Walter Scott Prize goes to…. and a John Cleese event

 

After all the build up, an exciting evening was had at the Walter Scott Prize event.

Having read all the shortlist candidates save one, determining Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End the rightful winner, he did, indeed, come away with the award.

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It was an unseasonably warm day last Saturday. Temperatures were in the 20s C, equating to the 70s F. My native Chicago’s much warmer this time of year, still I was uncomfortably hot with the sun beating down all day. I burnt to a crisp, my fair northern European skin no match, ironically, for the Scottish sun.

Lovely Melrose Abbey was right next door.

Earlier in the day we saw Crichton Castle, along the way

By evening it had begun cooling off, a welcome light breeze gently ruffling our hair. We stood in line anticipating an evening’s entertainment listening to the incomparable Barry. If you’ve never heard him speak, you’ve not experienced how moving an author can be.

The crowd from the previous event streaming out, we planned the best place to sit. Underneath the tent it would be a few degrees warmer, and we could lose the breeze. On the left side of the tent there was an opening nearly as big as the main entrance. We’d make a beeline.

A stranger asked someone nearby, “Is this the Rory Stewart event?” I thought to myself, “Why no, it isn’t. Poor, confused man!” Though I had read and reviewed Rory Stewart’s excellent autobiographical and historical account of walking the Scottish Borders – titled The Borders, read it if you’re excited by the history of Scotland and Hadrian’s Wall – but this, most definitely, was not his signing.

Or was it.

Feeeeeeeeeeck!

With joyous heart, I looked down at the tickets I’d been clutching, tickets that had sat in my wallet at least two weeks.

Walter Scott Prize Shortlist: check!

Friday 16 June …!

Che …

No. NOOOOOO….

Friday. The sixteenth of June.

It was Saturday the 17th.

It was, in fact, Rory Stewart’s signing. My happy face slid like an avalanche, my sunburn fading to white from shock. We’d missed the ceremony because I didn’t catch the error sooner. I’d bought tickets for the wrong event. The previous evening had been the author’s panel, a discussion of historical fiction. This day was the main event. Sebastian Barry won the award, but I wasn’t there to see it. He made his glorious speech, but I wasn’t there to hear it.

Instead, I could be found weeping copiously into the pizza we had for dinner, sitting across from poor Chris and feeling like an idiot.

This was the event I’d actually bought tickets for – not just the wrong event to start with, but – insult to injury – I’d managed to miss it, as well:

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As for Barry’s speech, when it goes up on the Walter Scott Prize page I’ll post that RIGHT HERE. At least there’s that; I’ll be able to hear and share it.

Upside: I didn’t feck up buying tickets to the John Cleese livestream. I wasn’t fast enough to get us into the tent with him, but they’d set up an overflow.

He was charming, hilarious, a joy. One thing he wasn’t: Sebastian Barry.

Hey ho!

Cleese is a very good sport, indeed

I met him face to face after the event, asking him to sign something utterly ridiculous for a dear friend who’d be over the moon to receive it. What better present to bookend the signed Michael Palin book I’d given her a few years back. With a light signing line, he very graciously took his time with each one of us.

Wonderful man, John Cleese.

Turned out to be a lovely day on the Scottish Borders.

Beauty makes all things better

Before we left, the sun was setting on beautiful Melrose Abbey. How could a day go wrong ending with such a stirring sight.

Answer: It can’t.

Walter Scott Prize Shortlist: Jo Baker & Francis Spufford, plus a recap

Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2017 Shortlist

 

As time draws to a close before the prize winner is announced tomorrow in Melrose, Scotland, it’s time to opine on the last two novels from the shortlist which I’d planned to read and talk about. Namely: A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker and Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baker’s A Country Road, A Tree is set in the WW II era. Baker takes her story to occupied France, where she fictionalizes Irish ex-pat writer Samuel Beckett’s war years. Its depiction of the misery and deprivation of war is sharp and focused, its immediacy palpable. The prose is absolutely stellar, evoking the senses so the reader can smell the fear, imagining the hunger of innocents forced to live on scarce, rationed food.

Beckett expresses his weariness with his native Ireland, his complete rejection of the country. He cannot live there, cannot work there, would return if the lives of himself and his girlfriend Suzanne depended on it, but only as a last resort.

