Booker 2012: Longshots and Hitlists

on Thursday, July 26, 2012
Well, I stayed up until two o'clock last night frantically refreshing the Booker Prize homepage in the hope that the judges would see fit to let me sleep before the sun reared its ugly head on the horizon. Needless to say they didn't and so I fell asleep and dreamed of Booker glory for any number of dead mid 19th Century authors before Louie roused me from my nonsensical slumber at four o'clock to alert me that the list was up. Well, actually, he just needed a poop, but I like to think he had me in mind as well.

Following last year's debacle, I'm glad to see that Booker chair Sir Peter Stothard has managed to wrangle some semblance of respectability back for the prize, putting forward a well-balanced list of high-lit and intelligent popular fiction, old stalwarts and young upstarts. I'm sure much will be made of the notable absences (Ian McEwan, Nadine Gordimer, Peter Carey, Zadie Smith and, of course, J. K. Rowling), but piffle to all that. It's a good bunch of books. I'm especially pleased to learn that Andre Brink has a new novel in the offing (it comes out in September) and that he might finally get himself a Booker gong. God knows he deserves one! Also quite pleased to see Will Self and Ned Beauman get a nod. Anyway, here's the list for those of you who live on Book Mars:

The Yips by Nicola Barker
The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman
Philida by André Brink
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
Skios by Michael Frayn
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore
Umbrella by Will Self
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Communion Town by Sam Thompson

It's probably too early to pick a winner, but the safe money would have to be on Mantel, Barker or Frayn. However, I'll keep flying the flag for Beauman and Brink. Whatever the outcome, it's looking like Booker is back on track.

Begin the Booker Beguine (Again)

on Saturday, July 21, 2012
Time to slip on your dancing shoes for another year of prize picks and punch-ups. The folk at Man Booker have just released the 'key dates' for this year, which means it's the beginning of my favourite book season. In fact, we only have a few days to wait until the Longlist is announced. Come Wednseday the bickering can begin about who should be shortlisted, who should win, who was left off and whether Hilary Mantel can win back to back Bookers for two consecutive novels, the second being a sequel to the first.

The field of contenders is packed with heavy hitters this year: Peter Carey could be in line for his third, Ian McEwan, John Banville, Nadine Gordimer, Sebastian Faulks, Pat Barker or James Kelman could win a second, and Martin Amis, Zadie Smith or Will Self could finally bag their first. Also present is a slew of other almost-winners: John Lanchester, Lawrence Norfolk, Mark Haddon, Nicola Barker, Michele Roberts and Simon Mawer. And I'm glad to see Australia has fielded a number of viable options with Kate Grenville, Elliot Perlman, Alex Miller, Jon Bauer, Chris Womersley and Anna Funder. Personally, I'd love to see it go to one of the newer kids on the block, such as Ned Beauman, Will Wyles or Lloyd Shepherd though I'd also want to put a sentimental vote in for Dan Rhodes with his beautifully whimsical This is Life?

This all might be a moot point, overshadowed by the great behemoth on the horizon. Following seven Booker snubs J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter squillionaire, is finally releasing her first book for adult readers which might just mean that the panel are ready to deem her sufficiently 'literary' for their consideration. Could this be the gold watch to end all gold watches?

Head to the recently refurbished Booker site on Wednesday to see the Longlist.

The shortlist will be announced on September 11.

The winner will be announced on October 16.

Reckon you can read the entire Booker Dozen by then?

And The Winner is... Syd-ah-Ney (Jewish Writers Festival)

on Sunday, July 15, 2012
Two years ago I schlepped up to Sydney to play the role of drooling fanboy at The Sydney Jewish Writers Festival. I sat in on a number of fascinating panel presentations and had the chance to mingle with a bunch of great Australian and international authors including Peter Manseau (author of the fantastic Songs For The Butcher's Daughter), Steve Toltz, Morris Gleitzman and more. I still recall with great fondness the panel with Siegmund Siegreich, newly-published octogenarian author of The Thirty Six in conversation with Australia's finest fabulist Arnold Zable. The depth of insight on the nature of Holocaust memory was astounding, as was the warmth between these two wonderful artists. There was also a tinge of sadness - I had worked for quite a while to get the great Czech author Arnost Lustig to come, and was to host a discussion with him at the Melbourne Jewish Museum about the responsibility of third generation authors when it comes to fiction and the Holocaust. Unfortunately Lustig cancelled in the eleventh hour due to poor health, and died a few months later. His was a great loss.

