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.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Booker Book #17: Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee (1983) is an oddly moving little book about an oddly moving little man. Michael K is an unlikely protagonist. The book begins with his mother’s revulsion at the cleft lip he is born with. Michael spends his school years in an institution, visited by his mother, then becomes a gardener. He cares for his sickly mother until the growing social unrest in their city of Cape Town, South Africa, threatens to take away both their jobs. After a riot in their neighborhood, she persuades him to take her to the countryside where she grew up, but she dies before they arrive.

At this point, Michael is cut loose. The first two-thirds of the book is the oddly clinical chronicling of his long and lonely path. He is picked up as a vagrant and spends time in a camp where he is told he is not a prisoner, but that he will be shot if he tries to leave. He eventually finds the farm where he thinks his mother lived, and secretly plants a pumpkin patch, living like an animal in a burrow, before he is picked up and sent back to camp. Michael wonders why he must do as he is told, but never seems to get emotional. He simply leaves when he can.

Part two starts out clinically as well, as it is told from the point of view of a medic in Michael’s last camp. However, this man becomes moved by Michael’s case, almost in awe of the quiet man’s unreachability, and dreams of following him back to the country when Michael escapes yet again. He even starts addressing his musings directly to Michael:

You have never asked for anything, yet you have become an albatross around my neck. Your bony arms are knotted behind my head, I walk bowed under the weight of you.

I take this to mean that the white colonists have created a huge burden for themselves by taking away the natives’ freedom; each man comes to represent his race. However, one of the remarkable things about Michael K is that Coetzee never once describes a person as black, white, or colored. I can only assume that Michael is black or colored, and that the medic is white. Finally, the very brief part three finds Michael back in Cape Town, and willing to tell his story to other people surviving by their wits, away from the camps.

I am reminded of several other works: first, the South African setting reminds me of Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, also about race, and farming. Michael’s last initial, K, as well as the thoughtless bureaucracy that labels this harmless gardener as an arsonist and guerilla, makes me think of Kafka’s The Trial. Finally, the life-or-death bleakness of Michael’s travels through a war-torn landscape reminds me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Like The Road, this novel is moving without being sentimental. I look forward to reading Nobel prizewinner Coetzee’s next Booker winner, Disgrace (1999).

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Booker Book #16: Schindler's Ark/Schindler's List, by Thomas Keneally

I saw the movie Schindler’s List when it came out, and found it heart-breaking and heart-warming at the same time. I did not know that it was based on a book originally entitled Schindler’s Ark.

This is the only Booker winner so far in my project (I’m up to 1982 now) that is not pure fiction. And though Keneally says in the “Author’s Note” that he will use the “texture and devices of a novel” to tell the story, I did not find that it read like a novel. Keneally frequently reminds the reader that the conversations are recreations, and tells us the source or sources for every incident. It’s really a very documentary-like retelling, and I think that is the right choice. We must continue to remind ourselves and the world that the horrors of the Holocaust really happened, and not romanticize them by letting them sound like fiction.

It’s the highly interesting tale of Oskar Schindler, who started out as a war profiteer, then became disgusted by the Nazi policy of Jewish extermination. There are many harrowing individual stories here, of families who watched loved ones die for the most whimsical of reasons. But one of the most harrowing has to be that of Schindler himself, when the tables are turned after the Allied victory. He must wear prison garb to sneak out of formerly German territory. He never regains his old Midas touch, and comes to depend on those who once depended on him.

It’s a wonderful read for the repeated lesson that it is always possible to do the right thing. I have to wonder, though, if Keneally’s other work is worth reading. For example, nearly every time that Oskar Schindler speaks, he “growls.” It’s not the writing that makes this an extraordinary book; it’s the story.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Now reading Booker Book #16

The book that inspired the movie Schindler's List was originally published under the name Schindler's Ark.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Booker Book #15: Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie

Rushdie is the first of the Booker winners that I knew anything about before beginning this project. Nonetheless, I had a difficult complicated experience reading this book. So, since others have written far more intelligently about its plot and meaning, I’ll just tell you what it was like for me.

To be honest, I was reluctant to start “yet another” book about India. That’s why I wrote the blog post titled “Interlude”: pure procrastination.

The narrator, Saleem Sinai, has a putative audience of one, his companion Padma. He begins by introducing his grandparents, and several of the motifs that will recur and weave this loose tapestry together. Saleem himself is not even born until well past the hundred-page mark. And it took me over two hundred pages to get really interested in the book. The style is that of a sauntering saga, an unrushed meandering through several generations, and it drove me nuts -- until I decided to just lie back and let go. Since that didn’t happen until about page 300 of 500, I wasted a lot of time resisting this book.

It is repetitive, and verbose, and grandiose. Rushdie has a way of stringing together three words when one would do. Is he too lazy to choose? Or showing off his vocabulary? But, when I finally surrendered, the repetition-with-a-difference became lulling, like lying on a beach listening to waves: almost the same, but different each time, building imperceptibly to crescendos, then dying down again, weaving a texture of symbols and sounds. I was pulled along with the tide of the story, and learned a lot about India and Pakistan in the process.

I also learned that some books just can’t be rushed through.

