Wednesday, December 26, 2018

What next?

So now that I'm done with the Booker prize reading project, what am I up to next? Here is a picture of my to-read shelf, which has been gradually filling up over the past year. Right now I'm pulling out the shortest books so that I can read as many books as possible before the end of the year. My first book club read of the year will be Sisters in Law, about Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

My Best of the Bookers

Between February and December 2018, I read all 53 books that have won the Man Booker prize since its inception in 1968. Here are my personal favorites. Click on links for my reviews.

Booker winners that I marked 5 stars on my Goodreads account:

G., John Berger

Best Plot: The Luminaries. Staggeringly complex plot that ties together nearly 20 main characters. Runner-up: Amsterdam, an incredibly satisfying tale of comeuppance.

Best Historical Novel: Sacred Hunger. A must-read for anyone interested in the impact of the slave trade on people of all colors. Runner-up: Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring Up the Bodies, that place you in the cunning mind of Thomas Cromwell.

Best Twist at the End: Life of Pi.

Most Original Narration: Lincoln in the Bardo, a compilation of the words of ghosts and quotations from historical sources.

Authors I’m Most Glad I Discovered: Anita Brookner, A.S. Byatt.

Monday, December 24, 2018

2018 Man Booker Prize Winner: Milkman, by Anna Burns

Anna Burns’ Milkman, the 2018 winner of the Man Booker prize, hooked me at first with its language: stilted and formal, hinting at a post-apocalyptic near future reminiscent of 1984, where everyone checks for bugs in their phones and is not surprised to be photographed while jogging in the park. Most characters are stripped of names and are known only by epithets, such as “the man who didn't love anybody” or “Somebody McSomebody” or “maybe-boyfriend.”

Middle sister, our nameless narrator, is being approached by the milkman. But he’s not really a milkman, he’s a renouncer of the state, and quite high up in the paramilitary pecking order. Anna Burns’ great achievement is recreating the psychological tension of the unwanted attention that without words or violence still constitutes harassment. See the progression in this string of quotes I highlighted from early in the book to almost the end:

“I couldn’t be rude because he wasn’t being rude … Why was he presuming I didn’t mind him beside me when I did mind him beside me? ... I did not know intuition and repugnance counted, did not know I had a right not to like, not to have to put up with, anybody and everybody coming near … So shiny was bad, and ‘too sad’ was bad, and ‘too joyous’ was bad, which meant you had to go around not being anything … I came to understand how much I’d been closed down, how much I’d been thwarted into a carefully constructed nothingness by that man.”

The sad parallel that Burns draws is between the one-on-one intimidation of a woman by a man, and the similar constant harrying of a terrorist state (presumably Ireland in the 1970s), in which the citizens become used to unspoken rules, constant surveillance, and an ever-present threat of violence.

The comparison, and its conveyance through nameless characters in absurd situations, is brilliant. Nonetheless, the plot started to lag about halfway through, and I had to push through to the end.

Now I have read every single Man Booker prize winner since its inception fifty years ago in 1968. My future goal is to read the winner every year, and perhaps the shortlisted books as well. Next post: my personal Booker favorites.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Booker Book #52: Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

I have loved the writing of George Saunders ever since I was introduced to him by a former colleague, who used his story “The Falls” in a high-school American lit class. Each of his short stories is unique and thought-provoking, sort of a hybrid of Raymond Carver’s bluntness and David Foster Wallace’s intricacy.

Lincoln in the Bardo is one of the most original novels I have ever read. It is mostly told in two alternating forms: historical narrative composed of an accretion of related quotations from presumably historical sources, and narrative spoken by ghosts in a graveyard.

Here’s the premise: During the early years of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, one of the Lincolns’ sons, Willie, got sick and died. He is taken to a Washington, D.C., cemetery for interment. There we meet several dead-but-not-departed, who linger between this world and the next.

The novel focuses on the ghosts’ attempts to help Willie move on the next world, as awful things happen to child spirits who linger. The result is a fascinating peek into the Great Emancipator’s mind.

It’s a quick and easy read, shorter than your typical 343-page book, because of the space between the quotations, reminiscent of the spaces between graves in a graveyard.  

And with that, I have finished the Booker Project! I still have ten days left in 2018, so look for my review of this year’s winner, Milkman, as well as my personal favorites recap before year’s end.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Now reading the LAST Booker Book!

Booker Book #50: A long, drawn-out history of a bunch of killings

Well, the book is actually called A Brief History of Seven Killings, but my title is more realistic. Parts of James Marlon's book are excellent (for example, the chilling chapter told from the point of view of a man being buried alive), but I would not have missed parts of it at all.

