February 28, 2010

STARTER FOR TEN by David Nicholls

Naturally, I have yet to finish any of the books I brought/ started on my trip to London (which was wonderful, thanks Hay!). But, of course, as I passed the time in a bookstore in Heathrow waiting for my flight to depart for home, I decided to add another book to my heavy backpack – Starter for Ten. I saw the movie when it first came out, though I remember almost nothing of it, and I have friends who loved the book (which is also, oddly, sometimes called A Question of Attraction). Because of all this, and because I had vaguely been meaning to read it for a while and had recently been talking about it, I gave it a try.

I read the majority of this book in public places – the plane from London and on the subway coming to and from work each day this past week. Not a good idea. I got so invested in the main character, the supremely awkward Kate Bush-fanatic Brian Jackson, that I would catch myself scowling at what he was about to do or, more often than not, laughing out loud at his awkwardness (often to the curious looks of my fellow commuters). It is a hilarious book. Brian, a young man from a working class English town in the mid 1980s, enters college with dreams of finding a great girl, becoming cool and aloof, and starring on his college’s University Challenge (a TV quiz show) team. As an avid collector of useless facts and general knowledge, Brian has always believed that being on a University Challenge team would somehow bring everything together: he would find the beautiful smart girl, make his mother proud, honor his dead father, and succeed beyond his humble upbringing. Of course, all does not go according to plan. As he becomes distracted by his blind love for the beautiful but selfish and mean Alice, he neglects his studies and slowly isolates himself from everything and everyone that is important to him. It becomes a story that would be sad if it weren’t so funny.

As a recent college student and English major to boot, I have encountered very few characters in books that have been as recognizable as Brian Jackson. Time period, class warfare, and general ridiculousness aside, his thoughts and insecurities are the kind that most kids in their late teens and early twenties are plagued by. Brian desperately tries to fit in and find his place at his university, but continually fails at his attempts to be cool and aloof while overanalyzing every conversation he has with people he is trying to impress. It is the perfect picture of freshman year of college: insecurities about new friends, academic qualifications, leaving home, and the opposite sex. So often when reading Brian’s thoughts I wanted to yell, Yes! That’s exactly how I felt! So much of what Brian does, from the way he makes up conversations and encounters in his head, to the way he applies literature and song lyrics to his life, to the way that no matter how hard he tries he is unable to avoid superb awkwardness, are things that I (and many of my friends) have definitely been known to do. It’s amazing how Nicholls so often knew what was going on in my head as a young and impressionable college student. But Nicholls knows how to make Brian not too recognizable – some of his situations are just so absurd and painfully awkward that he always remains a comfortably safe work of fiction. The recognizability that remains, however, is what makes the book so funny and still so poignant.

Each chapter of Starter for Ten is preceded by a University Challenge-esque question that shows itself to be pertinent to the chapter. Likewise, each of the four parts of the book (or ‘Rounds’) begins with a quote that becomes relevant. The epilogue begins with this quote from a Kate Bush song I love, ‘Cloudbusting’:

I know that something good is going to happen.

And I don’t know when,

But just saying it could even make it happen.

And so, in honor of Brian and his love for Kate Bush, here is the wonderful (/ridiculous) video for Kate Bush’s wonderful song 'Cloudbusting.' Enjoy!

(Cover via)

February 11, 2010


Tonight I leave to visit my wonderful friend Hayley and see her fabulous life as a graduate student in London! We will, of course, be doing many literary things (like watching Persuasion, yet again), and I am at the moment assembling books for my journey. In my bag: a London tour guide (of course), Mrs. Dalloway, yet another Churchill biography, a short history of London, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Probably more books than I need and will actually read, but I like to be over-prepared when it comes to books (who cares how much my carry-on weighs!). Any other suggestions, to my dozens of readers? What are some other good London-based, or generally British, books?

(Image from my visit to Hayley in Oxford two years ago)


Possession is a gorgeous book. It is many things: a literary mystery, a two-fold love story, a commentary on Victorian and modern society, and a student of literature’s dream (in more ways than one). From reading some of A.S. Byatt’s short fiction I knew that her writing is beautiful and rich, but this novel is on another level; she successfully writes in a myriad of styles and mediums while crafting a detailed and enthralling story. Accordingly, it won the Booker Prize in 1990 and is included on Time’s list of 100 best novels since 1923. I’m telling you – a gorgeous book.

