Category Archives: Book prizes

10 (or more) books on the horizon

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday invites us to list the books on our reading horizons for autumn. I had intended to say that I don’t have an Autumn reading plan because a) I’m no good at sticking to these kinds of plans b) I haven’t long finished working through the 20booksofsummer list so am suffering a little list fatigue and c) I’m a hopeless prevaricator so can never make up my mind in advance what I want to read.

But then of course I remembered that I have a little unfinished business with my Booker project. So by default I seem to have a plan of sorts because I want to finish this project by the end of the year. That means I know there are  seven Booker Prize winners I will be reading in coming months.

7 Booker titles

2015 – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)

2004 – The Line of Beauty (Alan Hollinghurst)

2003 – Vernon God Little (DBC Pierre)

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

1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)

1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)

1972 – G. (J Berger)

Based on the insight from several bloggers I’m saving The Line of Beauty and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha until the end. The order in which I read the other five will be down to the mood I’m in at the time I’m ready to start a new book.

What else is in the offing?  

Reservoir 13From the library today I picked up a copy of Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor which was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize and – according to many comments I’ve seen – deserved to be on the shortlist but was overlooked by the judges.  In it, he depicts the aftermath of the disappearance of a 13 year old girl during a New Year’s holiday in a village in the Peak District. Over the course of 13 years, McGregor shows how life goes on in this community after the initial shock of her disappearance. To get the best idea of this book take a look at Susan’s review at A Life in Books.

I’ve already started reading this it being a perfect day to sit in the sunshine with a coffee and read. And so far it’s turned out to be a remarkable book…

I have a few novels I’ve agreed to review including a crime story in the style of the Golden Age of Crime, a historical fiction book set in Versailles and a new work by Richard Flanagan called First Person which is apparently a story about a ghostwriter haunted by his demonic subject.

And then there are a few Elizabeth Taylor and Penelope Lively novels that are calling to me, and it’s time I revisited some of my classics club list. which has a few Anthony Trollope and Emile Zola titles I fancy. But wait a moment, what about all the Louise Penny titles I bought on my last trip to the USA? And the authors from Wales that I’m trying to highlight….

Even with my less than stellar arithmetical skills I realise I’m way over 10 books. Better get reading hadn’t I????

Booker Prize shortlist brings some surprises

The Man Booker Prize judges announced the shortlist for the 2017 prize today and sprung a few surprises.

The first and by far the biggest surprise is that Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead which has been hoovering up prizes everywhere else is missing from the list. That was the bookie’s favourite up until this morning. Its omission has taken many in the book world by surprise. Waterstones fiction buyer Chris White commented to the Guardian newspaper: “We’re all used by now to the Booker judges delivering surprises but the omission of The Underground Railroad from the final six certainly ranks among the biggest shocks I’ve witnessed. I think that, when we look back at 2017, we may see this as the one which got away”. He obviously isn’t a reader of BookerTalk because he would have seen from my post earlier this week that people I would class as knowledgeable though not professional readers didn’t rate it that highly.

Another surprise is that established authors like Zadie Smith,  Arundhati Roy, Sebastian Barry and Kamila Shamsi have all been pushed aside in favour of first time novelists. George Saunders who makes it to the list with Lincoln in the Bardo (now the bookie’s favourite to win) has only previously written short stories. He, together with Fiona Mozley, a part-time book shop worker from the UK who apparently wrote part of her book on her phone while commuting and American Emily Fridlund  will now go head to head against the big names of Paul Auster and Ali Smith (neither of whom have won the Booker in previous years).

Continuing the trend from recent years two independent publishers are featured among the shortlisted titles.

The judges, chaired by Baroness Lola Young, said at a press conference that “the novels [chosen], each in their own way, challenge and subtly shift our preconceptions – about the nature of love, about the experience of time, about questions of identity and even death.”

So what do the critics and followers of the Booker Prize make of the shortlist?

A number remarked on the lack of geographic breadth of the selected authors. The judges were apparently challenged at the press conference about the Americanisation of the prize.  Three of the shortlisted writers are from the US. Baroness Young ejected the accusation.  “… nationality is not an issue in terms of how we decide on a winner – it’s what is in our opinion the best book in these six. All we can say is that we judge the books submitted to us, and make our judgment not based on nationality or gender, but what is written on the pages,” she said.

Former Booker judge Alex Clark, writing in The Guardian called the shortlist ‘daring’. The choices, he said, seem “to reject conventional realism and celebrate precarious and unstable narratives…”

Toby Lichtig writing for the Times Literary Supplement noted that neither of his two favourites was selected (Underground Railroad and Reservoir 13) while the inclusion of Auster would “raise a few eyebrows” because while it ” is a work of towering ambition” for some readers it was also one of” towering self-regard”. Writing in the TLS, James Campbell found it to be lacking in “rhythm, tone, vivacity, wit. To name just four things”.

The Mookes and the Bookish group over at Goodreads greeted the announcement of the shortlist with astonishment  “…the longlist had restored my faith in the Booker. The shortlist has successfully re-destroyed it!” said one member. Several were dismayed that two of their favourite reads Solar Bones and Home Fire didn’t make it and questioned why Elmet was on the list because they didn’t find it any more noteworthy than some other debut novels that were eligible.

The prize for 2017 looks wide open although Ladbrokes are giving the edge to Saunders. Interesting to see Elmet in joint second place – is she going to be the dark horse?

Booker 2017 betting.png

Whoever wins it’s certain to be a decision that will not please everyone but twas ever thus.

