Man Booker victory

“Thirteen books? Piece of cake”

Those are the words that started my Man Booker odyssey. Twitter was still a novelty in 2009, and one day in July that year, I saw in my feed that the longlist announcement was imminent. I thought a longlist would be a utterly bamboozling collection of the finest literature. I was nonplussed by the length of the list. I was also completely unfamiliar with any of the writers on the list. I did what anyone might do in that situation. I decided to read the lot. Six years on, I’ve finally defeated the monster that is the entire list of winners. Six years on, I realise that reading that original 13 – to say nothing of going on to read the 48 winners – is not ‘what anyone might do’.

Six years ago, Labour were still in government. Six years ago, the release of the original iPad was still nine months away. If those things seem incredible, they are nothing to me compared with the journey I’ve been on as a reader. So, before I turned the last page of the last book (The Famished Road), I knew I’d have to do something to make sense of my endeavour, with those books, over that time.

Trouble is, my thoughts and feelings about the books have changed over time. Some of the books I’d read before 2009 without being aware of the prize and its history. Some of the books I can barely remember. Some of the books didn’t seem all that when I read them, but became something much richer and more exciting after finishing other books: the reading, in short, doesn’t stop. So this is an arbitrary time to be making a judgment on so many of those books. Moreover, the more I read, the less I rely on my solitary interpretation. I know my opinion is more robust after talking about a book. I know my feeling can deepen the further away from the reading experience I get. There are also some books that I don’t want to turn the last page of, that I’m not going to be able to ‘assess’ at any remove because the experience of reading is beyond my means to express. So all that? Pinch of salt for what comes next.

I made a schematic, taking inspiration from a map of the underground. I’ve grouped the books according to what I thought the most prevalent theme was. These themes are the lines on the map, and they intersect with books that have more than a single prevalent theme. I then arranged the books so that those I deemed to be ‘better’ featured at the centre (zone 1): the further out, the less impressive. The map features winners and shortlisted books (shortlistees are grey).

BOOKER SCHEMATICThese books exist in their own right and – like many subjective articles – are impossible to compare. But when considered as a batch, some interesting things emerge. Take The Bone People, my hands-down favourite winner, and The Famished Road, the book I was closest to abandoning. The Bone People features a trio – man, woman and child – who have trouble relating to one another in spite of considerable affection. The Famished Road is also about a man, woman and child who love one another but nonetheless find it difficult to get along. Both stories have liberal amounts of violence and intoxication. In both stories the child, a boy, comes from another place and has trouble adapting to the rules imposed on him. Both stories entertain the possibility of there being a spirit world that breaks in on what we think of as reality. Yet the two books elicited reactions in me that were poles apart – and the similarities were not apparent at the time of reading.

Two books with much more obvious links are C. (shortlisted in 2010) and G. (scooping the prize in 1972). I read C. as part of a library event on the eve of the Man Booker announcement in 2010. One of six panellists, my job was to read a shortlisted book and represent it to the audience. I found C. utterly perplexing. The story ranged from the eponymous C’s childhood to his antics during WWII as a pilot and beyond to his explorations in Egypt. Each section was distinct in phase of life and also in aesthetic – from the moss green vignettes of C’s first home, to a grimy, coal-covered London, to the gilded opulence of an Egypt soaked in sun and treasures. I didn’t do the book justice on the night, bemoaning the apparent lack of a driving narrative – especially the lack of follow through on the mysterious death of C’s sister in the opening section – and failing to say that it clearly revealed Tom McCarthy’s visual sensibilities. Some time later, I read G. and the extent of McCarthy’s artistic endeavour was even more apparent. When I studied Fine Art I learned that the definition of ‘contemporary art’ was that which is contextually aware – it often critiques art of the past. C. is a remarkable book in relation to G. It follows the structure established by John Berger (whose own artistic sensibilities are widely known), whose character G. is similarly uncommitted, drifting from one love affair to another, on the periphery of significant moments in aerial history. These books, as companion pieces, are mind-bendingly extraordinary; greater, perhaps, than the sum of the two parts.

