Booker Prize 2015: A Likeable Longlist

on Wednesday, July 29, 2015
Cue the confetti cannons. Silly season has begun.

The good folk at Team Booker have just announced this year's longlist and, I'm glad to say, it is quite the impressive collection. In case you haven't seen it, the books in the running for the Man Booker Prize 2015 are:

Bill Clegg (US) - Did You Ever Have a Family (Jonathan Cape)
Anne Enright (Ireland) - The Green Road (Jonathan Cape)
Marlon James (Jamaica) - A Brief History of Seven Killings (Oneworld Publications)
Laila Lalami (US) - The Moor's Account (Periscope, Garnet Publishing)
Tom McCarthy (UK) - Satin Island (Jonathan Cape)
Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria) - The Fishermen (ONE, Pushkin Press)
Andrew O’Hagan (UK) - The Illuminations (Faber & Faber)
Marilynne Robinson (US) - Lila (Virago)
Anuradha Roy (India) - Sleeping on Jupiter (MacLehose Press, Quercus)
Sunjeev Sahota (UK) - The Year of the Runaways (Picador)
Anna Smaill (New Zealand) - The Chimes (Sceptre)
Anne Tyler (US) - A Spool of Blue Thread (Chatto & Windus)
Hanya Yanagihara (US) - A Little Life (Picador)

As predicted, Obioma made it and you'd have to think is in with a good chance. Ditto Marlon James. Both books have been real favourites among reviewers and readers alike. I've only read the Obioma but the James has been sitting on my shelf for months and I'm keen to finally have reason to get stuck into it. I'm also pleased to see Tom McCarthy get another look-in. His consistent output of innovative yet accessible literature is worthy of continuing recognition and, while I don't really see him winning the prize, he most certainly deserves to make it to the final six. The one that I'm really excited about, though, is Hanya Yanagihara. Her first novel, The People Of The Trees was a magnificent, complex, revelatory work and there's some good buzz about this new one. I haven't had the guts to delve in yet - it's 800-odd pages - but I have a long haul flight in the near future and it will most certainly be my companion for those nine hours. Last time I read a long book in a single sitting it was Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries and we all know how that turned out.

The list is not without its duds. The Andrew O'Hagan was underwhelming - I just don't get the fuss the critics made about it. Sure, the guy deserves a Booker somewhere down the track but if he didn't win it for Be Near Me or Our Fathers he sure shouldn't be winning it for this. At least it was better than Maf The Dog, but so is my average shopping list. Also, though i have yet to read it, most people I know who have had a go at Anne Tyler's 'retirement novel' have thought it considerably beneath her. A win might be a gold watch for an amazing career, but it would do the prize no great credit.

For the Aussies who were hoping for back to back Bookers... Peter Carey? That was our best chance? Come on. Amnesia was, if you'll excuse the pun, entirely forgettable. New Zealand didn't fare a great deal better with only one nomination but I was happy to see that it was for The Chimes, a book that I've had my eye on for a while by an author who, a mutual friend tells me, is a really talented, humble and lovely person.

So there you have it: the most promising list of seemingly deserving contenders we've seen in years. More thoughts to come but, until then, happy reading!

E. L. Doctorow: The Book of Gratitude

on Saturday, July 25, 2015
If ever I was pushed to name what I consider to be that most elusive of creatures, The Great American Novel (or at least the modern incarnation thereof), I might ponder a shortlist that includes The Plot Against America, To Kill A Mockingbird, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Road. It wouldn't take too long, though, before I shoved them all aside in favour E.L. Doctorow's stunning masterpiece, The Book of Daniel.

I know that many readers revere Doctorow for books like Ragtime, Billy Bathgate and The March but for me it is his 1971 reimagining of the Rosenberg executions that not only showed who Doctorow was as a writer, but also perfectly captured the soul of America. It is angry. It is sad. It is hopeful. It is a war within itself.

