I have decided as part of my new year introspection to read the Man Booker shortlist before the final award is announced Tuesday 16 October in London’s Guildhall. This gives me about 3 weeks to read through and reach my opinions and thoughts before watching the live announcement on the BBC.
At the same time I will be travelling, so the reading will occur in London, Santa Clara (San Francisco) and Johannesburg (South Africa).
In order to help me form my thoughts and understand the experience of engaging with these works over the next few weeks, I will be writing down and editing those words that I have written as I go along. So if you are interested in travelling this journey with me bookmark this page and pop in over the next few weeks. I am expecting that I will construct something that is part review, part travelogue and part introspective.
I read through Everything Under in four distinct moments of reading.
I read Chapter One the evening before the flight from Gatwick, London to Oakland, California. I was sitting in my home in North West London in the late evening. My family was sleeping in the house. I read the first chapter slowly and reread and reread… to get a feel, a taste, a sense, for the novel. A clear strong voice telling me about the predetermination of the spaces of your minds came through. She was asking me to think about the nature of my thoughts as being the manifestation of the already. It was an uncanny feeling. A fate that determines every act and choice you make, undermining those acts and choices - and is never your friend.
I fell asleep relentlessly comparing this uncanny fate, with the human being as witnesses of the river’s stories; against that of Moses and Israel standing in front of the River Jordan with Nature as the witness. The two stories winded their ways across each other through my dreams. The one in which every moment is a choice that determines the universe as its reflection; and the other in which every moment, evey choice is a reflection of a bewildering, unkind fate.
I read a few more chapters in a departure lounge at Gatwick, waiting for the flight. I got slowly into the story, though having a brash Salesman on the phone sitting next to me was a difficult distraction to overcome. But I started feeling Gretel’s hunt for meaning along the river; trying to follow the crumbs home. I drank whiskey.
Once seated on the plane, I read a few more chapters getting a third of the way through the work before my eyes started getting tired. I had an elderly lady sitting next to me. We chatted. I then had a nap on the plane for about two and a half hours. After that I read the rest of novel in one long read (with noise cancelling headphones), in which I became entranced in this story lost in an England that I never knew existed. An England of locks and rivers and canals and a river people. The story at moments had me completely in its thrall. I lost myself in parts, submerged in the words.
I will start on The Overstory either tonight, or tomorrow. I am far away now, about to fall asleep somewhere in San Jose. And I have been awake for over 24 hours.
Time passes through this book at a different pace. I am working in another land with different trees to what I am a familiar. Finding moments to read is not as easy as I would like, but I am ninety pages into the novel, in which each chapter so far has journeyed through generations of different diverse families as their stories pass alongside another story, a slower story, and so far all the stories, whether slow or fast or under or over, have been sad but tremendously beautiful.
I am loving the book and when time gets late in the Santa Clara office, I find a chair and bring and end to my work and read quietly. I am driving the car, so I need to wait until the others finish their days too; but I wait inside the green world of trees and the people who live faster in their shadow.
I bought a re-usable coffee mug as I wandered around on the weekend to be better with my consumption as I wandered around San Jose. I also had The Overstory alongside me. Eventually, after wandering the downtown area we found ourselves in a hipster coffee space; and I sat down with the book for a while. The coffee cup that I had put in the same bag had leaked. Coffee had stained the bottom edging of the book, marking it.
The book has me now. It is attached to me as I live in the this transitory space. The story is also set in the same state, and sometimes in the same streets I am in. I read it here in its real and imagined. I read in between moments.
And then I pause. I look about. I look at the sky, I look at the trees. I stop. I start. I am disconnected and connected as I pass the next hundred pages and the stories settle from generational stories to individuals; and into one story in which they start eddying closer together, to each other.
The story is changing me. In the unwinding stories taking place, what stands out the most is that there is a greater story that can also be heard. And I am now looking out at the trees, the sky and at the natural world which had been elided from my senses. I am looking out from my story, from my family story, from my national story - at the overstory.
