Saturday, September 29, 2012

BookerMarks Podcast #2: Bring Up the Bodies

Those of you following our BookerMarks discussion of the Man Booker Prize nominees will be happy to know that podcast #2 is now available.  In this installment, we discuss Hilary Mantel's shortlisted title, Bring Up the Bodies, and next week we will be talking about Tan Twan Eng's The Garden of Evening Mists.  And just so y'all know, none of this would be possible without our amazing editor/organizer, Aaron.  You can check out his literary musings over at Opinionless!  Other contributors to BookerMarks include: The Literary Hoarders, A Reader and a Rider, and 40 Gigs and a Mule

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

     Hilary Mantel's brilliant sequel to her 2009 novel, Wolf Hall, has once again earned her a spot on the Man Booker Prize shortlist.  Bring Up the Bodies is a continuance of Thomas Cromwell's story as it intersects with Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn.  As the novel opens, it is the fall of 1535 - Former Queen Katherine of Aragon is on her deathbed and current Queen, Anne Boleyn, is also inching dangerously close to death.  She has made many promises in her relentless efforts to become Queen, yet the most important promise - to produce a male heir to the throne - has yet to be fulfilled.  In the meantime, rumors have begun to circulate that perhaps Anne has not been faithful to her husband, and that, perhaps their daughter, Elizabeth, was fathered by another man. 

     Pretty soon, the swirling rumors reach the ears of the King, and although Henry is outraged at the prospect of his wife's extramarital encounters, he also sees it as an opportunity to rid himself of Anne Boleyn, who has turned out to be more trouble than pleasure for Henry.  And of course, "Queens come and go," so Henry enlists the help of Master Secretary Thomas Cromwell to remove Anne Boleyn of her position so that a new (and hopefully more fertile) Queen can take her place.  Luckily for Cromwell, "the affairs of the whole realm are whispered in his ear," so the process of Anne's removal is expedited.  In fact, it takes just about a month for Cromwell to compile a case against Anne, have her tried in court, and finally beheaded.  The crimes against the infamous Queen include treason, incest, and adultery, and her trial and subsequent death prove to be extremely consequential for the Tudors.  Many others are sent to their deaths because of what they may or may not have said and done with Anne Boleyn, and Henry's Court is in disarray after living in the midst of potential conspirators and traitors.

     But even before the death of his second wife Henry's lust has found a new target - Jane Seymour.  Miss Seymour is known for her reputation of purity, innocence, and humility, and Henry would love nothing more than to marry her immediately and impregnate her with (fingers crossed!) a son.  And Henry is the King, so, with the help of the ever-faithful Cromwell, England has a new Queen less than 2 weeks after the death of Anne Boleyn.

     To British history buffs, the Tudors' story is nothing new.  Henry VIII was one of the most infamous and highly-discussed English monarchs, and his relationships with his (count em') 6 wives have been fairly well documented throughout history.  But Mantel isn't really interested in Henry or Anne or Jane or Katherine.  Of course they're all important players, but none of them compare to the true mastermind of these Tudor events.  Thomas Cromwell was always there, quietly listening in the shadows, writing everything down and memorizing every single detail of the King's personal and private affairs so that he would be prepared for anything and everything imaginable.  Thomas Cromwell made things happen before the King even realized he wanted them to happen.  He's been called cold, cruel, calculated, and evil.  But he was also probably one of the most intelligent and well-informed men in Tudor history - despite what he may have accomplished or destroyed with such knowledge.

     Either way, Bring Up the Bodies offers readers a new perspective on Henry VIII's relationship with Anne Boleyn - one that focuses on the pragmatic aspect of the surrounding events rather than the emotional or romantic facets.  As Hilary Mantel has said, Cromwell "is still in need of attention from biographers,"but even the most skilled biographer may have trouble bringing Cromwell's story to life compared to Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

     Mantel is currently writing the third installment of this Henry VIII trilogy, which is titled The Mirror and the LightBring Up the Bodies is on the 2012  Man Booker Prize shortlist (which she won in 2009 for Wolf Hall), and The Mirror and the Light is probably already nominated for the 2013 prize.  I hope so.  And I hope she wins!

This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks

Overall Rating:


Sunday, September 23, 2012

BookerMarks Podcast!

If any of y'all have been following the other blog I contribute to, BookerMarks, then you'll be happy to know that our first podcast discussion of Will Self's Man Book Prize shortlisted novel, Umbrella, is now available for your listening pleasure.  Check it out here!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Umbrella by Will Self

     Buried deep under a mess of contractions, grammatical debris, and indecipherable Cockney slang lies a story - a nouveau modernist tale that reads kind of like a hybrid of Dada, Faulkner, Eliot, and Dr. Seuss.  In Will Self's Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel, we are introduced to Zack Busner, a psychiatrist at Friern Hospital in London.  Busner and his staff primarily deal with victims of Encephalitis Lethargica - an epidemic that spread around the time of World War I and leaves its victims in a catatonic state.  Busner has been treating these patients for years with no luck, but eventually, Audrey Death begins to respond to his treatments.

