Category Archives: Booker

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

bodiesBring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2012

Winner of  Hilary Mantel’s second Man Booker Prize.  Wolf Hall, the first book in Mantel’s proposed trilogy, won the Booker in 2009. My first Long-Awaited Reads novel and the first book for the 2013 Historical Fiction Challenge.  If you were to ask me right now I would say that Hilary Mantel is my favorite author.

Katherine of Aragon is shuttled off to the country.  Anne Boleyn is Queen.  King Henry grows distant from his second wife and, when Anne fails to give him a son, the King’s minister, Thomas Cromwell, senses change.  It is Cromwell’s knowledge of the past that brings the future into focus.

Bring Up The Bodies is not as densely written as Wolf Hall , but that doesn’t take away from the power of Hilary Mantel’s writing.  This is the second book in the planned trilogy  about Thomas Cromwell’s life and the interweaving of dialogue and description bring all of her characters vibrantly to  life, almost as if I were watching them on stage and not curled up reading with a cup of coffee.  There is drama, action and an almost physical sensation of movement.

Duke Charles Brandon approaching King Henry in front of  Eustache Chapuys, ambassador of Emperor Charles V:

He, Cromwell, follows on the duke’s heels.  If he had a net, he would drop it over him. ‘Leave what you’re doing, Majesty.  You want to hear this, by God.  You’re quit of the old lady.  She is on her deathbed.  You will soon be a widower.  Then you can get rid of the other one, and marry into France, by God, and lay your hands on Normandy as dowry…’ He notices Chapuys.  ‘Oh, Ambassador.  Well, you can take yourself off.  No use you staying for scraps.  Go home and make your own Christmas, we don’t want you here.’

Henry has turned white.  ‘Think what you are saying.’  He approached Brandon as if he might knock him down; which, if he had a poleaxe, he could.  ‘My wife is carrying a child.  I am lawfully married.’  from page 128.

I can hear the bumbling Brandon and feel King Henry’s fury.  Many biographic and fictional accounts of this time period, including A Man For All Seasons and The Tudors (which I have not seen), Thomas Cromwell is portrayed as an evil figure.  Mantel has given him swift intelligence and a conscience, even if he does not hesitate to destroy those the King finds standing in his way.  He had traveled widely in his youth and learned much from what he’d seen and heard.  He constantly applies this knowledge to the changing political environment around him.

He had met an old knight once, in Venice, one of those men who made a career of riding to tournaments all over Europe.  The man described his life to him, crossing frontiers with his band of esquires and his string of horses, always on the move from one prize to the next, til age and the accumulation of injuries put him out of the game.  On his own now, he tried to pick up a living  teaching young lords, enduring mockery and time-wasting; in my day, he had said, the young were taught manners, but now I find myself fettling horses and polishing breastplates for some little tosspot I wouldn’t have let clean my boots in the old days;  for look at me now, reduced to drinking with, what are you, an Englishman?

…How shall I improve, he said to the old knight, how shall I succeed?  These were his instructions: you must sit easy in your saddle, as if you were riding out to take the air.  Hold your reins loosely, but have your horse collected.  In the combat à plaisance, with its fluttering flags,, its garlands, its rebated swords and lances tipped with buffering coronals, ride as if you were out to kill.  In the combat à l’outrance, kill as if it were sport.  Now look, the knight said, and slapped the table, here’s what I’ve seen, more times than I care to count: your man braces himself for the atteint, and at the final moment, the urgency of desire undoes him:  he tightens him muscles, he pulls his lance-arm against his body, the tip tilts up, and he’s off his mark;  if you avoid one fault, avoid that.  Carry your lance a little loose, so when you tense your frame and draw in your arm your point comes exactly on target.  But remember this above all else: defeat your instinct.  Your love of glory must conquer your will to survive; or why fight at all?  Why not be s smith, a brewer, a wool merchant?  Why are you in the contest, if not to win, and if not to win, then to die? from pages 165/167.

A  perfect lesson to take into the court of King Henry the Eight.

