Lost in Words a Wicked and Delicious Take-down of Man Booker Prize

Edward St. Aubyn
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, # 978-037428091, 261 pp.
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Edward St. Aubyn was once short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Britain’s version of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. Don’t look for his name again in the near future—not after his acidly funny thinly veiled take-down of the Man Booker in Lost for Words. His is a whistle-blower’s satire of the award, one that says the prize has less to do with literature than with boardrooms, bedrooms, horse-trading, and horseshit. It’s a work of fiction, but just barely. Former judge A. L. Kennedy called the Man Booker "a pile of crooked nonsense" awarded according to "who knows who, who's sleeping with who[m], who's selling drugs to who[m], who's married to who[m], whose turn it is." A look at past winners certainly gives pause. Amidst the distinguished—V.S. Naipul, Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Nadine Gortimer––one finds an awful lot of one-hit wonders and dross: Arundhati Roy, Anita Brookner, Kiran Desai… And I've yet to meet anyone who thinks that Hilary Mantel's novels are even readable, let alone worthy of winning two Man Bookers.  

Those who know British culture will have great fun matching the fictional characters vying for and judging the Elysian Prize to the real-life characters that inspired them. For example, one of the Elysian judges is a handsome young actor Tobias Benedict, a dead ringer for 2012 judge Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey). Other elements of Kennedy’s blast are also at play. The Man part of the Man Booker is the investment firm that administers the prize, as is the Elysian Prize corporate sponsor. Both prizes are often headed by politicians, Scottish MP Malcolm Craig in the case of Lost for Words. Other members of Craig's contentious committee include: Benedict; social media guru Jo Cross; Oxbridge scholar Vanessa Shaw; and Penny Feathers, the ex-mistress of both Craig and Sir David Hampshire, whose firm funds the award. Everybody has an agenda. Craig is partial to wot u starin at, a foul-mouthed look at Glasgow’s working-class underbelly; Cross seeks “relevance,” though what she means by that is anyone’s guess; Shaw wants stellar literature, though one suspects she doesn’t think any has been written since the Edwardian age; and Feathers––modeled after Dame Stella Rimington, another Booker apostate—just wants a good read and good luck with that. She’s also hysterically writing an execrable mystery of her own with the aid of software that helps choose words and phrases. As bad as that sounds, she comes close to being the sanest one of the lot! 

Add to this unruly lot the writers on the short list, those spurned, publishers, and hangers-on. Many of them circle like buzzards around the gorgeous Katherine Burns, a writer of some renown, though it's not clear if it's because she's really all that good, or if it's because she has no qualms with sleeping with whomever she finds useful. At one point she's simultaneously bedding her publisher, Alan Oaks; French rapscallion Didier Leroux; and novelist Sam Black. Oaks loses her affection when one of his aides mistakenly submits an Indian cookbook for the Elysian Prize instead of Burns' novel; and Black loses out to professional jealousy when his The Frozen Torrent makes the shortlist. Leroux claims Katherine, though he's a poor man's Foucault, a pseudo-intellectual happy to expound about all of the major points and many of the minor ones from his postmodern work of theory What is Banality? Poor man—he could answer that question by gazing into a mirror!

Lost for Words has its flaws. Like some of his characters, St. Aubyn occasionally goes over the top. It contains one worthless and ridiculous personality—solipsistic Indian aristocrat Sunny Bunjee who has come to England to claim a prize he knows he should win, though no one has heard of him or his self-published tome. He happens to be the nephew of the woman whose cookbook is mistakenly viewed as literature. We really don't need much of Sunny and St. Aubyn strolls into cheap satire when trying to flesh out Sunny's tale. And, yes, St. Aubyn is open to charges of cattiness. Still, his snippets of novels within the novel works well enough to show that the emperor has no clothes. I roared over how Vanessa Shaw defended All the World's a Stage, a really insipid tale narrated from William Shakespeare's point of view. If you've ever had the experience of picking up a Man Booker Prize winner and wondering why on earth it was even published, let alone honored, Lost for Words explains it all. At its best, this is a laugh-out-loud farce.   Rob Weir


Deck the Blah, Blah, Blah....

Here’s the blog post designed to get everyone’s dander up. I can’t help it—it’s December, my least favorite month of the year. It’s cold, the sun sets around 4:20, I’m too damn busy, viruses sprout like mistletoe, and I have to endure holiday music blaring from every speaker in the Western hemisphere. Anything but that! Nothing brings out the Grinch in me like December.

The Grinch before he went wrong!
Speaking of the Grinch, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is one of the saddest tales ever known. It makes me want to cry. It’s the tale of how a perfectly good monster lost his faith. The Grinch had a delightful curmudgeonly misanthropic thing going but by the end, he’s become a sniveling, sentimental fool. How sad it that? In my alt.Grinch, he gobbles Cindy Lou Who for breakfast and then pillages Whoville. It’s the only sane way to cope with the Christmas season.

Yep. I have issues—serious issues—with Christmas. First of all, it’s ahistorical. It’s 99:1 that Jesus was not born in December. (April is a better guess. The Bible tends to be circularly constructed, so odds are that Christmas and Easter are calendrically parallel.) Second, Christmas is a capitalist holiday, not a religious one. Actually, it’s become a communist one. Every time you go to Walmart, you are supporting its China, Inc. supply network, and everything you buy that says “Made in China” anywhere on the product, helps prop up the Reds of Beijing. About the only thing that amuses me in December is listening to conservatives defend the capitalist system, by which they mean the Red Chinese system. The same old crowd of phonies who’d pop a vein if they caught someone helping out Fidel Castro by smoking a Cuban cigar thinks that Wall Street and communism are antithetical. Hilarious!

