Quietly getting on with being human

Ladder of Years
by Anne Tyler

Until a few months ago I hadn’t really heard of Anne Tyler. While we were visiting Tim’s parents his mum recommended this book to me and since then I keep seeing her everywhere. This week she was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize for her lifetime body of work. This is an intriguing book, a study of human character, and I suspect that the way a reader reacts to it is very telling. In some ways it’s a very sad story, and it definitely got me thinking.

“Baltimore woman disappears during family vacation” begins the book, or more accurately the newspaper article that precedes chapter one. The description of the missing woman, 40-year-old Cordelia Grinstead, is so vague, so comical that I thought this was some kind of ironic take on the actual news story, a character’s bitter retelling – “Her eyes are blue or gray or perhaps green”, she “avoided swimming wherever possible and…may have been a cat in her most recent incarnation”. It’s a slightly bizarre introduction to a not-at-all comic novel about the Grinstead family, with all its quirks and pecularities.

I had assumed, from that beginning and the brief description I’d been given by Tim’s mum, that that would be where the story began – with the woman walking away from her family – and that the bulk of the novel would alternate between them looking for her and whatever she was doing, in a slightly detached, psychological study type of way.

Instead, the book begins weeks before the family holiday, with Cordelia, or Delia as she’s known to everyone, getting into a bizarre situation while at the supermarket – a younger man spots his estranged wife with another man and begs Delia, a complete stranger, to pose as his lover. It’s a brilliant opening – the comedy of the dichotomy between what Delia wants to buy for her family and what the young man throws into the basket, what he hisses at her not to buy because it will reveal that she has children or simply isn’t glamorous enough – and gives lots of room for Delia’s thoughts to reflect on her life, on how exciting this situation is compared with the humdrum of her usual existence, on what type of person she must be to go along with this, to drive away without half of the things she needs just to please a complete stranger.

Delia isn’t unhappy, but the more she reflects on that scene at the supermarket and other circumstances that come up in the run-up to the annual family holiday (Delia, her husband Sam, their three mostly grown-up children, both Delia’s sisters and her two nieces) she becomes, not exactly dissatisfied, but aware of herself and how other people see her and how little she appears to matter in anyone else’s life.

The book follows Delia all along, revealing every thought, every indecision, every awareness, every doubt. It is fascinating to watch as she walks away from her family aimlessly, catches a lift with no particular destination in mind, and creates a whole new life for herself. She dresses differently, interacts differently with people, reads a different type of book and, importantly, is delighted whenever anyone comments on her independence. From then on the question is: will she stay here? Will she take this new Delia back home to her family? Will she move on again when this new life becomes humdrum?

I wasn’t altogether satisfied by the ending, but then I don’t think I ever quite empathised with Delia. I understand the need for a change, to search herself for a while, but it seems such a cold, cruel way of going about it. And she does spend a lot of the book seeming a little empty, distracted, not quite there, so when she is moved by events toward the end of the book it is clear that she has finally figured out where she belongs, what and who she cares about. But again she goes about it in such a cold way.

Despite my difficulty with Delia, I really enjoyed this book. I may not empathise, but hers is still a fascinating head to get inside. It really did get me thinking about that common complaint of being unappreciated, trapped in a marriage that has lost all the spark and with the children about to leave home – what’s left? Everybody wants to feel needed, right?

First published in 1982.

This is the way the world ends

Southland Tales books I–III
written by Richard Kelly
illustrated by Brett Weldele

These graphic novels are a bit of an oddity. After the belated success of the brilliant but odd Donnie Darko, writer and director Kelly went even more cerebral and complex for his next project, Southland Tales. Parts I–III are in graphic novel format, while parts IV–VI form the film Southland Tales starring The Rock, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Justin Timberlake. Confused? Wait ’til you hear the synopsis!

I’m not sure if this was intended to be the project’s format all along (as a marketing ploy) or if Kelly couldn’t fit all of his ideas for this film into a sensible length but didn’t want to just discard some on the editing room floor, instead putting the overflow into these books. To be honest, the latter is how it comes across.

