Profanity of The Bonfires: Banned Books Week 2011

on Monday, September 26, 2011
Revel in your degeneracy peeps, it's Banned Books Week again! Billed as a 'national celebration of freedom to read', this brilliant initiative is designed to point readers in the direction of great books that various governments have tried to stop lit-loving folk from every seeing. Whether it was the Nazis consigning them to the flames or some small-minded Bible belt town council dumping them in the local tip, thankfully these literary pariahs have proven much more resilient and long-lasting than their persecutors. Check out the list of frequently banned classics, or some more recently challenged works and then make like Gandhi and engage in some passive resistance by sitting in your favourite couch and debasing yourself with a filthy, filthy book. Personally I'm tossing up between Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut and The Call of The Wild by Jack London. Then I'll get down and dirty with Nicholson Baker's newie House of Holes (not yet banned, but watch this space) and the German cult classic Wetlands by Charlotte Roche. Take that Adolph!

Plodding Into Another Century

on Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Given that it took me til the start of September to hit the big hundred mark, it is a fitting tribute to my laziness that I wait until the month is almost out to mark the occasion. Guess this ain't gonna be one of those 200-books-a-year years after all. Disappointing. And I don't even have a greatly productive excuse to make it all okay.

What can I tell you? It's been slim pickings; few books have really resonated. Sure, there have been a bunch of decent reads, but as for really great books, ones that I will continue salivating over years into the future (a la Censoring An Iranian Love Story or Brodeck's Report from last year) few titles jump to mind. Definitely Roland Topor's claustrophobic masterpiece The Tenant, but that was from 1965. Ditto I. J. Singer's The Brothers Ashkenazi from 1937. I guess there was Hannah Pittard's haunting debut, The Fates Will Find Their Way (technically a 2010 book), Jesse Ball's The Curfew (and The Village On Horseback for that matter), I Hate Martin Amis Et Al by Peter Barry, and Jose Saramago's swansong Cain. Oh, and lest I fall victim to the same malaise of abject idiocy that possessed this year's Booker Prize judging panel, I feel obliged to give props to Yvette Edwards's A Cupboard Full Of Coats. Great book. But it still doesn't get me over the line when it comes to compiling a top ten.

Come on 2011, pick yourself up. You have two and a half months to prove yourself. I'm quite open to suggestions here, but until then I'll stick to mining the classics. Since book 100, G. K. Chesterton's absurdist spy classic The Man Who Was Thursday, I have kept almost exclusively to the road most travelled. Beckett, Orwell, Buzzati, Abe. And The Age Good Food Guide. Heck, I might as well have a good eating year!

The Booker Bashing Backlash: Dame Stella Shaken and Stirred

on Friday, September 9, 2011
It might have earned me the quite humorous sobriquet of Comic Book Guy at my local bookstore, but I certainly wasn't alone in mounting the barricades and shouting "Worst. Shortist. Ever!" to anyone who cared to listen. The reaction to Tuesday's Booker announcement has ranged from furious condemnation to complete indifference, but hardly any support, so much so that the Dame done gone and spat the dummy at a recent industry party. Yep, chair of judges and former spy master Dame Stella Rimington, let fly at the unsuspecting (and unappreciative) audience saying, "Take it or leave it... Like it or not, we're very proud of it". Sure, sure. My parents said the same thing about my primary school efforts in the sporting arena. Didn't stop them being complete rubbish.

At least this little episode has added some colour to what otherwise has been a disappointing Booker year. And while I plonked the blame directly at her Royal Spyness's feet in a previous post, I kind of feel for her. After all, what exactly did the faceless puppeteers at Bookerland expect when they appointed the former head of MI5 as chair? It's not like she came with a false-bottomed suitcase full of literary bona fides. And therein lies the problem. Each year they appoint an entirely new team to pick the winner. Each year they try to use the appointment to garner excitement which, in the current cultural climate of celebrity mania, can only mean one thing. If it continues along this path, it won't be long before we see Keira Knightley or Kate Middleton getting tapped on the shoulder. Or Katie Price.

