Monday, 12 May 2008

Best of the Bookers: The Short List

The "official" judges have spoken, and here is their short list:

Pat Barker's The Ghost Road (1995, Viking; paperback Penguin)

Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda (1988, Faber & Faber; paperback Faber)

JM Coetzee's Disgrace (1999, Secker & Warburg; paperback Vintage)

JG Farrell's The Seige of Krishnapur (1973, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, paperback Phoenix)

Nadine Gordimer's The Conservationist (1974, Cape; paperback Bloomsbury)

Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children (1981, Cape; paperback Vintage)

Read here if you want the official press release!

Just when I think Sigmund's not paying attention, he always pulls a fast one on me.

Tonight, as I was making chicken and leek pie (Jamie Oliver's recipe, highly recommended), Sigmund tuned in Radio 4 and bade me to listen up for the evening's commentary on the just-released Short List for the Best of the Booker awards. Radio 4 has a regular Arts/Entertainment program called Front Row, and if you go to their website you can utilize the Listen Again option -- and in most of our cases, listen to it for the first time. (I have helpfully provided the direct link -- just scroll down past the Boleyn girls and Doris Lessing.) If you want to skip the program, I will happily provide the following summary:

  • A.S. Byatt's Possession is a surprise no-show. Considered highly "influential," and shouldn't that be a characteristic of the "best?" (No final conclusion.)
  • Midnight's Children highly likely to win. Much cackling at Rushdie's recent bad reviews for his latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence. Isn't it ironic? cackle, cackle
  • Maybe non-winners, like Atonement, should have been considered. After all, occasionally the winner is considered a duffer.
  • Coetzee should win, says the man with the muffled voice that I had turn the volume up in order to hear.
  • No new books! Disgrace is the most recent winner (1999).
  • A few unexpected choices!
  • Doris Lessing never won the Booker, and here she won the Nobel! (slightly off-topic comment, which nevertheless underlines the rather arbitrary nature of picking "best" books.)

And now for my commentary. My first thought, of course, is: Why the heck have I been wasting so much effort on The Blind Assassin? And my second thought, naturally, is: Even though it's a miserable book, I can see why the judges fancy Disgrace. After reading Atwood, for oh these many days, I am feeling like her details get in the way of her story. Does anyone else think she's a bit of a show-off? Yes, she's clever; and I've had enough already. Is this story a universal one? Does it have timeless themes? Does it seem to contain more than it actually tells us? (I would argue that it tells us more than it seems to contain.) While Atwood tap-dances around, reading Coetzee is rather like watching Gene Kelly dance. He is so graceful, strong, and economical; he just makes it look easy.

As for the rest of the short list: Well, Rushdie was expected -- and he's next up to bat for me.

Oscar and Lucinda I've read, and if I have time I might read it again. It's a cheat, but the movie -- with Cate Blanchett, Ralph Fiennes, Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson -- is also an attractive option! Or, let's do both and then have the fun of comparing them!

I'm entirely ignorant of the others, but I will probably get to Gordimer first -- partly because she's the only female author on the list, and partly because I'd like to see how her South African themes compare to Coetzee's.

I'm feeling a little put off by the word "seige," and The Ghost Road is a wartime novel, too. I hope that Rushdie is funny -- because apparently the great novels are a little short on humor/humour. Has anyone read either of these? Heartease, we need you now!


Last word -- for now, at any rate:

We've got until July 8 to read these books and cast our votes!!


Anne said...

Well! I haven't read any of these books, so I have my work cut out for me. Overall I'm glad I held on through The Blind Assassin, but like you, I now feel that I've rather wasted some time. (I agree: she is a bit of a show-off! Good point re: the book telling us more than it actually contains.)

I saw the movie version of Oscar and Lucinda recently (I adore both Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett), and will have to get the book so that we can compare the two.

I'm going to put The English Patient aside temporarily and pick up Disgrace in the interest of getting an immediate start on the short-listers. July 8... eight weeks. Can I complete one of these books every 8 days? Doubtful, but I'll give it a go!

Anne said...

ps: LOVE that chicken and leek pie recipe!

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Ah, I didn't know about Front Row. Very interesting!

Bad Bunni said...

I know I have been slacktacular so far, but now the semester is over I can really dedicate myself to this challenge.

In reference to Atwood, I've never been a huge fan. I know the Handmaid's Tale was supposed to be this fabulous social commentary, but it really fell flat for me espcially compared to other more poignant dystopic visions like Brave New World and White Noise.

