Merry Booksmas! Books I’m gifting to me this year.

Nice stack.

Let’s face it: no one knows which books I want at the holidays. Used to be I owned thousands and no one could tell what I didn’t already have. Now that my library’s so small, it’s what haven’t you already read...

Plus, I only exchange gifts with my kids, so there’s that. They figure I pick up anything I really want, anyway. Mostly, they’re right.

There were so, so many books I wanted to buy, but unfortunately there are annoying bills like rent and food to be paid. 2017 was not cheap, not that I’m saying I regret a penny. I just don’t have an awful lot of disposable income right now to feel comfortable splashing out.

But it’s Christmas, right?

Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? Are there no new books to crack open and smell?

Oh, there are:

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

I didn’t pay much attention to this year’s Man Bookers. Usually I’m all over it like orange on Trump, but this year I was pre-occupied and hardly noticed the long or short lists. I’ll admit I was a bit surprised when I heard an American had won it for the second year in a row. But I won’t go into the politics of that and how irksome I find it. I’ve had enough politics this year to last me the rest of my life, thanks very much.

Elmet sounds delicious:

The family thought the little house they had made themselves in Elmet, a corner of Yorkshire, was theirs, that their peaceful, self-sufficient life was safe. Cathy and Daniel roamed the woods freely, occasionally visiting a local woman for some schooling, living outside all conventions. Their father built things and hunted, working with his hands; sometimes he would disappear, forced to do secret, brutal work for money, but to them he was a gentle protector.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

You have been taught that you are unclean, that you are not holy, that your body is impure and could never harbour the divine. You have been taught to despise everything you are and to long only to be a man. But you have been taught lies. ‘

– The Power

 

 

 

This year’s Baileys Women’s Prize winner has huge praise from Margaret Atwood emblazoned on the cover. Margaret. Atwood.

Oh please, like I wasn’t buying this one.

Incidentally, did you catch The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu? I watched all but the last episode in Scotland; I’m pissed as hell I had to leave and missed the ending. I may have to subscribe for the free trial just to see that.

Mrs Osmond by John Banville

John Banville writes like an angel, and this book extends the story of Isabel Archer from Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. I may need to re-read Portrait, as well. Do I re-read it before, or after?

A quandary.

Read before, I may be too critical of Banville. After. Definitely after.

I don’t always get along with sequels and prequels and riffs on classic literature. But John Banville. Exceptions are made to all my rules.

Miss Jane by Brad Watson

The potency and implacable cruelty of nature, as well as its beauty, is a trademark of Watson’s fiction. In Miss Jane, the author brings to life a hard, unromantic past that is tinged with the sadness of unattainable loves, yet shot through with a transcendent beauty.

Yep.

Huuuuge buzz surrounded this novel, which doesn’t always mean much, but when it’s a proven writer like Brad Watson, it kinda does.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Several people said this novel should have taken the Booker Prize this year. Yeah, even when I’m not paying attention, I’m paying attention.

When it comes to books.

Midwinter in an English village. A teenage girl has gone missing. Everyone is called upon to join the search. The villagers fan out across the moors as the police set up roadblocks and a crowd of news reporters descends on what is usually a place of peace. Meanwhile, there is work that must still be done: cows milked, fences repaired, stone cut, pints poured, beds made, sermons written, a pantomime rehearsed.

As the seasons unfold and the search for the missing girl goes on, there are those who leave the village and those who are pulled back; those who come together and those who break apart. There are births and deaths; secrets kept and exposed; livelihoods made and lost; small kindnesses and unanticipated betrayals. An extraordinary novel of cumulative power and grace, Reservoir 13 explores the rhythms of the natural world and the repeated human gift for violence, unfolding over thirteen years as the aftershocks of a tragedy refuse to subside.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Never read any Ng, but I follow her on Twitter and she’s very likable. She tweeted a lot as she was writing this book, enough that I started wondering why I’m following her if I haven’t read her books.

Let’s remedy that.

Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta

I had this book in my hand so many times at Barnes & Noble. I didn’t buy it previously for no other reason than I’m not buying a lot of books this year, especially expensive new ones. And especially not when I can go a-begging and get them for free.

I was in an indie bookshop, saw it sitting there, and thought oh, okay, what the hell. It’ll be a fast and probably fairly forgettable book, but entertaining nonetheless. Plus, I was helping out a local indie.

Win/win.

