Margaret Thatcher and the books of her time

I blogged about Margaret Thatcher and the music of her time and have seen quite a few articles since then about the British pop music scene of that era. One should recall the books, too. It was a grand time for booklovers.

P.G. Wodehouse died in 1975, but one could look forward to new books by  John le Carre, Len Deighton, P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Ruth Rendell, Gerald Durrell and a phalanx of literary fiction.

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Wolf Hall: A Booker winner for story lovers

There’s nothing arty farty about Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. The 2009 Booker Prize winner is solid entertainment for anyone who loves a good story.

Set in the reign of Henry VIII, it charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son who becomes the king’s most trusted adviser and the most powerful man in the kingdom.

Now why should that interest anyone except history buffs?

I was surprised by how contemporary it is.

There are no “forsooths” and “begorrahs” here, no archaisms to look up in the dictionary.

Mantel writes in modern English and yet recaptures the old England beautifully.

It’s like a postcard from an exotic place. The lords and ladies wear doublets and gowns, shoot bows and arrows, and marry partners chosen by their parents before they are out of their teens — but they are no different from us in their feelings, impulses and motivations.

This is a book about politics, sex, intrigue and ambition.

Henry VIII’s England is like a modern dictatorship. We see his deputy, Cromwell, draft new laws to stifle dissent and get them passed by parliament.

We see the religious persecution under Cromwell’s predecessor, Sir Thomas More, who opposed the Reformation and imprisoned anyone found with an English translation of the Bible.

Yet the ruler himself, Henry VIII, wants to be loved by his people. And it is remarkable the devotion he inspires.

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Hilary Mantel: First British Booker Prize winner in five years

Hilary Mantel became the first British writer to win the £50,000 Man Booker Prize since Alan Hollinghurst won the award for The Line of Beauty five years ago, in 2004.

Mantel’s historical epic, Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Henry VIII, had been the popular favourite to win the award despite competition from strong contenders like the 2003 Nobel Prize winner JM Coetzee, who had won the Booker twice, for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999, and AS Byatt, the 1990 Booker winner for Possession.

The Indian Aravind Adiga won the prize last year for The White Tiger, the Irish Anne Enright won for The Gathering in 2007, the Indian Kiran Desai won in 2006 for The Inheritance Of Loss, and the Irish John Banville for The Sea in 2005.

Mantel is only the third British Booker winner in 12 years following on the success of Alan Hollinghurst in 2004 and Ian McEwan, who won the prize in 1998 for Amsterdam. 

Here is an excerpt from Wolf Hall published in the New York Review of Books.

And here’s the buzz on Twitter and FriendFeed.

The Times reports:

“The hottest favourite in the 41-year history of the Man Booker Prize edged home last night when Wolf Hall was named the winner in a secret ballot by three votes to two.

“The judges described Hilary Mantel’s 650-page doorstopper about political manoeuvring at the court of Henry VIII as an “extraordinary piece of storytelling . . . a modern novel that happens to be set in the 16th century”.

“It is the first favourite to triumph in Britain’s leading literary competition since Yann Martel’s Life of Pi in 2002. Booksellers predicted that Wolf Hall would go on to outsell all previous Booker winners.”

Mantel, 57, is now writing a sequel to Wolf Hall, called The Mirror And The Light, which will take the story up to Thomas Cromwell’s execution in 1540, says Bloomberg.

“I am happily flying through the air,” she said after winning the award. But she added on a more serious note: “‘It’s earnings. That may seem a very cold way of looking at a major award, but cost out what an author earns per hour and it’s far, far less than the minimum wage. The return is not great. The money from prizes, welcome though it is, must be used to pay the mortgage,” says the Telegraph.

The Guardian recalls:

“In an interview earlier this year, Mantel said she felt Wolf Hall was going to be her breakout novel…

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Booker buzz 2009

The winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize will be announced at 10 pm tonight (UK time), says Man Booker. That will be early tomorrow morning in Asia. Meanwhile, here’s the buzz on the £50,000 Commonwealth literary award on Twitter and FriendFeed.

Hear the BBC interviews with the six shortlisted authors — JM Coetzee, AS Byatt, Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters, Adam Foulds and Simon Mawer. You can also listen to extracts from their respective novels: Summertime, The Children’s Book, Wolf Hall, The Little Stranger, The Quickening Maze and The Glass Room.

Click here or here to listen to the BBC interviews and the readings.

Unusually, all the shortlisted authors are British except the South African born Coetzee. He has won the prize twice before — for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999.

The Indian Aravind Adiga won last year for The White Tiger.

Alan Hollinghurst was the last British winner, taking the prize in 2004 for The Line Of Beauty.

Hilary Mantel is the odds-on favourite to win this year for her historical novel, Wolf Hall, set in the court of Henry VIII and centring on the character of Thomas Cromwell.

The Online Betting Guide gives the following odds on all the six shortlisted authors and their works.

Hilary MantelWolf Hall11/10
Simon MawerThe Glass Room4/1
JM CoetzeeSummertime6/1
Sarah WatersThe Little Stranger6/1
AS ByattThe Children’s Book10/1
Adam FouldsThe Quickening Maze12/1

First Booker for a Brit in five years?

A British writer is likely to win the Man Booker Prize for the first time in five years when the winner is announced tomorrow. Unless the South African born Nobel Prize winner JM Coetzee wins the Booker for the third time — and sets a new record in the Booker’s 41-year history.

All the five other writers on this year’s shortlist are from the British Isles.

That is highly unusual for the Booker.

The prize for the best in English fiction from the Commonwealth and Ireland has been won by a Briton only twice in the past 12 years. Alan Hollinghurst was the last British winner in 2004 for The Line Of Beauty. Ian McEwan was the previous British winner, for Amsterdam in 1998.