Bring Up The Bodies follows Cromwell through the death of Katherine of Aragon, the King’s developing fascination with Jane Seymour and the trial and execution of Anne Boleyn, on of the most chilling scenes I have ever read.  Chilling and beautiful, if that is possible.  I can not wait for the third novel in this trilogy, and anything else Mantel writes in the future.

There is a wonderful column about Mantel’s process of writing Wolf Hall in the Guardian and a fascinating profile of the author in The New Yorker.

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Filed under 2013 Historical Fiction Challenge, 2013 TBR Double Dog Dare, Booker, Hilary Mantel, Historical Fiction, Long Awaited Reads Month

John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

saturnallJohn Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk

Grove Press, New York, 2012

Borrowed from my local library.  I first read about this one on Cornflower Books.

John Saturnall’s Feast is beautiful to look at and a wonder to read.  Each chapter is headed by an illustration followed by a recipe or a description of a garden, perhaps a garden called Eden.  The language is lush and deep, filled with smells and tastes and surrounded by the clatter  of a busy castle kitchen.  It reads like a fantasy, but fantasy based in the history, people and culture of 17th century Britain.

From Lawrence Norfolk’s webpage:

1625. In the remote village of Buckland, a mob chants of witchcraft. John Sandall and his mother Susan are driven out to take refuge among the trees of Buccla’s Wood. There, John’s mother opens her book and begins to tell her son of an ancient Feast kept in secret down the generations.

Driven from the village after his mother’s death, John ends up being put to work in the kitchens of Buckland Manor.  His skills bring him to the attention of the master chief and he eventually creates dishes for Sir William Fremantle.  Sir William’s daughter, Lucretia, forced to accept a marriage because she can not inherit her father’s title, Manor and all its properties, is refusing to eat.  John is charged with preparing her meals and enticing her to give up her fast.

Norfolk writes that:

The starting-point for John Saturnall’s Feast was a chapter in Kate Colqhoun’s “Taste: the Story of Britain through its Cooking”.

This history of Britain is one thread of this novel, the relationship between John and Lucy is the tapestry.  Made up of legend, myth and recipes culled from many records of the time, John Saturnall’s Feast is, well, a feast.  It is one of my top ten books from 2012.

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Filed under Booker, Books, England, Historical Fiction

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Weinstein Books, New York, 2012

Borrowed from my public library.  Short-listed for the 2012 Booker Prize.

In Kuala Lampor, Supreme Court judge Yun Ling Teoh has been slowly loosing her mind.  Wary of her malady becoming evident to others, she takes early retirement and returns to a tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands, owned by family friends.  36 years before, having been released from a Japanese prison camp, she had spent time there.  Traumatised by her sister’s death in the camp and wishing to design a Japanese style garden as a memorial, she is introduced to Aritomo Nakamura, who was once the gardener to the Japanese Emperor.  She asks him to build a garden for her sister.  He refuses, but says he will take her on as an apprentice.   Yun Ling hates the Japanese, but her desire to design a garden in memory of her sister forces her through that hatred.  She stays, and learns to garden.

It is the tangle of history between the Chinese, Japanese, British and Malaysian people, as well as the relationship that grows between Yun Ling and Aritomo, that forms the base of this complex and beautifully written story.  Woven throughout is the history of the land and its people.  Tamn Twan Eng has written a puzzle box of a novel that, in the end,  forces us to question our ideas about memory.

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Filed under Booker, Books, China, Historical Fiction, Japan, Malaya, Thoughts, War

Midnight’s Children By Salman Rushdie

Midnight’s Childrenby Salman Rushdie

Random House, New York, 2006 (original published in 1981)

From my TBR pile.  Winner of the Booker Prize and the Booker of Booker Prize.  I read this  novel as part of a group read organized by Arti Meredith and Mrs. B.  It has been wonderful reading along with others.  My thoughts on the first sections of this novel can be found here, here and here.

