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.

Monday, November 26, 2018

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

Yes, I have reached the "sense of an ending"! I am re-reading Booker book #46 of 52, while continuing to listen to #47, Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Booker Book #45: The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson

Let me clear this up right away: “Finkler,” in this novel, is a character’s code word for Jew. Julian Treslove has two Jewish friends, and falls in love with a Jewish woman. In fact, after being mugged by a woman who says something that he hears as “You Jew,” he begins to think he is Jewish.

The Jewish characters help explore the two sides of the Zionist debate, and it is clear which side Jacobson wants us to be on. Sam Finkler is a pop culture philosopher who joins the Ashamed Jews, who protest the Isreali takeover of Palestine and particularly Gaza. Finkler is an empty, clownish figure, whose wife cheats on him with his friend Julian. Finkler’s wife tells her husband to get off his high horse: now that Isrealis have their own country, “they are now just ordinary bastards, half right, half wrong, like the rest of us.”

The other Jewish characters, Julian’s friend Libor and lover Hephzibah (aka Juno), are more interested in simply being Jewish and celebrating the positive. Hep is working on opening an Anglo-Jewish culture museum, which she insists is NOT another Holocaust museum. I liked Hep more than any of the male characters, by the way.

However, the fact that the author uses Finkler’s name in the title to stand in for Jewish, and not one of the other two characters’ names, seems to indicate that the world sees Jewishness in the negative way represented by Finkler. It’s an interesting story of friendship and love and I learned a lot about anti-Zionism, though I still don’t feel well informed enough to take sides.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Booker Book #51: The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

My book club graciously agreed to read another Booker Prize winner with me. We chose The Sellout by Paul Beatty because it was supposed to be hilarious. It is, but in a very different way than I expected.

This is an over-the-top satire about racism in America. Our protagonist and narrator, Mr. Me, aka Bonbon or The Sellout, was raised in Dickens, a ‘hood outside L.A., by his father, who subjected him to all sorts of psychological experiments, mostly involving racism. Besides being a psychology professor, dad is the neighborhood “N-word whisperer.” Now, as a sympathetic white girl, I don’t think I get to throw the N-word around. If that word, or the f-bomb, makes you cringe, this is not the book for you.

After Prof. Me is shot down by police, the younger Me inherits the farm and the role of whisperer, though he’s not as skilled as dad. Where he comes into his own is when he cooks up a brilliant idea to boost the local school’s scores through the roof. The only problem: it involves segregation.

This novel reads at times like a series of independent essays, riffing on The Little Rascals, the creative cultivation of marijuana and watermelon, gangsters, and any other race-tinged trope that comes to mind. It is an honest but scathing look at the whole shitty system, and everyone’s part in it, including African-Americans’.

This was the first American book to win the Booker prize after it was opened to all books published in English, outside the British commonwealth. If you like it, I also recommend Percival Everett’s Erasure, which includes a send-up of Native Son, and Pym, by Matt Johnson, which includes a racial dystopia in Antarctica. 

Seven books left, two in progress (in print and on audio) and one a re-read. So close!

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.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Booker Book #37: Life of Pi, by Yann Martel (2002)

This book is out of order because 1) I listened to it on audio CD, which takes me a lot longer than reading; and 2) I’ve been stewing about it for a few days.

Pi (short for Piscine, which is French for swimming pool, which foreshadows the extraordinary amount of time Pi will spend in the water) is the son of an Indian zookeeper. When the father decides to take his family to Canada, a few animals come with them, headed for new zoos. Unfortunately, their ship sinks.

I think most people who haven’t been living under a rock will not be surprised by this next part, but in case you do have a comfy reading nook with Internet under a wedge of basalt or granite somewhere: surprise! Pi ends up alone on a lifeboat with a tiger. Actually, a tiger, a zebra, an orangutan, and a hyena, but boy and tiger are the big winners in this very short game of battle royale.

Now, in order to talk about why I’ve been stewing about this book, I must announce:
THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD. If you don’t want to see them, skip to last paragraph.