There have been more Indian than British winners in the past 12 years. Arundhati Roy won for The God Of Small Things in 1997, Kiran Desai for The Inheritance Of Loss in 2006 and Aravind Adiga for The White Tiger last year.

This video shows the shortlist being announced earlier this month. (Another video at the end of this post.)

Coetzee, the 2003 Nobel Prize winner, won the Booker for Life & Times of Michael K in 1983 and Disgrace in 1999 — and has been shortlisted this year for Summertime.

The English novelist AS Byatt is another past winner back in the fray. The 1990 winner for Possession is on the shortlist this year for The Children’s Book.

But the punters’ favourite is Hilary Mantel, author of the historical saga, Wolf Hall, set in the court of Henry VIII and centring on the character of Thomas Cromwell.

Here are the odds on the six shortlisted authors and their books cited by a betting website:

Hilary Mantel – Wolf Hall – (2 – 1 Favourite)

Sarah Waters – The Little Stranger – (4 – 1)

JM Coetzee – Summertime – (6 – 1)

AS Byatt – The Children’s Book – (10 – 1)

Simon Mawer – The Glass Room – (14 – 1)

Adam Foulds – The Quickening Maze – (16 – 1)

Other past Booker winners include Anne Enright (The Gathering, 2007), John Banville (The Sea, 2005), DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, 2003), Yann Martel (Life Of Pi, 2002), Peter Carey (True History Of The Kelly Gang, 2001) and Margaret Atwood (The Blind Assassin, 2000).

The White Tiger: Clever but…

I am surprised that Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger is on the shortlist for the Booker Prize but not Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence. Would anyone want to read The White Tiger a second time?

No doubt it’s a clever book but I was repelled by the details.

What makes it unusual is that it’s written as a series of letters to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, of all people, by an Indian explaining how he made good, rising from a servant cum chauffeur to a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore. It’s a satire, I guess, about the corruption, exploitation and poverty that exist in India. But there’s nothing funny about this book beyond the smart-alecky style in which the letter writer addresses the Chinese leader.   

The letter writer, Balram Halwai, has every reason to be cynical from all that he has seen in life. His own success is built on a crime – the murder of his employer and the money he stole from him. Instead of being caught and punished for his crime, he ends up with the police on his payroll, bribing them to help him in his business.

The author’s success lies in his ability to make us look at life from Balram’s perspective.

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Two Indians still in the Booker fray

I am not surprised Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence has failed to get past the long list to the short list for the 2008 Man Booker Prize even though bookmaker Ladbrokes installed it as the 4-1 favourite. As I wrote in an earlier post, the West might find the story too exotic. Midnight’s Children, the 1981 Booker winner which went on to the Booker of Bookers award this year, was exotic, but it was also a political allegory published at the right time, four years after the lifting of the state of emergency in India, which made it highly topical and relevant. And, of course, it’s a classic.

The Enchantress of Florence is highly relevant, too, if one looks under the surface. It deals with magic, the power of words, and social engineering — for what is the central character, who calls himself Mogor dell’Amore, but a piece of social engineering who has crafted a new persona for himself? Reading the book, I was reminded of Barack Obama who is as charismatic, confident and articulate and who has also been able to forge a persona of his own through his autobiographies.

But The Enchantress of Florence also has the fairytale quality of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a children’s classic, and that’s not usually found in Booker winners.

As an Indian, I am rooting for Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, which has been shortlisted for the Booker.The winner of the 50,000-pound prize will be announced on October 14.

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Salman Rushdie, Florence and Tang sculptures

Bookmaker Ladbrokes has installed Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence as the 4-1 favourite to win the Man Booker prize this year. I find the book hard to put down, having finished two-thirds of the novel in the last two days, getting the references easily as an Indian, but I wonder if it’s too exotic for the West though quite a bit of it is about Florence.

Ah Florence! Reading the book brought back memories of the trip my wife and I made to Florence. She was in fact standing in the foreground of this picture which I cropped out before posting it here. This place with the copy of Michelangelo’s David, just a short walk from the Uffizi art gallery, is one of the favourite tourist attractions, much more crowded than the church square with a statue of the famous Florentine Dante.

Florence is back in the news again not just for The Enchantress of Florence, which has more to do with India during the rule of Akbar the great Mughal, but also for the Chinese. Yes, the Chinese.

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Oscar and Lucinda: A sweeping romance

Oscar and Lucinda won the 1988 Booker Prize and was made into a beautiful movie, I am told, and it is easy to see why. It vividly recreates 19th century England and Australia as it tells an impassioned love story. And it is clever. When Lucinda the heiress confesses her love of gambling to Oscar the clergyman, he says that is not a sin. Believing in God is gambling, too, he says, referring to Pascal’s Wager: there is no reason to believe or disbelieve in God, but it’s wiser to bet He exists because we lose nothing if He doesn’t exist butgain infinite happiness and eternal life if He does.

Lucinda is shocked to hear this from a clergyman, but they settle down to a game of cards, for Oscar is a gambler too.

With colourful characters like that, and history and romance in the bargain, what’s there not to like about this novel? Well, it’s a little too long and the ending is jarring.

Of course, it has to end in tragedy, given the nature of the hero and the heroine. Lucinda is the conventionally unconventional 19th century heroine, rebelling against convention and paying for it. Oscar the gambler and eventually defrocked clergyman is a tortured soul, a guilt-ridden anti-hero.

But the author gives a savage twist to the plot when after describing their romance almost throughout the book, he suddenly introduces another woman who destroys their relationship in just a couple of pages. Miriam not only wrenches the lovers apart but gets everything in the process, for she finds out about Oscar’s gamble with Lucinda. A gamble in which the winner takes all.

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