Back on the Booker trail

sundaysalonThis year was meant to be the year I completed my self-imposed project to read all the Booker Prize winners. At the start of the year my tally was 28 of the 48 winners and one that I couldn’t finish, leaving me with 19 (I’m not counting the winner of the 2016 prize which has yet to be announced). Since then I’ve read four. so if I keep up this pace I still won’t cross the finishing line by year end. Does that matter? Well not really in the scheme of things. No Booker Prize police are going to come storming my house demanding to know why I didn’t finish by the due date. But equally I don’t want to drag it out for ever.

I put three Booker winners on my list for 20booksof summer as a way of giving myself a kick up the rear end. Which is how I ended up reading the 1996 winner Last Orders by Graham Swift this week. I’m familiar with the story because of the film version featuring Tom Courtenay, Michael Caine and Helen Mirren.  It’s actually a rather simple plot: four men spend a day travelling from London to the coastal resort of Margate to scatter the ashes of their friend Jack Dodds, as he requested just before his death. The book’s title comes from the idea that these men are fulfilling Jack’s final request but it’s also a play on the phrase used to signal closing time in the pub, which is where all these men spend a lot of their time.

Three of the men; Ray, Lenny, and Vic;  knew Jack for most of their adult lives and come from the same working class part of London. The fourth, Vince, is Jack’s son. As they journey to Margate their histories, thoughts and feelings are revealed in a series of short chapters each told from one of the character’s point of view. So far it’s rather easy reading and I’m wondering why this Swift’s novel was considered better than Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance which were on the shortlist.

Here’s what I still have left to read. Some of them are going to be more challenging, then others namely How Late It Was, How Late, Vernon God Little and so I’m likely to leave these to last. Anyone have some recommendations for me from this list of what I should get to earlier?

2015 – A History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)

2010 – The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson)

2004 – The Line of Beauty (Hollinghurst)

2003 – Vernon God Little (Pierre)

2001 – True History of the Kelly Gang (Carey)

1997 – The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy)

1994 – How Late It Was, How Late (Kelman)

1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)

1992 – Sacred Hunger (Unsworth)

1988 – Oscar and Lucinda (Peter Carey)

1986 – The Old Devils (Kingsley Amis) – on my 20booksofsummer list

1983 – Life & Times of Michael K (Coetzee)  on my 20booksofsummer list

1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)

1972 – G. (Berger)

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on July 17, 2016, in #20books of summer, Bookends, Man Booker Prize, Sunday Salon and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 66 Comments.

  1. Just come across this a couple of months late – I’ve set myself the same task and was scouring the web for others doing the same thing. I am sufficiently anal about it to keep a spreadsheet detailing all the winners and shortlisted books, and which ones I’ve read. Incidentally, I make it 50 winners up to 2015, not 48 – that includes the 1979 “Lost Booker” (Troubles, by J.G. Farrell), but even if you exclude that it’s 49.

    I’m on number 34 (Schindler’s Ark, Thomas Keneally) at the moment.

    Of the ones you list above, I’ve read ten. Those include my two least favourites to date – The Finkler Question and The Old Devils, both of which I absolutely LOATHED – and that’s rare for me. I’ve nothing at all against comic novels by middle-aged men (I’ve enjoyed a lot of David Lodge’s work), but they have to be funny, and for me neither of those was – they were both unutterably dull and up their own backsides. Good luck with those two…

    Of the others that you list, the ones that I Enjoyed most were probably Sacred Hunger, A Brief History Of Seven Killings and True History Of The Kelly Gang. The Line of Beauty is beautifully written and very evocative of 1980s Britain, but I enjoyed the first half of the book more than the second half. How Late It Was, How Late was hard going in places but worth sticking with.

    I agree with you about Last Orders – it was readable and enjoyable enough, but didn’t really stand out. One might as well just read As I Lay Dying.

    Out of interest, which was the one that you couldn’t finish?

    • Ah, just looked at the Booker Project page of your blog and I see that the one you gVe up on was the Famished Road – interesting, as I started that back in the early ’90s after it won, didn’t like it (for much the same reasons as you) and gave up on it pretty quickly, but that was a long time ago and it’s still on my to-read list so I will give it another go at some point.

      Also, I can see why you make it 48 instead of 50: you’re missing the 1977 winner (Staying On, Paul Scott) and the 1973 winner (The Siege of Krishnapur, J.G. Farrell). You’ve got Stanley Middleton down for 1973 but in fact he shared the prize with Gordimer in ’74.

      I shall now go and read some of your reviews and see if our tastes are similar!

    • some of your favourites are ones I have yet to read. I recently finished The Old Devils. Maybe because I am Welsh I saw more humour in it though of course we don’t come off that well as a nation in Amis’ view. I found it funny in part but not as funny as my husband did.

