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holiday

In 1974 the Booker Prize was shared between Nadine Gordimer for The Conservationist (still on my tbr after several years) and Stanley Middleton for Holiday. I hadn’t read any Middleton before and really didn’t know what to expect. It would seem that Windmill Books re-issued a number of Middleton books last year – which is great, I was surprised at just how many novels Middleton wrote, there’s a very long list of them inside my copy.

Not knowing a thing about Middleton, I had to look him up to find out more. Stanley Middleton was born in Nottinghamshire in 1919, as well as a prolific writer he was an English teacher at a grammar school. His first novel was published in 1958 his final novel published posthumously. Having won the Booker Prize with Gordimer in 1974, in 1979 Middleton turned down an OBE. He died in a nursing home in 2009 just before his ninetieth birthday.

I very much enjoyed reading Holiday, although I don’t think it could be described as easy, I settled in to Middleton’s prose quickly enough, but the overall book makes for a degree of fairly slow reading. Middleton’s world is a very recognisable one, his observations spot on.

seasieHaving recently separated from his wife Meg, school master Edwin Fisher decides to spend a week in an English seaside holiday resort. Bealthorp is a place Edwin knows well, a place he holidayed with his parents when he was a child. Now, in his thirties, his marriage in trouble, following the devastating loss of their son, Fisher has a lot to come to terms with. Fisher’s thoughts frequently return to the past, to the holidays of his childhood, and his relationship with Meg. Through his reminiscences we gradually come to understand the intricacies of the Fisher’s marriage and the trauma they suffered when their son died. Fisher spends the first couple of days of his holiday indulging in old routines. Walks along the sea front the purchase of a newspaper and back to the hotel for a meal, Edwin seems to be merely killing time.

In the dining-room this evening, silence blossomed once the families began to eat. Fisher enjoyed the activity, the tucking of bibs, the wiping of mouths, the tipping of plates for the last spoonful, the pause between courses where one put on a small show for the other tables or angled for the correct snippet of conversation which would set the rest to chatter or laughing. These people worked hard, holding their fingers correctly, not marking the tablecloths and this ceremony pleased him. In this room decorated with dolls and paper flowers it was proper to act the gentleman, ape the lady. When the standard was judged, by Monday evening at the latest, there’d be a relaxation, a few aitches would topple, salacious asides allowed, confidences would be exchanged, but at this the first dinner after a complete day’s holiday matters were formal.

The Vernons; Fisher’s in-laws, are also staying in Bealthorpe, although at a different hotel, and they waste little time in interfering. The Vernons want Meg to reconcile with her husband, and Fisher is subjected to marital advice from David Vernon. A meal is arranged, David Vernon has arranged for his daughter to come to the hotel to see Edwin. The appointed time comes and goes but Meg never appears.

During the week at Bealthorpe Fisher begins to socialise with his fellow holiday makers, particularly the Smiths and the Hollies. Edwin indulges in a little flirtation, pleased to find himself desirable in the eyes of another woman, even if it is just a mad holiday moment.

As anyone who has holidayed by the seaside in England will know, holiday weeks run Saturday to Saturday, and by the Thursday of your week away, you always feel rather on borrowed time. Edwin feels this too.

“Thursday, now he strolled towards the Methodist church where the iron gates were padlocked, and posters of scrag-ribbed refugees faded in the sunshine. Thursday.
When he was on holiday as a boy the first three days had passed slowly, but by Thursday time flew. Friday flashed a nothing. One bought presents; one ventured into the sea, but home, wash-day, errands re-established themselves in the mind”

With the holiday finally over, Fisher heads back to the flat he shares with a colleague and sets about (following the necessary interference from the in-laws) re-establishing communication with Meg.
The Wikipedia page for Stanley Middleton tells of a journalistic stunt a few years ago; where someone sent the opening chapter of Holiday to a number of publishers and literary agents – and all but one rejected it. If that is true, I’m not certain what if anything that proves, or what the journalist was trying to prove. Tastes and fashions in literature change I suppose, but I can’t help but see it as a little bit spiteful, Middleton was still alive at the time.