Fast forward two years and I'm heading to the festival again (it only runs every second year). The 2012 Sydney Jewish Writers Festival will take place on August 25-28 and boasts an amazing lineup: Tom Segev, Elliot Perlman, Anna Funder, Mark Dapin, Danny Katz, Austen Tayshus, Ita Buttrose, Michael Gawenda and many more. Check out the full list here.

In a weird twist of fate, I'm not just a fanboy this time, but also a presenter. I am thrilled to tell you that I will be participating in two panels, one about short stories and one about blogging (hopefully that's not too meta for my brain as I write this here).

So check it out. This is the link to the short stories panel, entitled Does Size Matter?. It is with Arnold Zable and chaired by Amy Matthews. For those of you who live on Mars, Arnold is a wonderful writer of both short and longer form fiction and non-fiction. His new book, Violin Lessons is very well worth you reading. I'm sure he will have lots to say about the craft, and I can only hope to add something of value on the side.

The second panel is called Opinionated and Online, and features Meiron Lees, Loren Suntup with Lauren Finn in the chair. These folk are serious bloggers, so it will be fun to be the self-indulgent, hermit-like scribbler in the corner. Perhaps I'm there to answer why people bother writing what few people want to read. That gives me a month and a bit to come up with an intelligent-sounding answer!

Anyway, I urge all you Sydneysiders to purchase tickets ASAP for what I am certain will be a wonderful festival. If you live elsewhere and can get to Sydney in August, I think you'll be very glad you did. Hopefully I'll see you all there. In the meantime, have a good laugh at my festival profile!

The Decline Of The Patriarch

on Saturday, July 7, 2012
Having watched the sad decline of some beautiful minds first hand, I was dismayed to read today that Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nobel Prize winning pioneer of the magical realist movement and author of a couple of my favourite novels (No-one Writes To The Colonel, The Autumn of The Patriarch) is now suffering from the late stages of dementia. According to his brother Jaime, Gabriel is doing well but experiences frequent memory lapses.

Speaking at the Inquisition Museum in Cartagena, Jaime said, "Dementia runs in our family and he's now suffering the ravages prematurely due to the cancer that put him almost on the verge of death... Chemotherapy saved his life, but it also destroyed many neurons, many defences and cells and accelerated the process."

That Marquez had the condition was hardly a secret. Writers don't just 'retire' for no good reason. Nevertheless, his legion of fans have continued to cling to the hope that they might still see some more books before Marquez dropped off the scene altogether. That doesn't seem to be on the cards anymore. Asked about the next two instalments of his autobiography (the first being 2002's Living To Tell The Tale), Jaime said, "Unfortunately, I don't think that'll be possible, but I hope I'm wrong."

Looks like it will be a sad, quiet end to the Patriarch.

My Very Own Book Club!

on Thursday, July 5, 2012
Writing, so it is said, is a lonely pursuit. For the most part I agree, but when I looked up from my desk today, it occurred to me that I am keeping some pretty enjoyable company here in this little library of mine. Turns out, 210 posts down the line, they want to say hello.(And I swear I'm not suffering from cabin fever)

First is old Don, picked up at a tacky Barcelona souvenir store near my hotel. I thought he was made of metal but he broke in transit and I saw that, beneath his shiny armour is cheap, flimsy plaster. Unintentionally fitting, methinks.

The latest addition to my circle of friends is the elusive scented bookworm. He smells like flowers and seems to enjoy Bernard Malamud. Need I say more?

Then there is Huld, my amazing Czech marionette. He seems to creep people out when they see him perched above the door as they walk in, but I like the way he watches over me with that serious face of his. Extra points for getting the reference.

And then, of course, there is Louie. When things go to shit, and the words just won't come out, he is always there with a wagging tail and a ball ready to take my mind off it all. Even better, when inspiration hits, he is happy to curl up at my feet and keep them warm. If I ever get this thing finished, it will be thanks to him.

Another Reason To Miss Maurice Sendak

on Tuesday, July 3, 2012
Ok, other than that whole "writing Where The Wild Things Are" schtick, he said this about digital publishing:

"I hate those e-books. They cannot be the future. They may well be. I'll be dead, I won't give a shit."

He's right. Now he is and he doesn't.


