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The Fortune Men

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Member Reviews

This poetry anthology highlights some of the best poets and poetry coming out of FSG over the last few decades. I found a few well-loved favorites of my own and a few names I didn't know but liked. Can you really ask anything more from an anthology? It is organized both chronologically but also in more subtle ways, connecting poems by theme or focus at times. Subtle but appreciated!

Some of my favorites:

We are Many by Pablo Neruda

Night by Louise Bogan

Crossroads by Louise Glück

A Winter Night by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Robertson

Dancer by Nelly Sachs, translated by Joshua Weiner
(And interestingly, I think this is a new translation, because I found one called "Ballerina" that has parallels but is not the same... use this anthology to read this version)

In broad dayliGht black moms look grieving by Roya Marsh

And this leads me to say that overall it is very western and very white and very male as one would expect in a retrospective. There are some small beacons of otherness and I did enjoy some of these translations (Mark Strand on Neruda for instance,) but let's hope they include more of the wide world of voices in the next set of decades!

I also took note of a few Russian poets I may want to read for my project next year - Joseph Brodsky, Aleksandr Kushner, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
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Nadifa Mohamed's Booker Prize-nominated "The Fortune Men" is based on the true story of a man wrongfully convicted of murder and executed in Cardiff, Wales in 1952. Mahmood Mattan was a Somali sailor and small-time thief who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong color of skin.  Violet Volacki, a 40 year old Jewish shopkeeper, had her throat slit one night as her family was in the other room. There were no true witnesses, Mahmood had alibis, and any evidence against him was as flimsy as it was convenient for the police.

The opening of the book illustrates the port of Cardiff in colorful detail. Mahmood roams the streets and is portrayed as a mysterious and slightly unsavory character. Once he is arrested, though, we gravitate toward him. He is rebellious and snaps at the police-- he knows he is innocent, after all. At his core is the central belief that truth has to win out. Later, once he clearly sees the writing on the wall, he shows his concern and love for his three young sons when he makes his wife promise to nurture the account that their father had simply been lost at sea, thus sparing any further disgrace.

In 1998, forty-six years after Mahmood's hanging, the British courts overturned his conviction. It was determined that the one witness putting him at the scene of the crime had been pressured by the police and lured by the promise of a reward. Mahmood's name was finally cleared, if decades too late for him or his family.

"The Fortune Men" arrives with every historical spoiler alert. The man is executed in one of history's more notorious injustices. The magic of the book lies in Nadifa Mohamed's vivid depiction of the people whose lives were sucked into this tragedy. Thank you to Knopf Doubleday, NetGalley and Nadifa Mohamed for the advance reader copy in exchange for an honest review.
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So the whole time I was reading this I thought the book was inspired by the last hanging to occur in Cardiff - not a fictional retelling of it. Now, the mixed feelings I have about this book are even more so. I don't know what I can really say about the characterization now, so I guess I'll just jump straight into my issues with the way this story was told.

The main problem here is that this is a pretty fraught narrative being written, more or less, in the style of a slice of life story. This feels less true near the end (which is the strongest part of the book), but leading up to the murder and during the initial investigation of it the way the story is presented feels out of tune with what it's trying to say. There are a lot of snapshot style moments and protracted asides, and though the writing is very good on the sentence level there are so many occasions when I couldn't help but think, what's the point of this being here? If you didn't go in knowing what the story was building up to - or if this was just a book about the life of a black man in Cardiff in the 50's - this wouldn't have mattered, and really, would have been a good way to present the story. But with the trial and execution hanging over the entire book, the slowness with which the story wends its way there undercuts a lot of the tension and horror that should be there. Of course it's still horrible (and the end, like I said, really brings that home) but there was just so much slackness in the beginning that it was hard to feel properly tuned into it.

This is still a book that tells an important story. I just wish it had been told in a sharper way.
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Like many people, I am sure, this book came on my radar when it was included in the Booker Prize long list, and then shortlist for this year.  I may have completely missed this book were it not for that.  

In this book, Nadifa Mohamed paints a vivid picture of the port city of Cardiff in the 1950s as a bustling multicultural community of people, living side by side. Among the Welsh are enclaves of people- Jews, Maltese, West Indians, and a Somali man who has a chip on his shoulder and a wife to win back. We meet this unlikeable man, Mahmood Mattan, as he makes his way around the city, gambling, plotting, and scheming. 

We also meet Diana who lives with her daughter and adult sister above the shop that their father owned. The Jewish family fled the Nazi occupation and landed in Cardiff. One night, there is a late customer wanting to make a purchase, so Diana's sister Violet goes to open up for the man while Diana teaches her daughter how to dance in the kitchen with the radio on.  Violet is found murdered shortly after.  Mahmood is picked up for the murder though he adamantly claims his innocence.  