The 2017 Shortlist

4 3 2 1  by Paul Auster (US)  

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US)

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (UK-Pakistan)

Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US)   Watch a video from Foyles about this book

Autumn by Ali Smith (UK)   Read an interview with Ali Smith

The 2017 winner will be announced on Tuesday 17 October

Booker Prize 2017 – who will make the shortlist?

The Booker Prize judges will announce tomorrow which six books will make it to the shortlist for the 2016 prize. For the first time in the five years since I started this blog when the longlist was announced I discovered I hadn’t read any of the 13 longlisted titles. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise really since this year I’ve focused on reading more from my TBR and consequently a lot less contemporary fiction. But neither did I feel excited enough this year to rush out and acquire a few of the longlist titles. I did get electronic samples of most of them and have decided which interest me the most: Home Fire, Reservoir 13, Autumn, Lincoln in the Bardo and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.  I might even be able to read one or two before the final announcement.

So essentially I’ve been following the prize as a backseat passenger this year. Fortunately there are a few highly dedicated groups and individuals who have taken more of an interest and have been working their way through the list over the past few months.

The Mookse and the Gripes is a very lively Goodreads group of 51 contributors. Based on their scores for each individual book, they’re anticipating that the six shortlisted titles will be:

1 Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
2 Home Fire
by Kamila Shamsi
3 Reservoir 13  by Jon McGregor
4 Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

5 Autumn 
by Ali Smith
6 Days without End 
by Sebastian Barry

They ranked the remaining seven titles as follows:

7 Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Exit West by Hamid
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
10 4321  by Paul Auster
11 
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
12 Elmet by Fiona Mozley
13 History of Wolves   
by Emily Fridlund

Over at The Reader’s Room a smaller but no less dedicated team have ranked the novels according to the quality of writing quality; originality; character development; plot development and readers’ overall enjoyment.

1.  Autumn by Ali Smith
2. Exit West by Hamid
3. 4321 by Paul Auster
4. Lincoln in the Bardo
 by George Saunders
5. Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
6. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsi
7. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry
8. History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
9. Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor
10. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
11. Swing Time by Zadie Smith
12. Elmet by Fiona Mozley
13. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

Astonishingly, given the large number of readers of these books, there is a large level of agreement between the Goodreads group and the Reader’s Room. Four of the titles: Solar Bones,  Home Fire, Lincoln in the Bardo and Autumn appear in both lists as likely shortlist contenders.

Where they part company is over Reservoir 13, Exit West and Days without End. 

Reader’s Room reviewers liked the style of Reservoir 13 which was reminiscent of poetry but thought there wasn’t enough character or plot development. Exit West was gauged by one reviewer to “convey incredible depth and emotion” by subtly using magical realism. Only two reviewers for the Reader’s Room read Paul Auster’s 4321 – both commented on its length (900 pages approx) but found it engaging, complex and written in a style bordering on perfection. Over at Goodreads, Paul one reviewer commented that Reservoir 13 was “A wonderful novel — modest in its scope but all the more powerful for it” and a breath of fresh air compared to the over-blown novels that have won in recent years. Another reviewer said it was the most compelling read of the year. There were mixed reviews for Exit West – a number of people thought the writing dull (others completely disagreed) and the migrant experience not fully developed or not realistic. As for 1234,  the length of the book was an issue with a lot of the reviewers – several thought it could easily have been trimmed by 100 or 150 pages without suffering. A few commented that the basic structure of the novel – relaying the vastly different lives of four identical boys formed from the same DNA – was confusing at times but also felt repetitive.

What was interesting for me about both lists was that Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad which was “the” book of 2016, doesn’t come higher on any of the lists. This is the novel that won  the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal for Fiction, the Heartland Prize and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Yet several reviewers didn’t find it to be as innovative as they expected. Will the Booker Prize represent one hurdle too far for this novel?

Not according to Ladbrokes, the bookmakers, who have Whitehead’s novel as the clear favourite to win.

But then, as John Dugdale pointed out in an article for The Guardian an entry in the bookmakers’ lists isn’t any guarantee of success.

The National (an online magazine) has also taken out their crystal ball and come up with a list of who they’d like to see on the shortlist.  They are the only ones to put The Ministry of Utmost Happiness and Swing Time in the frame.

The field is clearly wide open as it were.

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth [book review] #Bookerprize

Sacred-HungerIt’s 210 years since an Act of Parliament abolished the slave trade in Britain, a trade upon which many personal fortunes were made; mansions, stately homes and churches built and Britain’s major ports, cities and canals developed. It’s estimated that by the early 1800s as many as one in six of the wealthiest Britons derived at least some of their fortunes from slavery. This is a period of British history which still causes controversy today – earlier this year campaigners vowed to erase the name of Edward Colston from the streets of Bristol because the buildings he bequeathed to the city were funded through his involvement in the slave trade.

The profit motive that propelled merchants and investors like Colston is the theme explored in Sacred Hunger, the 1992 Booker-prize winning novel by Barry Unsworth.  It begins with the ambition of one man, William Kemp, a leading merchant in Liverpool who believes the time is ripe for the city and its entrepreneurs to reap the rewards of trade across the Atlantic and Africa. So confident is he that he has a new ship built to carry firearms to the west coast of Africa, intending to trade them for slaves to be transported and sold in the West Indies in exchange for a cargo of sugar to be taken back to England.

