Finished Julian Barnes’s Booker Prize winning, and number one Tournament of Books seeded, The Sense of an Ending in what was essentially one sitting today. It is split into two parts, a reflection on growing up from a man past middle age, and then a reanalysis of that life after a bequest from the mother of a former lover. The first part is brilliant, funny, and full of insight into growing up as a man a little too afraid of consequences:
Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? Who had the usual ambitions and settled all too quickly for them not being realised? Who avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival?
I can’t remember where I came across the idea, but what if we were to live our lives without fear? This is something I have thought a lot about since then, and whether I will have regrets over not choosing the hard road at one time or another because I was afraid of the consequences. Barnes’s narrator clearly has these regrets.
The second part was also very interesting and dealt a lot with another subject I’ve thought about (and which becomes the subject of Open City in similar ways to this book): how the re-telling of our own story, even to ourselves, is often dramatically different than the way other people experienced shared sections of it, and that even when we keep letters, photographs, journal entries and other “objective” records of our lives, our own history has no definitive plot line.
Later … later there is more uncertainty, more overlapping, more backtracking, more false memories. Back then, you can remember your short life in its entirety. Later, the memory becomes a thing of shreds and patches.
I didn’t like the ending as much as the rest of the book, and based on reviews I’ve seen, many others had the same problem. But there’s a lot of great stuff in this book, and I recommend it. It falls into the “Good, worth your time” category of my last post.
One other note on memory and history: Last week I mentioned to a coworker that I’d never read any Julian Barnes. Turns out I read Metroland in January 1999 and wouldn’t have known it except for the meticulous records I’ve kept, chronicling that part of my history.
The 2012 Tournament of Books judges, books, and pairings have been announced. ToB is my favorite “best-of” books contest, and I'm very much looking forward to the contest itself, starting in March. Meantime, I can attempt to read some of the 2011 books I haven't yet read. I was in the middle of David Foster Wallace’s Pale King, but since that isn't on the list, I'll put it aside for the second time.
Here’s the list. Click the ToB link above to see the judges and pairings (checkmarks indicate what I’ve read, updated to the present):
- Nathacha Appanah, The Last Brother ✓
- Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending ✓
- Teju Cole, Open City ✓
- Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods ✓
- Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers ✓
- Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot ✓
- Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding ✓
- Alan Hollinghurst, The Stranger’s Child ✗
- Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones ✓
- Haruki Murakami, 1Q84 ✓
- Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife
- Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table ✓
- Ann Patchett, State of Wonder ✓
- Donald Ray Pollock, Devil All the Time ✓
- Karen Russell, Swamplandia! ✓
- Kate Zambreno, Green Girl ✓
I’ve read Open City, The Sisters Brothers, The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding, 1Q84, and Swamplandia!, and just finished Green Girl.
Rather than ranking them, I’ll put them into thee categories:
Great, should win
- The Sisters Brothers — a hilarious western novel. Deadwood as done by the Cohen brothers.
- 1Q84 — Murakami at his best, this time with a kick-ass female lead.
- The Art of Fielding — fantastic story (plus baseball!) that lived up to the hype.
Good, worth your time
- The Marriage Plot — I enjoyed this one a lot, but I thought it lagged in the middle.
- Open City — A very interesting reading experience. I imagine those familiar with New York City would really enjoy it since the book is basically about a guy walking around New York reflecting on his life.
- Swamplandia! — I was hoping this would be another Geek Love, and it started off really well, but I lost interest by the end of the book.
- Green Girl — I just finished this one, and I didn’t enjoy it at all. It is the story of a girl from Chicago trying to make it in London. Why she moved there and what motivated her to do the things she did (mostly debase and feel sorry for herself) were not clear enough to me, and I found it depressing and boring.
Now I'm onto The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, one of the top seeds, so I'm hopeful I'll enjoy it more. I doubt if any of the others on the list can compete with my top three, but it will be interesting to see what I think, as well as to follow the competition in March.
I just finished a pair of books that take place around the time of the Civil War and the years following. Both stories are told from multiple points of view, but the similarities end there.
Peter Matthiessen’s masterwork of fiction Shadow Country is a reworking of a book he wrote decades earlier, and which was originally split into three separate books. It tells the story of “Bloody Watson,” a real person who was suspected of a multitude of murders in southern Florida and who was gunned down by his neighbors after the great hurricane of October 1910. The first “book” is composed of a series of short chapters written in the voices of the people who were present when Watson was murdered, the second is from the perspective of his son, and the third is a first person accounting by Edgar Watson himself. It’s a great way to tell a story, not only because each section comes from a different perspective, but because each “author” lived a very different part of the same history. The accounts overlap, of course, but in ways that draw you into the mystery of Watson’s life and his family rather than simply telling the same tale from different angles.
