Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Blogging the Booker 12: The Finkler Question

So, after a short break from the Booker longlist - during which time I read a few other things, including Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's latest (& wonderful) novel, and a 1930s English spy novel - I return to the Booker task at hand with Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, which has made it through to the shortlist.

One issue I will be facing with these last few books from the longlist is knowing by the time I read them whether or not they've been shortlisted (of the five remaining when the shortlist was announced, two were, three weren't). That means that, to some extent, I'll be evaluating these ones - especially the two that did progress onto the shortlist - in terms of my thoughts of which other books didn't get shortlisted. Two books I really did want to make the shortlist - The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet & Skippy Dies - did not, while two books I hadn't read - The Finkler Question & In a Strange Room - did.

All of which to say that I'm possibly going to be expecting a fair bit from those two novels. In fairness, they're on the Booker shortlist, so things should be expected of them.

Enough prologue, however. The Finkler Question is the first book of Howard Jacobson's I've read (or, to be honest, heard of), but it came with a quote on the front cover from Jonathan Safran Foer, who apparently enjoyed it. And, while I've been avoiding reviews of the Booker longlist entries until I've read them myself, I did know that this book has received some quite positive reviews to date.

However, it has left me a little cold. You remember that scene from Being John Malkovich where John Malkovich enters the portal to his own brain? And lands in a restaurant where everyone looks like him & keeps repeating the word 'Malkovich' with different intonations?

Well, The Finkler Question is a little like that, except the word is 'Jew'. We have three main characters - Julian Treslove, Libor Sevcik & Sam Finkler. Treslove & Finkler are late middle-age friends (since school), Sevcik is older. Sevcik & Finkler are Jewish (& both are also recent widowers), Treslove is not. But Treslove - who really is the main character - decides that he wishes he were Jewish, so he tries to become one. Other than his bond to the two other men, his reasons are not entirely clear. He just really, really fetishes Jewishness. Finkler is a celebrity philosopher (writing pop-philosophy books, making tv series etc), but is perhaps best described as a Professional Jew. He is, and indeed all Jewish characters in this book (which is to say: all characters other than Treslove) are, regardless of their level of religious observance, strongly opposed to the actions of the state of Israel. And they talk about it. A lot. To the exclusion of pretty much any other topic, with the occasional exception of sex.

One might call The Finkler Question a novel of ideas, but that's a little exaggeration. It's more like a novel of an idea. And that, for me, was its failing - if you're not really, really interested in the topic of Jewish identity among old, wealthy London men, then The Finkler Question gets a little tiresome. Jacobson can write well, and there are some wonderful sentences or descriptions, but for me this novel is just a little too monochromatic. I made reference in my review of The Slap to how that book often felt like it was inspired by the grand (particularly Russian) novels of the 19th century, in which characters sat around & discussed the problems of the day - social, political, philosophical, theological. The Finkler Question is the same, but with the difference that in those books, things actually happened in between those conversations - we had the Napoleon coming for a visit, shocking love affairs, murders etc. In The Finkler Question, those conversations are only broken up by things like Treslove going on a short holiday with his two estranged sons, reminding himself what a feeble father he was/is. (And even that scene only lasts about three pages.) Not every novel needs those sorts of things, of course - and I'm not even a particularly strong advocate of novels needing to have plots - but all I can say is that The Finkler Question, while well-written, never really grabbed me or made me care about its characters, other than to think that at least a few of them would've been well off to find themselves a hobby.

So, to return to the point I started with, perhaps I am unfairly judging this book against two that it beat onto the Booker shortlist - maybe I would've liked it better had I read it before I knew how the shortlist would pan out. And I don't regret reading it or anything, but I would be pretty underwhelmed were it to win the prize this year.

(Also: The Finkler Question is the first book I have bought & read via the Kindle app on my iPad. I might post some thoughts on that experience later.)

Next: Trespass, by Rose Tremain (which will invert the expectations I brought into this review, since it will be the first one I've read in the knowledge that it was longlisted but not shortlisted).

