Saturday, December 17, 2011

My Sense of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is a very short novel, more of a novella at only 163 pages, that has appeared on list after list after list of 2011 Best Books of the Year.  I didn't know much about this book, but since it won the Man Booker prize, was short, was about memory and perception, and became available at the library, I decided to give it a go. The novella tells the story of Tony Webster, a 60ish man reflecting back on time spent and interactions with his college girlfriend Veronica and genius childhood friend Adrian.

It's actually almost impossible to go into what I didn't like about the book without spoiling it for anyone who wants to read it. While the novel's musings about our memory's handling of time and our own life histories are infinitely quotable, the plot meanders about through the lives of a few rather unlikeable characters with little emotion or personality behind them, other than the caricatures they are made out to be. The plot is more a vehicle for the quotable (and highly insightful) musings than a story well-told. Don't get me wrong - the novella is beautifully written, and this would not cause me to rule out reading more Barnes' works. But Veronica's cryptic dialogue & her lack of any redeeming traits did make me wonder if Barnes thinks women are, as Tony's ex-wife put it, easily categorized into two camps: "those with clear edges to them, and those who implied mystery." Veronica, of course, was supposed to be in the latter camp.

I did enjoy and agree with many of the musings about life, and how our memories are dynamic as opposed to static - self-editing over time, how we can feel one way about our pasts one moment, then look at it through another lens & our opinion of it completely changes. Here are a few of those quotes I was talking about:
I'd read somewhere that if you want to make people pay attention to what you're saying, you don't raise your voice but lower it: this is what really commands attention.
We live with such easy assumptions, don't we? For instance, that memory equals events plus time. But it's all much odder than this. Who was it said that memory is what we thought we'd forgotten? And it out to be obvious to us that time doesn't act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it's not convenient--it's not useful--to believe this; it doesn't help us get on with our lives, so we ignore it.
In my terms, I settled for the realities of life, and submitted to its necessities: if this, then that, and so the years passed. In Adrian's terms, I gave up on life, gave up on examining it, took it as it came. And so, for the first time, I began to feel a more general remorse--a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred--about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the friends of my youth. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded--and how pitiful that was.
When you are in your twenties, even if you're confused and uncertain about your aims and purposes, you have a strong sense of what life itself is, and of what you in life are, and might become. 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. It's a bit like the black box aeroplanes carry to record what happens in a crash. If nothing goes wrong, the tape erases itself. So if you do crash, it's obvious why you did; if you don't, then the log of your journey is much less clear.  
 So, yes, insightful and quotable. But as for the story itself, Veronica was constantly telling Tony: "You just don't get it, do you? You never did, and you never will." That's probably true about me and the plot of this novella. Or, I understood the overall purpose, but found the story a weak delivery vehicle.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Impressions

After reading that The Night Circus failed to live up to Beth and Carrie's expectations from the considerable hype, I was less excited to read this novel. I waited patiently until it came up in the library queue, and when it did, I picked it up out of mild (instead of burning) curiosity. Because my hopes had been dampened, I may have enjoyed this book much more than had I read it a couple months earlier. A short synopsis, as this is likely the 1387th review you've seen on this book:
  • Setting: An enchanting, entirely black and white circus, open only at night, that travels without notice - one never knows when or where it will show up or how long it will stay. 
  • Plot: two young children are chosen to compete in a mysterious duel of magic and illusion, a competition for which they train throughout their childhood, and once begun lasts years with no clear rules or stakes or end. 
  • Themes: chaos vs. order and control, innate vs. learned ability, illusion vs. reality, time and timing - fate vs free will.
If you prefer character-based novels, be forewarned: The Night Circus is almost entirely plot and setting driven, the characters merely outlines of chess pieces (I steal that comparison directly from the book), fleshed out only so much as necessary to move the story forward. Think Agatha Christie, with magic but no murder to solve - each character with an identifying characteristic to keep them straight (the tattooed contortionist, the farmer's son, the fortune-teller, the stylish former ballerina, the clockmaker, etc.). The character's special abilities are much more central to the tale than their personalities, which, as has been mentioned, were somewhat flat. All were defined by their skills and principles. I didn't actually mind this at all while reading - I was entirely riveted by the atmosphere Morgenstern deftly created. Her descriptions of this enchanting world brought the circus to life as if a Tim Burton film was playing in my head. 