Doctorow was a fiercely political writer but, as opposed to many of his like-minded contemporaries, he was wonderfully subtle in the delivery of his message. He allowed the beauty of his words to woo the reader to his way of thinking. There was little political exposition or sloganeering. Just powerful, warm, heartfelt prose that helped to shape the reader's political and moral consciousness.

In his later works, Doctorow continued to pick at the scabs of American society though only once - in The March - did he return to the kind of historical fiction upon which his reputation was built. Religious tribalism (not to mention his personal spiritual struggle) got a decent skewering in the difficult City Of God. The story of the Collyer brothers gave Doctrow the perfect vehicle to interrogate the modern materialist obsession in Homer & Langley. And most recently, Doctorow struggled with ageing and the uncomfortable metamorphosis of his homeland in the uncharacteristically patchy Andrew's Brain.

E.L. Doctorow died this week. I didn't really know what to say about him - I'm no expert when it comes to his life or work. I just know that I am thankful for The Book of Daniel. It changed my life. And for that I felt I needed to say something.

How Much Is That Yurtle In The Window?: The Lost Dr. Seuss

on Friday, July 24, 2015
Hush now your Harping
Enough with the Finches
Here's something to cheer up
The grumpiest Grinches!

Fine, I'll stop there.

But who could possibly resist the temptation to wax poetic when yesterday saw the publication of a second "lost" manuscript from another all-time favourite? What Pet Should I Get? marks the unexpected return of the man who shaped my childhood and gave flight to my imagination, Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. Now, far be it from me to question my formative years, but this is a book that would really have helped me with my life choices. I mean, had ol' Theo seen fit to publish this masterwork of prospective pet-owner existentialism, I would not have picked a cat that shnotted across the room on regular occasions. Nor would I have stood on the duckling I rescued (I did not like that, not one bit). I might have rethought the ferrets, the snakes, the frogs and the spiders. And I most definitely would not have begged my parents for yeps on my steps, a Nooth Grush for my toothbrush or a Jertain for my curtain.

Obvious parallels could be drawn with a certain other recent publication but I'm just going to leave the thought here for you to ponder while I celebrate a new, if somewhat belated addition to my childhood library.

I've read it and loved it
And am now left to wonder
How long will it take
For ol' Disney to plunder?

To Unjustly Roast a Mockingbird: Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman

on Wednesday, July 15, 2015
For the past fifty years Harper Lee has been the picture of polished literary perfection. One novel, a universally adored classic, and then complete silence. No other books. No forays into academia. No pontificating from the sidelines. Just perfect, dignified silence. She could very easily have gone to her grave with a reputation that far surpassed many of her peers. Sure, they might have written a library shelf's worth more novels but, at the end of the day, they didn't write To Kill A Mockingbird. When word leaked out last year that a manuscript to a second book - one written before Mockingbird but taking place after it - had been found, the literary world responded with equal parts palpable excitement and absolute dread. That the circumstances about this great 'discovery' were tarred with accusations of exploitation and dodgy dealings didn't exactly help quell the fears.

In the months leading up to the release this week of Go Set A Watchman both sentiments have reached fever pitch. Holy crap have I been giddy with glee over the prospect of reading more from this Grand Goddess of the Written Word. At the same time, holy crap have I been petrified that the conniving lawyer Tonya Carter (go on, sue me), has taken advantage of Alice Lee's death and is not only riding roughshod but also taking a massive dump on Harper's legacy for the sake of a quick buck. To a certain extent I side with the naysayers - this book really ought not have been published. It was a draft manuscript that was rejected by an editor who saw promise in the flashbacks and encouraged Harper Lee to go back and try again, this time focusing on Scout as a little kid. And it's not like Lee or her editor were unaware of a second book following the phenomenal success of Mockingbird. Even if it took a little digging, they could have found it and worked it to the standard of publication if they'd really wanted to. Yes, all indications are that we'd have been better off never seeing Go Set A Watchman. Which brings me to the great difficulty in reviewing it. Is it possible to read and evaluate the novel without the attendant hoopla surrounding it? Can it be read as a companion piece without having to be a comparative one? Or is it destined to be the Grease 2 of literature, if Grease 2 had been made before Travolta squeezed into those impossibly tight leathers?