I liked the way Middleton writes, his vision of the world and his eye for detail is sharp, very precise and beautifully rendered. Middleton gets underneath the skin of his characters in a very quiet but very real way, their hopes, fears and all that they are trying to escape are laid bare. Here Edwin is a man still grieving for his child, his emotions are numbed. Holiday is an excellent novel, a worthy Booker winner.

I think I began to see Middleton as a kind of male Brookner – one novel probably not enough to make that judgement, but I definitely want to read more.

stanleymiddleton

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As I briefly explained in a recent blog post I do rather love the Booker prize – although I can’t explain why. These days I read far more older novels, than I do contemporary fiction, and yet I still keep a keen eye on the prize – and try to read at least a couple of the long list and shortlist each year. This year I am intending to read all six of the shortlist. Laura recently told me about The Complete Booker and I have decided to become a contributor there too. For a number of years I have been working my way through the list of previous winners – although I have to admit I only decided to do this when I realised I had already read a number of them. Unfortunately most of those were read in the days before I blogged – or later when I wrote tiny piddling little reviews. (All my old reviews were transferred across from livejournal when I decided to move to WordPress at the beginning of the year – but they make pretty poor reading).
So anyway these are the ones I have read so far – it’s a pretty long list now.
2011 The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes
2010 The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson
2009 Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
2008 The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga
2007 Anne Enright – The Gathering
2006 Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss
2005 – John Banville, The Sea
2004 – Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty
2003 – DBC Pierre, Vernon God Little
2002 – Yann Martel, Life of Pi –
2001 – Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang
2000 – Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
1999 – J M Coetzee, Disgrace
1998 – Ian McEwan, Amsterdam
1997 – Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
1996 – Graham Swift, Last Orders
1995 – Pat Barker, The Ghost Road
1993 – Roddy Doyle, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha
1992 – Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient
1992 – Barry Unsworth, Sacred Hunger
1991 – Ben Okri, The Famished Road
1990 – A S Byatt, Possession
1989 – Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
1988 – Peter Carey, Oscar and Lucinda
1987 – Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger
1986 – Kingsley Amis, The Old Devils
1985 – Keri Hulme, The Bone People
1984 – Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac
1983 – J M Coetzee, Life & Times of Michael K
1982 – Thomas Keneally, Schindler’s Ark
1981 – Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
1979 – Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore
1978 – Iris Murdoch, The Sea, the Sea
1977 – Paul Scott, Staying On

1973 – J G Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapul
1971 – V S Naipaul, In a Free State

Of those I have yet to read – I have three currently resting on my TBR shelves – Nadine Gordimer’s ‘The Conservationist,’ William Golding ‘Rites of Passage’ and Bernice Rubens ‘The Elected Member’. Sometimes I have the feeling I have only those left to read that I’m not sure I want to read – but I have been pleasantly surprised by Booker books before. I put off reading A Life of Pi for years thinking it wasn’t for me – only to find I loved it. I have liked far more of them than I have disliked, although I have to admit to not having liked The Booker of Bookers Midnight’s Children, and I really disliked The Finkler Question, some were tough going like The Siege of Krishnapul and The Sea by John Banville. Others however remain books I will always love; they live in my memory even those I read years ago, ‘The English Patient,’ ‘The Bone People’, ‘Wolf Hall,’ ‘Staying on’, ‘Offshore’ among others. With so few left to read on the list though I have to keep going, hopefully the enthusiasm of other Booker readers will keep me going.

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As some of you may know, a few years ago I set myself the challenge of reading all the books that had ever won the booker prize. I had at that point already read several of them, and so it seemed a fairly achievable list – although I admit there are a few on the list that I don’t fancy much. There was no reason for my doing this – I don’t believe that books that win big prizes are necessarily any more worthy than any others. I do however find it fascinating each year when the Booker long list and short list are announced – what has made it on, how are these things chosen? Why do so many great books get left off? The Prize began in 1969 – twice there have been 2 joint winners – so there is 45 books on the list (so much shorter than some of those other reading lists) I have 9 left to read – 3 of these I have TBR. Overall there have been far more that I have liked than not.