As I was posting this, I remembered one work of NF I’d wanted very badly and hadn’t managed to snag from the publisher. If Amazon’s still promising pre-Christmas delivery…

Well.

We’ll see.

I’m being very good to myself this year. I think I deserve it. But then, I think I do every year. Never let it be said I’ve hidden my preference for myself under a bushel. After all, if you don’t look out for yourself, no one else will.

True words.

I’m hoping to get off (be good) at least one more post before year’s end, on the topic of my 2018 plans. Mostly reading, but if I’m in the right mood I’ll talk about other stuff, too. Safest to stay with reading, but when am I ever safe.

Anyway. Get out there and buy yourselves some books! Chop, chop. Time’s a-wasting.

why i’ve made a podcast i won’t post: an anne tyler man booker screed

Anne Tyler fan? You may want to look away.

Moriarty!

Moriarty!

Just as an FYI, my beef is as much with the Man Booker judges as with Anne Tyler the writer. Sure, I dislike her books. Quiet tales about domestic American life have been done far, far better than in her own novels. And sure, she’s a sweet lady who’s managed to make a crap ton of money while thumbing her nose at  the “authors must promote themselves” modern truth. She barely missed that train. By the time publishing companies began their slide into despair, she was already a Very Big Name in women’s fiction. She had no need for exhausting signings, granting interviews and answering the same questions over and over. She was grandfathered in, so to speak.

And I say women’s fiction because I cannot imagine many men would find her books of interest. There are no murders, no car chases, no sports (that I know of) and nothing which would require full-frontal nudity in a film adaptation.  No testosterone, basically.

There’s a difference between these mid-range books written for a female audience and those written for males. No cries of sexism! It’s considered sexist to speak what’s obvious truth, a ridiculously politically correct notion. Is there some cross-over? Sure! Is it the norm? No! There is male writing and female writing, neither is better or worse than the other but the differences are mostly clear. But that’s a topic for another day; I can’t argue that now.

My podcast about Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread was ad hoc, unrehearsed and frankly made  me come off like a crazy cat lady cornered in an alley. To Anne Tyler, it was unfair. I dismissed her with one brushing motion, letting my anger over the unfairness she made the Man Booker shortlist while Marilynne Robinson did not (though she’s a far, far superior artist, have I mentioned that?) get the better of my judgment. It’s not on her that she was chosen, not her decision to bump Robinson from the Shortlist.

 

@$*%&Q$*%

@$*%&Q$*%

 

I self-censored myself, for better or worse. Perhaps I’ll come at it again, with a cooler head. Or maybe this post is enough. But I refuse to go back on my assertion Tyler’s works are not prize-quality writing. They are geared toward an audience eager to read fuzzy, warm and reassuring stories about generations of families, all their ups and downs and dramas. While it’s true every life tells a remarkable story, not every story is worthy of turning into a novel.

I find Anne Tyler mind-numbingly dull. She’s the sort of writer who tells every single action her characters make, whether it advances the plot or not – usually not. Here’s an example of my life, written by Anne Tyler:

She woke at 8:30 in the morning, sunlight streaming through her cheap, brown Walmart curtains bought because their color was neutral and, besides, she was getting divorced after 25 years and had no energy to think much beyond the fact she needed to find her own place to live. The curtains were those ring-top ones, or whatever you call them. The texture was nubby. Overall, the effect was somewhat masculine but dreadfully dull. However, the curtains were room-darkening, allowing her to sleep almost endlessly, should she so desire. Though, sleeping almost endlessly is not good for those with depressive personalities, which she had.

Reaching for her phone, a Samsung Galaxy 6 – way too expensive and not worth the money, leading her to question why on earth she did such a stupid thing – her arm brushed the white, Egyptian-cotton sheets she’d purchased from Amazon, back when she realized she would need them, along with the cheap, brown curtains previously mentioned. Kicking aside the down comforter from Ikea, covered with a miniature rose print by a duvet cover, also from Ikea, she turned on her phone, saw what time it was, rolled back over the white sheets and went back to sleep..

  • pseudo-Anne Tyler

 

FASCINATING ISN’T IT.

Sadly, I included nowhere near the detail Anne Tyler would have. I neglected to mention how my hair looked, what I was wearing, the fact I sleep with roughly three books, a notebook and two pens every night so I can reach for them directly every morning – or at night, if I’m fighting insomnia. I could have included so much more, as she would have.

