2012 Book 159: The Garden of the Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng
Reason for Reading: Short-listed for the 2012 Booker Prize
Having suffered through a Japanese slave-camp during WWII, Yun Ling Teoh, a young Chinese-descent lawyer in Malaysia, carries around a lot of anger against the Japanese. However, she’d made a promise to her deceased sister that she would build a Japanese garden, so she reluctantly visits Aritomo – the only Japanese gardener in Malaysia. Aritomo refuses to design a garden for Yun Ling, but he offers to take her on as his apprentice so that she may design one herself. Yun Ling learns to let go of her anger as her friendship with Aritomo grows. But Aritomo has his own secrets.
How can I express what an amazing book this was? Sure, it had a couple of slowish spots (it WAS, after all, a book about gardening) but the story is magical. The historical and cultural backdrop is intriguing (I learned a lot while reading, but didn’t feel like I was being “taught”). Because the book takes place in two different times (current day and shortly after WWII), the story unfolds gracefully – allowing the reader to learn the story of Aritomo and Yun Ling at just the right rate…but yet somehow the time also blends together giving an impression of continuity that is particular to Eastern philosophy. On top of that, the more I learned about the story, the more fascinated I was by the two characters. This book is definitely worth your time.
Interpretive note with possible spoilers
One thing that struck me while I was reading this book is that I noticed an inconsistency in what the narrator (Yun Ling) was saying. At first, I wasn’t sure whether the author had made a mistake or if he had purposely introduced inconsistencies to show that Yun Ling had either an unreliable memory or was hiding something. I finally came to the later conclusion (though the unreliable memory was possible too). I think it’s fascinating that such inconsistencies added to the overall effect rather than subtracting from it. I applaud Tan Twan Eng for his careful writing of this book. 🙂
I have joined The Complete Booker blog challenge so that I can keep track of and discuss books that have won or been nominated for the Man Booker Prize.
The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje (1992)
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel (2002)
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (2009)
A Bend in the River, by V.S. Naipaul (1979)
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
In the Country of Men, by Hisham Matar (2006)
Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel (2012)
The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman (2001)
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon (2003)
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke (2004)
Skios, by Michael Frayn (2012)
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce (2012)
2012 Book 130: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce
Reason for Reading: This is the third Booker longlist book for 2012 that I’ve read.
When Harold Fry gets a letter from an old friend who’s dying of cancer, he decides in a leap of faith to take a pilgrimage across England to “save” her. Along the way, he meets many interesting characters and learns to listen to their troubles. He also has time to reminisce about his past…some happy memories, but mostly memories of things he should have done better. This is a bitter-sweet story with deep characters and a good message. The type of person who would love this book is sentimental, and loves reminiscent stories about past mistakes and new beginnings.
Personally, I’m not that sort of person. Bitter-sweet stories tend to make my eyes tear up, and then I get angry at myself for being so infernally hormonal. 🙂 Stories in which people reminisce about past mistakes also are a little depressing to me. I’ve always felt that we should learn from the past, but not waste energy with regrets. Everybody makes mistakes. If we regret them, do something about it. If we can’t do something about it, accept it as a part of our pasts that makes us who we are today. Try not to make the mistake again. But maybe I just feel that way because I don’t have anything worth regretting yet, I don’t know. *shrug*
This was a cute book, but I don’t see it winning the Booker.
2012 Book 126: Skios, by Michael Frayn (8/29/2012)
Reason for Reading: I’m trying to get through at least SOME of the Booker longlist before the winner is announced. This is one of the 5 easily available in the US, and one of the 3 which is available in audiobook format (since I seem to be limited in my ability to physically read books lately, this seemed the best place to start).
Dr. Norman Wilfred has flown to Skios to give a distinguished speech to a group of rich academics at the Toppler Foundation. Due to an unfortunate string of coincidences, he is whisked off to a villa while a con artist, Oliver Fox, takes his place at the Toppler gathering. At first blush, this may seem to be only a farcical comedy of errors. Fun is poked at the distinguished empty-headedness of academia, at silly assumptions people make when they don’t have all the information (which, of course, they never do), and at the openness of people to accept whatever is said–as long as it is said by a charismatic person. However, I can see why this book was chosen for the Booker longlist–upon a more careful reading this book has a much deeper undercurrent. It asks questions about identity and about chance Eureka! moments. I found the ease with with Oliver Fox moved into Norman Wilfred’s life almost believable because that IS how academia works sometimes. Sometimes, it IS more about how charming you are than about what’s actually coming out of your mouth. Sometimes it IS more about your name and about who people think you are than about who you ACTUALLY are. I understand that this book isn’t for everybody…but I’m a person who doesn’t generally read farcical novels, and I enjoyed this one immensely.