Monday, April 23, 2018


Hello bookworm buddies,

I'm more than a quarter of the way through the books (I've read 15 of 52) and more than a quarter of the way through the year. According to my Goodreads goal (120 books all year), I'm a little behind, but I'm confident that I'll catch up during summer vacation. Some observations:

  • The list is heavily skewed to books about the British Empire. I'm writing this to put off starting yet another book about India. However, I am glad to finally read something by Salman Rushdie. (I know, it's embarrassing, but I just haven't yet, okay?) 
  • I started off with the idea that I would be reselling many of the books when I'm done, so I took all my notes on post-its and removed them when I was done reading. However, now I've decided I want to keep my Booker library intact, at least for a while, so since book 12, I've been leaving the sticky notes in. They'll make a nice quick reminder of what I found interesting. 
  • When I finish catching up, I hope to read all the short-list nominees each year.

I'd love to hear from anyone who's following along! Have you been inspired by my posts to read anything? Anyone want to borrow a book??

Booker Book #14: Rites of Passage by William Golding

Rites of Passage by William Golding (not to be confused with William Goldman, author of The Princess Bride) is yet another Booker-winning novel set on the water. I was excited to read this first Booker winner by an author with whom I was already familiar: like everyone else in the English-speaking world, I’d read The Lord of the Flies; and because I liked that so much, I read Pincher Martin.

Rites mixes elements of the two. Like Flies, it creates a microcosm in isolation, this time on board a ship bound for Australia, rather than an island, and populated by adults, not children. There is a member of the nobility, who narrates most of the book in the form of a long journal/letter to his godfather and sponsor. There is a parson, an artist, a freethinker, a surly Captain, and various other gentry and commoners. A large part of the book seems dedicated to making us understand that class and roles are usually meaningless. Our noble narrator turns out to be a cad, for instance, not above raping a woman he believes to be a prostitute, without even paying her. He and his “gentlemen” friends discuss her in a most ungentlemanly manner.

But like Martin, this book is also a long, deluded monologue with a twist at the end. I won’t spoil either book for you. Suffice it to say that when you read the parson’s account, and you notice him lingering on the glorious beauty of the sailors around him…that’s a hint.

It’s a meditation on class, justice, and shame, written quite wittily, showing one crucial event from two drastically different points of view. Rites is the first of a trilogy called To the Ends of the Earth that was made into a British miniseries starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Perhaps worth watching, or reading the other two.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Now reading Booker Book #14

Booker Book #13: Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

Alas, this is the first Booker prize winner at which I shake my head and say, wow, must have been a dry year.

Offshore is about a motley crew of folks who live in barges on the Thames. The novelette begins with a meeting on the boat of the most disciplined of these river rats, at which he calls all the boatowners by their vessels’ names:

“Are we to gather that Dreadnought is asking us all to do something dishonest?” Richard asked.
Dreadnought nodded, glad to have been understood so easily.

After that bit of surreal humor, it’s pretty much downhill from there. There’s a gigolo whose boat is being used as a sort of Ali Baba’s cavern. A single mom and her two daughters. An unhappy couple. An elderly artist trying to sell his leaky tub (the Dreadnought). And the most domestic couple, who end up taking in most of the others, including the pregnant cat, but whom we hardly get to know at all.

The best part of this bewilderingly short narrative is the girls, who know their bit of river and its tidal tables like the backs of their grimy hands. But the lovely vignette about their discovery of some antique tiles peters out into nothing, like Offshore’s narrative. It’s all wet.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Booker Book #12: The Sea, The Sea, by Iris Murdoch

My copy of Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea features this blurb on the cover: “A rich, crowded, magical love story.” At first glance, the aptest word here is “crowded.”

Theatre professional Charles Arrowby has retired to a tiny village on an obscure northern coast of the U.K. He starts keeping a diary in his newly-purchased home, recounting his explorations of his little corner of rock and sea. But in no time at all, his secluded house is as crowded as the London he left behind: with old lovers, their jealous husbands, one runaway son, and mysterious cousin James.

I shouldn’t even begin to attempt to untangle the romantic mess Arrowby is in, but here’s the quick and dirty: it just so happens that his one childhood love is in the same village – with her bully of a husband. Arrowby’s plan to spirit her away turns into a three-ring circus fueled by obsession and wine. The only fully sane and serene person seems to be cousin James, who remains, unfortunately, on the periphery until the end.

All the different flavors of love found here, straight and gay, December and May, seem to dissolve like the sunset over the sea when faced with the unfaded brilliance of Arrowby’s childhood ties – to his first sweetheart, but also to his cousin.

It’s a compelling romp, and Murdoch writes Arrowby with tongue firmly in cheek. He’s the sort of fussy fellow who makes fun of his friends for their overblown ideas about love, then spouts his own a few pages later. But as the story careens like a drunken driver between comedy and tragedy, it actually does become rich, and yes, even magical.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Booker Book #11: Staying On, by Paul Scott

Paul Scott's Staying On is the bittersweet story of Tusker and Lucy Smalley, the third Booker winner about British India. Tusker is an army career man, moving from post to post in India, until the transition of power to native authorities (one of the most touching scenes in the novel). This changing of the guard seems to provoke his own personal “debacle,” whose details Lucy hints at, but does not reveal, until the end.