Book Three brings the story full circle.  Saleem, having lost most of his family in the 1965 war between India and Pakistan, finds himself in 1971 amidst the  fight for an independent Bangladesh.   Throughout this section Rushdie makes a strong argument for the role that politics, graft, collusion and warfare played in the shaping of this part of the world.  Saleem is forced into the army, witnesses atrocities and runs away.  He looses his memory, his friends die, he regains his memory, he marries and has a son, but not really.   Like Saleem himself his son, Aadam Sinai, is not really who he appears to be. And he is born at a time of great upheaval, just like his father and the rest of  Midnight’s Children.

This final part of Midnight’s Children  moves away from magic and brings history into focus.  Places and events from the beginning of the novel are mirrored towards the end.  I found it difficult, this last section, mainly because the novel loses the many of the elements  that enticed me in the beginning, Saleem’s family’s history and the mythical and magical histories of India and Pakistan.  I found myself enveloped in politics, particularly Rushdie’s scathing depiction of Indira Gandhi, her son Sanjay and their declared  State of Emergency.  I know some of this history.  I started skimming parts of  Book Three and not giving it the attention it deserved.   I  do understand Rushdie’s point,  I just need a break from this kind of historical fiction.

I think it was a certain scene of a pile of bodies that threw me off.  I am tired of war, of human failings and our ability to hate the “other”. What feeds our perverse need for destruction?

I did love this book and someday I will revisit  Midnight’s Children and give Book Three the attention it deserves.  The film adaptation, written by Salman Rushdie and directed by Deepa Mehta, is supposed to be released in October.  I am looking forward to it.

I want to thank the organizers of this read-along.  It has been a great experience.

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Filed under Booker, Historical Fiction, India, Pakistan, Salman Rushdie, Thoughts

Midnight’s Children – Book Two, Part B by Salman Rushdie

Midnight’s Childrenby Salman Rushdie

Random House, New York, 2006 (original published in 1981)

From my TBR pile.  Winner of the Booker Prize and the Booker of Booker’s Prize.  I am reading this  novel as part of a group read organized by Arti Meredith and Mrs. B.  It is wonderful sharing thoughts.

The second part of Book Two focuses on exile and migration, on war and politics, both in the insular world of Saleem Sinai  and the larger world of India and Pakistan.  The Midnight’s Children Conference suffers from the same divisiveness that shatters the sub-continent.

     …..Children, however magical, are not immune to their parents; and as the prejudices and world-views of adults began to take over their minds, I found children from Maharashtra loathing Gujaratis, and fair-skinned northerners reviling Dravidian “blackies”; there were religious rivalries; and class entered our councils.  The rich children turned up their noses at being in such lowly company; Brahmins began to feel uneasy at permitting their thoughts to touch the thoughts of untouchables; while, among the low-born, the pressures of poverty and Communism were becoming evident…and, on top of all this, there were clashes of personality, and a hundred squalling rows which are unavoidable in a parliament composed entirely of half-grown brats.  From page 292.

The world mirrored in the thoughts and actions of children.   I greatly admire Rushdie’s ability to focus in on Saleem’s story and then move out, as if with a camera, to capture all that is happening in and around the Indian subcontinent.  Saleem’s  family contains love and betrayal, eventually even murder.    Saleem lives within this drama as he grows into an awkward young man.  The family is exiled to Pakistan and Saleem finds himself witness to revolution,  followed shortly by war.

     Midnight has many children; the offspring of Independence were not all human.  Violence, corruption, poverty, generals, chaos, greed and pepperpot…I had to go into exile to learn that the children of midnight were more varied that I— even I—had dreamed.  from page 333.

And then there are endings.  In the final chapters of Book Two,  in a conflict that seems a farce,  Saleem looses many members of his family.

     I am trying to stop being mystified.  Important to concentrate on good hard facts.  But which facts?  One week before mu eighteenth birthday, on August 8th, did Pakistani troops in civilian clothing cross the cease-fire line in Kashmir  and infiltrate the Indian sector, or did they not?  In Delhi, Prime Minister Shastri announced “massive infiltration…to subvert the state:; but here is Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, with his riposte:  “We categorically deny any involvement in the rising against tyranny by the indigenous people of Kashmir”.  From page 387.

