Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Emperor's Children - Claire Messud

I was going to do the Barry Unsworth longlisted book next but found myself increasingly drawn to the reviews and extract of The Emperor's Children. After feasting on the snippets, I am quite convinced I will be buying a copy for myself if the Indian bookstores would be so kind as to stock this book.

The Emperor's Children is Claire Messud's first Booker longlist entry and, from the reviews, seems like a book breathing life.

The Slate review describes the book as a literary page-turner.
Claire Messud's remarkable new novel The Emperor's Children is that mythical hybrid that publishers dream of one day finding in the piles of manuscripts on their desks: a literary page-turner.
The Emperor's Children belongs to the robust genre of very-late-coming-of-age novels—among them Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision, Melissa Bank's Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing, to name only a few—where adolescence ends somewhere in one's 30s. In the spirit of the genre, Messud's characters seem almost surprised that they should be expected to function as adults, that the promise and precocity of their 20s should not be enough to carry them through. Messud begins with a quotation from Anthony Powell about personal myths, and that is the defining preoccupation of the novel: how our ideas about ourselves collide with the practical demands and degradations of adult life. In fact, her interest in personal mythologies, and how they are reworked and tarnished, is what gives her seemingly banal subject matter its unusual depth

You can read an extract of The Emperor's Children here.

Other reviews: TQC, Guardian, NPR (audio)

A very charming interview with Claire Messud at the LA Weekly is a good way to acquaint oneself with her works and her approach.
Still, yours is a big old-fashioned authorial voice, and it makes a case for serious literary writers reembracing the ambitious, well-written, social-realist novel jam-packed with characters and ideas and plot — and other such undervalued 19th-century pleasures.

I certainly think that there’s been a problem in separating serious literary endeavor from the profound pleasures of reading. Henry James, of course, never did such a thing, and his novels all have wonderfully convoluted and melodramatic plots: The greatness lies in the prose, of course, but above all in their psychological acuity. But he knew the importance of a great read. Nineteenth-century novelists, of course, in part because of the serialization issue, were very preoccupied with creating satisfying narratives. Then you get into the question of what constitutes a satisfying narrative. I always want my own readers to be both satisfied and challenged.
So what was the germ or seed of this book — or handful of seeds

One was wanting to write an American novel. Another was to write about the world I knew. And then Bootie was always there. For me, he’s the most important character in the book.

I had started this book in early 2001, when I was pregnant with Livia, and I had envisioned it in a certain way. Then she was born in July, and I stopped writing, and then, of course, there was September. I set the book aside, and when I came back to it a year later, it was a different undertaking. One of the problems I’d had in the first instance was tone — it was more knowing than I wanted it to be, more judgmental, more frankly satirical. Weirdly, the changes in the world helped me with that. History dealt my characters a blow that made me more compassionate and even indulgent of their foibles. History passed judgment on the preoccupations of my characters, so I didn’t have to.

Claire is married to the famous literary critic, James Wood.

Update (Sep 4, '06): Another Messud piece in The Independent.

How do you do it?

A few weeks back I was caught in an indirect conversation between my husband and his cousin. Caught as in conduit - the cousin would offer me details which I would relay to the husband who would ask questions which I would pass on to the cousin and so it went, back, forth and through my head. These guys were talking about virtual games; I am to virtual games what salt is to mysurpa. Totally unrelated, mutually exclusive. After such a sally had been on for a few days, I asked the cousin, "how can you possibly be addicted to games?" He shot back, "how can you possibly be reading all the time?"

So yeah, the preamble is to tell you that this is yet another reading related post. But, my non-reading readers (ha! that has a nice ring to it), I do understand how you feel. And I do get my punishment through other people and means. There, you feel better already! So let's get on with the post.

This post at the much enjoyable, regularly haunted TEV, more specifically this remark,
I'm one of those unfathomable creatures who reads several books at once (which has always felt vaguely disrespectful to the author(s) in question, but as the scorpion said to the turtle, you can't fight your nature)
prompts me to ask you how you read your books. I am a multiple books creature myself. For long I used to have an uncontrollable urge, a sense of duty almost, to finish every book I started. Some years later, I realized that the tactic was hampering my progress a great deal. What if I knew, few pages into a book, that I did not want to read it? Why bother reading every page after that? For such books,I do try skimming the middle and then reaching the end instead of quickly flipping to the last page. Some unread books I just stash away without discarding because I know that my reading tastes keep changing often. Sometimes the taste swings alarmingly with the mood. At other times, perhaps over years, it evolves as I do (then I ask myself, "how could you have ignored this book earlier?")