He knows it will be a risky endeavour. So he equips the Liverpool Merchant with special features: guns on its quarterdecks  mounted so they can be trained down to quell slave revolts and thickened rails to make death leaps more difficult.  In his captain Saul Thurso he finds a man who will not hesitate to act in whatever way necessary to maintain order. Yet Kemp likes to think he is also a caring man so he recruits his nephew Matthew Paris as ship’s doctor, “for reasons of humanity”, much to Thurso’s astonishment and disgust.

It’s through the eyes of this doctor that we witness events on board ship once it sets sail. Paris is a complex character. In between binding the wounds of crew members and treating the symptoms of venereal disease and bloody flux (severe dysentery), he spends his time at sea reading Voltaire and Pope. His thoughts turn constantly to his  wife and his feelings of guilt for the part he played in her premature death. His objection to the profit motive, the inhumanity of slavery and the treatment of the human cargo put him at loggerheads with the Captain.

When an artist and philosopher called Deblanc joins the ship in West Africa, Paris finds he has someone with whom he can debate the legitimacy of the profit motive behind the voyage. Deblanc tells Paris how the lust for profit becomes legitimised:

Money is sacred as everyone knows… So then must be the hunger for it and the means we use to obtain it. Once a man is in debt he becomes a flesh and blood form of money, a walking investment. You can do what you like with him, you can work him to death or you can sell him. This cannot be called cruelty or greed because we are seeking only to recover our investment and that is a sacred duty.

Paris becomes increasingly disquiet about his own role in assisting the slave traders:

I have assisted in the suffering inflicted on these innocent people and in doing so joined the ranks of those that degrade the unoffending… We have taken everything from them and only for the sake of profit—that sacred hunger… which justifies everything, sanctifies all purposes.

Thurso decides to jettison the captured slaves, the insurance money being more attractive than their prospects for sale in their sickened condition. It’s the breaking point for Paris who leads a rebellion and forms a settlement off the coast of Florida where crew members and slaves live together on equal terms. They share the few remaining women slaves, communicate via a trade pidgin and trade with local Indians.

A decade later, William Kemp’s son Erasmus learns of this settlement and resolves to recapture the slaves for they are, in his eyes, his property. Book 2 of Sacred Hunger traces his journey across the Atlantic to seek retribution against his cousin, bring him to justice and reclaim the remaining slaves. Like his now-dead father, Erasmus is motivated by money and finds in Florida that the promise of land and wealth is equally compelling to the Governor of this British colony and the local Indian tribal chiefs.

The story moves at a smart pace, especially in the first book. There is a large and colourful cast of characters from the crewmen duped in wharfside brothels into joining the ship to Thurso whose glaring eyes and propensity for flogging make him an imposing figure. Unsworth provides so much detail that we feel we too are pitching and rolling through the waves or clambering up the mainmast. Fortunately the book doesn’t get so authentic that we experience the stink of the slave’s quarters in the bottom of the hull.

 

Sacred Hunger is long at 600 pages but doesn’t feel unnecessarily drawn out. It’s page after page of solid adventure, realistic 18th century dialogue and vivid prose which works without recourse to any experimentation with form. In Book 1 which takes us as far as Thurso’s murder of the slaves, Unsworth varies the tempo by alternating episodes on the Liverpool Merchant  with scenes of a failed romance and a family scandal in Liverpool.

 

Book One was a joy to read but I wasn’t as enthralled by the considerably shorter Book 2. Most of this later section is set in Florida where the hoped for utopia of a settlement of equals is clearly breaking down despite Paris’ attempt to convince the settlers that “White man, black man, all free man, all bradder, lie tagedder dis place, all same boat.” The problem for me was that so much of this section is conveyed in that kind of pidgin language. It’s understandable since it brings home the point about how difficult it is for the English and Africans to communicate but it made for some frustrating reading. Overall though this was still a good read and will find a place in the top half of my favourite Booker titles I’m sure.

 

 

Footnotes

About the book: Sacred Hunger is a historical novel by Barry Unsworth first published in 1992 by Hamish Hamilton. It shared the Booker Prize that year with Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (one of my all-time favourite Booker winners).

About the author: Barry Unsworth was born in 1930 in a mining village in Durham. After university he served in the Royal Corps of Signals, then became a teacher and novelist. He worked as a lecturer in English at a London technical college and the universities of Athens and Istanbul. He was writer in residence at the University of Liverpool. In later years he made his home in Umbria, Italy. He died in Perugia, at age 81, of lung cancer.

Why I read this book: Sacred Hunger is one of the remaining books on my Booker prize winners project. It’s also part of my 20booksofsummer2017 list.

Which Booker winner to read next? The experts have weighed in…

Earlier in the week I asked for help in working out which of the remaining 8 Booker titles from my list I should read next. And also was there a standout novel with which to end.

Thanks to everyone who weighed in on this. As I expected, opinions were divided, proof if ever any were needed that reading is a highly personal experience.

Some clear trends did emerge however.

GG.  the 1972 winner by J Berger got zero votes of confidence which is not surprising since it had been read by only one person: Susan at A Life in Books. Only one other person seemed to be aware of Berger’s work: Kelly at Kellysbookishramblings has G on her TBR shelves..

 

the conservationistAlso not universally recommended is the 1974 winner The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer. Lisa of ANZitlovers gave it a resounding vote of confidence calling it a brave book written by a brave woman who exposed the day to day reality of apartheid to the international stage” and Bookbii described it as an “excellent, if challenging book.” Countering this however is Alison, a blogger from South Africa who commented : Nadine Gordimer is a Sacred Icon in South African literature, but I’ve always found her books very heavy going.” 

how late it wasLocal connections certainly played a part in reactions to James Kelman’s 1994 winner How Late It Was, How Late “Don’t be put off Kelman,” said Weezelle at BooksandLeaves. My (Scottish) husband says that the criticism aimed at him comes from certain parts of the British Isles who were educated in certain institutions that may or may not have a particular elitist view of the world. Even for me as a non-Scot, I loved this book.” Col, a Glaswegian, loved the book but admitted to maybe a little bias since it is set in her home city and the language is thus very familiar.