Kelly’s grand idea is an end of days tale, borrowing ideas from the Book of Revelation, as well as science fiction and the politics of paranoia. The story is set in an alternative reality where the US appears to be rumbling toward disaster following a nuclear attack three years ago and the all-pervasive USIdent controls security – from software regulating internet access to the committee deciding who can cross state lines.

World-famous actor Boxer Santaros wakes up alone in the Nevada desert with no memory. He is rescued by a drifter who takes him to porn star/wannabe serious actress/psychic Krysta Now who convinces him that they are in love and were about to make a film she has written prophesying the end of the world: The Power. As Boxer begins to research his role, reality and the screenplay merge together.

Then there’s liquid karma, a mysterious substance mined from deep inside the Earth that can be used to create a wireless electricity field – the answer to the world’s energy problem. But the creators are jealously guarding their secret, and in particular their discovery that liquid karma has some very troubling effects on humans, especially when injected directly into “volunteers”.

Sound like there’s a lot going on? I’ve barely scratched the surface. Which is a problem when these are pretty slim volumes. As it happens, I watched the film Southland Tales before reading the books and I really liked it. Either film is a better medium for such a complex story and large cast or the editing process clarified the film in a manner the books could have done with. They really do look and read like a storyboard and maybe Kelly should have seriously considered making this a mini-series. Maybe he tried but with only one sleeper hit under his belt and a story that touched on a lot of the paranoia of post-911 America it wouldn’t have been easy.

There is a black sense of humour in the dialogue and characterisation that prevents this from being as heavy as it sounds. Krysta acts dumber than she is, with such lines as “Teen horniness is not a crime” but then she recites haiku on stage at the strip club where she works and explains concisely to the manager how the performance is within the terms of her contract. There are also plenty of quotations from the Bible and T S Eliot’s “The hollow men”, if that appeals.

If you liked Donnie Darko and are intrigued by a retelling of the Book of Revelation with a lot of complex ideas thrown in, then I can recommend the film. Sadly I cannot recommend these books.

Published by Graphitti Designs Inc and View Askew Productions 2006

Lupus fashion

So maybe today was just a freak, and tomorrow we’ll be plunged back into wintry greyness, but it’s getting to be that time of year when I have to start covering up when I go outside to prevent all that UV from triggering a flare of my lupus symptoms.

“Covering up” entails wearing high-factor suncream and covering my head and shoulders (at this time of year, at least; in midsummer I try to hide as much skin as possible). I have an array of hats and scarves with which to achieve this and I have mostly gotten over the embarrassment of looking like a twat, or at least standing out from the crowd. What I have not yet perfected is how to wear headscarves properly. Why don’t they teach us this stuff at school?

I can do your basic piratical tied round the head with ends trailing at the back look. When I haven’t had all my hair chopped off recently I can do a decent hair in a bun with scarf tied round in a sort-of cottage loaf thing. What I can’t do is anything remotely elegant. I want to look like a 1950s film star when I put a headscarf on. Or a mysterious Arab beauty (except showing my face so not all that mysterious).

Is there anyone out there who can provide me with some much-needed guidance?

Headcover

Comedy is soul

The Commitments
by Roddy Doyle

This was another book club read and I was excited when I was told it had been chosen. It promises a lot – great author, raucous humour, snapshot of an interesting time and place – and I definitely got the humour but I’m sad to say that I wasn’t bowled over on the whole.

I think that was the general feeling of everyone in book club. It’s definitely funny – we all had a favourite joke to recite – and it’s stylistically interesting, but it didn’t stun anyone or inspire deep thoughts.

In brief, it’s the story of a soul band in a working-class suburb of 1980s Dublin, a band which is formed at the start of the book and falls apart by the end. Most of the characters have either never played an instrument before or are amateurs at best and it’s unclear if they ever become good, but they certainly enjoy a brief spell of success. And that’s roughly it. There’s no dark undercurrent, no distracting sub-plots, there’s just the band.

