Man Booker Prize 2013 Longlist Possibilities

I always enjoy the air of anticipation this time of year, less than a month away from the announcement of the 2013 Man Booker Prize Longlist in London on July 23. Obtaining the over one hundred eligible books is a challenge for the American reader, as many books are not as yet distributed in the States. However, because of several wonderful bookstores that I frequent and a great local public library, I have managed to find and read five of the eligible books so far. All five are excellent novels, and I recommend all of them to you.

English writer Jim Crace’s Harvest is set in an unnamed English village in the unspecified distant past. It’s a spellbinding mood piece, layered with plot twists and a fascinating array of characters that reflect the class and caste structure of the time. Crace’s pacing of the narrative is first rate, as is his lyrical writing style.

Colm Toibin, the outstanding Irish writer, has produced a short literary gem in The Testament of Mary. He chronicles the thoughts of Mary of Nazareth in her last years residing in Ephesus. Mary is depicted as a mournful mother, confused about the meaning and purpose of her son’s life and the turbulent aftermath of his death. Her ambiguity about the deity of Jesus is contrasted with the unquestioning faith of some of the Apostles who care for her.

The Pakistani author, Mohsin Hamid, dazzles us with his satiric novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.  The setting is an unspecified South Asian nation, but it is crystal clear that Hamid is dissecting the social and commercial fabric of his homeland, especially life in the big cities of Lahore and Karachi. The novel is fraught with ironies and contradictions, much like Pakistan itself. Although I found some superfluous bathos in the storyline and characters, in its entirety the book manages to be an entertaining and satisfying read.

Ghana Must Go is the debut novel of Taiye Selasi, a woman born in London, raised in the States, to parents born in Nigeria and Ghana. It’s a splendid depiction of both the psychological and emotional struggles of an immigrant family in the United States, as well as life in post-colonial West Africa. Selasi’s characters are nuanced, and she unrelentingly probes their minds until suppressed emotions and feelings are revealed.

Finally, Irish author Colum McCann covers 165 years of Irish and American history in his amazing novel TransAtlantic. The construct of the book is brilliant. He weaves actual historic events such as Frederick Douglass’ fundraising trip to Ireland at the onset of the Great Famine and former Senator George Mitchell brokering the Good Friday Accords into the fabric of his incredible fictionalized narrative. It is historical fiction at its best, allowing us to see how  troubled pasts can eventually lead to hopeful futures.                           


Booker Prize Winner Film Adaptations

The Life of Pi, nominated this year for an Oscar for Best Film, is the ninth Booker Prize winning novel to have been adapted to the cinema. Two adaptations have captured the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture. These are The English Patient and Schindler’s List (the latter being based on Thomas Keneally’s novel, Schindler’s Ark). The other cinematic adaptations are Remains of the Day, Disgrace, Heat and Dust, Possession, Last Orders and Oscar and Lucinda.   





My Course on the Man Booker Prize

I will be teaching a course on the Man Booker Prize beginning Tuesday, January 22, 2013, at the Oakton Community College Emeritus program in Skokie. I decided on teaching this class at Oakton when twenty-two people attended my presentation on the “Man Booker Prize” in Retrospect” at The Book Stall in Winnetka last April. Interest in the Man Booker grows each year in the States, especially with the popularity of the last two winners, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies and Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending.

The Man Booker Prize is the top literary achievement in the English-speaking world outside of the United States. Novels by authors who are citizens of the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British commonwealth) and Ireland are selected annually for juried competition. Publishers submit novels to a Man Booker review committee each year and the judges are charged with reading about 120 novels in a six to seven time span. A long list of 12 novels is announced in July, and a shortlist of six is announced in September. The winning novel is selected in October at a ceremony in London that is growing so grand that is now getting to be known, in some circles, as the Literary Academy Awards.

I have read all the winners since competition began in 1969. And with just a handful of exceptions, I enjoyed these novels immensely. In reading many of these novels you get a literary perspective of the rise and fall of the British Empire, from the perspectives of both the colonizer and colonized.

If you have interest in taking my course, which meets from 10:00 am until 11:30 am on six consecutive Tuesdays, starting this coming January 22, please call the Oakton Emeritus office at 847-635-1414 or visit the Emeritus website at

“The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”: A Review

Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry tells an intriguing tale of one man’s compelling need to perform an act of kindness in the world. At the onset of the novel, we learn that Harold Fry, a sixty-five year old Devon retiree from a brewery, has been living a life of quiet desperation for many, many years. He lacks purpose and intimacy in his life.

Then, out of the clear blue sky, Harold receives a letter from a former brewery co-worker, Queenie Hennessy, informing him that she has terminal cancer and is in a hospice located in Berwick-upon-Tweed. Harold, at first, responds with a letter of reply to Queenie extending his best wishes. It turns out that Queenie was exceptionally kind to Harold in the past, and somehow he feels that a letter is a rather weak gesture of response to the serious condition of his erstwhile colleague and friend.

