Booker Prize 2012: The Shortlist Short Shrift

on Tuesday, September 11, 2012
Well, team Booker have just announced the shortlist and I'm feeling a strange sense of deja vu. Just like last year, there seems to be one clearly deserving book and five underwhelming pieces of padding to fill the remaining spaces. Unlike last year, though, I don't have Stella Rimington to blame. What ever will I do?

For those who have yet to see the announcement, the six books in the running are:

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
Umbrella by Will Self
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

Yes, yes. I know what you're thinking. I was the first in to bat for the long list and now I've snubbed my nose at its distilled mutant cousin. I can't explain it either. I suppose the more time the list had to sink in, the more blasé I became about it. I never considered it exciting, just sufficiently literary to merit Booker consideration. Alas, I am going to eat my words and cross the floor. I'm with Stella. There's no point in making it 'literary' if it's just plain boring.

Needless to say the safe money would be on Mantel. She is a class (well, a good number of classes) above anyone else on this list. Also, given that Bring Up the Bodies is book two in a trilogy that began with the Booker-winning Wolf Hall, it'd be cool if she bagged it to set up the greatest cliffhanger in the history of the prize. Sure, we might have to wait a couple of years, but at least there's a chance it might get interesting again. Ah, who am I kidding?

Onto the rest of the list... Edgy tomes from subcontinental writers seem to have good Booker form so Narcopolis may well turn out to be this year's White Tiger. Plus, Jeet shares a surname with the dude from Soundgarden. That's got to count for something. Will Self is in the habit of bitching about Booker's relevance or lack thereof so maybe the panel will see the great comic potential in giving him the nod. It certainly won't hurt Self to eat his words; he's looking a bit thin these days. As for the others, I don't have much to say. I quite liked Eng's last book but am in no rush to read this one, Deborah Levy has never been on my radar and Alison Moore's book is a debut. Remember what happens when a debut wins the Booker? D.B.C. Pierre. That's what. I now use him as a verb. Pejoratively.

I'm not going to a hazard a guess this time round. I'm always wrong. But if they don't give it to ol' Hilary, so are they!

Microviews Vol. 18: Patric, Kadare, Diaz

on Monday, September 10, 2012
Las Vegas For Vegans by A.S. Patric
A.S. Patric is the sort of Aussie writer who need only rest his pen against a page and someone will throw an award his way. He's bagged both the Ned Kelly and the Booranga and been published in pretty much every reputable lit mag in the country. It's little surprise then that Las Vegas For Vegans, his second collection of short stories, is brimming with skilfully crafted nuggets of imagination and panache. Patric easily flits across genres, which means that there is a story or five for everyone in the collection (there are 33 in all which, for a book that's only 220 pages, is quite an achievement). It also means there'll be a few you're bound not to like. For my taste, Patric is at his best when he spins off into the surreal (UnSubstance, Guns and Coffee and The River), though his speculative forays (Elysium Zen, Ana Schrodinger, Fragments of a Signal) and edgy suburbiana (The Manx Heart, The Boys) also hooked me in. Like all short story collections, Las Vegas For Vegans is a little uneven but at least it shows that Patric is not afraid of taking risks. An exciting book from a writer well worth checking out.

The Fall Of The Stone City by Ismail Kadare
Reading Ismail Kadare has always been a little like playing broken telephone. Most of the English translations were taken from the French which, in turn, had been taken from the original Albanian. This meant that it was often difficult to gauge whether the shortcomings of any particular work (often manifesting as clumsy prose) could be attributed to the author or the translator. Thank the literary gods then for John Hodgson, who has cut out the French middle man once again and given us the fourth of Kadare's novels to be translated directly from Albanian to English. The Fall of The Stone City is a breathtaking piece of fiction, brief in pages but immense in power. For the most part it is the story of Gjirokaster, a town situated near the German border. When the Nazis invade, local partisans deal them an unexpected blow and the people of Gjirokaster await a fierce retribution that never comes. Conjecture abounds, until it becomes apparent that they have been saved thanks to an extravagant party thrown for the German invaders by local dignitary Doctor Gurameto. Years after the war, those who cowered in their homes while the party raged try to make sense of what happened. Was Gurameto a hero or a traitor? Did he sacrifice the partisans to save the town? Gurameto's fate is ultimately tied to that of the city itself; it is tragic and bitter, but it is also symbolic of a country at war with itself.
(With thanks to Evan for setting me straight about Kadare's translations)

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
After stepping aside to allow Oscar Wao some time in the spotlight, Junot Diaz's original hero (or anti-hero) Yunior is back in what might be considered a sequel to his game-changing debut, Drown. Like that book, This Is How You Lose Her is a series of linked short stories that charts the wise-arse Dominican immigrant kid and his family as they make sense of life in America. It is full of the same machismo, the same Spanglish acrobatics, the same dashed hopes, the same.. well, that's the problem. This Is How You Lose Her is too much of the same. No matter how energetic and original Diaz might be, this collection lacks the diversity of voice or tone to lift it above mere repetition of his earlier work. There are funny moments, and currents of deep pathos (the death of Yunior's brother is particularly moving) but they seem to be drowning (pardon the pun) in a sea of beige. I'd have done better to reread The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Sunflower Update: Three Week Reprieve

on Sunday, September 2, 2012
Just a quick one to let you all know that Sunflower Bookstore will remain open for 3 more weeks because the builders couldn't start on time (they're totally renovating the shop before it opens as The Avenue Elsternwick). That means for three weeks there will exist in Melbourne the greatest bookstore ever known to man, a store that will be spoken of in liturgical texts and literary legend alike, known to its followers as The Avenueflower. Ok, I might have made that up. But it will be awesome. Be sure to head on down to hang out with your old Sunflower friends and, if you didn't get the chance on Saturday, meet the folks who will soon be your new best book buddies at The Avenue Elsternwick.

CORRECTION: So apparently it is technically now trading as The Avenue Bookstore Elsternwick. I still intend of referring to it as the The Avenueflower until the new fitout is complete.