2011 MAN BOOKER LONG LIST IS ANNOUNCED…& guess who made it on???

The long list was announced this Tuesday.  Did you notice #4???

  • Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending
  • Sebastian Barry On Canaan’s Side
  • Carol Birch Jamrach’s Menagerie
  • Esi Edugyan Half Blood Blues
  • Yvvette Edwards A Cupboard Full of Coats
  • Alan Hollinghurst The Stranger’s Child
  • Stephen Kelman Pigeon English
  • Patrick McGuinness The Last Hundred Days
  • A.D. Miller Snowdrops
  • Alison Pick Far to Go
  • Jane Rogers The Testament of Jessie Lamb
  • D.J. Taylor Derby Day

I’ve been interested in Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman since seeing it in the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt catalogue.  And I always love Julian Barnes. But, no surprise, my vote goes to The Sisters Brothers.

Anyone else have a longlist favorite?

Not Untrue & Not Unkind by Ed O’Loughlin (Advance Review Copy)

I suppose the plot of Not Untrue & Not Unkind went sideways for me at the end of chapter 3, when it suddenly became something unexpected.  Zaire is falling apart. The tight-knit band of journalists at the center of the story head in the direction of the abandoned presidential villa in search of some “bang-bang” (cant for “action” or “fighting”).  At least that is what we’re led to believe… until they reach the palace and begin looting for souvenirs.  “You do realize  that by rights this stuff belongs to the people of Zaire?” one says as she stuffs perfume flasks into a pillowcase.   “It’s the thing to do,” answers the story’s narrator.  “It’s a story to tell afterwards.”

The passage that followed had me hooked.

Outside the squall had passed but a wet wind was spilling from the highlands.  A half-dozen soldiers in Kagame-brand wellingtons were huddled in the shelter of the gatehouse, watching through what was left of its windows as we came across the lawn.  Tommo and Fine were waddling ahead with a heavy crate of bottles swinging between them, but when they saw the soldiers their pace slowed and Beatrice took the lead.  She was carrying one of my clinking pillow cases, smiling brightly, and as we trudged past the gatehouse she gave the soldiers a cheerful greeting and moved on towards our car.  We were out of the gate, almost clear, when a voice called after us.  A soldier stepped out of the gatehouse and stood there, waving one hand palm downwards.  He looked a little older than the others and his rifle was slung muzzle down to keep out the rain.  He took a step or two after us, out of the lee of the gatehouse, and then he stopped, shivering in the wind.  The faces of his comrades stared from the window behind us, indifferent with fatigue. The soldier considered us, his face screwed up, anxious, and then he spoke, very politely, in good mission-school English.  Could we please tell the other mzungus not to come here again, he said.  There were Interahamwe near by, and the area was not safe.  And besides, he said, someone had been looting.  He looked sadly at my bundle.  Looters, he said, could be shot.

The narrator of Not Untrue & Not Unkind is Owen Simmons, a journalist who spent the mid-1990’s as a foreign correspondent in Africa.  Now (a decade later) securely ensconced behind a newsroom desk, the death of a colleague causes him to look back on his former life and remember the friends who were a part of it.   Owen has a low opinion of his younger self (one we come to share) portraying him as wet behind the ears, with a chip on his shoulder and a romanticized image of his life.  He doesn’t even seem all that talented – at finding stories or writing them up afterwards.  It’s the author’s, and the book’s, greatest strength.  Ed O’Loughlin has developed a character, a whole cast of characters, that most readers will not find sympathetic.  Yet they are not unsympathetic.  The author asks us to withhold  judgment – just like in the lines of the Larkin poem from which the book gets its title – and it is surprisingly easy to comply.  Because his characters feel real  – each with his or her own fully developed, unique personality.  Fine, chasing his Pulitzer; Tommo, the earnest photographer; sophisticated Laura; hard, cynical Brereton and the enigmatic Beatrice who Owen falls in love with.   There is something of the mercenary in each.