Harold, while still contemplating whether or not to post the letter to Queenie, stops into a petrol station to buy a sandwich. Harold mentions Queenie’s condition with the garage girl behind the counter. The garage girl relates a story about her aunt who miraculously survives her apparent terminal cancer. She tells him: “You have to believe. That’s what I think. It’s not about medicine and all that stuff. You have to believe a person can get better. There is so much in the human mind we don’t understand. But, you see, if you have faith, you can do anything.”

These words are Harold’s epiphany. He vows to walk from his home in Kingsbridge, in far southwestern England, to Queenie’s hospice in the far corner of northeastern England. Harold is transformed into a pilgrim whose mission is to walk to Berwick-upon-Tweed, so that Queenie can continue to live.

This is unlikely pilgrimage. Memories of his hurtful past are dredged up on the pilgrimage as his inner monologue ultimately gives him the strength and will to break the emotional impasse that caused so much pain for him over the years. Harold reawakens his sense of discovery and observation of people and things as he progresses on his pilgrimage. He learns to overcome his great loss, finding redemption in the end.

Ms. Joyce has done well for herself in this debut novel. It is a major literary achievement to make the Man Booker Prize longlist. I thank her for this inspiring novel.


“Skios”: A Review

Skios is Michael Frayn’s entry for the Man Booker Prize this year. Frayn, a septuagenarian British Renaissance Man (he is the premier translator of Chekhov’s plays in the UK), has carefully crafted a novel of mistaken identity at the Fred Toppler Foundation’s annual Great European House Party on the remote Greek island of Skios. The book is hilarious.

Oscar Wilde himself would be proud in the way Frayn concocts a plot where the roguish Oliver Fox assumes the identity of scholar, Dr. Norman Wilfred, the event’s keynote speaker. This occurs despite Fox’s handsome, thirtyish features, punctuated by a mop of very blond hair, while Dr. Wilfred is balding, frumpish, and fiftyish.

The sly Fox charms and mesmerizes an interesting array of supporting female characters. These include Nikki, the event creator, Mrs. Fred Toppler, a former American strip tease artist whose inherited wealth funds this Greek shindig, and the enigmatic Mrs. Skorbatova, the wife of a Russian mobster.

Although Skios is a delightfully entertaining read, I think that perhaps it is better suited for either film or television, media in which Mr. Frayn has considerable experience. I can just see Owen Wilson playing the role of Oliver Fox!

High on Shuklaji Street

Jeet Thayil’s debut novel, Narcopolis, takes the reader on an emotional roller coaster ride of Bombay’s red light, drug-dealing Shuklaji Street in the 1970s. The narrator is Dom Ullis, a Christian from Kerala, immersed at one-time in the hard drug culture scene of Bombay (now Mumbai), and a biography that closely emulates that of the author. Thayil is an accomplished poet and musician, and the words of his novel establish a beat, a pulsating rhythm that guides the narrative from start to finish.

Most of the action takes place in Rashid’s drug den on Shuklaji Street. Opium, cocaine and heroin are used by the regulars that include Ullis, the eunuch, turned prostitute, Dimple, and Salim, a daytime watch store clerk, who turns into a gangster’s thug at night. There is also an interesting side story relating the history of Mr. Lee, a Chinese man residing in Bombay and who is a user at Rashid’s. Mr. Lee’s story brings us into the throes of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, an expansive historical event which is juxtaposed nicely with the “sit around, get stoned” culture of Rashid’s rooms on Shuklaji Street.

This is not an easy book to read, but if you can make out the multitude of Indian street terms through context, and not be turned off by jolting sexual and drug descriptive narrative, the literary journey is well worth the ride. Thayil’s characterization is amazing, and his story-telling skills are finely crafted. I believe that Narcopolis has a decent chance to land on the Man Booker Prize shortlist this September.

Man Booker Prize longlist announced

It certainly is a surprising Man Booker Prize longlist for 2012. Four of the books are debut novels, and only Hilary Mantel is a previous Booker winner. Here is the list:

The Yips — by Nicola Barker

The Teleportation Accident –by Ned Beauman

Philida — by Andre Brink

The Garden of Evening Mists— by Tan Twan Eng

Skios— by Michael Frayn

The Unlikely Pilgramage of Harold Fry — by Rachel Joyce

Swimming Home —by Deborah Levy

Bringing up the Bodies — Hilary Mantel

The Lighthouse — by Alison Moore

Umbrella — by Will Self

Narcopolis — by Jeet Thayil

Communion Town — by Sam Thompson

Currently only four of these twelve novels are available in the U.S. As soon as I can obtain copies of these books and read them, I will begin posting my reviews. Stay tuned! Continue reading