I'll say this at the outset: Go Set A Watchman is a strange reading experience. So much of it is instantly familiar - Maycomb, Atticus, Scout, many of the other characters as well as the themes - and yet there is something slightly amiss. It is like the contours have softened; we are seeing the devolution of a world into an earlier, sketched form. It is difficult to push the discomfort aside. Perhaps more unsettling is the fact that at the beginning it reads like a rather typical rural pastoral. Jean Louise (aka Scout) returns home from New York to visit her ailing father and instantly falls into some kind of playful romance with his assistant, Henry Clinton. Clinton (surprise, surprise) is not the kind of fellow Jean Louise's aunt wants for the girl - he is, as she says, from "trash". It's all very airs and graces. Atticus, too, weighs in and battle lines are drawn for what seems to be a final showdown between father and daughter. The budding romance takes up the greater part of the first half of the book and, while charming, it lacks the tension and moral power of the masterpiece it later spawned. That is until Jean Louise happens upon a town meeting involving both her father and her lover during which a hellfire segregationist spews the vile small-minded claptrap of the old guard. It's classic "they's takin' our jobs and our women" rubbish but it seems to strike a chord with those in attendance. Jean Louise, her mind opened by big city life, is horrified. Suddenly, the battle lines have shifted. There is an entirely different war in the offing.

Much has been made of Atticus the Klansman in discussions of this book. It seems so incongruent with the man we all revered - the champion of civil rights, the warrior for justice. Yet to simply say the Atticus of Go Set A Watchman and the Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird are completely different creatures would be oversimplifying it. Remember that he is still a product of his time. And, in his explanation, he puts forward a progressive argument, albeit within certain old world constraints. To me he is more the complex character for this schism. What is important to realise is that he thinks he is being egalitarian. We need only think of some of the ridiculous things we've heard our parents or grandparents say while thinking they were showing compassion on critical issues - LGBTI springs to mind - to get where Atticus is coming from. That said, this was clearly Lee's first draft of Atticus as a fully fleshed-out character. Above all else, he is used here to represent one end of the spectrum to allow Jean Louise to represent the other. The latter is, without any doubt, Lee's own. Her voice, too, is Lee's, including the occasional embarrassing stumble into well-intentioned bigotry. In their protracted debate on race towards the end, you can see Lee putting down on paper the ideas that would not crystalise until Atticus was standing in a courtroom in another book. The argument itself is stilted and didactic: Atticus posits one position then Scout counters. Each sortie reads like an essay in miniature. It's hard to reconcile either character with who they once supposedly were.

To my mind, these concerns are rather minor. It is, after all, a draft. Where the book really falls down, though, is in its lack of a central dramatic anchor. At one point, Atticus's former maid's grandson accidentally runs over and kills an old man. He is arrested and, we are told, will be put on trial for manslaughter. Atticus takes the case. With the great courtroom drama of Mockingbird in the back of our head (and a few references to that particular case in Watchman) we are all poised for a showdown par excellence. Alas, it is quickly skipped over and we are back to the great ideological battle between father and daughter. Sigh.