He despises the place.

Leaving off work on a translation, Beckett risks his life in order to help crack the German’s code, until one by one the other people involved in the project begin disappearing, captured and tortured by the Gestapo. Out of necessity, he flees Paris with his girlfriend just previous to the German occupation, the misery and hardship he endures brilliantly described by Baker.

A Country Road features other authors, as well, including James and Nora Joyce. For the reader, it’s a virtual literary feast.

I had less time to work on Golden Hill, Francis Spufford’s tale of the 18th century. To my deep disappointment, I’ve quite literally run out of time. From what I have read, Spufford’s done a brilliant job writing in a modern take on 18th century prose. Several years ago I was deeply enamored of the literature of that period, reading loads by Samuel Richardson and Samuel Johnson, Boswell’s bio of Johnson and London Journals, as well as several lesser-known novels by female writers of the age. Golden Hill takes the spirit of that century, mimicking the style but with a modern enough take the contemporary reader should find it less challenging to read smoothly than genuine 18th century literature.

Oh, how I wish I’d had the luxury of time to fit it in. It has a sneaky wit to it, a more quiet voice that needs to be teased out. It takes a bit longer getting into the story, but it’s one of those that once you catch up, you’re off and running.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to run along with it.

So, there it is. My read of the shortlisted Walter Scott Prize 2017 novels, complete as far as I’m able to take them before tomorrow’s ceremony. I’ve been yammering on and on about Barry’s assured win, and despite a couple brilliant efforts by Baker and Swift, I still haven’t changed my mind.

If I had to choose a second runner up, I’d need to stay with Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday, though I’m teetering on the brink since reading Jo Baker. She writes beautifully fluid prose, though no one can touch Sebastian Barry, let’s be honest. He is far and away the best of the best Irish novelists. Still, she does a lovely job, and I give her full credit.

I’ve so enjoyed reading these novels, my first foray into the Walter Scott shortlist. Stumbling onto the Borders Book Festival headliners, when I saw Barry’s name among the finalists I made a quick decision to give it a shot. I’m thrilled to be attending the actual awarding of the prize, and looking forward to seeing the nominated writers discuss the genre at a literary roundtable.

Good luck to all the writers, though I’ll be miffed if Barry doesn’t come away with the win. And maybe I’ll have time to get back to Francis Spufford. You never know. If he wins, or his part on the panel entices me, I’ll either find myself determined to see what all the fuss was about or so annoyed I immediately sell or donate the book. I can never predict my behavior.

I’ll report back after the awards, give a summary, post photos and maybe a bit of video. Meantime, go ye forth and read Days Without End, which will surely have a new sticker on the cover come Sunday.

Because it deserves it.

 

 

 

 

 

Walter Scott Prize shortlist: Hannah Kent’s ‘The Good People’

 

So much for leaving Hannah Kent’s book for last, as I’d planned. Picking it up for a short peruse, I found it such an easy read I finished in a couple protracted reading sessions.

The Good People is set in County Kerry, Ireland in 1825. Beginning with the sudden, unexpected death of Martin Leahy from a heart attack suffered at a crossroad, his wife Nóra is left to mourn deeply the man she’d loved so dearly.

Shortlist read # 4: Hannah Kent’s ‘The Good People’

Tragically, the Leahy’s daughter had also died not many months prior, her husband soon after dumping at their doorstep his mysteriously crippled and seemingly mentally damaged son, Micheál. Born healthy with full use of his legs, developing normal the first two years of his life, Micheál is, by age four, unable to walk, talk, or otherwise communicate. He is incontinent, requiring constant attention. A maid, 14-year old Mary, is put into service to help ease Nóra’s plight.

Village speculation soon turns to superstition as friends and neighbors suspect the child is a changeling, either cursed by the fairies or taken away and replaced by this young boy who cannot do a thing for himself. A source of shame to his grandmother, Nóra keeps him hidden away. Only his grandfather, Martin, had had loving patience for the child. Now that he’s gone, Nóra loses all empathy, her focus on finding an explanation and possible cure.