In a way, though I read multiple books, one of them really grips my attention and then the others wait until I finish the most absorbing one. Talking of absorbing books, I've noticed that I have not read most of the books that are termed classics (and rightly so I imagine). Somehow I pick up most books by chance browsing (strong recommendations work sporadically). And I think the point in one's life when one picks up a certain book also plays a part in it being fully read or not.

I am currently reading Margaret Atwood's Curious Pursuits (it is a great book btw) alongside few other books and I nodded my head vigorously at a remark she makes in the piece The Indelible Woman (about her reading To the Lighthouse first at 19 and then much later):
Some books have to wait until you're ready for them. So much, in reading, is a matter of luck.

Did you forget the question now? Tell me, how do you read your books?

PS: if the post title reminded you of the most trite association of 'it', all I have to say is, "Sheesh, you are silly"

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Collecting Colours

You make a start not knowing what or how
You make a start because the idea appeals
You make a start because the teammate's able
The started makes its own way.

Monday, August 28, 2006

In the past few days, one post I really enjoyed reading is Uber's Michael Corleone as Ubermensch. The post is lucid, convincing and interesting even if Godfather or Nietzsche do not hold special significance to one. I loved the flow of this paragraph

The concluding shot is a deserving tribute-a frail, dust-beaten image of the old Michael Corleone stooped in a chair, open to the sun, slowly falls unto the earth lifeless; him a moral idealist, son, brother, lover, father, and above all Don corleone, breathes his last - lonely and alone, resigned and trodden like a common man. He has lost his father, brothers, wives, friends, mother , daughter and the grand empire he constructed, in fact everything that he ever valued. He has no more to offer, accept, refuse or bargain. His entire life has amounted to neither individual glory nor personal love that could be cherished. He is not a successful hero , not even a failed martyr. Yet he has changed the world around him irrevocably as such and given every possible chance he would continue to do the same. And In that-- he has transcended himself, history, and humanity thus transforming himself into an idea, into an abstraction , into Ubermensch.

As Uber replies to a comment, we all have our own Nietzsche. It is the parallels that are interesting.
A few days ago, I wrote this post. I didn't say much and asked folks what they thought of Rand. Apart from comments and email, few good souls wrote posts too. And a cousin dished out an outlandish theory, which I dare not mention without chewing on it. Random digging on the subject looks very promising. Don't know when I will get to it, but get to it sometime I will...

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Mother's Milk - Edward St Aubyn

Edward St Aubyn's Mother's Milk, one of the longlisted 19 for Booker 2006, while being an extension of a trilogy is also capable of being read as a standalone book states its author.

Edward St Aubyn,part of the creamy English class, writes about the dark interiors behind the polished exterior of his class (the peerage stuff here)
St Aubyn's metier is the upper-class in all their waspishness, detailing their traumatic childhoods, peroccupation with drugs and sex with an acid wit reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh, Patrick Hamilton, and more recently Julian Fellowes. His earlier books are broadly autobiographical, detailing the sexual abuse he suffered from his father as a child and his addiction to heroin. Mother's Milk is a loose sequel to the Patrick Melrose/Some Hope trilogy, and also includes elements of satire on New Age establishments, like his non-Melrose novels On the Edge and A Clue to the Exit.

Articles about him uniformly acclaim his striking prose and the lucid portrayal of the 'nasty rich'.

An extract of this book here whets the appetite for the whole thing.
Yesterday he had thought he was dying. Perhaps he was right and this was what happened. Everything was open to question, except the fact that he was separated from his mother. Now that he realized there was a difference between them, he loved his mother with a new sharpness. He used to be close to her. Now he longed to be close to her. The first taste of longing was the saddest thing in the world.

The review at the Independent says:
He particularly excels in the depiction of characters on the cusp of consciousness. The novel opens with a virtuosic portrayal of birth and the first weeks of life from the baby's point of view. At the opposite end of the scale, the description of Eleanor grappling for words after suffering a stroke is both measured and moving.

Mother's Milk is not perfect. The over-articulacy of some of its exchanges belongs more to the world of Ivy Compton-Burnett than to today's moneyed classes. Likewise, the trip to New York, while offering a welcome corrective to the "rain of American images" in which the rest of the world now drowns, dissipates the novel's focus. These, however, are minor quibbles. For once, the hype is justified. This is indeed the re-emergence of a major literary talent.

This piece in the Guardian reviews Mother's Milk and also provides details on the man who took pieces from his life and shaped them into the fictional world of Patrick Melrose.
I suspect that he is far too clever - not to mention too much of an outsider himself - to be a truly devout snob. He was, however, born in 1960 in a part of Cornwall that has been inhabited by St Aubyns since the Norman conquest and, as a young man, was in possession of a fortune sizeable enough that he did not have to work (this is almost certainly no longer the case). The Daily Mail's profile writers always like to mention that he is a cousin of Lord St Levan, whose home is St Michael's Mount, and that he is godfather to Earl Spencer's son, Louis.