O’Loughlin’s entire plot builds towards one final, tragic event  which hangs over the narrative like a dark cloud.  To be honest, for the purposes of the story, it’s the only event that matters. The chapters leading up to it are stuffed full of anecdotes, character development and beautiful prose.  Sentences that have been scrubbed clean of emotional content jump from one brutal scene of war to another.  And if some decision or memory is momentarily clouded by the narrator’s perspective, 10 years on Owen seems very much aware of his human frailty.  He makes it clear that acts of humanity and heroism took place despite the characters’ best intentions, not because of them.  The men and women who inhabit his story are not missionaries or idealists. They are more akin to tourists, sending dispatches home on the atrocities happening in Africa for general (and safe) consumption with coffee.  Everything is about detachment and if the novel does have a flaw it is that we are left to some extent feeling ambiguous. So much so that when the big secret (because of course it would have to be a secret) on which the story pivots is finally revealed – it has become anti-climactic for both Owen and for us.

Not Untrue & Not Unkind reminded me of the film Blood Diamond – without  redemption at its end.  Which is why I’m not surprised that the novel received mixed reviews when longlisted for the Man Booker last year. Personally, I found it to be  an impressive achievement for a first novel, if problematic.  Cartwright, the character whose death is the impetus for Owen’s reminiscences, always felt superfluous.  And the plot does sag a bit in the middle – just a bit.  There are too few feel good moments and the fact that nothing is explicitly labeled as morally right or wrong can be frustrating (usually I prefer my books to take a stand).  But the story is intriguing, the prose beautifully constructed and Ed O’Loughlin kept me reading until the end.  I enjoyed Not Untrue & Not Unkind and I believe that if others don’t go into it expecting the Africa from The Poisonwood Bible, No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency or even Out of Africa, they will as well.

Publisher:  The Overlook Press, New York.  (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 59020 295 1

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Taking Bets on the Booker

Well, the 2010 Man Booker Prize Long List is up. I’m not sure if you pay attention to the Man Booker Prize, but if you do (or are interested in doing so) I recommend the following blogs – all of which have traditionally done a wonderful and thorough job of covering the books that make it onto the long & short lists – DoveGreyReader, KevinfromCanada & MookseandtheGripes.

Personally, I like the Booker Prize.  First off it get’s a lot more attention than the literary prizes given out in the U.S. (with the possible exception of the Pulitzer).  Second, it’s quirky.  Every year brings a new panel of judges and so, in theory at least, the books can be radically different from year to year.   2010’s longlist doesn’t disappoint.  (Insert disclaimer here: I haven’t read any of these books, these are just my initial impressions formed from what I’ve heard). The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas is actually an older novel from Australia – published in the UK in time to qualify for this year’s prize.  The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner seems like a chicklit version of Less than Zero – I can’t really figure that one out.   Peter Carey has a shot at the triple crown with Parrot and Olivier in AmericaRoom, Emma Donoghue’s novel, takes the reader into a basement world inspired by the  Fritzl and Kampusch cases.  Skippy Dies by Paul Murray just looks nifty…

And so, without further ado here’s the list.

  • Parrot & Olivier in America by Peter Carey
  • Room by Emma Donoghue
  • The Betrayal by Helen Dunmore
  • In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut
  • The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
  • The Long Song by Andrea Levy
  • C by Tom McCarthy
  • The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
  • February by Lisa Moore
  • Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
  • Trespass by Rose Tremain
  • The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
  • The Stars in the Bright Sky by Jonathan Cape

If you’ve read one of finalists, or think the judges committed a gross oversight by overlooking you favorite from 2010, feel free to get it off you chest in the comments section.  It’ll give us all something to talk about while we wait for the bookies to post the odds.  From what I’ve heard, David Mitchell is a favorite going in… but you can’t underestimate Peter Carey…

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Embedded with the Ottomans – THE SIEGE by Ismail Kadare

The Siege is a translation to the n-th degree.  Written in Albanian in 1970, translated into French in 1994, and from the French into English in 2008.  It’s like a game of telephone and I can’t help wondering how much was changed with each retelling.  Is the book that won the first Man Booker International Prize still the same book that the author intended it to be?

