If I Gave the Award

Cover for HarvestWhen I began my James Tait Black Fiction Prize project late last year, I had, just coincidentally, already read three of the four shortlisted books for 2014. Having finally posted my review for the fourth, it is time for my feature where I give my opinion about which book I would have voted for.

The year 2014 has some strong entries, the weakest of which, in my opinion, is The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. Although it skillfully depicts two vibrant cultures in the 1970’s, to me there seemed to be something about the main character that was not convincing, and the relationship that the novel pinned its major events on was unexplored.

Cover for All the Birds, SingingI don’t think very many writers can beat Kent Haruf as a prose stylist and was happy to see his Benediction on the list. I also very much enjoyed the winning book, Harvest, by Jim Crace. It was dark and powerful. I strongly recommend both of them.

So, my opinion is simply based on the feeling that All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld made the biggest impression on me. Although I read it long ago, in the fall of 2014 (as I did Harvest), it is the one that sticks with me the most and that I find the most haunting. So, All the Birds, Singing is my pick for 2014.

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Day 1215: The Flamethrowers

Cover for The FlamethrowersSet in the mid-1970’s, The Flamethrowers evokes two distinct but frenetic movements. In New York, it is the art scene, where performance art is coming to the fore and artists are trying to live their art. In Italy, it is revolution and the Red Brigade, where common people are rising up against business and political corruption.

The heroine, Reno, has grown up in Nevada ski racing and has a fascination with motorcycles and speed. She moves to New York to become an artist (although we never see her making any art) and eventually becomes the girlfriend of Sandro Valera, a well-known, older artist.

Sandro’s family in Italy made its money in motorcycles and tires, and when Reno travels to the Great Salt Flats to do a time trial on her Valera motorcycle, she accidentally gets involved in the family business. As a result, Sandro reluctantly brings her to Italy during a time of great instability and confusion.

Kushner evocatively depicts both the New York art scene and the seething streets of Rome, although often the artists seem like poseurs to me. I don’t think the depiction is meant to be satirical, though.

However, Reno as observer seems to be a different person than the risk-taker who went to New York. Further, the narrative, which occasionally jumps to the story of Sandro’s grandfather, who started the company, feels disjointed and as if it doesn’t really add up. Although I was entranced by long passages of this novel, I ended up wondering what it really was about. In particular, the novel relies on Reno’s relationship with Sandro to tie it all together, but that relationship is barely touched on.

This is the first book I read specifically because it is part of my James Tait Black Fiction Prize project.

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Day 1213: A Country Road, A Tree

Cover for A Country Road, A TreeBest of Five!
I know little about Samuel Beckett except that he was Irish, and I have the most basic knowledge of Waiting for Godot and Krapp’s Last Tape. (“A country road, a tree” is his setting for Godot.) So, I would not be able to say whether the novel at all conveys a true sense of what Becket was like. I can say, though, that I’ve read other works of biographical fiction that felt as if they gave a false or poor sense of their main character. A Country Road, A Tree is much more plausible in depicting Beckett.

The novel does not cover his entire life but concentrates on the war years, 1939-1945. Beckett is already a published writer, although probably not to much attention. He is friends with James Joyce and other writers and artists in Paris.

At the beginning of the war, Beckett is in Ireland. He feels stifled there, though, and chooses to return to Paris despite the instability. There he lives an increasingly stressful and straitened existence with his lover, Suzanne. At first, he has no papers, which complicates things when he and Suzanne are forced to evacuate Paris with the German invasion. Later, he decides to work with the French underground, which makes their lives even more precarious. Finally, they must flee to the countryside again.

Although this novel does not concentrate on the literary side of Beckett’s life—in fact, during much of it he is unable to write—it grabs your attention and keeps it. It also provides some insight into the man who produced his later works. I loved Jo Baker’s Longbourne and have been waiting for her to produce a work equal to it. This is that work, which I read for both my Walter Scott Prize and my James Tait Black projects.

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A New Project, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize Shortlist

In the most recent Tea or Books? podcast, Simon and Rachel discussed whether they were less or more likely to read a book because it had won a literary prize. This was an interesting topic to me, because as you may know, I am working on two projects to read the shortlists of the Man Booker prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction starting in 2010. Although I never used to read a book because it won a prize, I personally have found, despite some disappointments, that reading the shortlisted books has helped me by raising the quality of the books I read in general. I agree with Simon and Rachel, though, that the book winning the prize is not necessarily the best one in the shortlist.

During the course of this conversation, Simon mentioned the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, which is one of the oldest literary prizes in Britain and is given by the University of Edinburgh. (I hadn’t heard of it.) He said that he felt as if the books chosen for that shortlist more adequately represented what people were actually reading. That led me to take a look at the shortlist for that prize, and I decided that, nuts as it may seem, I would add the shortlist for that prize, just the fiction portion of it, to my projects, beginning in 2010 as I have done with the others.

So, here are the books that I have challenged myself to read. The winners are indicated in red (or purple, if there is a link to my review). It helps that I have already read half a dozen of them. I will transfer this information to a page where I can keep track of my progress. (Note that, depending on where you look for a list, there is some difference of opinion on the numbering of the years. I have chosen to follow the numbering that the prize itself uses.)

Cover for Wolf Hall2010

Strangers by Anita Brookner
The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt
Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Selected Works of T. S. Spivett by Reif Larsen
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Cover for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell
La Rochelle by Michael Nath
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

2012

Solace by Belinda McKeon
Snowdrops by A. D. Miller
You and I by Padgett Powell
There But For The by Ali Smith

2013

The Panopticon by Jenny Fagan
The Big Music by Kirsty Gun
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warren

Cover for Harvest2014

Harvest by Jim Crace
Benediction by Kent Haruf
The Flame Throwers by Rachel Kushner
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

Cover for We Are Not Ourselves2015

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

2016

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry
The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
You Don’t Have to Live Like This by Benjamin Markovits

2017

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimer McBridge
The Sport of Kings by C. E. Morgan