2013 Man Booker Prize

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booker logoThe 2013 Man Booker Prize longlist is out — and KevinfromCanada has not read a single volume on it! I am not totally surprised at that since I did not make much of an effort to follow new UK fiction this year, although I did expect to see Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life or Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man on the list. Perhaps an even bigger surprise is the absence of two-time winner J.M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus, although that is one that I did not intend to read even if it had won.

Following the Booker has been a feature of this blog since it started in 2009, but I will admit that I considered abandoning that this year. I read less than half the Booker longlist last year and ended up reading only one shortlisted book — the rest (including the winning Bring Up The Bodies, I’ll admit) had no appeal and it was obvious the jury and I simply had very different tastes. So I was pleasantly surprised when the 2013 list came out this morning to find that a large number of titles held appeal, including a few not yet published (Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland) that I have been eagerly awaiting.

So here’s the plan:

Longlisted novels I’ll read for sure

The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin. Toibin is a personal favorite with three books already reviewed here. This short novel (only 112 pages) has been out since last October (and already turned into a New York play) — I just had not got around to buying it yet.

Transatlantic, by Colum McCann. I quite liked McCann’s prize-winning Let The Great World Spin and had every intention of getting to this one. The publisher’s description says McCann weaves together three stories (all involving Ireland and America) spread across more than 150 years.

The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan. This is another short novel (160 pages) that has been on the radar since its appearance in the UK last fall (it still has not been released in North America). The story promises to explore the tensions created in an Irish town following the economic collapse of the Celtic Tiger — the Irish have always done national tragedy well and the latest one has already produced some fine fiction.

Harvest, by Jim Crace. Crace is a well-respected British novelist and I have felt guilty that I have read only one of his works (All That Follows). He announced that this would be his last when it appeared and I’ll confess that any novel that starts with the burning of a manor house has immediate appeal.

Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw. It is an indication of the current state of the world that every Booker list needs to feature both a novel set in a declining Western economy (seen The Spinning Heart above) and another set in an exploding Asian one (e.g. Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winning The White Tiger a few years back). Aw’s book is this year’s version of the latter set in the booming economy of Shanghai.

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo. A novel that seems to fit my “African longing” category — young Zimbabweans who dream of a better world elsewhere and discover that the dream turns out not to be true.

Books not yet released that I intend to read

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton. I have been looking forward to this one (it is not due out in Canada until Oct. 15) as a Giller contender, so now have even more reason to read it. The Booker announcement called it a debut novel which it is not — Catton’s The Rehearsal made multiple prize-lists in 2009-10 (including the Orange). As I noted in that review, Catton is a good example of the new “global citizen” author — born in Canada, raised in New Zealand and residing in the U.S. the last I heard.

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri. Another one I have been looking forward to (publication date is Sept. 24) since I have read and liked all Lahiri’s books (sorry — all read pre-blog, so no reviews here). Like many, I was surprised to see her on this list since I did not know she had dual citizenship — she won the Pulitzer for The Interpreter of Maladies and needs to have U.S. citizenship to win that. As with her previous books, this one promises to again explore the conflict of Indian immigrants in America.

Almost English, by Charlotte Mendelson. Mendelson is another Brit author whom I have been meaning to get to and this seems a good opportunity. Due out Aug. 15, Almost English is another “immigrant” novel, this one featuring Hungarians in West London and the pressures of adjusting felt by its 16-year-old heroine — Linda Grant had a similar theme in the Booker short-listed The Clothes on Their Backs a few years back.

Longlisted titles I’m not likely to read

The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, by Eve Harris. Due out Sept. 19, the publisher description holds no appeal for KfC: “19 year-old Chani lives in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community of North West London. She has never had physical contact with a man, but is bound to marry a stranger.”

Unexploded, by Alison MacLeod. Scheduled for Sept. 5, an English couple and their 8-year-old await the German landing at Brighton. I feel I’ve read enough versions of this story already, although if it makes it to the shortlist I might be tempted to pick it up.