This novel is all about endings. It begins with an end: “When Tusker Smalley died of a massive coronary…” and spends the rest of the novel setting up the intricate ballet that leads to this climax in a crescendo of circumstances. Through the flashbacks, we get to know Lucy (née, ironically, Little, of a mother née, even more ironically, Large), her sweet patience, and her iron-solid core. We explore the relationships between Ownership and Management (and employees) of the hotel where the Smalleys have been living for decades. And we laugh.

The Indian hotel manager is my favorite character, his observations always spot on:

“Mr. Bhoolabhoy had often heard it said that one of the troubles with the British in the days of the raj was that they had taken themselves too seriously…if it was true about the British in those days it was equally true of the Indians now; which would mean that it was being responsible for running things that shortened the temper and destroyed the sense of humour.”

This is the funniest Booker winner so far, but the humor is gradually replaced by a sobering sympathy for a couple growing old abroad, with little hope of – or desire for – returning to the U.K. They have chosen to “stay on,” at first for financial reasons, but also because they have little to return to. They become almost a tourist attraction, a museum exhibit of the old regime.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Booker Book #10: Saville by David Storey

Saville is Storey’s story of Colin Saville, son of an English coal miner, who grows up as one of the few in his village to get a good education. My feelings about Saville are complicated, because I can identify with parts of it. My step-dad’s dad was a coal miner; my mother’s father, an electrician. My parents broke the mold, in a way, by going to college, though they remained working class. I continued the new tradition by becoming the first person in my family to obtain an advanced degree.

I have felt at times much the way Saville’s friend Stafford describes him: “You’ve come from nowhere: they’ve put the carrot of education in front of you and you go at it like a maddened bull.” However, wealthy Stafford completely dismisses Saville’s ambitions: “I couldn’t do half the work you put into it…I can see…what lies the other side…Nothing…Take away the carrot, and there really isn’t anything at all. It’s only someone like you, crawling out of the mud, that really believes in it.”

And once Saville reaches “the other side,” he feels that way, too: apart from everything, both from the boys in the village, and from the boys in his upper-class school, having no career prospects other than teaching working-class kids like himself. As Saville’s girlfriend Elizabeth describes him, “Alienated from his class, and with nowhere yet to go.”

Saville frequently tries to find out why his father pushed him to become more educated. Of course, the father says, so he wouldn’t have to work in the mine. Saville retorts, “It’s supposed to be enlightenment I’ve acquired, not learning how to make a better living.” But when Saville sees that they do not push his brother Steven in the same way, he feels that he has been forced, and tries to force Steven to study harder, too.

Steven: “If tha’s not content…tha mu’n [must] start to change it.”
Saville: “I am starting…I’m starting with you.”
Steven: “Nay, tha’s starting with the wrong end. It’s the head tha hast to get hold on.”

Throughout the novel, Saville is called: a fatalist, a communist, an anarchist, a Calvinist, a sentimentalist, an idealist, and an opportunist. In other words, a man in search of an identity, since he has shed the most obvious one, coal miner.

Storey, in Saville, questions the dream of somehow doing “better” than one’s parents in a relentless way that most novels of this type do not. For example, in a scene where his mother is scrubbing the floor, Colin offers to help, but she won’t let him. It reminds me of a very similar scene in Betty Smith’s American classic, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: both mothers try to guard their children from the hardships of their own lives. But in Saville, Colin’s mother eventually tires of her son’s critiques of her life, and they grow apart. I agree with Storey’s ambivalence: our society tends to falsely associate education with money, and money with happiness, but the story is far more complicated than that.

If you’re looking for a quick read, this is not it. Storey pays meticulous – some might say excruciating – attention to detail. Over a hundred pages have gone by before Colin is admitted to the exclusive school that changes his young life. But I never felt the narration dragged. I felt rather that I was watching a deliberately filmed movie, a documentary almost, that creates a dismally realistic view of an English coal-mining village, and the place a boy can occupy in it – or not.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Booker Book #9: Heat and Dust, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust is an excellent follow-up to J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur. Siege is about the Indian Rebellion of 1857. In it, a British official, the Collector, is able to imprison the local Indian prince and his prime minister. In Heat and Dust, the British and Indian rulers seem to be on more equal footing, but their dance is delicate and easily thrown off balance.  

Heat and Dust’s double narrative is original and thought-provoking. The frame story is that of an unnamed contemporary woman researching her grandfather’s first wife, Olivia. Olivia’s story takes place in 1923, in the uneasy decades between the Rebellion and Indian Independence ninety years later. The narrator makes clear from the first sentence that Olivia “went away” with the Nawab, the prince of the region next to the one that her British husband manages. The dual mysteries are how an Englishwoman came to such an extreme, and whether her step-granddaughter will follow in her footsteps.

