At just 163 pages, The Sense of an Ending, winner of the the 2011 Man Booker Prize (a British literary prize for fiction), packs a lot into a small package. The use of language is sublime, and the characterizations are very finely crafted, with an economy of carefully chosen words. The book begins with apparently disparate memories of the now retired main character, Tony Webster, as he is thinking back over his life. He recalls an exchange between his history teacher at the end of his last year of secondary school and one of his friends, Adrian. The history teacher remarks that, "...historians need to treat a participant's own explanation of events with a certain skepticism. It is often the statement made with an eye to the future that is the most suspect."
Webster's memories of events from his young adulthood portray him as a very ordinary and likeable fellow. The ways in which the memories alter and twist as new information is divulged, now that he is in late middle age, are a fascinating commentary on how anyone's history (whether that of a nation or an individual) is plastic and malleable based on viewpoint and the unreliable nature of memory. Along the way, Webster shares other musings about life, about the human condition.
Some of these musings just make you want to pause and digest. Think back to your own adolescence and tell me if this does not resonate: "In those days, we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when that moment came, our lives--and time itself--would speed up. How were we to know that our lives had in any case begun, that some advantage had already been gained, some damage already inflicted? Also, that our release would only be into a larger holding pen, whose boundaries would be at first undiscernible." (p.10). Here again, Webster comments on the tenuous nature of historical accuracy: "...my desire to ascribe responsibility might be more a reflection of my own cast of mind than a fair analysis of what happened. That's one of the central problems of history...The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us." (p. 13) I admit, I marked a lot of interesting passages to which I mean to return.
Perhaps I am something of a naif, but I absolutely didn't see the ending coming. I was quite surprised at how the pieces all fit together. I have heard that the mark of a good book is when it lingers in your mind. This one certainly has done that.
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Ten years ago Alexandra Fuller published her first book, a piece of non-fiction about her childhood in Rhodesia as it transitioned, with lots of chaos and bloodshed, into today’s Zimbabwe. If you haven’t read that book, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, by all means, put everything down right now and check out a copy. Ms. Fuller’s mother refers to her daughter’s earlier publishing success as “that Awful Book”. We find in this current offering the ways in which her mother nourished and encouraged her daughter’s future calling as a writer. When the author was quite young, her mother advised her:
“Look Bobo”, she reasoned, “numbers are boring. Anyway, you can always pay someone to count for you, but you can never pay anyone to write for you. Now,” Mum paused and gave me one of her terrifying smiles. “What do you think you are going to write about?” Then she took a long sip of tea, brushed a couple of dogs off her lap and began to live a life Worthy of Fabulous Literature. (p. 5)
Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness purports to be a sort of background as to how on earth her parents happened to be caught raising their children in the midst of an African war for independence. It is ostensibly about the beginnings of each of her parents, but the focus is really mostly on her larger than life mother, “Nicola Fuller of Central Africa”. There is a sense that this book is a sort of peace offering between mother and daughter. Ms. Fuller, now mature and with three children, can look back at the woman her mother was with great compassion and empathy. There is a clear-eyed respect for the courage with which her mother faced so many tragedies and challenges.
Ms. Fuller’s parents now live on and work a fish farm/banana plantation on the Zambezi River in Zambia. They never gave up on Africa and now, in their “golden years”, are living their dream, farming on the continent they so love. This book is the story of a family, a family with British roots but with a love of Africa in their blood. And it is the particular story of Nicola Fuller, who, while she considers herself one million percent Highland Scottish, has lived most of her life in Africa. The book is so richly written that parts of it twisted my soul into shreds, and other parts had me laughing aloud. The significance of the title comes from the fact that the Fuller’s current house in Zambia is built under a tree the native Africans call the “tree of forgetfulness”.
Mr. Zulu shook his head, “No, Madam. This is the Tree of Forgetfulness. All the headmen here plant one of these trees in their village.” Mr. Zulu held his forearm steady as if to demonstrate the power of the tree. “You can plant it just like that, from one stick, and it is so strong it will become a tree. They say ancestors stay inside it. If there is some sickness or if you are troubled by spirits, then you sit under the Tree of Forgetfulness and your ancestors will assist you with whatever is wrong.” He nodded and took another drag of his cigarette. “It is true---all your troubles and arguments will be resolved.”
“Do you believe that?” Mum asked, but before Mr. Zulu could reply she waved her own question away. “I believe it’s true,” she said. “I believe it two million percent.” (p.215)
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You should know from the start that this book has nothing to do with vampires. Sharp incisors do make a small appearance, but that’s all. I’d hate for you to be disappointed thinking this was yet another paranormal romance.
The Family Fang is instead the story of a peculiar family and the extent they go to create.
Somewhere within every art appreciation course the question, “What is art?” has no doubt come up. Performance artists, Camille and Caleb Fang define it as creating spectacle and watching/documenting the waves their actions make. The Fangs would have found their creative home within the Situationist Movement. Their physical home, as created by Kevin Wilson is an odd place for children to grow up. Their father shot a man in the arm as a creative act, their mother secretly makes disturbed paintings in miniature. Both eat candy for fuel and listen to Avant-garde records at deafening levels.
Annie, known as Child A and Buster, known as Child B never knew if a trip to the grocery store was simply an effort to get milk and bread or instead a plot derived by their parents to create chaos. This instability produced two rather damaged adults who return to the nest for a chance to heal themselves both physically and emotionally. The story fluctuates between Annie and Buster’s childhood and the present while ending in a predictably strange place.
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I discovered Bardstown Road: A Novella by Andre Coma by accident and when I saw it was about Louisville’s Bardstown Road, I thumbed through it. I found all kinds of allusions to places and things that I know and like. All the joys of youth in one thin book.There’s Twice Told Coffeehouse, Tewligans, John’s Lennon’s Working Class Hero , Little Debbie snack cakes, and Big Red. There is also the growing pains of life; menial jobs, parents, roommates, and a messed up relationship. This book deals with life in a real and honest way.
The main character, Ben is a lonely, but happy, slacker. He sees no real point in buying into an adult world that’s phony. He’s not rebelling against the world like Holden Caulfield, but he just chooses not to fit. He’s a good, level-headed guy who seems more intelligent and insightful than the average 20 something. The girl is Jenny. She is Ben’s ex, and has just come back to Ben with some important news.
There are a variety of cool and odd characters that seem real to the point that I bet that I passed some of them on the street or met them in a bar or on the TARC bus years ago. With very few lines invested in each, he brings these people to life. The people he meets on the bus and the street are real. They have BO. They have mental problems. They bum money. Ben considers himself a “freak,” because he assumes this is how the world views him and his friends. He thinks of himself as being pretty normal, yet an outsider in the normal world. Will Ben survive in the real world? Will he get Jenny?
…and then there’s Melville’s Moby Dick . Ben begins it at the beginning of the book. Will he finish it by the book’s end? I’ve started Moby 5 or 6 times and I have yet to make it all the way through.
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A fascinating aspect of literature is its capacity to change over time. Intuitively, one may think that the message a book conveys, the experience the tale imparts, the revelry a novel causes remains somewhat static and consistent, a belief that I completely disagree with. By this, I mean that the state of the reader, influenced by such dynamic factors as age, relationship status, type of socialization experienced, among others, significantly affects, and perhaps ultimately determines, one’s reaction to a story.
Kim , Rudyard Kipling’s famous novel published in 1901, is for me a prime demonstration of this idea of how one’s feelings towards a story can change. I first read Kim as a sixth grader and found the story of the orphaned Kimball O’Hara, otherwise known as Kim, gripping – a young guy, a bit older than I was at the time, was leading an adventurous life on the streets of Lahore, India, free of the pressures of school and family, and while he was poor and did lead a somewhat harsh existence, his complete independence seemed so appealing. And his life only becomes more incredible as he joins a Tibetan lama on his spiritual journey and is eventually recruited by the British secret service for important work, which they refer to as the great game, on the northern border of India involving Russian agents, turncoat allies, and danger – almost a young James Bond.
Now, let’s skip quite a few years ahead, the young sixth grader is now an adult, and I find myself looking at a copy of Kim and remembering the first time I read it. Succumbing to nostalgia, I cracked that paperback open and began reading. I was taken quite by surprise. Being an enormous fan of several modern writers hailing from India, I have developed a particular picture of post-Raj India, one in which India, despite the challenges that pluralist societies face, is filled with beauty, culture, and, above all, magic; something that modern life can oftentimes lack or lose altogether, particularly as one grows older.
Although Mr. Kipling included wonderful descriptions of the geography and lively city life of India, it was made perfectly clear that Mr. Kipling considered Indian independence something akin to madness, for in his mind how could the country thrive and progress without the leadership of the British? In the words of Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, complete “tommy-rott”, I thought.
Despite the imperialistic overtones that overshadow Kim , I must say that it still is a good adventure and coming-of-age story that can be easier to digest when the time and context in which it was written is taken into account. In fact, it is the various layers of the story that can keep it fresh and new through subsequent readings.
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