Friday, September 10, 2010

Art + Technology

In the absence of a new Booker post (I'm currently reading - & loving - Jonathan Franzen's Freedom... and also marking essay introductions), I thought I'd post a few thoughts on other recent interesting finds.

Despite being barely technically minded, I've always been interested in new technologies - or new uses of old ones, particularly when these intersect with my interest in music or books. And I've come across a few such things recently:

1. Sufjan Stevens releases a new EP without telling anyone.

Sufjan Stevens is one of the most talented musicians of this young century, and both Illinois(e) & Seven Swans are amongst my favourite albums. But it's been a long time since Illinois, his last 'proper' album, and while we had rumours that something was coming soon, a couple of weeks ago he just released a new EP (although - 8 songs; 60 minutes is stretching how Extended something can be before it's just Long) on his website. For $5 (US), it was available for immediate download, and in every audio format known to modern listeners. (Well, except Windows Media, because it sucks.)

Releasing music via internet download is hardly new, of course, but what Stevens did - inadvertently or otherwise - actually created more of a buzz than months of pre-release hype would have done. Because all of a sudden, you could just go and get new music out of the blue from a favourite artist & be listening to it within an hour or two of first being aware of its existence (depending on your internet speed).

And the music's fantastic, by the way. Some of his best work to date - some quieter songs, a la Seven Swans, and some lengthy, more experimental tracks. A few days after the release of All Delighted People, he announced a full album (entirely unrelated to this ep) in October. Yay! A couple of tracks from that have been officially made available for free download, and that's just whetted my appetite.

2. Radiohead essentially give away a free concert dvd.

The main problem with Radiohead's In Rainbows was the fact that its brilliance got overshadowed by the band's marketing strategy (download for as much as you want to pay, in case you've been living under a rock). In Rainbows is - in my opinion - as good as anything they've done. And they have done some very serious good.

And, in a neat repetition of that release, they've done a similar thing with a live concert video from the tour (in Prague). A group of fans got together & all shot the show on video cameras from different places in the audience, and then they edited it all together. And, remarkably, rather than shut the distribution of that video down (as one suspects most bands would do), Radiohead actually gave the organisers the official audio recording of the night, straight from their soundboard, to use on the concert video. Their condition? That the video be made available free to everyone via download.

I've downloaded it (from here) in both Ipad and dvd video formats. It's a tremendous show (especially for someone who's never had the chance to see them live in person), and looks about as good as any 'official' concert video I've ever seen.

Had the band bunged the exact same show onto a dvd & charged $30 for it, I would've paid. But for them to help fans make a free download video just makes me love them all the more. And demonstrates the difference between bands who understand how to use the internet to their (& their fans'!) advantage, and those who are still running from the idea of it.

3. Arcade Fire take Ipod technology in new directions.

So, Arcade Fire released a new album - The Suburbs - a month or two ago. You can buy it on vinyl, cd or, if you're a chump, via Itunes download. On the other hand, you can download it from their website for less than half of what Itunes (Australia) charges. In doing so, not only do you support the band directly, without Apple etc taking their cut, and save a decent amount of money, you also get a vastly superior product.

Why? Well, for starters, they encode their album at a higher bit rate than does Apple, and you get your choice of formats - including several varities of lossless & high-bitrate MP3. You also get the digital booklet in PDF form, featuring all the lyrics & artwork.

But even better than that, they've included a second digital copy, using enhanced files. In short, instead of just displaying the album cover on your Ipod (etc), each song has a different background image. On top of that image, as the song plays, the lyrics are displayed, a line or two at a time, in a vaguely karaoke manner. And they also include other special variations, including some lyric-themed effects (when they sing 'someone cut out the lights', the screen goes black, for example) and a link to a website related to the theme of each song (for play on internet-connected devices like Iphones).

This is incredibly cool. I literally had no idea that this sort of thing was possible. Why has it taken so long for someone to take advantage of the Ipod/Iphone technology in this way? (My only beef is that it doesn't seem to work on my Ipad, which I had thought would be the best platform for it. But even on the Iphone it's tremendous fun.)

