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.


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.

Inglorious Indeed

Joanna Kavenna’s Inglorious is one of the most ludicrous examples I’ve seen yet of the recent propensity (described here) of publishers to slap a chick lit cover on any book written by a woman or about a woman.

I’ll tell you a little more about the book before I unveil the frightful cover. It was a last-gasp addition to my 2008 reading list, picked up in the library because I was vaguely aware that it had won an Orange award and been mentioned in a few best-of-year reading lists.

The basic story is that its protagonist has a bit of an existential crisis one day and quits her well-paid job in journalism, after which things start going a bit pear-shaped for her. Her relationship ends and she stays with a succession of friends while going deeper and deeper into debt as she remains preoccupied with a “search for meaning”. Bit of an eyerolly plot, I know, but it is well-written and often amusing. Fellow GTD wannabes will recoil at her unwieldy to-do-lists (tasks like “Read the complete works of Hegel, Nietzsche and Kant”!) before sheepishly whipping out their own lists to rephrase similar next-action-lacking mistakes. Fellow snarky types will like the self-sabotaging exactitude with which she writes application letters for menial jobs. You can read this extract, which I don’t really think does the book justice, but you will at least gather from it that the writing is not dumbed down for anyone whose favourite author is Sophie Kinsella. I finished the book on Christmas Eve, and would give it three stars.

Now that the stage is set, behold the cover! By the way, poodles don’t feature in the book at all.

2008 Reading Rundown

I was horrified at the tiny number of books I read in 2007 (wedding stress plus, okay, the addition of a large amount of X-rated X-Files fanfic to my PDA) so decided to keep a log of the books I read in 2008. I didn’t bother to record any of the cookbooks I read and probably missed out one or two photography books too but am happy enough with the 26 I did record, it seems a decent number for a working adult with a life and various other addictions.

Here’s an executive summary for anyone who might find it useful.

5 stars:

  • On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan): Perfect distillation of McEwan’s best abilities unmarred by any of his failings. [My entry]
  • Epileptic (David B): Interesting plot, but it’s the complex, surreal drawings which elevate this to extraordinary. [My entry]
  • Stuart: A Life Backwards (Alexander Masters): Funny, illuminating and really sad. The choice of a “backwards” narrative (Stuart’s idea) is spot on. [My entry]
  • Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro): Elegantly unfolded plot, wonderfully perceptive writing. [My entry]
  • The Road (Cormac McCarthy): Literary triumph, real life downer – it’s transporting, but be warned that it transports you to a meticulously imagined post-apocalyptic world of almost unremitting bleakness.
  • Nine Parts Of Desire: The Hidden World Of Islamic Women (Geraldine Brooks): Engaging, often surprising, and (came across as) mostly balanced. It made me want to read further into the topic.
  • Understanding Exposure (Bryan Peterson): A really accessible and useful introduction to the topic for this photography noob.

4 stars:

  • Memoirs Of My Melancholy Whores (Gabriel Garcia Marquez): Much of what is wonderful about Garcia Marquez’s writing, in a shorter and more accessible package. [My entry]
  • In The Bedroom (Andre Dubus): Even if you’re not much of a short story person (neither am I), these are some of the most masterfully written short stories I’ve ever read. I’d never heard of Dubus or this book until Karen pressed it into my hands, and am grateful for the recommendation.
  • What Is The What (Dave Eggers): The story of the Lost Boys of Sudan is worth reading in itself, but Eggers also does a great job of telling it.
  • An Artist Of The Floating World (Kazuo Ishiguro): Last read this as a teenager and still find its particular insights into Japanese society interesting.

3.5 stars:

  • Northern Lights (Philip Pullman): Rather too dull to unseat C.S. Lewis’s Narnian chronicles, but its ambition is impressive.
  • Black Swan Green (David Mitchell): Pleasant and well-written, but while I can’t think of any flaws I can’t remember much of the book at all.
  • What The Dead Know (Laura Lippman): I haven’t read many crime novels, but if they’re all this riveting I should read more of them.

3 stars:

  • When You Are Engulfed In Flames (David Sedaris): Fine if you’ve never read him, but disappointing compared to any of his previous books.
  • Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys): Impressive if you think of it as ambitious fanfic, otherwise it’s rather unsatisfying despite the good writing.
  • The Wasp Factory (Iain Banks): Passably diverting account of a disturbed teen and his freaky little universe. Might gross out the squeamish.
  • The Shadow Of The Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon): Enjoyable enough as an escapist romp through a fantasy Barcelona, but a tad overlong and predictable.
  • The Harmony Silk Factory (Tash Aw): Its ambition somewhat exceeds its execution, but am glad a Malaysian-born author got famous with a book steeped in Malaysia and I’ll keep an eye out for what Tash Aw comes up with next.
  • Water For Elephants (Sara Gruen): Unmemorable writing but the story’s great fun, especially if you counted Mr Galliano’s Circus among your favourite childhood books too.
  • Magic For Beginners (Kelly Link): Whimsical, dark short stories. Good while you’re reading them, but forgettable afterwards.
  • The Somnambulist (Jonathan Barnes): A “fantasy London” book. Promising first half, but second half lost steam and went a bit nuts.
  • Learning To See Creatively (Bryan Peterson): Good reminders and examples of things you probably already know.
  • Understanding Shutter Speed (Bryan Peterson): Not as immediately inspiring as Understanding Exposure, but perhaps I’ll think differently when I experiment more with shutter speed.

