The Sense of an Ending (film).

I adored Julian Barnes’ Man Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending, a spare and unsparing look at how one impetuous act could ruin multiple lives yet leave the actor unscathed until he discovers the consequences decades later. Barnes’ protagonist, Tony Webster, is bright and can think critically except where he’s involved; his lack of self-awareness is the central theme of the work, and Barnes unfurls the history to Tony as he does to the reader, allowing us to share in the main character’s befuddlement, denial, and rationalization in a sort of literary real time.

The film version of The Sense of an Ending came out earlier this year and is now available to rent/buy on amazon or iTunes, and it is excellent but falls just short of the book. The acting is superb, and the story largely hews faithfully to Barnes’ concepts, but alters a few key details in ways that muffle the impact of various revelations – and utterly alter the meaning of the book’s ending.

Jim Broadbent plays Tony, a divorced, very slightly grumpy old man who runs an antique camera shop in his semi-retirement, maintains good relations with his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Wheeler), and is on call for the imminent birth of his first grandchild to his unmarried daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery). Tony gets a certified letter saying that a woman he knew decades earlier, Sarah (Emily Mortimer), has died and left him an object, but it turns out that Sarah’s daughter, Veronica (Freya Mavor), whom Tony briefly dated, refuses to part with the object – the diary of Tony’s friend and later Veronica’s boyfriend Adrian. Tony becomes obsessed with obtaining the diary, largely because it’s legally his (rather than any expressed interest in its contents), and his efforts to acquire it lead him to an encounter with Veronica (now played by Charlotte Rampling) and revelations from their shared past that will discolor Tony’s entire understanding of his own actions and character.

This is in so many ways a very British movie, from the way almost everything in it is so understated and even under the surface to the murderer’s row of a cast all delivering sparkling performances. The filmed Tony is less self-aware than the literary one, and Broadbent infuses him with aloofness in manner and accent, as if he is constantly flummoxed by the existence of other people and their feelings. Rampling absolutely seethes in her few appearances in the film, an angrier Veronica than the one in the book, who holds herself above Tony in word and deed because it is the only victory available to her this late in the match. Mortimer also gets limited screen time, only in flashbacks, but the subtlety of her performance as Sarah is more evidence once Sarah’s role in the events that followed becomes clear.

The novel on which this is based is only about 165 pages, but it felt like the film still rushed past some of the book’s flashbacks to Tony’s time in school with Adrian and his dalliance with Veronica. It also changes several major details from the story, not least of which is dispensing with Barnes’ structure, where the book starts with the school days, and the bequest doesn’t happen until about a third of the way into the book, starting part two and causing Tony to reevaluate the story he has narrated in part one. Tony follows Veronica from one of their meetings, somewhat creepily, whereas in the book Veronica shows him what he discovers by stalking her in the movie.

The most unforgivable sin of the film’s script, however, is the ending, which is much kinder to Tony than the book’s conclusion – and kinder than the film version of Tony deserves. He set this all in motion, but the movie’s ending doesn’t make his culpability sufficiently clear, and concludes his story on a somewhat hopeful note – even as we hear the text of a new letter he has sent to Veronica that left me thinking that even after he’s learned the truth, he still doesn’t get it, and at this point, he probably never will.

I don’t usually give grades or ratings of movies, especially since I often write about them months after their release, but in this case I’ll make an exception. This is a good movie that falls short of a great book – a 55 film from a 70 novel, in scouting terms – buoyed by a tremendous cast and that very British way of letting the audience work out a lot of details on its own. If you’ve read the book and enjoyed it like I did, however, you may find the deviations distracting, especially as they’re all to the bad.

The Heart of Midlothian and other recent reads.

I hosted the Baseball Tonight podcast today, and will do so three more times in the next week – Thursday, Friday, and Monday the 18th.

Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian was the last of his Waverly novels, a series of books set in the Scottish highlands that drew on local culture and tradition (distinct from that of England), including use of the local dialect, an aspect of his books that does nothing so much as make them harder to read. Scott also liked to mine true historical events to form the backdrops for his novels, and here chose the Porteus Riot, a major event in Scottish nationalism where a vicious English military commander who was pardoned after receiving a death sentence for firing on protesters was himself kidnapped and lynched by another protest mob. That story opens the novel – of course, it’s the most satisfying passage in the entire book – so that Scott can lay the historical groundwork while also borrowing one of the perpetrators of the lynching, George Staunton, for a central character in his story.

Jeanie and Effie Deans are half-sisters, living as tenant smallholders on a larger estate with their twice-widowed father David. Jeanie is relentlessly good: honest, pious, meek, in love with her neighbor the local minister but afraid to marry him due to her father’s disapproval. Effie is the wild child, and ends up disappearing from home briefly, only to return and be arrested on suspicion of infanticide under a new, cruel English law that allowed for the conviction of a mother even if no proof of the murder (like a body) could be established. Jeanie is given the chance to exonerate her sister with a tiny lie at trial, but refuses to do so after swearing before God to tell the truth, a step that sends her daughter to death row and forces her to make the long journey to London, some of it on foot, to seek the Queen’s pardon.

Scott worked in the era of the gothic novel and the romance, before the rise of realism in the 1800s, so all of his works are blatantly melodramatic. Every character is just so good or just so bad; every conversation, especially those between fathers and daughters or sons, is wrought with emotion. It’s too easy for the modern reader to tune this out because of the unrealistic nature of the dialogue, and Scott’s overreliance on heavy, coincidental plot twists probably doubled the length of the book. It also reads much slower than a typical novel of that era, as he uses muckle Scottish words the modern reader won’t likely ken.

This leaves me with two books remaining on the Bloomsbury 100 – Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which I’ll tackle later this month, and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which seems like a fitting way to (try to) finish the list.

Anne Enright’s The Gathering won the Man Booker Prize in 2007, which is probably why I picked it up at Changing Hands bookstore in Tempe back in March; for the life of me I can’t find a better reason for me to have done so, as the book was absolutely dismal and relied on some now-hackneyed plot twists to get to where we always knew it was going.

The gathering of the book’s title refers to the many siblings of the narrator, Veronica, coming together for the funeral of their brother Liam, a cheerful, promiscuous, alcoholic ne’er-do-well who took his own life by drowning himself off the shore of Brighton. Veronica unpeels the layers of her family’s history, with unsparing candor and graphic language, to determine the cause of Liam’s depression and decision to take his own life, but also to examine her dissatisfaction with her own. She goes back to her grandparents, over her family’s comically fertile history, and eventually to the incident she witnessed as a child – the sexual abuse of Liam by a close family friend – that she blames for his lack of anchoring, his sexual rapacity and carelessness, and the inner void with which he apparently lived his entire life.

The book is absolutely dreadful. Veronica’s grief doesn’t play out as emotion beyond self-pity; she looks back at her family history and forward at her own life with incredible dispassion. Not only is she unsympathetic – she seems unreal. If she’s as broken as Liam, she never explains why. Her only moments of grief that ring true are those where she thinks Liam is there, or expects him to be so; coming to terms with the permanent loss of a family member or friend who’s “always been there” means facing the grief anew every time you think that Liam is going to call or might be standing in the room, only to have you realize he’s gone.

As for the Man Booker Prize … well, I’ve read a handful of them, and there’s a clear affinity for this type of novel, which is why I have never decided to work through that list of books as I have with several others.

Caroline Blackwood’s novella Great Granny Webster is creepy, weird, and compelling for its depiction of one of the strangest villains I’ve ever encountered in a work of fiction. The great-grandmother of the title is a woman decidedly stuck in the past, refusing any sort of adjustment to modern life or conveniences, waiting out her own demise in a decaying manse, neither spending nor sharing her immense fortune, mostly cut off from her relatives – not least her daughter, in an insane asylum due to what would today be recognized as schizophrenia. Based on episodes from Blackwood’s own childhood, Great Granny Webster has no overtly sinister elements; there’s no murder or intrigue, no suspense, no hammer to eventually drop. The macabre feel comes from the shocking behavior of the main character, who appears not as evil but as the complete absence of empathy, and the environment in which she lives, which is so austere as to make an ascetic hermit worry his life is too opulent. At just 100 pages it’s a quick read, not comparable to anything I’ve read before, although it might not even be as fascinating as Blackwood’s own life, which included a marriage to the American poet Robert Lowell.

