Monday, September 26, 2011

Making Executive Decisions

Those of you who regularly read this blog know I love lists. I have something of a goal to read most of the novels on the 1,001 Books list. I say most because I know it is an impossible task given that at least one of the novels was published in Korea 30 years ago and has yet to be translated into English.

But I am coming to think that I need to narrow my focus a bit. After all, many of the books on this list are unnecessary...maybe I'll get to the eleven Coetzee on here (I only have nine to go) but maybe I won't.

What has prompted this is that I have made yet another attempt to read JG Ballard's Crash and simply cannot stomach it. I had enough of this with American Psycho. So my question is, what is the point of continuing? Am I going to miss something glorious by shedding this books, making the executive decision to not return?

If not, I think the book will go on the "shed" pile very quickly. I'm reaching critical mass, and there are likely many, many other books that I won't have to squirm through.

10 Best Songs Based on Books

The Guardian has a list of the 10 best songs based on books. I have always loved "Killing an Arab," and "Venus in Furs" is one of my all time favorite songs. But I certainly didn't know that Scentless Apprentice was based on Perfume, or that there even was a song called "Wuthering Heights." I am going to look it up now...

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Enduring Love

Sometimes in my life, I get feelings about things. I don’t mean everyday coincidences, such as the fact that today I e-mailed a consultant about grass (my life is so exciting, I know), and it turns out he was on the job site at that moment looking at the grass. That’s a coincidence.


By feelings, I mean connections between people, often before they are aware of it themselves. I often am able to pick up when a person likes someone else…not obvious flirtations, but those secret things we don’t always like to admit. The way they throw a snowball, or the slight, so easy to miss twinkle in their eye at the mention of the person’s name.


Once, I don’t remember the situation, but I shared a very personal story with a friend of mine. There was some subtle something in the way she reacted to the story, and I thought, I think she (yes she) is in love with me. Months later…maybe four or five months later, she tells me that she is in love with me. Here was the rest of the conversation:


“I know.”
“You know?”
“I’ve known since November.”
“But I didn’t realize it until March.”
“I’ve known since November.”


I usually try to keep these feelings at arms lengths, especially when there is a desire for them to be correct. So I try to ignore them, and let things go where they go. And also because every now and then I seem to be off.


In Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, Jed Parry gets it very, very wrong.


I loved the first few paragraphs, setting up the story:



The beginning is simple to mark. We were in sunlight under a turkey oak, partly protected from a strong, gusty wind. I was kneeling on the grass with a corkscrew in my hand, and Clarissa was passing me the bottle – a 1987 Daumas Gassac. This was the moment, this was the pinprick on the time map: I was stretching out my hand, and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man’s shout. We turned to look across the field and saw the danger. Next thing, I was running toward it. The transformation was absolute: I don’t recall dropping the corkscrew, or getting to my feet, or making a decision, or hearing the caution Clarissa called after me. What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from our happiness among the fresh spring grasses by the oak. There was a shout again, and a child’s cry, enfeebled by the wind that roared in the tall trees along the hedgerows. I ran faster. And there, suddenly, from different points around the field, four other men were converging on the scene, running like me.


…I’m holding back, delaying the information. I’m lingering in the prior moment because it was a time when other outcomes were still possible; the convergence of six figures in a flat green space has a comforting geometry from the buzzard’s perspective, the knowable, limited plane of the snooker table. The initial conditions, the force and the direction of the force, define all the consequent pathways, all the angles of collision and return, and the glow of the overhead light bathes the field, the baize and all its moving bodies, in reassuring clarity. I think that while we were still converging, before we made contact, we were in a state of mathematical grace. I linger on our dispositions, the relative distances and the compass point- because as far as these occurrences were concerned, this was the last time I understood anything clearly at all.


What were we running toward? I don’t think any of us would ever know fully…it was an enormous balloon filled with helium, that elemental gas forged from hydrogen in the nuclear furnace of the stars, first step along the way in the generation of multiplicity and variety of matter in the universe, including our selves and our thoughts.

We were running toward a catastrophe, which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes.


One of the men running was Jed Parry. Our narrator, Joe Rose, has an odd encounter with him when one of the people trying to hold down the balloon is lifted up and eventually falls to his death. Jed asks Joe to pray with him there over the body. Joe refuses, disgusted at this reaction and leaves. In the middle of the night, Joe receives a phone call from Jed: he knows that Joe is in love with him, and he just wanted to call and let him know that he was in love too. So it begins.