Vernon_god_littleThe jury delivered  a minority verdict on Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre. Some of you  really enjoyed it, calling variously “a riot’ and “bonkers” but others declared they hated it and Paul Fulcher thought it “lightweight and completely unworthy of the prize.”

 

 

What did you recommend?

Top of the poll was Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, the 1993 winner by Roddy Doyle with nine paddy clarkevotes in favour and no negative reactions. Kim at Reading Matters described it as “one of my all time favourites. ” Many of you commented on  its readability – a description that would have pleased the judges of the 2011 prize but was dismissed by many of the literary great and the good asa sign of dumbing down of the prize. But what’s wrong with saying a book is readable? I’m more than confident that people reading this blog don’t mean these are “simple” books or superficial. Maybe we mean they are less challenging in form or subject but still require engagement of the brain.

Also described as an easy and very readable book is The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst which won the Booker Prize in 2004. It attracted 6 votes, a draw with The True History of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey.

seven killingsThe novel that had me most curious to hear your reactions was the most recent winner on my list: the 2015 winner  A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Although it attracted only 4 votes in its favour there were none against which surprised me because I’ve seen many other reviews commenting on how complex a novel this is structurally and how tough it can be to tune into the Jamaican dialect.  Yet one commenter said it was “An astonishingly good book, that stays with you long after you’ve read it. Yes, there is extreme violence, some of the dialect is hard to understand, and the politics can be confusing. It is not an easy read – but worth the effort.

Where does this take me?

I’m going to save The Line of Beauty and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha until the end since they were so highly recommended. It would be tempting to leave one of the least favourite novels to the end but I  really do not want to mark the completion of this project by reading something I don’t enjoy. I’m going to make The True History of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey by next choice given it has had a positive reaction. After that I’m going to let my mood dictate what I choose, trying to space out the more challenging reads where I can.

Thanks for all your help.

And then there were 8 [Booker prize]

8-Booker-titles

The countdown has begun  for my project to read all the Booker Prize winners since the inception of the prize in 1969. I’ve read 40 of the winners, abandoned two which means there are just eight remaining ( I decided to call a halt in 2015).

It’s taken far longer than I anticipated when I started more than 5 years ago. If you’re a book blogger you can blame yourself for my slow progress – you would insist in pushing other titles under my nose that I felt I absolutely had to read. In other words I got distracted a few times. But I’m determined to wrap this up before the end of the year.

I’m just not sure what to read next particularly since some of the remaining titles sound challenging. A Brief History of Seven Killings, the 2015 winner is ” a difficult book with a stop-start structure ,” and cast of around 75 characters according to The Guardian reviewer.  One of the Booker judges declared the 1994 winner How Late it Was How Late to be “crap” while The Guardian review considered the novel “brilliant, sometimes quite funny, but more often a miserable slog….  confusing, claustrophobic and miserable” .  I started The Conservationist at the end of last year but found it confusing so set aside temporarily.

Here’s a little request – can you help me work my way through the final eight by letting me know if you’ve read any of these and how you found the experience? I especially want to make the final Booker I read to be a firework and not a damp squib. So are there any rockets in this list?

For those of you who don’t know these books, here are the Goodreads synopsis for each one

2015 – A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James)

“…a masterfully written novel that explores the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the late 1970s.

On December 3, 1976, just before the Jamaican general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica Concert, gunmen stormed his house, machine guns blazing. The attack nearly killed the Reggae superstar, his wife, and his manager, and injured several others. Marley would go on to perform at the free concert on December 5, but he left the country the next day, not to return for two years.

Deftly spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters—assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts—A Brief History of Seven Killings is the fictional exploration of that dangerous and unstable time and its bloody aftermath, from the streets and slums of Kingston in the 70s, to the crack wars in 80s New York, to a radically altered Jamaica in the 90s.

2004 – The Line of Beauty (Alan Hollinghurst)

In the summer of 1983, twenty-year-old Nick Guest moves into an attic room in the Notting Hill home of the Feddens: conservative Member of Parliament Gerald, his wealthy wife Rachel, and their two children, Toby-whom Nick had idolized at Oxford-and Catherine, highly critical of her family’s assumptions and ambitions.

As the boom years of the eighties unfold, Nick, an innocent in the world of politics and money, finds his life altered by the rising fortunes of this glamorous family. His two vividly contrasting love affairs, one with a young black clerk and one with a Lebanese millionaire, dramatize the dangers and rewards of his own private pursuit of beauty, a pursuit as compelling to Nick as the desire for power and riches among his friends.

Richly textured, emotionally charged, disarmingly comic,

2003 – Vernon God Little (DBC Pierre)

Named as one of the 100 Best Things in the World by GQmagazine in 2003, the riotous adventures of Vernon Gregory Little in small town Texas and beachfront Mexico mark one of the most spectacular, irreverent and bizarre debuts of the twenty-first century so far. Its depiction of innocence and simple humanity (all seasoned with a dash of dysfunctional profanity) in an evil world is never less than astonishing. The only novel to be set in the barbecue sauce capital of Central Texas, Vernon God Little suggests that desperate times throw up the most unlikely of heroes.

