Friday, October 14, 2011

it's not the winning

This year I have read 9 out of the 13 Booker longlisted titles.  And I have one more on my shelf still to read. 

If I had been on the Booker judging panel I would have fought hard to get the Alison Pick and the Sebastian Barry onto the shortlist as I thought both were stronger novels than some that made the cut.

But out of the shortlist I’m torn between the Barnes and the DeWitt – and it was really only the rather abrupt ending that let the Barnes down for me.  But overall The Sisters Brothers was the best of the shortlist for me, plenty to think about, beautifully written, challenging expectations and hopefully shaking up critics who wrote it off as a genre novel.  Surely it’s about how a book is written rather than the predominant content than counts?
And if I were to hazard a guess at who the Booker panel will crown winner – I’d say they might pick Pigeon English.

I can’t wait till Tuesday to find out if I’m right…

the final four

Contrary to what this blog suggests I’ve actually read the entire Booker shortlist - helped no doubt by absence of any 600 page epics and the overall readability of the novels.  The very readability that a new literature prize, just announced, seems to attempt to challenge.  Now I don’t have a problem with readability, but equally I felt rather let down by most of the Booker books I read this year – none of them seemed to bear the mark of a truly special book, a standout winner from recently published literature.  Perhaps my ambivalence to most of the novels explains my lack of blogging about them…

But, in advance of the prize announcement on Tuesday I wanted to briefly summarise my thoughts on those I haven’t yet mentioned, and thereby justify picking my own winner.

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending felt like the obligatory wordy, witty man’s book – but I rapidly found myself warming to it.  The characters were as believable as they were irritating.  The narrators self-confessed unreliability as he takes a handful of memories and fleshes them out spoke so strongly of human truth – how would our own lives be any different if we tried to do the same?  Barnes subtly presents Tony’s priorities with pages of the narrative devoted to his friendship and only the odd paragraph to his wife and child.

I feared that The Sisters Brothers was going to be a bit silly, but I was wrong – Patrick DeWitt wrote a surprisingly sensitive story.  Scene by scene we are offered characters more outlandish than the last but our brothers, particularly Eli are there to guide us and help us make sense of this strange land - ‘The harbor, at first sight, I did not understand it.  There were so many ships at anchor that their masts looked to be tangled impossibly; hundreds of them packed together so densely as to give the appearance of a vast, limbless forest rolling on the tides’.  Despite all the killings and surgical procedures not a lot actually happens, it’s more like a catalogue of near misses, but enjoyable to witness nonetheless, and throughout the plot acts as an efficient backdrop for the portrait of the brothers.

Pigeon English was also a character led novel and I enjoyed time spent in Harrison’s company.  Stephen Kelman gave him a distinctive voice and world view and it was pure pleasure to witness familiar things through his eyes - ‘The devil is stronger here because the buildings are too high.’.  And the pigeon gets my vote for best supporting actor – I could have read an entire book focused on him alone.  Sadly I felt the novel as a whole was quite weak, it seemed to drift and then peter out quite suddenly and I was left feeling that Kelman had somewhat wasted a strong character on a weak plot.

And my last Booker trip was in the hands of Carol Birch aboard the good ship Jamrach’s Menagerie.  Initially feeling like a cross between Oliver Twist and Doctor Doolittle I had high hopes, immediately revelling in her descriptive skills – ‘We went up a ladder to a place where there was a beast like a pie, a great lizard mad and grinning, and monkeys, many monkeys, a stew of human nature, a bone pile of it, a wall, a dream of small faces’.  I’m a long-time fan of seafaring stories and usually can’t wait to set sail.  But a strange thing happened here - once we took to the waters my interest started to sink, and like the characters themselves I found myself craving a return to dry land, and when we did things seemed to pick up again.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

a bit on the side

In On Canaan’s Side we find ourselves at the mercy of another confessional novel.  Lilly’s days (and chapters) may be ordered and consecutive but her memories roam far and wide.  Always a comforting travelling companion, she leads safely us through time as well as across the miles. 

‘To remember sometimes is a great sorrow, but when the remembering has been done, there comes afterwards a very curious peacefulness.  Because you have planted your flag on the summit of sorrow.  You have climbed it.’

From her childhood and her subsequent escape to America, her early days there as troubled as those she left behind.  The usual wide-eyed wonder (‘How were there ladders long enough to get bricks up so high?’) balanced by the later perspective of someone who has seen many years of life pass them by (‘Tears have a better character cried alone.’). Powerful set pieces (like the rollercoaster scene) are peppered with little details about her day-to-day life, visitors and doctors appointments.

Sebastian Barry addresses issues many of us will face, the real stuff of human life, but always manages to spotlight them in striking and poetic ways.  And it is his character creation that enables him to do this – in the process challenging my assumptions about spending so much time in the narrative company of a little old lady.  That she could be holding such a story, such truth, at times so brutal never ceased to amaze me.  I’m glad I’ve bumped into Barry again (we first met a few Bookers back), and through him Lilly – I hope others do too.

introducing the band

Like the Edwards novel Half Blood Blues is a story built upon seemingly minor actions and their eventual undesirable consequences.  We see seeds of trouble sown early – jealousy over a woman, shame in front of one’s peers, rivalry both personal and professional. 