So then, Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald which won in 1979 was my latest Booker read. This is only the fourth Penelope Fitzgerald novel that I have read, and I have to say straight off – I enjoyed it enormously. A very busy weekend has forced me to read it slowly – which I am glad of as I have been able to savour it. It is after all a pretty short book.

A quote on the back cover of this edition caught my eye – so I must share it.

“Reading a Penelope Fitzgerald novel is like being taken for a ride in a peculiar kind of car. Everything is of top quality – the engine, the coachwork and the interior all fill you with confidence. Then after a mile or so, someone throws the steering-wheel out of the window”
Sebastian Faulkes.

A mixed group of people live on houseboats on the Thames at Battersea Reach in the early 1960’s. They are each temporarily lost, often eccentric and have come to belong and rely on one another. Willis, a naval artist who has never been to sea, is hoping to sell his boat The Dreadnought before she inevitably sinks. Richard an ex-navy man dominates the Reach as does his much larger boat, while his wife Laura hates the boats and frequently returns to her upper-middle class family. Richard and Laura are the only inhabitants of the Reach with any money. Maurice, a male prostitute, and receiver of stolen goods has become particularly good friends with Nenna, who abandoned by her husband is living on the boat Grace with her two daughters Martha and Tilda.

“During the small hours, tipsy Maurice became an oracle, ambiguous, wayward, but impressive. Evan his voice changed a little. He told the sombre truths of the light-hearted, betraying in a casual hour what was never intended to be shown. If the tide was low the two of them watched the gleams on the foreshore, at half tide they heard the water chuckling, waiting to lift the boats, at flood tide they saw the river as a powerful god, bearded with the white foam of detergents, calling home the twenty-seven lost rivers of London, sighing as the night declined.”

The two girls forage along the foreshore – and don’t always attend school. They explore Battersea and Chelsea, but are more at home on the river. Six year old Tilda wonderfully old for her years is a spiky breath of fresh air.

“Tilda knew very well that the river could be dangerous. Although she had become a native of the boats, and pitied the tideless and ratless life of the Chelsea inhabitants, she respected the water and knew that one could die within sight of the Embankment.”

The character’s relationships are altered by the changes in their circumstances, the world of this disparate little community is under threat. The reader senses this fragility of a way of life, from the very start. Fitzgerald perfectly pitches this beautiful little novel. The tidal flow of the river, the rise and fall of the boats, the mud along the river bank – the interactions of her characters come together to create a wonderful sense of time and place.
I have added these quotes from the book because I loved the Fitzgerald’s writing. The descriptions of the river are particularly good I think. This book is a real little gem.

 

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Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they would navigate the girl-less sixth form together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they all swore to stay friends for life.Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a single marriage, a calm divorce. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove.

This is the second of this years booker shortlist that I have read. It is funny how, as a reader one can be affected by the book one has just finished as much as by the one currently being read. Previous to this novel I read ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ another booker shortlisted book. A colourful adventure with memorable imagery and voices. Because of this I think, Julian Barnes novel ‘Sense of an Ending’ paled slightly. This is a huge shame, because it is a beautifully written novel, poignant, minutely and intelligently observed and very clever.

Sense of an Ending is a very slight novel, the only reason I didn’t finish it before is because I was out till bedtime straight from work yesterday. I have read many reviews saying the reader read it in one sitting almost, and I wonder if I would have benefited from not reading it as slowly as I did.
Tony thinks he understands the past, but now in late middle age, retired a grandparent, he must look again at the things he was so certain of. History, memory and philosophy play a big part in this quiet and cerebral novel. I found Tony’s relationship with Veronica, a one time girlfriend, baffling, she’s spiky and difficult, seeming to use him when they are young. The second half of the novel becomes really quite a page turner, as Tony begins finally “to get it” as does the reader. There is a slight mystery at the centre of the story, and the ending – which I hadn’t seen coming, was something of a shock.