2 stars:

The Boretress Of Slowitude

Have any of you read this? I’m 67 pages in and still as bored as I was on page 1, which is to say: totally.

I even brought the book on our weekend trip to KL, hoping that an aggregate of 10 coach hours with nothing else to do would force me to keep going until a switch magically flipped and I finally realized why the novel is apparently a “great daredevil ride” (The Times, according to the back cover). Alas, no – every time I tried to make any progress, I’d get bored after a few pages and doze off, snooze for a few minutes and then wake up again due to coach discomfort or noisy kids. Rinse and repeat, 5 hours each way.

I don’t understand how the same author who delighted me with Motherless Brooklyn’s pace, plot and humour could have birthed this tedious turd. The writing is as competent and assured as you can expect from Jonathan Lethem, but he’s taken something that could be so engaging – the ’70s childhood of a white boy in a gradually gentrifying Brooklyn neighbourhood – and sucked all the life out of it, then spat out the flavourless remains into 67 pages (so far) of carefully penned but stupefyingly dull observations. It’s like seeing graffiti in greyscale.

In my younger more pretentious days I might have stuck with this because it is Worthy by many accounts, but I now feel no compunction in giving it up. More good books exist than I will ever be able to finish reading in my lifetime, and thousands of those will reward the intelligent, thoughtful and reasonably patient reader more than this one did. I’m moving on. What have you read and enjoyed recently?

Cover Versions

How shallow does it make me that I kinda wish the particular editions I had of the last two books I was reading (my reading is primarily done on public transport) had different covers?

The one I was reading before those two had a suitably pretentious cover, but unfortunately I must confess that I enjoyed it the least. (I’m glad I read it, albeit 20 years after first reading Jane Eyre, and it successfully achieves everything I expected it to achieve, but it took a little more commitment to get through than the others.)

Oh well, as unimpressive as those first two covers are for public reading, at least they’re not THIS! (Found via random surfing, more horror here)

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.

Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)

I picked up Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go in the library simply because it was a nice handbag-friendly size for my commute, but if (like me) you’ve lost track of Ishiguro’s work since An Artist Of The Floating World or The Remains Of The Day, this one’s worth a read.

NLMG reminded me how wonderful Ishiguro is at illuminating the silences between people, the myriad things that may come to your mind during a conversation but which, for all sorts of reasons, you decide to leave unsaid. I don’t think I noticed this in his other books that I’ve read, but in NLMG he’s particularly adept at bringing this to life in the interactions between women, or at least it’s very true to my interactions with women anyway. I think he really skewers the things that can render even conversations between fairly close, caring and not particularly immature girl friends a mire of unvoiced resentments. Kathy is able to be annoyed with Ruth’s various facades and disingenuities, while understanding (and sometimes appreciating) why Ruth puts on the acts she does. Ruth is able to engage in genuine and close friendship with Kathy while she continues, through knowing inaction, to deny Kathy a precious and irreplaceable happiness. Tommy, the third major character in the book, is also quite accurately characterised (as far as my interactions with guys go, anyway) as being more straightforward, less calculative, not completely oblivious to all that’s going on between his two close girl friends but simply not wired to view things through the convoluted web of surface-vs-imputed-meanings that girl interactions have to be filtered through.

Do you know what I mean, or does none of this strike a chord with you? I mean the insecurities and disingenuities of your girl friends which chronically and acutely infuriate you, yet because you figure that they wouldn’t be like this if they weren’t fragile, you decide to be the bigger person and not crush them by letting on that you see right through them. But because you’re not perfect yourself, you can’t totally let go of your annoyance either, and it ends up colouring your interactions with them anyway, anything from throwaway comments which indirectly target an insecurity, to deliberate obtuseness when they’re fishing for affirmation, to finally just limiting the quantity/method of your interactions. (I have girl friends who I like in person, but I don’t like how they come across on their blogs, or vice versa, and other girl friends who are lovely alone but put on facades in certain social settings, so I sometimes try to pick how and where I interact with them accordingly.) Perhaps the dispassionate observer might wonder why you don’t just cut off these dysfunctional relationships, but there’s the rub – underneath all this bullshit you still like these people, you know they have good hearts, and you want to believe others will ultimately give you, too, the dignity of the holistic analysis, rather than write you off for your own annoying faults. And so we hold on to these relationships, and everything left unsaid represents the good and bad we can’t let go of.

That was a bit of a tangent, wasn’t it? Anyway, the point is that the major strength of Never Let Me Go, for me, is how consummately Ishiguro gets all of the above. Another of its strengths is how elegantly he unfolds the story, but it’s a little tough to discuss this without introducing spoilers. If you pick this book up cold as I did without knowing much about it, I daresay you will be a little surprised initially at the opening chapter’s hints about the central premise of its plot, and you might even be dubious about whether it’s your sort of story – I was. But I soon found that this didn’t matter, and (with apologies for being so cryptic, really) the third major strength of the book is how he uses the first strength to illustrate how little it matters.