The Sense Of A Beginning

They say writing is a muscle which needs to be exercised in order to get stronger, and although I’m in the best physical shape I’ve been in for a long time (yay!), my writing muscles feel like slabs of lard. But it’s been silent here too long, and as always, the thing that’s been holding me back from just sitting down and writing a goddamn post is that peculiar inertia of perfectionism which renders the idea of watching all the Grumpy Cat videos an infinitely preferable prospect to the awful possibility of writing something that sucks.

But if you will forgive me for just embracing the suck and getting on with things, I would like to tell you about Julian Barnes’ The Sense Of An Ending. This won the Booker Prize in 2011 and the Guardian review will give you a decent idea of whether it’s the type of novel you’re in the mood for, but I’d caution against expecting too much from it. There is a plot twist so infuriating that I cast the book aside the moment I finished it and stormed out of the room to see if the Internet’s disgruntlement matched my own. Alec (who had read the book just before me and was asleep in bed next to me as I read) later said that even in the mists of sleep, when he heard my angry huff and little stomps, he knew exactly why.

So you’re probably wondering whether, given that Grumpy Cat’s Worst Monday Ever will only take up a few minutes of your crowded life and fill you with immediate joy, this imperfect book is worth bothering with. It is. The writing is fantastic and gave me one of those “How have I spent all these years not reading this author?!” moments, which I haven’t had since discovering Graham Greene many years ago. Even just the first few pages will give you a taste of Barnes’ craft – his descriptions of the protagonist’s boarding school environment include a teacher “whose system of control depended on maintaining sufficient but not excessive boredom”, “a cautious know-nothing [schoolmate] who lacked the inventiveness of true ignorance” and this, which strikes me as an appropriate quote with which to end one year and start another:

We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never felt I understood it very well. And I’m not referring to theories about how it bends and doubles back, or may exist elsewhere in parallel versions. No, I mean ordinary, everyday time, which clocks and watches assure us passes regularly: tick-tock, click-clock. Is there anything more plausible than a second hand? And yet it takes only the smallest pleasure or pain to teach us time’s malleability. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally, it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.

Margrave Of The Marshes (John Peel’s Autobiography)

If you haven’t already heard, parts of John Peel’s record collection will soon become a virtual museum of sorts from now till the end of October 2012. John kept his collection meticulously catalogued and filed with cards he hand-typed on his old Olivetti typewriter, and each week for 26 weeks, users will get access to whatever music was on the first 100 filecards of a given letter of the alphabet, with 1 album highlighted for special attention. (Unfortunately, since access is through Spotify those of us in Singapore can’t actually be part of the fun.)

Alexis Petridis got a first peek into the collection, and wrote a charming article for The Guardian about what awaits us:

In one instance, the sheer obscurity of the music seems to have overwhelmed even Peel. There is a card that features no track listing at all, merely the dark summary “16 songs in Hungarian”.

In light of this, now seems a good time to share some favourite excerpts (I haven’t done that for so long!) from John’s autobiography Margrave Of The Marshes, which was half-written during his lifetime and finished posthumously by his wife Sheila. Funnily enough, I actually prefer the writing in Sheila’s half – the half written by John suggests he never met a comma he didn’t like. Nonetheless, the book is a wonderful read not just for music geeks but anyone who ever enjoyed John’s inimitable personality and radio presence – in my household, for example, Alec (who never listened to The John Peel Show but loved Home Truths) and I (who never listened to Home Truths but loved The John Peel Show) enjoyed it equally. 

The book opens with a quote from John, writing in Disc and Music Echo, 1969:

It is obvious that disc-jockeys, as a class, are essentially parasitic. We are, with lamentably few exceptions, neither creative nor productive. We have, however, manipulated the creations of others (records) to provide ourselves with reputations as arbiters of public taste. There is no more reason (nor no less) why I should be writing this column than you – however I am in this unmerited position and you’re not. I believe very much in radio as a medium of tragically unrealised possibilities and also in the music I play. Therefore accepting the falseness of my own precarious position I will do what I can, wherever I can, to publicise these good things I hear around me. These musicians have made you aware of, and appreciative of, their music – not J. Peel.

GASPP

Two friends of mine (with two other people I don’t know) edited GASPP: a Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose, so I thought I’d pimp it here. Proceeds from its sale go to the Counselling and Care Centre, a non-governmental, non-profit agency offering psychological counselling services and training for mental health and social services professionals, so that’s nice.

Okay, you got me. I’m all for supporting good causes, but actually the real reason I mentioned this here is to show you the best autograph I have got in a book since Neil Gaiman drew me a rat:

Taken with a phonecam, terrible milk shake pun honestly unintended at the time of the photo but totally intended now.

Quarantine (Eavan Boland)

Perhaps I’m just mushy because my husband’s away on a business trip and I miss him, but I liked this poem.

I am not exactly sure if Alec would warm my feet with his chest while we were both dying of starvation and cold (this would be asking a lot of anyone – my feet are blocks of ice even in normal air-conditioning), but he does go out in the mid-day sun on the weekends to buy me bubble tea and ayam penyet, which is also worth something.

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Symphony

I was doing some clutter-clearing today and found this passage I saved from when I read Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter some years back. The protagonist is listening to Beethoven’s 3rd symphony (the “Eroica”) at the time, but you don’t have to have heard it[1. If you’d like to get to know the Eroica, good ol’ Youtube will let you travel back in time to watch the great Herbert von Karajan at work: Part 1, Part 2.] to let this passage take you back to the last time you listened to music that made you feel this way.

She could not listen good enough to hear it all. The music boiled inside her. Which? To hang on to certain wonderful parts and think them over so that later she would not forget – or should she let go and listen to each part that came without thinking or trying to remember? Golly! The whole world was this music and she could not listen hard enough. Then at last the opening music came again, with all the different instruments bunched together for each note like a hard, tight fist that socked at her heart. And the first part was over.