The book is almost all dialogue, written in dialect, which is occasionally confusing as a non-Dubliner but it adds a lot to the characters to really hear how they speak. The songs are also written as dialogue, with stress and accent picked out, making the music a character itself.

There’s a certain amount of casual sexism and racism – the girls are often referred to as a unit, expected to be pretty and ego-free, there solely to look good; and the characters’ views of black musicians are hideously stereotyped – but I think this is a reflection of the setting rather than actual bigotry.

None of the characters is particularly fleshed out. The book is very short, with a song often taking up a few pages, which doesn’t give much room for stuff like character development or personal histories, so we learn very little about these people, only what they say and do while they’re in the band. There’s a lot of fun to be had guessing at when a character is lying or embellishing, which we got the feeling was a lot.

Quick word of warning: there is a lot of coarse language, which I don’t mind myself but can see others being put off by it.

This is a very funny book, an easy and quick read. Thanks Matthias for choosing it for book club!

First published in Ireland in 1987.

No ordinary life

Midnight’s Children
by Salman Rushdie

Wow. I have struggled for three weeks with this book and there were times I hated it, times I wondered why I was punishing myself, but now that I am finished I find myself captivated by it, stunned by the world it created and almost, possibly, missing it.

This is no ordinary book. If the mass of prizes it has won – Booker Prize 1981, James Tait Black Memorial Prize 1981, Booker of Bookers 1993, Best of the Booker 2008 – do not convince you of that, then let me. I read a lot and I assure you that this is a very different book. It most definitely stands out. I am reasonably certain, though, that I will never call it a favourite. It’s just too hard a slog.

Rushdie is not known for being an easy or accessible writer but I have read three other of his books and this was by far the hardest for me. The style is complex, rambling almost, repetitive and yet secretive, at pains to point out patterns and symbolism, to explain history and myth, at the expense of making ordinary lives hard to follow. Although, if we’re to believe the narrator (a tricky one, as I’ll explain), no life is ordinary: “How many things people notions we bring with us into the world, how many possibilities and also restrictions of possibility…To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world. I told you that.”

The story is told by Saleem Sinai, a 30-year old Indian man, speaking both to us (in the form of writing his autobiography) and to his lover Padma. The book is split into three sections – his family history leading up to his own birth, his childhood, and his adulthood. Unusually for me, I found the adulthood section easiest to read, perhaps that’s because I was finally fully engrossed in the book by that point. Saleem was born at midnight on 15 August 1947 – the exact moment of India’s independence. Thanks to rich parents and a media campaign he is hailed as a symbol of the new nation, and indeed as a narrator he takes great pains to draw parallels between every incident in his life, large or small, and the fate of the nation.

Which is a big story to tell. The first 30 years of independent India were turbulent, to say the least, and Saleem does not move quickly. He lingers on details, gets sidetracked by memories or lost memories, resists telling what is difficult to tell, lies even. He is quite possibly the most unreliable narrator I have come across. He admits this multiple times, accusing his memory of failing him, though he has other excuses on some occasions: “I told you the truth…Memory’s truth…It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies, and vilifies also; but in the end it creates its own reality…and no sane human being ever trusts someone else’s version more than his own.”

And then there’s the magical realism. I have come across this before, but perhaps never quite so fully as in this book. The magical is central to the book and yet, just possibly, could be explained away as not magical at all. I will try not to give away too much, but it relates to how Saleem discovers that he is just one of 1001 children born in India during the first hour of India’s independence, and his attempts to create a community of “Midnight’s Children” and to follow all their fates. They are not all, thankfully, introduced as characters, but a handful of them in addition to Saleem’s own family and neighbours gives this book a large enough cast of characters to confuse me at times. Generally, though, Saleem spends plenty of words on reminding you of who someone is, with a string of nicknames related to characteristics or incidents in their pasts.

