Category Archives: Bookends
2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Man Booker Prize. Apart from a big party to celebrate the event in July, the Booker Prize organisers are also staging a ‘Best of the Booker’ award. They’re calling it the Golden Booker Prize, an award which will “crown the best work of fiction from the last five decades of the prize, as chosen by five judges and then voted for by the public.”
Now there are a few odd things about this celebration.
One is that the first Booker Prize was awarded 49 years ago this year, not 50. So where did they get the idea this was a golden anniversary year – it’s not clear from their website but I am assuming they are taking their starting point an announcement of the inauguration of the prize or maybe the judging process itself.
Stranger still is the process they are using to determine which book/author gets the ultimate prize.
Five judges have been put in place. Each has a remit to review the prize winners from one decade and decide which of them has “best stood the test of time”. The shortlist announced on May 26 is really therefore just one person’s point of view. What a missed opportunity. A more robust process would have been for all judges to have reviewed all the winners and debated/discussed their merits before choosing a shortlist?
But what’s done is done and we have five shortlisted titles.
1970s: In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul
1980s: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
1990s: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
2000s: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
2010s: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.
Have they made the right choices? Having read all bar 4 of the Booker prize winners since it was first awarded in 1969 and all of these shortlisted titles except for Lincoln in the Bardo, I feel somewhat qualified to give an opinion.
I’m pleased to see that one of my top three Booker titles has made it to the shortlist. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje was selected by the novelist Kamila Shamsie because she felt ‘it has everything”. She specifically calls out its characterisation, intricate structure and the way it makes readers think about love and friendship. My own take on this is that it’s a beautifully paced tale of four people who are physically, emotionally and mentally damaged by war. It’s short but rich in themes and has a very strong emotional pull.
Also delighted to see Hilary Mantel on the shortlist even though I thought her later novel, Bring Up the Bodies (another of my top 3 ) was stronger than Wolf Hall. The judge for this decade, broadcaster and novelist Simon Mayo called Wolf Hall “fantastically readable and unbelievably complicated.” I’m not going to argue with that assessment – Mantel’s achievement was to take a historical figure typically portrayed as cold, distant and manipulative, and make him human. But in Bring Up the Bodies, I think we get an even stronger sense of the moral and ethical dilemmas confronted by her protagonist Thomas Cromwell as he seeks to serve his master the King. Bring Up the Bodies just missed out inclusion in the assessment for the 2000s where it would have been pitted directly against Wolf Hall. Instead it was evaluated by a different judge who perhaps didn’t have Mayo’s declared love of historical fiction.
But that flip into a new decade meant it was up against the final title in my top 3 – The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Lincoln in the Bardo was a hot tip to win the prize last year but it wasn’t universally praised – some readers and bloggers found it too fragmented. Flanagan’s novel however I thought exceptionally well constructed even though it moved across time periods and countries. Leaving this off the shortlist was a miss I thought by the judge, poet Hollie McNish.
What of the choices to represent the remaining decades?
For the 1970s the writer and editor Robert McCrum judged In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul as the best of the decade. I think he drew the short-straw by being given the 1970s since there were few, in my opinion, stand out winners. Naipaul’s book was one I read early on in my Booker Project and you can maybe gauge my reaction to it from the fact that I haven’t as yet posted a review. I recall it being a strange novel where often I wasn’t absolutely sure what was happening.
My own choice would be Iris Murdoch’s The Sea The Sea which slightly has the edge over Paul Scott’s Staying on. I never thought I would be gunning for Murdoch since I’d always thought her work difficult to penetrate but The Sea The Sea was a revelation.
As for the 1980s, I know the popular opinion in the blogosphere is that the judge Lemn Sissay made a mistake in overlooking Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I did read it though it was a struggle. I did appreciate the inventiveness of the novel but the truth is I just didn’t enjoy it so my vote would go to The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro for its superbly understated portrayal of a man who has suppressed his emotions for so long he cannot let them go even when this is to the detriment of his happiness.
So if I’d been the judges ( I expect a call from the Booker people any day now) my shortlist would be:
1970s: The Sea The Sea by Irish Murdoch
1980s: The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
1990s: The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje
2000s: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (I know I said earlier that Bring up the Bodies is better but that’s in a different decade)
2010s: The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan
What would your shortlist look like?