2012: The Mid-Year Report

Time, I have come to learn, is inversely proportional to productivity and, in that respect, Einstein's ghost has taken a massive dump on my head this year. July? Already? How did that happen? Guess I ought to look back at my New Year's Aspirations and see how I've fared. *gulp*

New Year Revisited

1. Write More Than I Read: Well it certainly has been a slow reading year. In fact, had it not been for two long haul flights and one crazy reading weekend, I'd have been lucky to crack the half ton. Six months saw me get through a measly 56 books; well below my yearly average. That said, I'm glad to report that I have spent a fair amount of my non-reading time writing, though you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise if you could see what's left of my manuscript. Having cut 60,000 words some time in April, I'm currently at a net loss but, hopefully, it's all for the better. At least that's what I keep telling myself.

2. Stop Being Such a Lit-Wanker: I set out to read less high brow literature this year and while there were a few brief moments of mass market enjoyment they were very much in the minority. Oh well. I'd hate for you to think I had stopped being a total knob.

3. Smell the Roses: Read slower? Me? No chance. I'm just reading less in the same furious bursts.

4. The Tangible Aspirations: Well this one is easy. War and Peace? Nope. Road To Freedom? Nope. Lev Grossman? Nope. American Gods? Nope.

5. Lose 95 Kilos and Exist in a Vacuum: Again, nope. Still here. And heavier than ever!

So far, not so good. *cough cough*

Moving right along...

Top 5 of 2012 (So far)
Hopefully this is just a function of my not having read enough this year, but I can't even scrape together five books that I would be willing to hold out as raveworthy. So, without further ado, here's my top 4:

1. Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai. Another completely impenetrable work of intellectual gymnastics by the master. A downtrodden village somewhere in Hungary is turned upside down by the arrival of the devil. Petty rivalries flare, ruin looms. Satantango is horribly bleak but, as a work of literature, totally invigorating.
2. Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander. Woody Allen type moves to rural America to escape his Jewish neuroses only to discover Anne Frank hiding out out in his new attic. It is as hilarious as it sounds, and Auslander manages to sustain the dark comedy throughout. Elderly, mean-spiritied Frank - desperately trying to write a sequel to her first book - is a brilliantly realised creation.
3. This Is Life by Dan Rhodes. Another charming, quirky book from England's most underrated writer. Not unlike The Family Fang, it lampoons the idiocy of the art world, but in a way so gentle and warm-hearted that even the most strident defender of "art" will be willing to come along for the ride.
4. Melisande! What Are Dreams? by Hillel Halkin. A lifetime of translating the works of great Yiddish and Hebrew writers has clearly taught Halkin how fiction works. His debut is a measured, beautifully crafted and often poetic look at the failure of a marriage. In many ways it reminded me of the greatest love letter ever written, Andre Gorz's Letter to D. Indeed, after that book, it has the second best declaration of love I have ever read: "If I had a thousand lives to live, I'd want them all to be with you." Awwwwwww.

Top 5 Of Every Year But 2012
Now this I can do with a little more confidence.

The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollack. Stark, brutal and sure-footed debut by another possible heir to the Cormac McCarthy throne.
Purgatory by Tomas Eloy Martinez: To my mind the best book on the Central American disappearances. A woman enters a cafe and is shocked to see the husband she thought killed thirty years earlier. Thus begins Martinez's final novel, a painful exploration of the schisms that still tear at his country's heart.
The Family Carnovsky by I. J. Singer. I was slightly disappointed with Yoshe Kalb, so was overjoyed to see Singer in top form on this one. Another intergenerational saga, it never quite reaches the lofty heights of The Brothers Ashkenazi but still towers above most novels written today.
My Life In CIA by Harry Matthews: As the only American member of the Oulipo group, Matthews' life was as absurd as his writing. This memoir of a single year in France, where everyone was convinced he was a CIA agent so he decided to play along is a short work of wacky genius. Well worth checking this guy out if you've never heard of him.
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster: How did I miss this as a kid? With his rampant punning, mathematical hijinks and total capitulation to the ridiculous, Juster is the modern incarnation of Lewis Carroll (except he didn't write to mack on a twelve year old girl. But I digress...). If your parents also denied you this wonderful pleasure, drop everything now and go buy a copy. Then hide it from your kids. Balance will return to the universe.

Half A Crystal Ball
So what's left for 2012? Plenty of promising books are on the horizon, so hopefully there will be enough to fill out a top ten come December 31st. I'm still going to be writing more than I read - Goddammit I need to finish this frigging book - but I will crack the ton, and I still have a firm belief that I will find one book to add to my favourites of all time. So who will it be? Ian McEwan? Philippe Claudel? Michael Chabon? Or someone I've never even heard of? Pressure's on, folks!