Through Sid Edugyan quickly fills us in on how things were in both Paris and Berlin during the Second World War, particularly if you were black or part black.  This was one of those novels where you are presented a scene you think you are familiar with, then told to look more closely, at a detail you’d previously overlooked – and there the story lies.  Perhaps a lazy comparison, but Levy’s Small Island came to mind – although that achieved it’s aim better for me.

Initially I was impressed – I felt like I was getting a decent dose of story-telling.  Sid swiftly sketching an outline of what happened and then we would wait for the details to be filled in, the characters to be fleshed out.  But sadly this never quite happened - few of the cast were as strongly defined as Sid.  A group of characters was clearly needed to support the storyline, but I was surprised that the star they all revolved around, Heiro, stayed largely superficial to the reader.

In addition and perhaps inevitably the novel relied quite heavily on the appeal of the jazz scene, which whilst atmospherically rendered (‘We sat at the knifed-up chairs, while he snapped a tan handkerchief out of his front pocket and whisked the nutshells and cigarette butts to the floor.  His eyes glistened like beetles.’) never has quite the same appeal that audible music holds, especially not for a reader who doesn’t happen to be a jazz fan.  

Friday, August 12, 2011

something for the weekend

In Snowdrops the relevance of the title doesn’t appear until near the end, whereas Edwards introduces the eponymous cupboard by page 20. From the first pages we are dragged into the story, its past and its present and plenty of suggestions that we will be shown how one becomes the other. This foreshadowing never kills the story though, never spoils what will come.

Edwards manipulates Jinx in a way that allows her to slide effortlessly through time, making a bed will allow a lengthy digression about her marriage breakdown and when she snaps back to the present we feel little sense of dislocation. It feels realistic, true to how our thoughts can roam. At other times Lemon will lead Jinx down memory’s lanes, while at other times she knows the way herself.

The characters are guarded and vulnerable at the same time, they are warm blooded and we feel a genuine sense of intimacy, of their desire to share their story in a way that Nicholas Snowdrop never quite achieved. Jinx is more than willing to let us judge her, but will we?

Cultural details form a foundation for the A Cupboard Full of Coats, they are never merely used as colour and flavour. Much like Lemon’s cooking, we are not just impressed at first taste, but left satisfied and full by the portrait Edwards offers. We don’t just witness a girl growing into a woman and the incidental things that happen to her, instead we witness blow by blow the cuts that shape the distinct individual she becomes, complete with smooth and jagged edges.

a problem shared

The first two novels I read from this years Booker longlist both dealt with the narrator offering the reader a confession - a tale of their downfall and the part they played in it.

In Miller’s Snowdrops the reader is positioned alongside the ‘you’ that is the narrators fiancĂ© - the one he is confessing all to in the hope that she will still stand by him. We are left to wonder what we would do if we were in her shoes? I felt like we learned quite a bit about the silent English girlfriend, to the degree where I felt I’d like to meet her, to hear her response to Nicholas’ tale.

As backdrop for the confession we get a swift portrait of Russian, mostly Moscow, and these details were skilfully handled, for me Miller at his best. He scatters contrasts between beauty and corruption liberally through his pages. However, after a while it felt like he was making the same point over and over and it’s power began to wane.

It is a novel of people more than politics – towards the end it is the lies about childhood and background and the little things that bite more deeply than the bigger deceptions. Love, friendship and the stories we share matter far more than money.

The atmosphere is one of wall to wall suspicion, in Miller’s Russia even the weather can’t be trusted. But in the end even the reader doubts themself, questioning whether perhaps we haven’t missed something, something vital heart of the story that feels strangely absent.

Monday, February 08, 2010

trivial pursuits

Yesterday I rearranged my to-be-read bookshelf. For no other reason than I wondered what it would look like laid out by colour. I was pleased with the results, despite the dominance of black, and the sorry lack of green spines.

Faithful Tamara recently questioned my lack of posts. I am an avid reader, but a lazy reviewer. Whenever I make notes on a book as I read I notice how much that act deepens my appreciation of the book. But I quickly forget this fact.

I’ve read some great books over the last few months. I’ve just forgotten to share them here. But I’m reading a book at the moment, that is causing me great excitement and pleasure, and I’m making lots of notes, and hope to deposit them here soon.

In the meantime, my top ten reads of 2009 – in no particular order.

Oystercatchers – Susan Fletcher

The Romantic – Barbara Gowdy

Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout

Dear Everybody – Michael Kimball

The Transformation – Catherine Chidgey

Ocean Sea – Alessandro Baricco

The Glass Room – Simon Mawer

The Gargoyle – Andrew Davidson

Be Near Me – Andrew O’Hagan

Plainsong – Kent Haruf

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

the end is nigh

This year I’ve struggled to find enough time to devote to my Booker experience. I’ve kept up with my reading aims, but not the consequent blogging. And here we are, on the day of the big announcement, and here I am, cracking out a quick post to give me some sense of last minute involvement.

