Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Booker Book #47: Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies is the sequel to Wolf Hall, the 2009 Booker prize winner by Hilary Mantel. The first book tells of the rise of Anne Boleyn, as she eclipses Catherine of Aragon. This is the beginning of Henry VIII's Reformation, which gives birth to the Church of England. But what goes up must come down, and Bring Up the Bodies describes the other side of that meteoric climb: Anne’s fall from grace as she is eclipsed in turn by Jane Seymour, because Anne could not deliver a son and heir. Ironically, it is her child Elizabeth who will eventually claim the throne, but that is not part of this story.

I haven't mentioned the hero of both books yet, but it is not any royal personage; it is Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is the instrument of the King’s desires, but also an able and subtle influencer with a Midas touch. When the king wishes to put Catherine aside and bring Anne up, Cromwell makes it so. And when the king tires of Anne and wishes to put her aside, again it is Cromwell to the rescue. Despite this description he is no ruthless brute, but a modern man who favors education for women, among other causes, and I grew to like him very much.

Two technical comments. First, I have to wonder if Hilary Mantel heard many complaints about her overuse of an ambiguous “he” in the first book, because here she often (over?) clarifies with a “he, Cromwell,” as in “he said, he, Cromwell....” Second, the title phrase does not refer to digging up dead bodies, but to bringing forth prisoners from the Tower for trial. Yes, they may likely be dead soon, but they're not dead yet. 

At any rate, the story is told in exquisite historical detail and yet in a present tense that keeps the reader in the moment, and almost always in suspense. I found both books to be enthralling masterworks of historical fiction.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Starting penultimate book of the project: Booker Book #50!!!

There were 52 books when I started, and now there are 53. I read #51 with my book club. Reading #53 this year is not part of the original project, but it would be icing on the cake. :)

Friday, December 7, 2018

Booker Book #49: The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan

How to find words dark enough to describe a book like this? Harrowing and blood-curdling feel like clich├ęs. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the tragic -- and new to me -- story of the soldiers who slaved in forced labor camps for the Japanese during World War II.

Much like their Jewish counterparts in Europe, these thousands of men, mostly Australian, were fed the absolute minimum, denied basic sanitation or medical care, and worked to death in the cholera-infested jungles of what would become Thailand. The stories of the beatings and vivisections are heartbreaking; this is not a book for the faint of heart.

But it is an honest and sobering exploration of war and what it does. Some of the characters whitewash their memories; for others, the war becomes the only memory. One of the Japanese officers turns his life around. Some are punished for war crimes, some escape. The world moves on.

“…the world organises its affairs so that civilisation every day commits crimes for which any individual would be imprisoned for life…You are never free of the world; to share life is to share guilt.”

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Booker Book #48: The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

This is an extraordinary book, a tour de force. So many superlatives:
  •         It definitely wins my Booker Prize for most intricately plotted.
  •         Catton was the youngest author to win the Man Booker, at 28.
  •         At 800+ pages, it is the longest book to win the prize.
The Luminaries begins in a New Zealand goldrush town in 1865, where a secret council of twelve men is interrupted by a thirteenth accidental arrival. This is a tried but true narrative device: the council of twelve must explain their business to the newcomer, and what a mysterious business it is!

The council is assembled to unravel a tangled web of murder, love and betrayal; gold and opium, lost and found; infidelity and bastards. Parallels and doubling abound. The story is explicitly arranged like a zodiac, but implicitly in a spiral, that archetypal shape of New Zealand symbology: the first section is the longest, and each successive section is shorter and shorter, until we are rushing headlong down a vortex to the dizzying center. Catton highlights the technique with humor: the italicized summaries at the beginning of each chapter, relics of a previous literary era, grow and grow until they are longer and more informative than the chapters themselves. So much subtle cleverness.

I hope Catton publishes again soon. She is at the top of my list of Booker winners to watch.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Booker Book #46: The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending is the third and final of the Man Booker Prize winners that I read before beginning this project. I was frustrated by the book the first time I read it. I am glad that this project led me to read it again, though I am still scratching my head.

This is a dense and deep, though short, examination of memory, time, and consequence. Narrator Tony tells a story that began with meeting his friend Adrian in high school. As high school friends do, they drifted apart. Then, in university, Tony dated Veronica. Later, Adrian dates Veronica. Much later still, Tony receives a mysterious bequest from Veronica's mother. And so begins a sordid mystery that Tony must patiently resolve.

It's an interesting book with a controversial ending. But is it really an ending, or just a "sense" of an ending? You'll have to read it yourself to find out; at about 160 pages, it won't take long.