There is a lot of humour to balance out the necessarily harsh details of a country that suffered riots, war, police brutality and much else in this time period. Padma, our fellow listener, quite often interjects with disbelief or frustration or even contradiction to Saleem’s narrative. Many characters are described with far-from-subtle abnormalities, bordering on the grotesque, like a cast of circus freaks. Saleem’s view of the world is immensely narcissistic (he does, after all, believe his life to be inextricably linked with that of his great mother country) and yet his cruellest words are often aimed at himself.

Mostly, Saleem is a vessel through which the early story of India and Pakistan can be told. His family is ostensibly Muslim (though not devout) so that though he is born and initially raised in Bombay (as it was then called), other family members go to Pakistan shortly after its creation. The action moves throughout the two countries (three countries, after Bangladesh comes into being), with Saleem somehow being wherever the news is being created, where the eyes of the world are focused (or perhaps should be focused, but aren’t). It’s a stretch, certainly, but the whole is told in such a style that you either have to believe he is making it all up to make his point, or you have to suspend disbelief and accept it all, magic included.

As a story of India it is fascinating and I learned a lot. I was particularly struck by the resistance, almost cynical, to considering India a great nation: “A nation which had never previously existed was about to win its freedom, catapulted into a world which, although it had five thousand years of history…was nevertheless quite imaginary…a country which would never exist except by the efforts of a phenomenal collective will.” And yet it made me want to learn more, want to go there and see the great festivals where paint is thrown over people in joyous celebration of life, where Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Muslim and numerous other religions have existed side-by-side for centuries, thousands of years even (not always peacefully, admittedly), where smell is a hugely important part of daily life (so often left out of descriptions in books, in this one it plays a central role).

But I can’t deny that I struggled, I found it hard to read. Not because of subject matter or lack of interest – the style itself is tough-going. And because of that, those times I have been asked, while reading it, if I would recommend it to others…I honestly didn’t (and still don’t) know how to answer.

See also: review by The Girl.

First published by Jonathan Cape in 1981.

Podcastery

So life continues to be hectic. It feels like I’m completing a series of to-do lists (or not completing them) and I have to remind myself that I’m doing things I chose to do, I’m exactly where I put myself. But I still need the occasional breather.

And generally reading is my breathing time, my “me time”. But I can’t always read, either because I’m walking somewhere or I’m too tired or I have to prioritise doing some exercise to maintain the gradual improvement to my health that is my major goal this year. So the other thing I have been filling my brain with is podcasts.

What a great invention! Seriously, being able to pick and choose the best radio shows from all the channels and listen to them when it suits you? Genius! I use the humorously named MyPod app on my Android phone to manage them but there are no doubt other ways. I can listen on the walk to and from work, at the gym, in the kitchen while making dinner, in my library while sorting books into alphabetical order (yes, dull I know but I have a lot of books and I like to be able to find the right one).

I do feel that I’m not making the most of this wonderful new world, though. I have five podcasts that I follow – The Naked Scientists, Radio 4 Open Book, Excess Baggage (another Radio 4 one, discovered thanks to Liz of Eliza Does Very Little), Wittertainment (Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s 5 Live show) and the Guardian Books Podcast – plus I will of course eagerly download the Adam and Joe show when it finally starts back up. But what am I missing? Any and all recommendations gratefully received!

I knew my Mum’s obsession with Wimbledon would come in handy one day

Double Fault
by Lionel Shriver

I picked up this book, like many people have, I suspect, because I was bowled over by We Need to Talk About Kevin and was hoping for more of the same hard-hitting, emotionally draining, intelligently frightening fiction. This was a good book, but it wasn’t those things; not really.

It does cover some of the same ground, though. This is a dissection of a modern marriage, a tumultuous story of two large egos struggling to adapt to loving someone. There’s a lot of introspection, a lot of dissection, a lot of resentment and only brief euphoric highs.