Saleem’s rants about the sheer insanity of the Indo-Pakistani war bring to mind the politics and propaganda that infuse all wars.  They also remind me that Kashmir is still in suffering a territorial dispute, between Pakistan, India and China.

So on to Book Three and the wrap up of our read-along.  I can’t wait to see what my co-readers have to say about the rest of Midnight’s Children.

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Filed under Booker, Historical Fiction, India, Salman Rushdie, Thoughts

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie – Book Two

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Random House, New York, 2006

From my TBR pile.

I am reading this wonderful novel as part of a group read organized by Arti Meredith and Mrs. B.  Heartfelt thanks to them for allowing others to join in.

We are reading Book Two in two parts, the first up section to the chapter titled The Kolynos Kid.  Our hero,  Saleem Sinai, writes his history, reads it to his plump and beloved Padma, all the time echoing events that rumble through the turbulent mix of cultures and religions that was India in the mid-decades of the twentieth century.  And we are slowly introduced to Saleem’s special talent, his ability to read the minds of all of his country’s  Midnight’s Children.

     Let me sum up: at a crucial point in the history of our child-nation, at a time when Five Year Plans were being drawn up and elections were approaching and language marchers were fighting over Bombay, a nine-year-old boy named Saleem Sinai acquired a miraculous gift.  despite the many vital uses to which his abilities could have been put to use by his impoverished, underdeveloped country, he chose to conceal his talents, frittering them away on inconsequential voyeurism and petty cheating.  This behavior – not, I confess, the behavior of a hero – was the direct result of a confusion in his mind, which inevitably muddled up morality – the desire to do what is right – and popularity – the rather more dubious desire to do what is approved of.  Fearing parental ostracism, he suppressed the news of his transformation;  seeking parental congratulations, he abused his talents at school.  This flaw in his character can partially be excused on the grounds of his tender years; but only partially.  Confused thinking was to bedevil much of his career.

I can be quite tough in my self-judgements when I choose.  from page 196.

As I read this vast  novel I am continually receiving questioning looks from Mr G.  It is because I am giggling to myself or making odd appreciative noises at Rushdie choice of words.   Saleem’s childhood is a mash-up of old and new, a perfect mirror for his young country.  I can not wait to see what happens to him and the rest of Midnight’s Children.

     So among the midnight children were infants with powers of transmutation, flight, prophecy and wizardry…but two of us were born on the stroke of midnight.  Saleem and Shiva, Shiva and Saleem, nose and knees and knees and nose…to Shiva, the hour had given the gifts of war (of Rama, who could draw the undrawable bow, of Arjuna and Bhima; the ancient prowess of Kurus and Pandavas united, unstoppable in him!)…and to me, the greatest talent of all – the ability to look into the hearts and minds of men.  From page 229.

Reading Midnight’s Children reminds me of a wonderful production of the Mahabharata directed by Peter Brooks that I saw years ago.  It has been released on DVD.  See it if you can.

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Filed under Booker, Historical Fiction, India, Salman Rushdie, Thoughts

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie – Book 1

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Random House, New York, 2006

From my TBR pile.

I am taking part in a read-along organized by Mrs B, Arti andMeredith.  We are taking four months to read the book that won the Booker of Booker’s prize twice.    After reading Book One, I wanted to jump ahead and continue reading but decided to take the time to digest the first section.

In our den we have several wall hangings, presents from a friend who visited India and Nepal.  They are made up of pieces of cloth and imbedded with bits of mirrors.  When the sun hits them they bounce light all over the room.

Midnight’s Children is a book made of words like bits of  mirror, reflecting the time before and after India gained independence from Britain and was partitioned into the states of India, West and East Pakistan.  The story is told by Saleem Sinai.  Each evening he writes his scattered thoughts and reads them to a woman he works with, Padma, who is illiterate and seems a bit grumpy and slow-witted.  It is Padma who helps bring Saleem’s thoughts into focus as he recalls his family history from the time before he was born.