Jhabvala constructs artfully parallel lives for the two women, yet with striking contrasts due to their differing times. The narrator seems to actually care about the natives, performing acts of charity that repel her higher-caste Indian friends, while Olivia seems oblivious to all Indians but her prince. The narrator is able to evict the parasitic Englishman Chid from her house, while Olivia must put up with both her husband Douglas, and her lover’s hanger-on Harry. Both women take an Indian lover, but their reactions to their pregnancies are diametrically opposed. Both stay in India. The narrator seems to do so out of love for the country, but it is unclear what Olivia’s motivations are: is she simply too humiliated to return to England?

Olivia’s prince is a pathetic character: he wants to lead a life of adventure, as his ancestors did, but instead is spoiled and dependent upon English people, like Harry, and English things, such as his wife’s two pianos, which are both ruined by the tropical climate. And it is the narrator who takes the initiative with her own shy Indian lover. However, after the military and class conflict of Siege, in which India is treated solely as enemy and servant, it was a great relief to read this more nuanced tale of two women truly interacting with “the Other.”

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Booker Book #8: Holiday, by Stanley Middleton

Two books shared the Booker prize in 1974: Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist, and Holiday, by Stanley Middleton. The first is about South Africa, and who it really belongs to; the second is about one man, and whether he wants to make his marriage work.

Edwin Fisher has left his wife, and is spending a week in the seaside town where he lived as a boy. He happens upon his in-laws there, and meets other folks as well. By the end, he is surrounded by new friends, who seem to give him the strength to give his marriage another try.

I must disagree with other reviewers who have said that this book takes place “all in Edwin’s head.” It is true that Fisher feels profoundly alone at first, as reflected in this pathetic image: “…he must take pleasure in the exercise, march along these asphalt paths until he wanted nothing. No road had that length, so he made further along the promenade…” But I think what is important is Fisher getting *out* of his head, and meeting people in other circumstances: families with children (the Fishers’ son died at age two); lower-class families (he’s a professor); couples who might cheat on each other; couples who don’t; people who are planning for old age, and so on.

I like that Edwin is open to meeting all these folks and to learning something from them. What I don’t like about this book is that his wife Meg is truly unstable, yet Edwin seems to cater to her moods without urging her to get to the root of the problem. He and Meg’s father have much deeper heart-to-heart talks than husband and wife do. Meg, for example, is scornful of religion, while her husband finds comfort in the church, if not salvation. The couple hardly seems to know each other.

But the holiday proves healing for Edwin, and he returns ready to try again. He is able in these familiar surroundings to reflect on his childhood and earlier relationships. An exotic, far-flung voyage could not have brought him the same perspective, Middleton seems to say. Instead, Fisher needed to be immersed in Englishness, to rediscover himself and his past. This subtle portrait of a particularly English time and place must be at least part of what made this book appealing enough to award its creator equal space on the podium with the more political Nobel prize winner, Nadine Gordimer.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Booker Book #7: The Conservationist, by Nadine Gordimer

All the Booker books that I have read so far have been well written, of course, but Nobel prizewinner Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist (1974) is the first that has made me stop and re-read a beautifully written passage. Take as a brief example this simile that I had to read twice: “…the sound of radio music winds like audible smoke in the clean fine morning: it’s Sunday.” Or the sensory richness of a long passage where our hero Mehring spends New Year’s Eve alone in a field, watching the lightning and fireworks, listening to insects, and smelling his absent son in a borrowed sleeping bag.

Mehring is a wealthy white man in South Africa who bought a farm, apparently on a whim, as a place to bring a lover, and now seems to feel alive only there. He becomes more and more withdrawn from his own social group, without ever fitting in with the colored (black or Indian) folks, either. His wife, lover, and son have all left him, but he stubbornly comes out every weekend to supervise his farm, earning him the title epithet.

The drama begins with a body found on Mehring’s land: most likely a black from the “location,” another term for township: a shantytown for blacks, rife with crime and bereft of the most basic amenities. The police find it inconvenient to transport the body, and simply bury it in the vlei (marsh) where it lies. To me, this unidentified victim comes to represent all the blacks of South Africa, how cumbersome and disposable they are to the whites. The locations have become holding pens for the indigenous, like Native American reservations, but more crowded. The whites see them as eyesores, cesspools. Mehring thinks he is a fair man doing the right thing, but we can tell that his more liberal lover and son both reproach him.

**spoiler alert**

Then he takes abominable advantage of a young woman on an airplane, and loses any respect I might have had for him. Symbolically, the country seems to do the same. A flood on a Biblical scale unearths the forgotten body, which must be returned to the earth, properly, in a coffin, and seems to become its new and rightful owner. Also during the flood, Mehring is feared dead, so his hired hands must manage the farm without him – which they do quite well. Finally, Mehring becomes the patsy in a scheme with a seemingly simple lower-class girl, whose race is unclear.

The tables are turned. But is justice served? Several times, Mehring remembers bits of conversation with his liberal lover, who ends up leaving the country – whether in flight or exile is unclear. She seems to think the whole system must be overhauled, whole new countries like Namibia established, while the Conservationist continues to repair, to shore up, to tinker, to distribute gifts and pennies without really changing anything. Will one captain of industry’s receipt of his comeuppance change anything either? It’s not clear.