Its four am in the morning and I have been unable to sleep for a few hours already. Soon I will be getting up for breakfast and heading down to San Francisco to take the ferry to Sausalito; and then walking back along the Golden Gate Bridge. I am looking forward to seeing the glorious natural bodies of sky and water.
I was at the Ferry Building by ten, and soon on the ferry to Sausalito, I felt the wind against my face as I leaned over the side from the top bank. Once in Sausalito we walked up through the suburbs up steps and along little roads until we crossed the free-way and found the access into the SCA Trail which took me through a beautiful natural landscape. I got lost in the natural space, listening to my breath and looking up and out into at a perfectly clear day.
Crossed through forests, over tops, through breath taking views eventually reaching the Golden Gate bridge, which I walked across. At some points I felt I was in the landscape of the book itself·
I woke up at two a.m. in the morning and read using my phone as a torch, seeing there is no bedside table light in the rididculous airBNB rental. I got into that steady state where you do not notice the pages turning as the story becomes all. When I went back to sleep, I noticed I had read a hundred pages.
The stories are all winding together now, spinning and climbing around each other like vines around the trunk of a tree. The world tree. Reading was like drinking cold water after running in the heat of the day. Its been a while since I read constantly and significantly, and it feels a bit like excercise for the right muscles to become active for a regular pace and the right combination of pieces of the system to fit together and work together. But the mental fatigue I found at the beginning only after a few pages is disappearing now. It feels good.
On the last full day in California I woke up up at four am in the morning and met Thomas just after five am at the Starbucks near the Mission Peak nature reserve in Fremont. Thomas ran Ultra marathons for many years and still runs the Mission Peak trail every Thursday if he can.
None of the others turned up so we started up just the two of us. He was worried we would not have enough time to reach the top in time for him to make it back to his meetings. I said I cannot run, but I think I can stride fast; as I have been doing that every day for the last 6 months. And started striding at the pace I use every morning, he was startled that I could move that fast. So was I. We strode for over an hour, uphill. Sometimes over very steep areas, past trees, through trees, around rocks. In the dark, in the fog. It was sublime. He knew the way, in the dark. I just moved fast in his shadow. It was a trance of steady pace in beauty.
We reached the top on time. I had carried a toasted beigel and cream cheese that I had bought at Starbucks and a bottle of water. It was too foggy to see the apparently amazing views. But standing at the peak of a mountain in the fog is still a very special kind of beauty.
He left running to make it back for his meeting, and I sat down an enjoyed the realisation that I am no longer not fit. I still hesitate to call myself fit, but something has shifted. I gantered down the side of the mountain; as the fog lifted. My wandering included a copse drizzled with light and fog, and then the shade of an huge old shady oak. Oakland. I imagined a land of oaks in my mind’s eye. How this country must of looked when it was virginal. The skies became blue and the views touched me. I took my time. Moments in time like this are few and far between. And I know it, and I gulped it down the side of the mountain.
I read a little the final evening after watching a documentary on Netflix about the life of Bob Weir; the pace of the novel has changed. The high energy has dissipitated together with the 70s and the 80s and the 90s and the actual environmental destruction that has happened; and its all tinged with intimation that perhaps its too late now.
In the lounge at the Oakland airport I had about 3 hours and about 180 pages left. I timed my reading rate, and my growing ability to read in focus and concentration and finished the last page exactly at the time my boarding card said that boarding the flight to Gatwick, London was due to begin.
Its a sad beautiful book that evokes a deep love for our natural world and the people who can see and love it. There are a few strands of ideas in which the author is reaching out from the novel with a political call. Spefically there is a repeating riff referring to the bystander bias, a concept in which when many people witness something going very wrong - every bystander assumes one of the other bystanders will do something to save the situation. And no-one does.
I have The Long Take (or a way to lose more slowly) to read on the plane. Its actually a two hundred and twenty five page poem. Because its a poem I am going to try read it literally in one long take; in one continuous read whilst above the clouds. I will do that after the food service when the mood of plane shifts, the lights dim and those who can and will, sleep.
