Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Pure by Andrew Miller

     It's 1785 and John-Baptiste Baratte, a French engineer, has just arrived in Paris to begin a new job.  He has been hired by the Minister to the King to clean up Les Innocents, an old, crumbling cemetery that is literally overflowing with bodies.  In fact, the cemetery is so overcrowded that the graveyard walls have disintegrated and corpses are spilling into people's back yards.  The entire city smells like decay, and some people have even fallen ill due to the toxic air.  John-Baptiste arrives on the scene and is shocked by the state of the cemetery, but optimistic about his ability to improve Paris.

     Pretty soon, however, Monsieur Baratte finds that the task is much more challenging than he first expected.  He thought his presence as the city's purifier would be a breath of fresh air to the Parisians, but they are strangely suspicious of Baratte's intentions.  Les Innocents is rotting the city from the inside out, but the townspeople are curiously attached to it and hesitant to interrupt the eternal slumber of the dead.  As the project progresses, Baratte finds himself increasingly paranoid and alone, despite his efforts to purge the city of its unsavory past.  Baratte finds some solace in the friendship of Armand, a church organist, and Heloise, a Parisian prostitute, but it's not enough to make him forget that most of the city, including his workers, despise him.

     They say that Rome wasn't built in a day and Andrew Miller's novel reminds us that neither was Paris.  The city of romance, the city of lights was, in Baratte's day, a city of filth and poverty, and even though his presence means progress for the city, Baratte finds that traditions are even harder overcome than stacks of bodies.

     Pure is a very fascinating piece of historical fiction.  While John-Baptiste Baratte is a fictional character, the story of Les Innocents is solidly grounded in Paris history, and Miller's re-imagining of this volatile social and economic time is beautifully rendered, despite the unsavory subject matter.  But even so, the book sometimes felt lethargic and detached, and Baratte's personal story felt somewhat withdrawn from the novel's themes.  Perhaps this is due to his own misgivings about the task and his insecurity as a force of change and momentum.  Despite this, Pure offers a bittersweet journey to 18th century Paris, and the subject matter, while grim and sinister, couldn't be more perfect for this time of year.

Overall Rating:

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Favorite Fiction: Classics for Fall Reading

I don't know about you, but something about cool, overcast fall days makes me want to snuggle into a giant chair with a mug of hot chocolate and a nice piece of classic literature.  Maybe it's the introspective nature of the season, or the longer nights, but for me, autumn is a time for classic reading.  Here are a few of my favorite works of classic literature that are just perfect for this time of year:

Friday, October 19, 2012

Swimming Home podcast

The Man Booker Prize hype is over and Hilary Mantel has taken home her trophy, but for those of you who are interested, here is the final podcast in our BookerMarks podcast series, where my fellow collaborators analyze and discuss Deborah Levy's shortlisted novel, Swimming Home.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

2012 Man Booker Prize Winner Announced!

Congratulations to Hilary Mantel, the recipient of this year's Man Booker Prize.  Mantel is the first British woman to win the prize twice...the only other authors who have won twice are Peter Carey and J.M. Coetzee.

If you've been following me and my collaborative bloggers on BookerMarks, then you also know that we successfully predicted Mantel as this year's winner.  Yaaay!

To read more about the big announcement, head on over to the Man Booker Prize's website!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Favorite Fiction: 2012 Man Booker Prize Contenders

Those of you who have been keeping up with me on BookerMarks already know that 6 other bloggers and I have been closely following the Man Booker Prize nominees since the longlist was announced in July.  The original longlist of 12 titles was eventually whittled down to 6 finalists, and the winner will be announced tomorrow evening.  Of the 12 longlisted titles, I was able to read and review 10, but based on my reviews and ratings, here are Hooked Bookworm's top 5 Man Booker Prize-nominated titles:

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

     We all know that there is a deep connection between memory and the senses.  Sights, scents, and sounds can trigger all sorts of complicated emotional responses, but for the main character in Alison Moore's Man Booker shortlisted novel, memory is hypersensitive, puzzling, and often devastating.  Futh is a quiet, middle-aged man on Holiday in Germany after a recent separation from his wife, Angela.  Their marriage has ended before Futh can accurately process exactly why, so he takes a short "vacation" to clear his head and try to figure out where things went wrong.  Along the way, he stays in a small, locally-operated hotel referred to as Hellhaus.  At the hotel, Futh finds the staff to be quite peculiar, especially Ester, who operates the hotel with her husband, Bernard.  As Futh embarks upon his painful and tedious journey of memory and self-exploration, we are alternately transported back to Hellhaus, where Futh's presence has triggered a completely separate, but somehow connected resurgence of memories and abandoned thoughts.

     As Futh scratches the surface of why his relationship with Angela failed, he is unpleasantly reminded of the other various failed relationships throughout his life, including that of his father, various neighbors, friends, relatives, and of course, his wife.  But while Futh is picking at old wounds, he is continually reminded of the deepest and most painful memory - Futh's mother abandoned him and his father during Futh's childhood, and he has never fully recovered from the tragic abandonment, probably because he never understood why his mother left in the first place.  Futh is left with certain scents and images to remind him of his long-gone mother, but most of all, he is entranced by a silver lighthouse that once contained a vial of his mother's perfume.

