Lincoln in the Bardo, Toby in the Lake District

This is where I have been this week.

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After a very long time without a holiday we finally managed to get away and have the most perfectly tranquil few days that I think it is possible to have. It ticked all the boxes on my short list of boxes to tick. Nice coffee, nowhere to be, nowhen to be there, a good book, and a nice view.

We got out a little bit, but November in the north of England isn’t always the best getting-out conditions. We did manage a little walking, taking our inadequate footwear on an adventurous hill climb along steep ravines that eventually took us to our destination; a waterfall with a rainbow in it.

Here’s the water fall with the rainbow in it;

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But never mind the holiday snaps, what did I read?

I read this years Booker prize winner, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. This was one of the short-listed books that I wanted to read but I didn’t get around to it until after it had won. The structure of this book is astonishing. It’s like a faux montage of historical texts, snipped and bound together to create a wider view of a short period of time during the American civil war when President Lincoln’s son died. Early on there are some lovely moments when the historical texts contradict each other a little, throwing doubt of the accuracy of any of the reports that followed. The book then seems to become a charming Shakespearian tale of the ghosts that inhabit the tomb that the president’s son has been placed in. All these elements coalesce into a story about loss and grief and letting go and moving on.

The two elements, the American civil way and the grief of losing a child (as well as the grief of losing a father) come together in some brilliant scenes where the ghosts inhabit the president and we see inside his head a little, but still with the lens of doubt about the authenticity of the reports we are given. And the way the story focuses on such a short span of time and uses that to muse on a much larger historical subject is masterful. Simultaneously small and sweeping in scope. I can’t think of another book I have read that is like this one.

And reading it in such a condensed way was lovely. It’s not often you can sit and read next to a lake for hours on end. Oh go on then, one more holiday snap.

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Looking In Both Directions, Autumn by Ali Smith

This week I finally got around to reading Autumn by Ali Smith. I have been meaning to read it for a while because over the years I have been hearing an increasing volume of good things about her but because this was known as being her Brexit novel I ended up putting it off. I followed Brexit closely last year and so by the time this book came out I had become a little burnt out on the subject.

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I had a similar thing with Howard Jacobson’s Donald Trump novel, Pussy. I went to see him talk at Cambridge literary festival and picked up a copy but still haven’t got around to reading it. There is just such a lot of Donald Trump in my life right now that what I need is a little less.

From what I understand both of these books were written with a lot of immediacy. Jacobson talked about going to his desk in a fury after the US election to get on with his book, like he was trying to get the rawest form of his own reaction to events down on paper before it became diluted. There will be plenty of time for objective analysis, but you can only have your first reaction once.

So I was expecting Autumn to be a bit like this. An outward looking, political sort of a book. An angry product of an angry time. And there is some of that in it. There are little references to real events in the real world that are still fresh in the mind, indeed that are still actively ongoing, and will be for some time. But it isn’t entirely like that. The scope of a novel about a major political event is going to be broad and far reaching, but the scope of Autumn is narrower, focusing as much on the small events of one person’s life. Brexit lurks in the background like a sinister shadow looming over everything, rarely mentioned explicitly, while the story of an old friendship unfolds. It’s a beautiful novel, and deserving of its place on the Booker longlist.

I was thinking recently that you can possibly think of books as either being outward or inward looking. There’s lots of ways categorising books (fiction/non-fiction, genres etc) but that the separation of books by whether they are exploring the world or exploring the person might be useful. Whether politics is the point of the book, or psychoanalysis. Science or meditation. I’m still trying to figure this idea out, it’s still only hazily formed in my head, but I thought it might be a useful way to think about writing at the point of writing. In which direction are you facing when you start putting the words down on the page? Are you writing about the world, or what it is like to be in the world?

But Autumn is a novel that is successfully looking in both directions at once. A book that isn’t just about politics, but the impact of politics on people, and of the impact of people on politics. The big events that inform our little lives. The narrow focus against a wider backdrop.

Harold Fry and the 2012 Booker

As with every year when the Booker prize long-list and the subsequent shortlist are announced I take a look, ostensibly for the purpose of finding new things to read but always in the hope of seeing something on there that I have already read. The usual turn of events is that the list features some books that I had seen in the bookshop but, for one reason or another, neglected to actually read. I don’t know what it is I am hoping to achieve, whether some sense of keeping up with developing literature or simply the thrill of being there first. I suppose on the one hand I quite admire the Booker lists, and on the other don’t want to have my reading choices dictated to me. Childish, I know.