I am angry, impotently angry, not a damn thing I can do about it but rant and rave. Makes no difference as far as the Man Bookers but it does help me feel better, by a small measure. Life isn’t fair and literary prizes are political. Shock horror. But then, if no one points a finger it all slides without notice, a much worse eventuality. Anyone who cares about literary fiction should fight for what’s right, not ignore injustices such as these. When it is so blatant, so brazen how could a serious reader not notice?

At this point, I need to do one of two, things: 1). Forget Anne Tyler, ignore her completely, swallow my indignation and move on, or 2). Read more of her work, in a vain attempt to ascertain what about her is so noteworthy.

She’s driving me mad. When a thing drives you mad it means you care enough to allow it to bother you. It has power, growing into a towering force that pokes you in the night, annoys and irritates. I can’t let the topic of Anne Tyler and the inordinate amount of praise she receives bother me anymore. It’s unhealthy, not to mention a waste of time.

To read or completely obliterate from notice. That is the question. I’ll sleep on it, along with my three books, notebook and pens. On my Egyptian cotton sheets.

 

man booker 2015: what a difference a few hours make

Unbelievable. While I slept, from behind my back emerged this wee bitch of a Shortlist:

Man Booker Shortlist 2015

Man Booker Shortlist 2015

Hello, political component to the Man Bookers. Ha, what am I saying. Welcome back. We hardly missed ye; never had the chance. You can’t miss what hasn’t had the courtesy to leave.

Analysis of the analysts:

Judges 2015

Ellah Wakatama Allfrey (48)

Granta, Jonathan Cape, Random House, Telegraph, Guardian

Guardian Books podcast: Political fiction

Verdict: Holy fuck, with political bent, though probably least prejudicial on list.

 

John Burnside (60)

Scottish poet, T.S. Eliot Prize, latecomer to the literary game, hell of a learning curve but he smashed this one.

Prof, St. Andrew’s University,  novelist, list long as my arm.

From his university page:

“John’s main interests are in American literature, poetry, ecocriticism and the language of environmental activism.”

Verdict: Respect, with an American bent.

This is your Anne Tyler.

 

Michael Wood (67)

Historian/broadcaster

Born Manchester, working man’s town.

Verdict: Respect.

Marley?

 

Frances Osborne (46)

One novel, two biographies. A Sackville by birth. Silver spoon. Lives next to freaking P.M.

Verdict: No respect.

Fuck all.

 

Sam Leith (41)

Journalist, author of several works of nonfiction.

Young; resume growing nicely. Not there there.

Verdict: Judge in training.

Wild card man.

 

Two women, three judges under 50,  two extreme heavy-hitters, a broadcaster, a political toss-in for my personal irritation and an in-training youngling. Typical cast of characters, though generally there’s a John Sutherland who really really pisses me off, ivory tower up the arse, anti-public opinion blow-hard.

Fuck everyone but me

Fuck everyone but me

Had a run-in with him once. Doesn’t show. Maintain neutrality.

Eliminations:

No Marilynne Robinson, no Anne Enright, who’s won already so there’s that; never expected her to repeat. She’s obviously no Hilary Mantel, right? No repeat offender?

Sitting on the survivor’s list is Anne Tyler, audible gritting teeth. Quit making me say this: not a terrible author, no talentless hack but no Man Booker caliber writer either.  Adding injury to Obamacare, bumping two far superior female writers, so far superior should be ubiquitous. Words almost fail but not quite. Once I stop talking the idiots win.

Nice person

Nice person

And no I’m not. Angry, yes. Out to piss off, yes.

Robinson and Enright bumped for Tyler. Many times as I say it sounds no less farcical.

If she walks off with the prize with that goes the last shred of relevancy for the Man Bookers. And I do mean s-h-r-e-d, gossamer thin, not fine. The award’s gone so far Left it’s rendered itself almost moot. SEE: Nobel Prize, category of any. Stick a fork in it and twist. HARD.

Aha! Wait! She’s one of the two Americans. Tyler and Yanigahara. Phew! I thought they were serious!

Nice person

Nice person

Ignoring that wee epiphany, A Little Life is there, the fuck me this is fine A Little Life. A Brief History of Seven Killings, called it.  The rest don’t even speak to me: bad year, bad read on the judges.

Top of this heap: A Little Life, A Brief History of Seven Killings. The former, because I’m reading it now and it’s slapping me upside the head, the latter for its subject matter and how nearly universally praised it’s been, normally not a great thing but this time there’s the clever plot, hipster Bob Marley thrown in for good measure.