     While Futh originally set out on a journey to achieve peace, quiet, and possibly clarity, he finds himself increasingly and mysteriously overwhelmed by the scent of oranges, cigarette smoke, violets, and camphor.  All of these scents trigger various memories for both Futh and Ester, but neither are aware of how they intersect and why the emotional association is so strong.  Alison Moore's novel is a melancholy portrayal of loneliness, abandonment, restlessness, and regret, but Futh and Ester's stories are quietly powerful, and their memories serve as reminders of the events in our past from which our senses will never let us escape.

This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks on 10/14/12

Overall Rating:

The Lighthouse podcast

The fifth installment of the BookerMarks podcast series is here!  To listen to my fellow BookerMarkers discussing Alison Moore's shortlisted novel, The Lighthouse, head on over to BookerMarks now!  I plan to have my own review up by the end of the day...

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Narcopolis podcast

Over at BookerMarks my collaborators and I have read/reviewed/discussed 4 out of the 6 novels on the 2012 Man Booker Prize shortlist.  This week, we gathered to discuss Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis.  To listen to our discussion of Thayil's controversial novel, head on over to BookerMarks now!

We also recently finished our podcast/discussion of Tan Twan Eng's novel, The Garden of Evening Mists. You can check that out over at BookerMarks as well.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

     Jeet Thayil's Man Booker Prize-nominated novel is set in Bombay, India during the 1970s and 80s, where the city's slums are overrun with dogs, children, and detriment, and the opium dens are always full.  Narcopolis chronicles the lives of several addicts during the cultural shift from opium to cheaply-made heroin.  We meet Rashid, who owns and operates the opium shop along with the help of Dimple, a eunuch prostitute known for making the best pipe in the city.  Our narrator, Dom, wafts in and out of the story, and slowly, through flickering opium-blurred images, we see a cultural portrait emerge - one of religion, gender, sex, tradition, addiction, and the fine balance between pleasure and pain.

     Narcopolis explores the multifaceted nature of the "lowest of the low, prostitutes and criminals and drug addicts, people with no faith in god or man, no faith in anything except the truth of their own senses."  And Narcopolis is indeed a novel of the senses.  It's not always pleasant or comfortable, but Thayil's masterful, poetic prose is impossible to ignore - primarily because it will make you squirm and cringe.  But at the same time, Thayil's language is honest, sorrowful, and filled with simple, but wise observations about the relationship between freedom and addiction.

     Jeet Thayil has said in recent interviews that he was himself an opium addict for 20 years, and this perspective has allowed him to write a book that is neither condemning nor glorifying drug culture, but rather presenting its reality from the perspective of the addicts.  The characters are tortured and miserable, but they're also sympathetic and hopeful.  With Narcopolis, Thayil enlightens readers to the true nature of obsession and addiction with no political agenda or judgements.  For these characters, the addiction is consuming, but it does not snuff out their humanity.  Only Thayil's empathy and memory can inject the hopeless and destitute wanderers of Narcopolis with the compassion and understanding that their reputations so often belie.

This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks on 10/8/12

Overall Rating:

Friday, October 5, 2012

More Halloween books for all ages

If you liked Hooked Bookworm's list of Halloween books for all ages, the check out the updated version to see more scary books for the most sinister time of year!!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

     In Tan Twan Eng's Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel, Yun Ling is desperately trying to preserve her memories before a neurological illness destroys her mind and body.  Through this act of reconstruction and preservation, the horrifying experience of Yun Ling's life in a WWII Japanese internment camp is revealed, as well as her heartbreaking tale of sacrifice, survival and recovery.  As the sole survivor of the war camp, Yun Ling is unable to forgive herself for leaving her sister behind, and seeks to preserve her memory through the construction of an elaborate Japanese garden.  Soon, she begins an apprenticeship with Aritomo - a reclusive, but highly-respected Japanese artist and gardener.  Aritomo was once the gardener to the Emperor, but he eventually settled in Malaya, where he meets Yun Ling, who is still incredibly suspicious of and frightened by the Japanese, but willing to endure Aritomo's teachings for the sake of her sister's memory.

     But soon, Yun Ling's apprenticeship with Aritomo develops into a quiet, but complicated romance, and she finds out that their paths have intersected since her childhood.  Despite their intimacy, Aritomo is reluctant to share his history with his lover, and the couple compensates with a bond over nature and art.  Aritomo soon reveals that he is a master of the art of horimono tattoos - a practice that is both sacred and controversial - and he recruits Yun Ling as his next subject.  The tattoo takes months to complete, and when it is finished, Yun Ling is mesmerized by the skillful design of the tattoo.  It is certainly beautiful, but there is something mysterious and cryptic about the patterns and markings.  As Yun Ling completes her biographical account, she is enlightened to the true meaning of the horimono  - a discovery that answers questions from long ago and allows her to finally complete her long-awaited journey of healing.

     The Garden of Evening Mists is a tender story of grief, faith, sacrifice, and redemption, and the plot is well-crafted, but for me, this is not the Man Booker Prize winner.  As some other critiques of this novel have stated, the second half of the story is disappointingly predictable and the character development is somewhat underwhelming.  Even so, The Garden of Evening Mists is a fascinating depiction of war-era Malaya - a period of WWII history that is often overlooked.  Tan Twan Eng skillfully weaves the violence of war with the beauty and delicacy of Aritomo's garden to create a story that is quite a sensory experience.  The lush, vibrant landscape becomes the novel's most compelling character and reminds readers of the harmonious healing powers that nature can exude.

This review was simultaneously published on BookerMarks on 10/2/12

Overall Rating: