Tag Archives: Man Booker Prize

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Final Lowland cover.inddI read some Jhumpa Lahiri short stories as an undergrad, in my Contemporary British Fiction course.  Her writing style is so beautiful and simple and easy to comprehend–people who write know how difficult it is to produce a simple and effective sentence, without endless clauses and commas. I tend more toward the maximal than the minimal, but I wish I could embrace and produce brevity the way Lahiri does. I haven’t read her other novel, The Namesake, but I did see the movie with Kal Penn, and I remember liking it.  I may need to read the novel because I also enjoyed this book. Lahiri was born in London to parents from West Bengal, but moved to the US with her parents when she was still quite young. She has a unique perspective as an immigrant and emigrant of 3 countries and that is reflected in her writings. She lives in Rome now, but this particular novel is all about India and the US.  It was shortlisted for the Man Booker last year, which is how it ended up on my Christmas list.

I have a tough time with the sort of books that span lifetimes.  This is one of those.  We start with two young brothers, growing up near Calcutta: Subhash and Udayan. By the end of the book, focus has shifted to one of their grandchildren. I’ve read other books that cover this much of a life, or a few lives, and I find it difficult. When you zoom out so far on someone’s life, it is much harder to find the point, the lesson, the change they endure during the story.  It is undoubtedly closer to real life, but I don’t read fiction for real life. I read fiction because at the end of a book there is a sense of order and satisfaction. There was a problem, the person learned to conquer it and then they did.  It doesn’t have the same, or sometimes any, meaning if we follow them for another 40 years of their lives. Often these books are more about the gradual change from bright and energetic youth to tired and sad decline.  And I don’t like that either, because I’d like to think there was some hope for happiness once I’m over 40 or 50.  So that aspect of this book was not my favorite.

But it was beautifully written, very clear and concise and well done.  I believe the slow decline, the overtaking quietness that consumes almost all of these characters stems from one event. A death that no one in the book recovers from. Everything from that point on can be categorized as a ripple effect. The family never recovers, the children inherit secrets and pain that lasts a few generations.

I am pretty woefully ignorant of Indian culture, let me say that straight from the beginning.  Unlike in London, there aren’t large populations of Indian/subcontinent immigrants in the US. There are pockets here and there, much more where I live now than when I lived in the Midwest, but nowhere near as ubiquitous as in the UK. But I have read several books now that focus on immigrant families coming into the UK and the US.  I’ve read Zadie Smith–White Teeth and On Beauty–Salman Rushdie–the Satanic Verses–and now the Lowland. I can’t help but notice similarities.  Most obviously, there are pairs of men, usually related, usually very different (Subhash and Udayan in the Lowland, Magid & Millat in White Teeth, Farishta and Chamcha in the Satanic Verses). Secondly, someone is usually involved in academia or science (Subhash and Gauri in the Lowland, the Belsey family in On Beauty, Magid and Marcus Chalfen in White Teeth), and their counterpart is usually involved in politics or religion. I am not an immigrant, and have never lived in a culture different enough to worry about assimilation.  I don’t think learning to stand on the right and walk on the left in the U.K. exactly qualifies me to discuss the immigrant experience. But, I am pretty good at empathy, and I think I can see a lot of reasons why these relationships keep coming up.  Being an immigrant or of dual ancestry means that you are always considered two different people. An Indian man in London may seem very Indian to his fellow Brits (of a more Anglo descent), but he will seem very British if he returns to India. It’s like the god Janus, one face looking forward and one looking back.  These novels tend to have a character that embraces completely the new culture, and another that leans in the opposite direction and clings to tradition, to the country they consider their true home. In the Lowland, Subhash returns to India with his daughter, and though both her parents are Indian, little Bela cannot stomach the same food, water, or sun that her mother and father grew up with. Life in the US has made her softer than life in India would have. She can’t go back ‘home’ and be with her ‘native’ culture. It implies that immigration is a non-reversible event; once you go, you can’t come back.

There are two events in this book that shape every other character and every other moment.  The death of one of the brothers, and the abandonment of Bela by her mother.  The reviewer for the New York Times found real fault with this event and its aftermath, saying Ms. Lahiri never manages to make this terrible act — handled by Gauri with cruelty and arbitrary highhandedness — plausible, understandable or viscerally felt. Why would Gauri regard motherhood and career as an either/or choice? Why make no effort to stay in touch with Bela or explain her decision to move to California? Why not discuss her need to leave her marriage and her child with her husband?  