The Long Take
So I ate dinner and watched a pop culture film on the plane. Eventually the lights dimmed and the over excitable movie ended. The cabin quietened down. I took out the book, put on my noise cancelling headphones and entered into the one long read. The reading over the previous few weeks has increased the speed it takes to get into that slightly shifted consciousness of the reading mind.
I saw the world through the eyes of man whose soul is damaged from his experiences fighting the nazis in France in the 1940s. And the world he sees whilst moving through the cities of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
He sees man’s inhumanity to man wherever he goes; and see the good suffer and the bad triumph. He watches good people being undone and he cannot find a way to escape the horrors he witnessed in others and in himself in the war; and the continuation of that horror in the federal and state policies.
The poetic style and smaller pages are powerful. The landscapes of both New York and San Francisco enrapt me as I know the spaces. The tenderloin and Union Square today still have many homeless veterans. I remember buying a Starbucks coffee for a homeless crippled quiet gentle veteran in Union Square who talked about his daughter. I remember an aggressive homeless young woman in the tenderloin who tried to bully me into giving her money and swore at me when I did not respond aggreeably to her. I have never been beyond the airport in Los Angeles, so when the work moved these streets I was not as entranced as I did not know the city.
I also found myself remembering a vagrant friend of mine from the 90s who lived on the streets; because he could not abide by being stifled inside a house. He was from England but was nomadic. He could not stay still just like Walker in the novel. He played a guitar and was missing teeth and had a contagious sense of humour. He used to always be carving tiny wooden sculptures from tree branches. He did one for me of a man sitting and reading. I no longer have it. The last time I remember seeing him was in 1999 in Ben Yehuda square in Jerusalem.
I had a family of Koreans sitting around me, next to me, behind me. Right next to me was the mother. She had a book also she was reading, written in an elegant Korean script. I could not recognise one letter, but the words and letters looked beautiful and crisp.
Reading the entire book in one long take felt like the best way to really read and feel this poor good man destroyed eventually by the evil he found not only pervasive in the society and policies but also that he had seen in himself and others in the war he could not leave behind.
Gatwick immigration and customs was quick and easy. But the Uber drive took me east on the M25 instead of west which prolonged the journey and the cost. I got home eventually to a very happy family to see me again.
I will read the Mars Room on the flight to South Africa on Monday.
Again the San Francisco geography was familiar enough to add to the engagement, and the Los Angeles geography less so. I started reading as planned, but did not make it right to the end by the end of the flight. I still had about sixty to seventy pages to go when the plane landed. I finished the last pages before going to sleep after working from a hotel during the day. Still struggling with the San Francisco jetlag.
The novel is beautifully crafted and secrets the reader into the world of the American’s woman’s penal system. Its not a pretty world, and nor are the people living in it.
My ranking with two books left to read is as follows:
|1||The Long Take|
|4||The Mars Room|
I will start Washington Black next for the evenings, and then hopefully the Milkman for the return flight to London. I am on track to have read all six and considered my ranking before the announcement of the winner next week.
I started Washington Black in the evenings before going to sleep. Subsequently, I have found a morning walk across to Rosebank center where a Starbucks opens at 6am and various breakfast places at 630am.
This morning I made my way through the Rosebank streets for the second time in two days. The Spaza shops on the side of the streets selling simple cheap foods. Next to the one bus stop is a man with a deep frier selling fried potatoe chips at 630 am. A large part of the street pavements are all excavated for what looks like the installation of high speed internet fibre.
Once at Rosebank I read Washington Black for a few hours, before heading back to the hotel to join up with my parents and then onto a day. I intend to keep reading the same way tomorrow morning.
The book is well written and easy to read. I am not sure yet what I make of it, whether its just a simple enjoyable read or there is something further inside the words that will open up some new insights, knowledge or thoughts as all the other books so far have. Or whether its just a very good, well crafted read.
