Friday, January 06, 2017

RIP John Berger

I was in bed watching Ethel and Ernest die on Monday night when I heard that John Berger had passed away at the age of 90. Oh, the pain of living in the present world. He was the most humane writer of our times. I'm not sure who my favourite living writer is now. It is sad when that happens. The last time for me was when Muriel Spark died in 2006.

When Berger won the Booker Prize in 1972 for his novel "G", he (in)famously gave half the prize money to the Black Panther movement (although they were no longer active) in protest at the prize sponsors' exploitation of workers in the Caribbean. The other half he used to to write a much better book: A Seventh Man - in which, with photographer Jean Mohr, he depicted the lives of migrant workers in Europe. A book more people should have read. A book more people should read.

As is King: A Street Story - md9419398471one of very few books I re-read (often around New Year for some reason) and one, you may have noticed, I mention at every opportunity. I was very disappointed that it wasn't shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999. (Come to think of it I am disappointed it didn't win him the Nobel Prize for Literature. Perhaps he should have sung it?) Maybe the Black Panther thing made him persona non grata, although he was longlisted for From A To X in 2008.

One of my favourite living writers, Ali Smith, says of him that "a few minutes with Berger and a better world, a better outcome, wasn’t fantasy or imaginary, it was impetus – possible, feasible, urgent and clear. It wasn’t that another world was possible; it was that this world, if we looked differently, and responded differently, was differently possible."

That  better world looks less possible now, but maybe he has found it.

RIP John Berger
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Meanwhile, the judges for the 2017 Man Booker Prize were announced just before Christmas, they are: Baroness Lola Young (chair); the travel writer Colin Thubron, whose novel To The Last City was longlisted for the prize in 2002; novelist Sarah Hall (who was shortlisted for The Electric Michelangelo in 2004 and longlisted for How To Paint A Dead Man in 2009); artist Tom Phillips; and literary critic Lila Azam Zanganeh. Their longlist will be revealed in July, the shortlist in September, and the winner announced on October 17th at London's Guildhall.



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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Man Booker's American Sellout

Paul Beatty has won the 2016 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sellout - becoming the first American to win the prize, which was only open to writers from Commonwealth countries (and the Republic of Ireland) until the rules were changed in 2014.

Remarkably it gives small independent publisher Oneworld their second consecutive Booker Prize triumph.

The Sellout is his fourth novel, following The White Boy Shuffle (1996), Tuff (2000), and Slumberland (2008). It is set in a ghetto of Los Angeles called Dickens that has been removed from the map - a state of affairs a black man called Me decides to correct, only to find himself in the Supreme Court charged with violating the Thirteenth Amendment by "owning a slave" and reintroducing segregation.

Even though I stood to win a few bob if Madeleine Thien won the prize, I am delighted the judges made such a daring choice. It's always good to see prize judges rewarding contemporary, political, humorous books, because there aren't enough of them. And as Amanda Foreman (the chair of this year's judges) said at the awards ceremony in London's Guildhall, The Sellout is "painfully funny". In her speech she also quoted fantasy author Ursula Le Guin: "the imagination is truly the enemy of bigotry and dogma."

Paul Beatty is clearly a lovely guy as well as a brilliant writer. He is a good choice for the first American winner of the prize - worth £50,000 (which, despite the fall in value of sterling is still worth at least as many dollars as there are n-words in his book...well, just about.)

The judges (Amanda Foreman, Olivia Williams, David Harsent, Abdulrazak Gurnah and Jon Day) read 155 novels and chose a shortlist of six books in which almost all the narrators are untrustworthy, saying they were looking for books that “take risks with language and form”, and that "writers work best when they are exploring at the outer limits of what is traditional, acceptable or conventional."

There is some consolation for Madeleine Thien, because Do Not Say We Have Nothing has just been awarded the Canadian Governor-General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction. The jury for that award describing it as “an elegant, nuanced and perfectly realized novel that, fugue-like, presents the lives of individuals, collectives, and generations caught in the complexities of history.

I will leave you with this recurring bit of trivia: ten of the last eighteen Booker prizes have been won by the shortlisted author whose name came first alphabetically. Definitely worth checking out the new books by Naomi Alderman and Sebastian Barry then.