I didn’t have an issue with this, because I empathized with Gauri. She didn’t want a child. She couldn’t accept this child in particular, because of what and who it represented.  A child is a massive never-ending responsibility, looking for love and knowledge and entertainment and safety, looking to you every second of the day. I don’t want kids. Not at all. I’m not up for that kind of commitment. Having a pet is the most amount of commitment I can deal with, and I like pets a lot more than I like kids. So for Gauri to run away from this massive commitment, this project that would take up at least 20 years of her life, always reminding her that she lacked freedom and she lacked her own life…I can empathize.  Luckily for me, we have contraceptives and I don’t have to have kids. But I can’t say I find it hard to believe the what or why here. I can imagine the fear that would come from looking at this little person that depends on you for everything, and instead of finding the love and dedication growing inside yourself, you see something akin to a cage.  Like I said, I don’t want kids.

My only real problem with the book is the ending.  After we see the characters age and procreate, and then their child procreates, after all this, and in the last few pages of the book, we are thrust back to moments before the death, from the point of view of the about-to-be-deceased. Ending it that way almost acted as the opposite of closure.  Questions and ideas that had been settled in the denouement of natural events, were re-arranged and had to be re-considered.  And then the book was over.  It robbed me of a sense of ending, and it left a bad (mental) taste in my mouth. I’m not sure why she chose that ending, but I wish it had been left out. I suppose perhaps the point in showing the death again was to solidify the idea that this one death was a spear in the side of everyone mentioned in the book, and continued to affect them far after it occurred and even after it was forgotten. It affected 4 generations of characters, and would continue to affect them. That’s why it’s there at the end, I suppose.

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Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

9781250024176I’ve been considering reading this book for over a year–since it won the 2012 Man Booker Prize.  I base most reading decisions on the Man Booker prize winners.  I read the first novel in this trilogy, Wolf Hall about a year ago.  I wasn’t overly fond of it, I’ll be honest.  For one thing, the 3rd person narration is abnormal.  Thomas Cromwell narrates the story, but his thoughts and his words are always described with ‘he’ or ‘his’.  It doesn’t say “Thomas Cromwell went to see the King.”  It says “he went to see the king”.  Sometimes, when Cromwell is alone, this is no large problem.  But the majority of the characters, just like the majority of people of note in the 16th century, are men.  So you get a lot of sentences like ‘he said to him’.  Confusing.  Sometimes, you can follow it.  Other times, not so much.  Mantel occasionally clarifies, but she does so in a strange way.  As the New York Times described it, “Where necessary, “Bring Up the Bodies” helpfully deploys the phrase “he, Cromwell,” dispelling a lot of syntactic confusion.” I find this to be rather stupid, to be honest.  If you’re going to say ‘he took the pen; he, Cromwell’, why not just say ‘Cromwell took the pen’?!?!  this ‘he, Cromwell’ rubbish is very tedious.  On the other hand, sticking to the ‘he’ pronoun does create a unique reading experience. This is a subject simultaneously so familiar (who hasn’t heard of Henry VIII and his many wives?) and simultaneously very alien (who can comprehend life in 1536 as readily as they can comprehend in 1936, or even 1836?).  So that unique reading experience achieved through the pronoun use in some ways adds to the feeling of delving into another time, another frame of mind, another way of organizing the world.  In conclusion, I’m on the fence about the whole pronoun issue.  I hated it in the first book, but it was far more easy to follow in the second.

Bring Up The Bodies was, in almost all respects, an easier and breezier book.  Not as demanding, not as tiring, more enjoyable.  Shorter, faster, and (I think), better.  The New York Times said that it’s less surprising, and that Cromwell sinks in our estimation from the first book to the next.  I don’t think I agree.  He was never particularly high in my estimation, nor do I think Cromwell is the type to care. He’s a practical person, a realist, and not in the business of charming anyone.

In the second book, he is the same person, with the same ruthlessness and terrifying, cold pragmatism.  The difference is his mission.