Jed follows him – staking out his apartment, interpreting the movement of curtains for signals from Joe. And Joe’s wife Clarissa misses all of this. Jed hides when he sees her coming, and his handwriting is close enough to Joe’s that Clarissa thinks Joe is making it all up. Until he tries to kill them.


I thought the book got off track when Joe goes to find Jean (widow of the man who fell), and she asks him to find the girl that must have been in the car with her husband. She believes he must have been having an affair with whoever left the scarf behind. This plot line was then seemingly forgotten about to return to the original plot – so wholly forgotten that I had to go back and make sure I didn’t skip a chapter. It is introduced again at the very end for what seemed like no purpose. After thinking about it, the purpose obviously was to give a non-psychotic twist on the case of getting it wrong. Jean believes – based on evidence she interprets – that he husband was having an affair. In actuality, he had picked up an illicit hitchhiking couple who flee the scene when it takes its deadly turn.



In the end, I don’t think that I particularly cared for Enduring Love. I think I really enjoyed the Jed Parry/Joe Rose story…maybe “enjoyed” isn’t the word. I was freaked out, kept interested. But the other portions of it seemed superfluous. I thought for certain that when Rose looked into the mysterious scarf left in the car, he would find another reason to fear Parry. Instead, he found what amounted to a strange and unnecessary feel good ending – or at least feel good in context. The end, generally, all neatly tied up, was really just feel good in context. And I suppose that that is where my disappointment lies. Not because I didn’t want it to end well for Joe and Clarissa, or anyone else, but it seemed both rushed and dragged out at the same time. I found myself skimming through conversations on Keats to find out what Parry was going to do next.


So, something like The Mustache is happening here with my reaction to the book. It was, as a whole, just ho-hum...the ending like a deflating balloon (pun intended). The ideas that the novel presented and explored, however, were interesting and disturbing. McEwan writes, “No one could agree on anything. We lived in a mist of half-shared, unreliable perception, and our sense data came warped by a prism of desire and belief, which tilted our memories too. We saw and remembered in our own favor, and we persuaded ourselves along the way….believing is seeing.” How much do we see about the world, and our relationships, simply because we believe it? How much of the stuff we see as symbolic, or “meaning something” is just coincidence? What’s disturbing here is to see those pattern-seeking tendencies we have as humans blown up into something deadly. And where is the line between generally reading evidence and drawing a wrong conclusion, and just being certifiable? Probably somewhere around the time you start following someone around. Creepy.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Mustache & The Class Trip

I've been taking a lot of recommendations from The Millions these days. The description of Emmanuel Carrere's The Mustache and Class Trip in this article was too much for me to resist.

Imagine Rod Sterling's voice here. Meet ____ (we don't know his name). About to set out for a dinner party, he decides to shave off his mustache. In this ordinary act, something extraordinary occurs. When he walks out of the bathroom, he will be entering - The Twilight Zone.

Ok, that was lame. But imagine you had a mustache for years. And you decide to get rid of it, just to see. But no one notices - not your wife, not your friends, not your coworkers. Your mustache, you thought, was such an obvious feature of your appearance that someone would comment on its disappearance...especially since some, like you wife, have never seen you without it. But no one notices. You begin to suspect they are all playing a trick on you, an elaborate joke. One night you ask your wife (named Agnes) why she hasn't said anything. And she informs you that you never had a mustache. !

You call some friends, and they say you never had a mustache either. ! You produce some photos from a trip to Java you and Agnes took, with your mustache, and Agnes dismisses them. In the morning, the photos are gone, and she informs you that you never went to Java, with or without mustache. The friends you visited the night before - Agnes tells you that you not only spent the night at home but that she never heard of these friends. !

Through all this, you find out that your father died the year before, but you don't remember...you thought he was alive and well. !

So...what do you do? Are you insane? Is Agnes insane? Is Agnes trying to convince you that you are insane for some reason?

___ runs away - hopping on a plane to Hong Kong, where he spends a few days riding a ferry back and forth and shaving over and over and over and over again. He moves on to Macao, and one night coming back to his hotel - there is Agnes, talking about going to the casino again, as if she had been along on the entire trip. He goes into the bathroom, and cuts off his face. There. All better.