The bulk of the novel consists of Nóra, village healer Nance and Nóra’s maid Mary working in concert, trying desperately to heal the boy. While the strong theme of legends and superstitions are at first compelling, the plot of the novel begins wearing thin once it becomes obvious the story has been completely taken over by a single-minded determination to reverse the suspected curse on poor Micheál. Though uncomplex enough to read quickly, I admit I did some skimming from halfway forward. The one-dimensional storyline could not support the entire novel.

As with all the shortlisted books save Mothering Sunday, The Good People‘s setting in 19th century Ireland is crucial to its plot and characterization. It would not have been effective otherwise. Had I not known the book was written by an Australian author, I’d never have been able to tell from its seamlessness and perfect voice that it had been created by a non-Irish writer. Full marks given to Hannah Kent for imitating so flawlessly the Irish voice.

 

‘Micheál,’ Nóra repeated. The boy’s arms were stiff and turned inwards, like the broken wings of a bird pitched from the nest. She called his name for the third time and he finally fixed her with an unblinking stare. His lip curled and she could see the glisten of his teeth. For a moment he seemed to bare them all.

Micheál had begun to scare her. Everything he did – his quick, unpredictable movements, his calls and shrieks at things she could not see – reminded her of Mary’s words.

He is a changeling. And everyone knows but you.

  • The Good People

 

The looming negative is the book is overly long, stretching out the story so far it becomes tedious. A second strong storyline would have gone far in creating the complexity necessary to maintain interest, as would greater attention to back story. It was too simple. I’m surprised it made the shortlist cut.

I cannot imagine this as the prize-winning title. Compared with Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata, similar in its straight narrative execution, it comes up short. Tremain’s characters evolved, and the story progressed, in a manner much more compelling. Kent’s style, on the other hand, is very one note. Even taking into account the high quality of the prose, I was underwhelmed.

Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End continues to tower above the rest, Swift’s Mothering Sunday close on its heels – despite, again, it’s questionable qualification as a historical novel. It will come down to a matter of taste, either awarding the prize to a longer, more sprawling and complex novel or one that’s minimalist and equally well-written. I imagine the judges are weighing just that in the final stretch.

This leaves Jo Baker’s and Francis Spufford’s novels on my Walter Scott shortlist reading plate. I don’t expect any movement in my opinion.

One week from today we’ll find out if I’m right.

Walter Scott Prize Shortlist: Sebastian Barry’s ‘Days Without End’

Sir Walter Scott Prize Shortlist read # 2 – Days Without End

My distraction throughout the reading of Barry’s book is no reflection on it, nor its quality. The same happened when I read Graham Swift’s Walter Scott-nominated Mothering Sunday, though in reading back through a second time I was moved by its beauty.

The inability to fully fall into Days Without End is about my current life situation. There’s not even the slightest correlation with the book itself.

Sebastian Barry has been one of my favorite writers for years. If you search through my posts you’ll find many a review, an interview, and accounts of author events during which I met and heard him speak. I own a few Barry novels personally inscribed to me, with my usual odd inscription requests. Sebastian Barry is a very good sport. He’s also, in my opinion, the finest Irish novelist alive today. Biased, but true. Biased because it’s true.

DISCLAIMER:  a few years ago I exchanged a few emails with Sebastian Barry about the heavy Irish influence on the literature of the American South, even sent him a book on that specific topic as well as my favorite book by William Faulkner. While I don’t consider this review compromised as a result – because I’m a reviewer who strives to avoid bias – I must disclose my potential relationship, however tenuous, with this novel.

We’re stopped in our charge and kneel and load and fire. We kneel and load and fire at the side-on millipede of the enemy. Our batteries belch forth their bombs again and the Confederates balk like a huge herd of wild horses and run back ten yards and then ten yards reversed again … A frantic weariness infects our bones. We load and fire, load and fire … Then with a great bloom like a sudden infection of spring flowers the meadow becomes a strange carpet of flames. The grass has caught fire and is generously burning and adding burning to burning. So dry it cannot flame fast enough, so high that the blades combust in great tufts and wash the legs of the fleeing soldiers not with soft grasses but dark flames full of roaring strength … The quiet are in their black folds of death.

  • Days Without End

Barry’s latest novel is an anomaly. Rather than an Irish setting, he’s chosen the American South during the period of the Civil War. His main characters are two cross-dressing men (initially forced into the situation for reasons of survival, when they were paid to act as females hired to dance with miners in the American West) whose relationship hints at homosexuality (see video below re: Barry’s youngest son, whose coming out inspired this novel’s main characters). The two are drafted young, become brave fighters, and are humane and kind men who adopt a young Indian girl to save her.