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In Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s mission was to make it possible for the king to marry Anne Boleyn.  He sees Cardinal Wolsey, his mentor and friend, fall from power into disgrace and death–and don’t think he’s ever going to forget those that made this happen–but he also uses the changing tide to his own advantage.  Cromwell assists the king in every possible way to get his marriage to Katherine annulled, and to make way for his marriage with Anne.  This means reformation of the church (which allies with Cromwell’s personal beliefs), and it means being allied with the Boleyn family.  But his mission is to get the king married to Anne, and he succeeds.

In the second book, Cromwell’s mission is to get rid of Anne so that the king can marry Jane Seymour (not the actress from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman).  Though they may seem the same, the situations are different.  Anne will not accept an annulment, she is not the type of woman to go quietly.  She’s more like Cromwell.  Henry is so angered and upset with her, with her inability to give him a son, with her emotional trickery and her lack of proper obsequiousness, he begins to suspect her of witchcraft.  He has been ensnared by her, and has been taken out of favor in God’s eyes.  His thoughts turn to plain, shy, virginal Jane Seymour. She is the antithesis of Anne in nearly every way.  Henry wants Anne to never have happened.  At first, it seems an annulment might be enough this time, as it was before, but no.  He wants her to never have existed. She needs to be dead, if he’s going to be happy and fortunate again.

Cromwell does his best to make the king happy.  That’s the same in book one and book two. It’s the king, and what he wants, that shift to a much darker place. His darker nature is reflected in his body, fat and sweaty, with a recurring wound to his leg.  He is turning into an embarrassment, where he was once an astonishingly bright and energetic figure. Accordingly, this book ends, not with a happy couple and a fortuitous baby bump, but with the public execution of Anne Boleyn, and the 4 men accused of sleeping with her. With a downturn, a hint of things to come.

Ah, but it’s not just Henry that goes darker and meaner.  Cromwell handpicks the four men who will be killed, and, shocking coincidence, they are the four men who publicly mocked Cardinal Wolsey before his death.  His motive, revenge, is incredibly clear.  Another man is rumored to have slept with Anne, but he is Cromwell’s friend, and is spared a conviction.  Free to go. I don’t deny that revenge is his motive, but I do think that the king’s changes have given Cromwell the opportunity to act on both of their worst instincts.  If the king were magnanimous and forgiving, Cromwell would find lesser punishments for his rivals.

We also see an older Cromwell, a more tired and less ruthless version of the man we learned of in Wolf Hall.  A few sections stuck out to me, so much that I dog-eared the pages to reference them later. He ‘falters’ in his course, as he describes it, when feelings overcome him.  He hides it.  But he ‘did falter, but no one knows it’, no one saw him walk away from Weston’s interrogation.  No one saw him when ‘Anne laid her hand on my arm and asked me what I believed in my heart’.  He feels the weight of his own hypocrisy, and his corruption. At one point, he compares his power struggles with a dance.  ‘He has spun his enemies to face him, to join him: as in a dance. He means to spin them away again, so they look down the long cold vista of their years: so they feel the wind, the wind of exposed places, that cuts to the bone: so they bed down in ruins, and wake up cold.’

That is an incredibly detailed thing to wish on your enemies. And only someone who has been forced to do the same, in his own life, would know the pain that would come with those circumstances.  As someone gets older, the value of warmth and comfort are more important, and the unstoppable threat of negative thoughts are less avoidable.  Though Cromwell has sent many a man (and woman) to their deaths, that paragraph is the scariest he’s ever seemed.

But he’s also pensive and emotive, and full of a strange wisdom. This paragraph cut my heart when I read it.  One of the characters claims he will ‘die of grief’.  Cromwell shakes his head and says the man will live.  ‘He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone’

My dog died a few weeks ago, just as I was reading this book.  I’m a wreck.  When I read that paragraph, I recognized the same feelings, the same sighs and same anger and slow bitter resignation that I feel now.  That I know I’ll feel again, the next time I lose something I love.

I connected with this book pretty significantly, and my reading experience was a good one. I’m glad I slogged through Wolf Hall, and I’m even more glad I decided to read the sequel.

Book Review: Wolf Hall

9780312429980I had very high hopes for this book. It was the winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize, which is a list that provides me with incredibly good reading every single year.  It’s the first book in a trilogy, and the second of those books (Bringing Up The Bodies) won the Man Booker prize this year. It’s also historical fiction, which I love.  I was entirely ready to love this book.