My wife bought Christine Trent’s Stolen Remains for me as a birthday gift, knowing my penchant for mysteries with an English twist. The second in a series revolving around a British female undertaker in the 19th century who solves murders thanks to an impossible series of coincidences that put her in position to do so, in this case because Queen Victoria liked her work when burying the Prince Consort and now wants her to handle the burial of a Viscount who died mysteriously after returning from an official trip to Egypt with good ol’ Prince Bertie.

Forcing the lead character here to be female, a historically unlikely situation to be kind, requires a suspension of disbelief that I had a hard time mustering – and that suspension was further challenged by some incredibly silly behavior, too-modern dialogue, and those numerous coincidences that kept the plot going. Trent also goes too far in the direction of historical fiction by weaving in more real people than the novel can support, and she makes what I’d consider a rookie mistake with an obvious variation on Chekhov’s gun: Any time a mystery novelist tells you early in a book that someone disappeared and is presumed dead, you know the character will appear at some point and be involved in some significant fashion in the murder or its denouement.

Next up: I just finished Michael Pollan’s Cooked, which merits its own full review, and am about to start Charles Finch’s mystery novel A Beautiful Blue Death, both also birthday gifts from my wife (as was Great Granny Webster … I tend to read books in the order in which I got them).

The Sense of an Ending.

I have a brief analysis of the Scott Feldman trade up for Insiders, as well as a column on farm systems rising and falling so far this year. Arizona prospect Archie Bradley was my guest on today’s Behind the Dish podcast.

Julian Barnes’ slim, incisive novel The Sense of an Ending is sneaky-brilliant, a typically understated British work that, in the tradition of Kazuo Ishiguro and Graham Greene, devastates you from the inside out through subtle reveals and imperceptible shifts in character. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2011 and is easily among the best post-2000 novels I’ve read. (It also comes in a deckle-edged paperback, which matters greatly to me as a captain of #TeamDeckleEdge.)

Tony Webster, the narrator of The Sense of an Ending, is in his sixties, divorced, in infrequent contact with his married daughter, when he receives an unexpected message from the past, a bequest that returns him into contact with two names from his university years – one still living, the other long deceased but instrumental to the story at hand. The first section, which almost works as a standalone novella, recounts his time at boarding school and university with his small group of friends and a standoffish, haughty girlfriend named Veronica. A weekend visit to her family, Tony and Veronica’s eventual breakup, and her subsequent affair with one of Tony’s friends all lead to wildly unanticipated consequences forty years down the road.

The book comprises a tragedy wrapped in a mystery. Barnes peels back the mystery bit by bit, as Tony discovers buried memories or gains small clues from family or friends that help him discover just what happened forty years ago to make a woman he barely knew include him in her will. This inclusion puts Tony on a collision course with Veronica, one he could avoid; instead, he chooses to steer directly into her path, repeatedly, even to the point where he questions his own emotions for Veronica, whether he seeks closure, or a rekindling of what was, by his own account, a pretty lousy affair in the first place.

The tragedy at the heart of the mystery is one Tony doesn’t fully grasp until the book’s end; as with the butler Stevens in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Tony is introspective but emotionally stunted, unable to assess the effects of his actions on himself and on others until the time has long past. On seeing a letter he wrote forty years prior that has some bearing on the tragedy itself, he says:

Remorse, etymologically, is the act of biting again: that’s what the feeling does to you. Imagine the strength of the bite when I reread my words.

Yet, as with Briony in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Tony finds no opportunity for redemption here, and must move forward in the new reality of consequences that cannot be undone. The bite he delivered himself has come back around to him tenfold, which casts everything he’s done in his life – which adds up to less than he seems to think at first – in a new and unflattering light.

