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Presidential prose

Presidential prose

When Barack Obama was the occupant of the White House, he started a tradition of sharing his summer holiday reading recommendations. Much political and societal water under the bridge and he’s still releasing a list of recommendations each summer, a welcome link back to less febrile times. The former president has just revealed this year’s list of the books that most inspired and intrigued him. To show how on the ball he is, one of his titles is the recent International Booker Prize winner David Diop’s At Night All Blood is Black, as well as a fellow IBP shortlistee, Benjamin Labatut with When We Cease to Understand the World. The third Bookerite is a former Booker Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro with his latest novel, Klara and the Sun. Just in case you think that the president only reads fiction, there are a couple of non-fiction titles on the list that won’t necessarily guarantee a relaxing holiday – Patrick Radden Keefe's exposé of the Sackler family and the opioid crisis, Empire of Pain, and Elizabeth Kolbert’s Under a White Sky, about the climate crisis and what we can do to mitigate the disaster we started. No one can accuse Obama of literary escapism.

Proof, if it were needed, that the Booker Prizes never sleep… no sooner have the 2021 International Booker Prize judges done their thing, hung up their reading glasses and breathed out than next year’s shiny new cohort is unveiled. The panel comprises the author and academic Merve Emre; the writer and lawyer Petina Gappah; the television presenter, writer and actor Mel Giedroyc; and the translator and author Jeremy Tiang. The person tasked with marshalling this array of reading talent is the experienced translator Frank Wynne. It is the first time in the prize’s history that a translator has chaired the panel. He admitted to feeling “excited and daunted to set out on this global journey with such a distinguished group of judges, eager to discover what countries we will visit, what voices we will hear, what stories we will be told”. Next summer must seem an age away but the judges are unlikely to have time to dip into Barack Obama’s reading list since the prize submissions are most likely already arriving and better to tackle the trickle before it becomes a flood.

Lucy Ellmann, author of the 2019 Booker Prize shortlisted Ducks, Newburyport, recently revealed her current cultural highlights. There’s a recommended book (Claire Louise Bennett’s Pond), comedy courtesy of Richard Pryor, opera from the New York Met’s online offerings but at a time when “it sometimes feels like the cultural highlight of my week is ordering vegetables online”, Ellmann’s top offering has nothing to do with the life of the mind. “In the gardens below my flat,” she says, “a vixen is raising three cubs. . . The cubs play and romp and snap and chase and roll and wrestle and chomp leaves and study trash and squeeze through tight spots and make strange sounds, all in pursuit of their own impeccable agendas.” What does one conclude from this slice of animal domestic life?: “There is nothing more perfect than a fox cub.”

Time is a funny thing for writers. Some are quick and driven by a deadline, some are slow and happy to wait for the tale to lead them. Ben Okri, for example, has been a writer of novels, short stories, film scripts and poems for aeons (he won the Booker Prize way back in 1991), only now, however, has he turned his hand to children’s books. Every Leaf a Hallelujah, with illustrations by Diana Ejaita, is, according to the publishers, an “an enchanting ecological tale set in Africa” which sees a young girl alone in a forest and will be published in October. Another writer content to take their time is NoViolet Bulawayo. Her debut novel, We Need New Names, was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize and where some would be keen to cash in on their success and whizz through a follow-up, only now, eight years later, is her second novel, Glory, a tale inspired by the fall of Robert Mugabe, ready for publication. Even then, there’s no rush it seems since the book is not scheduled to appear until next year.