His father did everything and nothing, and dragged his family around the south of France. It was there that the abuse began. 'It splits you in half,' he once said of it. 'You can't accept that your father is doing this shameful thing to you and you take on the shame yourself.' It did not stop until Edward was eight, when he confronted his father. Soon after, his parents divorced (the two events were not connected; his mother did not find out what had happened until her son was grown up) and he was sent to Westminster School. He began taking drugs while he was there, a habit he continued at Oxford (best friend: Will Self). He turned up for his finals immaculately attired, but with heroin secreted about his person and the empty tube of a Bic biro through which to snort it (no pen with which to scribble, though). Four years later, he was a mess. He desperately wanted to write, but his story was painful and elusive. So he began seeing a therapist and, in talking about what was on his mind, won himself a kind of freedom. His father died in 1986.

'Once I started writing, I decided to stop the analysis. I didn't need it any more. But I knew it was good because I went to see my analyst after making a suicide attempt. I was very, very precarious and then I felt a lot better. I stopped feeling mad; there was some sense of order.' Is writing its own kind of therapy? 'If it does have any therapeutic value, the only way to get access to it is to write without any therapeutic intent. You transform experience into, for want of a better word, art. I'm interested in structure and character. Otherwise it would be very boring for everyone else.' But its therapeutic value may also lie simply in the fact that it is work. 'That's what Freud says: work and love. They help convert the extraordinarily depressed into the ordinarily depressed.'

Snippets of various reviews compiled here.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Secret River - Kate Grenville

The Secret River - winner of the 2006 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book, shortlistee for the 2006 Miles Franklin Award, longlistee for the Booker 2006, is a historical work of fiction set in Australia during the time when convicts of the Empire were allowed to settle in the vast empty lands revered(owned) by the native Aborigines. The novel, as this review explains, focuses on the conflict between ex-convict settlers and the Aborigines.
This is a narrative whose outlines we know already: convicts transported to Sydney, eventually pardoned, encouraged to settle what seemed to be an empty continent. They didn't understand, and wouldn't have cared, that the land they were occupying was sacred to the mysterious, dark-skinned people who appeared and disappeared from the forests and seemed to them no more than naked savages.
The William Thornhill born in the opening pages is clearly marked out for poverty, suffering, degradation and criminality. We've been reading this story at least since Dickens and, in contrast, say, to Sarah Waters' linguistically brilliant portrayal of the Borough in Fingersmith, there is a sense of having been here before, of marking time, of earning the rest of the novel.

It does, though, turn out to be worth it. There isn't much underlying moral ambiguity in this book: the costs of settlement are appalling, which makes Thornhill its villain, even while he carries its sympathetic weight. Grenville is particularly good on inarticulate love, and Thornhill's relationship with his wife, Sal, civilises him, makes him a good man and ensures that the reader is on his side. As husband, father and hard-working, decent man, he is also the book's hero.
The Secret River is a sad book, beautifully written and, at times, almost unbearable with the weight of loss, competing distresses and the impossibility of making amends.

Australian writer Kate Grenville won the Orange Prize in 2001 for The Idea of Perfection. A couple of interviews posted in her website provide insight into how and why she chose writing.
"I write because I need to explore ideas," she declares. And though her books have "a moral that's fairly obvious," she dislikes didactic fiction: "You have to embed what you want to say in the truth of human experience."

Jai Arjun Singh's post on a meeting with Grenville in late 2004 has some interesting observations
She was a pleasant, schoolteacherly sort (she does, in fact, teach creative writing) with a prim, birdlike expression -- very un-Australian, I thought. Her face lit up within three minutes of our chat when she realised that I actually knew something about her Orange Prize-winning novel The Idea of Perfection.
[reference to The Secret River]
We spoke mainly about her country’s ambivalent attitude to its past. "Perhaps because of our dodgy history and the continuing perceptions about our ‘convict ancestry’, we have this hunger to put our past behind us and focus on being modern and world-class," explained Kate. "But that’s an escapist attitude, and most leading Australian novelists caution their readers that we must come to terms with our history." Incidentally, Kate’s next book, already complete, is based on the true story of her own convict ancestor, who rose to the position of nobleman after coming from England to Australia. "I was intrigued by the nature of his relationship with the Aborigines, whose land he might have usurped, and I took up the story from there," she said.

In this paper on the National Library of Australia website, Grenville talks about the stories in history that she is always looking for. Her convict ancestor who is said to be the inspiration for The Secret River finds a mention.

