Wednesday, July 29, 2009

the pick of the crop

Slap bang in the middle of an English summer, clouds in the sky, and the Booker longlist announced yesterday.

AS Byatt - The Children's Book

JM Coetzee - Summertime

Adam Foulds - The Quickening Maze

Sarah Hall - How to Paint a Dead Man

Samatha Harvey - The Wilderness

Jame Lever - Me Cheeta

Hilary Mantel - Wolf Hall

Simon Mawer - The Glass Room

Ed O'Loughlin - Not Untrue & Not Unkind

James Scudamore - Heliopolis

Colm Toibin - Brooklyn

William Trevor - Love and Summer

Sarah Waters - The Little Stranger

My initial impression was one of pleasant surprise that there were quite a few books already on my ‘want to read’ list. In particular How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall. Her Electric Michelangelo was one of my Booker highlights in 2004 and last year I read her earlier Haweswater and it was my book of the year. I can’t wait to see how this one measures up.

I’ve picked six titles to start with, I’ll see how I get on with those and if I’m still hungry I’ll come back for a second helping. I already had my eye on the Colm Toibin and the Samantha Harvey, so they were easy choices, and I decided to try again with Sarah Waters, as while I’m never that sure about the strength of her writing, she usually writes a pretty good story. The Quickening Maze appealed as I’ve liked fictionalised realities of poets in the past. I’m pushing my boundaries by choosing to read Me Cheeta, it sounds simply bizarre, but Booker reading is about self-challenge, reading things I otherwise might pass over, so that had to go in the virtual basket.

Overall it seems to be a very appealing longlist. If I was asked to read all 13 there is no single title that I would be eyeing with dread. Although for the moment I’m skirting around those two hefty volumes! It seems a varied selection as far as setting and story and time. And with possibly less political agenda that in previous years. A notable absence of an Indian novel too. Quite a few titles that focus on artists, writers. A few that interweave fact with fiction. All in all I’m looking forward to my first batch of books arriving. Let the summer commence!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

a rose between two thorns

Only a couple of days to go before the Booker longlist is announced. Just time to tidy the scrapbook and catch up with my best reads for the last few months. The benefit of getting behind with these means I get to look back and reflect with a little distance, and often the quieter titles shine through with more lasting warmth than those that burned brightest at the time.

Stephen Clayton undoubtedly created a great character in Jonathan. Reflective, existential and able to make fascinating even the most mundane of daily activities. At times I felt like I was reading a modern day Camus. But where the death in The Outsider illuminates Meursault, the death in The Art of Being Dead overshadows Jonathan. It clouds him and draws attention away from the real strengths of Clayton’s writing. I felt like he started well but didn’t quite manage to sustain his creation but this was still easily my best read in April.

‘I was a part of the pub and the silence and the rain, and yet I experienced everything as if through a thin sheet of frosted glass; as if I were my own ghost watching my life unfold about me.’

In contrast Michael Kimball managed to hit the right note straight off and stick with it. Dear Everybody was utterly engrossing and at times almost too real to bear. Impossible to read without wondering what collection of scraps we each might leave behind. Not just my book of the month for May, but stands a high chance of being my book of the year.

‘Unfortunately, the photo shop also processed the unused film at the end of the roll, so that the last few photos are all just black, which made me realize that they were actually photos of all the things that we never did together.’

I sometimes read pieces by Burnside in the LRB. His style draws me in and I find myself fascinated by whatever he chooses to share with me. And so it was with Glister, a weird little tale of a strange Scottish town and it’s peculiar inhabitants. I liked dipping into their perspectives, each as unsettling as the last. I liked the feeling of tension and not-quite-rightness throughout. The ending felt like it spun out of control a bit, but hard to think of a better way to wrap up what Burnside had weaved by then. Quirky and a little rotten, my top June read and one I won’t forget in a hurry.

‘the dead so away into their solitude, but the young dead stay with us, they colour our dreams, they make us wonder about ourselves, that we should be so unlucky, or clumsy, or so downright ordinary as to carry on without them.’