Midnight’s Children reminds me of a twisted version of 1000 and One Nights, a comparison I’m sure the author is tired of,  and I love it.  Rushdie’s mix of tumbling language, history and magical realism is like looking through a kaleidoscope, where the image is split into a thousand parts but somehow comes together beautifully.

Book One covers the story of Saleem’s family up until the time of his birth, August 15th, 1947, which is also the exact time of the creation of the independent State of India.  By telling his story Saleem also tells of India’s struggles for independence, the bigotry between classes and religions and the lasting impact of the British Raj.  All this is told with grace,  humor and a burning coal of anger at its core.  Anger at the thick-headed greed of politicians, thieves and governments.

I find it difficult expressing  my admiration for Salman Rushdie’s abilities with language, with story-telling.  I can not wait to move on to Book Two.

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Filed under Booker, Historical Fiction, India, Read-Along, Salman Rushdie, TBR Double Dare

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2011

From my library hold list.  Winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize.

Tony Webster has reached retirement.  His marriage ended in an amicable divorce and he is ready to enjoy his later years when, out of nowhere, his past comes to meet him.

Before reading The Sense of an Ending I had only read one novel by Julian Barnes, Arthur & George.

This new one it is very different, one that I wanted to read in one sitting and, when finished, knew I wanted to read again.  It is elegant, sometimes funny and always disturbing, offering insights into youthful mistakes, loss and memory.  It is a mystery, deeply emotional and psychological.  It feels true.

I certainly believe we all suffer damage, one way or another.  How could we not, except in a world of perfect parents, siblings, neighbors, companions?  And then there is the question, on which so much depends, of how we react to the damage: whether we admit it or repress it, and how this affects our dealings with others.  Some admit the damage and try to mitigate it; some spend their lives trying to help others who are damaged; and then there are those whose main concern is to avoid further damage to themselves at whatever cost. And those are the ones who are ruthless and the ones to be careful of.  From page 48.

What Barnes tell us is that what may save us is telling each other what we think is the truth, what we think we know.  This is a beautiful, devastating novel.  I do want to read it again.

It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old we invent different pasts for others.  From page 88.

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Midnight’s Children Group Read

Arti’s post reminded me that March 1st marked the beginning of the Midnight’s Children Group Read.  If you are intrigued please join her,  Bellezza, Mrs. B and those of us who have signed on, in this slow and flexible read-along.

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When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

Vintage, New York, 2001

From my TBR pile.  On the short list for the 2000 Booker prize.  I am reading along with Wendy’s Literary Novels from my Stack personal challenge when I can.  February is Man Booker Prize Month.

An elegant novel about memory, When We Were Orphans is a slow, controlled and engaging mystery.

Christopher Banks, this novel’s first person narrator,  is a famous detective in London.  Orphaned at a young age, sent from Shanghai to England, his one desire is to become a great detective.  Cool, reticent and self-controlled, he attains his goal, all the time remaining distant from those around him.   Twenty years later he is determined to return to the Shanghai and solve the case of his parents’ disappearances.  When he does return to the far east things are not at all how he remembers them.

Banks holds himself at a distance, from the reader,  from friends and from colleagues.  He does not allow life’s possibilities to distract him from his goal.  He lives at a remove, from his emotions and his personal history.  This gives the novel a chill, it feels like a ghost story.  In fact it is haunted, by Christopher’s past, his missing parents, the intrigues of early twentieth-century Shanghai.

I found When We Were Orphans difficult in places, maybe because I found it hard to empathize with Christopher Banks.  It will not be my  favorite Ishiguro novel, but I am continually awed by his style, use of restraint and use of language.  He is one of those authors who constantly surprises me and I plan to read all of his work.

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Filed under Booker, Historical Fiction, Kazuo Ishiguro, LiteraryFiction, Thoughts