Thursday, October 18, 2018

Milkman delivers

Would the Americans complete a hat-trick of Man Booker wins? That was the $64,000¹ question at London's Guildhall on Tuesday² night. And the answer was nay.

The £50,000 Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2018 was awarded to Anna Burns for her third novel Milkman (Faber & Faber) - making her the first writer from Northern Ireland to win the prize in this, its 50th anniversary year.

I was very impressed. Milkman offers insight into a divided community, explaining and exposing its parochial absurdities and the intimidation that sustains the divide. The lack of character names seemed clunky and annoyingly repetitive at first, but it is a device that helps the novel transcend a specific time or place. Names would place the characters on one side of the divide or the other. So ignore lazy blurbs describing it as a book set in Belfast in the 1970s, people in other divided communities around the world will recognize echoes of their situations as well.

The narrator is a young woman who likes to walk around with her head in a book - ususally a 19th century novel. This draws attention to herself in a society where you do not draw attention to yourself. Whether by 'reading-while-walking', or by being seen talking to someone you shouldn't be seen talking to. A community riddled with dangerous rumours and menacing groupthink. Pressure to conform. To be 'one of us' not 'one of them'. To obey arbitrary, unwritten, almost Gormenghastian rules.

In an interview for the official Man Booker website, Anna Burns explains that she "grew up in a place that was rife with violence, distrust and paranoia, and peopled by individuals trying to navigate and survive in that world as best as they could." Milkman conveys that with great style. As reviewer Claire Allfree put it: "If Beckett had written a prose poem about the Troubles, it would read a lot like this."

This year's judges (Kwame Anthony Appiah, Val McDermid, Leo Robson and Jacqueline Rose and Leanne Shapton) read 171 books - an absurd number - that's almost more than one per day - and are to be congratulated for finding Milkman and bringing it to all our attention.

For premature speculation about possible contenders for the 2019 prize keep an eye on: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/126184.Man_Booker_Prize_Eligible_2019

¹ Approximately. More like $65,000 unless the pound drops even further.
² Apologies for the delay. Sometimes I think the world is spinning a bit too fast for me to cling on.



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Friday, September 21, 2018

2018 Man Booker Prize Shortlist

The shortlist for the Man Booker Prize always seems like a bit of an anticlimax now that the longlist is revealed two months earlier, stealing all the excitement. But, for the record, here is the 2018 shortlist:

Milkman by Anna Burns (UK) (Faber & Faber)
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Canada) (Serpent’s Tail)
Everything Under by Daisy Johnson (UK) (Jonathan Cape)
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (USA) (Jonathan Cape)
The Overstory by Richard Powers (USA) (Willian Heinemann)
The Long Take by Robin Robertson (UK) (Picador)

"All of our six finalists are miracles of stylistic invention. In each of them the language takes centre stage," said Kwame Anthony Appiah, this year's chair of the judges. "And, as is traditional, we have dropped the favourites," he didn't go on to say.

With the omission of Michael Ondaatje, there are no previous winners on the list, so there will be a 'new name on the trophy'. Esi Edugyan is the only author to have even been shortlisted before (for Half Blood Blues in 2011). And at the age of 27, Daisy Johnson has become the youngest person to be shortlisted (and the first to be born in the 1990's).

The winner will be announced at The Guildhall, London, on Tuesday 16th October. Let's hope there's not too much booing and food-throwing if an American wins for the third year in a row, just four years after they became eligible. The night before BBC4 will broadcast a documentary entitled "Barneys, Books and Bust Ups: 50 Years of the Booker Prize" which is described as "a tale of bruised egos and bickering judges".



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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

2018 Man Booker Prize Longlist

The longlist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize has been announced, with none of the usual suspects - and for the first time ever it includes a graphic novel (Sabrina by Nick Drnaso). The full list is:

Snap by Belinda Bauer (UK) (Bantam Press)
Milkman by Anna Burns (UK) (Faber & Faber)
Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (USA) (Granta Books)
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Canada) (Serpent’s Tail)
In Our Mad And Furious City by Guy Gunaratne (UK) (Tinder Press)
Everything Under by Daisy Johnson (UK) (Jonathan Cape)
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (USA) (Jonathan Cape)
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)
Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (Canada) (Jonathan Cape)
The Overstory by Richard Powers (USA) (William Heinemann)
The Long Take by Robin Robertson (UK) (Picador)
Normal People by Sally Rooney (Ireland) (Faber & Faber)
From A Low And Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan (Ireland) (Doubleday Ireland)

"Every one of these books is wildly distinctive" according to the chair of this year's jury - the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. The other judges are the crime writer Val McDermid, graphic novelist Leanne Shapton and critics Leo Robson and Jacqueline Rose. They read 171 books - the most ever submitted. The shortlist will be revealed on September 20th, with the £50,000 prize winner revealed on October 16th at London’s Guildhall.

"All of these books – which take in slavery, ecology, missing persons, inner-city violence, young love, prisons, trauma, race – capture something about a world on the brink," Appiah said. In other words it's a depressing dystopian list which, following on from the decision of the judges of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction to withhold that prize because none of the novels made them all laugh, begs the question: is literary humour dead?

