Battlefield Booker: Controversies That Do And Don't Count

on Monday, July 29, 2013
A week on and the dust has settled on this year's Booker Long List announcement. For the most part, it has been well received but, as always, there has been the odd grumble about what was (and wasn't) on the list. In usual Bookworm style, I'll just weigh in where I'm not wanted.

The Sour Grapes Of Wrath
So your favourite author missed out? Boo hoo. So did mine. Not that I expected J. M. Coetzee to really get a look in with his decent but nowhere-near-as-good-as-his-early-stuff The Childhood of Jesus. Sure, I still long for my favourite living author to pull the first Booker hat trick, but if there's one thing I hate more than missing out it's someone getting a gold watch award (you listening John Banville?). I suspect that is exactly what Margaret Attwood was pinning her hopes on for Maddaddam, the final instalment in her fascinating Oryx and Crake trilogy. I'd have loved to see a sci-fi novel take the gong but, future time machine acrobatics notwithstanding, it was never going to happen. At least she it won aeons ago for The Blind Assassin.

Lots more whinging abounds with the passing over of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Roddy Doyle (following up The Commitments sans soundtrack), David Peace, and two very well-received novels in Nadeem Aslam's The Blind Man's Garden and Kate Atkinson's Life After Life (will she ever be taken seriously by the establishment?). If you're gunning for any of these, don't fret. You can still rush down to your local bookie and place a few dollars/pounds/shekels on The Folio Prize. As Boyd Tonkin, observed in The Independent, the Folio judges have "a banquet of Booker absentees to consider."

Is The Testament Of Mary A Novel?
It is the question that pops up every few years: How long must a book be to qualify as a novel? When Ian McEwan won for Amsterdam, the curmudgeons in the audience choked on their cigars. The bloody thing came in at under two hundred pages. We all know, however, that it was the consolation Booker, given to assuage a country's collective guilt that the poor guy hadn't won it for the infinitely greater Enduring Love. Ergo, we all forgave him pretty quickly. Then the smug prick had the audacity to do it again with On Chesil Beach only this time he had upped the ante. That books was only one hundred and sixty six pages. Thankfully, we needn't have worried. Nobody is allowed two consolation Bookers, even if Atonement probably should have won five years beforehand. Then again, perhaps he shot himself in the foot with the atrocious Saturday, a book that sat between the other two works like a barbed wire enema.

The novella really came into its own when Julian Barnes pipped a shortlist of bargain bin wannabes with The Sense Of An Ending. At only one hundred and sixty pages, it had encyclopaedia buffs up in arms. I, on the other hand, loved it. Indeed, in a year of spectacular ordinariness (thanks Stella Rimington), it was the only book that could have won if the Booker wasn't about to be turned into a joke. It also must have given hope to Donal Ryan who is long listed this year for the equally brief The Spinning Heart. Not that anyone is on his back about it. The Booker virgin has been trumped by serial list-humper Colm Toibin, who's The Testament of Mary is only one hundred and twelve pages. In other words, you can read it on the toilet without anyone thinking you've fallen in. Personally, I don't see what the fuss is about. Mary is a fully realised, brilliantly executed piece of fiction, wider in scope and deeper of heart than at least a third of the other long listed works. I didn't close it and think, "Nice short story, Colm." Sure, it isn't Proust, but would you question the value of Camus's The Stranger (128 pages) or Orwell's Animal Farm (125 pages)? And how long is a piece of string exactly?

For That Matter is The Kills A Novel?
The novella controversy has been eclipsed by a much more modern concern: Can an exercise in multimedia reading constitute a novel? Richard House's The Kills is testing the boundaries of contemporary fiction (in the Booker sense). Not only is it really four books in one - its thousand-odd pages are made up of four separate novels - but it continuously guides the reader to online content that isn't in the physical book. The judging panel have said that they will only be looking at what's between the covers but that seems to be doing the work an injustice. Make up your mind team Booker. Either you accept multimedia and judge the book as a whole or you make some archaic decision to ban works that rely on online content (as opposed to online stuff that is essentially just promo). Perhaps The Kills is just the toe-in-the-water, setting some precedent for a not-too-distant future in which online content will be a common part of the literary landscape.

When Did The Commonwealth Reclaim America?
Ok, I get that America has stuffed a lot of things up lately, but do the poms really need to take it back? Apparently so, if this long list is anything to go by. Otherwise, it's pretty hard to explain the inclusion of Ruth Ozecki or Jhumpa Lahiri. Don't get me wrong. I really like both of them. But Ozecki is American born, to American and Japanese parents. She spends half her time in America. For six months a year, she hangs out in Canada. Is that enough to justify her annexation by the Prince George Alexander Louis fan club? At least Lahiri was born in London, the daughter of Indian immigrants. That's double Commonwealth cred points. However she moved Stateside when she was two and now identifies as an Indian American. Clearly the Yanks takes her for one of their own. She won The Pulitzer Prize. At what point, then, can we consider the umbilical cord well and truly cut? I kind of hope she wins just to be the only author ever to win both the Pulitzer and Booker. Then she can make a triumphant, albeit brief stopover in Australia just so she's eligible for The Miles Franklin. The possibilities are endless.