     Audrey has been a patient at Friern for longer than Busner has been there, and as she slowly emerges from her catatonic state and the clouds of her mind clear away, Busner is shocked at how difficult and challenging it is to rehabilitate post-encephalitic patients in a modern world. While Audrey has absorbed more of her surroundings than Busner previously thought, most of her thoughts are stuck in the time before her affliction, and it is the hospital staff's unenviable task to modernize and rehabilitate these Sleeping Beauty patients.  After a few weeks of this, Busner begins to wonder if perhaps patients like Audrey would be "better off" if their rotting brains were left alone, but it's too late to turn back now.

     Told in the alternating voices of Audrey and Dr. Busner throughout who knows how many time periods, Umbrella should be a compelling read about war, modernity, sex, gender, experimental medicine, and the lack of accountability in the mental health system - but it's not.  Well, it might actually be about those things, but unless you're armed with a pretty highfalutin vocabulary, a working knowledge of Cockney accents and London slang, and the 3D decoder from the accompanying Umbrella cereal box, then you might just find yourself completely lost in the literary rain without a literate umbrella.

This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks

Overall Rating:

Friday, September 14, 2012

The All of It by Jeannette Haien

     Father Declan de Loughry has lived a relatively quiet life in a quaint little Irish town.  When he's not serving his parishioners, he's usually fishing for salmon and meditating.  As Haien's novel opens, Father Declan is fishing for salmon with very little luck and distracted by thoughts of Kevin and Enda Dennehy.  The Dennehy's have been a staple in their small community for decades, and Kevin has just unexpectedly passed away.  But Father Declan is not preoccupied by grief - yes, Kevin's death is tragic, but even more worrisome is the confession that Kevin made to his priest just before his death.  Unfortunately, Kevin died before he could finish the story, so it's up to his wife, Enda, to deliver the rest of the tale and confess "the all of it."

     As Enda reveals secret after secret, Father Declan is overwhelmed by truth.  Right before his death, Kevin confessed that he and Enda were never actually married, but he died before he got a chance to explain.  Now it's up to Enda to reveal the truth - and the truth is painful, tragic, and controversial.  Father Declan is so astounded at the depth and nature of her story that he is unsure how to handle the truth.  His first instinct is to point fingers and condemn, but as Enda reveals more complications and hidden corners in her story, Father Declan's opinion of the Dennehy's shifts between amazement, horror, sympathy, and compassion.

     The All of It is a very small, but moving story built at the intersection of religion, morality, and circumstance.  Father Declan's first reaction to Enda's confession is horror and embarrassment.  He spits heavy words at Enda, saying "I'm personally mortified for the two of you.  What have you been thinking these many years...before God with your sin...and deceiving your neighbors-" (p. 12).  But the truth is more complicated than he ever imagined and by the end of the novel, Father Declan must face his own moral dilemma.

     Written in 1986 but still incredibly relevant, Jeannette Haien's debut novel is a compelling examination of a case where hard and fast religious boundaries are blurred by circumstance and tragedy - where blame is elusive and sin is uncertain.  Haien's novel may not feel overtly powerful, but its grace and candor cannot be overlooked as readers are reminded that grief, guilt, desire, and empathy are profoundly complex human emotions, and that morality can prove to be baffling and indecipherable just when we think we've mastered it.

Overall Rating:

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Man Booker Prize shortlist announced

     As you know, I've been working on a secondary blog, BookerMarks, with a few of my blogger friends to read through the MB Prize longlist.  For the past 6 weeks, myself and six other bloggers have been reading through the nominees and attempting to predict the shortlist.  Well, today the wait is over.  This morning the MB Prize judges announced the shortlist, and uh, let's just say that there were a few surprises.  For example, Will Self's novel, Umbrella, ranked consistently low among BookerMarks readers, but it is on the shortlist.  And the overwhelming favorite, The Teleportation Accident, didn't make it.  But then again, The Man Booker Prize is a British literary award, and I'm not a British audience.  Anyway, without further ado, here is the 2012 shortlist:

Narcopolis - Jeet Thayil

Umbrella - Will Self

The Lighthouse - Alison Moore

Bring Up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel

Swimming Home - Deborah Levy

The Garden of Evening Mists - Tam Twan Eng

     What do you think of this year's shortlist?  To see reviews of titles on both the longlist and shortlist, head on over to BookerMarks.  Over the next month, we'll be keeping a close eye on the shortlisted titles as we read through the list, but for now, check out our Shortlist Standings to see how we've ranked to eligible titles so far.  The official winner will be announced on October 16.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Skios by Michael Frayn

     On the Greek island of Skios, guests of the Fred Toppler Foundation are eagerly awaiting the keynote address of world-renowned scientist, Dr. Norman Wilfred.  But the Dr. Wilfred who appears is not at all like they imagined - especially for Nikki, the overworked, under-appreciated and exhausted organizer of this high-profile event.  Nikki is stunned to find that Dr. Wilfred is young, handsome, and extremely charismatic rather than the middle-aged, formal academic she was expecting to meet.  In fact, Dr. Wilfred is so unbelievably personable, considering that he is a highly-acclaimed, brilliant scientist and researcher, that Nikki and the rest of the guests are stunned by his charm and wit.  Dr. Norman Wilfred is seemingly a godsend for the stuffy, staunch Foundation, but there's just one problem....the man claiming to be Dr. Wilfred isn't Dr. Wilfred at all.  He's just a young, bored, spontaneous man who happened to be mistaken for the distinguished scientist.  Most normal people would quickly correct a mistaken identity, but not Oliver Fox.  Oliver is tire of being Oliver, so why not be Dr. Wilfred for a few days?  Everyone seems convinced enough.

