Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Booker Book #21: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively is the story of a historian. Claudia Hampton is dying, and she wants to write a history of the world. But what she ends up writing, of course, is the history of herself. We begin with the characters whom one would expect to be the most important to her, Claudia's daughter Lisa and Lisa's father Jasper, but they end up playing only minor parts in the end.

Before we go any further I'll tell you what Moon Tiger means, because I did not understand it until about a third of the way through the book. Moon Tiger is the brand name of an anti-mosquito coil, and in Claudia's mind its scent is strongly associated with her first true love, Tom. Also, since it burns away within a limited amount of time, it comes to represent Claudia's own life ticking away.

Tom and Claudia meet in Egypt during World War II. This portion of the book strongly reminds me of The English Patient, which will win the Booker Prize a few years after Moon Tiger. I have to wonder if Michael Ondaatje was influenced by Lively's novel. I'll know better when I reread The English Patient in a few weeks.

What sets this novel apart from your typical World War II love story is the fragmented point of view. That is probably also what won it the Booker Prize. Various portions of the story are told in overlapping segments from different perspectives: Claudia's of course, but also Jasper's, and Lisa's, and Tom's. Oh, and her brother Gordon's.

Aside from the expected themes of love and loss in wartime, other ideas that come up are the difference between history and entertainment, nationality's role in nature versus nurture, and the mother-daughter relationship. Oh, and incest.

At any rate, it's a well-written book about a woman succeeding in a male-dominated field. I hope I have as rich a life as Claudia's to look back on when I am on my deathbed.

PS This is my first blog post composed and published entirely from my phone.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Booker Book #20: The Old (Drunken) Devils of Kingsley Amis

Time to review The Old Devils, by Kingsley Amis, eh? Let me get some supplies.

First into the cargo space went, in quick time, a carton of drinkables: twelve-year-old Scotch, classy spring water to put in it, gin, tonics, a rare bottle of Linie-Aquavit from Oslo, a much commoner bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream…one each of Asti Spumante and Golden Sweet Malaga…four large cold Special Brews in wet newspaper...and a spot of coffee liqueur and other muck…

That, my dears, is what the star couple of old devils takes with them on a four-day trip with one other couple. There is so much drinking in this novel, that I often felt vicariously dizzy.

The story is set in motion by the return to Wales of Alun Weaver, Welsh poet and TV personality, and his wife Rhiannon, after several decades’ absence. Their arrival stirs up a brew of old loves, losses, and resentments, many of them acted out in bars and other drunken revelries.

Most of the characters are of retirement age, and the book begins with a careful description of each main fellow’s morning routine, right down to one’s constant struggle with constipation. But there are tender moments too, such as insights into decades-old relationships, as well as brutally honest observations on literary academia, the role of wives, and the modernization of Wales. I can’t say I got all the Welsh jokes, but I got enough of the humour to be laughing out loud more than once. So grab a scotch and tuck in.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Booker Book #19: The Bone People, by Keri Hulme

I am so glad I am past the books about British colonies written by colonizers (at least, I hope I am). Though many of them are heartfelt, there is something less engaging in reading about guilt, than in reading about the experience of the colonized. I guess I’d rather read a victim’s memoir than an abuser’s, no matter how enlightened the abuser may have become.

Anyway, The Bone People is only partly “about” New Zealand’s experience as a British colony. The history between Maoris and “Pakeha” (white folks) simply forms the backdrop to a three-part relationship puzzle.

I haven’t usually named characters beyond the protagonist in these reviews, but all three of these must be named, because they are all three protagonists. Kerewin is part Maori and all recluse. After a mysterious falling-out with her family, she used lottery winnings to literally build a tower and isolate herself in it, Bruce Wayne-like. She’s hard to sympathize with at first, as she cuts a somewhat unrealistic swashbuckling figure: a rich but failed artist who drinks too much, wears silk shirts, smokes cigarillos, and has some uncanny physical skills. But the other two will find the cracks in her armor.

The hinge that holds the three together is Simon, who shows up uninvited in Kerewin’s tower one day. She doesn’t like kids, but does due diligence in getting him back to his people. It’s a little harder than you might imagine, because he doesn’t speak. And he’s white.

Finally, the third panel in the triptych is Joe, Simon’s adoptive Maori dad, a factory hand, who does not make a great first impression on Kere. The way these three gradually become inseparable becomes more interesting even than the mystery of where the white boy came from and why he does not talk.

It’s a fascinating story, imbued with Maori tradition, yet I believe it encourages a moving forward into self-created identities. If you are reading it for the “big reveal” on Simon’s background, don’t bother. If you are reading it for a poetic meditation on art, love, and the meaning of family, then kia ora (good luck and good health).

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Booker Book #18: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

I am so happy that the Booker Project introduced me to Anita Brookner. I was already biased in favor of this book before even opening it, because it has a French title. Then I started reading it and fell in love. I felt like I was reading a Carol Shields novel set in Switzerland instead of North America.

Edith Hope, author of romance novels, arrives at the Hotel du Lac in disgrace – but we will not learn why until about two-thirds of the way through the book. Meanwhile, she observes the women around her – for the hotel is mainly populated by women. They all seem to conform to a type at first, but all present some sort of surprise by the end. There are the mother-daughter pair whose ages keep having to be revised upward, the elderly lady abandoned by her son, and a wraith with an eating disorder and a pocket pooch.

The vacation-cum-exile atmosphere is slightly surreal, reminding me of Stanley Middleton’s Holiday, also about a character who has extracted himself from relationship trouble to gain perspective.

I won’t spoil anything, but I feel the ending was rushed. I wish this book had been twice as long, allowing Edith’s own romance, and character, more time to bloom. But I will definitely be reading more Anita Brookner.