Archive for the ‘Booker Prize’ Tag

Booker Prize Winner 2010

I was really looking for a reason to read Tom McCarthy’s C, I know I shouldn’t need a reason, but I thought it would give me a really good reason to. Unfortunately, the Booker judges did not heed my letters, phone calls, and emails, and chose Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. This was really the only one I didn’t want to read. I can’t say that it’s undeserving, because I haven’t read it.

In other news, look for an upcoming writing experiment on comparing Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna to President Obama, socialism, and Tea Party rhetoric. It’s time to get serious here.

Also, in case you haven’t got to it yet, a new issue of Bookslut is up. I always try to take a late night to scoop it all in.

Also, halfway through Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. I know I’m a little late to the train on that one. But it’s a long train and makes frequent stops. The paperback isn’t coming out until January of 2011, so I figured I’d try it. It definitely has an interesting subject: black maids in 1950’s Mississippi get together with a white woman to tell stories about how they are mistreated. The big political issue of the book  ist that a young white woman wants to install all white homes with “negro” bathrooms. The voices are varied, maybe a little stereotypical, but not unlikable.  The writing is mediocre, but the story is powerful enough that one overlooks it. Full review is forthcoming.

Also in the middle of Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants (she just won a MacArthur Genius Grant, how wonderful) and Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, published by the beautiful people at Melville House. Check out their blog MobyLives, if you haven’t yet. They always have thoughtful and in-depth opinions about the publishing industry, the business of selling books, and the ever-constant, ever-annoying debate on e-books.

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Are you ready for my review of “Wolf Hall”? More importantly, am I?

A few weeks ago, I finished Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall. First I’ll give you my impressions leading up to reading it. Then, I’ll tell you how I felt after reading it. And last, I’ll give me review. It’s like eating the bun of a cheeseburger before you eat the meat.

I had been waiting for weeks, checking the release date, making sure they hadn’t moved it up, reading all the excerpts and reviews I could from UK websites, etc. I even listened to her speak about the book at the LRB bookshop along with Sarah Dunant. I don’t even know why I was so excited about this book. It’s not even a time period I particularly care for, the Tudors are overdone, out of the oven and into the bin, really. But it was promised to be a different treatment, a {brace yourself} revisionist history of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas More. Probably the desire for something I couldn’t have put me over the edge, more than anything else. So I bought it, hardcover, no freebies this time.

After finishing the book, I have continued to think about it. It’s brilliant subtlety, it’s overt play with perspective, pronouns and language. It is always the curse of a good book. You have to find something that’s really good, but completely different, or else you’ll meld them together in your mind. But you find that nothing is quite that good, so you read something pretty bad to lower your standards, so you can be impressed when you read another great one. So I’ve been slowly meandering through the New York Review of Books and Maisie Dobbs (see my previous post). Not that either of these are bad, they are different and entertaining or informative, while Wolf Hall was brilliant.

Hilary Mantel had quite a task in front of her. Just about everyone of adult reading age knows the story of Henry VIII, six wives, no male heirs, schism with the Roman Catholic Church, the founding of the Anglican religion, etc. But really, instead of rehashing all that, she makes her focus Thomas Cromwell. From my very small bit of memory about Cromwell, I always remembered him as Henry’s watchdog, without much sense, good at being told what to do, and split up the church and helped a misogynist to find a woman of male child-bearing capabilities.

But this Cromwell is a family man, loyal first to Cardinal Wolsley (even after Wolsley loses favor with the king), and then right at Henry’s side. He has travelled extensively into Europe and trained in many professions, and though continuously reminded of his low birth, he is always trusted and feared by those above and below him. He is a businessman and a lawyer, he loves his family, those he loses and those who remain. He is a human, smart and wily, but sad and concerned.

Wolf Hall is more than just a character study of Thomas Cromwell, however. It touches and shares some of the more humanistic aspects of Henry, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas More.  The reason Henry wants to be divorced from Katherine of Aragon is because he is in love with Anne Boleyn. They act like young lovers in public and they both get flustered around one another. Anne, however, is not portrayed as this passive little sparrow, who was swept up by the king and then left after she was unable to bear a male child. For Mantel, Boleyn and her family engineered all of this, set it up, played the cards right, and luckily, the king fell in love with her.