Possession begins with Roland Michell, a scholar of the famed (fictional) Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash. As he sifts through olds books and papers of the poet’s in the London Library, he discovers some intriguingly personal drafts of previously unknown letters from Ash to a mystery woman. With some sleuthing, and with the help of feminist scholar Maud Bailey, he discovers the letters to be for Christabel LaMotte, a poet of Ash’s era loved by modern feminists but largely ignored in her own time. With the discovery of a whole cache of letters between the two poets, Maud and Roland embark on an intensely secretive quest around England and Northern France to discover the love between the poets that will completely change the literary worlds they both work in. Byatt shifts between times in unique ways; as we see the relationship between Ash and LaMotte develop through their letters, we also see Roland and Maud become slowly but irrevocably linked. For the two of them, the discoveries they make are purely about their personal relationships with the poets and their poetry – that indefinable closeness one feels to someone never known personally, but only through the power of their writing.

This private quest between the two of them, however, slowly spreads to involve a whole cast of academics. The world of Ash and LaMotte scholars is very insular, it seems, and word and suspicions spread quickly. For people who devote their lives to studying a finite number of poems and writings of long-dead poets, a discovery as monumental as this (or any discovery of new material, really) is groundbreaking. So, their quest for the sake of the love of literature becomes a chase to get the letters, a legal battle, and a question of ownership. Academia can get ugly, especially when a big discovery comes along that can mean so much for the careers of so many people. Byatt’s exploration of this strange academic world made me think about academia as a life choice. How would it be to live your life completely consumed by and devoted to the lives of dead poets, as these academics do? Byatt (a former professor at University College London) shows us the thoughts of all these different kinds of scholars and how they try to reconcile their life’s work. Studying only the poems of a long dead Victorian poet, or an obscure female poet, or the wife of a famous poet (as the case may be, according to the character) requires much justification in the minds of Byatt’s characters, as I imagine it would. You have to really love the writings of a poet to make your living by reading and writing about them.

More than any other book I can think of, the title of Possession grows to fit the book perfectly. I didn’t think this would be the case to begin with; ‘possession,’ while an evocative and romantic word (fitting, as the book’s subtitle is “A Romance”), struck me as a generic and forgettable title. By the book’s end, however, I realized how it truly encompasses the many levels of the book. Are these scholars, stuck in the bowels of libraries and academic facilities, possessed by the deceased poets to whom they devote their lives? Who possesses whom when it comes to love? This is especially apparent as the story of Ash and LaMotte unfolds amidst the rigid era Victorian, and they must decide where their hearts lie. Who possesses, legally and for all intents and purposes, the thoughts and ideas of these dead writers – or, as it is, the writings and letters? And, perhaps most deeply felt throughout the book, how much does one truly possess oneself, especially when in love? As Roland and Maud fall slowly but strangely in love, they both struggle with their own self-possession and how they can define themselves in terms of each other and their work. As it turns out, there can be no title better than Possession.

This is all probably more than I should have written about Possession, and yet there is so much more that could be said. It is a dense book, and as much as I loved it, it took me a long time to read and digest. One of the beauties of the novel, but also one of the things that contributes to its density, is the variety of forms it is told through. Byatt proves herself as a poet as well as a novelist by including many of the major works of Ash and LaMotte, from short verses to epic poems. Hundreds of pages go by in letter form, as the romance between the poets is told. Diaries of contemporaries and family members of the poets contribute to their story, as do excerpts of the critical analyses written by the modern scholars in the book. All these different narrative voices and forms shape both eras and all characters, and somehow Byatt makes them all perfectly convincing and informed. And now, onward to The Children’s Book and beyond – I can’t wait to continue on my Byatt-quest.

(Cover via Wikipedia)

February 07, 2010

'Points of Stars in the Dark'

Here is an excerpt from A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which I recently read, and loved, and will be writing about shortly:

Now and then there are readings that make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark – readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognized, become fully cognizant of, our knowledge.
- from Possession, 1990

February 03, 2010

Happy (Belated) Birthday, James Joyce!

For Christmas, I got a wonderful literary desk calendar that I am obsessed with. It includes quotes, short bios, and birthdays of many famous and not-so-famous writers. Unfortunately, I didn't look at it yesterday and only realized today that February 2 was the great James Joyce's birthday. My love of Irish literature, and literature in general, naturally leads to a love of Joyce - undoubtedly one of the most important (if not the most important) writers of the last century. Here is the last paragraph of "The Dead," the final short story in Dubliners. It is one of my favorite Joyce pieces, and especially appropriate with all the snow that fell last night. Beautiful.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
-from "The Dead" 1914

(Image via Wikipedia)

February 02, 2010

My Hypothetical Future

Just as an fyi, this is what my future apartment and/ or home will look like (the one that, in my mind, is the coolest place ever):

Or this:

Basically, just books filling every cranny, and a ladder to reach them all. This imagined future is how I justify leaving used book stores with more books than I could read in a year (and spending more money than should be spent in a used book store).

(Images via)