I was not previously actually a huge Arcade Fire fan, but heard good things about this album, listened to a few songs on YouTube & saw the cheap download with an interesting-sounding use of technology, so happily plonked down my $8 (US). And I've really been loving The Suburbs, so I'm glad I did. But again: it was through hearing songs on YouTube that I decided this album was worth a shot.

Artists & record labels have to adapt to new technologies if they expect people to continue paying for music. Physical releases will continue to have a place in how people buy music (hell, I still buy vinyl records!), but innovative digital releases like these three will encourage people to pay for legal & interesting releases of quality music. It's worth noting that, in the last month or so, I've downloaded:
- an eight-song, hour-long release in cd-quality audio
- a two-hour concert video, suitable for both Ipad and dvd player
- a complete album, in both cd-quality and enhanced-artwork audio files
all legally, for under $15AUD.

Each of these artists is big enough for this sort of thing to work, of course - they have built-in fanbases and enough people curious enough to have a listen. But, simultaneously, they're also not the three biggest-selling music acts in the world today either. I just hope that more artists - & record companies, for that matter - continue to see that making good & interesting things can actually be all you need in terms of marketing.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Blogging the Booker 11: Shortlist predictions & hopes

The shortlist for the 2010 Booker Prize is announced today (London's today, that is), so I thought it was a good time to provide a quick overview of my progress through the longlist.

The 13 books are (with the ones I've read in bold & including links to my review post):

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

So, I've to date read eight of the thirteen, which I suppose isn't bad progress (given that my plan all along was to get through all 13 by the winner - not shortlist - announcement, which is in about a month). Of those eight, the ones I'd most like to make the five- or six-strong shortlist are:

The Long Song
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Skippy Dies

I think - albeit with the obvious caveat that I've not read the remaining five - most of those are reasonably likely to make the shortlist. David Mitchell is probably safe, and I suspect Andrea Levy is too. Skippy Dies is a personal favourite, in part because it seems an unlikely Booker pick, but is actually really good. Comparing it to The Stars in the Bright Sky demonstrates the difference between a decent read and something worthy of a literary fiction award, in my opinion. Skippy Dies takes a fairly humdrum starting point and makes it great not only by featuring wonderful characterisation, but also by hinting at subtle but effective themes. The Stars in the Bright Sky, on the other hand, seems more like the inspiration for a fun but slightly shlocky tv mini-series (friends growing apart yet remaining bound together, misadventures on a holiday, drug references, one really annoying character, one really mysterious one).

So those are my hopes. Regardless of what happens with the five I've not read - and for all I know the entire shortlist will consist of those I haven't read yet - I'll try to press on through all 13 before early October. (I will prioritise those that get the nod today.)

Either way, I've enjoyed the process so far - I haven't yet hated anything completely, and have read at least two books I probably would've missed otherwise which I really enjoyed.

Hope you've enjoyed it, too, hypothetical reader/s! Has anyone got any predictions or hopes (for the Booker shortlist, not your life as a whole) of their own?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Blogging the Booker 10: The Stars in the Bright Sky

Alan Warner's novel The Stars in the Bright Sky posed a new problem for me in my trip through this year's Booker longlist - it's the sequel to a book I've not read. I toyed with whether I should prepare for this one by reading its predecessor (The Sopranos - and no, not that one), but decided that I should just judge The Stars in the Bright Sky on its own merits, as a standalone.

That choice also carried the benefit of being easier.

Initially, however, I was worried that I was going to be lost without the context of the first book, as I had no idea who any of the characters were. But, having now finished The Stars in the Bright Sky, I can attest that not having read The Sopranos wasn't really a barrier. There were some clear allusions to the events of that book, but from what I can tell it was set a couple of years earlier than the events of its follow-up, and the two are largely unrelated in a plot sense. (Obviously those who have read both will get more out of the second, though.)

Anyway. The Stars in the Bright Sky is about six young - mostly Scottish - women setting off on a quick, cheap holiday together. Five of them were friends at school, but two have now moved away from their small-ish Scottish town to study, and one of them brings her flatmate along for the trip. Plans constantly go awry, tensions between them all are revealed, and secrets are uncovered. Warner captures the dialogue well, and the book is mostly a quick & easy read.