You’ve been warned. So, Pi learns how to cohabit on a 30-foot lifeboat with a full-grown tiger. The way he does this is all very interesting and scientific; the youngster has luckily read a lot about zookeeping and circus training. The reason I started this book a few years back and put it down is because I could not swallow Pi’s Pollyanna attitude. He could not stop plugging religion – and not just one faith, but three.

Pi is a Hindu, a Muslim, and a Christian, and cannot stop praising all his many gods for this and that. Even in Pi’s darkest days, his faith never wavers. I find that completely implausible: that a person tested by seven harrowing months lost at sea with a huge carnivore would never waver in his religious belief. It would not matter to me whether he came through this test with or without his faith intact. An interesting protagonist develops, and we don’t see Pi develop. Like his faith, he simply endures.

Finally, and this is the BIGGEST SPOILER OF THEM ALL (you’ve been warned again), the book strongly implies that the tiger is a metaphor for Pi himself. At the end of the novel, Pi tells a second version of his story in which we can recognize the orangutan, the hyena, and the zebra in three human characters. This is a more blood-chilling and tragic story, because it involves humans struggling together and against each other for survival. It is tragic, and we can definitely understand why Pi would have preferred to live with animals, who can only be accused of acting on instinct when they kill. At first, I felt let down and cheated, because I had failed to see the hidden alter ego. But then I thought of a few great stories that use a similar device that I also didn’t notice: the movie “Fight Club,” the movie “Black Swan” (I’ll refrain from ruining anything else for you rock dwellers who are still reading) and I realized this was really a tour de force, though I still want the part with the tiger to be real.

So, this was a mixed experience for me. On the one hand, I was frustrated by the novel’s religious aspect. On the other hand, the metaphorical twist was clever and unexpected. The story itself is original and replete with fascinating detail. I look forward to seeing what the movie does with this incredible novel.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Booker Book #40: The Sea [Again] by John Banville

Apparently, when white British males feel alone, they head for the sea. In this fortieth Booker Prize winner, The Sea, by John Banville, the protagonist Max is recently widowed, and returns to the seaside scene of his first childhood love. Looking at just those bare bones, this book has much in common with The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch. However, despite their similar names, the books could hardly be more different. While Murdoch's novel is a frenetic romp, Banville's is all melancholy lyric and languor.

Banville’s book is also similar to Holiday by Stanley Middleton, in which a man struggling with his marriage seeks solace at a childhood sea resort; and even with Troubles, by J.G. Farrell, in which the Irish conflict impinges on another seaside resort and young romance.

At The Cedars, the house once rented by his childhood love's family, Max wrestles with his increasingly unreliable memory and retells, haltingly, two stories of loss: that of his wife Anna, and that of his first love Chloe.

The writing is beautiful and poetic. Banville makes up words like “coldening” unselfconsciously while waxing philosophical on the meanings of life and death, memory and imagination. And the plot twists are as breathtaking as an undertow.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Booker Book #39: The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst

The protagonist of The Line of Beauty, Nick Guest, is aptly named: he reminds us of Nick Carraway, the middle-class observer of Gatsby's high life; and he is a guest, at the home of a Member of Parliament. He is also a gay man in the 80s, anxiously pursuing sex for the first time in the years just before AIDS rears its ugly head.

Nick has been invited to the conservative MP's home ostensibly as a friend of their son's, but his secret mission is to keep an eye on their mentally unbalanced daughter. Our protagonist pursues beauty and romance, while the straight and respected around him have affairs and hide mental illness. The hypocrisy is glaring, as well as a setup for heartbreak: the lower class but well-educated loyal dependent comes to think he is part of the family; sadly, blood and money turn out to be much thicker than water. The novel explores gay love and lust, Thatcherism, and social prejudice in England.

Hollinghurst's writing is beautiful, including the graphic sex scenes. I was reminded of the understated sophistication of Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Booker Book #38: Vernon God Little: A Big Little Book, by DBC Pierre

This is a great book. A great f***en book, as our hero, Vern, would say. Vernon Gregory Little is a little guy accused of a big crime: the mass murder of over a dozen of his Texas classmates. But he didn’t do it. He just can’t prove it.

