Wednesday, July 23, 2008

''Travels in the Scriptorium'', Paul Auster

I would like to extend my thanks to Paul Auster for enabling me to feel like a proper grown-up. As frequenters of this blog (um, anyone out there?) no doubt realised long ago, my approach to literature and reading is hardly sophisticated. A nice book cover, a decent review in The Guardian and I'm anyone's. I have also not read half the things that I feel I 'should' have. I was an avid bibliophile until around 12, stopped reading anything non-academic until about 19, and then re-started, somehow circumventing that delicate adolescent stage when one is meant to wallow in The Classics. No, it was straight to Douglas Coupland for me. However, being an ardent fan of Auster has helped redeem me somewhat. A respectable, intellectual, author, who I like! And of whose books I have read many! 

Harvard Book Store's bargain basement provided me with my latest fix, and as luck would have it, both a credible book and a great cover (white horses rock). Definitely one of his more esoteric and philosophical novels, ''Travels'' is set in a white room in an unknown location with a protagonist who knows as little as we do. There was a war; he is amnesiac; he may or may not be being held against his will. There's something of the Sherlock Holmes 'mystery of the locked room' about it, and Auster also quickly introduces another of his signature motifs, the book-within-a-book. It all sounds a bit pretentious and obscure, but thanks to Auster's great prose style, a certain amount of plot development and, admittedly, the novella format, it kept me interested. I am tempted to explain my own theories as to what was going on, but on the slight offchance someone actually reads this, and then decides to read the book, I shall refrain. But if you read it, let me know, and we can compare notes whilst feeling like grown-ups. 

Sunday, July 06, 2008

‘Joe College’, Tom Perrotta

One of the joys of living in Boston is the awareness of being in the near-presence of greatness. From my office window (OK, OK, the office with a window adjacent to my windowless Dilbert cube) I can see MIT just over the river, and Harvard in the distance, and since I’ve been here I’ve regularly discovered that all manner of people I admire live within a ten mile radius of my house. I’ve yet to lose the frisson of excitement I get each time I exit Harvard Square T on the off-chance I collide into Steven Pinker or thwack into Noam Chomsky. That said, I also find it disconcerting.

Ever since I was a teenager and started loving certain authors (and musicians, much in the same way) it threw me to realize that they’re real people, who one could actually meet. The first few concerts I went to of bands I loved were quite unsettling, and even now I have a tendency to leave them slightly unnerved. Quite why I have trouble reconciling my perceptions of artists with the flesh and blood reality I’m not entirely sure. With musicians, it’s certainly disappointing if, in the rambling between songs, they turn out not to be the witty, erudite, strikingly intelligent people that I’d assumed they would be (luckily dear Neil Hannon is quite as wonderful as the image he creates), or worse still, a bit off-putting (Michael Stipe certainly falls into this camp on occasion). Similarly, I have met a few authors and journalists who turn out not to be quite what I’d imagined. I recently heard at a party that one of my favourite UK journalists who writes on science in the media is actually a rather grumpy misanthrope. But even aside from this occasional gap with my expectations, the fact that these people are just people, and live their lives much like me, still sits strangely. Perhaps it’s the perception that if they inhabit the same world as me, and achieve what they do, then really I should too. But enough amateur psychoanalysis! This is all just a long way of saying, it turns out Tom Perrotta lives in Belmont, Massachusetts, which local readers will know is just north of Boston, and non-locals will now have learned. However I’m slightly more sanguine about the idea of Perrotta existing (I’m sure he’ll be immensely relieved) because based on his books I would imagine he’s a fairly normal person; not flashy, just a good story teller with a characteristic turn of phrase.

Perrotta strikes a balance in his writing which suits me very well: novels with fairly complex ideas, but with a plot that moves along at a clip and pleasingly realistic first person narrators. I first encountered him without realizing it when I saw ‘Election’, which embarrassingly rang a little more true than I might wish to admit (the slightly overambitious school swot bit, not the having an affair with a teacher bit, before you speculate). I then read ‘The Abstinence Teacher’ a few months ago (highly recommended even if it’s a little trite at the end), and saw the film of ‘Little Children’ (also set in Northern Massachusetts although at that point I had no idea he lived in the area). ‘Joe College’ is in a similar vein and style: a coming-of-age novel about a boy from a poor New Jersey background who goes to Yale and oscillates between the two worlds. I enjoyed it, as made clear by the fact I read it in three days, but Perrotta’s weakness is undoubtedly a tendency for overly ‘finished’ endings, which neatly tie up and where the right thing almost always happens (certainly a more complex issue in Little Children, given the subject matter, and yet a certain sort of moral rightness still prevails). A little more cynicism would work better for me, and hey, if I bump into him in J.P. Lick’s or Copley Square I’ll be sure to let him know – for such is the joy of locally-residing authors.

Monday, June 30, 2008

‘When You Are Engulfed In Flames’, David Sedaris

First, an apology to riders of the Red Line, direction Alewife, on Friday night. Yes, I was the obnoxious woman travelling in an iPod bubble, sporadically stifling giggles in a semi-snorting manner. I’m not entirely sure of the external effect, but I’m sure it wasn’t pretty. But what can you do? David Sedaris can be funny. Bizarrely, not always so: I didn’t think very much of ‘’Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim’’, and I thought ‘’Me Talk Pretty Some Day’’ was alright. But he slid his way back on to my shelf courtesy of an NPR review (the thinking American’s Radio 4; bless them for trying), a cool dust jacket picture and my fledgling Barnes & Noble Members card (20% off Hardbacks! 10 cents off B&N Starbucks!).

