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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 October 2005, 13:45 GMT 14:45 UK
Booker diary: The verdict
Chris Loxley
By Chris Loxley
Secondary school teacher in Essex

Chris Loxley, 26, read all 17 books on the Man Booker Prize longlist in 21 days for BBC Four's Bookered Out show.

Now he gives his thoughts on the judges' choice of John Banville's The Sea as the winner.

TUESDAY, 11 OCTOBER. POST-BOOKER PRIZE CEREMONY

Well, that was quite a surprise, wasn't it?

With so many "big" books on the shortlist and well-known favourites like Julian Barnes, Zadie Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro, it was quite exciting to see John Banville slink off with the Man Booker Prize last night.

My first impression of the book wasn't favourable - I recall pining for sea monsters and pirates rather than reminiscences of a childhood holiday.

But what did stand out was the painstakingly composed prose, beautifully structured and lyrical, pushing towards the boundaries of poetry. Banville's precise, delicate language must have been a deciding factor in his victory.

I've been pondering the other shortlisted authors' styles - Ishiguro's prose was also very deliberate and spare, but with the effect of creating an Enid Blytonesque tale of cloning and organ harvesting.

Zadie Smith's work, on the other hand, seemed like a huge unedited morass of family life, reflecting the uncertainty and chaos in the principal characters' lives. In contrast, Ali Smith used a fluid narrative to convey the logical way a very illogical woman changed the lives of the Smart family.

Julian Barnes' novel was overwritten quite deliberately, aping the Edwardian style.

Perhaps, then, the only other novel on the shortlist that is similar in style to The Sea is Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way. It shares a poetic simplicity.

The protagonist in The Sea is not a simple fellow, however - I assume the simple prose is used to compare the hollow shell that grief has made of Max Morden with the naive beauty of the young boy he once was. So on reflection, I'm quite glad The Sea won.

While I would have chosen A Long Long Way for its affecting, unpretentious style, The Sea shares many of that book's qualities. When faced with a collection of quite thick, perhaps intimidating novels, Banville's is very accessible - easily readable and not too weighty.

FRIDAY, 09 SEPTEMBER. POST-BOOKER SHORTLIST ANNOUNCEMENT

Yesterday was a bit of a blur.

I wasn't overly concerned that the shortlist failed to reflect my reading experience.

It was fantastic to meet my fellow Bookered Out judges, splendid folk, all of them. The afternoon was a whirl of celebrity shoulder-brushing, canapes and complimentary wine.

This morning however, with my complimentary hangover and five lessons waiting to be taught, I'm pausing to consider the "official" shortlist.

People are already muttering about McEwan, Rushdie and Coetzee missing out, but let's face it, do they need more acclaim/recognition/prize money?

Despite missing out some big names, the shortlist still manages a high recognition - the terribly trendy two Smiths (Zadie and Ali) are in there. Barnes, Banville and Ishiguro provide gravitas, but for me the most exciting inclusion was Barry's A Long Long Way.

This book is so accessible, moving and lyrical that I'm already using with my GCSE classes to give context to Journey's End.

From what I can gather, it was a last minute decision to include the book, and I'm chuffed it got there.

I'm quite upset The People's Act of Love wasn't selected, though. I mean, come on people! Though most of my fellow Bookered Out judges disagreed, I think it deserves the wider audience that shortlist nomination would have garnered.

But anyway, I shan't dwell on it. There are four new Doctor Who books out this month, so I've got my own mini-Doctored Out Challenge to start!

Keep reading.

WEDNESDAY, 07 SEPTEMBER. TIME'S UP ON THE BOOKERED OUT CHALLENGE

I polished off The Harmony Silk Factory by Tash Aw in one sitting. It reads like a Malaysian version of The Godfather Part II, describing the rise of a humble mine worker to the position of most influential man in the valley.

However, my enjoyment of the novel was impaired by the speed at which I was forced to read. I ended up resenting the enchanting descriptions of the lush flora and fauna of the Malaysian jungle. I grew to loathe the rich and insightful internal monologues of each narrator. I wanted action and dialogue. They take less time to read.

This might be why I found A Long Long Way such a wonderful weekend read - the prose was so simple I could dash through great chunks of text without thinking. It felt like progress.

I now have four books to go, less than two days. Since I have Thursday off work, if I cut out on sleep I can read all Wednesday night. I know I can do this. The longlist judges, however, will have completed their reading long ago, and I'm curious to see what they'll pick. Personally, I'd want to pick the most accessible novels for the shortlist. The ones I found the most fun, the books that made this challenge worthwhile.

