Sunday, 31 May 2009

Book of the Week - Geoff Dyer; Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is the fourth novel from Geoff Dyer, who has also published a number of non-fiction books on a range of topics. The novel came out earlier this year as a paperback from Canongate, and was well-reviewed by most of the major papers. It has continued to receive notice, this week winning the Wodehouse Prize for Comic Writing, and is now into reprints. As a result a Gloucester Old Spot pig has been named after the book. Despite the nature of the prize, this is a fundamentally serious novel and may feature in other prize lists later in the year.

Geoff Dyer was born in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, in 1958 and was educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. His first book, Ways of Telling: The Work of John Berger, was published in 1986. His first novel was The Colour of Memory (1989), set in Brixton, south London, in the 1980s. His non-fiction includes a book about jazz entitled But Beautiful (1991), winner of a Somerset Maugham Award; The Missing of the Somme (1994), which was adapted for BBC Radio 3 and broadcast on the eve of the 80th anniversary of the battle of the Somme; a book about D. H. Lawrence entitled Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of D. H. Lawrence (1997), which was shortlisted for the National Book Critics' Circle Fiction Award (USA); and a collection of essays, Anglo-English Attitudes: Essays, Reviews, Misadventures, 1984-99, published in 1999. Other novels include the Search (1993), a complex narrative about a woman's search for her missing husband, and Paris Trance (1998), chronicling the sex and drug-fuelled adventures of two couples living in Paris.

"Jeff Atman, a journalist, is in Venice to cover the opening of the Venice Art Biennale. He's expecting to see a load of art, go to a lot of parties and drink too many bellinis. He's not expecting to meet the spellbinding Laura, who will completely transform his few days in the city. Another city, another assignment: this time on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi. Amid the crowds, ghats and chaos of India's holiest Hindu city a different kind of transformation lies in wait. A beautifully told story of erotic love and spiritual yearning."

Monday, 25 May 2009

Man Booker Prize bibliography 1971



In a Free State. VS Naipaul, Deutsch, London, 1971. Relatively common - £30 or above in dustwrapper. However, high end signed copy £400 - 600. Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born August 17, 1932, in Trinidad, where his grandfather, an indentured worker, had come from India. An agnostic, Naipaul very early experienced a profound alienation, both from the close-knit family life of his Brahmin ancestors and from the social and political life of his native Trinidad. He won a scholarship to University College in Oxford, and subsequently made his home in England. In 2001 Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for literature.

"The novel is set in a free state of Africa at a time of civil conflict when a once-ruling tribe is being decimated. But for English people like Bobby and Linda, driving back from the capital to their expatriates' compound, the roads are open. Neutral, white, protected, they have both in their different ways found liberation in Africa, and they too might be said to be 'in a free state'. But their neutrality will not last; there is a danger on the open road. Exploiter and exploited: it is one of the conditions of life in a free state that the roles should ceaselessly shift. Ths is not the Africa of romance or 'service', but something infinitely more ambiguous."


The Big Chapel. Thomas Kilroy, Faber and Faber, London, 1971. Relatively uncommon, but available at present for £30 - 40.
Thomas Kilroy, an Irish playwright and novelist, was born on 23 September 1934 in Green Street, Callan, County Kilkenny and studied at University College, Dublin. In his early career he was play editor at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. In the 1980s, he sat on the board of Field Day Theatre Company, founded by Brian Friel and Stephen Rea in 1980, and was Director of its touring company. He became Professor of English in University College, Galway, a post from which he resigned in 1989 to concentrate on writing. He now lives in County Mayo and is a member of the Irish Academy of Letters, the Royal Society of Literature, and Aosdána. He has published widely, but The Big Chapel is his only novel, and in addition to being shortlisted for the 1971 Booker Prize it was also the winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize. It is a novel about a man, a family and a town.

"Basing his work upon a notorious clerical scandal of Victorian Ireland, Thomas Kilroy has written an anatomy of religious violence that remains relevant. In scenes that range from the private and lyrical to the panorama of a whole community in convulsion he draws upon a deep knowledge of the history and folklore of nineteenth-century Ireland.
While there is a great deal of humour in The Big Chapel it is, finally, a work of grave tragic proportions. It is the characters however that remain longest in the memory. Father Lannigan, the anguished demagogue, the man haunted by the implications of his own revolution. Emerine Scully, a man unable to choose, at a time when all men are faced by choice. And Horace Percy Butler, landlord and amateur scientist, a comic, tragic character who is quite unlike anyone else in Irish fiction. The novel is punctuated with extracts from Butler's journal which is itself a remarkable tour de force."

Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Doris Lessing, Jonathan Cape, London 1971. Readily available at £10 or less.
This book links two key phases in the career of the 2007 Nobel Prize winner, who was the daughter of British parents but was born in Iran in 1919 and grew up in South Africa. She left school and home at an early age, finally moving to England in 1949. There she began her career as a novelist, publishing The Grass is Singing in 1950. During the 1950s she worked on what was to become 5 novels in the Children of Violence series, and in 1962 she gained international notice for her novel The Golden Notebook. Often cited as a heroic figure to feminists, Lessing has continued to write novels, graphic novels, librettos and essays, including works influenced by science fiction and Sufi mysticism. She won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007.

"Penniless, rambling and incoherent, a man is found wandering at night on London's Embankment. Taken to hospital and heavily sedated, he tells the doctors of his incredible fantastical voyage, adrift on the ocean, landing on unknown shores, flying on the back of a huge white bird. Identified as Charles Walker, a Cambridge Classics professor, he is visited by family and friends, each revealing clues to the nature of his breakdown: both his young wife, Felicity, and his mistress, Constance, have been troubled by his cold detachment; his fellow dons are bewildered by Watkins's recent anti-social outburst and anarchistic theories on the futility of education. As the doctors try to cure him, Watkins begins a fierce battle to hold on to his magnificent inner world, as it gradually acquires a greater reality than the everyday...An extraordinary blend of fantasy and realism, Briefing for a Descent into Hell is one of Doris Lessing's most brilliantly achieved novels; it links her early work, which explored the nature of subjectivity, with her later experiments in science fiction."

St. Urbain's Horseman, Mordecai Richler, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1971. Readily available at under £20.
Mordecai Richler, CC (January 27, 1931 – July 3, 2001) was a Canadian author, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and essayist. The son of a scrapyard dealer, Richler was born and raised on St. Urbain Street in the Mile End area of Montreal. He enrolled in Sir George Williams College (now Concordia University) to study English but dropped out before completing his degree. He moved to Paris, France at age nineteen, intent on following in the footsteps of a previous generation of literary exiles, the so-called Lost Generation of the 1920s. Richler returned to Montreal in 1952, working briefly at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, then moved to London, England in 1954. Worrying "about being so long away from the roots of my discontent", he returned to Montreal in 1972, but continued to spend part of each year in London.
Throughout his career, Richler wrote acerbic journalistic commentary and delighted in the role of contrarian provocateur. He was an iconoclast with little tolerance for pretense or pomposity. In a characteristic putdown, Richler called Canadian film entrepreneurs "snivelling little greasers on the make." Richler contributed to The Atlantic Monthly, Look, and The New Yorker. In his later years, Richler was a newspaper columnist for The National Post and Montreal's The Gazette. He was often critical of Quebec and Canadian nationalism. Another favorite Richler target was the government-subsidized Canadian literary movement of the 1970s and 80s. Richler was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 2001, just a few months before his death.He wrote eleven novels, St.Urbain's Horseman being the first of two to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

"St. Urbain’s Horseman is a complex, moving, and wonderfully comic evocation of a generation consumed with guilt – guilt at not joining every battle, at not healing every wound. Thirty-seven-year-old Jake Hersh is a film director of modest success, a faithful husband, and a man in disgrace. His alter ego is his cousin Joey, a legend in their childhood neighbourhood in Montreal. Nazi-hunter, adventurer, and hero of the Spanish Civil War, Joey is the avenging horseman of Jake’s impotent dreams. When Jake becomes embroiled in a scandalous trial in London, England, he puts his own unadventurous life on trial as well, finding it desperately wanting as he steadfastly longs for the Horseman’s glorious return. Irreverent, deeply felt, as scathing in its critique of social mores as it is uproariously funny, St. Urbain’s Horseman confirms Mordecai Richler’s reputation as a pre-eminent observer of the hypocrisies and absurdities of modern life."