Marley & Me

Marley & Me

No: Satin Island and sure as hell better be A Spool of Blue Thread.

Wild cards: The Fishermen, The Year of the Runaways.

At this point I would rule out a damn thing. This is a jury of rogues out to make a statement. But which statement. A Little Life is probably too mainstream well-written, left standing because something needs to hold that spot. Satin Island gives me a bad vibe – prize-wise only.

Narrow again: A Brief History of Seven Killings, The Fishermen and The Year of the Runaways. If I’m really lucky, A Little Life. If there’s a swing vote.

A Little Hope, diminishing

A Little Hope, diminishing

Which political statement are they looking to make?

Nice person

Nice person

Find it and there’s your winner.

man booker 2015: i’m fucked

Things were going along well, so tidy, so well-kempt, all picket fences and Sunday afternoon lawnmowers pushed by men in white shirts with cut-off jeans, baseball caps protecting dear, shiny heads. All signs pointed to Marilynne Robinson for the Man Booker 2015 win. God was in his heaven. I sat on the front porch sipping lemonade and waiting for autumn to bring the Shortlist so I could laugh my knowing laugh, toss my head back and sneer at the world with my smug I may be a bitch but I’m a correct bitch face.

Bitch face. Suits me.

Assuming the judges weren’t planning to go to the dark side and be all let’s not give the prize to the writer who deserves it but, rather, to some unknown writer who’s produced a book whose politics are timely, themes ripped from the liberal headlines of the moment, it was a shoo-in. I could get away with skimming the other books, reading reviews and crunching the numbers with my patented prize winner crunch-u-lator. Because come on. Marilynne Robinson, writer of prose the angels sing while lounging languidly on fluffy while clouds. And pitted against what that could even come close?

Well, fuck and blast. Pitted against this:

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Jesus Holy Granola Christ on Greek yogurt.

Encamped at Barnes & Noble for the duration, computer open, headphone and charger wires sticking out like nasty, nasty spider legs in all directions and hogging all available outlets I wasn’t going anywhere, Jack.  Armloads of books plopped on chairs I’d screeched across the floor to my cave like a magpie gathers shiny things to her nest, a token coffee purchased to justify my whole-hoggishness, I read the first few pages of what I presumed would be an oh so lovely book.

It would be a good read. I knew that. People liked it, Amazon reviews were effusive, critics waved their arms above their heads, spittle flying in their hurry to get out pretty words about a pretty book before their peers could get anything in edgewise. I’d read a few chapters, smiling smugly as I put it back on the shelf for the next person to buy, a perfectly enlightened person who’d read a good thing or two on Goodreads, no idea it had nearly swiped the Booker.

Propped on the table in front of me, it hit like a typhoon bitch-slapping me with a palm leaf, causing me to laugh and feel all sadly desolate and empty and what’s the point of life within the space of half an hour’s read. My hands started to itch. Then my face. I scratched where imaginary feathers tickled me, like I was allergic to incredible prose.  I was there in Barnes & Noble without adult supervision and I had my debit card. Like a sex addict stuck in a hotel room with a ready whore, pockets bulging with money and happy-to-see-you, I was sunk.

I bought it – along with a few others but that’s not important right now. I bought it.

I took it home, resumed reading it in bed, sinking feeling triggering the realization this isn’t going to be a book I can merrily skip through, finish and pronounce upon with my usual speed and cocky know-it-all manner. (My once upon a time speed, I mean, since I haven’t done anything quickly in months but that’s not quite the point.)

Like Marilynne Robinson’s novels, the book’s packed with prose you can’t rush. It’s beautiful, at times reaches poetic but with a cast of characters bigger than Lila, another thing slowing me down.  I need to catch the nuances of each, dig into his or her motivations, separate one from the other despite their fierce desire to cling together.

This is a very long novel, 736 pages densely packed with small print and those slick, thinner pages I can’t turn very quickly without having to lick my finger, and I hate when people lick their fingers. Thick, textured paper tends to have a larger font, is quickly read, turning pages eased by deckle edges giving something to grasp. The reader feels accomplishment much more quickly, these thick pages forcing the left hand to secure more and more strongly as the balance tips from pages to read to have read, left to right left to right in rapid succession.

A Little Life was designed differently, to keep it from weighing 20 lbs. and saving the wrists of its readers. Because did you read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Morrell?   The wrist snapper? Who didn’t learn a lesson from that? Yanagihara’s novel is heavy but looks so innocent, what with its thin, slick pages.  It’s frustrating, the left hand sitting there all hurry up stupid while the right hand flips and flips, getting nowhere fast.