**end spoiler alert**

I could keep writing: for example, the story is riddled with images of circles, in the form of eggs, rings, and peace signs. And I’m sure someone has written intelligently about this. It’s a deep and delicate novel worth reading, and reading again.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Booker Book #28: Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, by Roddy Doyle

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle (1993) was one of the few Booker prize winners that I had heard of before this project, so when I told my neighborhood book club about the project, and they graciously offered to read a book with me, this is one that I suggested.

We begin the book in medias res: “We were coming down our road. Kevin stopped at a gate and bashed it with his stick.” Readers slowly glean that the narrator is a young boy, living somewhere in Ireland, who runs wild with a group of like-minded boys, shoplifting and playing variations on soccer, but always doing their homework. They also commit some atrocious acts of violence and cruelty, like making the narrator’s little brother take a capsule of lighter fuel in his mouth, and then lighting it. Fortunately, Paddy does become more aware and compassionate as the book progresses.

Because narrator Paddy is a child, we don’t really know where he lives, but we know all about the boys’ turf wars, which are exacerbated by the building of a whole new suburb around them. The boys play on construction sites as the formerly open spaces shrink. One of the most interesting aspects of the boys’ play for me was their nascent curiosity about language. They have two rituals involving language, one in which they chant new and unfamiliar words, like “trellis” and “substandard.” In the other, one boy hits the others on the back with a poker, and the curse word that the smitten boy blurts out becomes his name for the week.

But back at home, the unspoken conflict driving the book is the deteriorating relationship between Paddy’s parents. His father oscillates between normal dad and uncaring martinet, while mom tries to protect the four children. Paddy’s anxiety has become so fine-tuned to his parents’ moods that he thinks he can control them, by making a joke, or by staying awake all night. The discord at home leads Paddy to become dissatisfied with the balance of power in his play group. He discovers a desire to become closer to his brother – too late. Paddy then wants to run away, to be emotionally disconnected. But of course, the family structure is out of his control, and it changes before he can act.          

One of the book club members said that this novel “threw her off balance,” and I agree. That’s the genius of this book: Doyle is the consummate master of the oft-cited advice “show, don’t tell.” It’s a tour de force, to write an entire novel in the pure voice of a child, without the adult voice and the “I later realized…” bleeding through. Doyle tells us nothing, but shows us everything, through the mixed-up thoughts of an anxious little boy.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Now reading Booker Book #28!?!

No, you didn't fall asleep Rip-Van-Wrinkle style and miss 21 books. And I'm not backing out of my project, I promise! What happened is that I told my neighborhood book club about my Booker Prize reading project and they graciously offered to read one of my books with me. So I am skipping ahead to Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, winner of the 1993 Booker Prize. I'll get back to reading them in order after my book club meets on Monday.

Booker Book #6: The Siege of Krishnapur, by J. G. Farrell

EDIT: It might appear that J. G. Farrell was the first writer to win two Booker Prizes. He won in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapur, and his novel Troubles holds that honor for 1970. However, the 1970 prize was retroactive. Due to changes in the rules, no prize was awarded for a book published in 1970, until a public vote rectified the situation in 2010. 

Both books are intimate accounts in the form of a microcosm that depicts British colonialism. Troubles takes place in a decrepit English-owned resort hotel in Ireland, while Krishnapur takes place in a “residency” owned by a British trade company at the beginning of India’s own troubles, and is based on actual people and events. Both stories throw strangers together in a siege situation in order to ridicule the notion that the British way is inherently better than the ways of its colonies.

In both the Hotel Majestic and the Residency, the walls literally crumble around the characters, who still absurdly manage to believe themselves better than their “inferiors.” Here, the microcosm is composed of The Magistrate, an atheist and rationalist; Fleury, the aptly named Romantic poet who believes that the most important aspect of religion is feeling; and The Collector, chief of the Residency and self-described “whole” man; as well as a priest, a military man, and two doctors opposed in their methods. Louise, Lucy, and Miriam fill the roles of virgin, whore, and Modern Woman.

The irony is introduced early on, as we find that the British are thriving due to their exports of opium to China – while they spread The Gospel in Asia. The Collector, the Magistrate, and Fleury all believe themselves to be men of ideas – until they are forced by siege-induced famine to daydream of food. Civilization at first seems to mean respecting others’ religions, but then necessity drives the besieged to tear down a mosque. Finally, all must question whether civilization is truly a source of progress, or simply a sign of decay, as all of their fine European belongings are sacrificed to reinforce the ineffectual mud ramparts. The Indian soil literally swallows up all the material things that its oppressors hold dear.

The dueling doctors show that the “superior” British civilization has its own superstitions and blind spots. The two physicians wage a war of ideas over cholera: one has grasped the modern notion that cholera is transmitted through contaminated water, and that the disease can be treated through rehydration. The other clings to the outdated notion that cholera is caught from the air, and can be treated with mustard and brandy. In a moment that had me mentally screaming “No!” the second doctor drinks a bottle of dirty water to prove his point. You can guess the outcome.

More than one of the main characters undergoes a shift in perspective thanks to their ordeal. One of the most enlightened, The Collector, even questions his ideas about the natural inferiority of women, and wonders what he is missing about Indian religion, but never goes so far as to respect the natives.

