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Obama and the Man Booker

Obama and the Man Booker

Each year, Barack Obama – now that he’s got time on his hands – releases a list of what he’s been reading, listening to and watching. Either he has some very sassy advisors or the ex-President has refined tastes and keeps up to speed with the upper as well as the middle end of popular culture. Among the books to receive the Obama imprimatur were Esi Edugyan’s Man Booker Prize nominated Washington Black and the longlisted Warlight by the Golden Man Booker winner Michael Ondaatje. There were other Man Booker figures who featured on his list too: V.S. Naipaul (A House for Mr Biswas), Hisham Matar (The Return) and Zadie Smith (Feel Free). Needless to say, his number one pick was his author wife’s Becoming – a choice that guarantees harmony in the Obama household. There has though been no equivalent list from the present incumbent of the White House.


An honour of a different kind goes to the 2000 Man Booker winner Margaret Atwood who was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour in the diplomatic and overseas list of the New Year’s honours in recognition of her status as “a huge figure in the literary world” and her “lifelong contribution to the English language”. One doesn’t suppose Atwood has much trouble when reserving a restaurant table but this latest accolade will impress even the snootiest maître d’.


Amos Oz, the lauded Israeli novelist who died of cancer at 79 just before year’s end, was a Man Booker International Prize shortlistee in 2017, when he was pipped to the prize by his fellow countryman David Grossman. At his burial, Oz’s son recalled a particularly memorable aphorism from his father: “I can distill all the edicts of morality as well as the 10 commandments to one commandment only: Though shalt not hurt. That’s all. And if that’s impossible, at least try to hurt less. As little as possible.”


She didn’t say so at the time, but when Sarah Hall was asked to judge the 2017 Man Booker Prize she was all over the place. “A few years ago, a maelstrom occurred in my life. There were three large, intensely recalibrating events – the birth of my child, the death of my mother and the breakdown of my marriage. These were so closely aligned it was difficult to process them individually or at once. Not long afterwards – the universe is ludicrous – I received an invitation to judge the 2017 Man Booker Prize.” She would have been mad to accept, she says, but she did and it turned out to be the wisest of decisions. Blessed with a sympathetic and like-minded group of fellow judges she got to work. “While reading, I was grieving, mothering and gently reconsidering romance. Mostly, I was just in it, attending to the duty. I came out of the experience utterly exhausted, feeling like I had a metaphysical flu. Plus, I needed reading glasses. But I also felt truly exercised.” So there you have it, the Man Booker Prize is officially good for your psychological health – something this year’s judges, who are just starting on their Herculean task, might like to keep in mind.


Teased with the infuriating phrase “Coming soon”, movie goers have another Man Booker book adaptation to look forward to. Peter Carey’s 2001 Man Booker winning True History of the Kelly Gang has been filmed by Film Four and is due for release in 2019. In the somewhat breathless words of the filmmakers, “this thrilling, bold adaptation charts the rise and fall of Australia’s original Mad Max; a coming of age tale about a defiant rebel sworn to wreak vengeance and havoc on the British Empire”. Carey might be a little surprised to see his novel about the adventures of Ned Kelly, written with barely any punctuation, described this way. George Mackay plays Kelly but the box-office draw is provided by Russell Crowe as “the notorious bushranger Harry Power”. The director Justin Kurzel says he made the film “with the same free spirit Peter Carey has in the writing of this extraordinary book” – which could be ominous or could be brilliant.