2001 – True History of the Kelly Gang (Peter Carey)

Told in the form of a journal justifying Ned Kelly to the daughter he would never meet, this is a mesmerising act of historical imagining by one of the most popular novelists at work today.

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

One Sunday morning in Glasgow, shoplifting ex-con Sammy awakens in an alley, wearing another man’s shoes and trying to remember his two-day drinking binge. He gets in a scrap with some soldiers and revives in a jail cell, badly beaten and, he slowly discovers, completely blind. And things get worse: his girlfriend disappears, the police question him for a crime they won’t name, and his stab at disability compensation embroils him in the Kafkaesque red tape of the welfare bureaucracy. Told in the utterly uncensored language of the Scottish working class, this is a dark and subtly political parable of struggle and survival, rich with irony and black humour.

1993 – Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Roddy Doyle)

“Sometimes when nothing happened it was really getting ready to happen.” Irish Paddy rampages through Barrytown streets with like-minded hooligans, playing cowboys, etching names in wet concrete, setting fires. The gang are not bad boys, just restless. When his parents argue, Paddy stays up all night to keep them safe. Change always comes, not always for the better

1974 – The Conservationist (Nadine Gordimer)

“The winner of the 1991 Nobel Prize in Literature paints a fascinating portrait of a “conservationist” left only with the possibility of self-preservation, a subtle and detailed study of the forces and relationships that seethe in South Africa today.”

1972 – G. (J Berger)

John Berger relates the story of “G.,” a young man forging an energetic sexual career in Europe during the early years of this century. With profound compassion, Berger explores the hearts and minds of both men and women, and what happens during sex, to reveal the conditions of the Don Juan’s success: his essential loneliness, the quiet cumulation in each of his sexual experiences of all of those that precede it, the tenderness that infuses even the briefest of his encounters, and the way women experience their own extraordinariness through their moments with him. All of this Berger sets against the turbulent backdrop of Garibaldi and the failed revolution of Milanese workers in 1898, the Boer War, and the first flight across the Alps, making G. a brilliant novel about the search for intimacy in history’s private moments.

Good Behaviour by Molly Keane [book review]

country-houseThe ancestral home of Temple Alice might be crumbling and the debts piling up. But for the St Charles family, it’s imperative that appearances are maintained and they uphold the standards of good behaviour befitting the Anglo-Irish gentry. And on the surface they are successful. Papa occupies his time hunting, fishing and generally having a good time with his coterie of female admirers. Mummie is so busy with her gardening and her painting she has no time or patience for all the dull business of housekeeping and child rearing. Daughter Aroon and her younger brother Hubert are consequently left in the care of their beloved governess Miss Brock with whom they swim and picnic joyfully.

It all sounds a halcyon existence. But that’s only on the surface. Time and time again in Good Behaviour a darkness seeps through that is all the more disturbing because it’s so subtly introduced and then glossed over. The tone is set in the opening scene in which Aroon, now a mature woman, prepares a rabbit mousse for her invalid mother’s meal, despite protestations from housemaid Rose that mum gets sick if she eats rabbit. Mother takes one mouthful, is sick. and dies. The result of an error of judgement by a well-meaning daughter or a deliberate act of a woman grown embittered over the years? The reader is left to decide but that episode is already  a signal that maybe Aroon is going to prove an entirely unreliable narrator of her story.

The chapters that immediately follow the rabbit episode reinforce our initial impressions that more is going on beneath the surface than first appears. They seem to be series of entertaining anecdotes about Aroon’s childhood in her ancestral country home yet it’s obvious to us, even if it isn’t to her, that she is being largely ignored and starved of affection. Her mother is either distant or dismissive and cruel and her father only seems to pay attention when she is exhibiting her horsemanship even when this results in a near tragic episode where she clings onto a troublesome horse. She is further burdened by her size and shape. She’s tall and full blossomed in a way that is totally out of synch with the fashion in 1920s for slim, boyish figures.  To onlookers she looks like a Fat Lady in a peepshow with her “bosoms swinging like jelly bags”.

I have now come to terms with my height but in those years when I was nineteen and twenty, I bent my knees, I bowed my shoulders; I strapped in my bosoms until they burst out around my back.

Aroon is in essence an outsider. Although there are moments when she feels she’s “there at the heart of things” – like when her brother teaches her to dance and she finds there is something at which she can excel or the evenings when Hubert and his friend Richard invite her for drinks and music in their bedroom. Richard gets into bed with her one night.  Though nothing happens sexually, the fact Richard was in her bed is enough for Aroon to believe he is in love with her and to eagerly that anticipate nuptial bliss will follow.

But too soon the dream falls apart. Hubert is killed in a motoring accident and Richard disappears to Kenya. The death of son and heir and the earlier tragedy when Papa lost a leg in the battle fields of World War 1 barely disrupt the routine. For this is a house where every mishap or tragedy  is shaken off, never spoken of and never allowed to interrupt the gardening or hunting. “Our good behaviour went on and on. . . no one spoke of the pain.” says Aroon after Hubert’s funeral. “We exchanged cool, warning looks – which of us could behave the best: which of us could be least embarrassing…”

Though she does feel the pain when her hopes of marriage fade, she will not show it for she has learned to be a dutiful daughter and how to behave in the same socially impeccably manner as her parents. Phoning the doctor to report her mother’s death for example to the others she has time to observe:

… how the punctual observance of the usual importances is the only way to behave at such times as these. And I do know how to behave – believe me, I know. I have always known. All my life far I have done everything for the best reasons and the most unselfish motives.