Other reviews of The Secret River that I enjoyed reading are here (The Quarterly Conversation), here, (the Guardian) and here (the Telegraph)

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Discovered this bit by chance from my comp. Something that I wrote some years ago; I do remember I was dry-eyed, tired, yet somehow positive when I wrote this late one night.
In all our ceaseless striving to be, is there a road somewhere hidden by the deep wild bushes that we completely miss? A road that might show us why one has to be born and why one has to think; why some people need to be perceived beautiful and why some others can be plain and still carry on; why it is necessary to feel important and why it is that we run races with everyone we meet. All the questions lost and discovered might have been answered if we had just looked for that road. But who is to say that questions need answers? What if the questions are not questions but answers themselves? Answers that have been wrapped in the riddle of the why.

It is an interesting proposition, to encounter an earlier self compacted into a paragraph...

In the Country of Men - Hisham Matar

Hisham Matar's first book, In the Country of Men, about a young boy trying to understand life, love, loss in the background of a 1970s Libya made it to the Booker 2006 longlist last week.

Matar was born in New York in 1970 and grew up in Libya, Egypt and England. Suleiman, the narrator of In the Country of Men was also born in 1970 and Matar admits to some similarity in the timeline. However Suleiman is an only child (and Matar is not) and the author adds that that is an important factor in explaining the internal monologues in the book.

In this conversation with Stephen Moss for the Guardian, Matar talks about his debut work of fiction

Why isn't Hisham Matar angrier? In 1990, when he was a student in London, his father - a Libyan dissident living in Cairo - was kidnapped, taken back to Tripoli, imprisoned, tortured. He smuggled several letters out from Abu Saleem jail detailing his treatment, but there has been no word since 1995. The not-knowing must be hideous - so how to square that with this charming, engaging, patient young man?
The novel that has so excited the critics draws on Matar's troubled childhood in Libya, yet draws away from it too. I find his calmness about his kidnapped father strange, and can't stop nagging away at it. Why not go back to Libya, where supposedly long-closed doors are creaking open, look for him, try to find out what happened? "Maybe if I watch Rambo a few times I might be convinced of that idea," he says. "But life doesn't work that way. In any case, to go back would feel like a betrayal of a lot of the people I knew. I know so many people in Libya who are in prison - three cousins and an uncle, friends who have been killed, hanged by the neck."

There is anger, of course, when you prod. He calls the vacancy in his life "torturous". "You don't know the fate of this person that is central to your life. Your horizon continues to drop. In the beginning you want justice, but then you want to see him, to speak with him. Later, you don't even want that - you just want to know whether he is alive or dead."

The reviews of In the Country of Men show mixed reactions. On the one hand is effusive praise in the Observer and in the Guardian and on the other,in the New Statesman the complaint of it being over-rated(the undesirable topicality in fiction, as that author calls it).

The Observer reviewer Oscar Turner writes
At a time when western leaders have been cosying up to Gaddafi, it is salient to be reminded of the cruelty of his reign. In the Country of Men is a powerful political novel and a tender evocation of universal human conflicts - over identity, forgiveness, love. It is due to be published in 13 languages and, despite its short length, took several years to write. It was more than worth the wait.

Kamila Shamsie's review in the Guardian has a few good words about Hisham Matar's writing
And whatever his subject, Matar writes beautifully. In describing the world of seas and mulberries he is a sensualist; when writing of executions and arrests he is a nuanced observer with a gift for conveying both absurdity and raw emotion. His description of a public execution is an exceptional piece of writing - he is not afraid to bring in details that seem entirely incongruous with the setting, yet serve to give it an air of greater verisimilitude. A man trying to resist being taken to the gallows reminds Sulaiman of "the way a shy woman would resist her friends' invitation to dance, pulling her shoulders up to her ears and waving her index finger nervously in front of her mouth". The scene is by turns absurd, painful and terrifying - and, with consummate confidence, at the crucial moment of the hanging Matar is able to step back from the detailed descriptions and evocative imagery to tell us, simply and chillingly: "Everybody seemed happy."

Whether In the Country of Men makes it to the shortlist or not, it does seem like the subject and its story will make an impact on many readers.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Gathering the Water - Robert Edric

The first review that I read, this one, praises the book in subtle, guarded terms and is not too bothered about encouraging the general curious reader to give it a shot. In fact the author of the article mentions quite clearly that Robert Edric is a writer's writer.

