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.