This year though the long-list featured a book I had in fact already read. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. A speculative purchase from a Saturday meander in the local Waterstone’s. Not only had I already read it, I had thought quite highly of it, and even, if distant memory serves, thrown off a nonchalant tweet about it. Had I struck the Holy Grail of speculative book purchases and incidentally bought and read a future Booker winner before the judges had even been assembled? No, as it turns out. It didn’t make it onto the shortlist. I’m not going to say it should have made it onto the shortlist. As much as I liked it I haven’t read any of the other 11 books (yet, I am currently enjoying Will Self’s Umbrella,) and it would be, I think, ridiculous to state which book should win without having read them all. Part of the Booker’s magic is in the controversy it courts, and that controversy exists in the contradiction between making definitive conclusions about something fundamentally indefinite. The Booker is decided by a panel of arbiters who judge it arbitrarily. How else can it be judged? By my mind being the twelfth best novel of the year is an achievement markedly similar to being the best.

But it seems with every stage of the Booker’s ever shortening list of finalists the ones that don’t make it fall away drastically. I don’t have the numbers. I have no real idea of what the sales figures are like between longlisted and shortlisted novels. But this is how it appears from my distant perspective anyway; fail to make the cut and fall into oblivion. Which seems a shame to me. The difference between a long-listed novel and a shortlisted one is not the difference between quality and rubbish; they will all be of quality. It is, I know, a terrible suggestion that would take away more than it adds, but I would much prefer a process that ends at the shortlist. These novels are remarkable. They all deserve our attention. That one is better than all the others is a truth that will vary from reader to reader.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry pulls off a deft trick with its ending. The climax doesn’t build with a rising crescendo, it drops like a great lump. It feels like a fairy tale, but it isn’t one. Fry’s journey feels wondrous, but we are never promised wonder. There is a magical element, of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, but no actual magic. Without wanting to spoil it, because as one of the twelve best books of 2012 you perhaps might want to go and read it, when the ending comes the novel almost pointedly reminds us that we were never promised magic. It lets our imaginations wander and come to all kinds of fanciful conclusions, but come the end the novel gently reminds us; we were never promised anything.

If a novel can pull off one great moment in 350 pages then it is worth reading.

But then, just as the great lump that is Harold Fry’s ending has settled, the final page has a little something extra that bring all the wonder crashing back again. Harold Fry is a book with two great moments and isn’t just an early casualty of the Booker race, it is one of the best 12 novels written in 2012.

25/02/2013 – Reading this post back I feel obliged to point at that The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry has not fallen into oblivion. It has been in the top ten sales charts as listed in the Guardian for a while now. Utterly deserved, or course, and evidence, it seems, that the process of stripping half the selected books out does not damage them so severely.

You’re all winners

All the talk recently about Julian Barnes Booker win and all the questions it has thrown up (much the same questions that seem to be thrown up every year,) makes me wonder why the Booker prize even has a winner. I’m not really sure what it achieves. This isn’t like the time I tried to convince people that the Olympics would be improved if they set a target on each event and gave a gold medal to anyone that hits it, (like say, a gold medal for anyone that runs a hundred meters in eleven seconds or less.) My Olympics idea was a joke, even if people did seem to think I was being serious. But with the Booker, and other prizes of an artistic nature, it might make a little more sense.

At least with the hundred meter sprint you can’t deny that the winner deserved to win. The Booker is judged arbitrarily on subjective qualities. It’s not surprising that people don’t always agree. I thought the Booker tried to get around some of the problems by stating that the contest is judged solely on the quality of the book, without taking into consideration that career of the author, but there is still often question over whether that really is the case. I’m not saying Barnes didn’t deserve to win, I thought Sense of an Ending was an excellent book but I didn’t read all of the others on the shortlist. But there did seem to be a sense of Barnes win being overdue, and if the prize is judged on the strength of the book solely that that wouldn’t make sense. Of course, making the shortlist four times does, at the very least, suggest the kind of excellence required to win.

Every year I am keen to see which books are on the shortlist, and every year I couldn’t give a stuff which one wins. It just doesn’t seem important. It doesn’t tell us which book is the best, not really. It just tells us which book the judges thought was the best. And that’s a different thing. I’m not saying they get it wrong, I’m just not sure that using the word ‘best’ to describe one novel out of six which were all considered good enough to be on the shortlist is a useful thing to do. Why not just do away with having a winner at all? Make the announcement of the shortlist the big finale to the whole affair. It’s not surprising if more than one book in a year can be considered excellent. Why then worry about which is most excellent?