Poor Vernon is trapped in a web of loyalty: to a sad mother, who falls for the scumbag televising his case; to a girl who passed out at a party; to a father whose body can’t be found; to the bullied friend who actually did the shooting. He’s the sweetest kid you’d ever hope to meet on death row.

Vernon’s desperate attempt to escape his fate is both gritty and lyrical. And up until the last ten pages, I had literally no idea how it would end. Pierre brings all the pieces together masterfully, and Vernon recreates himself as (almost) a god. Poetic writing and a show-stopping plot, plus a quirky character you can’t help but love: it’s definitely worth the read to see how Pierre pulls it off.

Now LISTENING to: Booker Book #37

So I tried reading Life of Pi a couple years ago. I didn't finish it, for reasons I won't go into now, because I don't want to prejudice you against it. This time around, I'm trying to finish it as an audio book. Wish me luck!

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Now Reading: Booker Book #38

Having finished book number 36, I am ready to tackle book 37, Life of Pi. This is the only Booker book that I started to read but could not finish. So I'm going to give it a second chance as an audio book. However, I am in the midst of listening to another audio book, That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo (which I'm really enjoying, by the way). So I'm skipping ahead to book number 38 now.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Booker Book #36: True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey

I'll tell you up front that I liked this book better than Peter Carey's previous Booker Prize winner, Oscar and Lucinda, which I found frankly boring, as I did not find either character likable or compelling. However, I am relieved to report that I enjoyed True History of the Kelly Gang.

Ned Kelly is the Robin Hood of Australian folk history. An actual historical figure, Ned was the son of Irish immigrant parents who struggled to make their way in the colony. Ned recounts his childhood of poverty, with multiple siblings and a dad in jail, and later apprenticeship to a bushranger, or highway robber. Ned tries to go straight but finds this very difficult for a person of his class. Finally, the Kelly gang coalesces, out of necessity rather than anyone's intention.

The story is told in a style that I found off-putting at first: it is very similar to How Late It Was, How Late, by James Kelman, but True History is not exactly stream-of-consciousness. It is simply the product of a mostly self-educated immigrant, writing sentences with little punctuation. Even by the end of the book, I was having trouble finding where one sentence ended and the next began. This run-on narrative, presented as found parcels, like scrapbooks, is occasionally interrupted with news articles, comments by Ned's wife, and even a couple of pages torn from a collection of Shakespeare's plays. Of course, True History is not really true, but fictionalized.

I found the story and the characters compelling. I felt great sympathy for Ned, his family, and friends. I am glad to have met this Australian folk hero, and to have learned more about the plight of the Irish in early Australia.

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.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Booker Break #2: Educated, and One Thousand White Women

I had to take a break from the Bookers to read a book for the school where I teach, and a novel for my neighborhood book club.

Educated by Tara Westover is in itself an education. Westover is the youngest of seven children in a family of Mormon survivalists. She grew up in Idaho, supposedly homeschooled, but basically only able to read and write. Her father ran a junkyard in which the children were regularly injured; her mother mixed essential oils which did nothing to heal the injuries; and one of her brothers beat her regularly. This memoir is the story of how a person raised in dogmatic isolation finds the strength to question her reality.

Westover manages to attend college, even though she never spent a day in high school, and the world opens up to her. She and her siblings all took one of two radically different paths: stay home and follow in their parents’ footsteps, or get away and get an education. I am so grateful that Ms. Westover chose the latter, and shared her story about embracing uncertainty.

In a completely different genre, I received a free copy of One Thousand White Women by Colorado author Jim Fergus, and recommended it to my neighborhood book club. It is a strange read. The cover made me think I’d be reading something like the recent retelling of the Little House series through Ma’s eyes, Caroline, by Sarah Miller. Not quite.