I enjoyed both books. There is a dry, black, absurdist humor to both, but especially Krishnapur. The bathos of the English aristocracy reduced to sucking on horsehide and shooting pieces of statuary out of their cannons brings home Farrell’s point with wry wit. If I had to choose one, it would be Krishnapur: it is wittier and more action-packed, as well as shorter. But I recommend both for their brutal post-colonial honesty.

PS: I've been reading Booker Books for one month now: 6 books in the month of February, or one book every 4.6 days. A little slower than my usual rate but still on target. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Booker Book #5: G. by John Berger: It's a Keeper

Finally, a book that meets my personal requirements for a prizewinner! G., by John Berger, is original and thought-provoking. It weaves together the personal and political, seamlessly zooming in to sensual moments, then zooming out to international crises and national overviews. It is a meta-fictional tour de force, and I am keeping this one.

You see, I wasn’t planning on keeping all the Booker books that I took such pains to accumulate. For the first four, I marked passages with sticky notes, so that I could resell the books later. But I gave up on sticky notes on page 74 of G.

G. is the unnamed protagonist, a boy who grows up in limbo as the child of an affair, not knowing his father, rarely seeing his mother. This state, Berger argues, is what primes him for falling in love precociously and repeatedly. He becomes a sort of Don Juan; his first sexual experience is with his mother’s female cousin who raised him. (This is not her first incest: she lives like a wife with her male cousin, G.’s sole paternal figure until he is reunited with his absentee father.)   

I love the close-up scenes of a boy discovering his body and others’ bodies, pondering what is inside and what is outside. I am reminded of the sensuality of Anais Nin and Henry Miller, and David Foster Wallace’s “Backbone,” about a lonely boy who sets himself the goal of kissing every inch of his own flesh.

I love how the story oscillates in a series of luminous vignettes from concrete to abstract, with meta-fictional author’s asides that don’t seem contrived. Berger makes observations on the role of hunting in the evolution of British socio-economic class, then writes gorgeously about one evening’s hunt as lived by G. and his male cousin.

I may not agree with all his abstract generalizations, but I am fascinated with them. His view of women, for example: that we are always surveying ourselves, seeing ourselves through others’ eyes. I think Berger explains this better than certain French feminists I studied, though I am not convinced that all women feel this way, or that no men do.

The episodes of seduction become more and more political until they spiral tightly into one evening at a ball in Trieste, with not one but two women, just days before World War I is declared. I did not feel the need to look up as much historical information as I did in the previous Booker prize winners about politics and colonization, and yet I did not feel lectured to, either. 

Like I said, G. is a keeper. I’ll be looking up other books by John Berger when this project is complete.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Now reading Booker Book #5

Booker Book #4: In a Free State, V.S. Naipaul

I thought V.S. Naipaul’s In a Free State would be a quick read. It consists of two short stories and a novella, bookended by two travel anecdotes.  I loved the first story. I puzzled over the second. And I struggled through the third.

The first story, “One out of Many,” is about an Indian domestic, Santosh, who accompanies his employer, a government official, from Bombay to Washington, D.C. His debacle of an airplane trip seems to include every possible thing that could go wrong for a poor and naïve traveler on his first long voyage. Once in the U.S., Santosh progresses through several stages: brave exploration, frightened sequestration, fleeing his employer, finding a new one. He is “in a free state,” but this freedom is more frightening than exhilarating, a leap into the void without a safety net. I sympathized with the character’s adjustments and felt that this story did an excellent job distilling the immigrant experience into just forty pages.

The second story, “Tell Me Who to Kill,” sums up one facet of the immigrant experience this way: “ambition is like shame,” that is, trying to rise “above” your origins implies that you are ashamed of them. The title expresses the main character’s frustration with being an island immigrant in London, and the lack of target for his feelings. “Once you find out who the enemy is, you can kill him. But these people here they confuse me. Who hurt me? Who spoil my life?” This story left me scratching my head: is the main character’s companion just a friend, or are they gay? And what about the repeated murder sequence: is it a memory, a dream, or a scene from a movie? No way to know for sure.

Finally, the title novella. In a Free State is the fourth Booker Prize winner, and the third to explicitly address British colonialism. Two white government employees travel through an unnamed African nation in turmoil: the president’s tribe is out to kill the former king.  Similar to J.G. Farrell’s Troubles, the main character, Bobby, vacillates between sympathy for the natives and frustration with them, while confronting another character, Linda, who seems primarily scornful of them. Both Farrell and Naipaul seem to agree that the role of the British is to let the natives figure out their path for themselves. However, I felt the story dragged on and went over my head in places. It seemed like a series of “in jokes” that maybe only readers of the time or expats in Africa could understand. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Booker Book #3: Welcome to the Hotel Majestic. Troubles, by J.G. Farrell

Welcome to the Hotel Majestic, English-owned luxury hotel in Ireland, once grand, now crumbling. Welcome to the sun setting on the British Empire.

Major Brendan Archer, English WWI veteran, has come to the Hotel Majestic in 1919 to make good on a hasty engagement entered into during a brief R&R. Sadly, the young lady has fallen fatally ill, but by the time she passes on, the Major has become as much as fixture in the place as its statue of Venus and can’t tear himself away.