What Keane lets us see is how Aroon is ‘right’ about behaviour but so often wrong about people. She doesn’t see that Richard’s romantic overture is designed to disguise his intense relationship with her brother or that the cook Rose isn’t just warming her father’s foot when he’s confined to bed after a stroke. Nor does she see her mother’s lack of affection as odd. It’s just the way things are. “I don’t blame Mummie… She simply did not want to know what was going on in the nursery. She had had children and she longed to forget the horror of it once and for all.  She didn’t really like children; she didn’t like dogs either…”

Is she really that limited in understanding that she doesn’t see her mother’s behaviour for what it is: cruelty.  It’s hard not to feel sympathy for this girl whose life has been blighted and who seems not to understand how this has happened.

It’s the gap between what Aaron knows and understands and what we as readers understand that makes Good Behaviour such a tremendous book. Added to that Keane’s characters are wholly believable; none of them come across in  flattering way. They wouldn’t dream of treating their dogs or horses badly yet are perfectly capable of being mean and spiteful to fellow humans in revenge for personal grievances whether real or imagined. That doesn’t mean this is a novel entirely devoid of humour. There is a wonderful set piece towards the end of the novel where Aaron, on the morning of her father’s funeral is despatched to the station to collect one of his old friends.She lets herself be persuaded to take a tipple in the station buffet – one brand and ginger ale turns into two and three and then she falls on the ice and spends the afternoon sleeping it off while everyone else is at the funeral. But Keane suddenly turns from humour to pathos as Aaron realises she has “let the side down”.

At that moment I knew myself entirely bereft. The sofa murmured and creaked under my sobbing. She [Mummie] was keeping strictly to the day’s essentials; things must be done, masks against any vulgar intrusions of grief. I felt like a child who wets her knickers at a party. Nowhere to hide, no refuge from the shame of it.

Impossible not to feel sympathy at moments like this for a girl who has only wanted ever to love and to be loved but whose soul has been suppressed through neglect and a lifetime of required good behaviour.

A wonderful book; faultless in its concept and in its execution.

Footnotes

About the book: Good Behaviour by Molly Keane was published in 1981 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year. It is the first novel Molly Keane published after a writing break triggered by the death of her husband and was the first time she used her real name (rather than her pseudonym of Maggie J Farrell.) Apparently Keane sent it to a publisher but when it was rejected as ‘too dark’ she stuck it in a kitchen drawer. But then Peggy Ashcroft visited and struck down with flu, asked for something to read. Having read the typescript she urged Molly to try and publish.

About the author: Molly Keane was born as Mary Skrine in County Kildare in Ireland in 1904 into a ‘serious hunting and fishing family’. She wrote her first novel at the age of 17 to supplement her dress allowance, using the pseudonym of M. J Farrell to hide her activities from her sporting friends. Between 1928 and 1961 she wrote 10 novels and a clutch of successful plays.The death in 1946 of her husband, at the early age of 37, was a blow. She stopped writing and devoted herself to bringing up their daughters. Interest in her revived after publication of Good Behaviour. She continued to write well into her 80s. There is an excellent article in The Guardian in which editor Diana Athill reflects on her relationship with Keane – click this link

Why I read this book: I bought this in a library sale.   I’d read only one book by her – Devoted Ladies which I enjoyed but didn’t love. But I’d seen plenty of reviews by bloggers whose opinion I trust to the effect of persuading me I really should read Good Behaviour. So thank you Heaven Ali ( her review is hereand the many other reviewers in the Library Thing Virago group. Good Behaviour is one of my 20booksofsummer choices.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee [Booker Prize 1983]

I approached J. M Coetzee’s Booker Prize winning novella The Life & Times of Michael K hoping against hope it would be easier to penetrate than the last novel I read by him: The Schooldays of Jesus. I found the latter simply baffling as you can tell from my review. The Life & Times of Michael K fortunately proved more straightforward though I can’t say that reading it was a wholly satisfying experience.

It started in a promising fashion with the introduction to Michael, a simple man who has spent his childhood in institutions and works as a gardener in Cape Town. Michael tends to his mother,  a domestic servant to a wealthy family. Michael is a man deformed by a hare lip, a disfigurement which makes people look down on him. They view him as a simpleton, as a doctor later explains:

He is a simpleton, and not even an interesting simpleton. He is a poor helpless soul who has been permitted to wander out on the battlefield, if I may use that word, the battlefield of life, when he should have ben shut away in an institution with high walls, stuffing cushions or watering the flower beds.

Lacking in intellectual power he might be but Michael is a good son who wants to do right by his mother. When she becomes very sick and decides she wants to return to her birthplace, he quits his job so he can take her home. But the country has descended into civil war and martial law has been imposed so he cannot get the proper permits for travel out of the city.   He builds a shoddy rickshaw in which he pushes his mother through the streets and onto the main highways out into the countryside. It’s an arduous journey. The roads are full of armed convoys from whom they must hide and other travellers who want to steel their possessions. At night they have to sleep hidden among straggling roots and wet bracken with only  cold food to eat. His mother’s health declines further but when she dies Michael resolves to carry on alone to deliver his mother’s ashes.

He finds the farm at Prince Albert where his mother once lived but it is abandoned and desolate. Soon, Michael is living in a dug-out, communing with nature, making a garden where he grows melons and barely surviving. His melon-growing might have been highly allegorical but if so its significance was rather lost on me.