All this to say holy god, this book has a shot. IT HAS A SHOT! It doesn’t espouse an irritatingly liberal agenda that’s all politics, no substance. It shows how one life is important, how all the little life things add up to one Very Big Thing, indeed. Seven hundred thirty-six very big things. Lila‘s no slouch but

A Little Life

has…

a…

shot…

Right now, I could use a shot.

Unravel all I said about how easy this was, how eye-rollingly stupid, guttural expression of disgust stupid, the idea of putting anyone above or on par with Marilynne Robinson. Because

A Little Life

has…

a…

shot…

Fuck me, it does.

man booker 2015: one expert’s flawed opinions

manbooker2015

Lo, these many years I have participated in the largely futile game of guessing the Man Booker winner. I’ve had successes and failures but mostly it’s a maddening exercise in literary addiction, tinged with galloping insanity. Nevertheless, I am always happy to offer an opinion totally devoid of actual research or, really, much effort at all.

I’m always happy to do the least I can do. ™

This year’s crop of Long-Longlisters is particularly compelling. From reading the synopses, there’s only one book I would not willingly pick up and read. That book is A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, reason being I have no interest in Bob Marley or Jamaica. Rave reviews aside, it simply doesn’t appeal.

As for the others, if you know me at all you’ll expect my ejecting Anne Tyler straightaway, sending her spinning into the atmosphere. Don’t care for Anne Tyler. Don’t feel she deserves a Booker. How did she make the list? Not for her Serious Literary Qualities. Rather, because she announced she’s hanging up her pen after this last novel. And she’s beloved, for some reason or other I haven’t been able to grasp. Nothing against her personally, mind. I’m charmed by the idea of the Reclusive Writer.  Unfortunately, to me her books have always been soporific, their droning sameness lulling me into a near-coma. Her quality maintains a steady pace, churning out novel after novel featuring characters whose quirks I’m supposed to find endearing. Supposed to. Plots are fine, nothing too upsetting or too simplistic. Very mid-line. But prize-worthy? Dear God no. Compare her with, say, Margaret Atwood and it will give you screaming fits.

Marilynne Robinson, however? Yes. Yes.

Laila Lalami: know of, haven’t read. Arundhati Roy, Tom McCarthy, Andrew O’Hagan: ditto ditto and ditto. Roy, McCarthy, O’Hagan: reputations quite high. Lalami, lesser but not to be discounted; up and coming. Her growing stature edges her up a notch or two.

Anna Smaill, Sunjeev Sahota, Chigozie Obioma: totally new to me. Can’t yet opine.

The Short List will consist of equal parts famous, peripheral and unknown. I expect Robinson, Lalami and James will be shoo-ins. From there, it’s anyone’s guess. Really, there’s no logic here, just personal tastes of the judges. I’ve learned it’s impossible to gauge the wildcard spots, save by blind luck.

Once things have been narrowed down, pay attention to the press. Read the book reviews, the jacket blurbs. Try and put your finger on what about each book stands out, how timely it is and how well-received the author has been. Add unicorns and pixie dust, sacrifice a virgin, poke a voodoo doll with pins and spit over your left shoulder: the answer will soon become muddled but you’ll have something for Instagram, so there’s that.

I’ve no doubt it will come down to Marilynne Robinson v. currently unknown contender. Why Marilynne Robinson?  Well, have you read her work? Her prose is mesmerizing, her plots languid, her characters deep and dark and complex. Just stunning. The buzz about her is correct; she is a genius. She deserves the award based on her collected body of work, plus Lila hit it out of the park. She’s a sure bet.

BUT… And it’s a big but, the judges become irritated when onlookers shout at them for being too predictable. That is the rub. Will the judges rule according to merit or will a wildcard overtake Robinson, just at the finish? Depends on the image they’d like to project of themselves, “they” being the judges.

That’s another thing, who are the judges?  Very Seriously Literary Judges will be more apt to choose by merit alone, regardless of convention. Young and Less Stolid Judges will veer toward the wildcard, the up and comer; they long to defy the literary canon. And I haven’t looked them up, for no other reason than I’m just plain lazy. Toddle off and form your own opinions. What am I, a machine?!

If Robinson is upset, justice will be served only if the winner is a writer whose innovation adds measurable depth and breadth to literature with a capital L. In this case, we’re to consider Robinson so much a given as to have already honored her with the virtual award, handing the actual title to THE OTHER. Translation: she gets screwed and not in a fun way.

