Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes is a difficult book to review. Although I enjoyed reading it, I still feel somewhat in the dark about certain aspects of it. It has an apt title because for days, I was trying to make sense of not only the ending but the whole book. I was pleasantly surprised when one of the readers of my blog emailed me just to discuss it. Thank you Robert for your insights. I'm also enjoying the conversation going on at the comment section of Kevin from Canada's blog. Please do check it out if you've read the book. This is a novel that begs to be discussed.

Tony Webster is in his mid-sixties when he receives a letter from a lawyer with an unusual bequest from the mother of Veronica, an ex-girlfriend of his from 40 years before. He is left some money and the diary of his old school chum Adrian. Veronica makes it impossible for Tony to acquire the diary so what follows is Tony's recollection of that period of his life. Why did Adrian commit suicide shortly after hooking up with Veronica? Does Tony remember things accurately or has the passage of time blurred the truth?

After finishing The Sense of an Ending I wasn't sure if I liked it or not. After discussing it with others, I was able to understand it more. However, the more I analyzed it, the less I liked it. Although it is very well-written, I thought it was ultimately an unsatisfactory and frustrating read.

(Spoilers) The essence of the novel is how a flippant action can have severe repercussions. In this case, Tony's action of writing that letter to Adrian and Veronica wherein he condemns their relationship and predicts a lifetime of unhappiness for them. By some twist of fate, many of Tony's youthful conjectures came true. Tony at first recalled the letter as being brief and trivial. Later, Barnes brilliantly conveys the remorse Tony feels when confronted with a copy of the letter and how long, angry and vindictive it actually was. Nevertheless, I don't think Tony is to blame for what happened to Adrian and Veronica's family. He was a young man who was obviously hurt when he wrote the letter. Looking back, it's easy to lay the blame on him. But how many flippant actions have we ourselves done in the past? How do we know what effects they could have had?

I suppose it was Barnes' intention to deliberately leave the ending open to interpretation. However, I wasn't very happy with the double twist in the end. I think I would have liked this book more if the child turned out to be Veronica's and not her mother's. I still can't understand why Veronica felt so angry at Tony and why she blames him for something that happened 40 years ago. Somehow, if the child had been hers, it would have all made sense. Instead we are left wondering why Veronica still feels so bitter about it all. 

While The Sense of an Ending is a good book and I'm glad I read it, it's not a great one because at least for me it left more questions than answers. Given the competition, I think it does deserve to be on the Man Booker shortlist but I'm not sure it deserves the prize. It would definitely make an excellent book club choice because it will generate a lot of discussion and divide readers. And if generating discussion is an important point for the Man Booker judges then I can see this novel being the winner.

If you have read the book, then can you please answer the following questions? From what I understood from the last few pages, Tony may have had the answers to these questions but chose not to share them with us.

Why did Veronica's mother leave the bequest to Tony? 

What did Veronica mean by 'blood money'? 

What did the carer mean by 'especially now?'

One reader commented that we, as readers, are not meant to know everything since we are seeing it all from Tony's point of view. He is left in the dark about a few things in the end. However, I think Tony should have pursued Veronica and her brother for more answers. It was frustrating that Tony, who in the book appeared to be of a curious nature, was happy to end his novel with too many open ended questions. 

UPDATE: The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize for 2011. Read my latest thoughts on the book here.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Short Books for Book Clubs

I'm currently in the process of tweaking my book club's old rules and guidelines because we are now up from eight members to twelve! Twelve is definitely the max if we still want to have interesting discussions. We have been busily emailing and discussing ways that will allow our conversations to flow freely and yet give everyone a chance to have their say. We can all be quite passionate about our opinions and start talking on top of each other. If you have suggestions for facilitating discussions within a book club, please leave a comment below.

I also think it's important that each person gets a chance to host at least once a year. Therefore we've now decided to meet once a month (date to be chosen by the host) instead of every six weeks. We've even set a page limit of 500 pages. Inevitably there will be months where we'll only have 2 or 3 weeks to read a book, so I thought I'd compile a list of short books or novellas that would generate a lot of discussion. I need your suggestions. Please recommend books of 250 pages or less and short stories. I'll compile all your recommendations and write them up in a future post.

