I have now finished 11 of the 13 Booker long-listed novels, with only Hystopia by David Means and The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee remaining. And that’s a good thing too, because the short list announcement will be coming soon, on September 13th. I have about another week. I should finish on time, if I keep reading steadily.
Since I wrote here last, I’ve finished three books, all of them pretty long. Only one of them I really liked, which is indicative of the Shadow Panel’s response to these books overall. There are some good ones on the list, but not as many as we’d like, and not as many as it seems like there should be. There have been too many books that are clearly ambitious and smart but are too messy or aren’t fun to read. And there are too many books that are fine but not inspiring, not what I think of as Booker-quality. Obviously the “official” judges panel and my shadow panel don’t agree on what makes a great book.
But it’s also the case that the judges don’t pick books from the entire pool of eligible ones; instead, publishers have a certain number of titles they are allowed to submit, and they choose which particular ones they think have the best chance to win. The Booker judges this year had a pool of 155 publisher-submitted books to choose from. That’s a lot, yes, but there are surely great books not in that pool. I wonder how the prize would be different if the process of selecting books were different.
Anyway, here’s what I’ve read lately:
- Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madelein Thien. The story at the heart of the book is interesting, the history is interesting, but the book as a whole is not. It had its moments, but it felt too long. The novel is about several generations of families in China as they make their way through the Cultural Revolution and the protests in Tiananmen Square. They are musicians, and I liked the novel’s ideas about art and culture. But the reading experience dragged; I wanted more forward propulsion and liveliness.
- All That Man Is by David Szalay. This one I enjoyed, although, like Eileen, it often made me a little queasy. Its characters are unpleasant, difficult, troubled men. In a series of what are really short stories, although this book is described as a novel, Szalay takes us through a life, giving us stories about men — different in each chapter — from late adolescence through old age. It speaks well to Szalay’s abilities as a writer that I liked this book, because I wasn’t a fan of the project as a whole when I started. I mean, queasiness-inducing stories about troubled men aren’t exactly a draw for me. But I read this one with interest and engagement. Szalay is great at creating believable, complex characters and putting them into situations that reveal who they are.
- Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy. This was another slog, I’m afraid. It tells the story of two troubled people as they go through one day, and the story of their relationship was enjoyable. But there were too many tangents, too many long passages of stream-of-consciousness narration, too many vignettes between chapters that are loosely-related to the main story at best. I laughed now and then at one of the main characters, Meg, and her dark take on the world. But there wasn’t enough of interest here to make it a good read.
We’ll see how the last two books go!