The fun, but not very predictive, list of runners and riders for next year's Man Booker prize is up-and-running at:

Man_Booker_Prize_Eligible_2017

Sadly it looks like GoodReads is trying to bury Listopia, so it may not be as busy as it has been in recent years.



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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The 2016 Man Booker Prize for Fiction - Shortlist

Here it is then, the shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker Prize:
Paul Beatty - The Sellout (Oneworld)
Deborah Levy - Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)
Graeme Macrae Burnet - His Bloody Project (Contraband)
Ottessa Moshfegh - Eileen (Jonathan Cape)
David Szalay - All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)
Madeleine Thien - Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta)


Interestingly, the only three BME authors on the longlist now make up 50% of the shortlist, which is also 50-50 male-female. That gender divide feels very stark to me. As in the world of politics, the centre ground seems to have become uninhabitable - the favoured books are either extremely masculine or very feminist.
According to the chair of the judges, Dr. Amanda Foreman, "the final six reflect the centrality of the novel in modern culture", which is news to me.
In moving from the longlist to this shortlist, the judges have eliminated seven books, including six of the eight-and-a-half that I have already read. Memo to self: ignore the longlist next year, you know you want to.
I didn't get round to Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh which, from the reviews I saw, I assumed to be one of the also-rans. I also didn't fancy His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet because books about historical murders combine two genres I am not keen on, and I fear it might be as tedious as Arthur & George.
It's possible therefore that I might be blindsided by those, as I was with Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings last year. It is also possible that the judges will be contentious enough to give the prize to a profanatory satire or a book of short stories, but I still think the choice is between Deborah Levy and Madeleine Thien.
The six shortlisted authors each receive £2,500 plus 'a specially bound edition of their book' (let's hope they never have to flog that on eBay). The £50,000 winner will be announced at London's Guildhall on Tuesday 25th October. Some of the ceremony will be broadcast one of the BBC's lesser channels and there will be a special Man Booker Prize edition of Artsnight on BBC2 the previous Saturday.

As far as I know, there is no truth in the rumour that from 2017 coverage of the prize will be moving to Channel 4 as 'The Great British Book Off' presented by former autobiography-of-a-monkey-longlisting-Booker-judge Sue Perkins.



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Monday, September 12, 2016

Some thoughts on the 2016 Manhood Booker Prize longlist

I used the n-word a lot when I was fifteen. I had to: we were made to study The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for English Literature O-Level. Years later I was much amused to discover English literature students in America were being made to read How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman (the controversial 1994 Booker Prize winning f-fest about a blind drunk Glaswegian). I mention this because I suspect the n-word appears far more often in Paul Beatty's The Sellout than in Huckleberry Finn. (Surely somewhere there is a proper journalist counting exactly how many times for a shock-horror-headline.)
Beatty is perfectly entitled to use the n-word but, surprisingly, it can be found in several other novels on the longlist. Presumably those authors believe that since they are writing historical fiction, and that is the sort of language their characters would have used, they are entitled too. I am not so sure.
I enjoyed The Sellout. I love satire. I suppose I am more of a cynic than a critic. I'm glad the judges introduced me to this book and I hope they shortlist it, but I don't think it is quite funny enough or, bizarre as it may sound, angry enough to be truly great. And it would need to be truly great to win the prize, because it would be far and away the most controversial winner ever.
"Fuck plot and fuck story and fuck the way one thing fits to another and fuck cause and effect, because there wasn't none, and if there was we didn't see much of it", says a character in Hystopia by David Means, which is set in the Year of Hate. (That's an American Year of Hate, rather than Brexit Britain 2016.)
Dripping with testosterone, life is too short for this massive pool of wank. When I reached page one hundred I felt I deserved a medal. Kurt Vonnegut has a lot to answer for. I would have voted for Donald Trump if he promised to make it stop. To think I could have been re-reading Catch-22 with the Guardian's reading group.
The reviewer in The Guardian described Hystopia as "a novel that uses extreme violence as the hook to keep you reading." They could have said the same about The North Water by Ian McGuire - a book that is more of an Ice Station Zebra-wannabe than the new Moby Dick. The type of historical adventure that pings the Booker radar every few years - eg The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De ZoetEnglish PassengersJamrach's Menagerie etc. - only nastier. The sort of book 'shitwick' Brexit voters in Ian McGuire's hometown of Hull, wallowing in the gory good-old-days where political correctness has no jurisdiction, and you can call a spade a spade, will enjoy.
At one point we are told that: "the most important questions are the ones we can't hope to answer with words. Words are like toys: they amuse and educate us for a time, but when we come to manhood, we should give them up."
Oh, manhood. Put it away.
Wyl Menmuir's The Many is the most hallucinatory novel I've read since Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr and could add some creepy colour to the shortlist. The meaning of the title is a puzzle to many. I wonder if it is a coincidence that 'man' is most of the title? Because the most astonishing thing about The Many, is how womany it isn't. Orphan protagonists are a common trope in children's fiction because it is convenient for authors to get the parents out of the way, regrettably many male authors seem to adopt the same tactic with regard to female characters. At the end of The Many, I found the absence of Timothy's wife astounding - it begs a whole 'nother story.
A story of women sidelined or missing altogether in book after book. In 2016. Anyone thinking of applying The Bechdel Test to this longlist needn't bother. This is a man's man's Man Booker Prize. If The Baileys Prize didn't exist it would be necessary to invent it. And I haven't even mentioned David Szalay's All That Man Is yet!
"Sometimes I worry about my attitude to women" one of Szalay's believably awful male characters says at one point - or was it the author, talking to himself? I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that All That Man Is is a knowing critique of 21st century manhood.
There are female characters in J.M. Coetzee's The Schooldays of Jesus but - spoiler alert - sometimes men do very bad things to women in his novels.