Gathering the Water, longlistee Booker 2006, is quietly hiding as I look for details; review after review not offering a grip on what to expect. Perhaps that is what this book's intention is. The second review in the Guardian calls Edric's Gathering the Water a bleak, intelligent novel.
It is 1847 and Charles Weightman is an engineer dispatched to Yorkshire to oversee the 'drowning' of the desolate Forge Valley for a reservoir, and the eviction of its lingering inhabitants. But, in his 16th novel - previous books include Peacetime and an acclaimed crime trilogy - Robert Edric resists the temptation to tell a tale of displacement and suffering. His engineer's story is an exploration not of guilt or the effects of industrialisation but of creeping alienation.
I cannot help but notice the choice of the last name and the drowning of the Forge Valley assignment.
It is the wild landscape and its brutal climate that dominate the narrative and assume the human characteristics missing from the valley's inhabitants. Flooded, the moor bursts in a 'great blister of moss and peat', leaving a 'broad scar of exposed rock'; a thorn bush, 'the larder of a shrike', is adorned all over with the impaled bodies of small creatures. Soon after his arrival, Weightman develops a friendship with an ageing widow, Mary Latimer, who has returned to the village to care for her deranged sister. Both are outsiders but what draws them together is the common nature of their responsibilities, 'the twin serpents of madness and destruction', to bear witness to events beyond their control and, where necessary, to take the blame. 'We are watchers, you and I, Mr Weightman,' Mary observes bleakly. 'Nothing more.'
The above review is titled Wuthering Depths alluding to the love- in- the- marsh situation as in Wuthering Heights.

Gathering the Water is published by Random House Canada. Go over here for the very scanty details on the book. The author page shows many titles that Robert Edric has published through Random House Canada.

Ah finally! this Telegraph article, written about three years ago, is a good primer on who Robert Edric is. Apparently his real name is Gary Edric Armitage, he has written several novels (18 by now) and crime thrillers (the Song Series - Cradle Song, Siren Song, Swan Song), was longlisted for the Booker 2002 for Peacetime and sounds like an interesting man to talk to.

The Fantastic fiction page on Robert Edric lists all his works.

A profile of Edric at John Sandoe books answers in a line what is to become of our hope (our referring to readers in India) of finding Gathering the Water in an Indian bookstore (library?):
If the most sober reflection of a writer’s public success is the availability of their work then it would seem that Robert Edric operates in a cruel wilderness.

Update: Dec 06: Forward linking to my review of Gathering the Water
What caught my eye in this article (yes, yes, finally John Banville reappears!)

In conversation, [Banville] he gave insights into the process of writing: always, he says, in longhand "with a fountain pen on paper that offers resistance. The computer is much too fast." The idea of resistance is important to him: a writer must resist self, resist the easy path, resist the power of language to take over and write itself. Instead, the words must be pulled into line, to create what he regards as mankind's greatest invention: the sentence.

He also had a few provocative things to say about good writing. "There is a perception that writers are interested in the world, in observing, and collecting characters. Maybe that is true of second-rate writers, but the true artist is only interested in what is inside his or her own head."

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Trust Ayn Rand, years after her death, to still be able to stir passions at the mere mention of her name. I am following this discussion at the Chennai metblog, which talks about an Ayn Rand at 100 book launch.

This brings to mind that I wanted to write about Rand for long. How she went from "life changing" to merely "brilliant" in my book of living. I've found that Rand causes one of two reactions in people - love OR hate. People can either read her books and swear by them or they can't get past the first 100 pages, no matter how many times and how hard they try. Tell me what sort of a Rand reader you are and what sort of questions / aspects of Rand you will be interested in reading about. I will have to put in some effort and make the post worthwhile, so I'd appreciate suggestions. Thanks.

The Curious Incident of a September Release

Hmm...why does this famous person's much anticipated second novel have to release in September 2006? Why not earlier when much could have been stirred? Now an encore is his only chance.

It does seem like he must have been in a spot of bother. For random bits from this September release, read on.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Be Near Me - Andrew O'Hagan

Andrew O'Hagan's Be Near Me is one of the 19 longlisted books for the Booker prize 2006.

An article on the book and its author from the Edinburgh Book Festival provides a comprehensive idea of both, particularly for someone who has not read O'Hagan:
ANDREW O'Hagan's profile has risen relentlessly since the publication of The Missing in 1995, thanks in no small measure to his brilliant essays in the London Review of Books and the New Yorker (new readers should start with his pieces on Michael Jackson and lad mags). Literary prizes have burnished his reputation, too, in the shape of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the EM Forster award, as well as the Booker shortlisting for Our Fathers in 1999.
The novel's themes are exposed in the first paragraph, as David Anderton stands on the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle with his mother, watching "the streets of the New Town begin to glow with moral sentiment" and the two characters resting "like passengers bound for distant lives, warm in our coats and weak in our hearts". The forced separation of those who love, the innate frailty of human beings, our love of comfort and, most of all, the willingness of others to judge our weaknesses are the themes running throughout.
Like opening a Fabergé Egg to discover a stale Malteser instead of a golden miniature, Be Near Me dazzles from start to finish, but leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Andrew O'Hagan has all the talent he needs: had he applied more scrutiny to his own assumptions, turning his critical acumen against his own creative instincts, he might have made this handsomely-executed book into something more meaningful and significant.