It goes without saying that this diagram is a snapshot of my feeling about this collection of prize-winners at this moment in time. I’ve tried to be true to my feelings at the time of entering these books into my book journal, which takes into account how well I enjoyed the reading experience. It’s also a record of some significant moments in my reading life: Midnight’s Children, the first book I remember asking a lot of me, the first book in which I’m actively asked whether I want to trust the fallible narrator; Saville, a book ‘from my neck of the woods’ that I really wanted to like, containing dialect that simply sounded bogus to my ear; Bring Up The Bodies, my first hotly anticipated sequel, replete with expectation anxiety (it was glorious, I was astounded).

The wheels keep turning and this victory is only temporary. Today, a new shortlist will be announced, consisting of six writers whose work I haven’t yet read. But after six years of developing my own taste, the next six books I read will be my own choice and the result of instinct, whimsy and a good chat with my inestimable bookseller Jonathan.

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June’s dues

June was a phenomenally bookish month – yes, even more so than May – so I’ll start this round-up with the books that I read.

BOOKS

Yes, I finally read To the Lighthouse. After years of it sitting on my bookcase. After A starting it and giving in after 20 pages. I popped my Woolf cherry and got a big red tick into the bargain (thanks, Andy):lighthouse tickWhat was it like? Well, I could barely put my response into words, but felt I had to try to work out what I thought. Now I think of all the clamour, the noise and the fickle affections of the first part of the book, in which everything seems to be happening, but nothing really is; and I think about the third part of the book, in which nothing seems to be happening, but something really momentous occurs. And I think of the second part, when the house and its fleeting occupants age and wither, and I think it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of writing about the passage of time that I have ever read.

So, that extraordinarily perplexing and stirring experience was a result of attending READ Y’SELF FITTER, which I wrote about in last month’s round-up. It is the brainchild of Andy Miller, author of The Year of Reading Dangerously that was my second conquest of June. A more timely and pertinent read, after the devastation of A Man in Love I can’t imagine. After the Knausgaard I felt broken apart, electrified and hateful: I thought I’d never be able to read in the same way again. But TYoRD made me whole again. It described – so thoughtfully, so humourously, so truthfully – why it is that reading can have such a strong effect – because the greatest artistry of literature is the pinnacle of humanity, it’s the best we can ever be, and for the vast majority of us, it’s the closest we’ll ever get to perfection. That description makes it sound unbearably worthy, so let me reassure you – it’s achingly worthy, but so fucking bearable that I wish I could live in it.

Notable because it heralded the re-birth of bookclub (yes, the one that I’d travel all the way from Nottingham for because no bugger in Notts would meet to talk book) is The Testament of Mary. Notable too are the vastly different interpretations of so slim a volume. I enjoyed the narrator’s voice – her obstinacy and her skepticism. I thought it was strongest when it seemed to question the veracity of events that were taking place, and least interesting when it could only be read as an alternative/insider view of the persecution of Christ.

I found a train ticket bookmarking my place in In a Free State dated February 2013. So that’s proof that this one didn’t strike me as a page turner. It’s another notch on my booker bedpost, but aside from that, I don’t have much to say about it – yes, it’s probably my failing. Or it could just be too fresh.

Ooh, this one makes me all tingly just thinking of it. All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld – my Flight Club book – is winner of no less than three awards in the last couple of weeks. It pitches Jake Whyte’s current shepherding on a remote island – where some unknown menace is brutalising her flock – with her shady past, a continent and a climate away. It’s a story laced with mistrust, misdemeanour and mistakes; it’s provocative and unsettling; it’s also the only book on the Summer Reads list that didn’t need to be argued for (I hope it’s okay to say that). The evocation of two distinct places, the strength of the central character with the deftly drawn portraits of many men who briefly play their part, the subtle undermining narrative and the sophisticated structure that serves to distance these two separate phases of life are all undeniable hallmarks of quality.

#BOOKADAYUK

Borough Press launched a great campaign on twitter to get people tweeting about books (actually, I say it was a great campaign, but I’m not sure what it was in aid of, so…). It was glorious. I noticed that lots of people tweeted first thing, over breakfast, and I still haven’t shaken the habit of opening up my timeline with my coffee to see what books are being talked about. I blogged about my June-long daliance with #bookadayuk for posterity. Doubleday UK took over for July, and you should join in, but I spent too much time tweeting in June, so have to now catch up with life, the universe, everything.