This music did not take a long time or a short time. It did not have anything to do with time going by at all. She sat with her arms held tight around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. It might have been five minutes she listened or half the night. The second part was black-coloured – a slow march. Not sad, but like the whole world was dead and black and there was no use thinking back how it was before. One of those horn kind of instruments played a sad and silver tune. Then the music rose up angry and with excitement underneath. And finally the black march again.

But maybe the last part of the symphony was the music she loved the best – glad and like the greatest people in the world running and springing up in a hard, free way. Wonderful music like this was the worst hurt there could be. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen.

The last time music made me feel like the whole world was a symphony and there wasn’t enough of me to listen was a few weeks ago, listening to Dinosaur Jr’s Farm and losing myself so happily in the guitar work[2. There’s No Here isn’t actually a standout track in this (consistently good) album but it’s a punchy example of one of my favourite things about Dinosaur Jr – how J Mascis’s guitar is basically like the fourth member of the band. If you’re feeling a little more emo, let Said The People build to the solo at 3.05.] that I almost forgot I was on my way to work on a Monday morning. When was yours?

Canon Falls

Fired From The Canon is a list of ten allegedly classic books which contributors to online literary journal The Second Pass suggest you refrain from reading. I enjoyed reading the list, partly because I like snark but more because I think their reasons against reading each book, whether or not I agree, are thoughtfully yet succinctly expressed. Out of the list, I have read:

  • White Noise (Don Delillo): THANK YOU JESUS. You know that thing about judging other people based on their literary/musical tastes? I rarely do that since I adore plenty of people with tastes I detest, but after reading this book I remember thinking that I could probably never be on the same wavelength as someone who loved it, and their writeup is spot on as to why.
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez): I disagree. The book does feel as if it takes ages to get through, but Garcia Marquez books usually give me some of the most immersive and atmospheric reading experiences I’ve had, so I don’t like to rush through them anyway. I’m hardly an expert in the genre of magical realism and perhaps it is, as they assert, “now thoroughly clapped out”, but out of the various other magical realist books I’ve read, none has delighted me and sustained my reading attention as much as One Hundred Years of Solitude.
  • The Road (Cormac McCarthy): I gave this five stars in my 2008 reading rundown, so clearly I disagree. They may be right that it pales in comparison to Cormac McCarthy’s other books (I haven’t read any others yet, so don’t know) but as compared to the larger literary universe it more than holds its own.
  • The Rainbow (D.H. Lawrence): Read this while I was supposed to be studying for first year law exams. I found it interesting enough at the time, perhaps because the alternative was reading about property law, but now I can’t remember anything about it at all.
  • On The Road (Jack Kerouac): Yes, most of this was tedious for me. I dimly recall one bit of writing I liked, something about being in a jazz club.
  • The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen): I liked some of the writing, as I commented at the time, but their criticisms are fair too. It felt laboured and inconsistent.

Clearing Decks

I’m all “New laptop! New start!” at the moment and totally geeking out over reinstalling all my favourite software (which of course also includes copious online research on whether all these programs are still theeeee best ones for me), and since I spend more time surfing the web than any responsible adult should, a big part of this is achieving optimal Firefox zen. But before I went on a trawl for shiny new extensions to fill surfing needs I never knew I had, I decided I needed to do a little bookmark pruning. I haven’t been the best at keeping my bookmarks under control over the years, which became a lame reason for me not to use online bookmark syncing services like Foxmarks because I felt like this would only encourage me to perpetuate my disorganized shitpile rather than lick it into shape, and this needs to change soon.

A particularly mucky sump in my bookmarks toolbar was the folder I’d called “To Blog”, where I would happily drag links with every intention of blogging them but then blithely continue surfing and never get round to writing the entry. Once the dropdown list of bookmarks in this folder reached the bottom of my screen, I ostriched my head in the sand and just stopped adding bookmarks there. To the best of my recollection, the contents of this folder have not changed since maybe 2006. But upon exploration I found there was still some good stuff in there! Just so that I can delete it with peace of mind, here it is:

Articles:

  • Grief, Gratitude and Baby Lee: Beautiful, poignant article about perinatal hospices. I hope people know that the anti-abortion community isn’t actually all about murdering doctors and hating on women.
  • Soulseeking: From now-defunct (and sadly missed) Stylus magazine, Nick Southall writes about the conundrum of loving music so much that you sometimes forget how to love it, something I’ve grappled with for years. In 2005 when the article was written, there were definitely some readers of this blog who would’ve identified with it. I’m not sure if they’re still here any more but if the article resonates with you, holla.

Poetry:

Photography:

I only mentioned File magazine once here before but loved way more photographs than I linked to at the time.

Love In The Time Of Online Dating

It’s not clear why the guy trying to sign up for online dating in this short skit confines his prospective dirty screen names to authors only, but I still laughed loudly and childishly.

And then of course, I had to come up with my own list of cuncontenders. Feel free to add yours!

  • Walt Clitman
  • Edith Whoreton
  • David Spreaddings
  • Don Dedildo
  • Henry Wadsworth Shlongfellow
  • Saul Bellowjob
  • Honore de Ballsack
  • John Bangville
  • Rideher Haggard
  • Doris Lezzing
  • Haruki Murakumming
  • Alexander Bushkin

Edit (29 Jan): More additions, contributed by John’s Jamie!

  • Whoris Lezzing
  • Salman Bushdie
  • Bram Stroker
  • Iain M Wanks
  • William Ernest Fuckeray
  • Franz Kafcock
  • Edgar Allen Pube
  • Vagina Woolf
  • Cunter S. Thompson (my personal favourite)
  • Wet Pissed-On Ellis