Unfortunately, I just didn’t.

Wolf Hall is the first book in the ongoing Thomas Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel.  Thomas Cromwell was a true historical figure, a close adviser to Cardinal Wolsey and then to Henry VIII.  Wolf Hall concentrates on the end of Cromwell’s time with Cardinal Wolsey and the beginning of his close relationship with Henry.

The Tudor period seems very popular in the last decade, from the Jonathan Rhys Meyers series, The Tudors to The Other Boleyn Girl. To me, it’s not nearly as interesting a time in England as the Victorian era, but that’s just personal preference. I think this is the first historical fiction I have read set in the 16th century, and I did learn a lot about the period and the history and about Henry VIII.

I usually start my book reviews with a brief synopsis, but I cannot do so with this book.  And therein lies the problem (one of them) with the book.  Things happen, for certain, but not along a traditional plot line with rising action, a climax, and a resolution.  It seems to be more just a recording of things that happen over nearly a decade in these characters’ lives.  No one event is given more weight, importance, or consequences than any other event.  The book has the pace of real life, with the tragic and epic occurring just alongside the everyday and the insignificant. This makes it very realistic, but I think it does not make for good fiction. I couldn’t tell you a specific reason why Mantel started this story where she did and stopped it where she did.  I can’t tell you what I was supposed to glean from this portion of Cromwell’s life.  Since it is a trilogy, the lack of proper ending is understandable–the very last page leads directly into the next book in the series–but there is just no story arch in this book.  Some of the most devastating events happen sporadically in the middle of the book, such as the deaths of some of Cromwell’s family members due to plague.
I just couldn’t get a handle on this story in terms of a recognizable plot.

The book covers a period in English history of religion and monarchy in extreme tension.

Brief history lesson, if you don’t remember your high school classes/that Simpsons episode: Henry VIII was married to Katherine, the Spanish princess. She gave birth to Princess Mary, but was not successful in producing a male heir.  As she aged, Henry VIII became anxious about having someone to take over as King.  At the same time, Anne Boleyn caught his eye as a possible mistress, but she basically teased him and bribed him until he found a way to annul his marriage to Katherine and marry her instead.

At the same time, the reformation of the Catholic church was spreading from Germany (much of it directly resulting from Martin Luther’s 95 Theses), and there were parties in England interested in reforming the church in their country.  These two interests became united in one solution. The king was convinced to break with the church  after the pope refused to grant him an annulment from Katherine.  So what was kind of a personal thing (marriage) became a huge issue that influenced the religion of everyone in England (and the US if you want to argue causation) for several centuries.  The Anglican church became the official church of England, with the Monarchy at its head. For several hundred years, Catholicism was outlawed (except for brief respites).

Okay, enough history.  So this was a huge, very important thing in England all stemming from/hinging upon Henry’s desire for a male heir.  It’s a really fascinating time in history, and Henry and Anne are a very interesting pair.  It should make for a great book.

Unfortunately, the plot is just non-existent. The action has sort of bookends on either side of the reformation. At the beginning, Cardinal Wolsey is just beginning to fall into disfavor and to have his lands and wealth reclaimed by the crown. The action ends with the death of Sir Thomas More, who was I suppose the last holdout stopping the progress of the English Reformation at the time. Other than that, the action just seems to occur in order and have no significance attached to it.

The writing is not bad, but it is very difficult to follow. Each person has different names/titles, and often they are referred to as one and then the other.  Examples include referring to Stephen Gardner as Stephen Gardner, as Gardner, as Bishop of Winchester, as Winchester, as Master Secretary, etc.  This is all one guy, but she flits between referring to him as one thing, then another, then a third.  Add to that, the lack of dialogue tags in most of the dialogue.  All of Cromwell’s thoughts and quotes are identified by ‘he said’. If you’re lucky, she throws you a ‘he, Cromwell, said’.  It’s very difficult to tell who is speaking and to whom.  I would have to go back and reread paragraphs to decipher what was going on.  What on earth is wrong with just saying ‘Cromwell said’ or ‘Cromwell thought’.  Or ‘I said’/’I thought’. It’s like she didn’t want to commit to first person or third person, and decided instead to confuse the hell out of everyone.  Just pick!