They would be This is The Country, The People's Act of Love, Saturday, Beyond Black, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and... that's five already. And there are two more I want to fit in. The shortlist only has room for six. Crikey. Slow Man and A Long Long Way both deserve to be in there.

I don't envy the judges' task. But at the same time I know they won't share my taste. I'd like This is The Country or The People's Act of Love to win, but I'm assuming they don't stand a chance when lined up against the work of literary giants like Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Salman Rushdie. I will say one thing. If Dan Jacobson's truly awful All For Love makes it into the shortlist, I won't be happy.

FRIDAY, 02 SEPTEMBER

It is now 1:30 at night. It feels a lot later.

I went into school today to organise my new classroom and discuss plans for the new school year. That ate up a lot of my reading time. So when I got home at 5pm, it was obvious I couldn't relax until I'd done some serious reading.

I have been reading almost non-stop for the last 13 and a half hours. I am cream-crackered.

Managed to finish Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black, which was quite fun (but frankly over long), and completed Saturday by Ian McEwan fairly easily.

Saturday is a surprising little book. Slow moving, considered, perfectly measured-out prose is punctuated by shocking changes of pace that act as literary buckets of ice water. So exactly the kind of book I needed at this stage of the challenge. Thanks, Mr McEwan.

Beyond Black is not without merit either, on the surface a jaunty tale about a psychic and her sidekick, but underneath is a quite gritty and almost unrelentingly morbid tale of an abusive childhood and failed relationships.

So with seven days to go, I'm now left with eight books. Hopefully I can keep up the pace I've established tonight, because I'm painting the classroom display boards tomorrow.

TUESDAY, 30 AUGUST

Panic stations! Less than 10 days to go, more than 10 books to read! And they're all monsters, my friends.

From a 622-page retelling of Darwin and Fitzroy's 1828 expedition, to achingly cool author Zadie Smith's new behemoth of prose, On Beauty.

Then there are the novels that look like Mills and Boone slush fests, but with footnotes. Do any of these come in spoken word?

I find myself speed-reading as I was taught at university, swinging my head from left to right, right to left and back again. I look like a nodding dog with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. No more reading in public for me.

Last night I fell asleep during the first hundred pages of Beyond Black. I'm battling to get it finished today.

And that's the problem. I shouldn't be using the word battle. I should be enjoying these books. Taking my time to soak up the setting and characters, swirl the plot around my head like port in a glass.

Instead, I'm rushing headlong through some of the best books I've read in my life, viewing them as a challenge, not a pleasure.

When I think of the novels I've enjoyed, they're associated with a dull headache and sweaty armpits.

I'm hoping I'll be able to re-read a few later, enjoy them at a leisurely pace. The ones I'm not so keen on, I don't know whether to burn, or sell on e-Bay.

FRIDAY, 26 AUGUST

I have a confession to make. I've been very naughty. I've fallen off the wagon.

I was doing so well. After we last spoke, I headed down to the pub and read A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, all in one go. It was a belter of a book, a five pinter as it turned out, full of fun and earthy humanity.

But for the last day and a half, I've played several hours of computer games, watched a Korean action film, overslept (a lot), met friends for lunch - and that's not the half of it.

Today, I bought a copy of Doctor Who Magazine, put the kettle on, opened some chocolate digestives. The decadence. I read the whole thing cover to cover, pausing only to dust crumbs off the page. Yes, it felt good at the time, but now, the guilt, the shame.

I've got to get back on the wagon, but these things are difficult. So I'm going to take it a step at a time. I'm on chapter two of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, and before I cook myself dinner, I promise to read another two chapters. After eating, I'll continue reading until the novel is finished, and only then will I allow myself sleep.

Might take a while, as I've found it quite difficult to get into Ishiguro's unusual simplicity. I might discover a new psychological condition: reader's fatigue, or Booker syndrome. Sorry, it's getting to me now. On with the reading.

TUESDAY, 23 AUGUST

Finished The Sea by John Banville about 10 minutes ago.

The blurb lists all the awards Mister Banville has won, and so I'm sure the fact that I found his latest novel so horrendously dull is a failing on my part, not his fault at all.

To be honest, he looks like quite a nice guy on the dust jacket, amiable and erudite.

Which makes me feel particularly uncouth when I recall struggling through the text, willing something, anything interesting to happen.

The novel focuses on the sea, so why couldn't we have seen a legion of underwater zombies rise from the depths, to claim the flesh of the living?

How about a terrible sea serpent threatening the livelihood of a small fishing community? Or a killer shark?

I suppose my real problem with this book is Banville's prose style.

There is very little dialogue, and so characters are judged by their actions not their words, which is interesting, but also results in reader's fatigue.