The hotel teems with metaphor: green-eyed ginger (Irish) cats multiply and lord it over hapless (English) dogs, who are fed steak while locals starve. A Sinn Feiner tries to bomb a statue of Queen Victoria. Tropical trees (African and Asian colonies) grow out of control in the Palm Room, tearing down the Empire -- I mean, the Majestic.

The Major, however, stubbornly walks a fine line, trying to maintain the peace and see everyone’s side. Alternately naïve and noble, he counters the reactionary Tory hotel owner with a voice of reason. He’s a likable character, except for his inertia. If he were a real person, I’d be fed up with him after fifty pages, but he is a necessary witness to the quickly declining situation.

Finally, the Major has an epiphany about the owner’s belligerence, and the belligerence of colonists everywhere: they are afraid. Britain is terrified, and lashes out in revenge for all it has lost, blindly overlooking all it has taken from the Irish and the rest of the world.

The tale, as labyrinthine as the old hotel, is punctuated with news items, usually one about “the troubles” in Ireland coupled with one from another hot spot in the soon-to-be-former British Empire, such as India or South Africa.

Much like the first Booker Prize winner, Something to Answer For, which is set in Egypt during the Suez Canal Crisis, Troubles shows that British authors of the 1960s and 70s were preoccupied with post-colonial issues. I prefer Farrell’s take. Though both their protagonists seem to be aimless drifters, unlucky in love, the Major has backbone, the “ramrod posture” that one Irish lass teases him about. He knows right from wrong and speaks his mind, always urging peace.

EDIT: It might appear that J. G. Farrell was the first writer to win two Booker Prizes. He won in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapur, and his novel Troubles holds that honor for 1970. However, the 1970 prize was retroactive. Due to changes in the rules, no prize was awarded for a book published in 1970, until a public vote rectified the situation in 2010.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Now Reading Booker Book #3 (of 52)

Booker Book #2: The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens

Bernice Rubens’ novel The Elected Member is a touching and sad exploration of drug abuse. Norman Zweck (who was ironically never “normal”) was a precocious child and successful adult, the pride of his Jewish immigrant parents. But several things happened along the way – which ones led to him becoming a drug addict? Each surviving family member, his father and two sisters, thinks they know. Is one of them right, or all of them, or none? Regardless, Norman feels he has been “elected” as the family scapegoat. He is committed to a mental institution, where he should have a better chance of recovering from his addiction than in prison – except that he finds a supplier inside.

Despite the gloomy material and minimal action (except for the obligatory institutional incidents), this is a page turner. The flashbacks to Norman’s father’s immigration from Lithuania to London, the sisters’ remorseful recollections about their own childhoods, all meld together seamlessly. The Zwecks make up a miserable family full of secrets, “unhappy in its own way,” as Tolstoy said. Rubens examines the full gamut of psychological reactions to family issues: the father’s denial, sister Bella’s combined guilt and superiority, sister Esther’s refusal to admit error, Norman’s own rationalizing and bargaining. I ached for this family, winced at their flawed coping skills, but kept hoping for the best.

Though the institutional setting reminded me superficially of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the deliberate pace and thoughtfulness are more reminiscent of the less-widely-known novel Ordinary People by Judith Guest. I recommend both Guest and Rubens if you or someone you know struggles with addiction or depression.

PS By the way, I was *thrilled* to see that the second Booker Prize winner was a woman. You go, Bernice!

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Reading the Booker Books: P.H. Newby's Something to answer for

I have completed the first Booker book, P.H. Newby's Something to Answer For (1969)!

It is the story of Jack Townrow, of somewhere in the U.K., who returns to Port Said just before the Suez Canal crisis. Townrow has been getting letters from the widow of an old friend from his Army days in Egypt, Mrs. Khoury. Seems Mr. Elie Khoury is dead -- and his wife suspects murder. Townrow thinks he can persuade Mrs. K to return to England, where she is from, and gain some of her wealth in the bargain. Perhaps Mrs. K’s personal crisis is meant to parallel the political one: the marriage of an English cockney woman to a Lebanese merchant could represent the uneasy collaboration between Europe and the Middle East over the Suez Canal, into which is added a greedy, meddling Brit.

Shortly after Townrow's return, he is hit on the head and wakes up naked in the desert. After this point, he becomes a completely unreliable narrator: he can't remember his nationality, and at times he’s not exactly sure who he is. He even commits the Orion Error.1 He then falls in love with a Jewish woman, and is accused of being a spy for Israel.

Townrow (whose name I kept misreading as Tomorrow throughout the book – symbolic? or just me?) seems to stand for the naïve Brit who assumes his country always does the right thing. This motif is introduced early, when Townrow meets a Jew in the airport on his way to Egypt. They debate whether the British did or could have warned Jews not to get on the trains to the death camps. Finally, the Jew says, “Just because you’re a nice guy yourself, it doesn’t mean you’ve got a nice government.” Later, Townrow, whose mother is Irish and whose father (who abandoned them) is English, says, “What was an Irishman but a sort of Jew?” 