Judges aside, maybe I need to face the fact that the prize just ain't what it used to be. No longer is it a serious beacon of literature, pointing the way for those who might not otherwise read novels of that kind towards particularly worthwhile examples. No, these days it seems to have evolved into the gimpy cousin of Oprah's Book Club. Heck, they even put that awful Emma Donoghue book Room on the shortlist last year. Don't get me wrong. I don't have a problem with populist prizes but, as one commentator on the Guardian Books Podcast noted, that's what the Costa is for. Or countless other awards.

I guess we all have to be careful what we wish for. Team Booker wanted to give the prize wider appeal and ended up with a shortlist that belittles the most prestigious of English language literary prizes. I, on the other hand want it to go back to its more highly strung roots, but that recognise the danger in that too. Remember John Banville's The Sea? That was literary; highly literary. It was also a turgid pile of sludge, so difficult to wade through that I wanted to drown myself fifty pages in.

I've no idea how Team Booker intend to reconcile the populist vs literary conundrum in the future. Perhaps they should go fishing for someone who can sift through the white noise of culture; someone with a background in making sense of mixed signals and meaningless chatter. Someone, that is, with a background in intelligence. Come October I can think of one person who'll be looking for a job.

The Library Diaries Vol. 3: To The Drawing Board and Back

on Thursday, September 8, 2011
After resigning myself to having lost five or so boxes of books in the move (including two that contained eight volumes of the Complete Oxford English Dictionary), I diligently set about organising the south wall of my library with what was left of my hardcover English novels. With each letter I became more aware of what I had lost - books by many of my favourite authors simply weren't there. So I hit up the internet - Alibris and Abebooks - to track down new copies in fine condition of books that had long been out of print. I managed to find a fair few, and put in the orders. A few hundred bucks to ensure my library had good copies of books I loved seemed an understandable, if somewhat painful, sacrifice.

I'm betting you can guess what happened next. I went back to Dad's office and was checking the warehouse for those elusive volumes of the OED when one of the guys there asked what I was doing. After I had a fairly protracted whinge he asked whether I'd checked in the room 'over there'. Needless to say he was pointing in a direction that I didn't even know hid another room. "We had a spring clean a few months ago," he said. "I vaguely remember carting a stack of boxes in there." A mad scramble to find the key ensued and when I opened the door... Well, imagine the closing scene of Raiders of The Lost Ark but with boxes of books. I hadn't lost five or six boxes. I had lost about twenty. Suddenly my collection seemed far more immense that I remembered it. So began the great task of removing them and, suffice to say, I have never sweated so much in my life, and I managed to screw my back for the better part of a week. Thankfully the adrenalin kept me oblivious until that night.

In the library it was back to the drawing board for the south wall. Chaos ruled once again.

Another week was spent trawling through boxes; reorganising all my lost friends and carting books back and forth between my place and my parents'. Their shelves filled up quickly with my rejects (still good books, but not quite good enough to win space on my shelves). Two weeks later and I finally have a complete south wall.

So there you go. Hardcover editions (mostly firsts, many signed) of all my favourite novels written in English. Plus a bit of space to grow. Now I just have to work out what to do with all the doubles arriving daily in my mailbox!

Booker's Bucket of Blah: The Worst Shortlist In Living Memory

on Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Well, the short list for the Man Booker Prize is out and I'm glad to say that I've read them all. Yes! I've escaped having to read Alan Hollinghurst again. Plus I get an entire month of reading for pleasure. All in all a happy ending. Except for the list. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Just to recap, the nominated titles are:

The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes
Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
Pigeon English by Steven Kelman
Snowdrops by A. D. Miller

Yawn. No... Here comes the righteous anger! What on Earth were they thinking?

