Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Halfway Through! Now Reading Booker Book #26

I started this project not aware that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Booker Prize, so that was a happy coincidence. To celebrate the anniversary, a committee was asked to choose the “Best of the Bookers,” and they choose the book right in the center, the one I am looking forward to re-reading next, The English Patient. I have read more books by Michael Ondaatje than anyone else on the Booker list except Ian McEwan (half a dozen) and Margaret Atwood (all of them).

Now that I have finished 25 of the winners, I think it would be a good time to pause for some reflection.

I have discovered some writers I will return to: A.S. Byatt and Anita Brookner, for sure; John Berger and Keri Hulme, perhaps.

I have discovered that these books can be not just longer but denser than my typical read, so I may not reach my goal of reading 118 books in 2018. I usually read over 100 books a year with no problem, but we’re a little over halfway through the year and I’ve only read 51 books. Goodreads.com says I am 12 books behind schedule [gulp].

I have been reminded that a book that wins a prize will not necessarily please everyone. I have found several books here that I struggled through and wondered, what was the committee thinking? I must remember that when I argue with people about “best books” lists.

And finally, I nominate Ralph Fiennes as Official Actor of the Booker Prize. He has starred or co-starred in at least three Booker-based films: Schindler’s List, Oscar and Lucinda, and The English Patient. If you know of any more, tell me in the comments!

Monday, July 16, 2018

Booker Book #25: The Famished Road, by Ben Okri

Have you ever noticed how absurdist works are very short? There is a reason for that: one can only put up with so much absurdist dialogue.

And have you ever heard that saying that nothing is more boring than other people's dreams?

Well, The Famished Road is five hundred pages of absurdist dialogue and other people's dreams.

Our hero, Azaro, a young African boy, cannot decide if he wants to live in our reality or in the spirit world. He chooses our world, but the spirit world keeps pursuing him. In nearly every chapter, Azaro goes to the local bar, sees weird spirit-world stuff happen (that's the "other people's dreams" part), then gets home late and gets in trouble. In the next section it starts all over again.

In the background, two political parties are waging war in the village. Dad is trying to become a boxer and politician. And Madame Koto, the bar owner, is growing rich, and corrupt, and just plain growing. All this surely has some kind of allegorical meaning, but grotesque visions of monsters with multiple heads trying to lure Azaro back to the spirit world distracted me from whatever that might be.

I admit that many portions of this book are beautifully written and highly imaginative, especially the first few times that Azaro wanders between worlds, or the final chapters that at last make the connections clear. But I think this book, like its magic-realist genre-mate Midnight's Children, would have been twice as compelling if it were half as long.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Booker Book #24: Possession, by A. S. Byatt

Lucky me: two awesome books in a row. I don’t often use the phrase “tour de force,” but Possession is one. Ms. Byatt has written two love stories from the points of view of two authors, several diarists, and multiple critics, and has given each his or her own unique literary voice.

The story begins when poor Roland Michell, the epitome of the starving graduate student, finds two rough drafts of a letter. They are from the poet he has devoted his studies to, Randolph Ash, to a woman whose very existence is unsuspected by biographers and critics. He soon finds the intended audience was a certain Christobel LaMotte, also a writer, and sets off on a quest to discover if the correspondence ever went beyond the intriguing drafts.

Roland finds the LaMotte specialist, Maud Bailey, and the chase is on. It’s a literary mystery in which the contemporary couple mirror and parallel the nineteenth-century writers -- Roland/Randolph, Maud/LaMotte -- yet with some surprising differences and twists, as well. 

Byatt is a master poet and storyteller. I looked forward every day to returning to this book, and savored the end. It is a careful collage of texts about reading, writing, and literary studies, but also about men, women, love -- and possession.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Back to the Bookers: #23, The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Before this project, the only book I had read by Kazuo Ishiguro was Never Let Me Go. I picked it up not because of the author, but because I love science fiction, and I understood that it was about clones. As a work of science fiction, Never Let Me Go was disappointing; however, it, like The Remains of the Day, is a meditation on being human. It would be nearly impossible for me to discuss these two books at any depth without some ***spoilers***, so consider yourself warned.

From the very start, our narrator and hero, Mr. Stevens, asks himself the question, “What does it mean to be a great butler?” For that is what Mr. Stevens is, a butler in a “distinguished” household. Or rather, he was; Lord Darlington is gone now, and his English manor taken over by an American. Stevens comes to the conclusion that great butlers possess dignity, and cites several anecdotes, some about his butler father, to illustrate his point.