The story is at first about an attempt on Bob Marley's life, which left him wounded but not dead on the eve of a peace concert; the narrative then expands to include drug gangs that made crack into big business in the US. The story is told from the points of view of myriad characters: not just the would-be killers and other gangsters, but also CIA agents in Jamaica, one of their Jamaican girlfriends, an American journalist, and even a ghost.

Perhaps as a woman I'm biased, but my favorite character is the girlfriend, who also once slept with The Singer, as he is known. She witnessed the attempt on him and spends the rest of the book fleeing and using false names. I like her persistence and cunning in the face of violence.

However, many of the other characters began to blur together for me. Nonetheless, I'm glad I finished the book, as some loose pieces came together at the end. And I learned a lot of Jamaican slang, in which the worst curse word is a term for menstrual pad!

Three little quotations:

"Jail is the ghetto man university."

"Peace can't happen when too much to gain in war."

"...the quickest way to not live at all is to take one day at a time."

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Booker Book #47: Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies is the sequel to Wolf Hall, the 2009 Booker prize winner by Hilary Mantel. The first book tells of the rise of Anne Boleyn, as she eclipses Catherine of Aragon. This is the beginning of Henry VIII's Reformation, which gives birth to the Church of England. But what goes up must come down, and Bring Up the Bodies describes the other side of that meteoric climb: Anne’s fall from grace as she is eclipsed in turn by Jane Seymour, because Anne could not deliver a son and heir. Ironically, it is her child Elizabeth who will eventually claim the throne, but that is not part of this story.

I haven't mentioned the hero of both books yet, but it is not any royal personage; it is Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is the instrument of the King’s desires, but also an able and subtle influencer with a Midas touch. When the king wishes to put Catherine aside and bring Anne up, Cromwell makes it so. And when the king tires of Anne and wishes to put her aside, again it is Cromwell to the rescue. Despite this description he is no ruthless brute, but a modern man who favors education for women, among other causes, and I grew to like him very much.

Two technical comments. First, I have to wonder if Hilary Mantel heard many complaints about her overuse of an ambiguous “he” in the first book, because here she often (over?) clarifies with a “he, Cromwell,” as in “he said, he, Cromwell....” Second, the title phrase does not refer to digging up dead bodies, but to bringing forth prisoners from the Tower for trial. Yes, they may likely be dead soon, but they're not dead yet. 

At any rate, the story is told in exquisite historical detail and yet in a present tense that keeps the reader in the moment, and almost always in suspense. I found both books to be enthralling masterworks of historical fiction.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Starting penultimate book of the project: Booker Book #50!!!

There were 52 books when I started, and now there are 53. I read #51 with my book club. Reading #53 this year is not part of the original project, but it would be icing on the cake. :)

Friday, December 7, 2018

Booker Book #49: The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan

How to find words dark enough to describe a book like this? Harrowing and blood-curdling feel like clich├ęs. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the tragic -- and new to me -- story of the soldiers who slaved in forced labor camps for the Japanese during World War II.

Much like their Jewish counterparts in Europe, these thousands of men, mostly Australian, were fed the absolute minimum, denied basic sanitation or medical care, and worked to death in the cholera-infested jungles of what would become Thailand. The stories of the beatings and vivisections are heartbreaking; this is not a book for the faint of heart.

But it is an honest and sobering exploration of war and what it does. Some of the characters whitewash their memories; for others, the war becomes the only memory. One of the Japanese officers turns his life around. Some are punished for war crimes, some escape. The world moves on.

“…the world organises its affairs so that civilisation every day commits crimes for which any individual would be imprisoned for life…You are never free of the world; to share life is to share guilt.”

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Booker Book #48: The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton

This is an extraordinary book, a tour de force. So many superlatives:
  •         It definitely wins my Booker Prize for most intricately plotted.
  •         Catton was the youngest author to win the Man Booker, at 28.
  •         At 800+ pages, it is the longest book to win the prize.
The Luminaries begins in a New Zealand goldrush town in 1865, where a secret council of twelve men is interrupted by a thirteenth accidental arrival. This is a tried but true narrative device: the council of twelve must explain their business to the newcomer, and what a mysterious business it is!

The council is assembled to unravel a tangled web of murder, love and betrayal; gold and opium, lost and found; infidelity and bastards. Parallels and doubling abound. The story is explicitly arranged like a zodiac, but implicitly in a spiral, that archetypal shape of New Zealand symbology: the first section is the longest, and each successive section is shorter and shorter, until we are rushing headlong down a vortex to the dizzying center. Catton highlights the technique with humor: the italicized summaries at the beginning of each chapter, relics of a previous literary era, grow and grow until they are longer and more informative than the chapters themselves. So much subtle cleverness.

I hope Catton publishes again soon. She is at the top of my list of Booker winners to watch.