Goshawk Squadron, Derek Robinson. London, Heinemann, 1971. Reasonably common for around £20 in dustwrapper.
Derek Robinson (born 1932) is a British author best known for his military aviation novels full of black humour. He has also written several books on some of the more sordid events in the history of Bristol, his home town, as well as guides to rugby. Goshawk Squadron was his first novel, and the only one so far to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
After attending Cotham Grammar School, Robinson served in the Royal Air Force as a fighter plotter. He has a History degree from Cambridge University, where he attended Downing College, has worked in advertising and as a broadcaster on radio and television. He was a qualified rugby referee for over thirty years and is a life member of Bristol Society of Rugby Referees. He was married in 1964.[5

Set during the height of World War I in January 1918, Goshawk Squadron follows the misfortunes of the titular (fictional) British fighter squadron on the Western Front. For Stanley Woolley, commanding officer of Goshawk Squadron, the romance of chivalry in the clouds is just a myth. The code he drums into his men is simple and savage: shoot the enemy in the back before he knows you're there. Even so, he believes the whole squadron will be dead within three months. Woolley has returned from medical leave and immediately sets about training his pilots in a demanding and realistic regimen, which the novices find objectionable and unreasonable. His lesson, to be drummed into his men over and over, is that they are there to kill, not to survive. This attitude manifests itself in many ways, for example, Woolley's refusal to request Sopwith Camels or Pups for his squadron. The men insist that these aircraft have better performance than their SE-5a's, but Woolley refuses on the grounds that the SE-5a is a solid and steadier gun platform than those faster and more maneuverable planes. The chapters are appropriately numbered and named according to meteorological gale force measurements. The story, and intensity of combat, build gradually until the end of the book, when the Germans launch the Ludendorff Offensive. A sub-plot of the story is the British corps command's requirement that Woolley offer up one of his men for court-martial (and certain conviction) for the accidental death of a French restaurateur (the hapless fellow fell to his death when the gendarmes burst into his place to break up a squadron party). The role of sacrificial lamb keeps changing, as each man Woolley selects is killed in action before he can be arrested. Death is so arbitrary and frequent that Woolley can't even remember his pilot's names, though several times he asks after Mackenzie (from Hornet's Sting) before sheepishly recalling that the man is dead.A monumental work at the time of its original release, Booker-shortlisted Goshawk Squadron is now viewed as a classic in the mode of Catch 22. Wry, brutal, cynical and hilarious, the men of Robinson's squadron are themselves an embodiment of the maddening contradictions of war: as much a refined troop of British gentleman as they are a vicious band of brothers hell-bent on staying alive and winning the war.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor. Reasonably uncommon, and costing £40 or more at present.
Elizabeth Coles was born in Reading, Berkshire in 1912. She was educated at The Abbey School, Reading, and worked as a governess, as a tutor and as a librarian. In 1936, she married John Michael Taylor, a businessman. She lived in Penn, Buckinghamshire, for almost all her married life. She wrote twelve novel, with her first (At Mrs. Lippincote's) being published in 1945. In addition, her short stories were published in various magazines and collected in four volumes. She also wrote a children's book. Taylor's work is mainly concerned with the nuances of "everyday" life and situations, which she writes about with dexterity. Her shrewd but affectionate portrayals of middle class and upper middle class English life won her an audience of discriminating readers, as well as loyal friends in the world of letters. She died at age 63 of cancer. Taylor has been compared to Jane Austen, Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Bowen. In recent years new interest has been kindled by movie makers in her work. French director Francois Ozon, has made The Real Life of Angel Deverell (2007). American director Dan Ireland made a screen adaptation of Taylor's Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (2005).

"When Mrs. Palfrey, a genteel, elderly widow, arrives with her possessions at the formerly elegant Claremont Hotel in London, she expects "something quite different." Planning to stay at least a month, possibly permanently, she prefers her independence in this aging London hotel to living in Scotland near her daughter, who begrudges the attention she pays her. A variety of elderly eccentrics call the Claremont home--an aging "actress," a ditzy busybody, a haughty observer of the social niceties, a woman who fancies herself an ingénue. The residents put up a good front, but their loneliness and boredom are obvious--no one visits them, they rarely leave the hotel, and nothing in their lives changes very much.

When she falls while walking one day, Mrs. Palfrey is rescued by Ludovic Meyer, a struggling young writer. Because of his kindness and her pleasure in his attention, she invites him to dinner, where the residents assume he is her grandson Desmond. Ludo/Desmond is everything that the other residents of the hotel long for--he genuinely cares for Mrs. Palfrey, he listens to her, and he recognizes her value. Having never known a normal family life, Ludo needs Mrs. Palfrey as much as she needs him, and she happily becomes his much-needed "grandmother."

As the two develop a relationship, Mrs. Palfrey reminisces about her married life, teaching Ludo about the many kinds of love and all its pleasures, and he, having failed in past relationships, begins to understand what love means, blossoming under her attention. He takes notes as Mrs. Palfrey shares her past for a story he plans to write about her life and her experiences at the Claremont, where the informal motto is "We Aren't Allowed to Die Here." As time passes and life becomes more complicated for both of them, their relationship is tested.