Unlike Atonement‘s Briony, who uses her memory to create a fiction for herself that is more tolerable than the truth (with unsatisfactory results), Tony himself questions the reliability of his own memories, thus opening the floor for readers to question his reliability as a narrator – whether he is whitewashing his own past, or aggrandizing his role in the tragedies of those around him. Has his mind altered his memories to create a history with which he can live? Isn’t that what the human brain does, as a protective mechanism? Or is this a symptom of Tony’s own arrested development, evident in his own descriptions of his boarding school and university years? Barnes offers no answers, which is good because I don’t believe any good answers exist, to these questions of the nature of memory and how we react when false or merely inaccurate memories collide with reality. For Tony, there is no avoiding what was done and what exists forty years later; there is only interpretation, and uncertain culpability.

Next up: I’ve got about 100 pages to go in Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.

Life of Pi.

Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi was 97th on the last ranking I did of my top 100 novels, a brilliant book that employs multiple literary techniques to tell a story that may or not be a powerful fable, or a commentary on the enduring nature of faith, or a testament to our capacity to handle tragedy and face unimaginable adversity. Or maybe none of the above. It also seemed like the story itself was written to be adapted into a movie, yet its details would make it almost impossible to film.

Computer graphics software has advanced so quickly in the ten years since the book was released that Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) managed not just to film the book, but to do so without making any major modifications to or sacrifices from the original text. The film is wonderful because the book is wonderful; the film is gorgeous because of Lee, and because of technology, but it’s a great film because of the strength of the underlying story and the performance of Suraj Sharma, who plays the teenaged Pi.

The story of Pi, born Piscine Molitor Patel, begins in Pondicherry, India, where his father runs the local zoo, as a business rather than for any affection for the animals. Pi’s given name causes him obvious problems at school, after which he adopts the nickname “Pi” while also developing an affinity for the number itself. The same exploratory spirit leads Pi, raised in the Hindu tradition by his mother, to also follow Christianity and Islam, something given longer treatment in the book, with more humor involved as well; in the film, it’s primarily a source of strife between Pi and his secular father. Pi and his father also clash over the zoo’s recent acquisition, a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, which Pi views as a fellow creature with a soul but Pi’s father sees as a soulless carnivore that would eat Pi as soon as look at him.

When economic and political circumstances in India change, Pi’s father decides to sell the zoo’s animals to North American zoos and move the family to Canada, booking passage for all of them on a Japanese freighter across the Pacific. In a massive thunderstorm, the freighter sinks, leaving Pi alone on a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and Richard Parker, beginning a 227-day odyssey of survival on the ocean where Richard Parker, having dispatched the other three non-human passengers on their modest vessel, and Pi eventually come to a detente, albeit one where Pi does all the work in exchange for what may be a tacit agreement that Richard Parker will not eat him. They eventually encounter a mysterious floating island before eventually hitting the shore of Mexico, after which Pi tells his story to the Japanese insurance company investigators who want to know why the ship sank.

The film’s biggest change from the book is a narrative device that has the adult Pi telling his life story to an unnamed writer who was sent to Pi by Pi’s uncle, who said that the writer would hear a story that would make him believe in God. Pi is lightly dismissive of the promise, but tells his story just the same, with quite limited narration overall, as Lee lets the bulk of the story on the lifeboat unfold on its own.

That decision means that Sharma must carry a large portion of the film by himself, with no interaction with another human (and, to be fair, not even with another creature, as nearly all of the tiger’s scenes involve a CG version, not a real feline). His performance is remarkable as he must convince us he’s resourceful, terrified, grieving, and devious, without the benefit of real dialogue, although Pi does attempt to engage Richard Parker in conversation on a few occasions. The only real help Sharma receives is from the stunning visuals in the film, mostly wide shots of the open ocean, as well as two significant storms and the aforementioned island that stands as one of the most incredible aspects of Pi’s story. I saw Life of Pi in 3-D, which usually seems to me as more gimmicky than useful, but Lee made excellent use of it to convey Pi’s isolation on the open water or the sheer size of the sinking freighter, only engaging in a little special effects-turbation as he does when a whale flips over Pi’s boat (which was actually pretty cool, just not entirely necessary).