The love story aspect more difficult to accept unless thought of in fairy tale terms - fairy tale romances are rarely based on much of substance, but mostly on whimsical fancy, and this is no exception, which was not an issue for me since the story was not first or foremost a romance, but more of a fable about what is under one's control and what is not, and the blurred lines between dreamlike illusions and reality - what is reality, after all, but what we choose to believe it to be.

Thematic quotes:
People see what they wish to see. And in most cases, what they are told to see.
This is not magic. This is the way the world is, only very few people take the time to stop and note it.
Someone needs to tell those tales. When the battles are fought and won and lost, when the pirates find their treasures and the dragons eat their foes for breakfast with a nice cup of Lapsang souchong, someone needs to tell their bits of overlapping narrative. There's magic in that. It's in the listener, and for each and every ear it will be different, and it will affect them in ways they can never predict.
Overall, I found this to be an incredibly enjoyable and captivating read, making me wish such a whimsical circus would appear randomly in my town, just to get a taste of the impossible even if for only a moment.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

My Life In France by Julia Child: Impressions


I found this photo somewhere on the internet. I had to use it because, let's be honest, don't we all leave your books lying on the floor with a crisp rose oh so carefully strewn across each of their covers? Admit it. You totally do. I, myself, have a florist on speed dial just so that I can keep my books happy with fresh roses.

If you have managed to distract yourself long enough from the beautiful bloom (or perhaps  read the title of this post), you may have ascertained that the rose-bedecked book & thus the true subject of this post is, indeed, My Life in France, by Julia Child & her grand nephew Alex Prud'homme. This book was also our book club's selection last month. I can't say that I particularly enjoyed it. But finish it I did, because I am terrible at intentionally not finishing books. It's a sickness.

Why didn't I particularly enjoy it? Well, for one thing, it's mostly about food. French food. I am not the most adventurous eater out there, and I really do not like French food. It is very meat/animal based, for one, and I don't eat many animals. (I do occasionally eat fish or poultry, but not often.)  The bloody duck-crushing bit and the live lobster chopping bit had to be read in close proximity to a bucket, lest my gag-reflex get the better of me. Also, apparently lots and lots of butter is the answer to any culinary problem. I'm not anti-butter by any means, but I'm anti globs and globs of butter on everything. Much of the book was filled with such food talk, or read like a factual diary entry with a recap of a night out or a dinner event (we went here, and ate this, and then we ate this, and then this, with this wine, and it was delicious, then we went there and met so-and-so and ate that, and then finally we went home at 2am!!) which, shockingly, I found very dull.

Luckily, it was not entirely boring or out-grossing, and I did enjoy her depictions of French life, her anecdotes about things such as how to survive a French dinner party ("Just speak very loudly and quickly, state your position with utter conviction, as the French do, and you'll have a marvelous time!!"), and her observations about the policies and politics of the time period. She and her husband Paul were unabashedly liberal; Paul worked for the Foreign Service and at some point was summoned back to the States for an investigation into his alleged Communist and homosexual leanings. And her descriptions of Provence at the time make it sound like an utterly magical place: 

Bumping up the rutted driveway, we were struck, once again, by what Paul termed "the Reverse Hornet-Sting" of the place--the shockingly fresh and inspirational jolt we got from our lovely hideaway. It was the cool, early-morning layers of fog in the valleys; Esterel's volcanic mountains jutting up out of the glittering sea; the warming Provencal sun and bright-blue sky; the odor of earth and cow dung and burning grapevine prunings; the colorful violets and irises and mimosas; the olives blackening; the sound of little owls talking back and forth; the sea-bottom tast of Belon oysters; the noisy fun of the marketplace; the deeply quiet, sparkling nights with a crescent moon hanging overhead like a lamp.

I never watched any of her cooking shows growing up and knew virtually nothing about Ms. Child before reading this, and I found one of the most refreshing things about her story to be that she did not come into her own until her late 30s and early 40s. In fact, before she moved to France when she was 36, she was an absolutely horrid cook. She comes across as something of a strong-willed, OCD but lovable kook, and she was probably delightful company. 

The book was not a total wash for me. If you are into food and meat and cooking and duck-crushing you will probably enjoy this read much more than I. While I don't regret reading it, I definitely could have done without. 
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