Filled with hilariously eccentric characters who respond to aging in different ways, this 1975 novel shows a feisty Mrs. Palfrey challenging convention by reveling in her relationship Ludo. With an unerring eye for the telling detail and the perfectly revealing comment, the author brings universal themes to vibrant life--the passage of time, the aging process, the compromises we make, and our continuing need to be accepted. The author never resorts to caricature as she makes her wry observations, respecting her characters even when presenting them in sometimes hilarious scenes. In this sweetly romantic comic masterpiece, old age is shown as a stage in life, not its conclusion."

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Book of the Week and bibliography - Sarah Waters, The Little Stranger

The Little Stranger is the fifth novel from Sarah Waters, who is now an established and popular writer. Consequently, the print run will be large and signed first editions relatively easily available. However, the novel is well worth picking up and I also provide below an update on her earlier novels and their current values.

Sarah Waters was born in Wales in 1966. She has a Ph.D. in English Literature and has been an associate lecturer with the Open University. She has won a Betty Trask Award, the Somerset Maugham Award and was twice shortlisted for the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. In 2003, she was named Author of the Year three times: by the British Book Awards, The Booksellers’ Association and Waterstone’s Booksellers. She was also chosen as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists in 2003. Fingersmith won the CWA Ellis Peters Dagger Award for Historical Crime Fiction and the South Bank Show Award for Literature and both Fingersmith and The Night Watch were shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange prizes. Tipping the Velvet, Affinity and Fingersmith have all been adapted for television. The Night Watch is currently in development with the BBC. Sarah Waters lives in south London.

“In a dusty post-war summer in rural Warwickshire, a doctor is called to a patient at lonely Hundreds Hall. Home to the Ayres family for over two centuries, the Georgian house, once grand and handsome, is now in decline, its masonry crumbling, its gardens choked with weeds, the clock in its stable yard permanently fixed at twenty to nine. Its owners – mother, son and daughter – are struggling to keep pace with a changing society, as well as with conflicts of their own. But are the Ayreses haunted by something more sinister than a dying way of life? Little does Dr Faraday know how closely, and how terrifyingly, their story is about to become entwined with his.”

Bibliography and guide to current values (May 2009)

Tipping the Velvet (Virago, 1998, paperback). £40 up for a VG or better copy.

Affinity (Virago, 1999, paperback). £30-40 up for a VG or better copy.

Fingersmith (Virago, 2002, hardcover). Still available at £10 or less.

The Night Watch (Virago, 2006, hardcover). The Trade edition available at £10 or less. The limited signed edition, 1000 copies in slipcase, available at around £25.

The Little Stranger (Virago, 2009, hardcover). Trade edition in dustwrapper. 1000 copies of a limited signed edition, without dustwrapper but in slipcase, direct from Waterstones. There is also a variant numbered 1 - 100, apparently intended for the Australian market.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Book of the Week and bibliography - China Mieville, The City and The City

China Tom Miéville was born in Norwich in 1972. The City and the City is his seventh book. He is fond of describing his work as "weird fiction" (after early 20the century pulp and horror writers such as H. P. Lovecraft), and belongs to a loose group of writers sometimes called New Weird. He is also active in left-wing politics as a member of the Socialist Workers Party. He has stood for the House of Commons for the Socialist Alliance, and published a book on Marxism and International Law. He teaches creative writing at Warwick University.

Mieville's early books are now uncommon and highly collectible in first editions. Perdido Street Station was recommended to me in 2000, and I have picked up signed firsts of it and all of his later books, including the two limited editions, along with an unsigned copy of his earlier book, King Rat. The early books are now relatively expensive, but worth keeping an eye open for. The City & the City may appeal to a broader audience than his earlier genre books, and has been highlighted in a couple of national papers.

" When the body of a murdered woman is found in the extraordinary, decaying city of Bes el, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks like a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he probes, the evidence begins to point to conspiracies far stranger, and more deadly, than anything he could have imagined. Soon his work puts him and those he cares for in danger. Borlu must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other. With shades of Kafka and Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler and 1984 , "The City & The City" is a murder mystery taken to dazzling metaphysical and artistic heights."

Bibliography and guide values (May 2009) (signed copies significantly more unless stated).

King Rat (1998, MacMillan, London, paperback). Can still be picked less than £20. (May 2010 update - £30).