Wearily epic in its proportions, there are no chapters in The Sea, only two halves.

I like my books to be episodic, with an opportunity to pause for thought between chapters. No such chance here, with Part I coming in at 132 pages.

I fell asleep whilst halfway down page 90 last night. I now wonder if I have the stamina for this ridiculous task.

I've decided to reward myself with a visit to the pub after lunch, where I'm going to attempt A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. Wish me luck.

FRIDAY, 19 AUGUST

The folks organising Bookered Out are visiting today, so I've been trying to finish the first three novels before they arrive.

But then it occurred to me. They're going to be filming. Filming, in my hovel of a flat. So abandoning reading for the last two days, I've been trying to make the flat less... hovel-like.

So this morning, I was holding a paintbrush in one hand and The People's Act of Love by James Meek in the other. I saved this book 'till last out of the three, with good reason.

Firstly, it has the most pages (I've still got 320 to go). Secondly, from reading the blurb, it seemed to be the most exciting. And lastly, it's set in Siberia, which I think is kind of cool.

But the book is like an enigma wrapped in a mystery. The characters do the strangest things for no discernable reason, and give very little away about themselves.

It seems that the story's main focus is the murder of a local shaman, but he is killed in such a daft way. A lack of knowledge about the Russian political upheaval post-World War I does not help. The novel's meaning seems to slip through my fingers like loosely packed snow.

But damn it, I love this book. Meek's no-nonsense, simplistic prose seems to enhance the nonsensical aspects of the plot, so if everything is not clear, it is at least accessible, and certainly hugely enjoyable.

Still, what with all the painting and vacuuming, no time for the pub. I'll have to get a few in over the weekend...

TUESDAY, 16 AUGUST

On Friday morning, I was woken up at an ungodly hour by a polite tapping on the front door. I struggled out of bed and staggered to the door to find a courier waving a large jiffy bag at me.

What could it be, this mystery package? I tore open the jiffy bag to reveal: Ah, the first three books on the longlist.

Obviously, I picked the book with the least pages to begin with. In the Fold is the kind of book in which the word countenance replaces face, and every sentence must have at least three clauses.

Once I got past this air of pretension, I experienced a wonderful sense of indifference. I did not care what happened to any of the over-privileged characters.

So, despite being relatively short (224 pages), it was still a mighty endeavour to finish In the Fold. I dread to think what'll happen when I get to the longer entries on the list.

So, I've got two books to read until Friday 19 August, when I'll receive the other 14 on the longlist. Then I've got until the 8 September to finish the lot.

This is giving me something of a scheduling nightmare. I've got a leisurely couple of days now, but come Friday, that's about 20 days to read 17 books.

I'll spare you the maths, but that's about 30 hours per book, if I don't stop to eat, drink, wash, or sleep. And I've been finding it difficult already.

On the first day I only read 26 pages. The second day 100-odd. I've finished one book, and am a third into the next, but soon I'm going to have to get hardcore.

The television, Playstation, and internet are probably my worst enemies, so I have a plan: if I spend the day reading in the pub, there's nothing to distract me, right? Just me, the book, and the beer. Should work a treat. I'll let you know how it turns out.

THURSDAY, 11 AUGUST

Why on earth would anyone want to take on this challenge?

I'm an English teacher, which involves two things - language and literature.

The language bit I've got down. I speak English all day long - proper Essex English an' all.

Literature on the other hand...

Ever been in the situation when someone asks you "So, what's the last book you read?" and you have had to lie through your teeth in order to avoid the humiliation and intellectual defrocking that the truth would elicit?

In the last two months I have read Doctor Who novels, Manga comics, a "post-modern" horror novel, a book called Giantslayer about a dwarf who slays giants, a Spider-Man comic featuring The Sinister Six...I won't go on.

Not the kind of stuff an English teacher should be caught reading.

I need something more challenging to sink my teeth into. Or, to further the metaphor, I need some fresh, organic modern fiction to help me detox after years of burger-and-chips fiction, the literary fast food of comics and sci-fi spin-offs.

So for the next few weeks I am on a strict diet of the very best contemporary fiction.

I will be keeping a video diary for BBC Four, and there will be regular entries on my online diary, so you can follow my gradual decline.

Friends, family and personal grooming will be neglected as I struggle to read every novel before 8 September, and I am sure the withdrawal symptoms will be horrifying to witness, as I push away comics, Doctor Who, Playstation, television, DVDs and the internet.

All of a sudden this does not seem such a good idea. Hang self-improvement - I want my comics back!

Bookered Out is on BBC Four in September.


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