The film ends with a twist as the adult Pi concludes his story, one taken directly from the book as well that casts some doubt on what Pi’s tale actually means, and what Martel may have been trying to tell us, if anything at all. I thought the novel was a touch more ambiguous, but the film’s conclusion has the same effect of opening up a panoply of questions not just about what’s in the film, but about the nature of faith, of human psychology, of evil, and the nature of truth. Pi is a classic, if flawed, hero, whose emotional maturation over the 227 days sits in inverse proportion to his physical deterioration due to exposure and malnutrition. He speaks to the Writer, and the audience, with the wisdom of a teacher, but a teacher who is wise from experience, not just because he has a foreign accent. Lee’s use of this device to replace the first-person narration of the book might be the best decision he made on the film, one of many good choices from casting to effects to angles that bring us into the lifeboat between man and tiger that make his work here as good as any director’s in 2012 except Kathryn Bigelow’s for Zero Dark Thirty.

If you haven’t read Life of Pi, I’d recommend doing that before or after seeing the film, as it’s a quick and totally engrossing read that gives a little more depth to portion of the story that comes before the lifeboat, and also spends more time following Pi’s survival planning in his first few weeks alone. The film may have dragged for me in the middle just because I knew almost everything that was to come, but I still enjoyed the craftsmanship in it, including Sharma’s performance.

This is the sixth Best Picture nominee I’ve seen, and I’d place it clearly behind Zero Dark Thirty but comfortably above Silver Linings Playbook (fifth) and Beasts of the Southern Wild (last). I’d also favor Lee over the directors of those latter two films for Best Director, but haven’t seen Lincoln (yet) or Amour (might skip that one entirely). Life of Pi will probably crush a few of the technical awards, but the absence of Sharma from the Best Actor category is disappointing, given how strong his work was and how much the film depended on him to perform at that level. I’ve only seen one of the five films represented in the Best Actor category, though, so I can’t say whether he was jobbed or just squeezed out in a strong year.

Midnight’s Children.

Futures Game recap is up, as well as a video of me & Jason Grey talking Futures Game.

In autobiography, as in all literature, what actually happened is less important than what the author can manage to persuade his audience to believe.

My only knowledge of Salman Rushdie prior to beginning his much-lauded novel Midnight’s Children was that he was the subject of a fatwa for The Satanic Verses and that somehow he’d managed to bag, even temporarily, Padma Lakshmi. His public image and the controversy over the latter novel gave me the impression that he was a dour, serious writer, and I was only reading this work because it appears on the TIME, Modern Library, and Radcliffe top 100s through which I’m gradually working my way. (It also won the Man Booker Prize in 1981, and in 1993 won the Booker of Bookers, given to the best winner from the first 25 years of the award.)

As it turns out – unsurprisingly to me, and probably to you as well – I’d sold Rushdie short. Midnight’s Children is inventive, sprawling, witty, satirical, acerbic, gross, and, in many ways, important. I wouldn’t say I loved the novel, for a few reasons I’ll get into, but I don’t think I have to love reading a book to recognize it as great literature. It is, in many ways, the Indian One Hundred Years of Solitude, not quite as compact or as immersing, but with the same combination of wide and narrow scopes while using magical realism to tell its story.

The narrator of Midnight’s Children is Saleem, born at the stroke of midnight at the precise moment that India earned her independence from Great Britain, a date that has symbolic significance as well as plot significance within the novel. The symbolic significance is obvious, as Saleem’s story parallels and intertwines with the history of India, not just as a country but as a people struggling to figure out the whole independence thing, while the plot significance derives from the fact that each of the 1,001 children born in India within the hour after independence develops some particular magical skill or power, with Saleem eventually – in rather crude fashion – discovering that he has the ability to read or even enter other peoples’ minds.