This, loves, is how the Man Booker Prize works: when it doesn’t go madly off the rails, careening to and fro like a ping pong ball smashed by a body builder, that is. All my years of following its progress, added to experience having judged other literary awards, have taught me This Big Lesson. I am now imparting it to you, anointing the Next Great Generation of Man Booker Supposers.

When the Short List’s out we’ll see how the chips fall.

Then there will be two.

Marilynne Robinson and fill in the blank…

[curtain falls] [exeunt]

Book Links from 2011: A brief retrospective

I don't keep very good track of all the book and literary-related articles I read through the year, nor the videos I watch, either. Maybe that would be a good 2012 resolution, since by the end of the year I've ingested so much great stuff I wish I could share the best of the best of it with you all. It's a busy, hectic, over-informed world out there; we're all bound to have missed some outrageously good stuff when we're off doing other things.

What I've collected here is no reflection on my 2011 book-related reading. I'm at a loss as to how to go about finding it all again. I suppose I can't, though, without trolling through my "history" on all the computers I've used.

Quick answer: That isn't going to happen.

So, alas and alack, a mere shadow of highlights from the literary world in 2011 is the best I can do.  Hope you enjoy these bits.

 

One of my fave YouTube videos of 2011, from World Book Day:

 

 

Edinburgh International Book Festival, "The Book I Bought Today:"

 

 

Favorite laugh-out-loud book trailers of 2011:

 

 

 

 

Sebastian Barry, on On Canaan's Side and his nomination for the Booker:

 

 

Julian Barnes on winning the Man Booker Prize for The Sense of An Ending:

 

 

Téa Obreht on winning the Orange Prize for The Tiger's Wife:

 

 

Edna O'Brien, "I'm sorry books don't have the same cachet as a pair of jeans:"

 

 

From Mashable: 50 + Sites for Book Lovers.

Articles from The Atlantic:     A Tumultuous Year in Books

                                                            The Phenomenal New York Review of Books

 

The incredible, amazing 2011 upstart the Los Angeles Review of Books

From the Huffington Post: Stereotyping You By Your Favorite Book of 2011

If you care about serious writing and don't know The Millions, you should.

2012: Happy 200th Birthday, Charles Dickens!

 

Dickens' 200th Birthday… Well… Discussed by Sock Puppets (I am so sorry)

 

 

 

The "new" Charlotte Bronte manuscript.

 

In Memoriam: Writers Lost in 2011

(By no means a comprehensive list)


Vanity Fair: Slideshow – In Memoriam of Christopher Hitchens.

 

Vaclav Havel

Russell Hoban

Diana Wynne-Jones

Brian Jacques

Anne McCaffrey

Reynolds Price

Josephine Hart

Christa Wolf

 

So much richness, so little time. What have I missed? Anything you would add?

 

It’s that time: Best Books of 2011 Lists

I pity the author with a book coming out this month because you are, quite honestly, out of luck. All the majors are getting their Best Books of 2011  lists out. No one's paying attention to the new kid. My advice (worth every penny you're paying)? Consider holding off 'til next year. Better yet, wait for the spring thaw. That's when "Best Summer Reads" lists will start popping up like prairie dogs in South Dakota. Get on one of those and you're golden; publish now and you're destined to live in obscurity, tossed aside by New Year's Eve.

Personally, I've had a fantastic reading year. I haven't drawn up my list because I've been dreading the necessity of choosing. The year's been just that good. When in doubt, though, I always go with an author's looks. If two books are equally brilliant, and one author's a British or Irish man, chances are the scale tips in his favor. Does the same rule apply to women? Generally not. I am utterly sexist. And awkwardly honest.

Little doubt which two books ruled the literary roost this year. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad pretty handily steamrolled over the 2011 lot of fiction. And close behind came Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife.

 

Tigerswife Goonsquad

I read Obréht – and was awed – but for whatever reason avoided Egan. There was a little touch of the "this book is getting way too popular" about it, the sort of phenomenon that builds expectations so high you're afraid you can't  help but be disappointed. Subconsciously, that may be why I haven't yet read it. Maybe I'll get to it over the holidays, when I'll have a good, solid two weeks off work. Now that the shine isn't quite so bright, and I've forgotten what was considered so great about it, I may be better able to appreciate its charms.