So, having read have about eight and a half of the books on the longlist, have I changed my mind about the rash prediction I made in my last post, where I tipped Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing as the winner? No, but I did underestimate Hot Milk by Deborah Levy.
Deborah Levy is a terrific writer: unsettling; mystifying. According to Ron Charles in  The Washington Post, "the seductive pleasure of Levy's prose stems from its layered brilliance." That explains that then.
The title alone deserves a prize. Two common words - how can they not have been put together as a title before? Isn't there a wrongness about hot milk? Surely milk is usually either cold or warm? I remember reading somewhere about a literature professor who spent a whole lecture unpacking and dissecting the first sentence of Great Expectations. There's probably a whole lecture to be had about the title Hot Milk.
The bookies are probably right to make it the favourite. This year's judges seem to have been drawn to wooziness, and it matches The Schooldays of Jesus and The Many for that without drifting too far into the Twilight Zone. I wasn't convinced by the ending, but I am convinced that Deborah Levy will win the Booker Prize sooner or later.



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Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Do Not Say You Were Not Told

Me again, sorry. I know, I know, nothing for six months then three blog posts in a fortnight - I should show more respect for the maintenance of headway.

I just want to clarify something. Last week, my instincts were that the longlist featured so many "also-rans" (books that aren't remotely likely to win) because the judges already knew what their winner was going to be. I just failed to see what that winner was. I wondered whether it might be JM Coetzee's new novel - an unknown quantity not due to be published until September (now brought forward to August 18th), but while looking deeper into the list, everything fell into place.

One book ticks all the boxes, rings all the right bells, and sparks like a firecracker: the subject matter, the excellent reviews, and the brilliant style exhibited by an extract which reminded me of The Last Samurai (superficially at least, but you know how it is with blogging - any excuse to plug one of your favourite books). A book I didn't think I was interested in, which I am now excited about.

So I want to make it clear that Madeleine Thien is not an also-ran. In fact I will go to the foot of our stairs if Do Not Say We Have Nothing doesn't win. I haven't been this convinced about a potential Booker winner since Wolf Hall in 2009.

Something else I see in my crystal ball is the Bookies whining about rumours and betting patterns as more and more people read it, as happened with Wolf Hall. Earlier today the silly sods at Paddy Power were offering the silly odds of 25-1 - although those odds have now shrunk a little.

You can read the first chapter at the Granta website: http://granta.com/do-not-say-extract/



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