The Mustache certainly isn't for everyone. I wasn't sure it was for me, given my New York Trilogy problem. But I actually really, really liked it. Sometimes I apparently have trouble relating to people who think differently than I do, to the point where it seems there are two different realities. So the concept of The Mustache - that what we feel constitutes our life, our reality - could be very, very wrong is extremely creepy. What if reality as I perceive it is as it is for the unnamed narrator? Not that I actually think it is - I'm not that crazy (I don't think!) but it is eerie nonetheless. There are tracts of Sartre and Nausea here.




The Class Trip, on the other hand, is very very different. No need to just go with it here, no need to suspend disbelief. Nicholas is a shy, outcast kid whose dad (a prosthesis salesman) insists on driving him to ski camp instead of letting Nicholas go on the bus with the other kids. He forgets Nicholas's bag in his trunk, but doesn't return to drop it off. A boy is found murdered in a neighboring village. What did Nicholas's father have to do with it?

This novel is understated almost to a fault. It's a horror story without suspense, with barely building any tension. It's a horror story that, 20 pages from the end, I thought of just abandoning. I knew what had happened and there was no need to see how it resolved itself. The reader is never given any perspective other than Nicholas's, so the story is really about a boy who comes to see that is father is a child murderer and not a hero as opposed to a story about the actual crime. It was interesting, but not compelling.


I could have skipped The Class Trip and not missed anything. But the concepts in The Mustache will stay with me.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Summer 2011 Soundtrack

It's been a crazy summer. Here are the lyrics:

--Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before

--Check this hand cause I'm marvelous

--I don’t know what you mean to me, but I want to turn you on, turn you up, figure you out, I want to take you on

--You’re standing in the places…that bring to mind traces of a girl that I knew somewhere/I just can’t put my finger on what it is that says to me watch out, don’t believe her…And if your love was not a game, I’d only have myself to blame…

--Is it my turn to wish you were lying here...

--I see your lips moving but I don't hear nothing/Everybody talking like they really wanna know about us

--Do you feel what I feel? Can we make it so that’s part of the deal?

--What if you could smile? What if I could make your heart ignite just for a while?

--You might think that I’m crazy but you know I’m just your type…if I said my heart was beating loud...

--Give me everything tonight, for all we know we might not get tomorrow (Is it weird that I think this song is sooo incredibly sad?)

--I never dreamed that I'd meet somebody like you...

--There ain’t no reason you and me should be alone tonight/I need a man who thinks it’s right when it’s so wrong…

--And now I know just why she keeps me hanging around/she needs someone to walk on, so her feet don’t touch the ground/but I love her…

--He’s a wolf in disguise, but I can’t stop staring in those evil eyes

--You’re so hypnotizing/could you be the devil/could you be an angel? You’re not like the others…

--Can’t believe you’re taking my heart to pieces

--At night you hang about the house and weep your heart out, and cry your eyes out, and wrack your brain…you sit and wonder how anyone as wonderful as he could cause you such misery and pain

--Child of the wilderness, born into emptiness, learn to be lonely…learn to find your way in darkness

--One begins to read between the pages of a look...I saw you coming back to me.

--In this world, if you read the papers, you know everybody’s fighting with each other…so if someone comes along who’ll give you some love and affection, I say get it while you can

Billiards at Half Past Nine

I’m really not sure what to say about Heinrich Boll’s Billiards at Half Past Nine.



I’ve sat with that sentence now for quite some time, and haven’t been able to come up with anything else.

Firstly, I took too long to read this novel. It wasn’t anything against it, anything I didn’t like. There were even periods in the last two months when I was really into it. But then I would see something shiny. This is very different to the other Boll novel I’ve read, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, which I finished in two days.

Secondly, it wasn’t anything like I was expecting. But on the other hand, I’m not sure I was expecting anything. Which, I suppose, is strange. I didn’t know anything about this book other than what was written on the back cover. Boll is not particularly fashionable, as far as I can tell, so not many people are talking about him.

Billiards at Half Past Nine is a day in the life of a family of architects in 1958 Germany still dealing with the aftermath of Nazis. Strange thing about this book – Nazis are never mentioned. Instead, everyone is divided up into those who partook of the Host of the Beast and those who didn’t (also called lambs). But the beast imagery also continues into their present. Every chapter is told from the point of view of a different family member. I sometimes had difficulty figuring out who I was following.

I feel like I’m getting nowhere with this.

The writing was good, but nothing jumped out at me enough to underline. The plot was mildly interesting, but not enough for me to even explain any bit of it here beyond what I already did. I don’t know what else to say about Billiards, and I have nothing to say about Boll other than I want to like him but I just keep being left cold. I liked Katharina Blum better than this one.

Here ends my useless review.