The reading public now get a chance to make their preferences know via the public vote which is open until June 25. Vote here
Just returned from my road trip around the part of England that is sandwiched between the north (Yorkshire, Northumberland etc) and the south (Somerset, Wiltshire etc). It’s the area that in the past I’ve rushed through en route to somewhere else.
This year however we decided to stop and look. Over the course of almost two weeks we traversed Derbyshire (home of the renowned Peak District National Park), Leicestershire and Warwickshire. We saw stunning scenery, picturesque villages oodles of historic buildings and, finally, a Jacobean tragedy which oozed more blood on stage than I have ever seen previously.
Let’s begin with Derbyshire.
Even if you’ve never heard of this place you might know of it via the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice since this is where Lizzie Bennett takes a holiday with her aunt and uncle. Cue lots of shots of dramatic scenery and of course that view of Pemberley, Mr Darcy’s ancestral home. We never got there but we did manage to visit another modest abode: Chatsworth House, home of 16 generations of the Cavendish family.
This is the rear view from the vast gardens landscaped by “Capability” Brown. It’s only a part of the estate – missing from this view are the fountains, a rock garden (I say rocks but these were ginormous boulders); meadows, stables etc etc.
Less grand but teeming with atmosphere was our next destination: Haddon Hall. It’s a fabulous example of an English medieval and Tudor country house. The chapel dates from the 12th century and bears many of the original frescos and wall decorations.
Some of you might recognise this house too – it’s been used as a film set on multiple locations including three versions of Jane Eyre. Elizabeth (the version starring Cate Blanchett) and The Other Boleyn Girl.
It was empty from about the 1740s except for a caretaker but in the 1920s the Duke of Rutland (owner of the house) decided to restore it and the gardens. The current holder of the dukedom lives with his family in Haddon Hall. All I can say is that they must have a greater tolerance of draughts than I do. The house is spectacularly atmospheric but it doesn’t come with central heating and there is only so much a tapestry can do to keep out the icy blasts…….
PS: If you visit Haddon Hall do try the cream-filled scones in the tea shop.
And then to Lincolnshire and the town of Stamford which has more than its fair share of historic buildings though these are more modern being from the late 18th and mid 19th centuries. Sadly there was far too much traffic to capture on my camera.
But once again we have a literary connection for the town was used by the BBC as a location for the adaptation of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I whiled away a few hours delving around corners and going into various courtyards in search of places I could recognise from the series. I never did find the building used as home of Dr Lydgate and his wife Rosamund but I did wander into St Martin’s square which was used for the memorable scene of the election hustings. The photo shows filming in action. The building at the rear is now the tourist information centre.
Stamford also boasts a superb Elizabethan dwelling set in a massive parkland. Burghley House was built by Sir William Cecil, Lord Treasurer and trusted aide to Queen Elizabeth 1.
Looking at the ornate nature of those chimneys and all the windows you can understand why it took 30 years to complete this structure. It was designed to impress visitors with the wealth and status of its owner. Sadly Elizabeth never got to see it. She was due to arrive with her entourage but there was an outbreak of smallpox in the house so it wasn’t deemed safe….
For my next destination we stayed in the sixteenth century. I’ve been to Stratford Upon Avon several times but have never seen a play in the Swan Theatre.
What a special place in which to see a play. It’s housed in a Victorian Gothic building at the rear of the main RSC building and is designed around a thrust stage which means if you are sitting at ground level you are within just a few feet of the actors. For the production of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, this meant we got to see the blood in great detail.
And boy was there plenty of it to see. You get to expect with Jacobean tragedy that there will be blood and lots of bodies ( I counted eight in this production). But this had blood like I have never seen before on stage.
At one point a lake of formed and spread across almost the entire stage, in which the actors rolled and fell and fought. By the end there was barely a cast member who wasn’t caked with the stuff. I know the costume people at the RSC are masters at creating different kinds of blood but they seemed to have gone for a particularly viscous product this time around. It had a sticky, oily look to it that must have been a nightmare to wash out…. Fortunately we were not in the front room because otherwise we’d have been asked to wear capes to protect our own coats from splashes……
An incoherent play but as a theatrical experience this was unsurpassable. And what a way to end our holiday. It was yet another reminder of the treasure of delights that is in my backyard (well not far away). I’ve travelled far and wide across the world and will do so again soon. But I’m coming to realise that you don’t have to go too far to be entertained and stimulated.
Has that been your experience too? Are there some magical places in your home country that you keep thinking you should visit – but never seem to get around to following through on that idea?