The story of the novel spans three generations, going back to his grandfather and his peculiar courtship of his wife – originally his patient, as he was the town’s one doctor, sent to Germany for his education – through his own parents’ unusual union, with each marriage, courtship, or broken heart sowing the seeds of future calamities. As Saleem’s mother gives birth, a Christian nurse with anarchist leanings switches his tag with that of another baby born simultaneously, altering not just their fates but, in Saleem’s story, at least, that of India as a whole. Saleem leaves India for Pakistan and returns after two separate exiles, leads a mental conference of the thousand and one children of midnight, becomes an ascetic with a preternatural sense of smell, falls in love with an illusionist, becomes a father and a widower, and ends up with a strange wasting disease that leads him to write down the story of his life, one that cannot be untangled from the story of India from its independence through the novel’s present day. His dabblings with various forms of extremism all lead to disaster, not just for him but for anyone who comes near him – he is convinced that he is the cause of the misery – standing in for India’s own unfortunate swings toward communism or religious hatred.

Rushdie’s prose is at once maddening and magical, maddening because of stylistic quirks like strings of three adjectives without interruption of comma or conjunction, magical in passages like this one, where he introduces one aspect of the novel’s altered reality where the emotions of a cook enter her food and the bodies of those who consume it:

And, now restored to the status of daughter in her own home, Amina began to feel the emotions of other people’s food seeping into her – because Reverend Mother doled out the curries and meatballs of intransigence, dishes umbued with the personality of their creator; Amina ate the fish salans of stubbornness and the birianis of determination.

(The meatballs of intransigence. I worked for someone once who ate too many of those.)

I’m only superficially familiar with Indian history, although I hit Wikipedia many times to check and see if events described in the novel were taken from real life. (Unfortunately, most of them were.) But it’s clear that Rushdie intended to satirize many aspects of Indian culture, society, and especially its government; his comments on Indira Gandhi led the despot to sue him for libel when the book was published. Saleem and his family – included a number of cousins, uncles, and aunts who are various shades of wacko – seemed to me to stand in for various problems or crises of India as a whole, writ smaller and often with comic effects.

I could even see this book used in a class on comic novels – I took such a class in college, where I first encountered The Master and Margarita and If on a winter’s night a traveler – because of Rushdie’s use of farce and dry, sidelong wit, including this almost throwaway line where he pokes fun at Saleem’s innocence as the character walks through a dirty city street:

…and Japanese tourists who all (on this occasion) wore surgical face-masks out of politeness, so as not to infect us with their exhaled germs;

There were a few plot twists that didn’t sit right with me, generally characters making decisions that made little or no sense to me. There’s also a passage where a magician who specializes in making things or people disappear is presumed killed, but it’s not clear why she wouldn’t have used her power to save herself; I imagine it was necessary to have her killed or removed from the story, but the manner in which Rushdie did so felt incomplete, and I was half-expecting her to resurface.

Finally, I found the meandering story of the plot, especially its jumps back and forth in time, to be very distracting, since the transitions often weren’t clear and much of the present-day content was completely ancillary to the main storyline. I thought Rushdie may have even acknowledged the nonlinear, tangential nature of the book through the voice of his main character:

This is not what I had planned; but perhaps the story you finish is never the one you begin.

But I may be erring by putting words in the author’s mouth when they only emanated from that of one of his creations. It was a tough read – not Tolstoy tough, but maybe Faulkner tough – but the creativity, the humor, and the borderline insanity of the book was remarkable, and as a window into a country and culture with which I wasn’t that familiar, it was an educational read as well.

It’s worth a mention that the witch with whom Saleem falls in love is named Parvati, while his second wife, who appears as audience and muse when he steps back from writing/telling his life story, is named Padma. So perhaps J.K. Rowling, in addition to reading A Dance to the Music of Time and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, read Midnight’s Children and threw in a reference via the names of two of her characters.

Next up: Kazuo Ishiguro’s frustrating, dreamlike novel The Unconsoled.

The True History of the Kelly Gang.

I’ve now filed 75 full draft capsules plus a few shorter ones, many of which are accessible through my most recent ranking of the top 100 draft prospects. I chatted yesterday – transcript here – and next week’s will probably be on Friday the 28th.

On Monday, I updated my ranking of the top 25 prospects in the minors, deleting anyone who reached the majors this spring. I also answered a number of questions on other prospects in that article’s Conversation.