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I rather surprised myself with this book, as I really enjoyed it. I had heard people taking about the book, mentioning a philosophical aspect – well I am no philosopher and so that put me off. In fact I found all aspects of this novel, thought provoking, but also highly readable. I had wanted to read this novel because I once set myself the challenge to read all the booker winners (at some point – not all in one go).  Life of Pi  won the prize in 2002. I think I now have just 11 or 12 to go – and one of those is currently sitting on my TBR.

The story of Pi Patel and what happens on that lifeboat can be read on two levels. You can read it purely as a good story – or you can delve deeper into the more philosophical side of things.
Pi is the son of a zoo keeper from Pondicherry in India – when the family travel – along with some of the zoo animals that have been sold – on a cargo ship to Canada the ship sinks. Leaving Pi the sole survivior, aboard a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra and 450 lb Bengal tiger. How Pi survives his time at sea, and the tiger, is a marvelous story in itself – which leaves you wondering how much was true. Pi quick
ly becomes a memorable narrator, and the story told in 100 chapters is a real page turner. Some of the details of animals ripping into the flesh of other creatures was not all that lovely – but other than that Life of Pi proved to have been an unexpected joy.

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Amazon Editorial Review: First published in 1978, this is the story of Charles Arrowby who, retiring from his glittering London world in order to abjure magic and become a hermit turns to the sea: turbulent and leaden, transparent and opaque, magician and mother. But he finds his solitude is peopled by the drama of his own fantasies and obsessions, I was sure I had read this before – many years ago, and now reading it for the Murdoch a month challenge – i am not sure I did. The thing I "remembered" was Charles swimming off the slippery cliffs – attaching a rope to the rail of the steps with which to haul himself out. I  think this is however a false memory – as what I recall may be from the book Iris by John Bayley in which he describes the swimming he and Iris frequently did. The Sea, The sea – is a big magical novel about obsession. The sea is a metaphor running through the novel for the swiftly changing emotions and fortunes of the characters. There is farce, humor and tragedy in abundance, along with some marvelous descriptions, some of them about food. A fascinating page turner, and really quite brilliant, and no wonder it won a Booker.

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Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2009 ‘Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,’ says Thomas More, ‘and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.’ England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey’s clerk, and later his successor. Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with a delicate and deadly expertise in manipulating people and events. Ruthless in pursuit of his own interests, he is as ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. His reforming agenda is carried out in the grip of a self-interested parliament and a king who fluctuates between romantic passions and murderous rages. From one of our finest living writers, Wolf Hall is that very rare thing: a truly great English novel, one that explores the intersection of individual psychology and wider politics. With a vast array of characters, and richly overflowing with incident, it peels back history to show us Tudor England as a half-made society, moulding itself with great passion and suffering and courage.

I do love Tudor history and so this novel was really right up my street. I already feel I know quite a lot about Henry VIII and his exrtraordinary life – but this novel allows us to view Henry from a distance as it is the more shadowy figure of Thomas Cromwell that is at the centre of the novel. Even before I began to read I was fascinated by this elusive figure, both feared and repected in his time.

Wolf Hall is a 650 page tome, which I have found to be a fairly quick read – bearing in mind I have had more reading time this week than usual. Wolf Hall is a must for all lovers of the Tudor period – all the sights and smells of this exciting and brutal period are brought to life. Thomas Cromwell – a background figure in so many other historical novels is the central character he and his family are brilliantly portrayed,  his  rise from humble beginnings, the tragedies at the heart of his family, and the relationships he has with the people around him have been faithfully researched and brought to life. Maybe because Thomas Cromwell is much more of a shadowy character historically – Mantel is able to bring him alive for us in a way which must be more difficult with well known historical figures like Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – as we already think we know them. Some criticism I have seen online – which I have to agree with is that sometimes the dialogue is a tad confusing with too many “he saids” in a long complex conversation. There are also a few sections that are a little over long and therefore begin to drag, but overall things move along swiftly and even the complex Tudor politics are made fascinating. I found this a hard to put down book and even found myself sympathising with Thomas Cromwell, as Mantel manages to portray him as very human, he is a hard man, – a product of his background and the times in which he lived. He is a complicated man, and an enormously interesting one.   A very enjoyable well written read, and I look forward to the sequal that I believe is being planned.

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