Tuesday, January 22, 2019

What the Hell Happened, 2004 edition

Take a look at the Booker Prize short list from 2004:

Achmat Dangor, Bitter Fruit
Sarah Hall, The Electric Michelangelo
Alan Hollinghurst, The Line of Beauty
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
Colm Tóibín, The Master
Gerard Woodward, I'll go to Bed at Noon

I’ve only read two of these: the winner, The Line of Beauty, and Cloud Atlas. And I have to say that, hands down, no contest, Cloud Atlas was the better of the two.

Why? Hollinghurst’s book is good, as I wrote in my review. But it’s a book about one era, and its limited set of problems: Thatcher’s England, and class and sexuality therein. It’s an interesting topic, and Hollinghurst’s take on it is worthy.

But Cloud Atlas is simply revolutionary, in both the literal and figurative senses. Figuratively first, its structure and plot are completely original: five stories are cut off halfway through, then found by the next character. That is, the first half of Adam’s journal in Part 1 is found by composer Robert in part 2. Luisa finds half of Robert’s letters in part 3, and so on, until the crux of the novel, part 6. Then part 5 concludes, part 4, part 3, all the way back down to one. It’s a risky but thoroughly virtuoso performance.

Second, its message is literally revolutionary. Each section is the story of an underdog, and the group he or she represents, rising up to claim his or her due from the ruling class. We have a slave sailor who frees himself, a reporter trying to blow the whistle on corrupt power plant owners, a clone ascending above her virtual servitude, and so on.

It’s a masterful, compelling, creative book, and Cloud Atlas should have won the prize.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

What next?

So now that I'm done with the Booker prize reading project, what am I up to next? Here is a picture of my to-read shelf, which has been gradually filling up over the past year. Right now I'm pulling out the shortest books so that I can read as many books as possible before the end of the year. My first book club read of the year will be Sisters in Law, about Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

My Best of the Bookers

Between February and December 2018, I read all 53 books that have won the Man Booker prize since its inception in 1968. Here are my personal favorites. Click on links for my reviews.

Booker winners that I marked 5 stars on my Goodreads account:

G., John Berger

Best Plot: The Luminaries. Staggeringly complex plot that ties together nearly 20 main characters. Runner-up: Amsterdam, an incredibly satisfying tale of comeuppance.

Best Historical Novel: Sacred Hunger. A must-read for anyone interested in the impact of the slave trade on people of all colors. Runner-up: Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies, that place you in the cunning mind of Thomas Cromwell.

Best Twist at the End: Life of Pi.

Most Original Narration: Lincoln in the Bardo, a compilation of the words of ghosts and quotations from historical sources.

Authors I’m Most Glad I Discovered: Anita Brookner, A.S. Byatt.

Monday, December 24, 2018

2018 Man Booker Prize Winner: Milkman, by Anna Burns

Anna Burns’ Milkman, the 2018 winner of the Man Booker prize, hooked me at first with its language: stilted and formal, hinting at a post-apocalyptic near future reminiscent of 1984, where everyone checks for bugs in their phones and is not surprised to be photographed while jogging in the park. Most characters are stripped of names and are known only by epithets, such as “the man who didn't love anybody” or “Somebody McSomebody” or “maybe-boyfriend.”

Middle sister, our nameless narrator, is being approached by the milkman. But he’s not really a milkman, he’s a renouncer of the state, and quite high up in the paramilitary pecking order. Anna Burns’ great achievement is recreating the psychological tension of the unwanted attention that without words or violence still constitutes harassment. See the progression in this string of quotes I highlighted from early in the book to almost the end:

“I couldn’t be rude because he wasn’t being rude … Why was he presuming I didn’t mind him beside me when I did mind him beside me? ... I did not know intuition and repugnance counted, did not know I had a right not to like, not to have to put up with, anybody and everybody coming near … So shiny was bad, and ‘too sad’ was bad, and ‘too joyous’ was bad, which meant you had to go around not being anything … I came to understand how much I’d been closed down, how much I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man.”

The sad parallel that Burns draws is between the one-on-one intimidation of a woman by a man, and the similar constant harrying of a terrorist state (presumably Ireland in the 1970s), in which the citizens become used to unspoken rules, constant surveillance, and an ever-present threat of violence.

The comparison, and its conveyance through nameless characters in absurd situations, is brilliant. Nonetheless, the plot started to lag about halfway through, and I had to push through to the end.

Now I have read every single Man Booker prize winner since its inception fifty years ago in 1968. My future goal is to read the winner every year, and perhaps the shortlisted books as well. Next post: my personal Booker favorites.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Booker Book #52: Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

I have loved the writing of George Saunders ever since I was introduced to him by a former colleague, who used his story “The Falls” in a high-school American lit class. Each of his short stories is unique and thought-provoking, sort of a hybrid of Raymond Carver’s bluntness and David Foster Wallace’s intricacy.

Lincoln in the Bardo is one of the most original novels I have ever read. It is mostly told in two alternating forms: historical narrative composed of an accretion of related quotations from presumably historical sources, and narrative spoken by ghosts in a graveyard.

Here’s the premise: During the early years of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, one of the Lincolns’ sons, Willie, got sick and died. He is taken to a Washington, D.C., cemetery for interment. There we meet several dead-but-not-departed, who linger between this world and the next.

The novel focuses on the ghosts’ attempts to help Willie move on the next world, as awful things happen to child spirits who linger. The result is a fascinating peek into the Great Emancipator’s mind.

It’s a quick and easy read, shorter than your typical 343-page book, because of the space between the quotations, reminiscent of the spaces between graves in a graveyard.  

And with that, I have finished the Booker Project! I still have ten days left in 2018, so look for my review of this year’s winner, Milkman, as well as my personal favorites recap before year’s end.