The Kills, by Richard House. “A political thriller and bravura literary performance” of 912 pages, featuring four books, with multi-media extras. That’s three strikes against it as far as KfC is concerned.

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. The Booker announcement was excited that the authors on the list included a “filmmaking Zen-Buddhist priest” — I’m afraid that is a negative and not a positive for me. Both the description of the book (a depressed 16-year-old Japanese decides to document the life of her Buddhist nun grandmother before doing herself in) and a dreadful cover indicate that this simply is not my kind of book.

Incidentally, if you have ever thought you might want to be a Booker judge check out this picture of the stack of submitted titles. I read a lot of books but contemplating reading that many titles (many of which are quite dreadful, I am sure) in only six months would utterly defeat me.

28 Responses to “2013 Man Booker Prize”

  1. Dina Desveaux Says:

    Hi Kevin – I know you marked it as “not likely to read” and I agree that A Tale for the Time Being is one of those either/or books. If you reconsider, here’s a link to my Goodreads review:
    http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/620926203

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Thanks for that link — one of the reasons I said “not likely to read” was that I was hoping those who liked the books better would chip in with a differing opinion. Your review has not changed my mind but perhaps I’ll give it a try if it makes the shortlist.

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      • Dina Desveaux Says:

        You’re welcome, Kevin.
        One thing I’d add is that I read it in the summer when I’m more inclined toward summer reads (read: easy mysteries that I can read in a kayak). I should have read it in the late fall when the days are shorter & the darkness inclines me toward deeper contemplation.

        I’m definitely looking forward to “The Luminaries”.
        Cheers,
        D

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  2. Brett Says:

    Kevin,

    I urge you not to dismiss the Ozeki so quickly. While it’s not perfect, it is one of the most impressive books I’ve read this year. To be honest, I had no intention of reading it; however, it was given to me by a friend at Penguin and so I felt obliged to do so. I am not sad that I did. In fact, I have bought it for several friends since. Structurally, it reminds me of some of David Mitchell’s books (although I can’t exactly say why) and the theme of connectedness, no pun intended, really ties the book together. Give it a go.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I have revisited a couple of reviews (most notably the Quill and Quire one) and they make the book seem somewhat more interesting, although still not really my kind of thing. They do offer some hints about where your comparison to David Mitchell’s books comes from, I must say. I still think I’ll wait to see how it fares with the shortlist — I suspect the ones that are more interesting to me will occupy my time until then. Although if publishers don’t push ahead release dates for Catton and Lahiri (they often do when a novel gets longlisted) there may be a window for this one.

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  3. Guy Savage Says:

    I’ve never followed the prize thing, so I’m not that thrilled one way or another. But it may be a commentary of the state of fiction if even past followers can’t whip enough enthusiasm to care that much.

    I’m with you, the manor fire beginning sounds interesting Not that I’m a pyromaniac or anything.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I have been reading Booker shortlists for almost as long as I can remember because I have found them to be a reasonable sample of worthwhile contemporary UK and Commonwealth fiction. I’ve only been reading the longlist for about 10 years — before online shopping arrived it was just too difficult to get all the books in Canada. Indeed, I have read all but three Booker winners (and Mantel’s last year is one of those three).

      My discontent in the last couple years may well have come from reading 13 a year instead of only five or six, since some inevitably were disappointing. Equally, however, I think we have had some juries who decided they would collectively “make a statement” with their choices instead of acting as a version of “everyman reader”. At first blush, at least, this year’s jury seems to have found a list that is both interesting and challenging, even if a few of them don’t seem to be my kind of book.

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  4. Trevor Says:

    I’m excited about the list, too, even though I kind of hoped not to be. Like you, I was already planning to read The Luminaries, The Lowland, and The Testament of Mary, and a few of the others on the list appeal, including Harvest (I had a similar response to you about the pillars of smoke). I look forward to whatever thoughts you have on whichever books you read🙂 .

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I was pleasantly surprised at the number of books on the list that did spark my interest, even if I had not got to any yet. I’ll probably start with whatever arrives at the door first (I don’t have any on hand but ordered six today) and we shall see how it goes.