There are also a lot of characters, and the list in the front does include most of them, but not in a very helpful arrangement. Add to that the fact that it doesn’t list all of their titles, despite the fact that people are often referred to by their titles.  There are six or seven dukes running around the novel, but sometimes speech is identified just by ‘the duke said’.  It was really hard to follow.

So there is no plot and it is hard to read.  There were only two redeeming features of this novel, in my opinion.  One was the complexity of the characters. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with so many complex and varied characters. A particular highlight is the mercurial king and his equally capricious Anne.  Their relationship, their mannerisms, the way they affect everyone around them, it’s all very interesting to read and drawn out realistically.  They were the highlight of the book for me.

The other saving grace of the work was how clear it was that Mantel had done her research. I learned a lot about the period and about London, and the book made the history of the time come alive more completely than any history text I’ve ever read. When you read about these things in history class, it seems so brief, concise, and altered. Binary, really. One minute, they were a Catholic country, and the next minute, they were Protestant. But this book shows just how long, drawn out, and completely hypocritical the whole thing was.  One minute, Sir Thomas More is torturing reformists and people who had the gall to circulate the Bible in English (in England… just let that sink in for a minute, that that was a crime) and by the end of the book, More is being executed for treason/heresy.  There are a lot of executions in the book, and almost all of them are for people following their own beliefs about religion, and not the ones that the government was (that day) shoving down their throats.  All I can say is, in this environment, it’s no wonder the pilgrims were headed to the New World less than 100 years later. Being burned alive for saying the communion wafers/bread is not really the body of Christ is a bit extreme, yes?

So, this book was a disappointment. Add to that, the fact that it was really long (604 pages) and I was glad to be finished with it.  I’m disappointed I didn’t like it more, because I thought perhaps I would read the second one.  I don’t think I have the energy, unfortunately.  If you’re really obsessed with the Tudor era, and have a lot of patience to decipher dialogue with no tags, then you might enjoy this.  But expect it to take a while and feel incomplete at the end.

Also, if you’re curious (as I was), the Thomas Cromwell described in the book is distantly related to the Oliver Cromwell who took over England in the mid-17th century.  Oliver was Thomas’ sister’s grandson.  So he was Oliver’s great-uncle, I think.  It’s kind of amazing to think of a family coming from absolute obscurity (no money or noble pedigree) and having one be chief adviser to the King, and then a relative be ‘Lord Protector’ and de facto dictator of that same country.  And they say there is no upward movement in the British class system.

Book Review: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

After hearing about this book a few times through my life, mostly in connection with the fatwa and ensuing controversy surrounding its publication, I finally bought The Satanic Verses a few months ago.  In September, after the horrible attacks at the US Embassy, Salman Rushdie was in the news again. Firstly, because he has a new memoir that just came out, called Joseph Anton, all about the time he spent under guard once the Ayatollah announced the bounty on his head.  Also, because a religious group in Iran has somehow decided to blame all of the horrors connected with The Innocence of Muslims and ensuing violence on Salman Rushdie and his nearly 25-year-old novel.  I’m not sure how they came to that connection, but I am extremely ignorant about fatwas in general.  At any rate, they decided to increase the reward for killing Rushdie from 2.8 million to 3.3 million dollars.  If you’re going to kill someone for a crazy religious reason then money shouldn’t be that big of a factor, should it?  Also, if you’re going to kill someone for money, and 2.8 million isn’t enough for you, why would 3.3 million be? I mean, it’s a lot of money, but…I’m confused by their motives.  And their logic.  It does not resemble our earth logic.  Anyway, I decided now would be a great time to read the book and see what the fuss is about.

