Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Booker book #44: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, is not really the story of Wolf Hall at all. It is the story of Thomas Cromwell, counselor to King Henry VIII during the English chapter of the great Protestant Reformation.

The story begins with young Thomas on the ground looking at his father's boot. Not surprisingly, young Thomas runs away, to become a soldier, a wool trader, and eventually a lawyer. It is in that capacity that he serves Cardinal Wolsey, counselor to King Henry. When the Cardinal dies, Thomas's great intellectual and psychological abilities, especially his gifts in finance, allow him to become one of the king's most intimate advisors and thus one of the most powerful and wealthy men in the realm.

Meanwhile, all the drama of the King's predicament is swirling around the court. The Reformation is afoot, and King Henry wishes to divorce his first wife in order to marry his second. What's curious is that Wolf Hall is the ancestral home of his third wife, Jane Seymour, whom he hardly glances at in this book, which ends before the death of second wife Anne Boleyn.

The book is written in a unique style, unlike any other historical fiction I have read. There are plenty of concrete historical details, yet the narration can be poetically abstract. I enjoyed learning more about this historical period; however, I did find the narration confusing at times. So many characters have the same first names, and so many characters are also known by a title. Usually "he" or "him" refers to Cromwell, but occasionally a first person "I" creeps in.

Nonetheless, I really felt that I knew and liked Cromwell...well after these 600 pages, and I'm looking forward to spending 12 CDs with him as I listen to the sequel, Bring up the Bodies, on audiobook. This second installment also won a Booker prize, in 2012.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Now reading Booker book #44

What have I gotten myself into? This book begins with a five-page list of characters, and two pages of family trees. But I am excited to learn more about Thomas Cromwell.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Booker Book #43: The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

The white tiger is an animal that comes along only once in a generation. It is the nickname of our hero, a servant who observes and imitates his masters, to become an entrepreneur. The entire novel is written in the form of a letter to a Chinese official planning a visit to India, and it exposes India's corruption and mistreatment of servants.

White Tiger is the gripping tale of what the downtrodden will do to survive. It should strike fear in the hearts of exploiters everywhere. I found it much more engaging than most of the other Indian novels on the Booker list.

My reviews are getting shorter, as is my time to finish the Booker winners before the end of 2018! I have 8 left to read (one's a short re-read, but three are VERY long), and one to listen to. Wish me luck! 

Sunday, November 4, 2018

What the Hell Happened in 2005?

Take a look at the short list for the Man Booker Prize in 2005:

John Banville, The Sea
Julian Barnes, Arthur and George
Sebastian Barry, A Long, Long Way
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
Ali Smith, The Accidental
Zadie Smith, On Beauty

Kazuo Ishiguro had already won for The Remains of the Day (1989), which was phenomenal, and he would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Never Let Me Go (click on title for my review) is an incredibly original speculative book about child clones being raised to be organ donors. It addresses many of the same topics that arose in Remains – class, the master/servant relationship – and the two books are even stronger read together. Never Let Me Go shoulda been a contender.

And I just finished listening to The Accidental on audio book. Talk about original! It’s the story of the ironically named Smarts: professor Michael, writer Eve, teen bully Magnus, and pre-teen bully victim Astrid. A fifth wheel, Amber, careens into their lives and throws them all for a loop. Each character has a unique voice, not just as a person, but as a literary invention. Eve speaks in question-and-answer interview format like the historical recreations that she writes; literary Michael speaks an entire chapter in verse; Magnus has an alter ego named “Hologram Boy”; and twelve-year-old Astrid is still seeking a voice, trying out phrases like “typical and ironic” and “i.e.” And Amber speaks in movie allusions, since she was conceived in a cinema.

It’s an amazing book, as Astrid would say. It addresses not just bullying, but adultery, writer’s block, and the ways in which we are vulnerable to the kind of fraud Amber commits on the whole family. It shines with motifs of light, photography, and cinema. I found it far more complex than The Sea, and the twist at the end has a much more satisfying kick to it. I highly recommend it, and I can’t believe that Banville won over Smith and Ishiguro. Harumph.

Booker Book #42: The Gathering by Anne Enright

Veronica, the protagonist of The Gathering, is one of twelve siblings. She has come back to her mother's Irish home to announce the death by suicide of her brother Liam; the gathering of the title is his wake.

Veronica proceeds to try to unravel why Liam ended up killing himself. Her memories are vague and her mother is, too. She remembers an incident of sexual abuse but can't quite pin down to whom it happened.

This is a story about the difficulties of family relationships, especially in large families, including the guilt of moving up in social class, leaving some family members behind. It's also an interesting enough book about the slipperiness of memory, with a bit of a sentimental ending that I won't spoil for you.

Just 10 more to go!!!

Friday, October 26, 2018

Booker Book #41: The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai is a beautifully written novel about people of India: those who are born there, those who live there, those who leave and those who want to leave. One of the central characters, Sai, has been raised in India, but in a Western convent. She goes to live with her grandfather, who returned to India as a judge after being trained in England. The grandfather finds he and Sai have much in common. Another main character, Biju, has left India to pursue the American dream, which turns out to be sleeping on a table in the cheap restaurant where he works and getting no medical treatment for an on-the-job injury. Others are immigrants who are kicked out when the locals try to create an independent state. It seems the population is in a frustrated flux, with people who want to go unable to leave, and those who want to stay being evicted.

I found this novel too sprawling and slow, like Midnight’s Children, which I also didn’t enjoy very much. And yet, despite the long unfurling of the plot, I still did not feel that I got to know the peripheral characters well – I could still barely tell them apart by the end. The “Indian” novels I’ve enjoyed most so far in this project have been by Englishmen: The Siege of Krishnapur and Staying On. I also loved The God of Small Things, which has a tighter, more Western-style plot-with-a-twist, and was a bestseller here in the U.S. So maybe my novel sensibilities are just very Western. I am still glad that this project is pushing me out of my comfort zone and forcing me to read novels I wouldn’t otherwise.