Mantel does not quibble about character flaws, she is upfront about who people are, no postmodern ambiguity here. Throughout the book, one comes to hate Thomas More.  He attempted to institute an English Inquisition, and personally tortures heretics throughout the book. His downfall comes when he refuses to sign the Act of Supremacy, which states the Henry VIII is the supreme head of the Church of England. He hates Cromwell and is jealous of his skillful maneuvering.  I suppose More has always been admired for his ideals, his staunch adherence to church dogma, and was willing to give his life for his beliefs. But in Wolf Hall he is damned.

So there’s the characters, what’s the story you ask? Well, it’s history as you know it. We are skipped from Cromwell’s childhood to a point in life where he has already become a trusted advisor of Cardinal Wolsley’s. Wolsley loses favor, lots of others vie for position, Henry has fallen in love, the Pope refuses divorce, Cromwell gets it for him, etc., etc.

Really, for me, the part of the novel that makes it all worth it is the last paragraph or so.  Just to set it up, Cromwell is setting up the king’s itinerary.

“From Bronham-we are now in early September-toward Winchester. Then Bishop’s Waltham, Alton, Alton to Farnham. He plots it out, across country. The object is to get the king back to Windsor for early October. He has his sketch map across the page, England in a drizzle of ink; his calendar, quickly jotted, running down it. ‘I seem to have four, five days in hand. Ah well. Who says I never get a holiday?’ Before ‘Bronham’, he makes a dot in the margin, and draws a long arrow across the page. ‘Now here, before we go to Winchester, we have time to spare, and what I think is, Rafe, we shall visit the Seymours.’ He writes it down. Early September. Five days. Wolf Hall.”

All that. 500+ pages. And the name of the book that foreshadows what we already know is to come. Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour. Brilliant. Mantel shows us that the actions of humans are sometimes planned out and sometimes not. That history is human actions, decisions, choices made and unmade. And that people are more than abstract terms of monarcy, government, religion, love, greed, and naviete. You should read it. Really.

Review: Who Didn’t Win the Booker but I read anyway, Part One

Why not start with a big one? In anticipation of the 2009 Booker winner, which was announced last week, I began reading every book on the shortlist that was available in the States. Being that it is a British literary fiction prize, I was only able to read two of them: A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book and Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. (I did, by the way, read William Trevor’s Love and Summer, which was longlisted but did not make the cut; sad, that.) In case, you were wondering (though who does after the winner is announced), the others were The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds, Summertime by J.M Coetzee, The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

The Quickening Maze and The Glass Room did not, and currently do not, have U.S. publication dates, so I didn’t get to read those. I absolutely refuse to read anything new by Coetzee because everything he writes is about an aging writer named James Coetzee, or something or another. I don’t like self-congratulatory writers.

First, I read Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, my first interaction with her. Her novel takes place after World War II in Warwickshire at the decaying and decrepit mansion, Hundreds Hall. It is told from the perspective of a doctor who attempts to rationalize all the strange little happenings that go one there. This perspective lends itself to the early 19th century detective novels and reminds me distinctly of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. The doctor goes to investigate a sick servant, sticks around for the rest of the book, falls in love with the daughter of the owner, she falls out of love with him, everyone goes crazy, the end. But the interesting thing and perhaps what the entire novel hinges on is: Waters is never explicit about whether what drove this family to madness was in fact a genetic deformity passed down or caused by the loss of money and prestige; or a mischevious moving into homicidal little demon/ghost/daemon/sprite/spirit, etc., etc. This is the brilliance of her writing. She asks you, do you believe the doctor? Even though he’s a prat, indecisive, and unsympathetic? Or do you believe the crazy people who talk of ghosts that haunt the hall and seek to impart mental and physical destruction on its inhabitiants? Tricky.

Most of the reviews I read were by British critics and reviewers and they seemed to comment mostly on the particular condition of the aristocracy living in post-World War II society, what they lost, how they dealt or didn’t deal with this immense change to their society. I guess I didn’t really pick up on that, being that I’m not British, and did not live through that era, or studied it in any way.

I really enjoyed The Little Stranger  but I believe, along with some of the judges, it was a little too sensational. A ghost story winning the Booker, not that I’ve seen. If anything, it’s made me want to go back and read her others, they’ve got lesbians I heard.