Every so often Michael’s quiet and happy existence is disrupted by a war he feels is nothing to do with him. He finds himself in and out of prison and labour camps that have sprung up all over the country, forced to work, and to answer questions he does not understand. His act of defiance is to rejecting the food his captors give him and then to escape, managing to return to the apartment where he and his mother lived in Cape Town. He is still the mute and simple man he was at the beginning, he acknowledges. But he has learned some things from his experiences. One was how to be a better farmer.

The mistake I made, he thought, going back in time, was not to have had plenty of seeds, a different packet of seeds for each pocket…. Then my mistake was to plant all my seeds together in one patch. I should have planted them one at a time spread out over miles of veld in patches of soil no larger than my hand, and drawn a map and kept it with me at all times so that every night I could make a tour of the sites to water them.

And that he is happiest when left alone. Everywhere he goes there are people who want to exercise their form of charity upon him, asking him questions.

They want me to open my heart and tell them the story of a life lived in cages. They want to hear all abut the cages I have lived in as if I  were a budgie or a white mouse or a monkey. … When my story was finished people would have shaken their heads and been sorry and angry and plied me with food and drink;women would have taken me into their beds and mothered me in the dark.  … I have escaped the camps; perhaps, if I lie low, I will escape the charity too.

That reflection and Michael’s interpretation of his experiences represented the flaw in this book for me. They come in the final pages of the novel and feel totally out of character. We’re now far removed from the man described by a doctor in the labour camp as ”an original soul . . . untouched by doctrine, untouched by history . . . evading the peace and the war . . . drifting through time”. Michael along the way acquires sufficient deep insight to ask searching questions and pass comments about whether his time in a camp is a process of self-education.

I understood this was a novel about passive resistance to oppression and about survival but Coetzee had me perplexed by his ending with its last-minute imposition of a “message”. He makes Michael ask: “Is that the moral of it all…that there is time for everything? Is that how morals come?”. Completely out of character, clumsy and unnecessary.  Spoiling an otherwise reasonable yarn.

Footnotes

About the bookThe Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee was published in 1983 by Secker and Warburg. My copy is a paperback edition published by Vintage in 2004. The novel won the Booker Prize in 1983.

About the author: John Maxwell “J. M.” Coetzee was born in South Africa in 1940. Apart from his fictional writings he is also an essayist, linguist, translator.  He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. He relocated to Australia in 2002,  becoming an Australian citizen four years later. He has an impressive record with the Booker prize, the first author to receive the prize twice ( the other was Disgrace  in 1999 (reviewed here).  His novel Summertime, was shortlisted and was hotly tipped to win but ultimately lost out to  Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. He made the longlist in  2003 for Elizabeth Costello, 2005 for Slow Man  and again in 2016 with The Schooldays of Jesus.

Why I read this book: Quite simply I read it because it was one of the books I hadn’t got around to on my Booker prize project

 

Rites of Passage by William Golding #Bookerprize

rites of passage2The year is 1815. Like thousands of other young men looking to start a new life, Edmund Talbot boards a ship destined for a British colony. With the help of his godfather patron he is to join the staff of the Governor’s office in Australia. To amuse his godfather he begins to write a journal. In it he records his impressions of the ship which is a creaking and ancient former warship, not affording the naive young man anything like the standard of accommodation he was expecting (his ‘cabin’ is more akin to a hutch).

But this doesn’t curb the enthusiasm of this young dandy. He may be a novice in maritime life but Edmund is an enthusiastic student who wants to learn the ways of the men onboard.

“I have laid my Marine Dictionary by my pillow; for I am determined to speak the tarry language as perfectly as any of these rolling fellows”

With wit and energy he describes daily life aboard ship, the disdain he feels for the bad manners of his fellow passengers (who are generally beneath him in the social hierarchy) and the mounting tensions between officers, crew and passengers. His observations are mixed with salacious gossip and details of his own sexual encounters.

His curiosity is awakened by one passenger in particular, the Reverend James Colley, who, for reasons we don’t discover until he end of the novel, is despised by the captain. Edmund initially tries to support the parson but is ultimately repelled by Colley’s over-eager attempts at friendship. Colley also falls foul of the sailors who, in the seclusion of the fo’castle, exact their revenge, delivering the parson into a  “hell of degradation” involving a crossing-the-line ceremony. The shame Colley feels at his treatment is so deep he never recovers.

And it’s at this point that the light and frothy tone of the novel suddenly changes and it becomes a much more disturbing narrative. Golding, it’s clear, has led his readers up and down the garden path in the first half of the book. Talbot’s journal paints the parson as an absurd man with a hacked-about haircut and ill-fitting wig at whom we are invited to laugh.  It’s hard not to when Colley is seen dead drunk, naked, “his mind only lightly linked to his understanding”, crying out “joy, joy, joy” and attempting to bless his fellow passengers.

But after his shaming, we get to read Colley’s own journal and slowly this young parson is transformed into a sympathetic, sweet-natured man. His wild haircut is explained by the fact that his sister tried to cut it one last time before he boarded ship and they parted, but was crying so much that she could hardly see what she was doing. All the laughs we’ve had at Colley’s expense now seem hollow as we learn about the many other cruelties that Edmund failed to notice or failed to understand.

By the end of the novel, we like Edmund, feel complicit in Colley’s downfall.  It was his own aggressive behaviour towards Colley which made others on board feel it was ok to bully this man. The truth of his death however never comes to light because the captain’s inquiry is a whitewash and Edmund is so compromised he’s left with no option but to hide the facts from Colley’s sister.  The boy who ends the novel is a far wiser, more mature creature than the one we encounter at the beginning.