The Booker Long List: Cracey Cracey Nights

on Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Well, if you've been on book mars or hiding under some form of Royal Baby rock you might have missed the announcement of this year's Booker Prize long list today. It's a pretty even handed affair - eclectic, seemingly readable, a nice mix of populist and literary fiction. The judges have clearly paid heed to the criticisms levelled against their predecessors. No doubt the appearance of two new major prizes on the literary landscape has also been weighing on their minds.

Once again it's a case of big hitters (Lahiri, Ozecki, Aw, McCann) being pitted against some lesser known upstarts (Bulawayo, Harris, Ryan). I'm particularly excited about two of the titles that got a nod: Harvest by Jim Crace and The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. I haven't read the latter but this young New Zealander's last novel, The Rehearsal, was one of the best debuts that I have ever read. As for Crace, well, the guy really is my sentimental favourite. Leaving aside my love for his early work (Quarantine, Continent, Arcadia - which, of course are offset by the sheer awfulness of some of his more recent stuff) and his announcement earlier this year that he is retiring from writing, Harvest is a wonderful book that deserves the Booker more than many of the books that have actually won it over the past few years. Also, props for the inclusion of Colm Toibin's brilliant The Testament of Mary, which I feared the committee would snub given its brevity.

Anyway, for those who can't be bothered hitting the website, the full Booker Dozen is:

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw (Fourth Estate)
We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo (Chatto & Windus)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (Granta)
Harvest by Jim Crace (Picador)
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris (Sandstone Press)
The Kills by Richard House (Picador)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury)
Unexploded by Alison MacLeod ( Hamish Hamilton)
TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (Bloomsbury)
Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson (Mantle)
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan (Doubleday Ireland)
The Testament of Mary Colm Tóibín (Viking)

Microviews Vol. 35: The Trans-Pacific Longhaul Edition

on Sunday, July 14, 2013
Well, I just made the trip from America back home to Oz. I don't sleep on planes, so here's the fruit of my sleepless schlepp.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich
The Round House shares much with Harper Lee's classic To Kill A Mockingbird. A young kid (in this case, Joe Coutts) sets about investigating a heinous crime (the rape and attempted murder of his mother) in a deeply divided community (a Native American reservation). Like To Kill A Mockingbird, it is a coming-of-age novel with a heavy conscience. Like To Kill A Mockingbird it is a call to action against systemic injustice; Erdrich examines the jurisdictional impotence of Native law enforcement mechanisms and the patronising conditions under which they operate. Like To Kill A Mockingbird, it builds towards a violent, shocking end. And yet, for all its righteous anger, The Round House just doesn't have the impact (nor, I suspect, the longevity) of Lee's masterpiece.
3.5 Out Of 5 Boo Radleys

The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy
Simon Van Booy doesn't so much write novels as create beautiful wordscapes with disparate, yet related, narrative threads. The Illusion of Separateness is a cleverly woven tapestry of time and place that unfurls around the brief encounter between a downed British pilot and a lone German soldier during World War 2. With prose that borders on the poetic and a story that will warm and break your heart in equal measure, Van Booy has conjured an unusual yet mesmerising reading experience.
4 Out of 5 English Patients

I Wear The Black Hat by Chuck Klosterman
My first encounter with Chuck Klosterman was his novel The Visible Man. It kind of sucked and I was left scratching my head as to why the Hipstamatic Generation literally worshipped at his feet. Then I got into his non-fiction and, well, I got pretty close to cutting my hair like a Brooklynite and donning a pair of heavy set tortoiseshell-framed glasses. I Wear The Black Hat sees Klosterman veer away from his usual hunting grounds of popular/music culture to look at the concept of villainy, real and imagined, taking in everyone from Andrew Dice Clay to Kim Dotcom to Judas Iscariot. Although it isn't as consistently funny as some of his previous work, there are plenty of great one liners and each section guarantees at least a knowing smirk. The final three chapters buck the trend - Klosterman will have you choking on your over-priced tacos as he riffs on O.J. Simpson, Hitler and his own personal nemesis, Rick Helling. Had I not forced myself to remember the preceding nine chapters I would have given this a perfect score.
4 Out Of 5 Wacky Races

Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter
Another debut novelist throws her hat into the ring with a book about the war on terror. Don't get too excited, though. This is hardly a Yellow Birds or Pink Mist. The story of a mother awaiting news of her son who has gone missing on a critical mission (probably the one to kill Bin Laden), it flits back and forth in time to give a human face to those that fight and the families that anxiously wait back home. It's moderately engaging but feels more like a US Army PR exercise than serious literature.
3 Out Of 5 Navy Seals