This book breathed life into these historical characters and she was so skillful in making me feel something for a man who was not just unlikeable but also arrogant, prideful, and blind to the actual bind he was in. The details were sharp, the characters felt realistic, and the community was richly drawn. I am so glad I read this book, and I understand why it was included in the Booker shortlist. 

I would like to thank Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group for the access to the digital arc in exchange for an impartial review.
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It wasn’t until the last third of this novel-based-on-fact that I actually found myself interested in the story. The news of racism in the mid 1950s isn’t new but the seemingly stoic acceptance of it was bothersome. The illiterate main character did not come across as likable until near the end of the novel.

Thanks to NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday for the ARC to read and review.
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3.5 stars, rounded slightly down. For me, this was the sixth and final title on this year's Booker shortlist.  

This is atmospheric social realism, and a clinical dissection of institutional racism in policing and criminal justice. Mohamed succeeds admirably in bringing to life the sights and textures of the multicultural dockside neighborhood of Tiger Bay in 1950s Cardiff. Where Violet Volacki, a Jewish shopkeeper in her 40s, was brutally murdered one night in her shop by an unknown assailant who was rumored to be Somali. Mohamed renders the victim and her surviving family with great compassion, especially for their own struggles with anti-Semitism and the heartbreak of wartime losses.

But her real achievement is one of characterization. Mohamed vividly reconstructs the final year in the life of Mahmood Mattan, a Somali merchant seaman who married a Welsh woman, settled in Cardiff, and was the father of three young children. Born in a small village in British-occupied Somaliland, Mattan led a restless life, and had an insatiable addiction to gambling. When the novel begins, he is estranged from his family, living hand-to-mouth, and dabbling in petty crime. 

Only to be unjustly accused of Violet's murder on trumped-up charges and circumstantial evidence, relentlessly pursued by racist police and abetted by false witnesses, and undermined by his own inconsistent testimony.  The novel's moving final third follows his trial and the resultant miscarriage of justice that made him the last man to have been hanged in Cardiff. Mohamed earns the reader's outrage without any recourse to sentimentality and manipulation.

But the storytelling gears don't quite mesh, and took much too long to start turning. At times, the historical research feels thickly piled on, especially in the novel's exposition-heavy first third, which lurches clumsily. A skillful editor could have easily trimmed 50, even 100 pages, from this to reveal a tighter narrative that would have been more moving and direct.
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The Fortune Men sneaks up on you, but it just falls short of being a perfect novel for me. In The Fortune Men Nadifa Mohamed gives us a fictional glimpse at the 1952 case of Mahmood Mattan’s murder trial of Lily Volpert.

The writing is fantastic and Mohamed does a really splendid job with her structure of the novel and being respectfully to all those involved throughout history. I think she really captures Mahmood really well and, he being the crux of our story this is important.

Unfortunately though the pacing kind of falls off the deep end once we get to the trial, which is odd because the writing structure actually gets much more clipped. Unfortunately what happened to Mahmood is an extreme miscarriage of justice that had so many bad actors involved despite his relentless stance that he was innocent. Unfortunately the fact is that what happened to him was almost so simple that the 100 pages of seeing it unfold was kind of just boring, all it took was for certain people to decide he was guilty and despite no evidence and the culture at the time that left him pretty much at their mercy. Nothing that crazy happens in those last 100 pages and the novel could have been condensed a bit.

All that said I find Mahmood’s story to be incredibly impactful and the last 20 pages or so brought me to tears as he claimed his innocence until he was hanged for a crime nearly 60 years later he’d be absolved of.
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This book is so extremely effective. After a simmering, slow-cooking start, the story explodes into a powerful narrative that is hard to stop. I finished it a few days ago and I cannot stop thinking about it and what it means in British history.
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This book gave me a hefty amount of anxiety. It was like reading a book starring Anne Boleyn or Amelia Earhart. No matter how much you like the main character, things are absolutely not going to end well. This book is about a real person that experienced a very tragic end. Mahmood Mattan was a Somali man who definitely participated in some rather shady nonsense in his life. When a Jewish shopkeeper is murdered in Cardiff, the local police decide that Mahmood is guilty of the crime, regardless of not having much legitimate evidence.

The author does an incredible job of telling this story. She makes you feel really involved in the story. Obviously, I wouldn't have felt anxiety for these characters if the story wasn't engaging. Unless you are looking for books with happy endings, I definitely recommend this.
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The author has managed brilliantly to offer just enough in the way of description but the beauty lies in the directness of characters and events.  The courtroom scenes leave everything up to the reader when imagining what the protagonist is going through , never imagining the case against him would go this far.  In addition, the author has a way of blending cultures; "Mahmood feels like Charlie Chaplin in a pair of oversized shoes".  Based on a true story, The Fortune Men is a compelling read that will have the reader searching for more information about the port of Cardiff, England.
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This was a thoughtful and interesting book.  I was invested in the characters and the plot was riveting.
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The Fortune Men