JERWOOD FICTION UNCOVERED

The lovely Sam Ruddock took me along to Jerwood Fiction Uncovered, where eight books were announced as winners of a prize for outstanding fiction – check them out – a great selection. Delightfully, it introduced me to a number of writers I hadn’t heard of before, and was further accolade for a few of my favourite publishers – Salt and Granta Books. It’s a prize that cares about what comes after winning – getting involved with writers and their publishers to promote the titles in bookshops, at events and on their very own radio station. As an added bonus, the writers each had tin-type portraits created – gorgeous! Just like Sam’s fetching blue jacket.

fiction uncovered

Sam Jordison, one of the Fiction Uncovered judges, Sam Ruddock, programme manager at Norwich Writers’ Centre and me, looking dweeby (and not a Sam).

WORD PARTY

You think Bookseller Crow is just the best bookshop ever, and then it goes and puts on an event like this, and you think you’ll burst because you’re having such fun, in company, about books. The stuff of wildest dreams. To open Crystal Palace Overground Festival, Jonathan invited three writers to read from their new books. Jonathan Gibbs read from Randall, an alternative take on the YBAs with the immortal sentiment ‘art you don’t have to see to get’. It contains more shit than Manzoni’s tins, and is so close to my art school education it’s excruciating (and hilarious). Will Wiles read from the The Way Inn a story that takes the conference industry as its leaping off point, before it postulates conference surrogacy (which, come to think of it, is a damn good idea if conferences can’t be abolished entirely) and then, I’m assured, goes very, very weird. It’s incredibly well observed, and had my toes curling in recognition. Then there was a fabulous interlude by Barbara Brownskirt, poet in residence at the 197 bus stop, and I haven’t shaken the thought of faberge eggs between my legs since. Finally, J. B. Morrison read from The Extraordinary Life of Frank Derrick, aged 81, a touching portrait of an aged man, reliant on the weekly visits of his carer, and what blossoms in the gaps between personal and professional relationships. And, there was beer. Marvellous!

THE FUTURE OF THE BOOK | YOUR FIRST NOVEL

I went along to Stoke Newington Literary Festival, but hearing about it late and having other plans, I only got to The Future of the Book event. I should really stop going to these things, because I do get annoyed listening to, but not joining in with, a debate. But there were some great people on the panel – writers Nick Harkaway and Polly Courtney, found of Made in Me Eric Huang, editor of The Bookseller Phil Jones and publisher Stephanie Seegmuller of Pushkin Press. Eric made a distinction between ‘lean forward’ activities (gaming) and ‘lean back’ activities (reading) – which served to highlight to number of books I’ve read in recent years that made me lean forward.

I also attended ‘Your First Novel’ – an event in the lead up to the announcement of the Baileys Womens Prize for Fiction – mainly to see Emma Healey whose debut novel, Elizabeth is Missing, published the following day after causing a huge stir at London Book Fair. Kate Mosse chaired the panel, composed of Sarah Waters, Charlotte Mendelson and Felicity Blunt alongside Emma. It was a frank and funny conversation about getting started, keeping going, the editing process, submitting to agents, book titles, and then when it opened out to the floor, plastic surgery and lesbian Kurt Vonnegut. Major props to Emma for taking on such a big stage with such a stellar panel, and for charming everyone in the room.

CROWDFUNDED

I had planned to spend my crowd-cash this month on something other than theatre, but China Plate were desperately trying to reach their target for Blood will have blood, an adaptation of their popular production of Macbeth for 9-13 year olds. Their magic idea has the porter, played by the wonderful Richard Kidd, as sole performer, backed up by a digital cast.

Coming up in July – a literary salon with Mrs Trefusis and Andy Miller, an evening at Bookseller Crow with Jessie Burton and The Miniaturist and then open to offers!

Man Booker shortie

It’s the fourth year running that I’ve had a vested interest in an early September announcement from the judging panel of the Man Booker prize. Today is shortlist day.

