Sunday, September 9, 2018

Booker Book #35: The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood

Two young women, raised in relative isolation, meet an attractive, mysterious young man. What happens next involves sex, secrets, and sacrifice. In The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood weaves together multiple story strands as skillfully as A.S. Byatt does in Possession: the view from the present and the vintage love story are interspersed with news articles about war in Europe and local tragedy that enhance the threatening mood.

Fans of the author of The Handmaid's Tale will recognize recurring motifs: Atwood's cunningly analytical take on language; religious delusions; the ways society exploits women; and the ways women resist. Her science fiction also makes an appearance in the pulp stories penned by the mysterious young man.

This is a masterful novel, with a reveal as slow and enticing as a skillful burlesque show. I am so grateful this project required me to reread it. I hope that Atwood wins the Nobel Prize in literature soon, as the most recent winner Kazuo Ishiguro said she should have.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Booker Book #34: J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace


Coetzee was the first author to win the Booker prize twice: first in 1983 for Life & Times of Michael K, about a young South African man of color trying to leave a terrifying city life to return to the country. One might say that Disgrace is similar in a way, since it is about another man who retreats from the city to a farm. However, Coetzee’s second booker winner (1999) reminds me more of Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist (1974), because both feature a privileged white South African man. Disgrace’s protagonist, professor of communications David Lurie, has not chosen his retreat: he is rather in exile, or disgrace, for sexual harassment of a student. This must have been one of the first novels to deal with the growing political correctness that began to be felt in the 1990s.

After David has his brief and selfish affair with a student, and refuses to cooperate with the investigative committee, he resigns and goes to his daughter’s farm and kennel. He begins to rebuild his life, volunteering and writing, until he and his daughter are attacked by local thugs. The two crimes and their aftermath are vastly different…or are they?

I try not to read too much about a novel before I finish it, preferring to form my own opinions. But as soon as I finished this one, I turned to the front matter: a page of extracts from reviews. The words that jumped out at me were “cold” and “uncomfortable”; “perplex” and “disturb.” I agree with all of those. I also try to refrain from too much interpretation in these reviews, in order to let my reader (readers, I hope!) form *their* own opinions. But I must say that this novel, lean as it is, is rich with symbolic material about fathers and daughters, crime and penance, even dogs and people. It is about a world in which the sexes, races, and species are overcoming centuries of inequality. It’s a slow and painful process.


Monday, August 20, 2018

Booker Book #33: Amsterdam, by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan is one of those fabulous writers, like Ann Patchett, whose books are each unique. He writes with convincing authority about realms as divergent as music composition, underworld thugs, and wartime nursing. I have been looking forward to reading a new Ian McEwan book since the beginning of this project, and I was not disappointed.

Weighing in at just under two hundred pages, Amsterdam is a lightweight of a novel, but it could stand up to anything by O. Henry in a championship fight. It is brilliantly plotted, bitingly witty, and breathtakingly ironic.

Amsterdam is the story of two men whose friendship reaches a new level after the death of a woman they both loved. It is a meditation on friendship and selfishness, hypocrisy and ethics, success and revenge. I wouldn't spoil a page of it for you, but just to whet your appetite, you will find an editor double-crossing, a politician cross-dressing, and...oh, just read it.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Booker Book #32: The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy


The god of small things is not a god, he’s a man, and an Untouchable man, at that. Velutha, a member of the lowest Indian caste, wins the hearts of three characters (and the reader) in this sad tale.

Velutha first wins over Ammu, daughter of a factory owner, when they are both children. He makes her intricate toys, “small things,” which he must offer on the palm of his hand, so she doesn’t have to touch him. Velutha grows up to become a gifted engineer and carpenter who would be running the factory if not for his social status. He later wins the hearts of her children, who belong to a new generation and may play with him, not just snatch his presents.

When Ammu comes home after her divorce, she sees Velutha in a new light. But in India, the “Love Laws” are strong, and cross-caste love is the most harshly judged. The children will suffer for their mother’s transgression.

This is a powerfully told story that encapsulates much about India’s attitudes toward class, women, and relationships. Told in large part from the points of view of Ammu’s twin children, we readers must puzzle through their misunderstandings of what is going on around them.

The writing is lyrical and sparkles with word play. I enjoyed this novel more than Rushdie’s, and found in it echoes of Michael Ondaatje’s work on Sri Lanka. A Booker classic.