The Observer review of Be Near Me says that the novel asks a lot of questions about Scotland and its working class:
...the book explores a wider dread. As in his previous work, O'Hagan conducts a resonant inquiry into Scotland and its working class. Once a home to chunky industry, Dalgarnock is now a town blighted by unemployment and scorched expectations; you know Mark's father has mental health issues when he hallucinates that he has a job. The only people with a regular salary are in sepia prints on the classroom walls. The sectarian rift, too, is wider than Father David will accept.
Go over to Faber's page on O'Hagan to read chapter 1 of Be Near Me.

O'Hagan is a young author, born in 1968, as this Wikipedia entry indicates {the mention of age brings to mind a letter that Margaret Mitchell wrote to the public relations person of the Pulitzer Prize organization. This was after Gone With the Wind was shortlisted in 1936/1937. She said something like she was not old enough to be ashamed of her age and not young enough to have not been capable of writing GWTW. However she said her age was irrelevant to the quality of her work and she refused to divulge the year she was born in.}

Andrew O'Hagan was shortlisted for the Booker in 1999 for his first novel Our Fathers, which won the Whitbread First Novel Award that year. His second novel Personality won the James Tait Black Memorial prize in 2003. Be Near Me is his third novel.

A number of Andrew O'Hagan's articles for the London Review of Books, where he is a contributing editor, are available online.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

So Many Ways to Begin - Jon McGregor

In the next few weeks, my intention is take a closer look at each of the Booker 2006 long listees. I will probably be doing individual posts, on the lines of this one, which offer a summary and several links to reviews, author interviews and so on (they may be updated as more articles show up on the web). I have not read any of the books in the long list yet, so I will not be able to offer opinions (ha, I don't do those even otherwise!) These posts will be a process of discovery.

So Many Ways to Begin is the story of David Carter, a museum curator who collects trivia documenting his own life. When he discovers that he is an adopted child, he becomes obsessed with finding his birth mother.

The Independent's review of So Many Ways to Begin talks about McGregor's focus on ordinary people and life changed by chance - themes that show up in both his novels.

Time and again, McGregor reminds us that these are ordinary people leading unremarkable existences. He is fascinated with chance, the small slips of circumstance that shape events. It is not so much the big dramas that matter: "Lives were changed and moved by much smaller cues, chance meetings, overheard conversations, the trips and stumbles which constantly alter and readjust the course of things, history made by a million fractional moments too numerous to calibrate or observe or record."


While lacking the faintly numinous edge that characterised If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, this is still a book about the search for some greater meaning in the strange dance of chance.

In an interview for TimeOut, McGregor says

‘It took me a long time to begin,’ says McGregor. ‘And then I felt very self-conscious about what I was writing and how I was writing. When you write a first novel, you’re just trying to get a book published and you don’t think any further than that. If it hadn’t been published I doubt if I would have had the time or the money – or the guts – to write another one. Basically, I find writing novels very difficult – both times I’ve looked for some kind of scaffolding to hang the writing on, to give me an idea of where I’m going. The structure of both books was the original starting point. As soon as I had the character of this curator, this boy who was obsessed with artefacts and history, that was an immediate way of arranging the story. It was a rich seam to mine.’


This theme of missed connections is one that McGregor has tackled before, and it’s the link between his two very different novels. ‘In a way,’ says McGregor, ‘David’s character was a riposte to the other, quite similar, character in “If Nobody Speaks…”: the boy who was taking photos of everything and collecting bits of junk and who had this idea that you could archive everything. David has to learn that it’s impossible to archive everything, and ultimately fairly pointless. Constantly looking to history and secrets and things you don’t know about can get in the way. Human relationships are what counts.’

McGregor reflects on incidents and inspiration for So Many Ways to Begin.

An extract of the first chapter of this Booker longlistee.

The Bloomsbury page for Jon McGregor has links to other reviews and more information on his first book If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things including the first chapter of the book.

The Guardian did a special report on McGregor when his first book was also longlisted for the Booker in 2002.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Looking for the long listed in Chennai

The next step, now that the Booker 2006 longlist is out, is to see where we can get our hands on these books. I did a quick check for Chennai (at Landmark) and found that they had only

* Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey
* The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
* Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

(yes, sounds exactly like the list of people I am rooting for!), a few other titles from Sarah Waters, M.J.Hyland and Kate Grenville.