Another morning, approaching Starbucks with my book and glasses, I found blaring music and a line of people. It was 5 FM’s birthday apparently, and Roger Goode was running the 5 FM breakfast show live from the Starbucks.
Free coffee and breakfast he said. However that was as long as it was some kind of sugary pumpkin spice latte, or sugary pumpkin spice frappuchino with a large muffin. Anything else you had to pay for, even if it cost less.
So I paid for a regular coffee and found a spot at the back and watched the radio show being run, read my book. The first time I saw Roger Goode he was not yet a radio DJ. He was then DJing at a bar in Durban, and he was friendly with a computer programmer that worked for Derivco that used to introduce himself to people as Dr Strange. It took me years to find out that Dr Strange’s name was actually Andrew. It was Eran Eyal that introduced me to Dr Strange and Eran Eyal was just in gaol in New York’s Ryker’s island according to some newspaper article I just read, and is now bailed out, for apparent misdeeds. He says he is innocent and this is shocking and unfair. I hope all works out well for him. Time passes in this world with strange ripples.
He was working around with his microphone, growling “Good Morning” into his microphone, and then pointing the microphone at people to respond.
On the last day I did this walk to the Starbucks, I suddenly found a police van stop beside me as I was walking and tell me that they found it suspicious that I was walking early on in the morning with a bag held closely to the side of my body. It looked like I was carrying a large amount of cash, and holding it like that to prevent it being snatched.
I said “Whaaaaat!?!”. I said, I am just walking to Starbucks to read my book. The two largish, black men, with guns and police uniforms repeated their bizarre accusation and asked if I would give them the bag. So I did.
The looked, in a very puzzled way at Washington Black and ruffled through the pages looking for hidden compartments I suppose. They then repeated the same thing, but in a more confused way about how it looked like I was trying to hide something by holding the bag. And then asked me where I was staying. I told them the Protea Hotel. The questioning continued. I felt the conversation was going nowhere, and said I would like to continue on my walk now. The police officers then very kindly offered me a lift up to the coffee shop, and to my amazement the one officer got out of the van to walk around to the back to open it up for me. I said, “No, thanks”, I was walking to the coffee shop, because I like walking.
The one officer then noticed I had my wallet in my pocket and asked what that was. I explained it was a wallet in my pocket. He asked if he could see it, to see it really was a wallet (and I felt he was intimating that he suspected it was not a wallet but perhaps some kind of thick wad of cash). I showed him it was just a plain old run of mill wallet.
I then said, I would like to head off to get my coffee and read my book now, please. And then, to my bewilderment, they explained again about how it looks suspicious how I was holding the bag. So I then showed them how I would hold the bag differently, in a more light way in which it would be easy for anyone who wanted to snatch the bag from me without any issues, to snatch the bag - and I promised them I would walk the rest of the way with the bag easily snatchable in this way, so they need not worry about that anymore. At this point, although they looked a bit saddened, they agreed that yes, if I walked with the bag in that way in which it was very easy to snatch then it would be easy to snatch and then I did not look like I was trying to carry a large amount of cash in it. And with that, I left on my way, holding my bag in a way that anyone who wanted it could easily grab it from me. And I continued to hold that bag, that way, for the rest of my walk.
I had my regular morning coffee, and also popped by Woolworths to get a white shirt that fitted me properly and a belt to wear at the wedding. By the end of the reading that morning I only had about 70 pages left.
I finished the last pages, early morning, when suffering from insomnia on the day of the wedding. I will be leaving soon and checking out of the Johannesburg hotel and heading to the country side venue.
I thoroughly enjoyed the read. At moments it reminded me of Candide by Voltaire. But not quite. My earlier comments and opinion on the book was not changed as I read through it. Its a delight to read, and easy to move through the captivating story, but it remains in 5th place of the 5 books read so far.
One more book to read of the six on the Short List, which I may start earlier than on the flight home now.
Well, I fell asleep on the plane and did not get to read much. Just a handful pages and then Milkman was declared the winner!
So I got to read the five runner ups, and then will finish off with the winner, knowing it won.
So it goes…