It’s probably a tautology to say that observational comedy can be a bit hit or miss; in fact it was a running joke recently with a friend who was visiting from the UK (and there’s a lot of mileage in that one, given you only have to… observe, to get a laugh). And if your living is made from this sort of thing, there’s the inevitable second-album effect. You’ve been building up to your first release all your life, saving up your best material, and distilling it into the perfect essence of your message, man. As for the second, well, you’ve seen a lot of hotel rooms and junkets and you’d better deliver by July. Lucky, then, that Sedaris got a bit of new material by moving abroad, variously to Tokyo, London, Paris and Normandy. I have no doubt that the moves were contrived entirely for this reason; he claims the move to Tokyo was for the purpose of quitting smoking, but you can imagine the conversation with the publisher: ‘Quitting smoking eh? There’s something in that…. But what about you also go somewhere where people speak funny?!’ The whole lost-in-translation thing was actually not particularly amusing (the title of the book comes from a Japanese fire prevention sign or some such) but there were plenty of other expatriate tales to keep me chuckling along in recognition. Attempting to learn the local language without feeling like a total numpty, hopelessly attempting to fit with the locals and yet being constantly entertained amused by your environment are all part of the joy of being a permanent alien. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to give it up, or if I’ll continue living my life led by a search for random adventures. Perhaps there’s a book in it.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Overheard in the Women's Studies section

American woman in her early twenties: 'So I'm not sure if I can really ask you this, but what exactly is your relationship with them?'

Slightly scruffy English woman: 'Well yes, I used to date both of them. But I have two boyfriends at the moment and I just don't have time for a girlfriend as well right now.

That's why I love Brookline Booksmith.

Monday, June 23, 2008

''Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages'', Katie Roiphe

Sometimes, context is everything. Writing this whilst intermittently rubbing aloe vera gel into my sunburn halo (a rare achievement, and one I believe shows I am destined for holiness) I can’t quite separate Katie Roiphe’s book from the memory of lounging on a beach on Cape Cod this weekend. Provincetown must be one of the few places in the world where twee-ly quaint white-washed 1950s style ice cream bars and fishing-themed antique shops provide the backdrop to sights such as wobbly cycling drag queens cackling down the street, incredibly tiny dogs dragging even more incredibly tiny billboards advertising art galleries, and innumerable, undeniably euphemistic, ‘tea parties’ (over 21s only). The beach as you may well imagine is a consistently lovely extension of this most peculiar of all-American towns. Despite the presence of a half-German in our gang, we were prudish enough to skirt the nudist beach (who knew such things existed in Massachusetts?) but our stretch of sand nonetheless provided a sprinkling of family arrangements which may be common in Provincetown, and perhaps even Massachusetts, but are certainly uncommon in most of this great country.

And thus, by way of seamless segue, to today’s subject. Roiphe’s book chronicles all kinds of uncommon arrangements, although an interest in one’s own gender was just a basic starting point for this set of Londoners. As a series of interconnecting vignettes, Roiphe has written an account of seven marriages among the Bloomsbury set: H.G. Wells, Katherine Mansfield, Vanessa Bell and Radclyffe Hall among them. As with much of my general knowledge, I’d vaguely heard of most of these people, perhaps read an article or two but never really engaged. Now, I’m on a mini quest to find out more (this will probably involve an Amazon binge and then the collecting of dust on my bedside table for a while, but as always it’s the effort and illusion of high-minded intellectual investigation that counts).

At a time when Britain was moving out of Victorianism, this tight group of friends were experimenting with what relationships, and in particular, marriage, could be. Of particular interest was how new feminist thinking could be reconciled with the patriarchal institution of marriage, and a lot of this book recounts the tension that arose as gifted women tussled their fierce need for independence with their inevitable wish for close relationships. So much of this is still relevant today, re-lived among my friends and in the agony pages of women’s magazines. Particularly striking was a quote to the effect that women’s tragedy is that they devote so much time and effort to thinking about their relationships, whilst men devote somewhat less and are thus free to achieve and be wonderful. This set developed all kinds of possible solutions including countless ménages, open relationships, ‘trial’ marriages (co-habitation – who’d have thought!), whilst generally adhering to a hedonistic philosophy that the only way to be truthful and honest was to act on one’s romantic impulses. Inevitably, to the modern mind familiar with the basics of psychoanalysis, much of this ended in disaster. But being able to learn of and understand the motivations of this peculiar bunch is fascinating – it’s incredibly rare to have so much insight into other people’s relationships, but the group were obsessive letter and diary writers, and it’s there for all to see, with literary flourish. These flashes of alternate lives left me with a great deal of admiration for the women involved, trying to forge a new society through their personal relationships, but also a twinge of anxiety that so little seems to have changed. These radical sorts would still stir up opprobrium from the Daily Mail, whilst the milder, everyday versions of their lifestyle choices remain politically sensitive. Plus ca change.

Remind me what I was talking about again?

Oh yes, books (or for the more astute of you, random things that pop into my mind, masquerading as incisive and illuminating commentary on the literature of the day). Best get back to that, then.