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  5. Guy Savage Says:

    It’s a pity that Atkinson’s book didn’t make the list.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      Its absence from the list surprised me. My theory is that it does take a while to get into the rhythm of the book — and when you are a juror with 151 books to read in six months maybe no one had the patience to really persevere.

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  6. susanonthesoapbox Says:

    Kevin, I too am disappointed that Kate Atkinson did not make the list. I’ve just started reading her books and find them to be quirky and insightful.

    PS. Loved your reason for taking a pass on The Kills…multi-media extras…???

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I didn’t look closely into just what the extras are — I’m assuming it is a website or Facebook deal that expands on what is in the book.

      If you like Atkinson’s Brody novels and have an all-region DVD player, BBC Scotland has done six episodes (Case Histories is the title) which are excellent — four based directly on her books, two others which are fair extensions of the premise.

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  7. leroyhunter Says:

    “…the Irish have always done national tragedy well”

    Why thank you Kevin!!

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  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ll almost certainly read the Toibin, as I share your regard for him. The Crace is a definitely maybe since I liked the one of his I’ve read (Quarantine), and the Aw will depend on reviews.

    Otherwise, well, I don’t really follow the Booker and I don’t think this year will change that. I agree with your thoughts on the House and Ozeki, those aren’t being marketed to me.

    I saw John Self comment that the Ryan seemed a little overfond of its own conceit (I’m misquoting him here, doubtless badly), or perhaps rather that it was well done but knew that it was well done. Given that I have a morbid fear of Irish miserabilism (there’s a lot of great Irish writing, but by god that’s a tired genre) I suspect I’ll skip it. Still, the concept is interesting and at least it’s short.

    The Mendelson’s a maybe. I’ll wait for some reviews.

    I doubt I’ll read any of them though before the winner is announced, I’ve no great desire to keep up with the contest. That said, I am grateful to those who do.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I don’t think there is anything on the list that would lead me to argue that someone who doesn’t normally follow the Booker should take it up this year. From the publishers’ descriptions, it looks to do what I expect of the Booker: provide a reasonable scan of the year’s Commonwealth fiction. I am sure modernist and post-modernist fans will be disappointed, since most of the books look to have reasonably conventional structures. And the jury seems to like both unusually long and short books: I mentioned the Toibin and Ryan, the Catton is being advertised at 844 pages, almost as long as the House. And I am a little surprised at the absence of an Aussie or Kiwi book — from their Miles Franklin list, I had the impression that it was a good year for Antipodean fiction.

      Finally, from a Canadian point of view, the list provides a good illustration of the increasingly global nature of English language fiction (and the challenge facing prizes like the Booker based on citizenship). Media here are claiming three “Canadian” connections. Catton and MacLeod were born in Canada (which presumably is their citizenship) but left at a very early age, while Ozecki was born in New Haven (to an American father and Japanese mother), spent many years in Japan and now splits her time between British Columbia and the States. I’m not sure where her Booker citizenship qualification comes from — if it is Canadian, I may find myself reading her book after all when the Giller list comes around.

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  9. Lee Monks Says:

    Thanks for a very amusing round-up, Kevin. I share your thoughts in general. There are some books on the list, old favourites such as Toibin and Crace, that I would’ve been interested in regardless. Toibin in particular should’ve been awarded the Booker long since. Most of the others are of little or no interest. MacFarlane, though, is a great writer so you’d assume he isn’t backing donkeys.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I would say that I am anticipating those that I plan to read more with curiosity than outright eagerness. That’s not entirely a bad thing, however, since it might lead to a discovery or two along the way.