You’ll have to take it on trust when I tell you that my shortlist predictions were very accurate this year. I guessed 5 out of 6 of the judges choices. I wonder if that might help me in guessing the winner again this year?

Since my last post I read The Little Stranger and didn’t think that much of it. I conclude once again that I just don’t get Waters. I read The Glass Room which I loved and has jumped out as one of my best reads of 2009. I read Summertime which excited me and made me think a lot, and made me realize Coetzee is really quite cool. And I’m currently ploughing on through The Children’s Book - which I’m liking quite a bit, but I’d enjoy far more if it was in paperback and not such a killer to hold.

And so to winners and thereby losers. My personal pick for the Booker Prize 2009 would be The Quickening Maze. It’s stuck with me long after reading, and I think it has a lot of hidden depths. It would be great to get it to a wider readership, who might find unexpected pleasure in reading the prose of a poet. But if I can’t have that I’d be very happy if Mawer took the prize.

But I feel, as ever, that the judging panel won’t agree with me. Sod’s Law would have Wolf Hall win as I haven’t read that one (and doubt I will). I doubt they’ll give it to Byatt or Coetzee again. Overall I’ve got a nasty feeling that Sarah Waters will win this year…

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

lost in a forest

A strange thing happened with The Quickening Maze in that the novel has seemed to get better the further away I’ve got from actually reading it.

A relatively short book, it tried to pack a great deal into it’s pages, mainly through the multiple character threads we jumped between. This reinforced a sense of confusion, perhaps echoing characters who don’t always have a firm grip on who they are. The reader is pulled in as one of the many confused souls, but after a while the charm of the maze began to lose it’s appeal. However with the safety of distance I realise I actually quite enjoyed myself!

I especially liked Fould’s emphasis on setting. The buildings and the forest were vivid and almost acted as characters in themselves, creating a strong rural gothic atmosphere throughout.

‘Even the building looked mad: plain, square and tight, with regular small barred windows that emitted shrieks.’

Dividing the novel into seasonal chapters gave a strong sense of time passing, and the actions in each chapter sat well within the intended season. The first Autumn section felt like trying to grasp at many tumbling leaves, but by Winter characters had begun to still and settle into their roles.

‘the stopped fish under their dirty window of ice.’

Whether because Foulds is a poet, or due to the historical setting of the novel at many times I almost forgot I was reading a contemporary novel. The dialogue and description felt like they genuinely reflected the 1840’s. In The Quickening Maze Foulds created a vehicle to deliver regular bursts of his poetic prose which makes this novel one of the more elegant for it’s language on this year's longlist.

‘Two crows cranked past with their slow labouring stroke when a wind caught them and swept them round like a finger turning a clock hand.’

It’s possible that The Quickening Maze needs the same attention that a poem requires and that further readings might better unravel it’s many layers. As the Booker judges will be re-reading these novels I think it’s highly likely that we might see this title on next weeks shortlist.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

confessions of a chimp

One of the joys of the Booker Prize list is when I’m introduced to a novel I would not otherwise choose to read - and Me Cheeta certainly fits that bill. And a good job I took a chance on it because I was hooked after a just a few pages.

I know a fair bit about primates and next to nothing about the Golden Age of Hollywood but neither were a barrier to enjoying this book. Whilst specific names and films and incidents meant little to me the overall tone kept me engaged throughout. Cheeta’s story bears much relevance to our current celebrity obsessed culture, where hopefuls fling themselves at fame, and even minor celebrities update their autobiography every other year. At times I had to pinch myself to remember that this was fiction (sort of).

Cheeta, the ultimate unreliable narrator, played varied appealing roles within his life story, and I’m left with many memorable moments. There were scenes of innocence and experience - eating his first banana, seeing stuffed heads of walls and commenting on the animal loving nature of the home-owner. A master of faux naivety, the reader rapidly realises that Cheeta knows far more than he is letting on, such as when he calls a plane an ‘iron bird’ when knowing full well both it’s make and model.

There were moments of existential wisdom -

‘A human trying to act a chimpanzee is somehow pathetic, whereas a chimpanzee trying to act a human is funny because… well, why is that? Something to do with aspiration. You think we’re pure and want to be us. We know you’re not pure, but we still aspire to be you.’

and heartbreaking poetry -

‘I still felt scattered, like the golden light rippling on the underside of a bridge.’

Me Cheeta does what many of the best of the old films does, it makes you laugh, it makes you cry, and it sucks you in despite any reservations you may hold. Earlier copies of the novel name Cheeta as the author, and online articles talk of James Lever merely ghost-writing the autobiography, so it’s hard to know who to credit with the achievement. But it’s fun and unexpected and great to see such a banana skin slipped in amongst the more serious Booker longlisters.