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.

Excerpts: Living To Tell The Tale (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

Interest in national politics was rather thin at school. In my grandparents’ house I had heard it said too often that the only difference between the two parties after the War of a Thousand Days was that the Liberals went to five o’clock Mass so that no one would see them and the Conservatives went to Mass at eight so that people would believe they were believers.

* * *

At that time Bogota was a remote, lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the sixteenth century. I noticed that on the street there were too many hurrying men, dressed like me when I arrived, in black wool and bowler hats. On the other hand, not a single consolatory woman could be seen, for they, like priests in cassocks and soldiers in uniform, were not permitted to enter the gloomy cafes in the business district. In the streetcars and public urinals there was a melancholy sign: “If you don’t fear God, fear syphilis.”

Excerpt: Living To Tell The Tale (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

“I had just dropped out of the faculty of law after six semesters devoted almost entirely to reading whatever I could get my hands on, and reciting from memory the unrepeatable poetry of the Spanish Golden Age. I already had read, in translation, and in borrowed editions, all the books I would have needed to learn the novelist’s craft, and had published six stories in newspaper supplements, winning the enthusiasm of my friends and the attention of a few critics. The following month I would turn twenty-three, I had passed the age of military service and was a veteran of two bouts of gonorrhea, and every day I smoked, with no foreboding, sixty cigarettes made from the most barbaric tobacco. I divided my leisure between Barranquilla and Cartagena de Indias, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, living like a king on what I was paid for my daily commentaries in the newspaper El Heraldo, which amounted to almost less than nothing, and sleeping in the best company possible wherever I happened to be at night. As if the uncertainty of my aspirations and the chaos of my life were not enough, a group of inseparable friends and I were preparing to publish without funds a bold magazine that Alfonso Fuenmayor had been planning for the past three years. What more could anyone desire?”

* * *

Gabriel Garcia Marquez rOxOrS so much. This already feels like an autobiography and a half, and I’m only 20 pages into one book of an intended trilogy.

St Synchronicity

The two books I’m reading at the moment are 100 Years of Solitude (re-reading) and Life And Times Of Michael K.

In 100 Years Of Solitude, a plaster statue of St Joseph left by an unknown visitor at the Buendia house is found to be full of gold coins. For years after that, Ursula, the matriarch of the family, insists on asking every visitor to the house whether they once left a plaster statue of St Joseph there. She has hidden the coins to keep them safe for their owner, and steadfastly refuses to reveal where they are to anyone else.

13 pages into Life And Times Of Michael K, a plaster statue of St Joseph has been stolen from a charitable mission building, now devastated by an outbreak of looting and disorder.