The short novels or stories that I can think of right now are:

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
The Withered Arm by Thomas Hardy (short story)
A Perfect Day for Banana Fish by J.D. Salinger (short story)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
Silk by Alessandro Baricco
South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami
Raise the Red Lantern by Su Tong

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A Text Conversation About a Book

When I found out that one of our next book club reads will be Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, I just had to let out a 'groan' and protest. Don't get me wrong, I love Ishiguro but Never Let Me Go has got to be the most emotionally devastating book and film that I've ever encountered. Yes, more even than Lars von Triers' movie, Breaking the Waves, which was already such a downer. However, no one else in my club had heard of Never Let Me Go so my protests were in vain. 

The next day I sent a text message to a friend of mine, Bambi. She had recently read Never Let Me Go for her book club. The following is our text conversation which started at around 7am  (typos, abbreviations and all). It's amazing how this exchange enhanced my view of the book. I always knew Ishiguro was an excellent writer but I've just realized how truly masterful he is. And although I still think the book has a distressing  subject matter, I can now appreciate its brilliance. It just goes to show that certain books are meant to be shared, discussed and dissected with others to thoroughly comprehend them. Thank goodness for my book loving friends, my fellow book bloggers and my book club!

Me: Hi! How did Never Let Me Go do in your book club? It's been chosen for a future meeting. Tried to protest but no one had heard of it  :-(
Bambi: We loved it.
Me: I'm surprised you liked it. It is the most depressing book/film ever!
Bambi: But the subject matter was riveting for me and I like Ishiguro's writing
Me: He is brilliant agreed. But the story is so depressing. Actually the movie more so cos u see how sick they look. Have username it?
Me: I mean have u seen it? iphone typo...
Bambi: Haven't seen it :)
Me: Ok. Now I get ur reaction. After reading book I didn't like it but only after the film did I have such a visceral reaction to it. U should see it anyway...
Bambi: Never Let Me Go would be okay as a choice if you've never read it.
Me: Actually there are worse choices. U r right. At least will promote discussion. Just don't want to revisit the feelings story provoked. Pls see film so we can discuss!
Bambi: Ok. :-)
Me: Great. I read the book years ago. From what I remember film is true to book but because of visuals more depressing.You know the story is completely hopeless. And u actually get that feeling reading/watching. So I guess it is certainly a powerful book to bring out this emotion.
Bambi: For the feeling of hopelessness, yes! That's it exactly. I felt wrenching pity for them. As a mom you can't separate these are kids that can be just like your child.
Me: I know! But gosh now I'm talking about it with u I see how powerful it is. I still don't love it but I'm appreciating it more.
Bambi: That auction and their treasures was so sad.
Me: Even when watching the film I kept hoping they would change ending. I guess it's human nature to be 4ever hopeful.
Bambi: I thought Ishiguro writing this was wonderful. I can't imagine this topic in the hands of a different author. I like his sense of restrained emotion. It could have been such an unabashedly emotional and/or horrifying read with someone else.
Me: Yes actually none of the characters were likeable but that was his intention I realize now.
Bambi: I didn't realize that til you mentioned it now: the characters weren't really likeable, but that was prob the point - you're so right! Despite that, you root for them. Brilliant of Ishiguro :-)
Me: Yes u still want happiness for them! Brilliant. U appreciate book more once discussed with another. Thx for chatting. I emailed Barni (my book club friend) and said I take my protest back. Never Let Me Go is a good choice cos I'm already having a great text conversation about it. Ha, ha.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Extremely Loud - The Film

Here's one of the first still images from the movie  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close based on the book by Jonathan Safran Foer. I can't wait for the film and I can't wait to discuss it with my book club next week! I wonder if they loved it as much as I did.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Snowdrops by A.D. Miller

Before reading Snowdrops by A.D. Miller, I read several reviews from both sides of the fence. This appears to be a book that readers either love or hate and if that's the case then I'll have to put myself in the former category. This is the first book I've read that's on the Man Booker longlist and because I so enjoyed this one, I'm eager to read more Booker longlisters. Snowdrops isn't a great novel but it's a pretty darn good one.