I picked Obréht for the Orange Prize, assuming the panel would go with a newcomer. Otherwise my money was on Emma Donoghue's Room. I was not surprised Obréht beat her out, no offense to her remarkable ability to speak in the voice of a young boy. Impressive, that, if more than a little depressing. I went to Donoghue's author reading when she was touring the States. Normally that would could sway me, but Obreht hit a home run and I knew it.

Next comes a subject I'm still feeling a bit prickly about: THE BOOKERS. Still rubs me raw. I may have let slip my penchant for Sebastian Barry, the ever so slight preference I had for his On Canaan's Side over the other truly jaw-droppingly wonderful contenders. Then came the moment the shortlist was announced. And where oh where was Mr. Barry? Dunno, but he wasn't on the list. Reader, I was stunned. Stunned and more than a bit outraged, especially after I met him and heard him read. I melted out of my chair onto the floor. Never, outside the theatre, had I experienced such passionate delivery. It sent shivers, it really did. And prickles of tears behind my eyes. Language that beautiful is the stuff of angels.

[And right about now his wife is probably thinking, "Yes, but he leaves such a mess around the house, never picks up and talks with his mouth full of food."]

But I was forced to admit to myself then the prize was Julian Barnes's for the taking. I read some of the others, but come on! Did you read The Sense of an Ending? Well, did you? No one with a pulse could fail to be moved by prose like that. Sebastian Barry's the lyrical, poetic Irishman (swoon), but Barnes came through with a tight, concise, soul-touching masterpiece – no single word wasted. I had to come to terms with it: Barnes was flawless. And congratulations to him.

(But I had better live to see Sebastian Barry with a blasted Booker!)

 

Sebastianbarry2

 

Bestill my Dutch-Irish heart.

So, the Best of 2011 lists. They've been pouring out over the last week or two. In some cases books I'd have staked my life would have made the lists six months earlier have been bumped out the door by other, somewhat surprising choices. In a few instances the titles are completely new to me. In others it's the same old stuff I've been hearing about – and reading – all year.

Here are a couple lists I particularly liked. Books I've read are highlighted in red. Books I own but haven't read are in green, like the shamrocks in the fields:

 

Sebastianbarry2

 

(Gratuitous, I know.)

 

Salon.com – Fiction

1.    The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

2.    Pym by Mat Johnson

3.    State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

4.    The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

5.    The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (posthumous, unfinished novel)

Honorable Mentions:

1.    The Magician King by Lev Grossman

2.    Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

3.    Ghost Lights by Lydia Millet

4.    The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst (didn't finish this one)

5.    There But for The by Ali Smith (received FIVE review copies of this – a new record)

6.    Zone One by Colson Whitehead (reviewed @ BookBrowse.com)

7.    1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

8.    We the Animals by Justin Torres

9.    Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemei

10.    The Silent Land by Graham Joyce

11.    Reamde by Neal Stephenson

12.    Blueprints for Building Better Girls by Ellisa Chappell

 

 Publishers Weekly

1.    The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

2.    The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock

3.    State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

4.    After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh

5.    Bossy Pants by Tina Fey

6.    Catherine the Great by Robert Massie

7.    There But for The by Ali Smith

8.    Hemingway's Boat by Paul Hendrickson

9.    One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina

10.    Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens (bought the audio CD of this, a rare occurence)

 

The Guardian

Writers' lists of favorites from 2011. Too many to list them all, so I've selected just a few:

 

John Banville

Ordinary Dogs by Ellen Battersby

Writing Beckett's Letters by George Craig

The Anatomy of Influence by Harold Bloom

 

Julian Barnes (!)

New Selected Stories by Alice Munro

The Wine of Solitude by Irene Nemirovsky

At Last by Edward St. Aubin

The Stranger's Child by Alan Hollinghurst

 

Sebastian Barry (!)

There But for The by Ali Smith

The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg

Solace by Belinda McKeon

City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (any relation…?)

 

A.S. Byatt

There but for the by Ali Smith

King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher

 

Margaret Drabble

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (who?)

Pulse by Julian Barnes

 

Jonathan Franzen

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

[sic] by Joshua Cody

 

Alan Hollinghurst

Nikolaus Pevsner by Susie Harries

How to Disappear by Duncan Fallowell

 

Hilary Mantel

Winter King by Thomas Penn

She-Wolves by Helen Castor

 

A few quick statistics from these author lists:

#    Two most popular titles overall:    There But for the and The Stranger's Child with four votes each   (no one listed both).