For such a long book, it held my attention throughout, and involved places and times I’m really not all that familiar with. And knowing what little I do know about the Everglades region of Florida, it’s likely that there’s nothing left of the world Watson lived in. Most of that is a good thing—the relationship between the races and sexes was harsh and brutal—but it would be great to see what the Everglades looked like before much of the wildlife was shot out and the structure of the region was changed.
The second book I read this month is Chris Adrian’s first novel, Gob’s Grief. I read The Children’s Hospital in 2007, and came away wanting to read more from Adrian. Gob’s Grief isn’t as spectacular as The Children’s Hospital, but it covers a lot of the same ground; angels, spirits, life and death. And just like The Children’s Hospital, he somehow manages to keep the story grounded in reality.
A couple asides: the dog in the photo is Deuce, who finally figured out (last month) that sleeping on dog beds was better than sleeping on the floor. I tried setting the books next to him laying on a dog bed, but he couldn’t handle that. So that’s the best photo I could get with him and the books in it. Nika is out in the dog yard and the other dogs are at the races with Andrea today.
After looking at the list of books I read in past years on the sidebar, I realized that they were in chronological order, but reverse chronological order makes a lot more sense in the context of a blog (where the most recent post is first) and for the sidebar. So I reversed them with a quick Python script. Here’s my reverse.py:
#! /usr/bin/env python import sys lines = sys.stdin.readlines() lines.reverse() for line in lines: line = line.strip() print(line)
To use it: cat file | ./reverse.py > reversed_file
I finished Gravity’s Rainbow last week. For me, it was a bit of a disappointment, not so much with the book itself, but with myself for not devoting the time to reading it more faithfully from start to finish. With the previous Pynchon I’ve read (Crying of Lot 49, Mason & Dixon, Against the Day) I started out reading very carefully, taking notes as I went along. After I got comfortable with the narrative and felt I was familiar enough with the gestalt, I blazed through the remainder of the book. This time around, I started the same way, but didn’t devote the time to reading it after the first part and I wasn’t able to keep the characters and situations in my head. So the novel wound up as a jumble. I can see the brilliance and magic at the margins of my comprehension, but that’s about it.
At this point, I’d have to place it below both Mason & Dixon and Against the Day in my list of favorite Pynchon books. Someday I’ll have to pick it up again and try to give it the time it deserves.
Since finishing it, I’ve been reading like crazy. First was Deb Olin Unferth’s Vacation, which was fantastic. It reminded me a bit of the way Paul Auster can keep you off balance and wondering what will come next as the characters start behaving more and more strangely. Then McSweeney’s 28, which was a series of entertaining short fables (my favorite was the one about the guy who kept meeting himself). Finally, Mary Roach’s Bonk. I enjoyed this one as well, even if the continual footnoted asides became tedious by the end. I was amused, and feel like I learned a lot about what science has to say about sex.
After my success at quickly completing three books, I’ve started working on 2666 by literary superstar Roberto Bolaño. I had to special order it because my local independent bookstore didn’t have any copies, and appeared to never have heard of Bolaño. They’re surprisingly out of touch with the world of literary fiction, which seems odd for a store trying to survive the big box, low price onslaught of Barnes and Noble. Maybe they make their hay selling Twilight or whatever other bestselling doorstop is popular today and forgotten tomorrow.
In any case, 63 pages into 2666 and I’m highly amused. Thus far, the story has revolved around four literary critics obsessed with a reclusive German author. If that sounds like an odd premise for a story, it is; odder still is that despite there being very little plot, I’m eager to get back to it.
More eager than chopping wood or cooking my Thanksgiving ham, stuffing, gravy and sweet potato pie, in fact.
I’ve started reading Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon’s masterwork. I tried to read it many years ago, and gave up after 100 pages. This time around, I’m familiar enough with Pynchon’s themes and style of writing that I don’t think I’ll run into the trouble I had before. I’m reading it with Steven Weisenburger’s Companion as well as Zak Smith’s page by page Pictures, which are helping to make it easier to discern the narrator and location of the action in each episode. Smith’s illustration for the following quote appears to the right. Page 49 of the book, which takes place during the Nazi V2 rocket attacks on London:
All over this frost and harrowed city…as once again the floor is a giant lift propelling you with no warning toward your ceiling—replaying now as the walls are blown outward, bricks and mortar showering down, your sudden paralysis as death comes to wrap and stun…and the sight of your blood spurting from the flaccid stub of artery, the snowy roofslates fallen across half your bed, the cinema kiss never complete, you were pinned and stared at a crumpled cigarette pack for two hours in pain, you could hear them crying from the rows either side but couldn’t move.
So far I’m really enjoying the book, despite the investment I’ve decided to make in trying to understand everything I’m reading. Pynchon, as always, writes like a brilliant madman.
Here’s a brief conversation, overheard on the Pynchon-L mailing list, for those of you on the fence about reading GR:
M.R. I am a new member to this list, and in fact to Pynchon’s writing. What would folks recommend as my first read?
K. You don’t want to die without having read Gravity’s Rainbow, so why take chances?