The premise of White Women is based in fact: a few years after the Civil War, a Cheyenne chief proposed that his tribe should exchange one thousand horses for one thousand white brides, so that they would bear his tribe’s children and raise them in the white culture. This, of course, never came to pass, but Fergus asks, what if it had?

Our heroine, May Dodd, joins the band of white women (which ends up counting only about fifty women, not a thousand) in order to escape the asylum where she has been confined against her will for promiscuity. She meets a motley crew of other women who make up a blatantly stereotypical microcosm. It is as if Fergus gave these two-dimensional characters the most obvious names as placeholders while he wrote, then forgot to go back and change them. We have the brazen Irish twins, who share the last name Kelly; the impoverished and jilted Southern belle, Daisy; the stout Swiss maid, Gretchen; the proud, strong ex-slave Phemie; etc., etc.

The women meet and marry their braves and quite quickly (perhaps implausibly so) become enamored of their new culture. Like “Dances with Wolves,” White Women presents a mostly positive portrait of the “noble savage.” U.S. policy certainly deserves the critique, but the delivery is not what one might call nuanced.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Booker Book #31: Last Orders, by Graham Swift

“Last orders” means “last call” in British slang. In Graham Swift’s novel, it also means “final wishes.” Jack the butcher has just died, on the cusp of retiring to the seaside with his wife Amy. Three of Jack’s friends are driven by his adopted son to the town he meant to retire in, to scatter his ashes. But why isn’t Amy coming?

It seems a simple enough premise for a road trip, but echoing The Remains of the Day and Holiday, two other Booker winners that also feature British trips to the sea, even a one-day outing leaves a lot of room for detours and discoveries.

I had a hard time getting “into” this book because of the plethora of characters: all five men (Jack and the four living) have wives, children, officially and unofficially adopted children, and sometimes ex-wives and lovers. Keeping them all straight, as the point of view changed from chapter to chapter, was challenging. I’d recommend making a chart, honestly.

But once I got “into” it, I’m glad I did. Here’s Ray’s observation on his best friend Jack’s final days:

“…he was sitting up, straight and steady. I thought, It’s like he’s having his portrait done, his last portrait, no flattering, no prettying, and no one knows how long it will take. Two weeks, three. Nothing to do but sit still and be who you are.”

This is just one of many reflections on life, love, family, loyalty, and friendship that make this short novel so dense, reminding us always to be who we are.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Booker Book #30: The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker

The Ghost Road is a war novel unlike many others. Set in England and France at the end of World War I, it borrows the viewpoints of the often overlooked: men being treated for mental illness. One of these is bisexual; homosexuality was considered both an illness and a crime at the time.

In a style similar to Tim O'Brien's in its thoughtfulness and attention to detail, Barker explores the aftereffects of war with compassion, but not sentiment. One of her most interesting methods is the flashbacks of Dr. Rivers. An anthropologist turned psychologist, Rivers intersperses narration about treating current trauma cases with memories of his research in Melanesia. There, he studied a tribe that was dying out because their warlike way of life was being suppressed; in the present, he treats men going mad due to their tribe’s latest war. The parallels allow the reader to compare both cultures from a more objective point of view.

The Ghost Road is a quick but moving read that reminds us that we take our neuroses and our passions everywhere, even to war. Perhaps even especially to war.  

Now Reading Booker Book #30!

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Booker Book #29: How late it was, how late by James Kelman

I am really not sure what I just read. This book was a very controversial pick for the Booker Prize. Some objected to its vulgarity, but that’s not what bothered me.

How Late It Was... is the stream-of-consciousness story of a few days in the life of Sammy Samuels, petty criminal. He awakes from a bender after a fight with his girlfriend and decides first thing to pick a fight with some undercover cops. They beat him up and throw him in jail, where he wakes up blind.

So I read on, expecting to find out something, anything. Why has Sammy gone blind? Where has his girlfriend gone? What happened during the day he blacked out? Why are the police after him?