Evil And The Mask by Fuminori Nakamura
Nakamura is all about the seedy side of Japanese life. His previous novel, The Thief, was slick, dark and thoroughly enjoyable. Evil And The Mask follows in the same vein but is considerably less successful. The initial premise is pretty cool: Fumihiro Kuki is bred to be a 'cancer' on the world, a destructive force that makes life worse for everyone he meets. It is a role given to one member of each generation in his family. Unfortunately for his father, Fumihiro is good at heart and resists his transformation into fully fledged monster. That said, his form of rebellion would probably make the old man proud: he kills those that threaten the ones he loves. There's lots of ruminating on the nature of evil, the role of individuals in shaping world catastrophes and the immutibility (or otherwise) of identity. On a theoretical level it is interesting, but as a novel it's all a bit far fetched and needlessly soapboxish.
3 Out Of 5 Face/Offs

The End Of The World In Breslau by Marek Krajewski
Weimar-era Germany isn't exactly the setting you'd expect for a successful detective fiction series, nor does a probable Nazi scream crime fiction anti-hero. Kudos to Krajewski then for out-noiring pretty much everyone else in the game with his Insepctor Mock series. This time round, Mock is pitted against a serial killer who is replicating centuries old murders in 1930s Breslau. The chase is good, ol' fashioned crime fiction fun but strip away the turbulent setting and thoroughly unlikeable detective (he's a drunk, wife-bashing, evidence-planting SOB), and what's left is relatively stock standard for the genre.
3.5 Out Of 5 Iron Crosses

Ergo by Jakov Lind
I have no idea what to make of this book. Oddball recluse Wascholder hides away in his house while trying to destroy his arch nemesis Wurz through a series of increasingly absurd schemes. Keeping him company are his obsessive adopted son and a bedridden lodger. Beyond that it's a deep swamp of cacophonous sludge; a La Brea tar pit with the petrified bodies of Beckett, Kafka, Dali and Jarry. That's not a compliment.
2.5 Out Of 5 Blackened Bananas

2013: The Mid-Year Report

on Monday, July 1, 2013
A lack of New Years Resolutions means I can keep this nice and short. I've kept to the one I did make - review every book I read. That means 80 reviews done and dusted (I've actually read 81 books, but one is embargoed until October so you'll just have to wait). Of those, three got the full treatment (J.M. Coetzee's The Childhood Of Jesus, Javier Marias's The Infatuations and Iain Banks's final novel, The Quarry) while the rest were reduced to nugget-sized Microviews. Hope you've enjoyed the drippings of sweat from my brow!

Books of The Year (So Far)
The first half of 2013 has provided us booknerds with a veritable carnival of delights. Javier Marias brought us what I consider to be the masterpiece in an already spectacular career with his philosophical murder mystery, The Infatuations. Following a decade of mediocrity, Jim Crace finally proved that he could still pen a killer novel with the historical drama, Harvest. Owen Sheers joined the ranks of Kevin Powers and Karl Marlantes with his remarkable prose poem of the war in Afghanistan, Pink Mist. David Foster Wallace reappeared in spectral form in his wife Karen Green's extraordinary free verse piece about loss and recovery, Bough Down. Colm Toibin gave voice to one of history's most misunderstood women in The Testament Of Mary. And Ken Kalfus had me smiling and scratching my head at his adventurous mathematical romp of human folly, Equilateral.

Discovery Of The Year
It would be remiss of me to neglect to mention my standout discovery of 2013, Goncalo M. Tavares. Although he has not published anything this year, all four books I read were marvellous in their own way and I can't wait until Dalkey Archive get off their lazy arses and translates some of his other stuff. You hear me Dalkey? Don't make me learn Portugeuse.

Books Of Previous Years
Tavares aside, I have read some great books not published in 2013. Carlos Fuentes's Vlad was a playful take on the Dracula myth. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick had my jaw resting firmly on the floor for its entire 530 pages. I was repulsed and compelled in equal parts by Pascal Garnier's masterful crime thriller The A26. Ditto David Vogel's lost classic, Viennese Romance. And, of course, my rereads of Dasa Drndic's Trieste and Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle proved just as satisfying the second time around.

The Crystal Ball
Still lots to look forward to this year, with new releases expected from Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Robert Coover, Thomas Pynchon, Laszlo Kraznahorkai and William Vollman. I'm also keen to read Elizabeth Silver's The Execution of Noa P. Singleton, Andrew Sean Greer's The Impossible Lives of Greta Welles and Simon Van Booy's The Illusion of Separateness. As far as I can tell, those three are short and sweet, which is more than I can say for some of the others I meantioned. Tartt's newy weighs in at almost 800 pages and you'll be needing wrist braces to support all 1100 pages of Coover . It's a strange year when the shortest of the lot comes from serial verbiage-faucet Vollman!