Even if it weren’t based on a true event, The Fortune Men would be a compelling story. But the fact that the horrific injustice that is the center of the novel actually occurred makes the story that much more heartbreaking. Although The Fortune Men, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, gets off to a slow start, Nadifa Mohamed builds her characterizations so effectively that you feel as if you are reading a nonfiction account of a man wrongly accused and executed for a crime he didn’t commit. And by the time the story arrives at this central event, you believe that you are reading the actual thoughts and feelings of a wrongly condemned man. The main character, Mattan, may not be the most admirable or educated person, but his insights into the failings of a corrupt and racist criminal justice system are as valid today as they were in the 1950s when the novel is set. He’s a petty criminal, yes, but a murderer, no and he doesn’t deserve to be executed. As the book’s momentum climbs to a boiling point, the reader cannot but hope for a different outcome despite knowing from the beginning was will happen at the end.
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This was a fantastic fictional account of a tragic miscarriage of justice. The author is an exceptional writer and tells a compelling story.
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Mohamed says in an interview that 'fortune men' is a term used for Somali sailors by the other Somalis because of the fortune they earned through their travels. Well, it's not a secret that it all turned unfortunate for our Mahmoud Mattan. Wrongly accused of a murder he didn't commit, we follow Mattan navigating his life with the impending punishment. And we can't forget the tangent that follows the life of the family who survived Violet Volacki.

Now, I don't want to go into the details of the plot as many of you might be familiar with it. And I am going to write only what I liked and what didn't work for me in this book. First of all, I am amazed by the amount of research Mohamed has done. I can't even imagine the hard work, the reading and the bulk of interviews she has to do for this book. And the way she wrote it, made the book even more interesting. I mean, this is a book where everyone knows the ending. But the way Mohamed approached it made the book more mysterious and alluring. I literally couldn't put it down.

The way she wrote Mattan is what dragged me into this book. Mattan is not a saint obviously. He had his moments, his crisis of faith with everything around him and the trauma he faced in a foreign land because of skin colour, which is all relevant even today. My first thought when Mattan was caught by the Police was, 'why is he talking back? Shouldn't he be more respectful and cooperative ?' I am not going to lie, I was so ashamed of thinking that. He hasn't done anything wrong. It was only because of their agenda that he was there in the first place and why he has to respect someone when it is not given to him.

It reminded me of a Tumblr post, "If you don't treat me like an authority I won't treat you like a person." And that's exactly what happened to Mattan. He was a petty thief. But he is also a person who is worthy of respect. When that is not given to him, he resorts to rebellion which didn't end fruitful for him. But it is not new, is it? Treating a person as they seem fit by authorities or any person who considers themselves as authorities is universal. I have seen a lot of such incidents happening in my own country, state, city, street and home even. And that makes me think that we as humans will always look for ways to look down on someone that is not us.

I also liked the story of the Volacki family members. Their names have been changed in the book which I guess is by the request of family members. I would've loved to read Diana and Grace and what they thought about Mattan's execution. But their storyline ended halfway through the book which feels abrupt. Mattan was survived by his wife and 3 sons who struggled a lot to clear his name. I have read a few interviews by them and I stopped after a point as it became overwhelming. The trauma they have to face throughout their life because of the failure of law and the delayed compensation that is provided to them cannot make up for the lost years.

I have a few choice words for the very racist solicitor of Mattan. Had Mattan had a person like Thurgood Marshall arguing his case, the prosecution would've been dusted to oblivion. But instead, he had a solicitor who openly mocked his own client as "Half semi-civilized savage" which eventually lead to the conviction of Mattan. The only thing that didn't work for me in this book is the pace. The first few chapters were so dragging and slow in the pace that I thought of giving up the book altogether. But then again, I am happy that I persevered through that phase and got to read the trial and stuff that made the book more exciting.

The Fortune Men had me thinking a lot about the current political situation all over the world that discriminates and dehumanizes people for their lack of privileges. It had me thinking about my standing in many of the situations and I love it when a book does that. So, read this book, not for its booker nomination but the experience it brings you.

Thank You, NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group for the ARC.
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The Fortune Men is based on a true story: In 1952, a Somali transplant to Cardiff — married to a local white woman and father to her three sons — was wrongfully charged with murdering a shopkeeper. Known to area police as a shiftless gambler and a thief, this one-time merchant seaman, Mahmood Mattan, was an easy target for the cops in this rowdy port town to frame; and with an all-white jury and witness testimony swayed by significant reward money, it’s easy to make the connection between systemic racism and the little value given to this Black man’s life. Author Nadifa Mohamed, herself a transplant from Somalia who grew up in Britain (and whose father apparently knew Mahmood Mattan), stuffs this novel with period detail in an effort to bring this historical footnote to life, but I found it all a little clunky; there’s too much detail about too many peripheral characters and I never found myself quite connecting with Mattan. I am glad to have learned the history but this wasn’t a terribly successful novel for me (but as it has been shortlisted for the 2021 Man Booker Prize, who am I to judge?)
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