Reading Notes (Whores, Virgins, Epileptics, Psychotics)

I’ve had a run of great reading lately, and thought I’d share. As is usual for all my commute books, all of these are notable for their ability to keep a very sleepy Michelle awake on the way to work and all but the graphic novel come in handbag-friendly sizes.

Memories Of My Melancholy Whores (Gabriel Garcia Marquez): I’ve read 100 Years Of Solitude and Love In The Time Of Cholera twice each, and with each reread I was amused to find that I’d remembered so little of the plot that it was almost like reading a whole new book. This isn’t a diss, it’s more that his books are so dense with atmosphere and observation that I find myself just living from moment to moment, thoroughly immersed, until I reach the end and wake up from a beautiful, fragrant dream which then fades away as quickly as dreams always do. I think this is the reason some people find it difficult to get through his books, because sometimes you’re just not in the right mental mood for that sort of commitment. Anyway, Whores has a lot of what is wonderful about his writing within a much shorter and more accessible package (assuming you don’t find stories about a 90 year old man engaging a 14 year old prostitute to be inherently inaccessible, that is) so I recommend it to Garcia Marquez fans and newbies alike.

On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan): I routinely read any new Ian McEwan book, but due to various dissatisfactions I’ve felt with his other books, he’s always been an admired-but-not-favourite writer for me. He’s amazing at taking an incident (usually narrated in vivid, heart-in-mouth detail) and building on it, fleshing out causes and consequences and the inner lives of the people involved with incredible depth and perspicacity, but in my view something else often lets him down – pacing for Black Dogs and Saturday, plot for Enduring Love and Atonement, and just too much obviousness for Amsterdam. I’m undecided on how believable I find the “incident” here – a disastrous wedding night for the virginal protagonists – but its awkward, cringeworthy moments, and how McEwan uses them to elaborate on the lives of Edward and Florence, their love and its sad aftermath, are masterfully done, like a perfect distillation of his best abilities unmarred by any of his previous failings. My favourite McEwan book yet.

Epileptic (David B.): I don’t always get graphic novels, in that I often find the writing decent but don’t feel the drawings have added much to my appreciation of the whole. (Blankets, Jimmy Corrigan, I’m looking at you.) Epileptic is different. The plot is interesting on its own – the author’s brother develops epilepsy in childhood, and his family life becomes dominated by his parents’ efforts to find a cure and the increasingly disruptive manifestations of his brother’s illness – but it’s the complex, surreal drawings which make this extraordinary, and elevate it to my personal graphic novel pantheon formerly inhabited only by Sandman and Watchmen. I can’t describe the richness of artistry that unfolds in these small black-and-white pictures in a way that you can appreciate without experiencing the book for yourself, it would be like trying to describe Guernica to someone who’s never seen a Picasso painting. Just read it.

Stuart: A Life Backwards (Alexander Masters): Masters was working for a homeless charity (not for altruistic reasons, because it paid well) when its directors got convicted for permitting the trafficking of drugs on the premises, even though they had made concerted efforts to prevent this and the same problem afflicted almost any other homeless charity facility. In the course of the campaign against their convictions, Masters met alcoholic, polydrug-addicted, violently psychotic, frequently suicidal Stuart, who was also actually quite a success story of rehabilitation, relatively speaking. The book is the story of Stuart’s life and of the friendship between the two very different men. It’s funny, illuminating, and really sad, and I think it will interest anyone who has ever given a moment’s thought to the problem of homelessness.

One Comment

  1. assuming you don’t find stories about a 90 year old man engaging a 14 year old prostitute to be inherently inaccessible, that is

    You know, this would once never have been any kind of stumbling block for me, but by the time I read Love in the Time of Cholera, it was. I mean, it’s not that I find the subject matter so distasteful that nothing I read about it can be of value to me – Lolita is one of my favourite books. It’s more that Garcia Marquez passes the fact that (for instance) Floretino Ariza has raped a servant or groomed America Vicuna and left her to her death completely without critical comment that just bespeaks to me overwhelming (and stale) patriarchal entitlement to women’s bodies, and a devaluing of women’s lives, which makes the overall work impossible for me to hold in much regard. It’s not that I need him to go on a ponderous moralistic rant about how bad rape is: it’s just that there is nothing, not even the barest hint, of cognisance of the suffering caused or the monstrousness of Ariza’s behaviour. There seems to be this huge blind spot where the sexual use of women is concerned: it’s just all part of the grand narrative of the life of Ariza the star, Ariza the central character, Ariza whose emotional life is sooooooooo important we don’t need to care about those silly girls. How can something be profound or insightful when it’s so… limited? (By contrast, Lolita is all about Humbert Humbert’s callousness and the damage he has done, and the titillated sympathy the iridescent language creates for him in us is secondary to – indeed, a crucial part of the illustration of – precisely those moral questions. Despite the trademark Nabokov misdirection to the contrary.)

    Does Whores show any more humanity to women than Love in the Time of Cholera? I’m quite saddened by the fact that I am so repulsed by Garcia Marquez on political grounds, when I did find many of the scenes he painted and some of the passages very amusing, and I’m eager for any interpretation of him which would help me give him a second chance… which doesn’t amount to shrugging and going, “Oh well, boys will be boys and write about rape or paedophilia uncritically, la di da, I should just enjoy it for what it’s worth.”

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