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On Booker Prize

The winner of Booker Prize 2015, Marlon James, has revealed that he briefly abandoned writing after his debut novel, John Crow’s Devil, was rejected nearly 80 times, before it was eventually published in 2005. Despite the success of his latest novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, James thought the publishing industry had not changed much since his first book was repeatedly turned down.

Which brings me to the point: how do publishers know what readers want to read? “There was a time I actually thought I was writing the kind of stories people didn’t want to read.” Marlon James said. But I think publishers, especially American publishers, are too panicky and fearful to go out of their comfort zone in picking what is to be published. We see a lot of formulaic thrillers like Gone Girl because publishers think books that are like Gone Girl will sell. In other words, sometimes it’s not all about the quality of the writing but the market. As readers we are being deprived of the opportunity to read refreshing new voices. Instead of a diversity of books, all you see at the bookstores is a table full of “If You like Gone Girl, you might also like . . . ” kind of books.

Not the Booker Prize

The Guardian reveals the Not Booker Prize shortlist, list of six books chosen by their readers. Although I know very little about these books, it’s interesting to see the choices and most importantly, the enthusiasm for literature is affirming.

The Guardian readers’s picks:
Fishnet by Kirstin Innes
The Artificial Anatomy of Parks by Kat Gordon
Dark Star by Oliver Langmead
The Good Son by Paul McVeigh
Things We Have in Common by Tasha Kavanagh
Shame by Melanie Finn

Booker Prize books sometimes are hard to find as they are not yet available in the United States. That gives me a time advantage.

New Rules for Booker

The Booker Prize will expand its scope next year as it considers US authors in 2014, after 45 years of recognizing the work of writers from UK, Ireland and Commonwealth countries. I don’t consider literature from the British Commonwealth more high-brow than its American contemporary, but the Booker prize has always been an indicator of literature that focuses on “literariness”. The shortlisted books usually take a fairly impoverished view of literature to measure it by their characters.

The Booker is currently open to novels by British, Irish and Commonwealth authors published in the UK, with each publishing imprint putting forward two titles, plus titles by previously shortlisted authors. For certain writers the requirement to be entered into the Booker is written into their contract with the publisher, and that US agents are likely to be robust in ensuring that this happens. That said, if the Booker is open to US authors it will still create a huge imbalance. UK writers will have more competition for a career-changing prize, whereas US authors will have a new prize.

It’s inevitable that Booker will lose its distinctiveness but I hope the inclusion of US authors will not crowd out new talents.

Catton / Booker Prize

Eleanor Catton receiving the Booker prize

Eleanor Catton becomes the youngest Booker Prize winner. The New Zealander’s 832-page book, The Luminaries, is also the longest novel ever to win the literary prize. She also becomes an “end of an era” winner: the last recipient of a Booker prize which, for 45 years, has only allowed Commonwealth and Irish writers—next year, the Americans are coming.

Twelve men meet at the Crown Hotel in Hokitika, New Zealand, in January, 1866. A thirteenth, Walter Moody, an educated man from Edinburgh who has come here to find his fortune in gold, walks in. As it unfolds, the interlocking stories and shifting narrative perspectives of the twelve—now thirteen–men bring forth a mystery that all are trying to solve, including Walter Moody, who has just gotten off the Godspeed ship with secrets of his own that intertwine with the other men’s concerns. Each of its 12 parts has a word count exactly half that of its predecessor. I’m intrigued. Are you?


How do literary awards factor in your reading? I pay attention to new of the awards but only one captures my attention continuously and factors in my reading: The Booker Prize. I read before that Book has a diverse panel of judges that changes every year. The line-up that picked Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger for the 2008 Booker is entirely different from the one that selected Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty in 2004. Nevertheless, the criteria used to select those judges has been consistent, and while even the most breathless prize-watchers seldom stop to consider such details, it’s these criteria that determine the character of each prize.

Pulitzer Prize is the most influential of the American prizes. It is awarded by the Pulitzer Board, which is mostly composed of newspaper editors and journalism professors. However, the board selects its winner from a list of three candidates chosen for it by a panel of three jurors. The National Book Awards, by contrast, are chosen by panels of five judges in each category (fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature), who have “written and published works in that category.” Nobel Prize to me has been an enigma: partly because of its very insular panel, and partly

I’ve been keeping records of winners and short-lists in my journal. Over the years I have seen a prominent trend: My reading identifies with the Booker Prize shortlists more likely than any other awards. Of the 20 short-listed books between 2009 and 2012, I read 7 and own another 9. As for Pulitzer, (surprisingly) I read all 3 winners from 2009 to 2011, and no award was given in the fiction category in 2012. Last year’s omission stirred up a storm among the literary circle. The Pulitzer judges did reveal that three books had been named finalists, but declined to award one the prize. A committee of readers, which changes annually, recommends a small slate of titles to a panel of judges, who choose the winner.

