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All the President’s prizes

All the President’s prizes

Barack Obama’s end-of-year reading lists have become a fixture of the cultural scene. If you ever wondered what a former leader of the free world does with his time, the answer seems to be books, books and books. Among his 2019 “favourites that made the last year a little brighter,” are a cluster of Booker Prize novels. This year’s joint winner, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, was one of his faves, as was Sally Rooney’s 2018 Man Booker Prize longlisted Normal People. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was another to get the former-POTUS’ nod of approval. Perhaps we will need to wait until the current president has stepped away from the White House to get a glimpse of his cultural highlights.


Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming was, meanwhile, revealed as the most borrowed book of 2019 at the fabled New York Public Library. Not far behind was Anna Burns’ 2018 Man Booker Prize winning Milkman, which was NYPL’s 10th most borrowed book of the year.


One of the most coveted of all awards is France’s Legion d’Honneur, the country foremost order of merit, established by Napoleon in 1802. How chuffed must Ismael Kadare have been then when, alongside Nobel Prize winners and the “professor” of football Arsène Wenger, he was recently elevated to grand officer of the order? Kadare was born in Albania and was a prominent critic of the country’s Communist regime. He sought asylum in France in 1990 and has lived in Paris ever since. The Booker Prizes, of course, recognised his merits long ago: Kadare was the first winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2009.


Sonny Mehta, chairman of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, who died this week, was generally held to be the most influential publisher of our times. He first made his mark at Pan in 1972 and turned Picador into one of the most impressive literary imprints going. There he published a roster of Booker Prize winners including Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Graham Swift and Julian Barnes. While in New York from 1987 his big names included Kazuo Ishiguro, V.S. Naipaul and Alice Munro. Among his other claims to fame, he was honoured with a place in Vanity Fair’s Best Dressed Men Hall of Fame. No other publisher could match either his dapperness or his Booker Prize winning record.  


Optimism seems to be the most desired but elusive attribute of the moment. When asked what gives them hope in dark times, the multiple Booker Prize nominee Deborah Levy saw reasons for optimism in language: “It is hopeful when kids make up a language no one but their pals can understand. It’s experimental, witty, a bit mad – which is a good thing,” she said. And spinning off from this: “It is hopeful that the language of patriarchy, currently having its last gasp at destroying the Earth, has been unmasked by the global feminist movement, which has given everyone another sort of language.” Meanwhile Elif Shafak, a shortlistee last year, wants 2020 to “be the year of tackling inequality head-on, embarking on the net-zero-carbon target, promoting empathy, and may it be the year of citizens of humanity”. Elsewhere she went on to suggest that comics are a good place to look for the upbeat: “Graphic novels that dance a waltz with either the past or the future are the best in times of crisis”.