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.


Saturday, June 30, 2018

Back to the Bookers: #23, The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro


Before this project, the only book I had read by Kazuo Ishiguro was Never Let Me Go. I picked it up not because of the author, but because I love science fiction, and I understood that it was about clones. As a work of science fiction, Never Let Me Go was disappointing; however, it, like The Remains of the Day, is a meditation on being human. It would be nearly impossible for me to discuss these two books at any depth without some ***spoilers***, so consider yourself warned.

From the very start, our narrator and hero, Mr. Stevens, asks himself the question, “What does it mean to be a great butler?” For that is what Mr. Stevens is, a butler in a “distinguished” household. Or rather, he was; Lord Darlington is gone now, and his English manor taken over by an American. Stevens comes to the conclusion that great butlers possess dignity, and cites several anecdotes, some about his butler father, to illustrate his point.

But isn’t the phrase “great butler” an oxymoron? How can a member of a “lower” class be great? Stevens’ eventual answer to this implied question is that those who cannot achieve greatness themselves achieve their purpose by serving the great. And that is the lynchpin that connects this novel with Never Let Me Go. The master/servant relationship here is replaced in the later novel by the more extreme human/clone relationship. Ishiguro explores both “underclasses” with finesse.

Both groups are isolated, marginalized. Both exist to “serve”; the clones, in case you haven’t read NLMG, are being raised to provide “spare” organs for their “originals.” However, both groups are educated. Stevens, for example, presents such a polished façade that a group of villagers mistake him for a gentleman, while the initial setting of NLMG is a school, where the young clones are educated in sport and art, among other subjects. This education is ironic; both groups are treated like circus animals in a way. Certain butlers are called on to demonstrate their knowledge of trivia, while the educators debate whether the clones’ ability to produce art means that they have a soul.

But both groups’ service is tragic. Stevens devotes thirty loyal years to a man who ends up being a Nazi sympathizer. The clones, of course, will die after their final organ sacrifice.

Mr. Stevens may be dignified and loyal, but he is also oblivious, humorless, and overly devoted to his profession -- nearly inhuman. The figure of Miss Kenton, the housekeeper in the same estate as Mr. Stevens, serves as counterpoint to Stevens’ two-dimensionality. Miss Kenton, with her flowers, her passionate support of her staff, her fruitless efforts to connect with Mr. Stevens, is the bleeding heart of the story. She shows us what it means to be human: to love, to be curious, to share banter and warmth. To connect. The clones, of course, have all these traits too; they simply are never allowed to opportunity to share them outside their own “class,” and certainly not with those who will be cannibalizing them. In the end, fortunately, Stevens realizes the true difference between him and his “master”: at least the lord he served had the option to make his own mistakes, while servants (and clones) do not.

Ishiguro demonstrates amply why he earned the Nobel Prize in 2017. The novel is engaging from the very beginning, and delicately crafted throughout. The book tiptoes slowly but inexorably toward the truth about Lord Darlington, and Miss Kenton’s unrequited love. I’ll be reading more from this master writer.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Booker Break: A Surprise from S.E. Hinton


What comes to mind when I say “S.E. Hinton”? The Outsiders. Pony Boy. “Nothing gold can stay.” Maybe Rumble Fish. Or Matt Dillon.

But what about…vampires?

After Susan (!) E. Hinton’s iconic books, The Outsiders (1967), That Was Then, This is Now (1971), and Rumble Fish (1975), she kept writing. And one of the novels she wrote, in 2004, was Hawkes Harbor.

I listened to this book on CD. After the first disc, I thought I’d be listening to the tale of a troubled young man, very similar to those titles I just mentioned. We get a glimpse of Jamie Sommers’ childhood, then his wild times as a sailor and smuggler. We know he has gotten into trouble because he’s telling all this to a psychiatrist in a mental institution.

However, on disc two, things get weird. The book becomes a classic tale of…boy meets vampire.

TL;DR ***SPOILER ALERT*** Boy meets vampire. Vampire enslaves boy. Boy goes crazy. Vampire commits boy to asylum. Both boy and vampire are cured. They become besties and live happily ever after.

WHAT the WHAT???

First of all, vampire gets cured? I had to make sure I hadn’t skipped a disc when this just casually came up. While Jamie is “away,” the vampire somehow meets AND IS CURED BY a doctor/historian named Louisa.

So the relationship of SLAVE to MASTER becomes just another friendly employer/employee, roommates in a big, haunted house kind of thing, with a casual mention of Stockholm syndrome. No big deal, right? The two men even go on a cruise together, where they both find romantic and sexual adventure.

My only way of processing this is to think that Ms. Hinton was somehow, consciously or unconsciously, writing an allegory about child abuse. Our vampire, Grenville Hawkes, is the abusive parent, and Jamie the child. Jamie is absolutely traumatized by Grenville’s abuse, is helpless to escape it, and therefore copes as best he can. However, when Grenville “reforms,” Jamie gradually comes to trust him, and they have a mutually respectful relationship. Is this possible in formerly abusive parent/child relationships? I don’t know if it’s common, but I’ve heard of it in my own extended family.

The attempt falls flat, though. Too much telling, not showing, especially about important relationships. For example, you can never tell if Louisa’s attitude toward Jamie on a given day will be bossy or fond. No real development happens for her, she just shifts personalities as needed for each scene.

So anyway, if you want to read a vampire tale that does not have sparkly skin or werewolves, but does have male bonding on a cruise ship, give it a try. It may be the weirdest book you’ve read all year.  

Monday, June 25, 2018

Booker Book #22: Oscar and Lucinda, by Peter Carey


Well. That was a struggle (a week is a long time for me to get through a book this length). I had only the vaguest memories of the movie, and anticipated a pleasant read. I am willing to put a lot of the blame on myself, distracted by the transition from teaching to summer vacation, and a visit from my lovely mother-in-law, but this book just did not hold my attention. I was grateful for the short chapters that allowed me to take frequent breaks.

Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda is the story of two originals, misfits who simply cannot fit in anywhere but with each other. Oscar is the son of an English minister in a strict Quaker-like sect, and Lucinda the daughter of bohemians in Australia. They each become gamblers, of very different sorts, and meet on an ocean liner. Their ensuing romance is painfully awkward and tragic, and hinges, of course, on a bet.

I didn’t really start enjoying the book until about three quarters of the way through, when events started accelerating. However, I was put off when characters started popping up and making major contributions to the plot without my feeling that I really got to know them.

Again, I’m willing to admit that I was not in the best frame of mind to appreciate this book, but I found its rambling, roundabout (and intentionally misleading) plot disappointing.

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

~Interlude~

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.