I am neither a writer nor a critic. But I feel that civilian perspective should be respected. It is no wonder that I’m familiar with a high percentage of the Book nominations. I credit Booker for routinely bringing in non-writers as judges—not as the only judges, but as an essential part of the mix. A literary culture in which the only people who read novels are other novelists is neither healthy nor, ultimately, sustainable. There is a need for conversation between novelists, critics and readers. Any literary prize that wants to be valued by a wide variety of readers must, like the Booker, be willing to return the favor.

Booker Prediction

I spent a couple hours browsing through the shortlist, reading a chapter or two of each book. I am leaning toward Hilary Mantel, but I want Tan Twan Eng to win.

The 2012 Booker Prize Shortlist

The Lighthouse Alison Moore
Book description: The Lighthouse begins on a North Sea ferry, on whose blustery outer deck stands Futh, a middle-aged, recently separated man heading to Germany for a restorative walking holiday. Spending his first night in Hellhaus at a small, family-run hotel, he finds the landlady hospitable but is troubled by an encounter with an inexplicably hostile barman. In the morning, Futh puts the episode behind him and sets out on his week-long circular walk along the Rhine. As he travels, he contemplates his childhood; a complicated friendship with the son of a lonely neighbor; his parents’ broken marriage and his own. But the story he keeps coming back to, the person and the event affecting all others, is his mother and her abandonment of him as a boy, which left him with a void to fill, a substitute to find. 9:1

Swimming Home Deborah Levy
Book description: Set in a summer villa, the story is tautly structured, taking place over a single week in which a group of beautiful, flawed tourists in the French Riviera come loose at the seams. Deborah Levy’s writing combines linguistic virtuosity, technical brilliance and a strong sense of what it means to be alive. Swimming Home represents a new direction for a major writer. In this book, the wildness and the danger are all the more powerful for resting just beneath the surface. With its deep psychology, biting humor and deceptively light surface, it wears its darkness lightly. 15:1

Umbrella Will Self
Book description: Moving between Edwardian London and a suburban mental hospital in 1971, Umbrella exposes the twentieth century’s technological searchlight as refracted through the dark glass of a long term mental institution. While making his first tours of the hospital at which he has just begun working, maverick psychiatrist Zachary Busner notices that many of the patients exhibit a strange physical tic: rapid, precise movements that they repeat over and over. One of these patients is Audrey Dearth, an elderly woman born in the slums of West London in 1890. Audrey’s memories of a bygone Edwardian London, her lovers, involvement with early feminist and socialist movements, and, in particular, her time working in an umbrella shop, alternate with Busner’s attempts to treat her condition and bring light to her clouded world. Busner’s investigations into Audrey’s illness lead to discoveries about her family that are shocking and tragic. 7:4

Narcopolis Jeet Thayil
Book description: Narcopolis opens in Bombay in the late 1970s, as its narrator first arrives from New York to find himself entranced with the city’s underworld, in particular an opium den and attached brothel. A cast of unforgettably degenerate and magnetic characters works and patronizes the venue, including Dimple, the eunuch who makes pipes in the den; Rumi, the salaryman and husband whose addiction is violence; Newton Xavier, the celebrated painter who both rejects and craves adulation; Mr. Lee, the Chinese refugee and businessman; and a cast of poets, prostitutes, pimps, and gangsters. 45:1

The Garden of Evening Mists Tan Twan Eng
Book description: Malaya, 1951. Yun Ling Teoh, the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle-fringed tea plantations of Cameron Highlands. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the emperor of Japan. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in memory of her sister, who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice “until the monsoon comes.” Then she can design a garden for herself. As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to the gardener and his art, while all around them a communist guerilla war rages. But the Garden of Evening Mists remains a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all? 7:1

Bring Up the Bodies Hilary Mantel
Book description: Though he battled for seven years to marry her, Henry is disenchanted with Anne Boleyn. She has failed to give him a son and her sharp intelligence and audacious will alienate his old friends and the noble families of England. When the discarded Katherine dies in exile from the court, Anne stands starkly exposed, the focus of gossip and malice. At a word from Henry, Thomas Cromwell is ready to bring her down. Over three terrifying weeks, Anne is ensnared in a web of conspiracy, while the demure Jane Seymour stands waiting her turn for the poisoned wedding ring. But Anne and her powerful family will not yield without a ferocious struggle. Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies follows the dramatic trial of the queen and her suitors for adultery and treason. To defeat the Boleyns, Cromwell must ally with his natural enemies, the papist aristocracy. What price will he pay for Anne’s head? 2:1

I’m a Devoted “Booker”

My accident with The Sea, the Sea, which won in 1978, renewed my interests in pursuing books that either won or were short-listed for the Booker Prize. Among the three major literary awards—Nobel Prize, Man Booker, and National Book Award, Booker is the most consistent with my taste. Nobel prize is known for slamming American literature. “American literature is too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” Engdahl said. “That ignorance is restraining.”