      Thanks for the correction re the number. I saw that I had missed one out entirely and overlooked the fact that in one year there were two winners but I had recorded only one. All fixed now!

  2. Oscar and Lucinda is a great read. I studied Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha for GCSE many moons ago and quite liked it, though not as much as The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. Vernon God Little was good too – not as challenging as it seems at first from the narrative style. It’s sweary and disturbing but pretty funny too. The Line of Beauty I thought dull and overrated.

    Wow: I used to be way better at reading Booker winners than I have been lately!

  3. This post inspired one of the ideas for a challenge I might host in 2017. I think everyone could use a little incentive to read those books that we’ve been dreading and putting off!

    I’d love to hear what you think about it and the other ideas, if you have a chance:

  4. I don’t know if it’s any consolation but Vernon God Little was a fast read for me even though I didn’t enjoy it one bit.

  5. I enjoyed True History & loved God of Small Things if that helps you decide.
    Finkler Question was a fail for me.

    I read Paddy Clark but don’t remember anything about it now.

    I have Last Orders & have high hopes for it. Didn’t know it had been made into s movie. I’ll save it for after 🙂

  6. What are you going to do when you actually finish all the Booker winners? You will have to rename your blog 😉

    • agh no way will i totally rename this blog. its still about book talk

      as for what happens when i do finish, I still have lots of classics on my list to read – have neglected that this year

  7. Oddly, some of the books still on your list are the ones I’ve read! I read Oscar & Lucinda many years ago but remember enjoying it very much. I LOVED True History of the Kelly Gang (but I do wonder how much of it is relevant/ of interest to people living outside of Australia…).

    Finkler Question – one of the very few books I abandoned. Apparently it was meant to be funny – I just found it painful (as did every single member of my book group – no one finished it!).

    • Interesting point about relevance to non native readers. I suppose Ned Kelly is such a world renowned name that it will be good to find out who he really was even if its a fictionalised account. Ive been reading many books set in countries about which I know little and so far haven’t had an issue connecting with them….

      • That’s interesting because I didn’t know that Ned Kelly WAS a world renowned name – I figured it was very much a local story!

        • It was even a question on a prime time tv quiz show this week – the question was actually about a painting by an Australian artist whose name I have never come across before and asked which famous outlaw it featured

        • Sidney Nolan? His paintings are iconic in Aus – his Ned Kelly series was featured on postage stamps and also as the backdrop for an Opera Australia production of The Barber of Seville!

      • And Kelly is quite a bit about haves and have-nots, about power and authority – pretty universal themes I’d say.

  8. A History of Seven Killings is phenomenal. I really enjoyed it and would highly recommend. True History of the Kelly Gang is also fantastic, and The Old Devils – though I found it hard to care deeply about because of its relentless maleness – was touching too.

    • I’ll be interested in my reaction to the Old Devils because its set in Wales – my home country – and I often find that it doesn’t feel like the Wales I know.

  9. I abandoned The Finkler Question halfway through – I found it pretentious; could not relate to the superior tone of the urbanites. Vernon God Little : in our Book Club; we all hated it; for us it was too American, too violent – I have a very hazy recollection of the book, but know I loathed it. I’ve read The God of Small Things – thoroughly enjoyed, so good luck with the book, at least one enjoyable read waiting for you.

  10. Despite what everyone else says, I rather enjoyed The Finkler Question. It’s the funniest of Jacobson’s books that I’ve read. I have a copy of the Gordimer on the shelves and may well try to read it this summer.

  11. I, too, vote for Sacred Hunger, a book I never would have chosen on my own but found I loved. Ditto for True History of the Kelly Gang, which really grew on me; I don’t remember its language being a problem at all. Oh, but the Kelman. I suffered through every page.

    The God of Small Things started me on the Booker quest and on list reading in general. It’s good enough to inspire.

    I’ve put off until the end some of the books I don’t think I’ll like. Probably not a good idea!

  12. I think Seven Killings and Kelly Gang will pose challenges due to their colloquial languages (the latter I can attest to). And I had a really difficult time with The Conservationist.

    • That is one of the reasons I see How late it was as a challenge – it’s written in stream of consciousness working class Scottish dialect….

  13. My most favorite on your list is Sacred Hunger. My least favorite on your list is The Finkler Question.

    • I just noticed another most favorite of mine on your list, However I believe your attribution is wrong. ‘The God of Small Things’ is by Arundhati Roy. I have not read it, so will not venture an opinion on that. However I highly recommend anything that Anita Desai wrote.

    • I’ve heard Sacred Hunger is very powerful even though uncomfortable reading. I’ve never read Howard Jacobson so no idea what to expect….

  14. I really like Roddy Doyle’s books. The Barrytown Trilogy is my favorite, though The Woman Who Walked into Doors is really powerful, too.

    • He’s going to be totally unknown reading territory for me though I loved the film The Commitments

      • The dialog is typically really funny, and even though the dad isn’t perfect, you totally love him anyway. I read Paddy Clarke, but is been a very long time.