But isn’t the phrase “great butler” an oxymoron? How can a member of a “lower” class be great? Stevens’ eventual answer to this implied question is that those who cannot achieve greatness themselves achieve their purpose by serving the great. And that is the lynchpin that connects this novel with Never Let Me Go. The master/servant relationship here is replaced in the later novel by the more extreme human/clone relationship. Ishiguro explores both “underclasses” with finesse.

Both groups are isolated, marginalized. Both exist to “serve”; the clones, in case you haven’t read NLMG, are being raised to provide “spare” organs for their “originals.” However, both groups are educated. Stevens, for example, presents such a polished fa├žade that a group of villagers mistake him for a gentleman, while the initial setting of NLMG is a school, where the young clones are educated in sport and art, among other subjects. This education is ironic; both groups are treated like circus animals in a way. Certain butlers are called on to demonstrate their knowledge of trivia, while the educators debate whether the clones’ ability to produce art means that they have a soul.

But both groups’ service is tragic. Stevens devotes thirty loyal years to a man who ends up being a Nazi sympathizer. The clones, of course, will die after their final organ sacrifice.

Mr. Stevens may be dignified and loyal, but he is also oblivious, humorless, and overly devoted to his profession -- nearly inhuman. The figure of Miss Kenton, the housekeeper in the same estate as Mr. Stevens, serves as counterpoint to Stevens’ two-dimensionality. Miss Kenton, with her flowers, her passionate support of her staff, her fruitless efforts to connect with Mr. Stevens, is the bleeding heart of the story. She shows us what it means to be human: to love, to be curious, to share banter and warmth. To connect. The clones, of course, have all these traits too; they simply are never allowed to opportunity to share them outside their own “class,” and certainly not with those who will be cannibalizing them. In the end, fortunately, Stevens realizes the true difference between him and his “master”: at least the lord he served had the option to make his own mistakes, while servants (and clones) do not.

Ishiguro demonstrates amply why he earned the Nobel Prize in 2017. The novel is engaging from the very beginning, and delicately crafted throughout. The book tiptoes slowly but inexorably toward the truth about Lord Darlington, and Miss Kenton’s unrequited love. I’ll be reading more from this master writer.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Booker Break: A Surprise from S.E. Hinton

What comes to mind when I say “S.E. Hinton”? The Outsiders. Pony Boy. “Nothing gold can stay.” Maybe Rumble Fish. Or Matt Dillon.

But what about…vampires?

After Susan (!) E. Hinton’s iconic books, The Outsiders (1967), That Was Then, This is Now (1971), and Rumble Fish (1975), she kept writing. And one of the novels she wrote, in 2004, was Hawkes Harbor.

I listened to this book on CD. After the first disc, I thought I’d be listening to the tale of a troubled young man, very similar to those titles I just mentioned. We get a glimpse of Jamie Sommers’ childhood, then his wild times as a sailor and smuggler. We know he has gotten into trouble because he’s telling all this to a psychiatrist in a mental institution.

However, on disc two, things get weird. The book becomes a classic tale of…boy meets vampire.

TL;DR ***SPOILER ALERT*** Boy meets vampire. Vampire enslaves boy. Boy goes crazy. Vampire commits boy to asylum. Both boy and vampire are cured. They become besties and live happily ever after.

WHAT the WHAT???

First of all, vampire gets cured? I had to make sure I hadn’t skipped a disc when this just casually came up. While Jamie is “away,” the vampire somehow meets AND IS CURED BY a doctor/historian named Louisa.

So the relationship of SLAVE to MASTER becomes just another friendly employer/employee, roommates in a big, haunted house kind of thing, with a casual mention of Stockholm syndrome. No big deal, right? The two men even go on a cruise together, where they both find romantic and sexual adventure.

My only way of processing this is to think that Ms. Hinton was somehow, consciously or unconsciously, writing an allegory about child abuse. Our vampire, Grenville Hawkes, is the abusive parent, and Jamie the child. Jamie is absolutely traumatized by Grenville’s abuse, is helpless to escape it, and therefore copes as best he can. However, when Grenville “reforms,” Jamie gradually comes to trust him, and they have a mutually respectful relationship. Is this possible in formerly abusive parent/child relationships? I don’t know if it’s common, but I’ve heard of it in my own extended family.

The attempt falls flat, though. Too much telling, not showing, especially about important relationships. For example, you can never tell if Louisa’s attitude toward Jamie on a given day will be bossy or fond. No real development happens for her, she just shifts personalities as needed for each scene.

So anyway, if you want to read a vampire tale that does not have sparkly skin or werewolves, but does have male bonding on a cruise ship, give it a try. It may be the weirdest book you’ve read all year.