It's not hard to see where Lee's editor was coming from all those years ago. I don't know how long it took her to return with To Kill A Mockingbird, but it is clear that somewhere in the process she struck gold in terms of narrative drive, moral complexity, a workable plot device and, most importantly, some real character development. She also invented one of my favourite characters during that time: Boo Radley. But this is where it all started. This is the clay from which man was formed. Had I not ever read To Kill A Mockingbird I think I would still have liked Go Set A Watchman. Contrary to what a lot of people are saying, it does stand alone as a novel, albeit one that would have benefited from the collaborative editing process that this has been denied. In no way, however, does it harm Harper Lee's legacy. If anything, it gives a bit more light and shade to an otherwise amorphous picture. It shows that she too is human, that she started somewhere and that, just like everyone else, she had to stumble to succeed. Yes, the publication of Go Set A Watchman might be a crass exploitative money grab. I've now bought it in digital form, Australian hardcover and American hardcover to boot. But I'm glad I did. Because now I've met Harper Lee, apprentice novelist. And, between you and me, I have a sneaking suspicion that whatever she writes after this is going to be a classic.

Microviews Vol. 55: Clash of Classics

on Tuesday, July 7, 2015
The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud
You don't know Harun, but you probably know his brother Musa. Well, maybe not by name but, if you love modern literature, you've definitely met him. Remember? On a beach? In Algiers? With five bullets in his chest? Surely this is sounding familiar. In what has to be one of the most audacious experiments I've encountered in recent times, Kamel Daoud has sought to reclaim the unnamed Arab murdered by Mersault in Albert Camus's classic L'Etranger (I'm not going to offer a translation - they all fail) and, in giving him a name and life story, not only engage directly with the original novel but also explore issues of identity, colonialism and the ownership of narrative. At first it reads as eulogy - Harun laments a brother invented simply to be destroyed, a mere prop in some great masterwork. He revisits many of Camus's lines, analysing them, spitting them back in the author's (and reader's) face. He is as impassioned as Mersault is dispassionate. Then, just as you feel the 'game' might get stale, Daoud shifts gears and reveals Harun's big secret. He too has killed someone - a Frenchman - during the 1962 unrest in Algiers. It is an act of defiance but also an act of revenge. It might also be an act of cold blooded murder. Yes, the loyal brother is caught up in an existential crisis of his own. He just might be Mersault's mirror. It took considerable guts for Daoud to engage so directly with one of literature's sacred cows. That the result should turn out so wonderfully satisfying, that it should be so much more than a mere companion piece to a classic, is both a relief and a thrill.
4.5 Out Of 5 Dead Mothers

These Are The Names by Tommy Wieringa
A ragged group of travellers trudges across an unforgiving wilderness. They are the hungry, the tired, the poor, thrown together by circumstance, forced to flee their homeland in search of safe harbour while a war rages on behind them. Only the the thinnest thread holds them together - they are untrusting and afraid, their tempers set to flare. Meanwhile, in the town of Michailopol, somewhere in an unnamed country, Police Commissioner Beg is on a journey of his own. His sense of identity, formerly secure in a warm shroud of familiarity, has been torn asunder. He is, or so it seems, Jewish in a town where only one other Jew remains, a cantankerous rabbi who has just buried the other Jew whom he despised. Beg wants answers to his past, his culture, the life that has been hidden from him. As he begins to immerse himself in the texts and traditions of his newfound faith, word gets out that a group of emaciated strangers has entered the town. And one of them is carrying a severed head. So unfolds Tommy Wieringa's powerful novel, a multi-layered detective story where the mystery is, in essence, how we seek to define ourselves and our sense of belonging. It is a prescient work in these troubled times, where entire populations are displaced and seek refuge. That the group have been the victims of unscrupulous people smugglers comes as little surprise, but that hardly lessens the rage you will feel as a reader towards those who profit from desperation. In some ways I was reminded of Jim Crace's masterful book, The Harvest, in its portrayal of a quiet community coming undone by its fear of 'the other'. Wieringa takes it a step further, not seeking to wrap the issues up in historical analogy. These Are The Names is a thoroughly contemporary book despite its non-situation in an easily identified time and place. In what it has to say about identity, sacrifice, the ethics of escape and our collective moral responsibility for those who seek refuge in our lands it is also a thoroughly urgent and welcome one.
4 Out Of 5 Dusty Trails