Perdido Street Station (2000, MacMillan, London, Hardcover). Around £50. (May 2010 update £100-120).

The Scar (2002, MacMillan, London). Hardcover and a limited edition paperback of 600 copies, signed. Each can be obtained for around £15. (May 2010 update - no change).

The Tain (2002, PS Publishing). A novella, 300 signed hardcover copies according to the publisher's website, and 500 paperback. Currently £140 for the paperback and £200 for the hardcover. (May 2010 update - no change).

Iron Council (2004, MacMillan, London). 1000 signed slipcased copies (£20 currently), and a trade edition (£10). (May 2010 update - no change).

Looking for Jake (2005, MacMillan). Includes The Tain and some short stories. £10. (May 2010 update - £20).

Un Lun Dun (2007, MacMillan, London). A children's book. £10. (May 2010 update - has become uncommon. £20 - 50).

The City & the City (2009, MacMillan, London). (May 2010 update £35-45).
Also published as a limited edition by Subterranean Press - Limited: 500 signed numbered cloth bound copies (£50 on the secondary market) Lettered: 26 deluxe bound copies, housed in a custom traycase (sold out).

The Kraken (2010, Macmillan, London).
Also published as a limited edition by Subterranean Press - Limited: 500 signed numbered cloth bound copies ($75) Lettered: 26 deluxe bound copies, housed in a custom traycase ($250).

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Book of the Week - Adam Foulds, The Quickening Maze

Adam Foulds is without doubt one of the most promising young British writers, having achieved significant success both for his first novel and his poem, The Broken Sword, which I featured last year. I have no hesitation in recommending his second novel “The Quickening Maze” as my book of the week. Reviews are just beginning to appear, and suggest that he has continued to maintain the very high standard set in his first two books. Highly recommended.

"Based on real events in Epping Forest on the edge of London around 1840, "The Quickening Maze" centres on the first incarceration of the great nature poet John Clare. After years struggling with alcohol, critical neglect and depression, Clare finds himself in High Beach Private Asylum - an institution run on reformist principles which would later become known as occupational therapy. At the same time another poet, the young Alfred Tennyson, moves nearby and becomes entangled in the life and catastrophic schemes of the asylum's owner, the peculiar, charismatic Dr Matthew Allen. For John Clare, a man who had grown up steeped in the freedoms and exhilarations of nature, who thought 'the edge of the world was a day's walk away', a locked door is a kind of death. This intensely lyrical novel describes his vertiginous fall, through hallucinatory episodes of insanity and dissolving identity, towards his final madness. Historically accurate, but brilliantly imagined, the closed world of High Beach and its various inmates - the doctor, his lonely daughter in love with Tennyson, the brutish staff and John Clare himself - are brought vividly to life. Outside the walls is Nature, and Clare's paradise: the birds and animals, the gypsies living in the forest; his dream of home, of redemption, of escape. Rapturous yet precise, exquisitely written, rich in character and detail, this is a remarkable and deeply affecting book: a visionary novel which contains a world."

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Book of the Week - Colm Toibin, Brooklyn

Colm Tóibín was born in Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford in the southeast of Ireland in 1955. He was the second youngest of five children. His grandfather, Patrick Tobin, was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, as was his grand-uncle Michael Tobin. Patrick Tobin took part in the 1916 Rebellion in Enniscorthy and was subsequently interned in Frongoch in Wales. Colm Toibin's father was a teacher who was involved in the Fianna Fáil party in Enniscorthy.

Toibin has travelled and lived extensively outside Ireland. Brooklyn is his sixth novel, with the previous two (The Blackwater Lightship and The Master) having both been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The critics have been full of praise for this novel, and there is a considerable chance it will feature on prize lists later in the year.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Orange Prize update

The shortlist for this year's Orange Prize includes two books which I have previously selected as my book of the week, The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey and Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie. In addition, An Equal Stillness by Francesca Kay was also shortisted for the Orange Award for New Writers/ Looking at the other shortlisted titles for the main prize, Home by Marilynne Robinson also looks like a strong contender to me.

Orange Prize 2009 shortlist

Scottsboro (Picador, 2008) by Ellen Feldman;
The Wilderness (Jonathan Cape, 2009) by Samantha Harvey;
The Invention of Everything Else (Harvill Secker, 2008) by Samantha Hunt;
Molly Fox’s Birthday (Faber & Faber, 2008) by Deirdre Madden;
Home (Virago, 2009) by Marilynne Robinson; and,
Burnt Shadows (Bloomsbury, 2009) by Kamila Shamsie.