Since the late 1990s, I have taken an increasing interest in the Man Booker Prize. One's reading list is never too long and so I add all of the books shortlisted for the prize to my list, and have taken delight in the recent innovation of the long list, which now also gets added to my personal to-read list.
The Booker compulsion has grown and changed for me over the past few years. There was a time, once, when I would be satisfied to just note the winner and eventually get round to reading it once the queue for that book had died down a bit at the public library. That changed into feeling compelled to read the winner just after the prize announcement, even if it meant (gasp) having to buy the book. More recently, I have tried to read all the shortlisted books prior to the announcement of the prize. This has led to some very interesting conversations with my local librarian, who also follows the prize avidly. Last year was my best year to date - I had read 4 out of 6 of the shortlisted books before John Banville's The Sea grabbed the prize. (Unfortunately, The Sea was one of the two I hadn't yet read.)
This year, my compulsive reaction to the prize has changed somewhat. I've had a lack lustre reading year. I'm stalled on one title, and haven't greatly enjoyed many of the other things I've picked up. Three quarters of the way into the year (I keep my 'have-read' list by calendar year), I think I have been looking for bookish inspiration. So the day the longlist was announced, I went on a reading rampage.
My Rule #1 of reading - why buy it when you can get it from the library. To this end, I have strategically placed holds and recalls on about half of the books on the long list. Unfortunately, there are still about nine books which aren't available at any of my local libraries. But I'll just focus on the ones that are available for a start.
I usually can tick one or two things off as have-already-read when the longlist is announced, if I've been keeping up with my book reviews. This year, the only book on the longlist I'd read was Peter Carey's Theft: A Love Story. I am not a Carey conneisseur by any stretch, but I have read most of his books. Undoubtedly I think Theft is by far his best to date. There is one chapter in that book that I think may be the finest piece of writing on the modern Australian psyche ever written. (If I may be so bold as to say...)
The first book off the rank in my longlist reading frenzy was Nadine Gordimer's Get a Life. I admit I chose this one first because, of the two I acquired in my first 2006 longlist trip to the library, this one had the less embarrassing cover to be seen on the train with. I know that Gordimer is a well-established and well-appreciated author. However, I can't say I enjoyed the book at all. Her prose style was too loose, and lacking in fluidity. I had trouble concentrating enough to work out who was speaking when. I have also disliked most of the books set in South Africa that I have read of late, I'm not sure why. I thought the premise of the book was a bit lacking in vim. There was very little pulling me forward to read the book, other than my own desire to cross it off the list. Next!
Then I picked up Edward St Aubyn's Mother's Milk, the one with the nude painting on the cover. I had never read any of St Aubyn's books and was impressed with the first chapter of this one, in which a child describes his own birth. It was more than just a take on Dickens' "Chapter 1: I Am Born" - the characterisation of the narrative voice was fantastic and I couldn't wait to find out what happened. Unfortunately, the book was told from the points of view of 4 different family members and I utterly detested the other 3 characters. And the development of the character I liked only seemed to push him further to the background, while the storyline focussed on the 2nd child, who was frightfully intelligent, a bit like that baby in Family Guy. Overall satisfaction - very little.
Next up was Sarah Waters' The Night Watch. I have listened to two other books by Waters in audio format, and have always been completely spellbound by her tales. She does excellent historical fiction with a lesbian angle on events. While the other two books I've read were set in the 19th century, The Night Watch was set during and just after World War II - the main scene was London during the Blitz. I found it fascinating to think of London during that time, and I loved the portrayal of the way those who didn't go off to fight in the war banded together to keep things running at home. Waters' prose is so completely and effortlessly readable, her characters so fully developed, that her books end up feeling like nothing but a bloody good yarn. She doesn't use narrative tricks or gimmicks, she's a straightforward no-nonsense kind of writer. This is deceptive. Reading Waters, it's easy to forget about the incredible amount of painstaking research that must go into the development of her characters and scenes. I doubted while reading the book that it was prize-winning material, because it seemed so effortless - but now I'm nearly ready to put my money on it. We'll see.
Today I just finished the next in my longlist tirade - James Lasdun's Seven Lies. The narrative voice in this book was a bit too stilted for my liking, but the book is told in the first person by an East German emigre to the United States, and perhaps the stiltedness of the voice is intentional. There was only one point in the book where the prose really lifted to be vivid and engaging - the moment that our main character describes his arrival in New York City in 1982. Perhaps that too is intentional, the contrast between the drab eastern bloc existence of our character versus his new life in america. In the end, I don't think the character was well enough developed to justify the type of story it turned out to be, but I liked the premise - the number of lies engendered by the telling of one lie in order to make everything seem like the truth.
Today the short list was announced. I haven't seen any press about it yet but I think there will be a ripple of shock going through the Booker devotee world - The two authors favoured to win (Peter Carey and David Mitchell) have not made the cut. But even MORE SHOCKING is the fact that, thanks to my longlist stint over the past month, I have read TWO of the shortlisted books so far, not to mention that another TWO are sitting on my hall table, checked out from the library last week. The remaining 2 do pose a bit of a problem - I am 16th in the queue at the library for Kate Grenville's The Secret River, and my local library does not stock Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men (though another library across town that I'm a member of does have it...)
As has been pointed out on the Matilda blog (great source for people interestsed in Aussie literature and also home of a very comprehensive Booker Prize site), this appears to be a banner year for the Aussies (possibly the first time 2 of us have made it onto the shortlist), and a banner year for women (four of the shortlisted authors are female - bravissima!)
Here are the shortlisted books:
The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai - on my hall table, about to be read
The Secret River, Kate Grenville - An Aussie! I'm 16th in the queue
Carry Me Down, M.J. Hyland - Another Aussie! I have this on my hall table too
In the Country of Men, Hisham Matar - hmm, must get my hands on this one somewhere
Mother's Milk, Edward St Aubyn - Read it, didn't love it
The Night Watch, Sarah Waters - Read it, loved it, depending on how the others pan out, my money's on Waters
What with all this reading I've had to put aside my Baltic Sea Stole a bit and work on some stocking stitch projects. Details to come soon!