Tag Archives: Arundhati Roy

The Man Booker Prize Longlist

Okay, so I uploaded a photo of the Longlist a couple of week or so ago. This photo here, from The Guardian:

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Since then, I’ve managed to get my hands on half a dozen of the list. Not read them yet but I’ve got hold of them!

What I thought I’d do is read the first page of each and give me humble thoughts. So, firstly, the beautifully bound The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth.

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IMG_5100-0.JPG No prizes for guessing the most obvious thing here! As I fear many people would say, my stepson’s response was

“It’s very hard to read”

and my wife’s was

“There’s crappy spelling.”

It appears that Kingsnorth has set this, his debut novel, specifically in 1066. I have no problem with historical fiction: I love Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies as well as Jim Crace’s Harvest and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, last year’s winner, both of which were historical. C J Sansom, Shardlake series are fully enjoyable. But none of these attempted this faux-archaic language as the novel

is written entirely in its own language: my interpretation of Old English, recreated for modern eyes and ears.

Well, that’s jolly clever; it is a brave decision. And, I think, a wrong decision. The story, according to Kingsnorth’s website is set during the Norman invasion as an Englishman’s familiar world is destroyed by the invaders, which is no doubt represented by the “great wind” in the opening page when “all wolde be blaec after and for all time”. Which does sound very similar to Crace’s narrative from last year’s Shortlist.

But why create that language barrier between your reader and what sounds like a gripping story? I have a Literature degree from Cambridge; I’ve studied Chaucer. And it’s not an easy read! To say the least. And not only that, but eliminating all words of a French-Latinate etymology may create an earthy narrative voice but is also likely to adversely affect the lyricism of the writing.

I may be wrong.

I hope I’m wrong because it does sound like it could be a great story.

But I imagine it will be one of those books many people start from a sense of obligation and never finish.

Next, let’s look at Orfeo by Richard Powers.

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IMG_5092.JPG Now I bought this one in paperback rather than (or actually in addition to) electronically for one simple reason: I’d locked myself out of the house and had to pass a couple of hours in Costa before Mrs P came home to let me back in! So I have read a bit more of this than the others.

It brings us back to the modern day: our protagonist is a retired music professor with a hobbyist’s interest in biochemistry. Which, following the death of his dog, attracts the attention of Homeland Security and he finds himself investigated as a potential bioterrorist. A good premise with the potential for a lot of comedy, actually!

In this opening page, we do come across mismatched jargons: musical and chemical (lexuses? lexi? lexa? lexus?) vocabularies dance together as the

nucleotides … fall in line like enlisted men for a five am reveille

and there’s a certain charm to the description of the pipetting of

no more colorless liquid than a hoverfly might take from a sprig of bee balm

albeit that droplet is then described – somewhat clumsily in my opinion – as a “dollop” in the next line. To me, a dollop is a large quantity of something thrown somewhat carelessly about. It puts me in mind of a prison (or school) canteen serving mashed potato. It sounds almost onomatopoeic, even if its original meaning was more pastoral. In any event, it jars with the description of the droplet.

The narrative continues to interweave the current misunderstanding with Homeland Security with a Bildungsroman of Els childhood and education. It’s enjoyable enough: unlike Kingsnorth’s novel, I got through a fair proportion of it in the 90 minutes I had. I suspect my lack of knowledge of music, rhythm and chemistry may be to blame, but I wasn’t gripped by it. The narrative voice was a little distant for my liking.

Moving on to The Lives Of Others by Neel Mukherjee.

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IMG_5098.JPG Now, I have only read the first page of this so, beyond the blurb I have no idea of where the novel is going. But there’s a power to that opening page which I love: the harshness of the sun that “burns his blood dry” and the irony of his “lingering grain of hope” for the monsoon. There’s a sparseness to the sentences here which captures the harshness of the world and which isn’t undermined by that metaphorical imagery.

The blurb for this one describes it as

An epic saga telling the story of a Bengali family in Calcutta – exploring a family that is decaying as the society around it fractures, and one young man who tries to reimagine his place in the world.

From this, I anticipate a contrast and conflict between the abject poverty that we see in this opening page and the opulence of, perhaps the ruling classes. I do have a penchant for Indian Literature and post-colonial writing from Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Kiran Desai, Rohinton Mistry, V. S. Naipaul, Vikram Chandra and Arundhati Roy to name a few. So, this one I’m looking forward to seeing on the Shortlist.

It feels like it has been a while since there was a non-Anglo-Saxon Man Booker winner (was it Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger?)