I expect the point of the Booker is to promote great writing. It gets people reading, and talking about writing and writers. The shortlist does that. Picking a winner tends to just leave people wondering about what the judges criteria were. It gets people arguing about whether readability is a quality of a great novel, of if a novel of 150 pages is really a novel at all.

As part of last years World Book Day there was a program that selected a group of writers of merit, discussed the books, discussed the choices, but didn’t get bogged down in wondering which of them was the best of the group. That seemed good to me. All the writers on that list were winners. When I pitched my Olympics idea I was accused of trying to dumb down, of trying to appease people who weren’t winners and just placate people. Not an unfair criticism of what I hasten to remind was only ever a joke suggestion. But the Booker isn’t the Olympics. No one sits down to write a novel with intention of winning a prize. Excellence should be applauded, great books ought to be celebrated, but worrying about which book is the best of the best just doesn’t seem worth it.

Summer’s gone

Seems summer has finally ended. Last Sunday, against all expectation of how my Sunday’s usually happen, I was in a forest in Rugby with some friends playing laser-tag for a stag-do and worrying that I didn’t have any sun-cream on. This weekend we put the heating on and I had to wear a coat when I went out. Not that I’m sad about it. There comes a point during Summer and Winter when I get tired of the weather and begin to pine for its opposite. I am more than ready for an extra blanket on the bed and trying to find my gloves in the mornings.

So the booker prize short-list came out and I had a look through for what I fancied reading. There were three that appealed to me, two of which I have since read. The first, Snowdrops by AD Miller, was a book I had seen on the shelf a while back and almost bought but ended up buying something else instead. I had fancied a thriller since playing LA Noire on the xbox and when I finally got around to reading one I went for a well-regarded classic, The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy. So when I saw Snowdrops on the booker long-list I was reminded of it and bought a copy on my kindle. It wasn’t quite the book I expected it to be. There was a lot of discussion around about the booker judging panel perhaps being more drawn to crime and thrillers this year so I went into Snowdrops with an expectation of spies and stuff. My expectation was wrong but the book didn’t disappoint. It’s the story of a slightly hapless English lawyer in Moscow and how he gets caught up with a pair of sexy Russian girls and a property scam they are perpetrating. I have no idea how realistic the portrayal of Moscow is – never having been there – but it’s strongly and evocatively written. The simple plot actually relieves some of the problems I have found in other thrillers; namely that plot, in an effort to be intriguing, becomes overwhelming.

The other booker short-listed book I read was The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. I had never read any of his stuff before, but he comes with a lofty reputation. I read the book in very short order. It’s not long, only 150 pages, but it’s also very hard to stop reading. It skips along, scything out decades of superfluous story in order to remain on point. The point mainly being an examination of an event from when the protagonist – Tony – was young, many years later when he is older. The tacit acknowledgement right at the beginning regarding the reliability of memory and historical fact announces early on that our narrator is going to be, somewhat classically, unreliable. He reveals himself to himself as the novel progresses toward the – I hesitate to use the word twist, which doesn’t seem to quite fit even if it is apt.

So, very good books both. The third book that I fancy from the short-list – Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman may have to wait because Jeffrey Eugenides The Marriage Plot finally appeared this week. I started reading it, only about 20 pages, before I decided to read Sense of an Ending first, but now I can’t wait any more. It’s been eight years or so since Middlesex, I feel like I have waited long enough. And very soon Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 is set to arrive in the post, and that’s another book I won’t be able to hold off of reading. A while ago I decided that I would not read two books by the same author back to back like I used to. When I was younger if I found a writer I liked I would read that writer exclusively until I either ran out of books or lost interest. I gave a large chunk of my formative years to Terry Pratchett and Anne Rice. By insisting on switching author every book I read more widely. In anticipation of IQ84 I have been holding off of the remaining books on Murakami’s back-list that I haven’t read. Murakami’s books are always a treat. I deliberately avoided reading Kafka on the Shore for a long time, until I really needed it. I ended up reading it while I was recovering from my brain haemorrhage. I was glad I waited.

So between The Marriage Plot and IQ84 I couldn’t be happier that summer is finally making way for winter; it gives me a great excuse for staying in.