Saturday, August 29, 2009

Shortlisting the Booker

2009 Booker Prize Judges

I used to be a book award groupie. The National Book Award and Booker Prize were the highlights of the fall - the ‘90s WERE incredibly boring. But the Booker seems to be a far bigger deal, beginning with the longlist in the summer, then the exciting shortlist in the fall, with an almost campy feeling to the carryings-on and arguments among the English fans - as if it were a review of the Stones at the halftime Superbowl concert or something.

Wouldn’t it be fun if Americans were like that!

Then reality kicked in when a judge for an American book award very kindly told me that he/she did not have time to read all 120-some books, could only commit 50 or so pages to books that seemed disappointing, and then concentrated on the ones that seemed most worthy. Publishers submitted the books for commercial reasons - the judges had to winnow the list down - and of course read seriously the final list. This didn’t disillusion me: it made perfect sense.

At our house we have established something we call the Midwest Booker Prize, based on this fine not-reading-every-word principle. We winnow the Booker longlist, at least those books we can find in the U.S., so that awestruck readers like ourselves don’t feel impelled to read the mediocre books that probably slip in there for political & friendship reasons. The leading couple (us) dashes to various independent bookstores (or libraries) in search of Booker Prize longlist books, reading them, skimming them, judging them, then putting them on our Shortlist or crossing them off into oblivion. We’ve read a few of the books - or, let’s face it, we’ve read parts of four books we’ve managed to find - and so far two have made our list. (It would make a great reality show.)

1. The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt. Probably unbeatable. A classic about the complexity of turn-of-the-century children’s lit, the writers who wrote it, the Arts and Crafts movement, Fabianism, fantasy, and the children of artists. Reviewed here.

2. Me Cheeta by James Lever, on the basis of 150 pages. A monkey comedy classic and spoof of celebrity autobiographies. Cheeta, the chimp who is Tarzan’s sidekick in the movies, tells all, bitching about the stars, animal rights, his own choice to be an actor rather than replaced by digital pixels, the pranks of Johnny Weissmuller and David Niven, the cocaine parties, the obnoxiousness of Lupe Velez, and more.

Maureen O'Sullivan, Cheeta, and Johnny Weissmuller

We have rejected two:

1. Sarah Waters's popular The Little Stranger. Didn't like it. (Sorry.)

2. Samantha Harvey's The Wilderness. Ditto.

We would read more, but we seem to be on the "longlist" for Brooklyn at the library, and some of the other books won’t be published till September.

Although I'm something of a cynic, I have read with great interest many bloggers who read the whole longlist for the Booker Prize. Here are some thoughts by other bloggers on the four books we've considered (and I'm trying not to pick the famous blogs, because we can all read them any time).

1. Fantasy Book Critic says about A. S. Byatt's The Children’s Book: "Despite its length and many characters and threads, the novel flows so well that I read it in two days and I was extremely sad to see it ending...."

2. 2009 - The Year in Books says about James Lever's Me Cheeta: "Me Cheeta is an ode to Johnny Weissmuller, the best friend Cheeta ever had. ...At times it's laugh-out-loud funny, and yet there's a sense of poignancy throughout the book that makes the reader stop and think about the cruelties that humans can inflict upon each other (not to mention animals)."

3. Chazz W. says about Samantha Harvey's The Wilderness (rejected by us, but liked by many): "…well, these characters will probably fade from memory fairly rapidly, much like the people in Jake’s life will fade from his mind."

4. Asking the Wrong Questions says about Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger (liked by many, and a mixed review by ATWQ): "It may not be a ghost story, but it is uncomfortably reminiscent of the kind of horror novel that gives its genre a bad name--the kind that expects us to turn off empathy and enjoy the suffering of others.

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