Tuesday, November 27, 2018

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

The Sense of an Ending is the third and final of the Man Booker Prize winners that I read before beginning this project. I was frustrated by the book the first time I read it. I am glad that this project led me to read it again, though I am still scratching my head.

This is a dense and deep, though short, examination of memory, time, and consequence. Narrator Tony tells a story that began with meeting his friend Adrian in high school. As high school friends do, they drifted apart. Then, in university, Tony dated Veronica. Later, Adrian dates Veronica. Much later still, Tony receives a mysterious bequest from Veronica's mother. And so begins a sordid mystery that Tony must patiently resolve.

It's an interesting book with a controversial ending. But is it really an ending, or just a "sense" of an ending? You'll have to read it yourself to find out; at about 160 pages, it won't take long.

Monday, November 26, 2018

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

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

Sunday, November 25, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Booker Book #51: The Sellout, by Paul Beatty

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Booker book #44: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, is not really the story of Wolf Hall at all. It is the story of Thomas Cromwell, counselor to King Henry VIII during the English chapter of the great Protestant Reformation.

The story begins with young Thomas on the ground looking at his father's boot. Not surprisingly, young Thomas runs away, to become a soldier, a wool trader, and eventually a lawyer. It is in that capacity that he serves Cardinal Wolsey, counselor to King Henry. When the Cardinal dies, Thomas's great intellectual and psychological abilities, especially his gifts in finance, allow him to become one of the king's most intimate advisors and thus one of the most powerful and wealthy men in the realm.

Meanwhile, all the drama of the King's predicament is swirling around the court. The Reformation is afoot, and King Henry wishes to divorce his first wife in order to marry his second. What's curious is that Wolf Hall is the ancestral home of his third wife, Jane Seymour, whom he hardly glances at in this book, which ends before the death of second wife Anne Boleyn.

The book is written in a unique style, unlike any other historical fiction I have read. There are plenty of concrete historical details, yet the narration can be poetically abstract. I enjoyed learning more about this historical period; however, I did find the narration confusing at times. So many characters have the same first names, and so many characters are also known by a title. Usually "he" or "him" refers to Cromwell, but occasionally a first person "I" creeps in.

Nonetheless, I really felt that I knew and liked Cromwell...well after these 600 pages, and I'm looking forward to spending 12 CDs with him as I listen to the sequel, Bring up the Bodies, on audiobook. This second installment also won a Booker prize, in 2012.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Now reading Booker book #44

What have I gotten myself into? This book begins with a five-page list of characters, and two pages of family trees. But I am excited to learn more about Thomas Cromwell.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Booker Book #43: The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga

The white tiger is an animal that comes along only once in a generation. It is the nickname of our hero, a servant who observes and imitates his masters, to become an entrepreneur. The entire novel is written in the form of a letter to a Chinese official planning a visit to India, and it exposes India's corruption and mistreatment of servants.

White Tiger is the gripping tale of what the downtrodden will do to survive. It should strike fear in the hearts of exploiters everywhere. I found it much more engaging than most of the other Indian novels on the Booker list.

My reviews are getting shorter, as is my time to finish the Booker winners before the end of 2018! I have 8 left to read (one's a short re-read, but three are VERY long), and one to listen to. Wish me luck! 

Sunday, November 4, 2018

What the Hell Happened in 2005?

Take a look at the short list for the Man Booker Prize in 2005:

John Banville, The Sea
Julian Barnes, Arthur and George
Sebastian Barry, A Long, Long Way
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
Ali Smith, The Accidental
Zadie Smith, On Beauty

Kazuo Ishiguro had already won for The Remains of the Day (1989), which was phenomenal, and he would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Never Let Me Go (click on title for my review) is an incredibly original speculative book about child clones being raised to be organ donors. It addresses many of the same topics that arose in Remains – class, the master/servant relationship – and the two books are even stronger read together. Never Let Me Go shoulda been a contender.

And I just finished listening to The Accidental on audio book. Talk about original! It’s the story of the ironically named Smarts: professor Michael, writer Eve, teen bully Magnus, and pre-teen bully victim Astrid. A fifth wheel, Amber, careens into their lives and throws them all for a loop. Each character has a unique voice, not just as a person, but as a literary invention. Eve speaks in question-and-answer interview format like the historical recreations that she writes; literary Michael speaks an entire chapter in verse; Magnus has an alter ego named “Hologram Boy”; and twelve-year-old Astrid is still seeking a voice, trying out phrases like “typical and ironic” and “i.e.” And Amber speaks in movie allusions, since she was conceived in a cinema.

It’s an amazing book, as Astrid would say. It addresses not just bullying, but adultery, writer’s block, and the ways in which we are vulnerable to the kind of fraud Amber commits on the whole family. It shines with motifs of light, photography, and cinema. I found it far more complex than The Sea, and the twist at the end has a much more satisfying kick to it. I highly recommend it, and I can’t believe that Banville won over Smith and Ishiguro. Harumph.

Booker Book #42: The Gathering by Anne Enright

Veronica, the protagonist of The Gathering, is one of twelve siblings. She has come back to her mother's Irish home to announce the death by suicide of her brother Liam; the gathering of the title is his wake.

Veronica proceeds to try to unravel why Liam ended up killing himself. Her memories are vague and her mother is, too. She remembers an incident of sexual abuse but can't quite pin down to whom it happened.

This is a story about the difficulties of family relationships, especially in large families, including the guilt of moving up in social class, leaving some family members behind. It's also an interesting enough book about the slipperiness of memory, with a bit of a sentimental ending that I won't spoil for you.

Just 10 more to go!!!