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.

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.

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).

In meatspace

Though not a particularly appealing term, the mention of meatspace as the opposite of virtual space did make me laugh today. I attended a Writers’ Toolkit event in Birmingham, which is probably the most assertive step I’ve taken in relation to writing in a while.

The event was organised as part of Birmingham Book Festival (as ever, can’t link, but do find the website on my blogroll), which has had a spectacularly varied and high profile programme this year. The event was the first of its kind, and I hope it will continue, as it’s the most valuable writers’ event I’ve been to. Ever.

My elected day consisted of discussions about: emerging writers and progressing careers; non-formal training for writers; the value of formal training for writers; and a look inside the world of book publishing. Together, the sessions formed a provocation, and I’ve come home with a head brimming full of ideas, and a notebook full of questions and things to look up, which is exactly what happened when I met Jonathan Davidson, who organised the event alongside Sarah Beale.

I’ll write more about the ideas and questions when I’ve had time to digest and reflect, but in the meantime, and as this blog is about observations if nothing else, I’d like to report on a few things that I noticed.

One is that there’s a real divide between people who come along with an agenda and people who come along with a more open idea of what will happen – the former, generally, engage with the stimulus in terms of how it relates to them, and seem to have a hard time talking abstractly. I’ve noticed this kind of split at every single conference type event that I’ve attended, and it is especially noticeable at events centred on creative activity, which is totally understandable (if a tad annoying).

Two is that I was far too nervous about speaking up, which is possibly an indication of my confidence about writing. Today I felt like a writer, which was a curious feeling. In the session about emerging writers, we talked about writers groups and the developmental benefits they can have. The writers group I’m part of is beneficial not in terms of development (perhaps because I’m not at that stage, or haven’t quite found the right group) but because it’s a real pleasure to meet people socially who are aware of the sometimes galling task of writing and the solitary nature of the activity – there’s a heck of a lot to be said for moral support and understanding!

Three is that it’s very easy to find something that you have in common with another person. This event was absolutely the best environment for networking I’ve experienced so far. Maybe this has a lot to do with the fact that I love talking about writing, about the unique nature of putting pen to paper, or finger to key to make words and sentences and paragraphs.

Finally (for today) I realised that the reading voice inside my head is male. I’ve never noticed that before. I was reading Travels in the scriptorium by Paul Auster, and though I’ve always liked his books because they make you aware of your position as a reader, I’ve never felt it so acutely as today.

Friends… and discovering them

In issue 29 of Cabinet, this passage struck a chord:

“As Nature abhors a vacuum, so does the mind resist meaninglessness; it invents stories to explain haphazard incidents, and to provide reasons and origins; the amorphous, the inchoate, the formless, have beckoned irresistibly to the shaping powers of thought and imagination.”

It was in an article by Marina Warner called ‘The Writing of Stones” about Roger Caillois. I think I am also ‘beckoned irresistibly to the shaping powers of thought and imagination’ and seem to be afflicted more than most by the search for meaning. Recently, I was able to find a compelling answer to a question I’ve been asking myself for over a year.

In my final year at Uni, I lost my brilliant tutor prematurely. Her departure was reasonable given the circumstances, but I certainly missed her. Shortly before the end of the year, she sent an email to everyone on the course letting us know why she left and that she had started a blog. Since then, I’ve been almost obsessed with the blog – it’s really interesting (she’s an interesting woman) but there was also something about it that was really compelling. She always had a reputation for asking questions that were on the tip of my tongue or framing things in such a way that I would be rendered speechless by uncanny coincidences. In one of her posts she reflects on writing the blog (and sure enough, I can’t put my finger on the post to quote it) and admits that she’s still not sure why she is writing the blog, or who it is for.

Conversely, I asked myself why I was reading the blog so compulsively, and what that meant about the kind of person that I am (was?). Since then, I managed to get around to starting my own blog in earnest (I had a dabble some time ago), thinking that it would be a similar ‘shipping out’ of stuff. Strangely, my blog has turned out to be quite different – there’s a lot of banter and in some ways the blog is developing some of my relationships. This engagement, although odd to get used to, has been a very positive experience for me. Very recently, one of my ‘readers’ started his own blog, and I have been similarly enthusiastic about checking for updates. It’s an exclusive blog, so you won’t find it on my blogroll. Inevitably, though, I still wonder why I am so interested in other people’s blogs, and whether the fact that I probably know more about people from their blogs than I do from spending time with them makes me a bit weird and anti-social.

So, my compelling answer to the question is that personality will out (Capricorns always worry!) – I like to find things out, to investigate, to discover, and I don’t think there’s anything weird about wanting to learn more about people you admire and respect. As my Dad said, it’s a side you might not otherwise see.