Notes on Michiko Kakutani & the Man Booker Prize Longlist

Michiko Kakutani

“Any intelligent person can review a book.”  This kind, generous book review editor believed in “buying local”before it was a trend, and assigned reviews to local writers, among them literary housewives, teachers, and advertising (mad)men.

“We’re not doing criticism here,” (s)he said wryly.  “We’re not the New York Times.”

Reviews and criticism are different.  Criticism is the job of Michiko Kakutani.  And now Kakutani has announced she is leaving her job as Chief Book Critic at the New York Times.

Kakutani is irreplaceable.   Who knows more about the  trends in fiction and nonfiction from 1983 to the present?  (My own erratic reading, mainly of fiction, identifies yuppiebacks  through wispy millennial fiction, with  many, many gaps.)   Kakutani could write an entire critical history.   And , by the way, I do respect a critic who appreciates Mary Karr and disparages the overrated Jonathan Franzen.

At The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz wrote about Kakutani’s toughness:

A good review brought on elation. “It was like having the good fairy touch you on the shoulder with her wand,” Mary Karr told NPR. A bad one incited rage, sometimes despair. Nicholson Baker compared getting a negative Kakutani review to undergoing surgery without anesthesia; Jonathan Franzen called her “the stupidest person in New York.” (She had deemed his memoir “an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass.”) What made her scary to writers made her reliable to readers: you couldn’t easily predict where her favor would fall.

Well, I shall miss her. This is a sign of getting older, I know!  but the New York Times Book Review on Sunday seems  more “pop”  than it used to.  I do like pop, but if I go to The New York Times I want something intellectual. That’s why I hope the daily critics continue to thrive.


Although I haven’t read a Man Booker Prize winner since 2010, I love the Booker longlist.  It was great fun when the blogger Kevin from Canada read the complete longlist every year and posted his reviews, along with his blogger friends. (We all miss Kevin from Canada.)  Has the blogger tradition continued?  I am not sure.  But I  still read a few books on the longlist  every year.

Last year I loved David Means’ literary SF novel, Hystopia, an alternate history of the 1960s. (I posted about it here.)

This year’s list has some great names on it:  I already love Sebastian Barry and Zadie Smith.  And Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which Bruno actually mentioned on Dancing with the Stars in the spring, just won the Arthur C. Clarke Prize.

Naturally, there are holds on most of these books at the library, and I would buy them except…you know…too many books.

Here is the list:  and if you’ve read any of them, do let me know.

  • Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1
  • Sebastian Barry, Days Without End
  • Emily Fridlund, History of Wolves
  • Mohsin Hamid, Exit West
  • Mike McCormack, Solar Bones
  • Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13
  • Fiona Mozley, Elmet
  • Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
  • George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo
  • Kamila Shamsie, Home Fire
  • Ali Smith, Autumn
  • Zadie Smith, Swing Time
  • Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

The Fantasy Question & The Man Booker Prize Longlist Question

Queen Victoria's Book of SpellsHave I read too much science fiction this summer?

Did I recently return from the library with a bag of books by Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Samuel R. Delany?

Did my husband sign on to live with a woman who has strayed into an alternate history in which she never left the library in Bloomington, Indiana?

Perhaps I have gotten a little carried away.

I have now turned from SF novels to short stories.  On my bedside table is an anthology, Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells: An Anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. It includes 18 stories by  such quirky, compelling writers as Gregory Maguire, Tanith Lee, and Catherynne M. Valente.

In the preface, Dadlow and Windling explain the genre of Gaslamp Fantasy, which is not quite like steampunk.

Steampunk fiction, which blends nineteenth-century settings with science fiction elements, receives a great deal of popular attention these days, yet it is only one form of the diverse range of fiction that falls under the Gaslamp Fantasy label. You’ll also find historical fantasy, dark fantasy with a deliciously gothic bent, romantic tales, detective tales, and ‘fantasies of manners’: magical fiction that owes more to Jane Austen, William Thackeray, and Anthony Trollope than to C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

This summer, when not reading SF, I’ve been reading early 20th-century realistic comedies by H. G. Wells and Elizabeth von Arnim (who were briefly lovers, and their influence on each other’s work shows).

And so I’m behind on my Man Booker Prize longlist predictions. Not that I ever HAVE predicted them, but this year I’ve read very few new books.  Since the Booker list will include Americans, I would love to see Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, on the list. (I wrote about her stunning novel here.)

The British know how to create suspense with their longlists and shortlists, and readers and bloggers seem genuinely to care about who wins. At our house we are always excited about the Booker longlist. In 2009 we even read James Lever’s Me Cheeta, the autobiography of the chimp in the Tarzan movies.  (We found it in the nonfiction section of a suburban library, and the librarian ignored our insistence that it was fiction.)

Can’t wait to see the longlist tomorrow.