The style of the book is, trite as it sounds – and I hate using this term – Faulkner-esque. Native to the great American writer’s “postage stamp of soil,” an admirer of his works, I can say that from the standpoint of, if not expertise, at least familiarity. His characters are huge, larger than life. The prose, after a not quite typically lyrical Barry beginning, takes off and soars toward the middle and does not relent through to the end. It flows into a gentle stream of consciousness at times, particularly in the battle scenes. Like Faulkner, Barry does not shy away from issues of grave injustice and inhumanity inflicted by whites on the indigenous and black races.

 

We taste in our mouths the terror of this place like it were bread of a kind … You got to stop your hands gripping your musket so tight you strangling it. Try to breathe easy and pray the moon won’t show. All the black night we think our private thoughts and then at dawn light touches everything in its kingdom. Tips against leaves and strokes the faces of men.

  • Days Without End

 

Unlike Swift’s Mothering Sunday, Days Without End depends heavily on the time period in which it’s written. Using the largely Scots-Irish settled American South, it explores the richness of its immigrant heritage, as well as the period of expansion just prior to, and then during, the Civil War itself.

Days Without End won the Costa Book Award. It fully deserves the Walter Scott, as well.

Walter Scott Prize 2017 Shortlist: Graham Swift’s ‘Mothering Sunday’

Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2017 Shortlist

 

This year’s Shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize consists of seven novels: four by female authors, and three by men. There’s Sebastian Barry, who’s Irish, Hannah Kent from Australia, and the rest are English. Interesting no Scots made the Shortlist – not that there must be.

I am, as I said earlier, hoping to speed through the seven longlisted novels before attending the awards ceremony on the 17th of June. So far, I’ve read the shortest, Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday, and am in the midst of Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End.

And I’d better speed it up a little if I’m planning to fit in all seven, now, hadn’t I.

Mothering Sunday was a read I almost aborted. I’m surprised I didn’t engage with it the first time, but distractions happen. I don’t even want to think about all the books I may have loved if I’d started them over. We’ll skip that.

Graham Swift’s book pinpoints some of the key themes I love in novels. First, its main character is a woman who begins the story on the outskirts of society, as a maid working for a wealthy English family. Second, it’s a tale of doomed love that’s sweetly poignant, with a dark twist; third, a meditation on grief; and fourth, a book whose main character is not just a voracious reader granted use of her employer’s huge – and unread – library, but later becomes a successfully published novelist, pulling herself up the ladder from servant to celebrity.

 

“So what was it then exactly, this truth-telling? … It was about being true to the very stuff of life, it was about trying to capture, though you never could, the very feel of being alive. It was about finding a language. And it was about being true to the fact, the one thing only followed from the other, that many things in life —of so many more than we think—can never be explained at all.”

  • Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday

 

I’ve read other Graham Swift books and loved them. He’s first tier, just brilliant. The only thing against the book is precious little hinges on the time period of its setting. Is it beautifully written? Of course! It’s Graham Swift! But historical in any representative sense? Not really. It could be lifted and plopped back down in any historical period with no appreciable changes necessary. It doesn’t belong on this Shortlist. Something like the Bookers, yes. But not the Walter Scott.

In contrast, Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End is set in the US of the 1850s. Yes, the US, a huge departure for the iconic Irish novelist. I’m roughly halfway, hoping to finish in the next day or two. As a huge fan of Barry’s, my early impression is the lack of soaring lyrical prose is a bitter blow. But I’ll reserve that for later.

After Barry, it’s Rose Tremain. I’ve dipped into the first couple of chapters and, I’ll tell you now, it’s promising. Definitely the first true contender I’ve encountered so far, and no surprise if you know the writer.

Now, back to the books.

2016 NBA finalists announced

 

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nbafinalists


And then there were five…

I’m still set on Colson Whitehead winning the 2016 NBA. Seeing that distinctive red cover of The Underground Railroad, I paused nary a second. He’s got this. While not the greatest living American writer, he has undeniable cachet. His kaleidoscopic imagination is impressive; his status as a writer of serious literary fiction cannot be contested. Having read and reviewed his prose, I’m well aware how very good he can be.