The books in the long list that I could not locate in a Chennai bookstore are:

* Get a Life by Nadine Gordimer
* Gathering the Water by Robert Edric
* The Secret River by Kate Grenville
* Carry Me Down by M.J. Hyland
* Kalooki Nights by Howard Jacobson
* Seven Lies by James Lasdun
* The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson
* So Many Ways to Begin by Jon McGregor
* In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
* The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud
* The Perfect Man by Naeem Murr
* Be Near Me by Andrew O'Hagan
* The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
* Mother's Milk by Edward St. Aubyn
* The Ruby in her Navel by Barry Unsworth
* The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

One of the other books in this list that got me excited a few minutes ago is So Many Ways to Begin. No, I haven't heard of this book, but by wonderful coincidence, I am in the process of reading the author, Jon McGregor's first work, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. I am eager enough to go looking for more on So Many Ways to Begin.
This post is a collection of links and book covers of the Booker longlisted ones. A quick and neat compilation. One that, I am sure, will serve as easy reference as a lot of us dig deeper into the listed books (link via TEV)

Monday, August 14, 2006

Longlist out - 19 books. I am delighted that Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss made it. Also rooting for Peter Carey's Theft: A Love Story, Nadine Gordimer's Get a Life and David Mitchell's Black Swan Green.
There are escapes at all the levels of our being. You escape through work, another through drink, another through religious ceremonies, another through knowledge, another through God, and still another is addicted to amusement. All escapes are the same, there is no superior or inferior escape. God and drink are on the same level as long as they are escapes from what we are. When we are aware of our escapes, only then can we know of our conditioning.

-JK, Commentaries on Living
A whole year has gone by since I jumped in glee at Banville making the Booker long list in 2005. Today the long list for 2006 is expected. Am waiting...

PS: key dates for Booker 2006

Friday, August 11, 2006

Still Pottering about

Now that the several paragraph rambling (someone asked me if I was feeling okay because I wrote it!) is behind me, I am back to being my link-loving self. I am reading a very good collection of essays by A.S.Byatt and since I love to find relevant online stuff for my offline reading, I happened upon this opinion piece by Byatt. It is indeed about Harry Potter; Byatt's take on why Rowling's books strike a chord. Titled Harry Potter and The Childish Adult (I know, none of us can get past the urge to have a go at the title!), Byatt makes a convincing argument. I'll quote a couple of points that I found very striking, but go read the entire piece.

They comfort against childhood fears as Georgette Heyer once comforted us against the truths of the relations between men and women, her detective stories domesticating and blanket-wrapping death. These are good books of their kind. But why would grown-up men and women become obsessed by jokey latency fantasies?

Comfort, I think, is part of the reason. Childhood reading remains potent for most of us. In a recent BBC survey of the top 100 "best reads," more than a quarter were children's books. We like to regress. I know that part of the reason I read Tolkien when I'm ill is that there is an almost total absence of sexuality in his world, which is restful.


Ms. Rowling's magic wood has nothing in common with these lost worlds. It is small, and on the school grounds, and dangerous only because she says it is.

In this regard, it is magic for our time. Ms. Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn't known, and doesn't care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don't have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.

Similarly, some of Ms. Rowling's adult readers are simply reverting to the child they were when they read the Billy Bunter books, or invested Enid Blyton's pasteboard kids with their own childish desires and hopes. A surprising number of people — including many students of literature — will tell you they haven't really lived in a book since they were children. Sadly, being taught literature often destroys the life of the books.

The Bangle

several years ago...

five girls, each very different from the other - no, make that two very similar, therefore four very different from each other.

a school corridor, farewell very near, sentiments the colour of sixteen year olds.

a decision, let us do better than autographs, let us do our special souvenir.

will you keep in touch D? You don't even remember my phone number!

N said, let us do our own autograph diaries. let us fill it up. we'll call it C'est ridicule.

L thought, maybe we will all drift apart. maybe we will just have our diaries and our souvenir to remember Us.

S & G discussed Areas & Volumes. Maths brushes all under the carpet.

they bought five identical bangles. they called it the Ha bangle. they wore it for their farewell.

circle of trust

all these years later, all their foolproof memory aids intact, they are still in touch.

all married. some with babies, some still cosy twosomes.

nobody drifted.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Harry Potter and the Ignorance of its Commentators

Every now and then, in my eternal links of the Internet phase, I post these Harry Potter or JK Rowling links. Basically these links point to news items on the topic that I find amusing or interesting - something I might go back and read again, either to laugh at or to remind myself of a point made there. And often enough, when I post such links, there are comments about how Harry Potter and Rowling are marketing phenomena. The all hype no stuff line. I am not really hotheaded and so I usually laugh off these comments without stirring myself up sufficiently to counter what I think are very surface-scratching and baseless points of view.

