up your funny bone’s alley.

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Book Briefs - The Nix - use this one - 4-6-16
Five stars

Trying to explain the scope of Nathan Hill’s epic “The Nix” might be likened to nailing Jell-O to a tree.

It’s a sprawling family saga covering seven decades, beginning in 1940s Norway and ending in 2011 in New York City,  with stops in Iowa and Chicago along the way.

After his mother abandons the family when he is 11, Samuel Andreson-Anderson is left to figure things out on his own.

He becomes an English professor. He’s lived off the healthy advance he received for a book he began in college, but never finished.

Now, his publisher is threatening lawsuits and certain bankruptcy. Samuel’s career is tanking, too, as he battle a cheating student who is nothing if not creative in her denials.

Faced with professional and financial ruin, Samuel’s publisher forces him to take on a new project – telling the sordid story of a woman who threw rocks at a potential presidential candidate.

The twist is – wait for it – the woman in question happens to be Samuel’s long lost mother, Faye.

What follows is more than 600 pages of mystery, an in-depth look at the effects of gaming on our society and withering satire that will have you turning pages long past your bedtime.

Hill takes his time to develop each story line. We learn about Faye’s bleak, repressed upbringing in a small Iowa town and what she did to try to escape its clutches.

We find out how Samuel navigated through puberty, latching on to unhealthy relationships while trying to fill the gap left in his mother’s wake.

We learn that a “nix” is a Norwegian house spirit who can wreak havoc in the lives of those who dare cross it.

Hill also digs deep into the world of computer gaming, sometimes to distraction, which I think is the whole purpose of avatars, alternate egos and universes. Hill reaches pretty far into his bag of writing tricks to detail the unraveling of a minor character. Think Faulkner and his stream of consciousness sentence structure.

Hill sets the action against some pretty heady times in our history, including the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, the Iraqi war and the excesses of Wall Street. He also drifts in and out of adult situations with casual ease.

How he manages to twirl all of these plates is a testament to a talent that should be around for a long time. I look for “The Nix” to earn a lot of awards this year.

Although the ending seems a little too neat and tidy, the rest of Hill’s family epic is messy, complex, sad and funny. You know, just like real life.

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Book Briefs - Himself
Five Stars

Jess Kidd is a name to watch in the publishing business. Her dazzling debut has created a lot of buzz and generated a notebook full of positive reviews.

In “Himself,” the Kidd, who has a Ph.D. in creative writing, spins a modern ghost story set in County Mayo, Ireland.

The book opens in 1950 with a grisly murder of a young mother, witnessed by her infant son.

Twenty-six years later, that infant, known only as Mahony, returns to the enchanted, sometimes haunted, village of Mulderigg to find his mother’s killer.

Mahony, who was snatched from almost certain death by a mysterious benefactor, grew up in a Dublin orphanage. He’s quite the rapscallion – a true ladies’ man.

After the death of the nun who raised him, Mahony receives a mysterious letter, sending him to his mother’s hometown to discover the truth about her, his origins and what happened so many years ago.

As he walks through Mulderigg for the first time, one of Mahony’s many gifts is revealed – he sees dead people and animals. Most of the encounters seem random, but Kidd weaves them into the book’s main plot, which comes together quite nicely in the finale.

Mahony takes a room in a ramshackle boarding house, whose main tenant, Mrs. Cauley, an aging actress, takes an immediate shine to the swarthy young man.

Together, they hatch a plan to find Mahony’s father, which, in turn sets off a chain of bizarre events, including the sudden appearance of a flowing spring and a plague of frogs in the study of the Catholic priest’s house.

If Alice Hoffman (“Practical Magic”) and Tana French (“Broken Harbour”) had a book baby, “Himself” might be the result. There’s a mystery at the heart of this tale, but it’s so much more than a detective story.

I look forward to reading whatever Kidd writes.

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