I know that some Christians claim they spend the Yule season contemplating the Virgin birth and the coming of the Savior. Sure you do. When I drive by the mall, all I see being worshiped is the god of materialism. What I see very little of in the US of A is the daily practice of any major religion. My students associate Christianity with intolerance, bigotry, and an attempt to deny choice to individuals. Are they wrong? And, sorry, I don’t believe that Islam is a religion of peace. Hinduism is often an excuse for sexism and appalling levels of classicist privilege. I like the focus of secular Judaism, but its religious varieties are often knee-jerk defenses of whatever the State of Israel is doing, just as Anti-Semites automatically attack Israel and defend Palestinian terrorism. I’d take down Buddhism as well, though my main experience with it is via the catch phrases tossed out by decidedly Western Yoganistas. (Okay, the Buddhist Tamils have some things to answer for.)  My standard line these days is that I’m not anti-faith, I’m anti-organized religion. So add that to the list of why December is a thorn in my side as organized religions across the globe have hijacked it.  Rohatsu (Buddhist) happens in December, as does Hanukkah. Sometimes Diwali (Hindu) and any of a number of Muslim holidays occur in December. (It depends on whether their lunar calendars coincide with the Western Gregorian calendar.) Back in 1965, we invented Kwanzaa, a sort of pan-African religious/family/heritage celebration because there just weren’t enough religious holidays already. And, of course, there is the granddaddy of them all: Retail Day—sorry—Christmas.

I’d be happy to look the other way and merrily celebrate alternatives such as Moosemas and Festivus, but I can’t. Everywhere I turn it’s fa-la-la this and fa-la-la that. Neo-cons complain about the “War on Christmas,” but damned if I’ve noticed any massed troops seeking to overthrow it. Try not to hear Christmas carols this month. (Conveniently scheduling a one-month coma is the coward’s way out and doesn’t count.) Christmas season hurts my ears. Karaoke is the only thing that’s ever been done to music that is worse than Christmas music. “Jingle Bell Rock:” (a) doesn’t, (b) is as camp as a row of tents, and (c) makes me want to commit violence. Can it get any worse? Yes, I fear that it can. Bob Dylan made a holiday album. That alone is scarier than any slasher film you’ll ever see, but this year there’s a new collection of reggae ­and dub-step carols. I think my brain just melted!

Lord, help me make it through December! I am looking forward to the pagan holiday of Yule on December 21. That’s the Solstice for the uniformed. The days will gradually grow longer after Yule—seconds at a time at first, but in New England we’ll take it. Best of all, it means that December is nearly over!—S. A. Tire


Jeni and Billy's Big Picnic

Picnic in the Sky
Waystation Records 003
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In the early days of the recording industry much of what we today call folk, country, and old-time music was called “hillbilly” music. That’s because the hills and hollows of Appalachia were a treasure trove raided by urbanized "song catchers" (academic collectors). Many of them mistakenly thought that all American folk songs and tunes were variants of British Isles imports. They soon learned that Appalachia was far more than music preserved in amber—the region also contained great original composers. And since those days, there have always been a number of women whose stars shined slightly brighter. In the (recorded) beginning there was Sarah (1898-1979) and Maybelle Carter (1909-1978) from Virginia. Slightly later those with recording machines came calling upon Kentuckians Aunt Molly Jackson (1880-1960) and her half sister Sarah Ogan Gunning (1910-1987). Still later we got Loretta Lynn (1932-) from Butcher Hollow, KY, June Carter (1929-2003) from Maces Spring, VA, and Jean Ritchie (1922-) from Viper, KY. So who are the heiresses to the Mountain Crown?

If you find yourself in a discussion doesn’t include Jeni Hankins of southwestern Virginia, walk away––it's not worth your time. Hankins' approach is often compared to that of Hazel Dickens (1925-2011) and aptly so. Though Hankins has a smoother, less nasal voice than Dickens, it has the same born-in-the-bone twang—the kind you don’t get by dressing up country and scouring songbooks. Hankins also grew up in the same contiguous coal mine region that spawned Dickens, and with the same sensibilities: an appreciation for the grace of ordinary people, mountain gospel music, support for miners’ unions, and a gift for finding beauty where less attuned people fail to see it.  Think I’m kidding about that last point? In “Good,” a song co-written with her musical partner Billy Kemp, the duo muse on coal mining, Sears Roebuck, Hardshell Baptists, and banjos. The banjo wins: “And he played us a tune from the old country/and the hills, they rang with our song/God said it was good/and we knew that it was good.” Even more impressive is “McHenry Street, a song inspired when the duo spotted kids making banners from trash can castoffs in Kemp’s native Baltimore. ”Picnic in the Sky is filled with small moments that seem more sublime when stripped of glitter and hype. This time the band is bigger—David Jackson (bass, accordion), Denny Weston, Jr. (percussion), Dillon O’Brian (keyboards, vocals), Dave Way (claps, feet), David Keenan (steel guitar), and Craig Eastman (fiddles, fretwork), an old acquaintance of mine whose work I’ve admired for decades. We get a veritable potpourri: “The Robin & the Banjo,” Jeni’s wedding song reworking of “Froggy Went A-Courtin’;” “The Old Hotel,” an illicit love song; the dust-and-tedium-meets-dreams “The Mill Hurries On;” and gospel refracted through Jane Eyre on “Reckoning Day.” Remember Joe Hill’s “The Preacher and the Slave?” Check out this album’s title track, a gentler shade of caustic with yellow squash and biscuits substituting for Hill’s pie, but the same hard questions about a future “heavenly reward.”  Call it “Good.” Call it authentic. Call me anytime Ms. Hankins is singing and Kemp is picking, flailing, and singing by her side. –Rob Weir