During such times, Krithiga hops over and adds her well-meaning comments, tries to point out some good things about HP and Rowling and tells me, "tell them what you think." I smile and point my finger at the cloud of laziness that surrounds me. She shakes her head and moves on, until the next HP link shows up on this site. Sometimes she even makes up for my laziness by writing such gems. Now all of this worked very well - this game that we played. Me with my links and lack of opinion and her with the short, sharp, valid comments. Until the last time when I provided this amusing (to me) link about how Harry Potter books had improved concentration and reading habit in kids. Yet again, we had a comment on the marketing of HP and Krithiga had seen one too many of these. She wrote: L, I think it'd be great if write first about how well-written the HP series is, before providing another link; because I'm sick of hearing the "marketing" word umpteen times in this context!

And finally, I thought it was about time too. Not to overuse adjectives but to simply state my opinion. Rowling has a lot of stuff against her when one wants to argue about how good a writer she is. For instance, she made an unbelievably huge fortune writing a children's book series. The fact that she had money problems before HP happened only makes the case against her stronger. While making money is closely tied to the popularity of the series, the fact that she is British lent charm and aura to her persona, not to mention that she is very striking to look at. Therefore we have all the ingredients of a fairy tale where an intelligent, unusually imaginative young teacher thinks of a story about a young wizard with a turbulent childhood, while she is travelling on a train, and works it out into a seven book series writing out her last chapter and her first book in a cafe while working part time and supporting herself on social security. Guess what, she gets rejected by several publishers before Bloomsbury finally publishes her in 1997. But it is so easy to forget that she had awfully tough times in the light of the fact that she made millions out of selling the simple story of a young wizard at boarding school.

What makes a good writer? Of all things subjective, surely the answer to this question ranks really high. To me, a good writer is someone who can hold my attention, make me read her entire book without turning to the last page in haste, make me set the book aside when I finish and think about the book with a curious sense of satisfaction. And a great writer will make me go back and read that book again; once soon after I finish, several more times over the years. Subject matter is not of utmost importance to me when evaluating a writer. The handling of whichever subject matter it is, is of importance. That is why, according to me, Rowling is a fantastic writer.

Among all the ghastly things that have been said about her writing, what replays in my mind in a very jarring manner is the phrase, pedestrian writing. I forget who said it but I do remember the condescending tone. It irks me that we have a problem grouping the words popular and quality together. It is not just with Rowling and Harry Potter but with any popular artform. For a certain class of us, being associated with a populist work and expressing a liking for it is a lowering of ourselves from an imagined elitist pedestal. When Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was out, the only time I could find to read it was during my train travel in the mornings. I was juggling some awful deadlines at work and was also doing a balancing act at home. Therefore I thought nothing of lugging the 850 page tome along every morning for that half an hour of train reading. During one such morning I travelled with a colleague who was an avid reader herself. When I brought out this huge book as soon as we were seated, she thought nothing of telling me in her loudest voice that she was disappointed by my literary taste. And the best part was she hadn't read a single Harry Potter book!

I am bordering dangerously close to the 'what is literature' question here. But I'll save that for another day. For now, I'd like to say to all the commentators of the Harry Potter series - go read them first. No, not with that I know it is such a silly kid thing opinion pasted on your head, but with the open-mindedness you reserve for new authors (don't you?) - then maybe we can have a good conversation or even talk about Harry being a Horcrux, Aunt Petunia knowing more than she lets on and what have you. While you do that, stay away from links like this one. Otherwise you are forever doomed to an ordinary life.

Case rested for the moment...

PS: in case you are wondering why I did not speak about plot, suspense, climax, vital information and so on, didn't you read what I said? Go read the Harry Potter series first. Then we will be better informed to have that conversation.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Anita Shreve, in an interview about her book The Last Time They Met, says
I spend the majority of my writing life imagining other people's lives. Writing itself is about experiencing the unlived life in many senses.
As a reader, I find Shreve's story ideas very intriguing. Not because of the idea alone but because she sets you thinking in many different directions while she divulges bit by bit of the suspense.
The story is about two people who have a lifelong passion for each other even though they only meet three times in their lives-when they're fifty-two, when they're twenty-six, and when they're seventeen. You might say the book is about moments of no return. It's about missed and retrieved opportunities, about time and memory.
Shreve's booklist here.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

All sacked out

at the moment. Will return soon. Maybe later today. Maybe later than today..