Of this year’s twelve longlisted books, I’ve so far read eight, so I’m not in a position to predict the six that will be announced by the judges today, and even if I were, my personal tastes rarely line up with those of the panel! Nevertheless, here’s my round up ahead of the news.

NARCOPOLIS by Jeet Thayil
An absolute storm of a book: evocative, sensual, gripping – I do have a penchant for writing from/about India, so perhaps I’m biased, but I didn’t expect to like the book with its themes of substance abuse and violence. It’s poetic and cripplingly honest, but not sentimental, and the characters are cracked and compelling. A five star read.

BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel
I loved Wolf Hall with its startlingly driven prose, and Bring Up The Bodies upholds my high expectations and further fleshes out an enigmatic character, making him formidable and vulnerable. I think Mantel is a writer of the highest order. Four and a half stars.

THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMAGE OF HAROLD FRY by Rachel Joyce
This is a precious gem of a story about an older couple who have lost their way in life. An unexpected letter disrupts the status quo, and the simple act of walking turns into a pursuit that could save a life. In fact, it saves more than one life, and is gentle and profound. An indulgent four and a half stars of happy endings.

SWIMMING HOME by Deborah Levy
This one is still a bit fresh, and I think it might be a while before I really know what I think about it. The choice to have the book introduced by Tom McCarthy was inspired, and it has really helped me put my reading of C. into perspective (blog post on that to come soon). There’s a particular vibrancy to this novel, and lots of space for the reader to nestle into, though it’s not a comfortable space to inhabit. Intriguing and unexpected, and a novel to encourage me to subscribe to the independent publisher – a likely four stars.

COMMUNION TOWN by Sam Thompson
I really wanted to like this more than I did. The first vignette (that’s the only way I can think to describe this series of varied chapters) sets up a powerful premise, albeit with a laboured style, but this fades as subsequent vignettes take up the thread in a different part of town, with a different voice, and a subtly different monster. It’s not really the shifting perspectives that make this book a challenge – it’s the combination of too many differences, which becomes distracting from the evocative construction of Communion Town (the eponymous setting). Sam Thompson is a skilled writer, but in displaying his mastery of different voices and genre styles, he obscures his ‘writers’ voice and the lack of authenticity is easily confused with a lack of heart. Three and a half stars for ambition and skill.

THE LIGHTHOUSE by Alison Moore
This book is mutable. The characters are at once simple and complex, and are difficult to get a firm handle on, which makes them very real. What seems like a journey of discovery, or a casting off of the past becomes something else entirely – and the sleight of hand is well executed. In tone and pace the story seems to be one thing, but in conclusion it is quite another. It had a very charming layer of abstraction with a focus on smells and objects (dependent on character), which also served to lead the reader astray. Oddly, in summarising it, it is also shifting: I find that I liked it more than I thought, and that being disconcerted was part of the experience. So, this flits between a three and a half and a four.

SKIOS by Michael Frayn
I don’t have too much to say about this, because I just didn’t care enough about it. It was put together well, but farce just isn’t my bag. I thinkI only laughed out loud once, and the characters were abhorrent (I know, that’s part of the point). I can’t remember how I rated this on goodreads, but on reflection think it only merits two stars from my very objective scale.

THE TELEPORTATION ACCIDENT by Ned Beauman
I didn’t finish this. I’m not sure I will, despite rave reviews. I hope this quote, from page 22, will illustrate why I found the prospect of continuing to read this faux-historical novel unappealing:

I hope you won’t take offence… but I’ve never seen the point of historical drama. Or historical fiction for that matter. I once thought about writing a novel of that kind, but then I began to wonder, what possible patience could the public have for a young man arrogant enough to believe he has anything new to say about an epoch with which his only acquaintance is flipping listlessly through history books on train journeys?

So, clearly, if my top six are the stuff of the short list, I’ll think that an interesting and diverse list. Of the others, I’ll be starting The Garden of Evening Mists today, and have Philida on the bedside table – both of which have a more international focus and historical bent, and the two heavy weights I haven’t mentioned are Nicola Barker’s The Yips (well reviewed) and Will Self’s Umbrella (by accounts ‘difficult’ – no doubt as Self intends).