It’s that time of year, the real beginning of the year. School is back in session. The heat of the mid-Atlantic region may soon abate to a level that my cool weather adoring self finds tolerable. Books arrive in droves at Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr, PA where I am now an official member of the staff — which is about the best job ever.
The real sign that autumn is approaching is that this Tuesday the 2014 Man Booker Prize Shortlist was announced. The handicapping and betting won’t be big news on the bookternet for several weeks yet, but I will be following the hoopla closely. It’s my favorite sporting event of the year — a three-month literary horse race — it never fails to entertain. This year’s nominees are:
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
J by Howard Jacobson
The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
How to be Both by Ali Smith
Each year I approach Booker season — a three-month long literary horse race — with excitement, determination, and a lurking sense of doom. In five years of posing as a Booker devotee I have never managed to stay true to my goals. The whole sorry process kicks off in late July when the Longlist of 12-13 titles are sprung on the public. Because the prize covers books published between October 1 of the previous year and September 30 of the current one, it’s a given that a number haven’t yet been published. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that it’s UK publishing dates that are considered and every year the list contains books that won’t be available in the States until after the prize is awarded, and even some that don’t even have US publishers. Then the hunt is on. Which can I get, and where? I love this bit, really it’s like a treasure hunt and it is inexplicably satisfying.
Once some or all of the titles are in my greedy little hands, the question shifts to which of them I actually want to read now. There are always several I find intimidating (I still have a visceral feeling of dread when I consider opening Will Self’s Umbrella which made the shortlist in 2012, maybe someday, but maybe not). I like to think of myself as being a literary omnivore, but the truth is I like to take the easy road which means I always start with the most accessible and commercial titles that made the grade. In 2012 I gobbled up Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and Michael Frayn’s Skios. The only challenging title I tackled was Ned Beauman’s wonderful, funny, and weird novel The Teleportation Accident. 2012 was a unique year in that I had already read the eventual winner, Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. I admit that the only other finalist I managed to read was Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse. The rest of the shortlisted titles are still on my bookshelf, a bit buried at the moment, waiting for me to finally spend some quality time with them.
Last year was even more pathetic. I read Colum McCann’s Transatlantic, and eventually Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, both of which were on the longlist and never even touched any of the shortlisted books, not even Eleanor Catton’s winning The Luminaries. Absurd given that all six of the finalist are books I think are in my reading sweet spot. Sometimes I feel like the Booker Shortlist is a red flag that keeps me from reading interesting books rather than a tool for discovering new and exciting fiction.
Will this year be different? Can I overcome this self-created ‘curse’? As of this moment, I have hope. When the longlist was unveiled I was ecstatic that I had four out of the 13 nominated books already in my possession — largely an artifact of the expansion of the prize rules that enabled the inclusion of American writers for the first time. I even had a fifth in hand because I was lucky enough to snag an ARC of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks via a colleague at Book Expo America (BEA) back in May. Of course, I’ve still only managed to read two books on the longlist — the Mitchell (which I would have read nomination or no) and David Nicholls’ Us (I got an ARC via Main Point Books). Both books are great reads and both will sell very well. But true to form, neither was on the list of finalists announced this week.
Six books to read before October 14th? The question isn’t can I read that many, I read on average 8-10 books in a month, but given my required reading for book groups and author events, can I still make myself read them? I’m counting that this semi-public confessional will push me to overcome my inertia. For once can I gain the right to handicap the prize announcement based on knowledge rather than a hunch? At the very least I intend beat my personal best, set in 2011, when I read three of the finalists.
As you can see from the picture at the top of the post, I’ve got four of the six books in hand (plus an egalley of J — which makes five with paper copies of J and The Lives of Others en route). I’m ready to read, though I may have to draw lots to see which book will be first.
Anyone else reading through the list? Thoughts about the slate of nominees? I’ll be sharing mine as I finish them and I hope this semi-public promise is enough to keep me true to my word. Fingers crossed.