#    One listed   On Canaan's Side , Two listed The Sense of an Ending (again, no one listed both).

#    Jonathan Franzen's Freedom got only one vote (snicker), but that was published in 2010. I remember because I wasted many hours reading it the last time we went to Maine.

#    Four listed Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad, but only one Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife.

#    I've never heard of more than half these books! Must do research…

 

For the full list go here. Fun stuff.

 

Kirkus Reviews

Ah, they've chosen SO MANY! I can't type all these. See them here.

I'll only note The Sense of an Ending made the list, but Egan, Obreht and Barry were slighted completely. Give me a break.

 

The New York Times

They've chosen five each: fiction and nonfiction as their overall Top 10, but have listed 100 Notable Books.

 

Top Ten – Fiction

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

 

Top Ten – Nonfiction

And So it Goes. Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens

The Boy in the Moon by Ian Brown

Malcolm X by Manning Marable

Thinking: Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahenman

A World on Fire by Amanda Foreman

 

A little slanted toward Americans, eh?

As for the 100 Notables, there's no Jennifer Egan, though Téa Obreht is  there. Also, no On Canaan's Side but they gave Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending a nod, as well as Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child.

And, as for the nonfiction, I read much less of that but the list's still interesting.

 

Ah, then. There are approximately a gazillion other lists of Bests but I couldn't cover them all. All I'm planning from here is my own Top Ten of 2011 list, which is forthcoming.

So many books listed are of interest to me. Others I'll look up, as they sound wonderful. Overall, what's most baffling is how often Alan Hollinghurst's The Stranger's Child is mentioned. I put it down about 1/3 of the way through, finding it a chore (and a bore). Apparently I missed something. Maybe I'll give it another go. Sigh.

 

Still may compile more stats about the yearly wind-up. If I get around to it you'll be the first to know.

Now it's time to wait out the posting of favorites listed by bloggers. Anyone else have a list – blogger or no? Would love to hear from you.

 

 

 

JULIAN BARNES!

THE MAN…

THE MYTH…

THE MAN BOOKER WINNER 2011

 

 

JULIANBARNES
PHOTO BY RICHARD SAKER

 

SENSEOFENDING

 

And I called it here.

That is, Sebastian Barry and I did.

That's SEBASTIAN BARRY.

And I.


(Allow her a moment of fantasized grandeur, will you?)

Man Booker Prize 2011: and then there were six…

The Big Six

Julian Barnes The Sense of an Ending (Jonathan Cape – Random House)

Carol Birch Jamrach's Menagerie (Canongate Books)

Patrick deWitt The Sisters Brothers (Granta)

Esi Edugyan Half Blood Blues (Serpent's Tail)

Stephen Kelman Pigeon English (Bloomsbury)

A.D. Miller Snowdrops (Atlantic)

Alright. We didn't see eye to eye on Sebastian Barry. No worries. Well, worries, and more than a little sense of great injustice, but if that's the way they want to be, oh well. Far be it from me, etc.

At least I agree with the inclusion of Julian Barnes. His writing is concise, packed with repressed deep emotion (SEE: Stiff upper lip, British) and an absolute marvel. If I wind up having to choose between this and any of the others (which I expect it will come down to), I'll go with Julian Barnes. In other words, right now he's my leading contender.

 

Senseofending 

 

Patrick deWitt? The Sisters Brothers is an uproariously funny western, a truly entertaining romp of a novel. But a Booker winner? Not sure about that.

To my mind it's lacking depth, the excavation into universal truths a prize-winner should represent. Not that funny isn't good. It's definitely good, but more so when it's used as a shield for a deeper, often darker emotion all readers can identify with. In The Sisters Brothers I just didn't feel that.  Read it, though. It's so much fun. It's just stricken from my choice as the potential winner.

No offense, mate. I'm glad I read ye.

 

Sistersbrothers 

 

I have copies of Carol Birch's Jamrach's Menagerie, Kelman's Pigeon English and A.D. Miller's Snowdrops. The one I'm lacking is Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues, which I've just ordered from a bookseller in the U.S. I'll read these with close attention, using Barnes as my benchmark, the book to which the others must live up in order to knock the man from the top of the heap.

I have until the 18th of October, a bit over a week per book, minus the previously read Barnes and deWitt. No problem! To make sure my bid is legitimate I will try to post it by October 16, allowing plenty of time to account for the time difference betwixt there and here.

Until then, carry on! Best of luck to all.