The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera
Milan Kundera has never shied away from the playfully absurd. There are moments in many of his novels where the reader will sit back with a wry smile, shake their head and appreciate the rope Kundera has thrown them in what is otherwise an ocean of deep philosophising. The Festival of Insignificance, Kundera's slim new offering, reverses the pattern. Moments of philosophy dot an otherwise humorous story of friends learning to find meaning in the general meaninglessness of everyday life. A chance meeting between D'Ardelo and Ramon sparks a descent into the ridiculous (and sublime) - for no particular reason the former claims to have been diagnosed with incurable cancer. He's throwing a cocktail party, you know, just to say goodbye to everyone. Which means he'll have to actually throw the party... and keep up the cancer charade. It's funny and silly in a very macabre European sense; the 'diagnosis' causes D'Ardelo and his friends to take stock leading to the realisation that life is (you guessed it) a festival of insignificance. Only when you enjoy the nothingness of it all can you cast away the monotony and dread. Wise words from a very wise old man but, in a career that has spanned six decades and countless philosophical eureka moments, it will not go down as an important book in the Kundera canon. Read it for the beauty of the writing and the knowledge that we may not hear from Kundera again. Then go read Immortality.
3.5 Out Of 5 False Teeth

A Brief History of Portable Literature by Enrique Vila-Matas
In some parallel universe there is a kingdom of literary wonders, in which an unrecognisable monarch plants his or her sizeable bum on the throne while being entertained by the greatest court jester of all time. I doubt anyone could name the monarch (indeed, I suspect that, depending on your angle, you might see a different one to me) but I think we can all agree on the identity of the jester: Enrique Vila-Matas. Since stumbling across his hilarious carnival of a novel, Montano's Malady, in which a slew of my favourite authors pop their heads up to clash philosophical swords, I've hungrily devoured any scraps the man has seen fit to throw we lesser beings of the English speaking world. They've all been great fun but, apart from the brilliant riff on Melville's Bartelby the Scrivener, nothing has quite lived up to my first taste. That is, until now. If I could have sat down with Vila-Matas and asked him to write a book especially for me, it probably would have turned out something like A Brief History of Portable Literature. Secret societies, obscure authors, Prague... yep. This is my book. A Brief History... tells of the (appropriately) short existence of The Shandies, a group of writers and artists committed to distilling literature to its smallest possible form while living out fantastical, disgustingly decadent, lives. Walser, Gombrowicz, Duchamp, Cendras, Man Ray and Aleister Crowley all play their part. Meyrink and Kafka get a nod once they hit Prague. The meetings become ever more farcical - for a while they convene on a requisitioned submarine - and the various characters put their very individual stamp on proceedings. A Brief History of Portable Literature is a juggling act by a jester who skirts the fine line between high culture and flat out lunacy. That the book itself is an example of distilled narrative just adds to the joke.
4 Out of 5 Bonzai Books

The Case of Kafka's Case: The Final Decision (And This Time They Mean It)

on Thursday, July 2, 2015
It was the kind of drawn out bureaucratic nightmare that would have made the great man himself proud.

Seven years after it first hit the courts, a final decision has been made in the case of Franz Kafka's piss-stained suitcase and the evil hoarder (well, surviving twin daughter of Max Brod's secretary Esther Hoffe). No doubt you remember how it went: Brod carked it, his secretary kept his stuff (admittedly in accordance with his direction) and then sold bits of it the highest bidder (very much not in accordance with his wishes). Fast forward a short while. Hoffe kicked the bucket and her daughters kept up the family tradition of profiting from what was not rightfully theirs. The authorities started to grumble so the wily ladies (who, it seems, were out-Collyering the Collyers) instituted proceedings to have the Kafka works declared theirs. Bad move. They lost. Then one died. So Eva Hoffe appealed. And lost. Which brings us to now. The court, in a moment of clarity, dismissed the appeal and said that the National Library of Israel was the rightful beneficiary of Brod's last wish that all his possessions should be entrusted in their entirety to the public archives. Of course, we are still none the wiser as to what might actually be inside the case. Other than dried cat piss and fur balls, I'm hazarding a guess at the following:

Kafka's stamp collection/shopping list/pros and cons list re: Dora Diamant/jar of nail clippings/summer comedy routine
The first draft of another Harper Lee novel
A blotted facsimile of Bruno Schulz's Messiah
The Holy Grail
Amelia Earhart
A novel that I'm going to actually have a coronary over when I hear of its existence.