        • authentic sounding dialogue is so hard to get right. when I was doing some creative writing, the only way i could test if the dialogue sounded real was to practice it with my husband…

        • When I taught creative writing to upperclassmen at the University of Notre Dame, we would go to the student center and hang around inconspicuously and write down what we overheard people say. It was uncomfortable for most at first, but we got some really great samples of dialogue!

  15. *snap* Reading them all is also one of my long term projects but I’ve slacked off lately. I’ve only got eight left to read, but not all of them are reviewed because I read them before my blog.
    I’d read the Conservationist, I love everything I’ve read by Nadine Gordimer.

    • *snap back* I haven’t reviewed all of them either, only the ones I’ve read since I embarked on my project. Gordimer is someone I’ve long meant to read and I’m slowly getting through the big names in South African literature but haven’t got to hear yet. You’ve moved it up the pecking order now …

      • yes, I’ve read a lot, many before blogging too, but I’ve slacked off in recent years. While I haven’t read THAT Gordimer, I agree with Lisa that she’s a great person to read. her book of short stories, Six feet of the country is a great place to start (though, not, I suppose, if you’re aim is the Booker!)

  16. The God of Small Things, just because I really want to read that one, too. The Gordimer should be good, I would think. I really thought My Son’s Story was well done.

  17. I might have given up on the Booker. I haven’t read the last two winners and don’t think I want to. Three years ago when The Luminaries won I had 8 or 9 of all the wiiners left to read. Since then I read one Holiday by Stanley Middleton but several others as well as the last two winners I don’t fancy much at all.
    Of those listed above I would hope for The God of Small things, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha and then Oscar and Lucinda. I hated The Finkler Question.

    • It’s a shame you got so far to the finishing line only to halt. But if they don’t appeal then why spend your time reading them (this isn’t a form of punishment after all). I’m pretty sure Ali that you have thousands of others than appeal more

  18. I finished the Booker list a few years ago. Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things is beautiful and strange. I also remember especially enjoying A History of Seven Killings and Sacred Hunger.

    • Congratulations on that achievement – do you think it was worth it in the end? Any other projects you’ve embarked on??

      • Thanks! I’ve read all of the Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction as well as all of the Baileys Women’s Prize winners. I enjoyed the Booker project but probably connected with the fewest works of any of the prize lists. For some reason I found both the Baileys and the Pulitzer list much more rewarding.

  19. Ooh I like that list! Very adventurous. Am checking off now which ones I’ve read and those I need to read! Thanks for the list.

  20. Anita Desai is a good writer, but The God of Small things is actually by Arundhati Roy! It’s also the only book on your remaining list that I have read. I remember thinking it was good, but I also remember almost nothing about it.

  21. Anita Desai is a strong writer. I remember her book as being quite well written. Good job in setting a big goal for yourself!

  22. I really didn’t get on with The Finkler Question but I enjoyed reading The God of Small Things recently. I’m looking forward to A Brief History of Seven Killings which sounds like it was a worthy winner last year.

    • Now I’m getting nervous about the Finkler Question after seeing the number of people here saying they didn’t enjoy it. What was the issue with it?

      • I read it about four or five years ago. From what I remember, it is supposed to be a “comic” novel but I didn’t find it humorous at all…

      • It’s VERY funny! I still have to choke down a giggle when I think of it BUT I must admit that most in my reading group didn’t get it. I’m not Jewish, but I do love Jewish humour, and you do I think have to get Jewish humour to get it. (I hope this doesn’t sound like a put down but this is the way it fell out in my reading group – the Jewish person loved it, I loved it. Mention it to my daughter and she will still remember my guffawing as I tried to share it with the family.) The whole premise is funny, satiric even. I have blogged it but you may not want to read that before you read the book.

        Of course I’d recommend Oscar and Lucinda! I also love True history but it is a challenge to read – you have to hear it in your head to pick up the rhythm and syntax. I’ve also read Hollinghurst, Pierre and Roy. Of those, I think Roy would be my first pick. It’s tough in places though.

        I want to read Gordimer and Doyle in particular of those I haven’t read.

        • Well I have no experience of the Jewish sense of humour. Not sure why I think this but I have a feeling it could be quite what’s called a ‘dry’ sense of humour and if it is well thats great because that’s my sense too….. I’m now forewarned re the True History. Maybe I need to immerse myself by listening to some Australian podcasts to get into the spirit

        • Yes, it can be dry. Also, I’d say, self-deprecating, they can send themselves up.

        • perfect for me since that’s the British sense too which doesn’t always work with my American chums sadly

        • No, works for your Aussie ones though!

  23. Oh, DO get to Sacred Hunger. I’ve read it several times. Long, but deeply resonant in our time of refugees and (in the US at least) racial strife, and income inequality.

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