Next is The Narrow Road To The Deep North which is an lovely title and conjured up images of journeys into a mythical and rather British past. Which would be completely and utterly wrong.

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The novel by Richard Flanagan

tells the story of Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor haunted by a wartime love affair with his uncle’s wife. Post war, he finds his growing celebrity as a war hero at odds with his sense of his own failings and guilt.

Again, there is a vividness to the imagery here which is delicious: the description of the crying’s rhythm as a noise which

reminded him of a rabbit’s hind legs thumping the ground as it is strangled by a snare

is particularly striking but what I love in this opening page is the unfolding of the memory: light interrupted by shadow which becomes a shape, then an arm, then a person.

Our final two nominees – the last two that I have anyway – appear to be curiously similar: two somewhat rambling Bildungsromans written from the point of view of two female characters.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler opens not dissimilarly to The Narrow Road To The Deep North as our narrator tell us of her first memory, preserved in a home movie.

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IMG_5104.JPG There is something beautiful about the way this simple home movie slides into the profundity of a fairytale, the worthless piece of quartz transforms in memory and imagination to a diamond. And perception and the language used to create and convey that perception may be important in this novel: what we don’t realise from this page is that the sister is a chimpanzee.

Meet the Cooke family: Mother and Dad, brother Lowell, sister Fern, and our narrator, Rosemary, who begins her story in the middle. She has her reasons. “I spent the first eighteen years of my life defined by this one fact: that I was raised with a chimpanzee,” she tells us. “It’s never going to be the first thing I share with someone. I tell you Fern was a chimp and already you aren’t thinking of her as my sister. But until Fern’s expulsion, I’d scarcely known a moment alone. She was my twin, my funhouse mirror, my whirlwind other half, and I loved her as a sister.”

There is a Q & A session with Karen Joy Fowler on the book and her ideas for it here.

The book which has most caught my eye, ear and imagination, though, is this one:

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Our narrator here is Ruth Swain, sick with some undefined illness and closeted in the attic room recounting her and her family’s lives as well as searching for her father amongst the books.

There’s an interview with Niall Williams about this book on Radio 4’s Open Book here.

We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling.

This is a book steeped in language and literature and teeming with vivid imagery

the throat of the river laughed, realising what a peculiar thing was a father and daughter

and a genuinely joyful comedic language. The episode where Jesus is stolen from the Nativity is wonderful:

By this time the whole school was on the side of the kidnappers and false sightings were announced hourly. Jesus was in the Chemistry Lab. He was in the Girls’ Changing Room before Games. He was taking French Oral with the Sub Miss Trigot.
That lad is everywhere, Thomas Halvey said.

He is eventually replaced for Mass with “a lamb on whose forehead someone had taped the word ‘Jesus’.”

This book has a lyricism that makes it stand out: the sparkle of a real diamond. As well quirky self-aware narrator. It seems to explore and tease the heart of any writing: the relationship between the writer and reader. It reminds me of nothing so much as The Life And Times Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, along with a smattering of Dickens, both of whom are explicitly referenced in the text itself.

Is it a little too knowing and smug? Is the description of Faha a little too cliched and romanticised? A little too Sunday Evening television? Possibly some people would think so but nothing has grated on me so far. It is a book that has sung.

So, my rank list so far would look like this:

1. Niall Williams, History Of The Rain
2. Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
3. Neel Mukherjee, The Lives Of Others
4. Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road To The Deep North
5. Richard Powers, Orfeo
6. Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake

However, this is an incredibly superficial assessment of only a portion of the books on the Longlist.

Good luck to you all!

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Seven Types of Reader

Apparently there are only seven plots in the entire world… and also seven types of readers! A certain sense of symmetry there!

Click here to read the original article – from quite a while ago – but these are my thoughts.

1. The Book Thief

Okay. Hands up. It’s a fair cop. This is me. I have on my book shelf a number of books that originated elsewhere. My old school library. Friends. Work book swap shelves.

I am in fair company. Apparently there is a description of a hobbit in The Lord Of The Rings who

was a great borrower of books and worse than usual at returning them.

The name of this kleptomaniac hobbit would have escaped me without the search function of my ebook: he is Huge Bracegirdle. Google was no help as it is bloated with filmic rather than literary hobbits. But – returning to the point – this book-pilfering hobbit who occupies about three lines in the book is apparently intended to be a self-portrait of J. R. R. Tolkien himself.

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And it’s not my fault! The books, the stories sing to me! They want to stay!