     Across the island, a young girl named Georgie has just arrived at her vacation villa expecting to meet Oliver for a long, possibly romantic retreat, but instead of the handsome young Oliver, she finds the highly confused and overwhelmed Dr. Wilfred.  He claims to be some sort of doctor who has arrived on the island to deliver a lecture, so why the hell is he in her villa?  And where in the world could Oliver be?  Such are the questions raised in Michael Frayn's longlisted novel of farcical comedy and absurdity.

     Skios isn't at all what I expected for a Man Booker Prize contender.  It's outrageous, silly, and, well, kind of like a Monty Python sketch.  But at the same time, it's also subtly poignant and thought-provoking.  Skios reminds us that our identities are completely dependent on others' perceptions of us, whether we like it or not.  And no matter how much you believe that "only you can be you," well.....all it really takes to screw that up is one case of mistaken identity and a guy like Oliver to play along.  It's that easy.

     And as if the plot line weren't funny and ridiculous enough, the book is also filled with a very colorful and eccentric supporting cast.  From Sheiks to former showgirls, the cast of Skios provide all the tools you need to properly make fun of academia and intellectuals.  And what better place to do it than the birthplace of philosophy and western civilization? 

     I must applaud Michael Frayn for successfully writing such an involved and complicated comedy, but sometimes the comedic elements did feel a bit overwhelming, especially toward the ending, where everything falls apart and comes together at the same time.  It's basically like literary fireworks - loud, overwhelming, and extrasensory - but incredibly entertaining nonetheless.

This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks on 9/9/12

Overall Rating:

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Decatur Book Festival 2012 Report

     Well, I have returned home safely from Atlanta where I attended the Decatur Book Festival!  The DBF is the largest independent book festival in the country, by the way, and it gets better and better every year.  This year featured over 300 authors, including Erin Morgenstern, Chelsea Cain, and Julie Otsuka.  The majority of the events were scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, and unfortunately, there was a great deal of schedule overlapping so I wasn't able to see everyone.

     Highlights from this trip include meeting Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia and The Monsters of Templeton, and Sheila Turnage, who wrote the charming new children's novel, Three Times Lucky.  Turnage read a few chapters from her novel and answered some adorable children's questions.  She also mentioned that there will be a sequel to Three Times Lucky, which I am already anxiously awaiting.  Lauren Groff's presentation was much more intimate and conversational, and while I have not read any of her novels or her short story collection, I am now the proud owner of both her novels, which I am looking forward to reading...eventually!

     I was also able to attend a reading/book discussion by Gail Tsukiyama, which was incredibly fascinating.  I really enjoyed reading The Samurai's Garden, and now I'm looking forward to Tsukiyama's newest novel, A Hundred Flowers.  And I have to say, while I wouldn't really consider myself a huge Meg Cabot fan (I've only read one of her novels), her presentation was probably the most entertaining of all.  She is absolutely hilarious, down-to-earth, and extremely personable.  Seriously, you should have seen the line of folks lined up to get their copies of The Princess Diaries signed.  It was nuts!  But it was a small line compared to that of Captain Underpants series author Dav Pilkey.  He must have signed over 1000 books!  The line wrapped around a city block and Mr. Pilkey was at the signing table for hours.  I must applaud that level of commitment to his fan base, because those kids were hopped up on popsicles and funnel cakes, screaming, and climbing trees while he patiently signed books in the 95 degree heat and humidity. What a stand-up guy!

     I was also able to see Michael Connelly and Michael Kortya, but I've never read any of their books, so it wasn't quite as exciting as the others.  It's impossible to see everyone, and I regret the fact that I was unable to meet Erin Morgenstern, Amber Dermont, Julie Otsuka, and Rob Reid.  My husband just finished (and highly enjoyed) Reid's new book, Year Zero, by the way.  Plus, it's just so easy to get distracted by the tents and vendor tables.  Literally, y'all, tents FILLED with books that are irresistably cheap, not to mention the book-related crafts, such as handmade journals and bookmarks, the amazing food, and free stuff.  So much free stuff!  One of the reasons why this post is a day late is because it took me forever to unpack everything I accumulated in Atlanta.  And of course, I managed a quick trip to H&M, but I'm so proud of myself because I only bought 2 things! 

     And just so y'all know, the DBF is completely free (unless you buy a ton of stuff), kid-friendly, family-friendly, and oh so fun.  For a bibliophile like myself, it's like a little corner of heaven, except that heaven is probably not as hot and humid as Georgia.  But such is the nature of summertime in the south!