Doubts aside, The Siege by Ismail Kadare is wonderful.  It describes a fictitious, 15th century siege of an Albanian fortress by the Ottoman army.  The novel follows members of the army- smoothly transitioning from one character to another.  We see into the minds of the campaign’s Chronicler, the Astrologer, the Quartermaster, the Pasha (who leads the army) and his harem.   The fates of a cast of secondary characters are described as well, as they emerge from and return to the legions of nameless men.  The author pieces all of these descriptions together into a narrative that reads more like a historical account than a heroic epic.  The prose is straightforward and un-embellished, the story focusing on logistics rather than battles.  Tunneling, artillery, supply lines and siege tactics are shown preference over scenes of battle (though we are given some of that as well).  The overall feel is of being embedded in with the troops.

Intermittently, Kadare changes the perspective from which he tells his story.  The besieged Albanians speak in the collective voice, taking on the haunting quality of a Greek chorus.  It’s a powerful device, emphasizing the cultural distance between the Albanians and the Ottomans, and squarely placing our sympathies with the former.  In the Albanian segments the account of events is given in the first person, whereas the Ottoman side of the story is told through an omniscient narrator.  After long passages of observing activities on the ground,  the same events are described as they are seen and interpreted from the height of the fortress’s walls.

At the first beat of their drums, the sight that greeted our eyes was unbearable.  Such madness we had never imagined – neither in the orgies of ancient times, whose memory has come down to us through the generations, nor in the wildest carnival nights in our own villages.  Shouting, screaming, praying and dancing, men offered themselves up for sacrifice, made exhibitions of themselves which, as we were to learn later on, severed heads carried on talking as if still in delirium; soldiers wailed as if they were night owls and banged their drums dementedly.  All those noises wafted up to our castle like stinking vapors.

The light of the moon seemed to trouble and excite them at the same time.  What we saw spread out beneath us was Asia in all its mysticism and barbarity…

Kadare does this 360-degree style of narrative well. The novel carries a sense of movement.  The reader physically explores the camp, wanders from section to section, into tents, down tunnels, up onto the walls and then back down again.   There are defined geographical parameters.  (For example, you do not follow the akinxhis, or raiders, out of the camp and into the countryside.  Instead you watch them leave and listen to their news when they return, which in many ways is better).  But within the story’s borders there is a sense of space and layout.  Kadare created an universe in a bubble.  In my experience, this isn’t an easy feat for an author to pull off – the total immersion into a period and a way of life that no longer exists.

There is some action in The Siege, but not a lot by film standards.  There’s even less suspense, and absolutely no glory.  The overall pacing is slow.  But there was never a point where I was bored or wanted to put the book aside.  Quite the opposite.  I’m happy to say that a quick look-up on Amazon showed a whole slew of Ismail Kadare books available in translation.

Publisher: Cannongate Books, London, 2009
ISBN:  978 1 84767 122 6

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The 2009 Man Booker Prize Winner… & My Apologies to Canada

So Hilary Mantel won the Booker Prize…   I don’t think that came as a big surprise to anyone who has been reading the press for her novel Wolf Hall.  Or kept an eye on the Bookies.  I’m just thrilled because it means I can put aside The Children’s Book without guilt (or with less guilt) and admit defeat… at least for now.

And I almost forgot about the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist which was announced today…

  • The Bishop’s Man by Linden MacIntyre
  • The Disappeared by Kim Echlin
  • Fall by Colin McAdam
  • The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon
  • The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels

I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read any of these books and I’m not familiar with any of the authors.  But my review of Amphibian goes up tomorrow… so perhaps my support of another Canadian author will make up for my neglect.