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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING--JULIAN BARNES' INVITATION TO SOLVE A LIFE

In the case of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, the title says it all. I think.  What does it mean?  Confused?  So am I.  I finished this short novel and enjoyed it immensely.  But I’m not sure I totally get it, and, of course, I can’t ask you at this time to give me your thoughts on it. 

Our protagonist, Tony Webster, is about my age.  He grew up in a time I am totally familiar with and totally at home reading about.  I recognize so much of what he says and what he does.  Perhaps every age sits with a kind of smug philosophical elitism feeling contempt for those considered too plebeian to see the truth about life as clearly as they do.  “Understanding the world” and denigrating it as it currently is usually occurs over a beer.  At any rate, Tony and his three friends see themselves as young philosophers throwing around German terms and names of established philosophers as a way of affirming their superiority over the masses.  The best thinker among them is Adrian, and he is respected by his peers.

Adrian eventually becomes the center of life’s puzzle for Tony whose own life and loves turn into what he himself terms ordinary: a university girlfriend, Veronica, who eventually chooses Adrian, a failed marriage where he retains the friendship of his former wife, Margaret, a daughter and grandchild.  As a retiree, he volunteers in a hospital library.

When he asks Margaret over a friendly lunch if she left him because of him, she enigmatically replies that she left him "because of us."  

Life is never really ordinary, and this book is about growing up, remembering back in whatever way we are capable, being deeply hurt and deeply hurting others, and trying to finally understand what life is all about. 

Tony tells his story, so there is so much about truth and about the other characters to which we are not privy.  Additionally, there is the always constant question about what is history?  What is memory?  How accurate is either?

And I, always interested in the title’s meaning, am not quite sure I get it.  Veronica tells Tony he “will never get it.”  What’s “it”?

Indeed, this book was suggested by my sister-in-law with the warning that it is “different.”  She wanted to discuss it when I was done, and I would like to discuss it with her too.  I want to see how she viewed The Sense of an Ending.  I’d like to discuss it with any of you who have read it too.

Despite my questions, I highly recommend this novel.  It’s thoroughly intriguing.  It’s short and reads easily.  Barnes has a flowing, descriptive style, and I got to really know Tony Webster and to understand his dilemma.  But because of the first person narration, I never understood some of the other characters because Tony never does.  Oh well, it is so nice to dwell on a book as much as I’ve been dwelling on this one.

Here are some of my favorite quotations:

“…of course we were pretentious—what else is youth for?”
“…we knew we grasped life—and truth, and morality, and art….”
“…our fear: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.”

Do you remember feeling and thinking like that?  I do.

And then the truth about the “sixties”—

“If you’ll excuse a brief history lesson: most people didn’t experience “the sixties” until the seventies.  Which meant, logically, that most people in the sixties were still experiencing the fifties—or, in my case, bits of both decades side by side.  Which made things rather confusing.”

How did I know that summer that Woodstock would be what Woodstock became?  I think (after this book I’m not so sure) I remember what it was as it was happening.

Here’s a very poignant definition:

“…remorse.  A feeling which is more complicated, curdled and primeval.  Whose chief characteristic is that nothing can be done about it: too much time has passed, too much damage has been done, for amends to….”

Wow!  That is a wakeup call.

Here’ the retired-in-his 60s-Tony.  How painful is this:

“Sometimes I think the purpose of life is to reconcile us to its eventual loss by wearing us down, by proving, however long it takes, that life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

Several times during the novel, Tony hums or sings "Time is On Our Side."  I well remember this song and sang along.  But here's another question: Is it?

In the end I was deeply touched, quite nostalgic, and somewhat puzzled.  I think I will continue to ponder the meaning of Barnes’ title as I try to get The Sense of an Ending.

    

Friday, October 25, 2013

FRIDAY'S FOTO

This is my home, the Warwick Valley from the top of Mt. Peter.
You might ask why I travel to see autumn colors.
I often ask myself the same thing.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

FRIDAY'S FOTO

Aren't these beautiful?
This is in Salzburg, Austria, but it's a reminder of what we will have to wait another year to see again.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

AMSTERDAM--WHERE BUILDINGS RISE ABOVE THE SEAS

Amsterdam
There's a certain romance lingering in the streets of Amsterdam
I loved my first visit to Amsterdam.  It was so unlike the city I expected—I won’t go into my foolishness here—and I found the city absolutely charming.  A young friend, Scott M., recently told me that the best way to see Amsterdam is to walk it, and that is exactly how we introduced ourselves to the colorful and historic city we visited on a three-day pre-cruise extension to our Viking Grand European River Cruise.

Getting to know Amsterdam in even this short span made it very clear why during their Golden Age in the 17th century the Dutch were one of the most powerful peoples in the world.  There is a saying in the Netherlands (basically meaning below land) that “God created the world but the Dutch created the Netherlands.”

First dikes and then the windmills introduced from Mesopotamia in the 16th century made it possible to create this country from beneath the seas. 

Perhaps you think the first thing that impressed me was the canals, but no.   I loved the buildings!  They are beautiful.  Amsterdam is extraordinarily colorful, clean, and vibrant.  As I never tire of being awed by aspects of my travels, I was awed by the history of these beautiful buildings.

Amsterdam

Amazingly, every building in Amsterdam is a meter below sea level at high tide.  Buildings were constructed on now-ancient wooden pillars sunk 14 feet deep. The pillars were made from trees harvested and transported from Scandinavia and the Black Forest.  The pillars do not rot as long as they have no contact with air.  Pretty remarkable when you take a moment to consider man’s genius.

Amsterdam

The buildings are old—many date back to the 1500 and 1600s, so for an American, these dates are impressive in themselves.  Because land is so precious in the Netherlands, at one time buildings were taxed on their width—how much land they occupied—so builders concentrated on tall, narrow structures.  Most are three or four stories high and so narrow that they could not accommodate elevators in their modernizations and renovations. 

Amsterdam

That means that much of Amsterdam is also a city for the young who can climb the stairs; elderly people move out.  We saw some but relatively few young families. I’m sure there’s a problem in lugging “family paraphernalia” up those stairs too.  The youthfulness of this ancient city accounts in large measure for the vibrancy of the shops and pace and innovative ways of living along the canals’ edges.  It’s pretty exciting.

Amsterdam

Additionally, and quite wonderfully for us tourists to learn, is that attached to the outside of the top floor of each building is a winch or hook of some kind.  With the narrow stairways, furniture is moved in and out of apartments via the windows.  Up the outside of the building and then in to the apartment!  We didn’t see this occurring, but that would have been pretty cool if we had.

Amsterdam
Do you see the hook outside the top window?
Look at the other photos and see that each building has something
similar to this.
Some buildings were actually built on a slight angle—out toward the narrow street—so moving furniture would not rub against the abutting building.  Details, details, details.

Amsterdam
If you look at the blue building with the red shutters, you might be
able to see that it juts forward just a touch.

The buildings are colorful in all the shades of browns and burgundies and tans imaginable, with steep black rooves (ok, I’m dating myself with that spelling, but this is my blog, isn’t it?), and some uncluttered windows.  I asked our wonderful walking tour guide, Marieke, about the curtainless windows, and she suggested the habit goes back to a more religious period when the idea was to show a plain and humble life.  In any case, the result is shining glass panels twinkling in the sun or, on the lower levels, a peek into a household. 

Amsterdam

But just so you don’t believe that all of Amsterdam is set in the distant past, other parts are ultra-modern in architectural style. 

Amsterdam
Our hotel, The Movenpick
Amsterdam
Shall we call this New Amsterdam?
Amsterdam
Amsterdam
Quite a difference!
I am so glad we did not think of Amsterdam simply as a launching site for our cruise.  I would like to return and see more of this very interesting country.





Friday, October 11, 2013

FRIDAY'S FOTO

There are still some windmills like this left in the Netherlands, and visiting them and seeing how they
work is quite something.  This entire country is an amazement!
It says so much about man's ingenuity.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

RICHMOND'S BUZ AND NED'S BARBECUE--WHEN ONLY THE BEST WILL DO!

Additional outdoor seating 
Some things are just meant to be, and for us it was a visit to Buz and Ned's Real Barbecue in Richmond, Virginia.  If you watch the Travel Channel, you know about the Barbecue Crawl.  Rob and I do our own when we travel, and I’ve written about many different delicious
barbecue places we’ve encountered.  If the place is really up to snuff, it is filled with locals we let get ahead of us on line as we try to make sense out of the menu and watch what other people are ordering.  It’s a mad game.  It’s never the same, and if we play it well, our taste buds get the rewards.  Barbecue is an art practiced by very individual artists.

Our encounter with Buz and Ned’s actually began as a takeout.  We were heading to Richmond to visit my cousins Rita and Bruce in Richmond, VA, and knowing our penchant for barbecue, Rita said she’d bring in takeout barbecue when we arrived.  As we sat eating the different BBQ offerings, we learned they came from Buz and Ned’s, Rita and Bruce’s favorite BBQ takeout. 

The name apparently lodged like a little bubble in my brain for several days later when we and our son Michael headed for the Movieland Cinema, we passed Buz and Ned’s.  I mentioned to Michael that we’d had glorious BBQ takeout from there.  He told us he had heard great things about Buz and Ned’s barbecue from Richmond friends but thus far had not gotten over here. 

VoilĂ ! The next day the three of us headed to Buz and Ned’s for lunch.
The menu and choices are a bit overwhelming
to us newcomers.

Buz and Ned’s was crowded!  Line up, place your order at the window, receive a number and wait until you’re called.  Simple if you know what you’re doing.  The menu is long and tempting, and we let quite a few people get ahead of us on line as we tried to choose.