My problem with Nobel Prize is that it’s rewarding out of a political motive. Most of 18 members of the Swedish Academy hold full time professorial jobs in Swedish universities. They call on scores of literary experts in scores of countries and pay them to put down a few reflections about possible winners. Such experts are supposed to remain anonymous, but inevitably some have turned out to be acquaintances of those they have nominated.

While the Nobel Prize awards to the author based on a lifetime or an oeuvre of works, Booker targets at a specific work. An author could be short-listed and awarded multiple times. Many writers think Nobel crowns your life effort and nothing that you do afterwards is as good—a kiss of death another word. While the credential of the Nobel judging panel is nebulous, Booker judges are not confined to any in-group of literary critics, authors and academics, but over the years have included poets, politicians, journalists, broadcasters and actors. According to Ion Trewin, Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation, Booker adopts this “common man” approach to the selection of Man Booker juries is, I believe, one of the key reasons why “the intelligent general audience” trusts the prize. For me personally, I greet Booker with great anticipation. It’s a mark of distinction for authors to be selected for inclusion in the shortlist or even to be nominated for the “longlist”.

The 2012 Booker prize Shortlist
The Lighthouse Alison Moore
Swimming Home Deborah Levy
Umbrella Will Self
Narcopolis Jeet Thayil
The Garden of Evening Mists Tan Twan Eng
Bring Up the Bodies Hilary Mantel

The past winners are all on my reading list:
1969 P. H. Newby Something to Answer For (UK)
1970 Bernice Rubens The Elected Member (UK)
1970 J. G. Farrell Troubles (Ireland)
1971 V. S. Naipaul In a Free State (UK) Short-story (Trinidad and Tobago)
1972 John Berger G. Experimental (UK)
1973 J. G. Farrell The Siege of Krishnapur (UK)
1974 Tie
Nadine Gordimer The Conservationist (South Africa)
Stanley Middleton Holiday (UK)
1975 Ruth Prawer Jhabvala Heat and Dust (UK)
1976 David Storey Saville (UK)
1977 Paul Scott Staying On (UK)
1978 Iris Murdoch The Sea, the Sea (Ireland/UK)* Just finished
1979 Penelope Fitzgerald Offshore (UK)
1980 William Golding Rites of Passage (UK)
1981 Salman Rushdie Midnight’s Children (UK/India)
1982 Thomas Keneally Schindler’s Ark (Australia)
1983 J. M. Coetzee Life & Times of Michael K (South Africa)
1984 Anita Brookner Hotel du Lac (UK)* Review
1985 Keri Hulme The Bone People (New Zealand)
1986 Kingsley Amis The Old Devils (UK)
1987 Penelope Lively Moon Tiger (UK)
1988 Peter Carey Oscar and Lucinda (Australia)
1989 Kazuo Ishiguro The Remains of the Day (UK/Japan)* Review
1990 A. S. Byatt Possession (UK)
1991 Ben Okri The Famished Road (Nigeria)
1992 Tie
Michael Ondaatje The English Patient (Canada/Sri Lanka)* Review
Barry Unsworth Sacred Hunger (UK)
1993 Roddy Doyle Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (Ireland)
1994 James Kelman How Late It Was, How Late (UK)
1995 Pat Barker The Ghost Road (UK)
1996 Graham Swift Last Orders (UK)
1997 Arundhati Roy The God of Small Things (India)
1998 Ian McEwan Amsterdam (UK)
1999 J. M. Coetzee Disgrace (South Africa)* Review
2000 Margaret Atwood The Blind Assassin (Canada)* Review
2001 Peter Carey True History of the Kelly Gang (Australia)
2002 Yann Martel Life of Pi (Canada)
2003 DBC Pierre Vernon God Little (Australia)
2004 Alan Hollinghurst The Line of Beauty (UK)* Review
2005 John Banville The Sea (Ireland)* Review
2006 Kiran Desai The Inheritance of Loss (India)
2007 Anne Enright The Gathering (Ireland)* Review
2008 Aravind Adiga The White Tiger (India)* Review
2009 Hilary Mantel Wolf Hall (UK)* Review
2010 Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question (UK)
2011 Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending (UK)* Review

[181] The Clothes on Their Backs – Linda Grant

clothesbacks2“My parents had brought me up to be a mouse. Out of gratitude to England which gave them refuge, they chose to be mice-people and this condition of mousehood, of not saying much (to outsiders or even each other), of living quietly and modestly, of being industrious and obedient, was what they hope for for me, too. And whatever Uncle Sandor was, he was no mouse.” [54]

“Until I was 10 I was completely unaware that I had a relative.” This is not the opening line of the novel. It doesn’t appear until the start of the third chapter, but it is where the novel truly begins. The narrator is Vivien Kovaks, the relative is her uncle Sándor.