First a warning to everyone thinking of reading this book: It’s not an easy read.  I’m not saying it was unpleasant; I actually really enjoy Rushdie’s style, which verges on stream-of-consciousness without crossing the line into Joycean incomprehensibility. What the book does is demand a lot out of you.  You have to really pay attention. You have to remember and keep track of lots of characters from modern London, modern India, 7th century Arabia and a few other places, times, and people. It’s a lot of work.  There is slang, references, and symbolism that is not something the average American would know, and I think unless you’re intimately familiar with Muslim culture and Indian culture a lot is lost on you.  I spent half my time on the Wiki for the Ayatollah Al Khamenei, Muhammad, Rushdie, India, Mecca, etc. etc.  If you want to get even half of what he’s talking about, you have to either know it already, or look it up. You can’t just ignore a lot of it and hope it wont be brought up again.  On the other hand, even though I get the feeling that I only understood about 30% of the cultural references Rushdie makes, I don’t feel like reading the book was at any point a waste of time. It was a learning experience, and his writing style is rewarding enough on its own that you don’t feel bad for not knowing what the fuck is happening half the time.  Just know that he is, like the best college professors, going to talk fast and expect you to keep up. You have to put the work in with this book.

The story starts with two Indian men, both actors, falling from the sky. One (Saladin Chamcha) characterizes himself as an Englishman (right down to the bowler hat on his head as he falls), the other (Gibreel Farishta) is a Bollywood/Indian cinema superstar. Above them, a commercial airplane has just been blown apart by terrorists over the English Channel.  They fall to Earth and they live.

Just take in that beginning for a moment and you’ll notice quite a few things that characterize the book.

1-Multiculturalism.  This book takes place in different settings and times and deals with multiple religions.  Like London, and like Rushdie, it is an amalgam of different cultures and the struggles inherent when they coexist (or try to).

2-Magical Realism. I think Rushdie must be a big fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and similar writers.  This is not a realistic novel, and that’s obvious even from the tiny description I’ve given you.  The book also features a man transformed into an angel with a trumpet that shoots wrath-of-god fire and brimstone, a man transformed into a demon/satyr with hooves and horns, a woman clothed in golden butterflies, a ghost riding a flying carpet, a ghost of the first man to try to climb Everest solo, and the parting of the Arabian Sea.  I sometimes think magical realism is science fiction without the explanation.  If when strange and crazy things happen in fiction you feel you require an explanation, a logical reasoning, then this book is not for you.  You sort of just have to let go and accept that this main character is now sprouting horns and fur, or controlling the weather of London.  But at the same time, there’s never any real way of telling what is truly happening and what is just metaphor or allegory or schizophrenic delusion.

3-Struggling with immigrant identity. This is a huge part of Saladin’s story. He comes to England at a young age and hopes to be truly assimilated.  Throughout the story, though, he fails to become truly English. He isn’t treated as an Englishman, even though he feels more stereotypically and quintessentially English than a lot of others he meets.  After decades of trying to fit into this new culture and have this new culture embrace him (right down to marrying an English woman with noble connections), he finally realizes that it’s not working.  He has to acknowledge India as a part of him.  Other characters, English, Indian, etc., seem to struggle with accepting or rejecting the culture into which they have born. Rushdie does an amazing job of illustrating the constant remaking of our own identities.  Several of the English people (especially the women) want to distance themselves from English culture, seeing only the bad in it the same way that Saladin sees the good.

Other themes spread out through the book, taking on whole chapters, and then disappearing, only to resurface toward the end.  We drift in and out of time and space, reality and not.

The most controversial parts of the book were about Muhammad himself, only he is known as Mahound in this novel.  There are stories about his early life, and what seems to be an increasing corruption throughout his years.  There is another religious figure in the book, though I think she is purely fictional.  She is an epileptic prophet. Both of these characters claim that the Angel Gibreel (Gabriel) comes to them and speaks the word of God.  Rushdie makes it clear that what is happening is that their desires and their ideas pour into Gibreel and he echoes back what they want to hear.  Almost like they are demons possessing him, and when he has parroted back what they wanted the answer to be, they go skipping off and declare they have heard the word of God.  There is a particularly sacrilegious bit where Salman, a follower of Muhammad and the man chosen to write down these declarations from God, begins to alter them slightly to see if Muhammad will notice.  Surely he will notice if the written accounts don’t match what Gabriel has told him?  But he doesn’t, and Salman then knows that Muhammad is a fraud.  I can see why this would upset Muslims, though…overreaction much?