The comparison reminds me of the scene from the excellent film “The Commitments,” when the band leader tries to persuade the white Irish musicians that they have every right to play the blues, telling them that “the Irish are the blacks of Europe,” and to repeat after him: “I’m black and I’m proud.” The latter comparison makes more sense to me; sadly, the Jews have been feared for their supposed power and wealth, while the Irish and blacks have been despised for their lack of both. (Oh, and if you click on "The Commitments" link, that's a young Glen Hansard of "Once" sitting in the center!)

However, the trope of the amnesic, confused, unreliable protagonist in a “vertiginous” situation only takes you so far. It doesn’t appeal to me as a plot device; it seems cliched. Perhaps it wasn’t yet in 1969? I am reminded of the unsolved mysteries and general paranoia of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, or Patrick Modiano’s Rue des Boutiques Obscures (Missing Person, in English). I guess I like my mysteries Goldilocks-medium. I don’t enjoy the nice, neat packages of mystery novels, tied up neatly with a bow of motive and opportunity. I am a Post-Modernist gal, so I can take a certain dose of ambiguity; but this type of novel, which seems so incomplete, grates on my nerves as well.

Finally, Townrow realizes “[y]ou couldn’t answer for anything outside your own personal experience. And if you remembered your own experiences wrongly, you didn’t count at all. You weren’t human.” I remember, therefore I am. He comes to cherish his conscience and honor, but just as I was starting to like him, he makes the ridiculous statement that women don’t understand honor. Sigh. What do you think? Can you like a book that dismisses women so sweepingly?

1The Orion Error is one of my biggest literary pet peeves. The constellation Orion is a favorite among writers, perhaps because it is so recognizable. The problem is that in the Northern hemisphere (where Egypt is), Orion is only visible in winter – while the scene where Townrow sees Orion directly overhead takes place in summer. Trust me, I’ve researched this thoroughly. My husband even used this site to look up what the sky looked like during July 1956 in Egypt. But I’ve read at least three other works in which characters in the Northern hemisphere see Orion in summer. It’s jarring, and makes me wonder what other details the author has gotten wrong. At least in this case, Townrow doesn’t even know exactly who he is, so we can dismiss the error as faulty memory.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Reading the Booker Books, Post 3: Nobel Overlap

As I perused the list of Booker Prize winners in preparation for reading them all this year, I saw some names I recognized – and many I didn’t. For example, I already knew and loved Margaret Atwood. Then I learned that Kazuo Ishiguro had just won the Nobel Prize in Literature: he’s a Booker prize holder for The Remains of the Day (1989), but I’ve only read his speculative dystopian novel, Never Let Me Go (2005). So I decided to see what kind of overlap there is between the Booker and Nobel prizes.

Since the Nobel Prize in Literature began to be awarded in 1901, it has been awarded 110 times to 114 Laureates (some years, during the two World Wars, no prize was awarded), while the Booker Prize did not begin until 1969, so there is not as much overlap as one might expect. Also, the Nobel Prize is international, and while there is now an international Booker prize, my goal this year is to read the winners of the "original" English-language Booker prize. So, the overlapping center of the Venn diagram contains only five authors: V. S. Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer, William Golding, John Coetzee, and now Kazuo Ishiguro.

What is interesting to me is the lack of overlap: Toni Morrison won the Nobel, but has never won a Booker? This question led me to the discovery that the Booker prize did not become open to American writers until 2004, while the novel that I believe to be Morrison's best (and most original), Beloved, was published well before that, in 1987.

Then I perused the list of Nobel winners. Many names I did not recognize at all (Roger Martin du Gard? Ivan Bunin?); others I recognized, but have not read more than excerpts from (Eugene O'Neill [sorry Dad], Luigi Pirandello). If I were to set a reading goal next year of one book for each of the 114 Nobel Laureates in Literature, I will have already read complete works by :

  1. George Bernard Shaw
  2. Pearl Buck
  3. Andre Gide
  4. William Faulkner
  5. Ernest Hemingway: I taught Faulkner's and Hemingway's short stories in grad school
  6. Albert Camus: read The Stranger in high school for French AP!
  7. John Steinbeck: I have been seeking an occasion to teach the little-known The Winter of Our Discontent. A timely examination of honesty and accomplishment in the modern age.
  8. Jean-Paul Sartre: more French AP!
  9. Samuel Beckett
  10. Isaac Bashevis Singer
  11. Gabriel Garcia Marquez: but I read One Hundred Years of Solitude so long ago I would definitely re-read it.
  12. William Golding (Booker Prize winner): I am looking forward to reading something of his other than Lord of the Flies.
  13. Nadine Gordimer (Booker)
  14. Derek Walcott: definitely due for a reread
  15. Toni Morrison
  16. Seamus Heaney: taught his translation of Beowulf
  17. V.S. Naipaul (Booker)
  18. John Coetzee (Booker)
  19. Patrick Modiano: merci, French book club!
  20. Kazuo Ishiguro (Booker)

That brings my number down to a manageable but still hefty 94 books for next year's Nobel Prize reading project. Who's with me??

Next up: Reading Book #1, P.H. Newby's Something to Answer For