The background is the world of professional tennis and Shriver has clearly done some homework here. As I often find to be the case, I found a lot of the detailed descriptions of matches or point systems to be laboured and dull. But then I’m really not a sports fan. And the book isn’t really about tennis so it’s probably okay that I started skimming those passages.

What it’s really about is doggedly pursuing ambition in the face of many reasons not to, confusing your self with your ability, gender politics in relationships, and the difficult questions of marriage itself – should it change you? Should love have already changed you so that the compromises of marriage are a breeze? What if your career requires you to be the sort of person who never compromises? How do you switch that off when you get home? Plus the added complications of being a professional athlete – being away from home a lot, having to fit in training – and you have a marriage that seems doomed from the start.

I was not bowled over by this book but I do think it was well done, so I think I have to admit that my problem was mostly with the main characters and my inability to connect with them. Wilhelmina “Willy” Novinsky had some charm at first in her noviceness at relationships, it is sweet to see her being won over. But she has so much anger in her, and is so ready to blame everyone else in her life when things go wrong, that I lost all empathy with her.

The writing is good, with believable dialogue that occasionally raised a chuckle or a wry smile of familiarity from me. There’s an early scene where Willy is on a date and senses that she is being scored on her answers to some probing questions. The one question she won’t answer is the lighthearted assertion that she must be having an affair with her coach. It’s a neat way of introducing the possibility, and the air of disappointment and uncertainty that flavours the whole book.

The back of my copy had a couple of pages of reading group questions, and I do think this could be a good choice for a book club. There’s a lot I’d love to discuss that I can’t raise here without giving away key plot points, particularly in the gender politics area.

First published 2006.

Drifting, teenage style

Lost at Sea
by Bryan Lee O’Malley

It was inevitable, after my great love of the Scott Pilgrim books, that I would search out O’Malley’s earlier work, and this is it – a simple, sensitive tale of teenage confusion. It’s touchingly written and artfully drawn.

O’Malley sticks to black and white for his comics, making great use of plain black or white backgrounds to highlight moments of loneliness, with a surprising amount of detail packed into other panes.

The story is simple and yet at times can be hard to follow. This is because the main character, 18-year-old Raleigh, is both jumbled up herself and reluctant to tell the story that she is telling. Initially I found that irritating but then I relaxed into it as I realised how necessary it was to illustrate Raleigh’s state of mind.

Action switches between a road trip from California to Vancouver, to the events that led to the road trip, and sometimes further back still. The story touches on lost friends, parents divorcing, first love, losing your soul (possibly to a cat) – the usual teenage stuff. It’s familiar without being cliché, sweet without being saccharine, quirky without being unrelatable.

Fans of the Scott Pilgrim books may not all love this as much as I do. This has none of the geekiness, boyishness or the comedy. What they have in common, in addition to the great art and believable dialogue, is the sense of drifting aimlessly through life. Those who criticised that in 20-something Scott Pilgrim may find it more forgiveable in 18-year-old Raleigh.

Published 2002 by Oni Press.

One year in

“Happy blogoversary to me,
happy blogoversary to me!”

Today is a ridiculously busy day for me, with bridesmaid dress arrangements, furniture moving, book unpacking, filing and other useful things to be done. However, I am hoping to find time to do some exercise and to bake a blog birthday cake. And post a picture of it here, of course.

UPDATE 1: A fair few things ticked off the list, which is satisfying. Here is a sneak peak at the library project that has been keeping us busy for weeks:

Books books books

I’ll do a proper post about it when it’s complete, with before and after pics and all that jazz. But it’s already looking good, no?

Also, forgot to say earlier, happy World Book Day! All sorts of fun things seem to be going on. Twitter is full of updates on book giveaways and other projects. BBC2 has some special programmes about it on tonight that I can’t watch live because I’m going out but I’m recording them to watch tomorrow.

Right, now for that cake…

UPDATE 2: Well, I baked a carrot cake that smells amazing but it fell apart a bit so…not so photogenic. But I’m still feeling celebratory because I won a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie from Little Interpretations for World Book Night! What a day!