There is no way I can explain this entire novel.  There is no way I even understood this entire novel.  There is a whole section about this Imam, an exiled leader.  Apparently this is a thinly-disguised portrait of the Ayatollah Al Khamenei, but I was eight when he died and can’t say that I know much about him. So I completely missed out on this entire reference.  I have the feeling I only ‘got’ about 20-40% of the references in the book.  So I’ll just share a few of my thoughts as I read:

-There are literary mentions and little tidbits everywhere. There are quite a few Shakespeare references (especially Othello, which fits with the various couples comprised of Middle Eastern men and white English women), and he is clearly a fan of 1001 Nights/Arabian Nights.  Rushdie assumes his audience is incredibly well-read, and he drops in lines and references that most people wouldn’t get.  It was nice that I got some of them, and it did give me a feeling of being in on a conversation that incorporated lots of literature written over the last 500 years.  Similarly, there seems to be an ongoing conversation with immigrant stories and myths, referenced throughout the book.

-Rushdie and Zadie Smith–I haven’t done any research to back this up, but I’m guessing Zadie Smith is a Rushdie fan. I found a lot of similarity to her work in this, particularly White Teeth, which I read recently. Both are tales of modern London and the immigrants and English people living there. Both have large ensemble casts and speed through time and space from WWII to colonized Jamaica to 1980s Willesdon Green.  White Teeth features two characters, brothers, that reminded me somewhat of Saladin and Gibreel.  One embodies many of the clichés of the English, and becomes an atheist intellectual (much to the horror of his father, who sent him to India to become a proper Muslim), the other becomes a strict Muslim and takes up with a group of bow-tied young men who burn The Satanic Verses in protest (without reading it).  Since I haven’t researched it, she may have included this in her novel because she hates him, for all I know.  Either way, there are similarities.  I also think there are similarities (in both White Teeth and The Satanic Verses) to Dickens, and other Victorian novels that feature a huge range of characters and the ever-evolving London.  As Dickens was to Victorian London, I think these two (and probably others that I am not familiar with yet) speak for and about London and all of the history (good and bad) that makes it what it is today–a wonderful, dizzying, terrifying place that can contain the best and worst of humanity, with immeasurable depths of struggle and tension constantly boiling beneath the surface.

And a last note on Rushdie and women.  I read a lot of women authors.  I find that a lot of male authors either marginalize women into a few overused tropes (the virgin, the whore, the bitch)  or write them as men with breasts and long hair.  Salman Rushdie’s female characters are not the center of this book, but in every one of them there is a depth, a humanity, and a vulnerability that makes them whole and unique human beings.  He treats them all with respect, and expects the reader to do the same. I know he’s been married something like four times, but if his writing is anything to go by, it is obvious to me that he respects women and sees them as they are, not as something other or different or in any way able to be categorized and pigeon-holed. So I am glad for that.

After this epic long post, you may be wondering something.  What the fuck are the Satanic Verses? What’s with the title?  I had to look it up before I started, but it is also sort of explained in the book.

Muhammad was in the habit of going to the top of a mountain to meet the Angel Gabriel/Gibreel and receive instruction/the Word.  He and his followers were very disrespected in the beginning, coming from a polytheistic culture and advocating the belief in one god.  A local big wig offered Muhammad a deal–he should acknowledge the three famous local goddesses as part of his religion. These goddesses would be declared the daughters of Allah and would still be worshiped alongside him.  If Muhammad did this, their religion would be accepted and cared for. Muhammad went up to the mountain and talked with Gibreel and decided that sounded good to him. He repeated the new edict to his followers, who thought it went against everything he had told them thus far (fair point).  Pensive, he went back up the mountain and asked Gibreel about it.  He came back and announced that everything he had said before had not come from Gibreel but from Satan, speaking through him.  So the Satanic Verses are those words declaring these other goddesses to be real and to be worthy of worship in Islam.  I believe in Muslim cultures it is more commonly known as The Story of the Cranes, but that makes a far less interesting book title.

Obviously this was a challenging book, and I am not well-versed enough in much of what was discussed to pretend that I ‘got’ it all, understood every reference or allegory.  What I will say is that I enjoyed reading it, I love Rushdie’s style, I like his humor and his truth, and I feel that even if I can understand 10% of what he’s talking about, I will still think he’s worth reading.  I will also say, however, that the ending disappointed me.  It didn’t pull everything together into a cohesive whole as well as I would have liked.  I don’t need a happy ending, but this seemed like there were just too many balls for him to juggle and he dropped a few at the end.  But I highly recommend it, if you’ve got the energy to keep up!