With lack of sleep and too much understanding I grow a little crazy, I think, like all men at sea who live too close to each other and too close thereby to all that is monstrous under the sun and moon.

There were many enjoyable features of this novel. Firstly Golding’s use of the two journals disrupted the trajectory of the novel and turned what could otherwise have been a pleasant, if unremarkable, tale about a young snob, into a fascinating narrative. Everything about this book feels authentic, from the language and the events described to the choice of typeface with cracked edge letters and slightly rough paper  in my edition.  And then we get the themes of shame and class consciousness which undercut the comedy of Edmund’s naivety. Golding shows that even within the confines of a ship that “streams with sea water, rain and other fouler liquids’, the British class structure prevails. For all the humour of the first half of the book, Rites of Passage is a quite disquieting novel.

Footnotes

The Novel: Rites of Passage is the first title in the To the Ends of the Earth trilogy —Rites of Passage (1980), Close Quarters (1987), and Fire Down Below (1989.  They are all set on a British former man-of-war ship that is transporting migrants to Australia in the early 19th century. Rites of Passage won the Booker Prize in 1980 against fierce competition from Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers.

The Author: William Golding is best known as the author of  the 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. In 1983 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

William Golding plaqueWhy I read this book: It won the Booker Prize so naturally I had to read this as part of my project. I did so during a short break in the city of Salisbury, Wiltshire unaware that I was staying just a few hundred yards from the school where Golding taught between 1939 and 1961. I made the connection when walking past the school and noticed this plaque.

Other reviews

Lisa of ANZ LitLovers  review is on the Complete Booker website here 

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson #BookerPrize #bookreviews

finkler question-1I tried my best but around page 150 The Finkler Question and I parted company. It’s become only the second Booker Prize winning title that I have failed to finish — in case you’re wondering, the other was The Famished Road by Ben Okri, a book so bad I couldn’t even make it past page 80 (my review explains what I hated about this book).

The Finkler Question is the story of Julian Treslove, a man who once worked on the kind of BBC Radio 3 programmes that no-one ever listens to (if you discount the insomniac man and his dog in the Outer Hebrides). He’s come down in the world and is now making a living as a celebrity lookalike. Not that he resembles anyone famous especially, he just looks like all kinds of people in general. Treslove is a man much inclined to introspection who attacks an idea with the determination and perseverance of a dog with a bone. Treslove has an identity problem. He wants to be a Jew so that he can experience the sense of belonging possessed by his two closest friends who are Jewish.

One of them, Sam Finkler, has become a celebrity as the author of popular  mainstream books on philosophy.  Treslove resents his friend’s success and hi-jacks his surname Finkler as a shorthand descriptor for the word “Jew” because “It took away the stigma ….The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins.”  Another, much older friend, is Libor Sevcik, an elderly ex-Hollywood journalist who is in mourning for his beautiful dead wife.

In essence the novel deals with Treslove’s obsession with the meaning of Jewishness, politically, socially, culturally etc. He sees it as a club to which his friends belong but from which he has always felt ostracised. But on his way home from dinner with his two pals he is mugged by a woman whose parting words, Treslove believes, are “You Jew”. He takes it as a sign that his attacker knows more than he does —t hat he is, as he has always desired to be — Jewish.

A lot of the novel up to page 150 is taken up with Treslove looking for further confirmation of his Jewishness and with the reactions of friends and family.  In between we get discussions between Finkler and Sevcik about the state of Israel. Sevcik is pro, pronouncing the word “as a holdy utterance like the cough of God” whereas the anti-Israel Finkler makes it sound as if the word denoted an illness. They’ve debated the subject so many times even they sound rather tired of it – Finkler responds with a resigned “Here we go, Holocaust, Holocaust” whenever the subject comes up, attracting the equally resigned repost from Libor “Here we go, here we go, more of the self-hating Jew stuff.”

According to The Guardian reviewer The Finkler Question is “full of wit, warmth, intelligence, human feeling and understanding.” To me it was just dull, repetitive and self-indulgent. It seemed to move forward at snail’s pace with endless dialogue about what makes a person a Jew.  Howard Jacobson opens up an interesting line of questioning here. Is Jewishness a state of mind inherent from the time of birth? Or is it a state of mind acquired over time. Or a set of behaviours? At one conversation Treslove fails to persuade Libor that his boyhood interest in opera and the violin is significant.

That doesn’t make you Jewish. Wagner listened to opera and wanted to play the violin. Hitler loved opera and wanted to play the violin. … You don’t have to be Jewish to like music.

Interesting yes but Jacobson milks this approach, returning to the same kind of conversation over and over again without ever reaching a decision to act. It’s quite tedious. By the time I’d reached page 150 I’d had enough of Treslove’s persistent introspection. He’s not a character I cared enough about to want to know  whether his deliberations reached any satisfactory conclusion. I just wanted to grab him by the scruff of his neck and shake some sense into him.

Footnotes

About the Book: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson won the Booker Prize in 2010. Jacobson was the rank outsider for the £50,000 prize – the money was on Emma Donaghue to win with Room or Tom McCarthy’s C . 

About the author: Howard Jacobson was born in 1942 in Manchester, UK. He went to Cambridge university studying English under the tutelage of F.R Leavis. He pursued an academic career in Australia and then the UK. His first novel Coming from Behind, was published when he was in his 40s.

Why I read this book: It’s one of the remaining 10 titles in my Booker prize project. I also made it one of my 20booksofsummer titles 

 

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