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Monday, 15 October 2012

Drivel In Brief: Before the Booker 2012

I mentioned a few weeks ago that an offline friend had challenged me to read more contemporary literary fiction. And a few folks had e-poked me to blog more bookish things, which I immediately and enthusiastically began putting off, and putting off... until now, about an hour before the announcement of the winner of the Booker prize 2012, which is my last chance to SPEW ALL THE THOUGHTS*.

*'thoughts' may be stretching it <---- artistic licence, yo.


So this is kind of cheating because the shortlist came out weeks ago, but even before the longlist was announced I was fairly sure I would be cheering for Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies.  For stars-aligned-ish reasons: she's one of my favourite novelists (one of the few whose entire varied backlog I've tracked down and devoured); historical fiction is one of my favourite genres and one she particularly excels in (my introduction to Mantel was her richly multifocal French Revolution novel, A Place of Greater Safety and Bring up the Bodies shares that completely unpretentious and consummately precise dense prose style); early modern English history was my academic ghetto; and rehabilitations of historical 'villains' -- especially the practical backroom machiavellian types who, y'know, get shit done -- are another particularly strong literary kink; this book is composed of all those things and it considers them too -- there's nothing I fall for more quickly and more deeply than genuinely profound meta, about stories and histories, and their telling (so metametameta, then :P)
Unfortunately, as a sequel that continues her 2009 Booker-winning Wolf Hall in every way [did I mention I have a soft spot for the middle books of trilogies too?] its literary-qualities-aside chances of winning are about 0.0000000001%. The concluding volume might have a shot in 2016? XD

*EDIT* Mantel WON! :D


My runner-up favourites, which didn't make the shortlist:


Nicola Barker, The Yips -- another favourite writer -- this woman does dialogue and dark comedy (with a capital c and a small c and many a chaotically expletive c) with barmy panache. If you aren't sure she's your thing [though if you can put up with my kind of drivel I suspect you will find her v. readable] Wide Open is probably the best balance of representative and accessible. For me, Darkmans remains her richest offering so far.




Ned Beauman, The Teleportation Accident -- another deranged manic-comic historico-science-fictional satire, with thankfully a bit more heart than I expected. Ware if you hate high style, broad farce and extravert postmodernity. The protagonist is called Loeser and introduced as 'a total prick,' so....no refunds.






My favourite book which did make the shortlist but isn't Mantel's -- the kind of default reasoning that lies behind most Booker winners, as far as I can tell, so it has a proper shot :P -- is Alison Moore's The Lighthouse.
On the face of it, everything I steer clear of: a slim volume heavily freighted with portentous puff about hyumin-naychure-troofs-thereof on the back, whose action, such as it is, mostly consists of internal emotional involute-ish tangles, all in minimalist prose and a wide-spaced font. It is very much the typical lit fic piece I would never have bothered with were it not for Teh Challenge, and it's absolutely bloody brilliant. I finished it at 3am, emotionally shattered and philosophically shaken, and flipped right back to the beginning again. If there's one book you should try from this list, this is it. Especially if you like perfume.



The rest of the shortlist I would not back FOR REASONS:


Deborah Levy, Swimming Home -- this straddled Rachel Joyce's Harold Fry and Moore's Lighthouse and for me; while it highlighted the creaking of the plot and slightly hollow overreaching in the former, it was just totally outclassed by the latter, appearing slight and conventional in its turn. I did find all three about equally (and surprisingly) easy and pleasurable reads -- totally not taking 'difficulty' as a guarantee of depth here.



Which is why I can't really drivel about the current frontrunner, Will Self's Umbrella, the only book on this list I didn't finish. Because copious amounts of alcohol and a new lipstick were required to bribe me through the first 100 and the last 3 pages [personal rule] of this naked-imperial bollocks. At least I have a topical new example of 'not a book to be lightly tossed aside but flung with great force' (preferably via canon at end of ten-foot bargepole, aimed at deepest darkest crevasse on earth).





Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis -- a technically brilliant writing exercise (first novel from a poet), which is as much its weakness as strength for me -- too composed. Still worth it for the ride, even if heady hallucinatory underbelly trips aren't usually up your literary alley.




Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists was probably my biggest disappointment. I mean, I knew I hated Will Self going in, but I had heard such brilliant things about this writer and this book's setting (WWII to present day Malaya) and themes come only second to Thomas Cromwell in closeness to my heart. The contents are fascinating -- I've already recommended it to a few poco friends who've enjoyed it far more than I did; for most readers of this blog I think the diversions into the aesthetic discourses of Japanese gardens and tattooing would be v. appealing -- they were by far my favourite aspects of this book too. Sadly, the prose. It is clunky. Clunky like BL Gobsmacked is gloopy and Illamasqua powders are powdery: at times the tone-deafness achieves a kind of awe-inspiring platonic quintessence of clunk.




Rest of the longlisted-onlies: 


Michael Frayn, Skios -- because I'm a tricksy fox like that, here's a writer, a genre (farce) and settings (Greece, cultural institutions) I love....and a resounding meh of a book. There are mistaken identities and bed tricks and a plot that runs entirely on bad puns and two twin cab drivers called Spiros and Stavros. Sometimes even the lemoniest souffles will fall :(






Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry -- as mentioned above, likeable but just too slight, too neat, too Radio 4 (sorry, cheap shot -- and to be fair I can't do my makeup without R4 on). I have a feeling this might appeal to those who liked the concept of J.K. Rowling's Casual Vacancy but found it a bit...unremitting.






André Brink, Philida -- another book I would've read even without the litfic challenge, and would still recommend to most, but with some warnings I wish I'd've been given: while compelling and engaging and with some nice prosing, this is closer to The Help populism than to Coetzee-calibre artistry. And even the witty knitting metaphors (!) couldn't mask the sudden fizzling-out of story towards the end.




Sam Thompson, Communion Town has a totally-my-thing concept and a lot of good, just showoffy enough but not obnoxiouslyWillSelfish prose ventriloquism going on. But it aint no novel, it's most definitely a short story collection. In the longlist it sits closest to The Teleportation Accident, and despite the chaotic exuberance of that, it's Communion Town that left me (me!) calling for a bit more restraint. A bit more selective editing, perhaps? Good lord, this litfic stuff does broaden one's mind. But I maintain that many 'proper' (okay, marketed-as) spec-fic writers have done this kind of thing already, and done it better. In the 15 seconds before the winner announcement: Catherynne Valente, Jeff VanDerMeer, China Miéville, Michael Moorcook, Brian Aldiss....



Yeah, 'in brief' was really stretching it. Cookies for anyone who made it this far :D Have you read any of these or do you plan to? Any recs for more? (I'm about done with the Orange prize longlist now.) Or spiny fish you'd like to slap me with for dissing your homeboy Will. etc.

26 comments:

  1. ah excellent, cheers. The Lighthouse keeps coming up in my recommendations on Amazon but I didn't really fancy it, I think I'll give it a go. I started The Unlikely Pilgrimage... but for the same reasons as you I stopped it. I also have The Teleportation Accident lying about, Berlin in the 1920s was my academic ghetto but as yet I haven't read it. I am however reading Valley of the Dolls...

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  2. I want to tell you The Ligththouse is awesome, but I don't want to oversell it -- one of the best parts was the way it totally crept up on me. Teleportation would be an especially fun one to read after VotD, but hell I found it fun anyway. Ned Beauman is pretty close to me in age + background so it wasn't much of a stretch from laughing at the terrible jokes my friends already make (and....embody).

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  3. ok, I shall take your advice and read it. I love books that you have no expectations of then they blow you away, brilliant

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  4. This is superb. Please do more!

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    1. XD considering I got a basic like TEH DATE wrong. I had another 24 hours of typing dammit! We'll just pretend it's all coherent and grammatical and stuff, yeah?

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  5. Okay, The Lighthouse keeps popping up everytime I ask for book suggestions, so I think I finally need to just read it ;-)

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    1. I think you would like the Teleportation Accident, aly :D

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  6. What a fantastic post! I really enjoyed this and would love to read more bookish thoughts :).

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  7. Bravo! You make me want to read the ones that you liked. And I haven't picked up a non-manga book in a while :P

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    1. Well I need manga recs :P Please drop me an email :D I like all genres

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  8. I might scuttle out from my comforting sci-fi/fantasy/classics shell for long enough to read the lighthouse... maybe.