The bookies' favourite will surely be Michael Ondaatje, the only previous winner of the prize on the list, having shared the 1992 Booker prize with Barry Unsworth. "For a short time," he said, "I was a legend in my own lunchtime". Ondaatje also won the public vote to choose the 'Golden' Man Booker Prize earlier this month. The English Patient had been Kamila Shamsie's choice from the 1990s winners. The other shortlisted titles were: In a Free State by V.S Naipaul (chosen by Robert McCrum from he first decade of the prize); Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (chosen by Lemn Sissay from the 1980s); Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (chosen by Simon Mayo from the 2000s); and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (chosen by Hollie McNish from this decade).

Also since I last got around to blogging, the Polish author Olga Tokarczuk (along with translator Jennifer Croft) won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for Flights, and the judges for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize have been announced.

As always there are many excellent novels that didn't make the longlist. I am most disappointed by the omission of Travelling In A Strange Land by David Park - a beautiful, touching novel which, if you haven't already read it, should be on your Christmas list. Unless this miserable burning world ends before then.



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Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Golden Man Booker Prize

2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the first Booker Prize and as part of the celebrations The Booker Prize Foundation are awarding a 'Golden Man Booker Prize'. All of the previous 51 winning titles (there were joint winners in 1974 and 1992) will be reassessed to gauge which has best “stood the test of time, remaining relevant to readers today”.

Five judges will pick the best winner from each decade and their shortlist will be announced at the Hay Festival on May 26th. This 'Golden Five' will then be put to a public vote on the official Man Booker website and the winner announced during the Man Booker 50 Festival which takes place on the weekend of the 6th-8th July at London's Southbank Centre.

Of the five judges, the BBC Radio 2 broadcaster (and writer of teenage fiction) Simon Mayo has the easiest job: picking the best winner from the 2000s which, as we all know, is Wolf Hall. The poet Lemn Sissay will be considering the 1980s winners, which includes Salman Rushdie's Booker-of-Bookers champion Midnight's Children and my favourite winner The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

The writer and editor Robert McCrum will consider the first twelve winners (1969-79), while poet Hollie McNish will choose from the eight most recent (since 2010). Novelist Kamila Shamsie might have the most awkward decision to make, as she will be revisiting the 1990s - the decade in which Booker judges failed even to shortlist all the most memorable titles (Regeneration, Birdsong, The Shipping News, Trainspotting, A Suitable Boy, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Bridget Jones's Diary, Enduring Love, etc.)

I think the big-hitters, the ones to beat, are probably:

In A Free State - VS Naipaul (1971)
Midnight's Children - Salman Rushdie (1981)
The God Of Small Things - Arundhati Roy (1997)
Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel (2009)
A Brief History of Seven Killings - Marlon James (2015)

If it were up to me, rather than re-rewarding a previous winner, there would be a prize for the best runner-up. My 'Silver Five' would look like this:

Impossible Object - Nicholas Mosley (1969)
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood (1986)
Quarantine - Jim Crace (1997)
Unless - Carol Shields (2002)
Darkmans - Nicola Barker (2007)

Yes, I've cheated there, but I don't think anything from the 2010s would stand much chance in that company. And, obviously, in a public vote, The Handmaid's Tale would win by a landslide, so perhaps I should choose Flaubert's Parrot instead. Unless has one of the greatest first paragraphs I have ever read, and maybe if it had won the Booker, the whole #MeToo phenomenon might have happened years ago.

Before the Golden Booker though, there is the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize which will be announced on March 12th, followed by the shortlist one month later, and the winner on 22nd May.

The longlist for the 2018 Man Booker Prize itself will be revealed later in July, with this year's judges being philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah (chair), alongside crime writer Val McDermid, graphic novelist Leanne Shapton and critics Leo Robson and Jacqueline Rose. As per usual the shortlist will be revealed in September, with the £50,000 prize winner revealed on October 16th.



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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

George Saunders wins the 2017 Man Booker Prize

The £50,000 Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2017 was awarded to George Saunders last night for his first full length goddamn novel Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury). A field geophysicist from Amarillo, Texas, who quit "swimming in [...] monkey shit [...] to try and be Kerouac II", Saunders has been well-known in America for twenty years thanks to his humorous (and often dystopic) short stories. Lincoln in the Bardo is the “Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt”.

This means that the prize has been won by an American writer for the second successive year, only four years after the prize was opened up to writers from outside the Commonwealth. Interestingly, that decision to open up the prize was seen as being a response to the inauguration of the Folio Prize in 2014, which included Americans - and short-story collections. And who won that first Folio Prize? George Saunders for his short story collection Tenth of December. Of that book, Saunders told Slate.com that at least three of the stories were intended to be novels, "until they came to their senses. That seems to be the definition of 'novel' for me: a story that hasn’t yet discovered a way to be brief."

Lincoln in the Bardo depicts the events of the night Abraham Lincoln's 11-year-old son Willie died (February 22nd, 1862) in a genuinely innovative and, ultimately, moving way using quotations from historical works (some real, some fictional, some amusingly contradictory) and a myriad of spectral perspectives (apparently there are 166 different voices heard in the novel). Despite such a frightening-sounding conceit it is beautifully readable - as Saunders told The Guardian: "the writer doesn’t need to throw a party in every sentence". Although I disagree with the decision to open the prize to Americans, there is no doubt that the judges have picked the right book: it is a 'fittingly dazzling' winner.

For premature speculation about who the contenders for the 2018 prize might be keep an eye on: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/115479.Man_Booker_Prize_Eligible_2018

And let's hope that Ali Smith isn't serious about not submitting her books for the prize in future.



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