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  10. Mary Gilbert Says:

    Hear hear to the general appreciation of all things Colm Toibin. I’m currently reading his book about gay lives. I’ve just moved countries and was asked about a novel I’d enjoyed reading and Brooklyn came to mind immediately.
    Thank you for your longlist recommendations Kevin. Once I’ve finished locating the cutlery I can begin on a properly informed but selective read of some of the longlist nominations. Unlike you though, I’m quite tempted by the Eve Harris but that’s because I’m fascinated by novels ( or non fiction) about enclosed communities – probably because I’d hate to belong to one.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      We shall see how these first impressions (based mainly on publisher descriptions, I have to admit) stand up once I actually get to reading the books. Already I have seen enough from those who have read the Ozeki (including comments here) to suggest that I should rethink my early decision on that one.

      (And what’s your new country?)

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  11. Crake Says:

    Thanks for the post, Kevin. I quite enjoyed “The Blackwater Lightship”, “The Master”, “Being Dead”, and “Quarantine”, so it was a pleasant surprise to find both Toibin and Crace on the longlist. I’m also glad that Catton made the cut since I’ve read excellent reviews of “The Rehearsal” and I’m hearing good things about “The Luminaries”.

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  12. Kerry Says:

    Kevin,

    I like your overview and that many of the contenders that you are interested in are also books that I am interested in. I am especially looking forward to Harvest because I loved Quarantine and The Luminaries because I regret not yet having read The Rehearsal and The Lowland because, simply, Jhumpa Lahiri.

    For the others, I will likely be awaiting any judgment from you.

    I did read Toibin’s and liked it, but I doubt it will or should win. It compares unfavorably to both Quarantine and The Master and Margarita in the sub-sub-genre of biblical re-writes. Those being two of my favorite books, generally. Anyway, my two cents briefly.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I hope to start my Booker reviews with TransAtlantic in about a week. The plan is to follow with Five Star Billionaire and then The Testament of Mary. I should note that I did not buy the Toibin when it came out last fall, the biblical re-write not being a favorite genre for me, even if I do like Toibin’s work.

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  13. kimbofo Says:

    I stopped following this prize in about 2006, but it’s still nice to check out the long- and shortlists to see if there might be something on it worth reading.

    I’m a long-time Tobin fan, but his new book holds absolutely no appeal to me and I’m surprised it’s been listed as it’s not really received that much attention in the British press.

    I read The Spinning Heart about six months ago but never reviewed it; to be honest, I don’t understand the lavish praise for it. It’s written from multiple viewpoints (essentially it’s a collection of short stories) but all the voices sounded exactly the same to me. Perhaps the experience was lessened for me because I read it on an iPhone (truly!).

    I do, however, want to read the McCann; I had mixed feelings about his last novel (as I think you did, too?) but I still think he’s an author worth reading.

    Looking forward to seeing your thoughts on these books in due course.

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    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I was writing a note for Mooksie’s Booker forum about my concerns about approaching the Toibin when your comment arrived. I too am a Toibin fan, but I have not opened this one yet because it has no inherent appeal for me either (beyond its Booker listing). Perhaps what interests me most is that it started out as a theatrical monologue (at the 2011 Dublin Festival) and then was adapted to a fiction work. Seems to me a monologue is a monologue, be it spoken on stage or committed to print — so my interest is probably more technical than readerly.

      I thought you had read The Spinning Heart but could find no review on your blog. Now I understand why. I am rather looking forward to it.

      As for McCann, I did have some reservations about his last one (review is here) but it is one of those books that has improved with aging in memory.

      Summer reading ennui has got in the way of my Booker reading this year — I’m quite content to be a late-arriving follower rather than trying to be one of the first to finish the list. Having said that, I am looking forward to finally getting to some of the books.

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      • kimbofo Says:

        I have to admit that the Booker listing does make me want to go back and reread The Spinning Heart again, just to see if it might improve on a second reading.

        Like you, I haven’t done much reading lately. It’s been super hot here and because we don’t have air conditioning I’ve not been spending much time in the flat. I’ve also been juggling a few editing commissions on top of my usual magazine shifts, so haven’t had much free time. This week I started and abandoned four novels, because I just couldn’t find anything to settle on. And then I picked up Mrs Bridges by Evan S Connell and my slump appears to be cured!

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