Sunday, October 24, 2010

Things which inexplicably still exist

  1. Faxes
  2. Cheques
  3. Cash
  4. Cage eggs
  5. Fixed (non-cordless) landline telephones
  6. Landline telephones
  7. Plastic cutlery
  8. Blank video tapes
  9. Cask wine
  10. Telephone directories
  11. Non-recyclable packaging
  12. Magazines which treat soap characters as real people
  13. Greeting cards
  14. State governments
  15. Weekday newspapers in print form
  16. Leaf blowers
  17. Reality tv
  18. Single-ply toilet paper
  19. Reconstituted juices
  20. Royal families

Friday, October 22, 2010

Blogging the Booker 14: In a Strange Room

The final book on this year's Booker Prize shortlist - and the final of my trip through the longlist, since I'm skipping the remaining two - is Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room. Galgut was an author of whom I was entirely unaware until this longlist, but I had read some glowing reviews of this book, so even though I wasn't able to get my hands on a copy until after The Finkler Question was announced as winner, I was still quite keen to read In a Strange Room.

In a Strange Room is a slim book - 180 pages in smallish hardcover, but another way of viewing it is as three linked novellas published together (indeed, I believe the three sections have been published separately in magazines). Each section is essentially self-contained - there's no references from one to the next. And since Damon Galgut is a South African writer (the only one on this year's longlist, if memory serves) writing in the first person about a South African writer named Damon, there might be a tendency to wonder how autobiographical In a Strange Room is. I've no idea, so won't speculate and don't much care.

The three sections deal with three different journeys Damon went on, as he writes about them years later. It's not entirely accurate to say that this book is written in the first person - most of the time, older Damon writes about younger Damon in the third person, only occasionally switching to the first-person pronoun. This provides a measure of detachment, of distance, in his descriptions of his younger self. And it works quite well, at least so far as I was concerned, not least because of the extra weight it gives the passages where middle-aged Damon refers to younger Damon as 'I'.

Each of the three journeys is given a title/theme: The Follower, The Lover, The Guardian. In each, he travels somewhere and meets someone (or travels with them), and it is these relationships that In a Strange Room is about (as well as being about travel itself). I felt that each section was more about the relationship and less about the travel than the previous one - in the final section, the travel seems almost incidental, a setting for the relationship more than anything else.

In a Strange Room is a quiet little book - reflective, sparse, a little detached as the narration illustrates, and essentially introspective. The first two sections in particular are about things not said, not done, rather than dramatic actions or plotting. Scenery and setting is described, but this is not a travel brochure. I found In a Strange Room engrossing and touching, both in low-key sorts of ways, and am glad it made it to the shortlist, and that I got around to reading it. As I've said before, in some ways the winner of the Booker is a little irrelevant to me - my pleasure is in getting to know some new authors, and also sometimes seeing a favourite author get some more attention.

So, while I was both a little surprised and disappointed that The Finkler Question won this year's prize, I'm still glad to have read most of the longlist. I hope you've enjoyed my idiosyncratic little reviews too. If it had been up to me, the shortlist (from the longlist) would have been (in no real order):
David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Paul Murray, Skippy Dies
Andrea Levy, The Long Song
Emma Donoghue, Room
Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room
Peter Carey, Parrot & Olivier in America

Four of those six made the judges' shortlist, so I can't feel too antagonistic to them (even if the two they missed were probably my favourites, or at least in my top few).

And, of course, at least my record of not really rating the winner has continued for another year. But, I guess, there's always next year...

Next: no more Booker longlisteds for me! But stayed tuned for reviews of whatever I happen to be reading (random is a nice way of putting it), and perhaps I'll even start posting about non-book-related things now that my Blogging the Booker series has drawn to a close...

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Book review: The News Where You Are

What Was Lost, Catherine O'Flynn's first novel, was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2007 - but sadly didn't make the shortlist, despite being one of the best novels I read that year. Her followup, The News Where You Are, was published a couple of months ago, and I finally got my hands on a copy last week (note: the fault was all mine). I'm disappointed that it didn't make this year's Booker longlist, because that would have exposed it to a greater audience, but I'm sure it will still find a happy readership.

Frank Allcroft is a middle-aged local news presenter in Birmingham. Unlike some of his colleagues, who see regional news as a trivial relic, Frank genuinely likes the local focus and has developed minor local fame as the teller of incredibly corny, poorly-delivered, jokes in the news broadcast. His predecessor & friend Phil, who left Birmingham for brighter things with a national audience, has died in a hit & run incident. His late father, a once-renowned architect, is suffering the final indignity, with most of his buildings being torn down & replaced by more modern designs. His mother, determindedly unhappy, lives in an aged-care home. And Frank finds himself increasingly worried about the forgotten people - those whose deaths are barely noticed, and whose lives are swiftly erased.