I taped a radio hit with Colin Cowherd this morning that will air at 12:10 pm EDT on ESPN Radio. Recent radio hits now online include Mike & Mike, AllNight with Mike Hill (lot of Hanley talk in both hits), and Doug Gottlieb.

It is history Mr Kelly it should always be a little rough that way we know it is the truth

Peter Carey’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel True History of the Kelly Gang is an impressive feat of historical fiction because he chose a character and a story that is actually pretty well-documented – the story of the inadvertent criminal enterprise headed by Ned Kelly that was fueled by the outrage of the lower classes in Australia in the mid-1800s. Ned Kelly became a folk hero for decades, and his own memoirs of a sort were published many years after his death. As far as I can tell from reading synopses of those memoirs, Carey was reasonably true to the historical record, yet still managed to craft a compelling story and character despite the lack of flexibility in creating the novel.

The story begins in Ned’s childhood, focusing on the hard life of settlers on the Australian plains and the corruption of the local authorities in handing out land rights and meting out justice. His father abandoned the family and his mother had what we might call unfortunate taste in men, including a bushranger who trains Ned in that particular line of “work,” giving him survival skills but also fueling Ned’s rage against the oppressive forces that govern his life and those of the other settlers in the outback. Carey presents Ned’s outlaw career as the inevitable consequence of his training as a bushranger and the injustice of local authorities against his family, including the eventual jailing of his mother when the authorities can’t catch Ned, causing local newspapers to mock the police for incompetence.

I imagine that someone familiar with Australian colonial history would take more from this novel as a social document, but I enjoyed it as just a tragic adventure around an interesting central character who had to survive by his wits and worked out his own personal philosophy and ethics without benefit of education. But my ignorance of Australian history probably did rob me of another level of understanding that I’d get from a similar novel about American history.

One note on the text for those who might tackle the book: Carey’s wrote the book as a long letter from Kelly to his then-infant daughter, and his prose attempts to mimic the style of Kelly’s own writings, light on punctuation with many grammatical errors, euphemisms, or blotted-out words, something that took me a good 30-40 pages to get past to the point where I could read the text smoothly; it added authenticity to the narrative voice but I imagine it’ll be a turn-off for the same readers who can’t stand Faulkner’s meandering sentences.

Next up: Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant.

White Tiger.

Winner of the 2008 Man Booker Prize, Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger is a twisted, funny, angry book with a deadly serious core that takes aim at modern India and skewers every part of it that appears within a kilometer of the target. It is a 21st-century antidote to Horatio Alger’s novels, one where the hero is an amoral anti-hero who charms the reader while clawing his way out of poverty and into the upper class he despises and yet wants to join. Adiga presents you with the conflict of the rags-to-riches hero who gets there by being an amoral scumbag, rejecting all the traditional mores that most people hold dear (religion, marriage, culture, etc.) and arguing that he had to reject them to get where he was going.

The narrator and hero/anti-hero is Balram, known as the White Tiger, a poor boy who is determined from a young age not to remain poor and stupid and in the Darkness of rural India. He lies, cheats, and eavesdrops his way into opportunities like a job as a driver for the son of a local oligarch, one that brings him into contact with greater wealth and with the urban chaos of New Delhi. This new experience brings him greater opportunities for advancement and for stepping on or destroying people in his way until his actions eventually escalate to murder. Through this diary of his experiences, told through seven letters to the visiting Premier of China, Balram is cheerful, mocking or criticizing everyone from his idiot rich boss to the traditional Indians who remain happy stuck in the mire to the rich classes whose government and the gods to keep the teeming multitudes in penury.

White Tiger is a disingenuously quick read, with fast, witty prose, but underneath it Adiga is posing tough questions without really answering them. Was Balram a hero or an anti-hero? It’s tough to justify most of what he does in the novel, except that just about everyone he stepped on or hurt or killed had it, or at least something, coming. And who can blame someone raised in that kind of poverty and hopelessness for grabbing indiscriminately at an opportunity to escape it? Does one’s environment determine the morality of one’s actions? Does Balram feel guilty about any of his actions – hence his rationalizations – or does he believe that he’s fully justified?

