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.