Ervin and Berta Kovaks arrived London from Budapest in 1938. They left Hungary to flee from the Jews persecution. The reclusive refugees who hide behind the door are timidly grateful for any kindness shown to them. Their daughter, Vivien, is a sensitive and bookish girl who grows up sealed off from both past and present by her socially aloof parents. The arrival of a man who dresses impeccably in a mohair suit with a diamond watch on his wrist pierces the long period of calm in her parents’ uneventful lives. The man, Sándor Kovaks, is the uncle from whom Ervin and Berta strives to protect their daughter.

Curious of her family’s past and also suspicious of her parents’ tight-lipped silence, against her father’s wishes, Vivien sets out to forge a relationship with her estranged uncle, a man reviled and imprisoned, whose treatment of his tenants prompts one newspaper to caption a photograph of him with the words: “Is this the face of evil?” But that he constantly challenges her notions of morality makes her feel otherwise. The gripping narrative that unfolds Sándor Kovaks’ story is quintessential of the imperil of hypocrisy: no man is all good or all bad, the same notion that division of humanity into good and evil is no longer useful to measure morality as raised in The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. As much as Vivien tries to hold on to her disgust at Sándor’s choices, she is convinced that life itself can be so opaque that it is sometimes impossible to analyze beyond the surface. Sándor’s choices muddle her notions to define immorality. Her interactions with her uncle turn out to be the best part of the novel.

While all that the media and her father say about her uncle is true—cheap thug, pimp, racist, bloodsucker and libertine, Sándor is owed a fair judgment on his character from the perspective of the line between selfishness and self-preservation. The more Sándor comes into life and color, the more shadowy her parents’ quiet inheritance has become. The more her uncle elaborates on his choices dictated by survival, the less defined the line between good and bad. The novel shines in characterizing Vivien’s uncertain scope in life, and her frustrations and the incredible loss in her early marriage. Disappointingly, the other strand (as suggested by the title) that is never fully realized is the one around clothing, which gives the title of the book one of its two meanings; at various points we are told how the clothes we wear define us and change us – a fascinating idea, but one which is not fully woven into the narrative. The book reminds us that the way we acquire of our sense of elf from what gets reflected back to us, either in the mirror or in our relationships with others.

“The clothes you wear are a metamorphosis. They change you from the outside in. We are all trapped with these thick claves or pendulous breasts, our sunken chests, our dropping jowls. A million imperfections mar us…So the most you can do is put on a new dress, a different tie. We are forever turning into someone else, and should never forget that someone else is always looking.” [288]

293 pp [Read/Skim/Toss]

White Tiger? Booker Prize?

Book review: [164] White Tiger, Aravind Adiga

Despite critics from all over are shocked at Aravind Adiga’s surprise winning of the Book Prize, I have taken up The White Tiger. Eileen Battersby at the Irish Times comments about his “surprise victory” of winning the award for this novel. She further notes that Adiga’s win “left the literary establishment gasping, perhaps even bewildered.” Whether the book is crude and opportunistic as Miss Battersby has deemed, it is definitely an eclectic read, I mean, somewhat weird.

Balram Halwai tells the transfixing story, which is meant for Chinese Premier (god knows why) Wen Jaobao, of how he came to the success in life with his own wits. But he is a murderer who cuts off his employer’s neck. He recovers his story over seven nights under this preposterous chandelier that barely fits his room. Anyway, when he was a boy, his family took out a huge loan to finance his cousin’s wedding. Taken out of school he had to break coals for a living. being the brightest kid in school, he was dubbed the White Tiger:

The inspector pointed his cane straight at me. “You, young man, are an intelligent, honest, vivacious fellow in this crowd of thugs and idiots. In this jungle, you are the rarest of animals—the creature that comes along only once in a generation.”
He paused.
“The white tiger.” [30]

Adiga’s message isn’t subtle or novel, but Balram’s appealingly sardonic voice and acute observations of the social order are very unsettling. So far it’s a bit weird and shaky. Booker Prize?

The Short List:
Aravind Adiga The White Tiger (Atlantic)
Sebastian Barry The Secret Scripture (Faber and Faber)
Amitav Ghosh Sea of Poppies (John Murray)
Linda Grant The Clothes on Their Backs (Virago)
Philip Hensher The Northern Clemency (Fourth Estate)
Steve Toltz A Fraction of the Whole (Hamish Hamilton)