The News Where You Are is a novel about people's legacies - how they are remembered, how their lives (& deaths) affect those around them, and how we the living continue living without them. Frank finds himself investigating the life & death of Phil's friend Michael, who has also recently died (Phil and Michael were both a generation older than Frank), and tries to track down people who may have known this friend of a friend, hoping to find someone who might remember Michael. He also spends time with Cyril, an unsuccessful comedy writer whose only consistent gig appears to be scripting Frank's wince-inducing puns for the news, and Michelle, Phil's (young) widow. As his father's buildings are being scheduled for demolition, he tries to save at least some of them. And he, along with his wife Andrea & daughter Mo, try to brighten the life of his mother. Through these intertwinning elements, we also occasionally flashback to Frank's childhood, with his self-important father trying to design a better world through architecture, and also to the last few months of Phil's life.

O'Flynn weaves these tiny moments together effectively. While The News Where You Are might sound overwhelmingly melancholy, those themes are handled with a lightness of touch that finds small moments of humour and a warmth towards its characters that keeps the book from sinking into depressing bleakness. Much of this has to do with Mo, who is refreshingly real for a child in a modern novel (she's not brilliantly intelligent or talented, and actually acts in ways that seem familar). Mo's genuine desire to make her grandmother happy, and her interest in some (but not all) of what her father tries to show her are well-drawn characteristics. Frank himself is aware that his increasing interest in the past, and in people who have died, is not entirely healthy, but also recognises that he needs to remember people and deal with his father's & friend's legacies.

In many ways The News Where You Are is a small novel - it's short (250pp) and easily read, and O'Flynn doesn't really go in for huge, shocking plot twists (there is one revelation, but it's underplayed, not so as you'd miss it, but it certainly doesn't feel like a cheap thrill). Yet at the same time, as I've noted, it considers some fairly weighty themes like how we remember and are remembered, and friendship, and relationships with our parents and children.

Highly recommended, and I look forward to Catherine O'Flynn's third book.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Blogging the Booker 13: Trespass

Dear Reader/s,

I have failed you in my attempt to read all 13 of the Booker longlisted novels by the winner announcement. Not because that date is upon us, but because I can confidently state that I won't finish at least one of those 13 now or anytime in the foreseeable future.

That book is Trespass, by Rose Tremain. I tried my best - I honestly did - but I made it less than 40 pages into Trespass (which only runs to about 250pp) before deciding that life is too short to waste on books that bore me utterly. That was over a week & a half ago, and I have had no desire in the meantime to pick it up again*.

A common criticism of the Booker prize is that there is a certain style of novel frequently rewarded (to at least shortlist stage). These novels tend to feature older, privileged, often artistic-class English/Irish people taking stock of their lives. John Banville's The Sea was, in my opinion, an excellent example of this genre, but there have been plenty of less-interesting versions of the same thing. Despite my enjoyment of Banville's book, I have a fairly low tolerance for this style of novel, and thus was not encouraged when I read the jacket blurb for Trespass.

Now, admittedly, there is a sense of danger - as if the book might be in part a thriller, but otherwise the blurb introduces us to the three main characters:
1. Aramon Lunel - "an alcoholic so haunted by his violent past that he's become incapable of all meaningful action"
2. Audrun (his sister) - "dreams of exacting retribution for the unspoken betrayals that have blighted her life"
[The above two live, separately but adjacently, in "the dark and beautiful heartland of southern France".]
3. Anthony Verey - "a wealthy but disillusioned antiques dealer from London" who falls into their world.

My heart sunk with each successive line from that description, but I tried to give Trespass a fair go. Unfortunately, I found myself unable to do so. Maybe it's a flaw in me, but reading about wealthy people's problems is not inherently interesting. I'm not trying to be a class warrior, but character descriptions like "a wealthy but disillusioned antiques dealer from London" make me roll my eyes, not wonder what could possibly have disillusioned the poor soul. Ditto books about people who move to "the dark and beautiful heartland of southern France" to sort out the mess they have made of their lives.

I would at this point like to remind whoever's reading that I am not even one of those people who necessarily needs to like the characters in his books. I'm quite happy reading novels focusing on completely unsympathetic characters. And it wasn't that Trespass put me off with its unlikeable characters - it just bored me and made me utterly fail to care about any of it.

Anyway, Trespass didn't make the shortlist, so we need not concern ourselves with it any further.

Next: In a Strange Room, Damon Galgut, the only remaining book from the shortlist in my reading list. (I have a copy on its way from the Book Depository, so hopefully will get to read it before the winner is announced mid-next week.) I'll almost certainly not get to Helen Dunmore's The Betrayal or Lisa Moore's February by then.

* Reading in the meantime: Great Expectations, newest McSweeney's, Catherine O'Flynn's The News Where You Are, and some Borges essays. All of which have stomped all over Trespass.