Whatever it is, we should know in the next few months. There are no more appeals to be had. What's more, the National Library of Israel has already committed to scanning and posting all the manuscripts to the net. Anyone able to recommend a good crash course in German?

2015: The Mid-Year Report

on Wednesday, July 1, 2015
Six months. Seventy books. Not a single one of them bought online.

After a thrilling start with SM Hulse's immensely powerful debut, Black River, and John Williams's classic, Stoner, my reading year took a quick and disappointing turn for the uninteresting. Book after book failed to impress. Sure, there were some halfway decent ones in there, but nothing that had me licking my chops in delight. What's worse there were some terrible let downs. Kazuo Ishiguro came a cropper with his Game of Thrones meets Camelot (or is that Spamalot?) meets I-can't-remember-I-just-nodded-off, The Sleeping Giant. Andrew O'Hagan had me excited for The Illuminations but it turned out to be a fair-to-middling war pastoral with not a great deal of... well... illumination. Ditto David Vann, whose latest offering, Aquarium, was pretty good but lacked the delicious malice of his previous works. Even Milan Kundera failed to fire me up, with The Festival of Insignificance very much living up to its name. Sure, the premise was smart and the execution somewhat playful but, at best, the book might have made a good essay or short story.

Thankfully, a few books from years gone by kept me going. Agota Kristoff's staggering trilogy - The Notebook, The Proof and The Third Lie - left my jaw dragging painfully along the floor. All three are excellent books but I'd have to say that The Notebook has now taken its place in the upper echelons of my Favourite Books of All TimeTM. Max Blecher floated up from the Hungarian depths with his previously hard-to-find-in-English masterpiece Adventures in Immediate Irreality while two more recent works - both tragic, both excellent - took a dump on my whimpering soul. So thanks Miriam Toews (All My Puny Sorrows, 2014) and Aki Ollikainen (White Hunger, 2012).

Things picked up again in April with the release of AS Patrić's astonishing debut, Black Rock White City, a perfectly crafted, sometimes disturbing, sometimes heartwarming, always beautiful novel about the Australian immigrant experience. Surely it will go down as a classic of the genre. Daša Drndić didn't disappoint with her intellectual circus of a book, Leica Format. I still marvel at how her mind operates. Then there was Kent Haruf. Alas, it took me until the poor guy died to read him but what a gorgeous little gem of a novel Our Souls at Night turned out to be. I can't think of a more perfect parting gift from any author. In terms of excellent debuts, Hulse and Patrić were joined by Chigozi Obioma and his book The Fishermen, a forerunner not only in the new explosion of world-conquering African literature but, I'd have to guess, in the race for this year's Booker Prize. Then there was Kamel Daoud's interrogation of Albert Camus in The Mersault Investigation. Not only a complex conversation with the universally loved classic, it was also a brilliant existential work in its own right.

Come December I might find myself embroiled in some internal battle after all. Patrić and Drndić are leading the pack for sure but I'm also currently enjoying the latest Jesse Ball as well as two new novels from the Litnerd's Litnerd, Enrique Vila-Matas. A whole bunch of excellent writers have books slated for release over the coming months (Harper Lee, William T. Vollamnn, David Mitchell) and there are a fair few I just haven't had a chance to read (Hanya Yanagihara, Mark Z. Danielewski, Jim Shepard) so it may well be a tight race yet. May my heart be as full as my wallet will be empty!