This week’s Bookends brings you photos of libraries to drool over novel, a novel and – for those who love lists – 100 books Americans consider ‘great reads.’
Book: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
I’ve enjoyed Ondaatje’s work in the past – The English Patient is in fact one of my three favourite Booker Prize winners His new novel Warlight was described by Publishers Weekly as ” a haunting, brilliant novel… Mesmerizing from the first sentence …. may be Ondaatje’s best work yet.”
Warlight is set in the decade after World War II and is the story of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel and his older sister, Rachel. In 1945 they stay behind in London when their parents move to Singapore, leaving them in the care of a mysterious figure named The Moth. Fourteen years later Nathaniel begins to uncover what he didn’t know and didn’t understand about that time in his childhood.
This is one that is definitely going to get my attention later this year.
Article: What do Americans consider a good read?
Discussions about reading don’t often make an appearance on mainstream television channels which makes a new 8-part series about to air on PBS in America even more noteworthy. It’s designed to get people thinking and talking about reading by asking them about books that are special to them. A list of 100 has been compiled so far – click here to view this. Signature – an online newsletter from Penguin has highlighted a few that they believe are particularly important in the context of diversity. Take a look at their selections here
Blog Post: Public Libraries Around the World
As a staunch advocate of the public library ethos, any article about such places is sure to get my interest. On the LitHub site, Emily Temple posted a list of the 12 most popular libraries in the world. No surprises about which were included since in the main they were the national libraries in capital cities. What got my heart racing were the photos more than the stats.
I look at these places and drool. And I compare them with the building that is in the capital city of my own country, Wales.
It was opened in 2009 to much applause about its architectural and environmental credentials which include a sedum roof. The coloured glass facade does look attractive but the interior is nothing special. And sadly, after only 9 years its function as a library is being diminished. One floor is closed and half of another is given over to a drop in centre for council services. How long before all of it goes????
- Spell out your blog’s name.
- Find a book from your TBR that begins with each letter. (Note you cannot ADD to your TBR to complete this challenge – the books must already be on your TBR.)
- Have fun!
I’m in need today of a diversion from gardening so here goes
B: Border Country by Raymond Williams: The first book to be published in the Library of Wales series. Published in the 1960s it had been out of print for several years.
O: Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: I enjoyed Benediction by the same author but haven’t got around to this one yet. Nor have I seen the film.
O: Old Soldiers Never Die by Frank Richards: Another in the Library of Wales series.
K: The Kill by Emile Zola: Part of the 20-cycle Rougon Maquet series
E: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton: Bought on a business trip to Michigan when I was trying to unwind in the bookshop after a very long day.
R: Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West: Wish I could remember when I bought this and was prompted me to do so
T: Tigers in Red Weather by Lisa Klausmann: A bargain purchase in a very unusual location – a local branch of Poundstretchers.
A: Armadale by Wilkie Collins: I went through a phase of reading Collins back in the 1980s but never got to this. It’s moved house three times…..
L: Long Song by Andrea Levy: I think I bought this when the local library had the first – and the best – of their sales. Since then the pickings have been very slim indeed.
K: King Rat by James Clavell : I tried reading Shogun but gave up after about 50 pages. My husband assures me this is a million time better.
Have I learned anything from this little exercise? Not really other than I appear to have a dirth of books whose titles begin with the letter K. Fortunately my blog name didn’t have a third K otherwise I’d have been at a loss (an excuse to go buying maybe??). But of B’s and L’s I have an embarrassment of riches.
This week’s bookends brings you a novel from the borders of Wales, a taste of new books due for publication in May and some advice for on how to enjoy poetry.
Honno, an independent press based in Aberystwth, Wales, has been championing Welsh Women’s writing since the company was formed in 1986. Their latest title is a novel published in 1936 by Margiad Evans, a poet, novelist and illustrator who, though of English origin herself, closely identified with the Welsh border country. Creed was her fourth and final novel, all of which are set in the countryside of the Welsh Marches.
Honno describes Creed as a novel set in the fictional industrial Border town of Chepsford. It’s a place characterised by drunkenness and brawls. The theme of the novel is about suffering whith Evans showing domestic life unsettled by strong opinions on love and sin.
I’ve never read anything by Evans but I see that Honno has also published The Wooden Doctor which is about a troubled adolescent girl and her obsession with a doctor. I think I might give myself a treat and buy both…
I find it almost impossible to keep up to date with the output of publishers in the UK. Fortunatly I can rely on Susan at A Life in Books who does a monthly selection of new titles combined with her knowledge of the author’s previous work. I warn you however that reading these posts could do serious damage to your bank balance.