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    1. Shannon, those are my 'home' genres too :) I think you'd like the Mantel / Beauman ones for sure; v. curious to know whether the Lighthouse would convert others as it did me.

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  9. Great post! I really adore your posts about make up but until now I never felt that I should write so, but books... I love love love Mantel and both Wolf Hall and its sibling. I began to read Mantel with A Place of Greater Safety as well. By the way, did you read last week's New Yorker profile by MacFarquhar?

    I also liked Alison Moore. Now I have to read Nicola Barker as well.

    Thanks a lot!

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    1. I hadn't; thank you for mentioning it :) I feel the need to reread Mantel's memoir now.

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  10. I really enjoyed Wolf Hall so I probably will be picking up The Mantel one at some point. I hadn't read any of her novels before Wolf Hall, only essays (Girls want out is particularly vivid in my memory!)

    I only read Swimming Home from the list and I wasn't too impressed. The lighthouse is the other one that tickled my fancy when I read the summaries on Amazon so I'll get that too.

    More bookish posts please, I'd love to hear about what you normally read as all of my books seem to be Contemporary Literature or Crime, haha I love a good who-dunnit or Noir detective story!

    Caroline

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    1. It's funny how much I favour M's historicals (The Giant O'Brien too) considering I find her more modern novels and nonfic more immediately gut-wrenching. Please read Beyond Black with the lights up!

      I would love to have book recs from you! Especially lit fic as I am wandering quite blindly about at the moment. I tend to choose my reading for pleasure for their contrast to whatever stuff I HAVE to read for work at the time, such a mishmash :) My comfort genres are victorian novels, contemporary young adult, specfic, history and historicals, and pop physics / medicine :)

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    2. I'll start a board on pinterest with my favourites. I had a look at the book shelves and I was surprised to find that most of my favourite French stuff is 19th c. lit. So we may have common ground after all :)

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  11. Mmmm, early modern European history is my FAVORITE. :D

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    1. YOU're my favourite! Why does google hate your comments srsly? D:

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  12. Mantel won! Now I have more books to add to my long, long reading list.

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    1. I squealed :D If you were wondering what that strident sound was.

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  13. Hooray! I LOVED Wolf Hall (and BUTB, too, but Wolf Hall was extraordinary to me). I've been meaning to read A Place of Greater Safety for ages, now I will for sure.

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    1. It is structurally showier than WH/BUTB but gloriously dense. I see Mantel's planning a book about a play about the French Revolution after the Cromwell trilogy -- exciting!

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  14. Hurrah! I'm so glad that she won :-)

    A really wonderful post, Kate, that I'm looking forward to returning to once I've read the rest of the Booker list (trying to avoid spoilers). I'm behind with my reading so I've only read The Lighthouse and Swimming Home. (I've started and stopped Umbrella but will try again). I read Swimming Home in one sitting and experienced particularly vivid dreams that night! I don't think it's a very good book though. It collapses into nothingness. In contrast, I *loved* The Lighthouse and it's impossible to explain why. It's such a quiet, introspective, plain book but I loved every word of it. (The writing is pared down - everything is subtle and seems simple and I don't understand how it got under my skin so completely.) I'm still thinking about Futh and will certainly re-read The Lighthouse with great pleasure. It would have been great if a first time novelist had won but I think it may have put terrible pressure on her next book. I'm thrilled that they were bold enough to give the award to Mantel.

    (I went to listen to Mantel read from The Giant O'Brian (years ago) and she was as fascinating, warm and intelligent as I hoped. She gave over a great deal of time to answering questions and just seemed *generous* as well as funny. She was marvellous.)

    I'll try to think of some recs when I come back :-)

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    1. Oh Georgina *suppress inappropriate declarations of my love for you* I'm so glad someone else found the Futh as wonderful as I did -- her style is so limpid it's hard to even remember about things like writerly tricks let alone catch her at them.

      Generosity is one of my touchstone words too :D It's what I find so sorely lacking in W.Self -- all excess, no exuberance. You are so lucky to have heard M read from The Giant O'Brien -- did she do the Irish bits and all?

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