The Underground Railroad has serious forward momentum unrelated to its NBA nomination. The Oprah endorsement unleashed the great masses, bringing Whitehead a much-deserved wider audience, but I’m wondering if snobbery will rear its head when the judges bring down their gavels. While Whitehead is a literary writer, opinion about Oprah’s seal of approval is a lot more mixed. There’s a chance she’ll do him more harm than good.

 

NYTimes:

Colson Whitehead’s novels are rebellious creatures: Each one of them goes to great lengths to break free of the last one, of its structure and language, of its areas of interest. At the same time, they all have one thing in common — the will to work within a recognizable tract of popular culture, taking advantage of conventions while subverting them for the novel’s own purposes.

 


 

“I lianotherbrooklynfted my head to look up into the changing leaves, thinking how at some point, we were all headed home. At some point, all of this, everything and everyone, became memory.”

– Another Brooklyn

 

I’ve read pieces of Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn, a short but meaty novel easily downed in the space of an afternoon. Effortlessly elegant, it’s very heavy in ideas and depth of truths revealed. But for all its smooth perfection, I don’t see it beating out the Magnificent Whitehead.

It’s simply not big enough: not in scope, not in power.

 

newsoftheworld


Paulette Giles I know purely through osmosis, from bits I’ve read becoming lodged in my consciousness forming my vague impression of her. From what I’ve gathered, she writes great book club picks. Never have I considered her works heavily literary. I was a bit surprised seeing her here.

If one of these things is not like the others, I’d have to pick Paulette Giles.

Reviews of her book are sparse, a little curious considering the NBA committee pushed her through to the final round. Even the Kirkus review I found says precious little of substance:

 

Kirkus:

In post–Civil War Texas, a 10-year-old girl makes an odyssey back to her aunt and uncle’s home after living with the Kiowa warriors who had killed her parents four years earlier.

 

A bit less than compelling.

I found no long-form reviews of News of the World. Curious.


About the other two I know not at all, so I did a little digging:

 

throwbackspecial

 

 

NYTimes:

In his wistful and elegantly written fourth novel, “The Throwback Special,” Chris Bachelder plays Jane Goodall to a large group of middle-aged men who assume the role of his chimpanzees. Bachelder observes their rituals with a blend of affection and befuddlement over the course of a weekend, when they have gathered to take part in an activity that feels somehow both wildly imaginative and completely familiar. For 16 straight years, they have re-enacted one of the most iconic and gruesome plays in football history, when the Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor sacked the Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann in 1985, shattering Theismann’s leg and ending his career.

 

I could never have imagined a book about sports-addicted men appealing to me, but dammit, this one does. The review left me bug-eyed. I can’t imagine a premise less appealing, yet I found it fascinating.

 


 

associationofsmallbombs

 

 

The New Yorker:

In “The Association of Small Bombs” (Viking), Karan Mahajan’s second novel, Shaukat (Shockie) Guru, a Kashmiri terrorist, considers the explosion he has just set off at a busy market in Delhi and glumly concludes that it “was all anticlimax.” This is a dark thought about mass murder, and a dark joke about the narrative nature of terrorism.

 

Reading The New Yorker’s review, it becomes readily apparent this is a heavy-weight contender. Are we ready for such a treatment on the topic of terrorism? Mainstream as it’s become, ubiquitous in its everyday-ness, I think so.

“Too soon” has passed.

The Association of Small Bombs is described here as “daring(ly) imaginative,” and “promiscuous.” But don’t imagine his is a dismissive treatment of terrorism, nor any silly rendering:

 

“In the first few pages of his new novel, he renders the spectacle of the bombing with a languid, balletic beauty, pitting the unhurried composure of his prose against the violence of the events it describes.”

 

Terrorism is another topic near the bottom of my list of favorite fictional themes, but this review is simply phenomenal.

 


undergroundrailroad

 

Count me on Team Whitehead, though if any other book comes back to bite The Underground Railroad, it will be The Association of Small Bombs. Because if there’s one thing a literary award should honor, it’s big, relevant themes – which both these books share.

That’s where the money is.

NBA, we’re waiting.