I know I am not alone in my struggles with poetry. I can appreciate the skill involved in compressing imagery into a few words but seldom, if ever, consider it an enjoyable eperience. I’m gratified to learn from an interview in The Guardian newspaper, that Thomas Foster, professor of literature at University of Michigan-Flint, had a similar struggle when he was in his younger days. He’s just written a guide called How to Read Poetry Like a Professor to help people like me overcome their difficulties.
In the interview he shares his tips for understanding and enjoying poetry including the advice not to start with the difficult poets… I wish those who set the school curricula would pay heed…..
If I could get frequent flyer miles for every time I travelled to the land of best intentions this year I’m sure I’d have enough to circle the globe.
So many times I’ve got out of bed with the firm plan to write a review or check out some of the blogs I follow. Then bed-time arrives and I have no idea what happened to all those intervening hours. Other than I never did write the review and the list of unread items in my blog feed doubled.
Instead of blogging I’ve been filling my days catching up with friends from schooldays (I think I know every coffee shop within a 10 mile radius), creating a blog for my family history research; doing a lot of house redecoration (or rather supervising others to do the work) and going to the gym. That’s in between trying to learn German in preparation for a holiday and writing some scripts for performance at a cemetery in Cardiff. I’ve never written anything for performance before so this has been an eye-opening experience. It’s not until you hear the piece delivered by an actor that you realise how clunky some of the dialogue sounds…
Reading has taken somewhat of a back seat. It’s strange but when I was working there were many days where I would think “I’d love to be at home now, curled up on the sofa, just reading.” But you know what, now that I can, the appeal has diminished….
Consequently I’ve read less this year than I have in all the years since I started blogging. I refuse to get worked up about that however. It’s not about quantity but about enjoying the reading experience.
Since we’re now just over a quarter of the way through the year it seems like a good time to give you all an update on what I’ve been reading and what the future holds
State of the personal library
Let’s start with the good news …
… the TBR hasn’t gone up (round of applause please)
The not so good news … it hasn’t gone down.
I’m at exactly the same number with which I started the year – 245 to be precise.
I’m still acquiring books though at a vastly lower rate than has been the case over the last 5 years. And have off-loaded some that no longer appealed to the library book sale. Which has given me the space to accommodate the books I get through my monthly subscription to the Asymptote book club (I have yet to any of them so far) and those I need for the two book clubs in which I participate.
Year of Reading Naked
At the start of this year my only plan for 2018 was not to have a reading plan. Instead of creating lists of books to read (and then failing to read them) I decided to make 2018 my year of reading naked. By which I meant choosing what to read based on my mood at the time. I’ve stuck to that more or less. I did join in with the Reading Ireland Month hosted by Cathy at 746books but that didn’t involve making a list in advance. I just went to the shelves and found something by an Irish author. Job done.
This is so much more enjoyable than making a list and then finding when I come to read the books, they have lost their appeal…..
Read so far this year
I read the first of the books in my ‘Year of my life’ project as initiated by Cafe Society. It didn’t get off to a good start. I chose Muriel Spark’s The Comforters to represent 1957. Some of the characterisation was excellent but generally I thought the plot overly complicated and I lost interest long before the end. You can see my review here.
I’m now down to the last four books in my Booker Prize project, having read Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha.
That leaves me with G by John Berger, History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst and James Kelman’s How Late it Was How Late.
On the horizon
Today marks the start of the #1977club hosted by Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy’sbookishramblings, a week where we read, discover and discuss books from this particular year. I wasn’t going to join in because when I looked at the list on Wikipedia of books published that year the only ones that were of interest were ones I had already read. There seemed a lot of short story collections, science fiction and ‘popular’ fiction. But then HeavenAli drew my attention to The Danger Tree by Olivia Manning, an author I have long intended to read. This is the first title in her Levant Trilogy and is set in Egypt where the British forces are engaged in a fierce struggle against the German forces. The conflict provides a backdrop against which one couple, Guy and Harriet Pringle, struggle with their marriage. The stars must have been in alignment because I have just finished my current book and was wondering what to pick up next and then discovered my library has a copy languishing in its archive.
After that it will probably be back to the Booker Prize and I have Eleanor Oliphant is Absolutely Fine by Gail Honeyman to read for the next book club meeting. And that’s as much as I want to plan right now.