In our group, we have a group of contrasting types. The unofficial leader - certainly the planner - is Kay (one of the two from the original five to have moved away). The other student - who went all the way to London - is Finn, and her mysterious friend Ava (whom the others haven't met beforehand) drives much of the narrative action. Of the remaining three, Manda is the novel's clearest-drawn character - a loud, under-educated, frequently stupid &/or insensitive single mother. The other two, regrettably, are not all that distinct (one is a talented singer, the other is not) - and indeed often seem largely interchangeable. Granted, that may have been deliberate on Warner's part - to outsiders, it's probably quite common to see a group of friends & identify the organised one (Kay), the quiet & thoughtful one (Finn) and the loudmouthed one (Manda) and then the rest sort of blur together.

Nonetheless, for me, that was one of the failings of The Stars in the Bright Sky - two of the six characters are not all that interesting, and one of the others is perhaps too much of a lout, constantly saying awful things, malapropising on almost every page & fitting too easily into the role of the insecure type who acts out in the most obvious of ways. The other problem I have with The Stars in the Bright Sky is possibly a little unfair. As I say, it was an easy & enjoyable-enough read, but I did frequently wonder why it merited Booker longlisting. The Stars in the Bright Sky seems to me to be a fairly straightforward novel about a group of friends who set off on a holiday. The writing, while rarely clunky (although it sometimes was) didn't excite me much, & there didn't seem to be much of a larger point or anything going on. Again, I realise this is unfair - it's more of a criticism of the Booker longlist than of the book itself - but I'd be very surprised if Warner's book made the shortlist.

Next: tomorrow, the shortlist is announced. I'll do a quick post before then, summarising my thoughts so far & tipping what I hope the shortlist will include from the ones I've read to date. After that, I'm at the mercy of my fellow patrons of the North Sydney library, but hope to be able to get one or two of the remaining five by the end of this week.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Blogging the Booker 9: Room

As with The Long Song, Room's main of several triumphs is its narrative voice. Emma Donoghue's novel is one of the most distinctive & original books I've read in a while, combining both a fascinating central premise with a well-realised voice.

Jack, who turns five at the start of the book, & his mother live in a small room, which also forms the limits of their world. They never go outside. For Jack, the world is divided into the Real (him, his Ma, and everything in their small room) and TV (things he sees on television). He recognises that there is an Outside, but his mind doesn't really process how that works or what that Outside entails. Therefore, from Jack's perspective, there exists only one of everything - the one that is in their room. Thus, as he narrates the story, he says things like "Ma leans out of Bed to turn on Lamp".

Why these two people confine themselves to Room is only gradually revealed. This is a novel that it would be very easy to spoil, so I'll avoid plot details beyond the premise as outlined above.

Jack's voice, as narrator of this story, is pitched perfectly, as Donoghue gets deep into his skin & observes what it must be like to have spent one's entire (albeit young) life in one small room, with only one's mother and the television for company. As he grows, his mother tries to explain what Outside is actually like, but Jack is fundamentally unable to understand what she tells him - he has no frame of reference for the idea that there are things and people beyond the two of them. Room is thus largely about perception, and perhaps also about how our version of the world is a consequence of how & where we were brought up.

Again, I won't reveal any details, but I will say that the story developed in an interesting way - for a while I was concerned that the basic premise would never really be explained satisfactorily, which would have significantly hampered my enjoyment of the book, I think. But instead Room makes the most of its ideas, filling in some backstory while also moving forwards in the narrative. It's also quite a quick read, despite how it might sound.

So, another success on this longlist for me! I hope Room makes it through to the shortlist (announced next week) - it certainly deserves to do so. Another author of whom I had previously been unaware, I'll certainly have to look into some of Donoghue's earlier novels (Room appears to be her ninth book, according to the list inside). As I've said before, the discovering of new (to me) novelists is one of my favourite things about following the Booker Prize each year - even if I'm not always happy with the winner, there's usually something of interest brought to my attention.

Next time: All the Stars in the Bright Sky, by Alan Warner.