This has to be the most disappointing list ever. Sure, I already waxed lyrical about the unremarkable long list a month ago but this is ridiculous! J'Accuse Stella Rimington. Two substandard works pop up because they are essentially spy novels? Quelle suprise!?! Heck, there were only a few deserving novels on the long list (though, to be fair, I didn't read three of the contenders) and only one of those (Barnes) has landed up in the final running. Even worse, the two least deserving novels made it - so we might end up with the awful Pigeon English or the even worse Snowdrops taking it out. And before you accuse me of being a lit snob or try to defend the list as being courageously eclectic, I wasn't even gunning for the big names. I wanted Yvette Edwards to win. A Cupboard Full of Coats was one of the most thought-proking, moving works of fiction I've read in a long time. It has continued to haunt me since the moment I put it down.

For what it's worth I now hope Barnes wins. He has long deserved the prize and The Sense Of An Ending is a weighty addition to his body of work, even if it is only one hundred and sixty pages long. I also wouldn't be upset if Patrick De Witt won - there's something to be said for an enjoyable picaresque rescuing the Booker from its own arsehole. Unfortunately I don't expect that either of them will. Methinks this year's prize is reserved for Birch or Kelman. Please let it be Birch. I'd pick another tiger over a flying rat any day!

The Spoils of Awe: Jesse Ball on KCRW's Bookworm

Two of my favourite literary stars collided this week, and while it was not quite the spectacular supernova I'd long dreamed of, it was still immensely satisfying. While reading through Jesse Ball's newly-released collection of verse and prose, The Village On Horseback, it just so happened that the author was featured on my favourite literary podcast, KCRW Bookworm. Those who have heard this fantastic weekly show would be familiar with Michael Silverblat's frustratingly droll voice and overly pregnant pauses but, like me, choose to still listen thanks to his brilliant insights and obvious rapport with anyone even vaguely literary. He is an writer's reader, a beacon of considered opinion; everyone who is anyone seems to queue up to be interviewed by him and each episode makes for mesmerising listening even if you have no interest in the particular author or topic. Perhaps Silverblat's greatest strength, however, is his willingness to throw new and exciting writers into the mix - so for every Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood or Joyce Carol Oates we also get to discover the likes of David Vann, Tao Lin or indeed Jesse Ball. What's more, Silverblat gives the same time and depth of consideration to the rising stars as he does his heroes.

It was intriguing to hear Ball talk about his own work, all the more so to realise that he is as elusively elliptical in person as his is on the page. Half an hour wasn't nearly enough time to really break beyond the surface but if you are just discovering this promising heir to Calvino, Abe or Borges it's well worth a listen. Check it out at KCRW's website or subscribe on iTunes. Also worth picking up is The Village On Horseback, if only to witness the growth of someone who is sure to become one of the most important writers of our time. Comprised of aphorisms, prose poetry and two novellas, it is consistently surprising, prescient and full of imaginative explosions that will have you smiling while you scratch your head in sheer astonishment. I won't go into too much detail here - just trust me and buy the thing - but I will point out that, while he won the Plimpton Prize for the novella The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp & Carr, it is the earlier one, Pieter Emily (also included in this collection), that truly shone for me; a highly discomforting tale that might have even unsettled Poe.

I'm excited to have hopped on the Jesse Ball bandwagon nice and early. I'm also glad that his rise is not meteoric but slow and steady. Flashes in the pan tend to burn out while reputations built over time and on solid foundations are here for good. Expect big things... eventually.

The Man Booker Prize Fallacious Form Guide Vol.2: Almost There

on Saturday, September 3, 2011
Ten down, three to go. Not sure I'll bother with the rest unless they make the shortlist; I want to read for pleasure again. But a promise is a promise, so here's the next lot of Booker longlisted novels for your betting edification:

The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers
It's been a while since Margaret Atwood last made an appearance on any Booker list, but she is well and truly here in spirit thanks to this middling sci-fi pastiche. Set in a near future that has been crippled by a worldwide bio-terrorism attack, it nods so furiously to canonical texts in the genre such as The Handmaid's Tale, Ballard's The Drought (and Running Wild for that matter) and even 12 Monkeys that I'm surprised it doesn't have whiplash. In this incarnation, the 'apocalyptic threat' is Maternal Death Syndrome (MDS), a man-made airborne disease that causes women to die during pregnancy, thereby making mince meat of our species' long term viability. Jessie Lamb, the 15 year old narrator, offers herself for martyrdom when a potential escape hatch for the human race opens up - the implanting of pre-MDA embryos into willing surrogates - much to the chagrin of her scientist Dad. Cue the metaphysical arm wrestle. Rogers throws up various moral conundrums about human and animal experimentation but dilutes it with some unremarkable parent/child drama and a vein of anti-patriarchal feminism so unsubtle it just seems clunky. Push aside the genetic soup and The Testament of Jessie Lamb never really rises above the level of homage to the greats.
Ladbrokes Odds: 16/1
Bookworm's Odds: 20/1

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
God knows quite how Kelman has been plonked at number two on the bookie's list with this frustratingly twee take on the British knife crime epidemic. Little Harry Opuku is a precocious little scamp. Recently arrived from Ghana, he is obsessed with everything pop-culture, from sneakers to CSI. Especially CSI. So when one of his classmates is stabbed to death, he takes it upon himself to solve the crime with the help of his best friend Dean and a pair of crappy thrift store binoculars. What follows is an increasingly ominous descent into a violent world of teen gangs that he cannot appreciate until it's too late. Kelman's previous life as a successful script writer shines through - the dialogue is snappy, the voices authentically ghetto - but the book never felt more than an excessively padded-out short story. And did I mention there's a talking pigeon? Yeah, it's probably best that I don't. If this wins, it will be almost as great a travesty as the whole Vernon God Little debacle. Seriously team Booker, stop trying to be down with the kids.
Ladbrokes Odds: 5/1
Bookworm's Odds: 10/1

On Canaan's Side by Sebastian Barry
I suspect when his life's work is done, Sebastian Barry will have written one great family saga, with each novel counting only as a single chapter. On Canaan's Side sees the focus shift to Lilly Bere, sister of Willie Dunne (you may recall him being the hero of A Long Long Way), who is raking over the embers of her life in the wake of her grandson's death. Through her mournful haze, she recalls her early days in Ireland, her youthful love and subsequent marriage to Tadg Bere, and then the collapse of her dream when the newlyweds are forced to flee to America after Tadg gets mixed up in an IRA double cross. But the promised land proves only a temporary shelter, with Tadg being tracked down and murdered in a Chicago street. Lilly stays on, and through her subsequent highs and lows, hardships and relationships, Barry finds the perfect vehicle to explore not only the immigrant experience but the racial dynamics of mid-to-late 20th Century America. The novel spans seven decades, and it is to Barry's credit that he touches on the important historical events with a subtlety that prevents the book ever feeling like a high school history lesson. There's no reason On Canaan's Side couldn't be the one that finally nets Barry a Booker. As always, it is warm, understated and possesses a generosity of spirit that is extremely rare in contemporary literature. But then again, I thought the same about The Secret Scripture and A Long Long Way.
Ladbrokes Odds: 7/1
Bookworm's Odds: 5/1

Far To Go by Alison Pick
Pick shines a light on a fairly well-known, but under-explored (in literary fiction at least) aspect of the Second World War - the evacuation of Jewish children from occupied Czechoslovakia in what became known as the Kindertransport. Far To Go imagines a Jewish family forced to flee the Sudetenland when Chamberlain gives it over to Hitler in the name of "peace in our time", and then helplessly watch as the walls close around them in Prague. Their escape is thwarted when they are sold out by their well-meaning maid, but seize upon the opportunity to at least get little Pepik the hell out of dodge. Melodrama rules, stereotypes abound and, if you happen to have any knowledge of the Kindertransport already, annoyingly patronising factoids keep bubbling to the surface, all of which significantly lessen the impact of what might have been a very powerful novel. Nostalgic and only mildly engaging, this belongs on Oprah's Book Club, not the Booker Longlist.
Ladbrokes Odds: 14/1
Bookworm's Odds: 20/1

Don't forget, the shortlist is announced this Tuesday, so keep your eyes on the Booker Prize website