Nick Platt narrates this story as a letter to his fianc√©. He recounts the time he was a British lawyer working in Moscow in the early 2000s. Nick, who would probably just be an ordinary man in London,  is stimulated by his expat lifestyle and the hedonistic offerings that this new Moscow displays. One day in the subway, he rescues two girls, Masha and Katya from a purse snatcher. These two supposedly sisters enter his life and Nick quickly falls for the beautiful Masha. But does she feel the same for him? The sisters ask Nick to help their elderly aunt buy a new apartment and as the intrigues pile up Nick's moral compass slowly spirals out of control.

This is a book about an ordinary man's moral decline
from naiveté to complicity. I thought Miller handled the character study quite well. Nick is a weak man who just wants to be 'cool' and in this modern Russia with these beautiful women he's finally given that least in his eyes. Even when he knows things are not quite what they seem, he keeps plunging ahead, ignoring all the warning signs. Many reviewers thought this was unrealistic but I know that there are certainly people who can become so consumed with the excitement of their new life that they turn a blind eye to everything. Masha and Katya are not sisters, the aunt isn't really their aunt, Masha doesn't love him. Nevertheless, Nick continues to spend time with them and even when everything is over (spoiler alert) he still desires to be back in that world with these people. That's the sad and surprising part and here Miller excels because he leaves so much food for thought.

As I'm writing this review, I'm actually appreciating this novel even more. On the surface it appears to be just a simple and predictable thriller but it's actually not. It has a lot of depth and complexity underneath. There is so much to discuss. Snowdrops will certainly make a good book club choice though I'm sure it will divide the group. I already know that many bloggers didn't like this novel.

I thought the descriptions of the Moscow winter were fantastic. I read this book whilst in a tropical climate and I could feel the cold and the snow. I thought Miller excelled in his character study of Nick and the end result. Human beings are complex after all and who are we to judge how a person will react in certain circumstances. The glittering Moscow night life was also described very well, obviously by someone who's experienced it first hand (Miller is a former Moscow correspondent for The Economist). Reviewers mentioned that this shows a negative view of the city but you know it's probably true. While every country has a positive there's also a negative especially in a country such as Russia, stifled for so long and then suddenly thrust into so much freedom.

While googling for other book blogger reviews, I surprisingly came across a positive review of this novel from a Russian journalist who actually found the plot and Moscow descriptions realistic. Do check out his review here:  Endless Falls Up

I think this book, though not an obvious choice, deserves to be on the Man Booker longlist and since it's the only one I've read, I hope it makes the shortlist.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Bookish Fashion

I recently came across several sites on the web that sell such cute and adorable bookish fashion accessories so I thought I'd share some of them with you. 

Here's an embroidered book bag of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Very nice! If only it didn't cost (sigh) US$750.

It was created by ditafelici who has her own etsy site at: The bag is made with irridescent silk dupion in a delicious shade called Mermaid. It has a luxurious sheen that switches from blue to green quite similar to the book's original dust jacket designed by Victor Reinganum.

I also like her The Great Gatsby bag. Here's a view from the side...

DitaFelici has some slightly less pricier creations at her website so do have a look at her website.

Dita's designs remind me of Parisian designer, Olympia Le-Tan's embroidered bookish bags which are fashion must-haves. They're available in major cities worldwide and at her website. There are only 16 of each design, with the 'first edition' handmade by Le-Tan herself. But be warned, they also have a hefty price tag with pieces starting at US$1050 (Yikes!). Here's the designer with her lovely For Whom The Bell Tolls bag... (I want this one!) Ok, I admit I haven't read the book yet but does that matter?

Olympia was inspired by her childhood memories of growing up around lots of books at her family's library. She says, "I was thinking there were all these beautiful books around and they were being forgotten with everybody on the Internet, so I made it so that you can carry them around." Here's Natalie Portman clutching Olympia's Lolita bag.

Here are two more of Olympia's designs...

So, are there any bookish fashion accessories that we, ahem, mere mortals, can actually afford? Yes! The Kate Spade Kindle covers are only US$55 and available at Amazon.

Out-of-Print Clothing sell book cover t-shirts for everyone in the family and they only cost around US$28.

 They also sell iphone covers for US$35.

So which of these accessories caught your eye?
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