I do love Byatt. Possession really hooked me, and it's book I'm glad I read whether it makes the Bookers of Bookers or not.

But now I must hie myself to the Barnes and Noble!

Brave Sir Robin said...

Boy, I've got some work to do, don't I?

Anonymous said...

Yes, there is humor in Midnight's Children. From what I've read, I think Rushdie's big idea is Story as a force in human lives.

I have read one Carey novel, I think I'll go get O&L. For some reason I haven't been able to jump into Life of Pi. And now I have an excuse to exchange it for something else!

Chicken and leek pie sounds good. Our weather is staying cool, usually we're sweating by this date in May. Maybe I can be motivated to produce a pie. --Jenine

Anne said...

Well, I started Disgrace last night, and whereas I had to struggle to get through 20 pages of Atwood in one sitting (and, to be honest, have been struggling to get through as many of The English Patient as well), last night I breezed through 30 of Coetzee in no time. Maybe I'll actually make it through in eight days!

Alyson said...

(Sigh) I haven't read any of those books. I need to get to a library or bookstore asap!

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

I enjoyed reading Oxford and Lucinda, and the movie was good too. I'm always perplexed by what makes the Booker list and what does not. Atonement is a favorite novel of mine, but I like the first part better than the rest. Possession is already a modern classic - one I highly recommend and much better than the movie, but it is dense. Better winter reader.

Can you believe this whole week of glorious weather?

Your jammy evening below sounded fun too. I love collecting these English expressions. You don’t hear people saying jammy much these days.

JaneyV said...

Oh God Bee - I've just realised how horribly poorly read I am. Not a single one have I read! I have Possession on my shelf but it looks such heavy going I never got the enthusiasm up for it. I've never read Attwood but if the comparison between her and Gene Kelly is right I really should (I love him!) but please never ask me to read Ian McEwan again. I want the day of my life I spent reading On Chesil Beach, back !!!

I must find another book club down here - otherwise I might forget how to read!

Chicken and Leek Pie mmmmmmmmm!

Bee said...


I am a great rereader, and sadly, the book I most want to read out of this lot is the one that I've already read (Oscar and Lucinda!).

Do go back to The English Patient someday -- it is lovely -- but I understand if you want to prioritize!

Yes, Disgrace is a really engrossing read. You can "get into it" on the first page, and it really clips along. Coetzee doesn't waste time with anything that's not directly related to the story. It is a very tight narrative. What I liked best about it is that he was telling this very specific story -- but you felt it was quite symbolic of South African race/political relations (ie, it was playing out on another level).

BTW, the chicken and leek pie is from Jamie's Dinners. It has a puff pastry top and white wine in the sauce: chicken pie for grown-ups. (It was yummy.)

Sigmund is a great Radio 4 lover, and is always trying to get me to listen to more programs! I only like listening if I am cooking or in the car, though.

I loved White Noise -- and Possession, too. I am REALLY disappointed that Possession didn't make the list. I thought it was a towering achievement -- and interesting on so many different levels.

Tell us what you get at B&N!!

So what's next for you? Do you want to join me for Rushdie? How far along are you in the Assassin?

I am so glad that there's some humor in Rushdie! The other books sound really dreary.

What are you going to choose from this list? Have you read my Best of Bookers post (April)? It explains what we're doing here.

I like that typo, "Oxford and Lucinda!" It certainly would be a different story if Lucinda were to have gone to Oxford instead!

I agree: Possession is a great winter book.

I had another jammy day today!! (Tennis in Blewbury; will post about it tonight.)

I just realized, reading your comment, that my metaphor about dance was confusing. Atwood's style is overly embellished and detailed, I thought -- tapdancing, but going nowhere. I was comparing Coetzee to Kelly -- as he covers a lot of ground with graceful, minimal (seeming) effort. Of course, Kelly tapdanced too -- hence the confusion. Bad metaphor!!

There are just so many books in the world -- anyone can feel badly read, depending on the list.

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

How funny about that typo! I really do have Oxford on my mind. Silly me as the appeal of Oscar and Lucinda was the wild Australian setting. Maybe I should get more sleep!

As for those of you who haven't read these books - it doesn't reflect badly on you at all. Everyone has different tastes/criteria. If people only read Booker winners, new writers wouldn't stand a chance.