No answers are forthcoming. Sammy’s monologue is generally engaging and insightful at times, but nearly four hundred pages of Scottish dialect spoken by an anxiety-prone drunk is a wee bit much, nay? It may be more accessible than James Joyce, but not any more satisfying.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Now reading Booker Book #29

No, I didn't skip Booker Book #28. I read it a few months ago with my book club. Here's a link to the review.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Booker Book #27: Sacred Hunger, by Barry Unsworth

1992: What a great year for literature. The English Patient and Sacred Hunger, two stupendous books, shared the prize. However, the rules were changed after this second double-prize year (1974 was the other) so that two winners wouldn’t share the podium again. The two novels, while both intricately plotted, could not be more dissimilar in style: the former is told in an ethereal, nonlinear, post-Modernist way; the latter in such a realistic fashion that it could almost pass for a novel of the period it is set in, the mid-1700s.

Why haven’t I heard of Barry Unsworth before? Sacred Hunger is a compelling, suspenseful, dense historical novel about the slave trade, and as such, it is also a philosophical meditation on liberty, equality, justice, and capitalism. The title refers to greed, the hunger for money that drives European men of the time not only to enslave Africans, but also to imprison debtors and cheat Native Americans out of their land. This avarice is viewed as part of the impersonal mechanics of trade, and therefore outside the scope of ethics.

Our cast of characters includes Matthew Paris, ex-convict and ship physician. He is nephew to the owner of the ship, and therefore cousin to the owner’s heir, Erasmus Kemp. Both men pursue justice in radically different ways: Paris makes life on the slave ship as comfortable as possible for everyone, black and white, which means confronting its mercenary despot, the profit-thirsty Captain Thurso. Kemp's pursuit comes twelve years later, when the ship thought lost is found, and he seeks to reclaim its “cargo” to vindicate his father.

Early on, British men are shown being pressed into service on the slave ship, using various underhanded tactics. This leads the reader to hope that these men will have more sympathy for the Africans who will later board the ship as slaves, but the outcomes are more complicated than that. I don’t want to spoil this book for anyone, because I wish everyone would read it, especially in these politically divided times, when the politics of the rich are overpowering justice for all.  

Friday, July 20, 2018

Booker Book #26: The English Patient = The Best of the Bookers

I am so glad that the Booker Project led me to reread this book. I must have read it first shortly after it came out. What I remembered: a fascination with words, maps, and underground places. Kip and Hana’s slowly blossoming love.

What I hadn’t remembered but discovered on the second reading: the many literary allusions; the rejection of nationality; the violence of the relationship between the title character, whose name is Almasy, and Katherine; the maturation of the women, both Katherine and Hana.

The movie, as I remember it, focuses on the passion between Almasy (played by my nominee for Official Actor of the Booker Prize, Ralph Fiennes) and Katherine, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. However, I found that the book explored many other passions and relationships in more depth: Almasy’s passion for the desert; Kip’s love for his adoptive British “family”; Caravaggio’s love for the grown-up Hana that he first knew as a child. Even Almasy and fellow explorer Madox’s friendship seems to outweigh the affair. The novel ends with parallel scenes from Kip’s and Hana’s lives, not Almasy’s and Katherine’s.

I’ve read three Ondaatje novels now: this one, The Cat’s Table, and Anil’s Ghost, which I listened to, read by Alan Cumming with his lovely accent. I liked them all, but The English Patient is undoubtedly the best, in my view. All are concerned with issues of national origins and adopted countries, as Ondaatje was born to Dutch and South Asian parents in Sri Lanka, then later chose to live in Canada.

The book is brilliant for telling such a complex story so beautifully in such a short space. Don’t get me wrong, I love long books and series in which I can lose myself for several days or even weeks, but there is something I admire about a tale told in such a concise yet intricate fashion. I can still remember my imaginary visions of the Italian villa from my first reading, it is so vividly depicted. At the same time, the plotline shifts forward and backward in an experimental fashion, with Almasy’s morphine-enhanced memories.

This novel was chosen as the Best of the Bookers in celebration of the prize’s fifty-year anniversary, and so far I must agree. The Remains of the Day would be my choice for runner-up, another book that slowly but concisely reveals a complex story.

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.