2012 Book 109: The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman (7/19/2012)
Reason for Reading: I was interested to see where Pullman was taking the Paradise Lost allegory
Lyra and Will finish up their journey (started in The Golden Compass) while desperately trying to dodge enemies and make the right choices. I enjoyed this book even less than the second book, The Subtle Knife, though The Golden Compass was in the “ok” range. I just didn’t feel attached to the characters of Lyra and Will, and I didn’t care what decisions they made. There was WAY too much Buddha-on-the-mountaintop both in the narrative and in the dialogue. I realize Pullman had a message he was trying to portray, and it wasn’t a bad message (if you ignore all the hateful representations of organized religion)–he wanted to say that you should enjoy and live life here on Earth. What is happening in the present is what is important. Build the “Kingdom of Heaven” here on Earth instead of always denying our fleshy bodies as we look to our afterlife. This is a reasonable message, but I felt as if I was pounded over the head with it–to the point that it was distracting from the action. Furthermore, the action seemed to stop half-way through the book, followed by a long philosophical denouement. I WAS interested in his message, and that’s why I continued the book after I didn’t like the second…but it was a long haul for me. I don’t really understand why this series is as popular as it is? But that’s just my opinion. *shrug*
A note on Pullman’s Message
In his 1998 article in The Guardian, The Darkside of Narnia, Pullman stated his opinion about the Narnia series: “there is no doubt in my mind that it is one of the most ugly and poisonous things I’ve ever read.”
He didn’t like Narnia because of Lewis’ blatant Message. The ironic thing is, Pullman’s message is JUST as blatant, and in many ways just as hateful as he considers Narnia’s message to be (his representation of organized religion is very hateful). It is difficult for me to like the Pullman’s trilogy when I can’t help but see his Message and feel the full impact of its irony. It’s probably good that there are people out there who are able to ignore it! 🙂
In case you’re interested, there’s also a 2005 New Yorker article on Pullman’s inspirations for His Dark Materials. It touches on his views on C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Far From Narnia, by Laura Miller.
2012 Book 90: Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel (6/21/2012)
Reason for Reading: Second book in the Wolf Hall Trilogy. Group read in the 75ers.
My Review 4/5 stars
In this second book of the Wolf Hall Trilogy, Mantel brings to life Thomas Cromwell during the reign and fall of Anne Boleyn. I’ve noticed a few reviews saying that Bring Up the Bodies isn’t quite as good as Wolf Hall, though I’m not sure why people feel this is so. This book is slightly lighter reading, and much more straightforward, than Wolf Hall, and I think that makes up for any slight loss of lyricism. Also, some people may not have liked Cromwell’s character as much in this book as in the first, but this was necessary for historical accuracy. If anything, Mantel has made Cromwell more human and likable than I’d ever imagined him to be. And this, I think, is the magic of Mantel’s writing. This book is about the people, not the events. And she has taken a rather slimy, vengeful, self-serving historical figure and delivered a man that we can relate to…and even like. So, personally, I think this book was slightly better than the first.
2012 Book 84: Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (6/13/2012)
Reason for Reading: 12 in 12 group read
My Review 4/5 stars
Wolf Hall is a highly acclaimed historical novel about Thomas Cromwell’s early career first working for Wolsey and then for Henry VIII, engineering the rise of Anne Boleyn as Queen. Mantel brings various historical characters to vivacious life, expertly highlighting their virtues and vices. Her lyrical prose sweeps the reader into the story. I loved this book and am eager to start Bring up the Bodies, the second book in the trilogy. However, I’ll note for the sake of potential readers: this book is heavy reading and has a unique writing style which many people find confusing. I listened to the audiobook, which was particularly difficult to follow because of Mantel’s unique use of pronouns. Although Simon Slater’s performance is exceptional, I think the physical book may be easier to follow. Knowledge of the events described is not necessary for enjoyment of the book, but would greatly enhance it.