Saturday, April 21, 2018

Young and Restless

Are we made by what we read? I believe so. While I do try not to read only fictions and  not just fictions of a certain genre, I particularly enjoy reading general fictions that are centred around certain themes such as  memory and the unreliable nature of human memory. One of my favourite writers is Julian Barnes whose prose is elegant,  prolific and easy to get into the rhythm of.
Julian Barnes is back in his element talking about love and the memory of youth in The Only Story. This is how the novel begins: 

Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.

You may point out – correctly- that it isn’t a real question. Because we don’t have the choice, then there would be a question. But we don’t, so there isn’t . Who can control how much they love? If you can control it, then it isn’t love. I don’t know what you call it instead, but it isn’t love.

The story is about Paul's first love and it has lifelong consequences. It begins in the first person’s voice.

Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one that matters, only one finally worth telling. This is mine.

At nineteen, Paul falls in love with Susan Macleod, a married woman who is almost three decades his senior. He is home for three months at the end of his first year at university. His mother suggests that he may like to join the tennis club. He is competitive at sport without being unduly talented. There is a Lucky Dip Mixed Doubles tournament and he is paired with Mrs Susan Macleod, thus begin his acquaintance with her and they become more than tennis buddies.

Paul was at the age when the one thing that he was not going to do with his existence was end up in a suburbia with a  tennis wife and 2.4 children, and watch them in turn find their mates at the club. When he accepted his mother’s suggestion and offer to sub him for a membership at the tennis club, it was ‘in a spirit of nothing but satire’.

The Only Story moves from the first person’s voice to second person’s voice and then onto the third person’s voice and back to the first person's voice in the end.

As an adolescent, he had longed for more complication. And life had let him discover it . At times, he felt he had had enough of life’s complications .


He always remembered what she had said to him after they left Joan’s house that day. Like most young men, especially those first in love, he had viewed life – and love – in terms of winners and losers. He, obviously, was a winner; Joan , he assumed , had been a loser, or more likely, not even a competitor. Susan had put him right. Susan had pointed out that everyone has their love story. Even if it was a fiasco, even if it fizzled out, never got going, had all been in the mind to begin with: that didn’t make it any the less real. And it was the only story .’


As you get older, you know that life is both happy and miserable. I often feel protective of my daughters, afraid of their expectations about love and disappointments and life’s complications. But then they have to do the growing up and figure things out on their own.

I believe that it is better to have loved and perhaps  suffer for loving someone  than never to have loved for fear of getting hurt.


The Only Story is a sad love story. It is not tragically sad, it is just sad, it is about the passing of youth and the human heart.While it is a fiction, the observations about how the human heart and mind work are apt. The writing is simply engaging as the story unfolds. Everyone has a story to tell, what is yours? 

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Love, etc

This evening I visited a friend who lives behind a Japanese tea house in the inner city. It is a quaint house on one of those narrow alleys that has all the charm of an old town. I spoke to one of the young proprietors of the tea house. She must be in her twenties and she was telling me that she did not know what she wanted to do with her life after graduating with a degree in finance and accounting. After doing an internship and working as a research assistant at the university, she chanced upon an opportunity to pursue  a Master degree in Sociology in Korea.  Brilliant. Now that she had completed her Master programme, while she was figuring out what to do, she decided to run a tea house with her Japanese friend.

When I hear young people telling me the different things they are doing, I do wish to be young and carefree again in these changing times since most of us baby boomers tend to have stories which are interchangeable except for some brave ones. Of course the  young these days may appear to be free to do what they want, they will definitely have their own share of challenges too. In the same café, I met a computer wizard who was  trying to solve my friend’s problem with  the operating system of her laptop. During our conversations, the newborn baby who is now under my friend's care awoke from her sleep and she was crying softly as she was hungry.The Japanese lady proprietor held the baby and feed her. Sweet. I could stay there for a tad longer but it was time for me to head home.

During  French conversation class this week,  we talked about  nomadic life. We were shown a short clip of a French family who lives a nomadic life. The children in the clip are aged between 11 and 16. We spoke about their schooling and our teacher who was moderating the dialogue  explained that these children were doing distant learning. One participant   was eloquently  arguing that it would be very unfair for  the children to be experiencing  that kind of unsettled life. I disagreed but I struggled with my limited command of  French  to express my views . I illustrated by saying  that I had sent my daughters  to a school that required them to keep short hair and as soon as my daughters and their school friends left school, they started  growing their hair long. I was trying to illustrate that we do not know what kind of system is best in bringing up children. We can only do what we are comfortable  with since we are all products of our time and no matter how we try to do what we think is best for our young ones we may still hurt or damage them in some way. There is no manual really. I could not elaborate all that but I think my point was understood partially.  I  also said that it would really depend on the character of the individual as not everyone might be suitable to move around. What I had meant was that the formula that you think is not right for one individual, it may be right for another. Perhaps uprooting one from one’s comfort zones cannot be everyone’s cup of tea, and a child may need a stable environment to grow, but if the child is cared for by his or her loving family, I do not see why it should  be bad just because the child is moved around a lot. I think even if I were young again, I would not be able to cope with life as a nomad although I like the concept of globe-trotting. I really do not know. You need to be courageous, I told those in our conversation group. 
There are synopsis or reviews that make you want to immediately run out and buy the book mentioned in these reviews. Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney’s debut novel was such a book. Perhaps it was the title that first attracted me and I had read that  its author, Sally Rooney  has been hailed as one of the rising stars by the publishing industry.

Conversations with Friends is a story that makes me marvel at the wonder of being young, clueless and experimental. I like to think that I have no regrets as I know that given another chance, I would probably arrive at the same place where I am. Perhaps I have no regrets because it is pointless regretting anything when you cannot change a thing that is in the past. Sometimes I do envy the young although I must not.

Conversations with Friends reminds me of the time when it was easy to fall in love. Affairs of the heart is an indulgence just like chocolates as they make you feel dizzy and happy. When one is young and unassuming, falling in love is easy. It is all so emotionally exhausting and yet riveting. It could be  only a crush or an infatuation or about being in love with the concept of loving. It is the chemistry of love,  the anticipation that gives the adrenalin rush. Falling in love must be triggered by some chemical response or some biological reasons when some unseen forces draw two people together.  There is a famous quote by the brilliant  Albert Einstein :
Gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love. How apt !!
In Conversations with Friends, Frances, Bobbi, Nick and Melissa are four character who ask each other endless questions about sex , friendship , art and literature. Frances and Bobbi are in their early twenties while Melissa and Nick are in their thirties. These characters are  rather wealthy people, they are what we would classify as bourgeois and  their dialogues involve all those philosophical talks about love and marriage. The dialogues are clever and the way they are written  makes it  easy to get into the rhythm of reading the novel.  

Frances is doing internship three days a week  in a literary agency and her job is to read stacks of manuscripts and write one-page reports on their literary value.

Here are a couple of snippets in twenty-one year old  Frances’ voice : 
I hadn’t been kidding with Philip about not wanting a job. I didn’t want one. I had no plans as to my future financial sustainability : I never wanted to earn money for doing anything. I’d had various minimum wage jobs in previous summers- sending emails, making cold calls, things like that – and I expected to have more of htem after I graduated. Though I knew that I would eventually have to enter full- time employment , I certainly never fantasised about a radiant future where I was paid to perform an economic role. Sometimes this felt like a failure to take an interest in my own life, which depressed me. On the other hand, I felt that my disinterest in wealth was ideologically healthy. I’d checked what the average yearly income would be if the gross world product were divided evenly among everyone, and according to Wikipedia it would be $ 16 ,100. I saw no reason, political or financial, ever to make more money than that.’

My ego had always been an issue. I knew that intellectual attainment was morally neutral at best, but when bad things happened to me I made myself feel better by thinking about how smart I was.When I couldn’t make friends as a child, I fantasised that I was smarter than all my teachers, smarter than any other student who had been the school before a genius hidden among normal people. It made me feel like a spy….

Frances is a child of divorce with an alcoholic father. She  and Nick find themselves drawn to each other despite the age difference and they end up having an affair. Frances seems so young and naïve and we as readers will not judge her. Bobby is Frances’s classmate and first love.  Frances is in awe of her for she is fiercely independent and free spirited.
 I like how the author ends the novel.


Thursday, March 22, 2018

Every Day


When I walk into a bookstore, the sight of books sitting on the bookshelves comforts me. I go to a bookstore not knowing what I am seeking but there will always be something that catches my interest and it does not take long for me to pick up a good read. Words are powerful and I am often thrilled by beautiful writings, some may resonate with me while others may not but they do make me ponder. Given a chance, every writing does invoke something in each individual.

I only wish that the love of language could be taught. Words describe and transcend all that define us, our beliefs, our insecurities, our hypocrisies, our truths and the ordinary events that shape our lives. Poignant writings touch our hearts, humour tickle and make us see the lighter side of life while thought-provoking passages find its way to stir our conscience and touch our hearts.

Whenever I stumble upon really good writings, I   fervently hope that many people read them. And I truly believe that it is through reading that one cultivates empathy and a much better understanding of humankind.

Recently I looked through my pile of books and resumed reading a young adult book that I had bought sometime ago. The Future of Us  is  written by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler in two voices, Emma’s and Josh’s.

It is 1996, less than half of all American high school students have ever used the internet. Emma’s parents are divorced and she lives with her mother and her mother’s  new husband. Martin. She receives her fist computer from her dad and an America Online CD-ROM from her neighbour and best friend, Josh. They power up the computer and log on and discover themselves on Facebook, fifteen years in the future. FACEBOOK is only invented in 2004. The premise of the story is that everybody wonders what their FUTURE will be but what if you can see from your FACEBOOK whom you are destined to marry or where you will be and you do not like it, will you tweak it?

Emma sees that she is going to marry a jerk and she has to try to intervene by looking up who the future husband is and where he lives. It is rather hilarious when she finds the her future husband  lives in Tampa State, she scraps the idea of going to college in Tampa State even that has always been her first  college choice.  She wants to rule out the possibility of meeting the ‘husband’ so she does not end up marrying him.
In Josh’s voice,
JUST LIKE THAT, the future is changed forever.
      Fifteen years of  history ----- future history  ------is changed because Emma didn’t like the guy she married. But she only had a few sentences from fifteen years in the future to work with. That’s not nearly enough information to make such a drastic decision about her life. And his life ! Come to think of it, any person who was impacted by their relationships, even in the slightest way, will be twisted in countless new directions.
          I want to both scream and laugh hysterically. Instead, I crumple the photocopy in my hand and throw it across the room. The paper barely makes a sound when it hits the wall.
     “ You can’t do that !” I shout.

If only you could pre-empt bad things from happening but Josh is annoyed with her and tells her that all she sees is snippets of the future and she should not tamper with the future in that manner. According to Facebook, Josh’s future is secured.

Josh says to Emma, “ We need to do things exactly as we would’ve done them before Facebook.

To Emma, she sees that she is not happy and that needs to change, and she realizes that  one little ripple can change the future and Josh thinks it is dangerous stuff.

When Josh looks into the FACEBOOK, he sees that he is going to settle down with Sydney Mills ,  the IT girl in school,  he becomes more confident. When he manages to get Sydney’s attention, Josh finds that he does not connect with Sydney Mills to whom he is supposed to be married fifteen years from now.
Josh is therefore in a dilemma, he contacts his brother, David. 
    “ I know what your problem is ,” David says.
   “ I have a problem?” 
   “ You’re a go-with-the-flow guy,” he says. “ You’ve always been that way. And that can feel great because it means you don’t have to make any hard decisions. But sometimes you need to figure out what you want, Josh. If that means you need to swim against the tide to get it, at least you’re aiming for something that could make you very happy.” 
     I twist the swing in the other direction.
  “ Where do you want to go to college?” David asks.” I know you won’t have to deal with that until next year, but where are you considering now? “
 I laugh into the phone . He thinks I’m going to say Hemlock State, where Mom and Dad work. But I’ve seen Facebook. I know where I’m going, and he’s wrong. “The University of Washington,” I say. 

The protagonists realise that even the smallest change to their present will ripple into the future so they should stop trying to tamper with what they think might be their future by just reading into their posts on Facebook. They decide to stop looking to the future, they must live in the here and now. Yes one must always focus on  the present. What will be, will be.