The decor is simple.  Plain, high wooden tables and bar stool height seats.  Food is served in plastic baskets lined with paper.  Believe me, no one minds the informality.  The customers are there for barbecue.

Eat any size portion from appetizer size to small meals, to large meals, to full racks of ribs.  Choose from 14 different sides.  Dozens of beverages from fresh squeezed lemonade to single barrel bourbons!  What makes choosing more difficult is that everything that passed by us looked great!

Amazingly, if you REALLY yearned for it, you could buy Nathan’s hotdogs!  You could also choose as a side our very favorite, Rt. 11 Potato Chips!  So I also count Buz and Ned’s as a gourmet restaurant!!!!!

We three went for the SMALL complete meal (one sandwich as opposed to the Large’s two sandwiches).  These sandwiches were stuffed!  We tried the pulled pork and the beef brisket.  Each meal also included a choice of two sides like my two: hush puppies and baked beans.  There were also Cinnamon Bourbon Apples (sounded very tempting), Cuke & Onion Salad, and the usual-sounding but not necessarily usual cole slaw, potato salad, and french fries.  If these choices were not already overwhelming, for an additional $.99 we could choose Fresh Country Greens, Mac and 3 cheeses, Sweet Potato Fries (w/cinnamon and sugar) or some other tantalizing possibilities. 

We drank beer and did not try Buz and Ned’s Hard Lemonade. 

The general opinion: Buz and Ned’s deserves its reputation.  Had our visit to Richmond been longer, we would have returned to work on the rib menu—both pork and beef.  I wonder if Buz and Ned’s ever sells its desserts.  I don’t know how anyone could have room left!

Visit the website.  You’ll find out that yes, Ned is dead, but he left his barbecue secrets to Buz to pass down for us to enjoy.  The history is interesting, and it’s a good website to browse.  But honestly, eating here is believing.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

FRIDAY'S FOTO

Amsterdam--a city of beautiful buildings, zillions of bicycles, and canals teeming with boats.
It's a joyous city in which to walk, stop, and admire.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

THE LIGHT BETWEEN THE OCEANS--A BEAUTIFUL, PAINFUL NOVEL

M.L. Stedman’s first novel, The Light Between the Oceans, is a beautifully composed rendition of life at its cruelest, when justice for one means tragic injustice for another.  There are no villains here, but there are victims, and Stedman’s tale shoots out theme after theme making her readers take a serious look at what it takes for some of us to make it through our daily lives.  Read it but be prepared for tears.

Thomas Sherbourne returns from his WWI years on the Western front a shattered man reminiscent of Hemingway’s Nick Adams—an existential man trying to make an orderly life from the chaos surrounding him.  What he had done during the war earned him medals and only a superficial scar for others to see, but it shattered him inside, filling the cracks with survivor’s guilt, and leaving him looking for a steadying routine.  The idea of duality occurs time and again throughout the novel.

Tom finds the order he seeks on Janus Rock, an isolated lighthouse 100 miles off the coast of Australia in the treacherous Indian Ocean.  (peace in the midst of upheaval) The detailed routine of following the multitude of rules, keeping the signal light operating at optimum condition, recording the minute details of time, weather, and other observations force him to reintroduce a workable rhythm to his life and to make some sense of his world.  Difficult for others, this life suited young Tom perfectly.

When he meets, falls in love, marries Isabel, and brings her to Janus, he feels his life is as good as any man can have it, but after a series of miscarriages and a stillborn baby, Isabel sinks into deep despair until what she considers a miracle occurs. 

Sorry friends, but you will have to read The Light Between the Oceans yourself to move on from here and find out what Isabel considers a miracle.  Tom considered it more of a mixed blessing, to say the least.

 As Rob was not going to read the novel, I told him the story as it unfolded, and he enjoyed its retelling, the two of us guessing what was to happen next.  We could not help it.  This story has multi-barbed hooks for the reader.

Stedman is a wonderful writer.  She handles language beautifully, switching tenses to bring immediacy to some sections and time for contemplation in others.  The story moves smoothly and delves into a myriad of life’s possibilities:  war and its results, loss and recovery, love, man’s isolation—both physically and psychologically, the big lie that cannot be withdrawn, prejudice, forgiveness, and redemption.  I have probably left out some possibilities, but that’s already a lot to cram into 342 pages and to do it well!

Hemingway’s Nick Adams going through the steadying routine of fly-fishing in “Big Two-Hearted River” or Macbeth’s musing “Things without all remedy/Should be done without regard/What’s done is done” come to mind throughout the novel.  These ideas are universal in man; they do not change over time, and close as they are, Tom and Isabel Sherbourne have to find their own paths through life’s vagaries once each learns that life isn’t fair.

This is a novel worth reading, and I am looking forward to M.L. Stedman’s next book.