Adiga’s targets are wide, but a huge portion of his satire – or just his ire – is aimed at “modern” India, which he views as segregated and corrupt, ruled by idiots who are simply smarter than the “slaves” in the country’s massive underclass. The corruption is endemic, from bribes paid to government officials to sinecures in local towns, but the characters’ mass acceptance of “how it is” is terrifying, and the one person who objects – because he has spent time in the United States – is too weak-willed to do much more than complain. The party that purports to represent the poor is every bit as corrupt as the one that rules the country for the rich, and both parties promise reforms to the masses without delivering anything.

I also read White Tiger while wondering if it was possible to write a book this funny and compelling with a moral central character. Balram simply has no moral center – he has rejected the dictums from his family, the faith of his caste (although he hasn’t given up on its superstitions), and the respect for authority that the authorities demand. He lies and acts to get what he wants, and has no compunction about his deception. A book like this almost requires a central character – or maybe just a narrator – who respects nothing and no one and is unflinching in his rejection of old institutions. Anything he does believe in, religion or tradition or family, would have to be home-brewed. If you’ve read a book that disproves this theory, I’d love to hear about it.

And, since I know someone will ask, yes, I expect The White Tiger will be on the next iteration of the Klaw 100, whenever that comes.

Next up: John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; his The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is my favorite spy novel and made both versions of the Klaw 100.

The Remains of the Day.

I’ll be on ESPNEWS on Monday afternoon right after the Rookies of the Year are announced at 2 pm EST, and then again at 2:40 pm to talk more about those winners and the awards to come over the next week-plus.

I’ve got a short take on Dan Uggla on Rumor Central.

I’m doing a daily wrap-up/links column each weekday this week in Buster Olney’s absence, so if you see any news story, rumor, or blog item that you think is worthy of a comment, please throw a link in a comment on this or any post this week, or shoot me an email.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is a stunning novel, powerful and moving despite being understated at almost every turn – a quintessential English novel written by a man who was actually born in Japan but who has become one of the greatest English novelists of the last half-century. Very few books can contain so little action and yet carry such emotional weight, even with an inevitable finish that brings the curtain down on the protagonist/narrator in crushing fashion.

Mr. Stevens has been a butler for 30 years at Darlington Hall, most of that time serving Lord Darlington, a well-meaning nobleman who indulges his liberal worldview by dabbling in international politics between the world wars. Darlington is dead for three years at the novel’s start, but Stevens takes the reader through a series of flashbacks that gradually expose the nature and effects of his master’s efforts as well as his relationship with Miss Kenton, who oversees the female staff in the house and occasionally shocks Stevens with the strength of her will and with actions and words he can’t quite interpret. As the flashbacks deepen, helped along by some chance events on a six-day sojourn Stevens takes to visit the now-married Miss Kenton in her village, Stevens becomes more aware of what the last thirty years have truly entailed for him.

Although regret is, to my reading, the overwhelming theme of the novel, work/life balance also seems to play heavily in Ishiguro’s rendering of Stevens’ life and character. Through extraordinarily dedicated service and loyalty both to his master and to an independent ideal of “dignity” in work, Stevens has spent all of his energy on his vocation, letting it subdue or crowd out any person underneath his work-oriented exterior. This leads to the questions of regret which hang over the novel and come to the fore in the final section, but on its own, Stevens’ almost obsessive pursuit of dignity and the butlering ideal leave him out of touch with the people and actions taking place around him – sometimes deliberately, but other times inadvertently, and much to his loss in the long run.

The Remains of the Day isn’t all heaviness and sorrow, however; an English novel of manners should at least have a dose of comedy, and this one does, particularly Stevens’ inability to gel with his new American master, who expects a bit of a repartee with his head man but finds Stevens unequal to the task. Stevens recognizes that his boss wants a bit of “bantering” and applies himself to the task as if he were trying to learn to cook or to speak French, with comic effect.

I’ve previously reviewed (and loved) Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Next up: I’ve got about 120 pages to go in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (now 50% off at amazon), a pretty fast-moving detective novel that has become an international best-seller.