My favourite stolen book isWuthering Heights which I stole from school when I was 17, as I was reading it for A-level. I’d like to say it’s full of surprisingly insightful annotation… Alas it’s more chock full of cringe inducingly juvenile annotation, doodles, notes to whoever may have been sitting next to me. And I do believe one or two phalluses (phalli?). Teenage humour hasn’t changed much in the intervening twenty years! And Wuthering Heights is still my favourite book!

2. The Dog Earer

Yes. Me again.

There are few books I have without broken spines, scuffed edges and turned-down corners. I’m not overly worried about the book. The fabric of the book. See the state of my Wuthering Heights mentioned above. Some of my books even have shopping lists in them. When I’m famous these will become jolly sought after.

I have considered this before, why I don’t mind my books being dog-eared whilst, simultaneously I love my books.

I think, firstly, that I don’t love books at all: I love the stories, the narratives, the characters, not the books. This is, in part, why I have no objection to my ebook: I don’t mind if that narrative and those characters come digitally or on paper, so long as I have them.

Secondly, and this is a gripe I have with the ebook, the tattier the book, the better read, better loved the narrative. That pristine book on the bookshelf may as well be in a cellophane wrapping. A toy in played with. A marriage unconsummated. A child unloved.

3. The Serendipity Screamer

Odd phrase that reeks of the writer shoehorning in an alliteration.

The Sharer would be a far more acceptable Anglo-Saxon alternative.

Now, this is only partially me: I like to share my experience of reading and discuss with others my books and blog about them.

But I don’t share the book! It’s my book. What if I want to read it again?! What if I want to check something? What if I get in an argument and need to prove my point (which would, obviously, be compellingly right!)?

I like the idea of people who leave their used books on the bus for someone else to pick up … but I couldn’t do that. And I’m not sure I’d pick one up: I’d worry about depriving the owner of their book; and of the owner coming back having just popped to the toilet rather than leaving it to be picked up; and of unknown germs… I worry that there are piles of books being burnt at the bus terminus having been left philanthropically and not picked up!

Maybe the only people who get these books are the bus drivers. Maybe bus drivers are the intellectual future of the human race without ever buying a book!

4. The Self-Conscious Reader

These people are ashamed of either the fact of reading or their choice of material.

Me?

Hell no!

I teach and do a duty at lunchtime which I take as my reading time. I amble about, reading as I go, talking to kids about the books – and occasionally barking at them to get out, get in, put food in the bin, pick up litter, put down that child. But I am a public reader.

Nor do I care what I am seen reading: genre fiction, classics, children’s books, comics, poetry, popular, cult or esoteric. Even Fifty Shades (which I gave up on after 100 pages: so incredibly dull and tedious and just bad!)

5. The Did-Not-Finisher

I see no shame in failing to finish a book.

There is – in my humble view – no such thing as a bad book, just books that aren’t right for you.

Have I not finished a book? Of course I have! Fifty Shades of Gray for one! There are so many fabulous books out there waiting to meet me, why would I spend any more time with Christian Gray than I had to?! Other unfinished books? Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon, House of Leaves by Danielewski – although that was more to do with wanting to find it in paper rather than electronically, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – I mean the title said it all!

6. The Underliner

Yup!

Me again!

I scrawl, highlight, underline. I annotate.

I bought a touchscreen Sony e-reader the PRS-650 which Mrs P upgraded for me to the PRS-T1 (which still sounds like an intellectual, reading terminator to me!) specifically so I could underline in it!

I can’t help it!

I was trained to do it at Cambridge University – they called it Practical Criticism there; the library tends to call it graffiti!

I teach my students to do it.

I find a pithy phrase; a muscular image; an evocative line and I’m reaching for the pen!

I’m an Underliner and I’m proud!

7. The Reader-Of-Things-You’ve-Never-Heard-Of

I don’t thing this applies to me! Mrs P’s insistent it does!

My reading tends to be driven by what is in Smiths or Waterstones. The Richard and Judy Book Club tends to put me off books! But all very popular and top ten.

The most abstruse and esoteric of my favourite reads probably comes from my University career: I do like a bit of post-Colonial literature, having done a dissertation on Wole Soyinka as part of my finals. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is sublime.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun was lovely.
And Athol Fugard’s Tsotsi!

Oh and Arundhati Roy’s God Of Small Things.

And I do read Chaucer for entertainment: it is joyful! And Gawain and The Grene Knight. But they’re not esoteric. They’re really not.

I do remember the first time I tried to discuss someone’s apparent interest in steampunk – which i adore! oh China Miéville! Oh Railsea! Perdido Street Station! and they looked as if I’d tried to proposition them in some way!

And Mikhail Bulgarkov and Andrey Kurkov. My Russian phase.

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