Book Review: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

When the Man Booker Prize Long list was released in July, I went out and bought a few of the books. The Man Booker Long and Short list could possible renamed “Courtney’s birthday/Christmas list”, and still be very accurate. Want to find the best British fiction of the year? Go to the Man Booker lists, or the Orange Prize.  So that’s what I do.
This is one of the books I bought, knowing almost nothing about it until I picked it up to read a few weeks ago.  I kind of love picking up a book and having no expectations, no ideas of its writing style, genre, subject matter. I bought it based on it being on the Man Booker list, nothing else. I didn’t even read the sleeve copy before I bought it.  A move like that could be disaster, but I have faith in the people who make these lists.  And, it’s well deserved. I loved this book.

The plot is fairly straightforward and almost uneventful from the outside.  A retired man, Harold Fry, gets a letter from a former co-worker/friend, Queenie. He hasn’t seen or talked to her in 20 years. She writes to tell him she is dying of cancer.  He writes her a quick and un-emotional response and walks out to slip his letter into the post box.  And somehow he just keeps walking, perhaps trying to just have a nice walk at first.  He gradually realizes that his letter isn’t enough. There’s unfinished business between him and Queenie, and the letter can’t sum up what he wants to say to her or ask her.  He stops at a garage/petrol station for a snack and starts talking to the girl who works there. She tells him that her aunt had cancer and how important it is to stay positive, believe the other person can get better, etc.  Harold takes her idea to heart and he suddenly feels it entirely necessary to walk to see Queenie. He will walk and it will take a long time (he lives in Kingsbridge, over in the West Country, and Queenie is in a hospice at Berwick-on-Tweed, way up near Scotland) but as long as he is walking she will wait for him, and she will stay alive.

He continues his walk N.E., despite being completely unprepared. He is wearing yachting shoes, has no mobile phone or walking equipment. But he has made up his mind.

The rest of the book is the stress of this quest. There are good times and bad, there are inspiring people and hopeless people. Harold’s wife is completely thrown by his undertaking this epic journey to see another woman before she dies.

As he walks, Harold meets strangers and listens to their stories, he also examines his own memories of very painful parts of his life.  He is often overwhelmed by the emotional experience just as much as the physical. I don’t want to say more about how everything unfolds, but I will say that I cried quite a few times through the book.

It’s a lovely book, quiet and subtle and beautiful. I really enjoyed reading it, despite the simple plot and the genuineness of it. It was refreshingly simple, actually.

The whole journey, Harold’s and the reader’s, is cathartic and allows an expression of emotion and a slow examination of life and our individual struggles and pains throughout.  It’s really well done, the mirrored journeys. Harold slowly and methodically makes his way North and East. There are good days and bad. He stumbles and is injured; he gets back up and continues and things get better.  Repeat. Sounds like life to me.

I’m sure there is a lot of religious significance in this book. Harold is a pilgrim after all. He acquires followers, who bicker among themselves and eventually leave him behind. He begins to fast at one point. Unfortunately, I am thoroughly uneducated in Christian (or any other) mythology, so I am not able to recognize these themes when I read them. I know that it loosely parallels the book Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, but I haven’t gotten around to reading that yet either.  It’s not that high on the to do list, to be honest, because as important as it was to Christians in the 17th and 18th century, I’m not certain it would be of much interest to this 21st-century atheist. I don’t think it has the literary chops to make great reading, if you don’t believe in the ideology.  I could be wrong though, so I’ll probably read it one day. I got through Paradise Lost, after all.

Since the religious symbolism was utterly lost on me, I read this book as something realistic, but simultaneously surreal. Surreal in the same way that a lot of what people do to cope with modern society seems surreal and inexplicable. But at the same time, you understand why they do it because there is no sane way to deal with what life is.  Last year, a man was hitchhiking across America to work on a book about the kindness of people. That is surreal and strange. Then he was shot on the side of the road.  Strange and ironic.  Then it came out that he had injured himself to gain more publicity for the book.  With reality like that in mind, nothing seems too incredible to be true. Harold Fry, even in undertaking this unexpected journey, seems to be just as normal and logical as anyone else who can see the world for what it is.