How it all began by Penelope Lively – A Half Way Through Review

I’ve read a couple of Penelope Lively books before, one by force at school and the other on the recommendation of a friend. They were very good indeed. So having stumbled upon her 2011 novel How it all began in the sale section I thought I was in luck. Earlier this year I read the 1987 Booker Prize winner, Moon Tiger, and I was floored by it. Such was its impact that if I’d discovered it aged fifteen then my life would have taken a very different path. I purchased How it all began with high expectations.

The first warning bell sounded with the cover. Many books get mis-packaged, that’s not unusual but this was an author of literary fiction bound up in a chick lit wrapping. In the rather prosaic photograph on the front there are piled paperbacks on view and almost all are Lively’s. It’s just an odd cover.

But I didn’t buy it for the cover.

The plot follows the butterfly effect of the mugging of an elderly lady resulting in a broken hip. Her subsequent hospitalisation and rehabilitation in her daughter’s home forces events into motion, upsetting a half dozen strangers’ lives in the process. A third person narrative sees each of the ensemble cast having to deal with the chain of consequences, some merely inconvenient and others more destructive. It flits back and forth between contemporary domestic settings giving acutely observed character portraits. I can’t fault the writing.

There’s something missing though.

The story moves too sluggishly from one cosily upholstered location to another. It has none of the harshness of Moon Tiger, there are no sharp edges to cut oneself on and no dirt and grit. Whether you loved or hated Claudia Hampton, she was an interesting character and bold enough to hang a whole novel on. I’m not emotionally invested in the people who populate How it all began. They are likeable but there’s a lack of passion in them and without that there’s little to hold interest.

Conceptually, How it all began is a great idea, a single event setting off a domino rally of domestic upheaval. If the concept was executed with the same brilliance as Moon Tiger then this would be a superb novel. It may, of course, be a slow burner and build to a dramatically fulfilling climax. I will have to keep reading to find out, sadly, so far it seems unlikely to reach that conclusion.

Dedicated to… A Half Way Through Review

Dedicated to

“To Neil, June 1964”

It’s written on the inside cover of  The Children of the New Forest by Captain Marryat, a Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd edition, no print date. 

Obviously not my book. I nicked it from a family member and it found its way onto my shelves (funny how that happens).  It was a birthday present to a very young Neil although I don’t know who from. I just love the smell of that book.

Books are quite possibly the best kind of gift. Durable, meaningful and occasionally educational; they say a lot about the person giving them and what they want from you. Personally I like to vandalise them with a few well wishes and a date before wrapping them up. Apparently I am not alone in this habit.

Dedicated to… Compiled by W B Gooderham is, as stated on the cover, a collection of “The Forgotten Friendships, Hidden Stories and Lost Loves found in Second-hand Books”.  Gooderham is a bibliophile with a penchant for second-hand book stores. Over years of collecting and buying used books he noticed that the dedications in the jackets added their own stories to the printed ones in the pages.  Laid out with a jacket and an inscription on each double page spread the collection totals over 80. There are many more on Gooderham’s blog and he’s still collecting.

The books range in age from a few years old to several decades old, some even dating half a century or more. Some dated, some not. Some written with love and affection, some cruel, acerbic and funny. Regardless of the motive the scribbles on inside covers are tiny windows looking onto a specific moment in the lives of two people.  We don’t know who they were (most of the signatures are illegible) but there’s a certain intimacy in dedicating a book.

Saddest are the unappreciated inscriptions, those published in 2010 or later and have already found their sorry way into a charity bag or second hand store. Wasted words, sentiment thrown to the wind. The reason the book was left behind or deliberately disposed of is a mystery but I like to wonder.  A simple misjudged relationship? Or something more sinister perhaps?

The older ones are less tragic and often comic.

“To John Hughes, Go shoot yourself, Henry, May ’58” adorns in the first page of Jungle Lore.

“Mum says it is disgusting: I say it may encourage you to learn the piano. Mum & Dad Xmas 1989” inside a music book of Bawdy Ballads.

On the title page of One in Twenty – A study of Homosexuality in Men and Women was written, “You leave this book alone, you filthy old man, who calls his wife “Momie” and has “done it” with an African alyah!”

I particularly enjoyed the romantic, vaguely poetic dedication in Embedded  Autonomy –  States & Industrial Transformation, Peter Evans. I know neither the giver nor the receiver so the choice of title may be wholly appropriate but an interesting choice for professing love and devotion.

Dedicated to… is a quick  and enjoyable read. Since most of the pages are images I may even finish it…

Honestly though, this is a stocking-filler book, to be giggled at by guests or as a lazy hour’s entertainment.

Or a book for a book lover prone to sentimentality when it comes to gifting printed matter.

Erm, like me then.

The Half Way Through Review – What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Welcome to The Half Way Through Review…

About a fortnight ago I accidentally made a bet with my little sister that I could beat her in a marathon. Since I only tend to run when there are big scary people in pursuit (i.e. when playing rugby), this was a fairly stupid bet to make. Sibling rivalry will not carry me through all 26.2 miles of pain so my Book and Beer Club friends recommended some reading for inspiration. God knows I need the motivation….

The book they lent me was What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami. Its title suggests a memoir of distance running, with a long distance title to match, but it may as well be about novel writing. Either way a very apt read considering my summer plans.

From my marathon inspired Googling I concluded that it is the go-to book about running for anyone with a literary bone in their body. In fact it’s been read and reviewed by approximately five million wannabe runner-writers and in several different languages too I’m sure of it. (I didn’t read them)

I’ve half read Murakami before, in the form of Norwegian Wood, and quite enjoyed the transporting effect of his poetic prose before shelving it for another book*. Given my inability to finish reading any book, regardless of its inherent greatness, it is reassuring to find this Murakami is easy access. Written in a gentle conversational style, rather than the dark-and-twisty-ness of the novels, it flows in time from present-day marathon training back and forth across 25 years of his life.

I’m not sure the book could be classified as a bona fide sports memoir, Murakami doesn’t count himself as an athlete from what I understand, and his ability to use language blows the sports jocks out of the water.  It doesn’t sit well on a shelf with footballers, boxers and cricketers. It’s seems to me more of a memoir memoir because there are too many aspects of life in the pages to be confined to a genre.

Murakami began running in ’82 and has since run a marathon a year, every year, clocking up an average of 6 miles daily over 365 days a year in training. He has also written a fair few novels and other works of international renown. He talks at length about his routines both in running and writing throughout the book.  Discipline and endurance are plain to see in both his hobby and profession; comparisons between the two are sewn into the very spine of it.  His ability to knuckle down is quite inspiring and the self deprecating way Murakami suggests his focus makes up for a lack of talent is endearing. He puts all his success down to hard work, sweating his way through each novel, like he does the punishing miles of a marathon.

However, I can’t help but thinking that, while his lifestyle clearly suits him well (the dude was pushing  60 when he wrote this and still running marathons!), his rigid work ethic lacks space for spontaneity. As someone of lesser talent, I need external stimuli for inspiration sometimes, and I’m left wondering slightly in awe that he plucks all that wordage from his head alone. Occasionally he can be a bit serious. That’s when I find myself wanting to drag him to the pub (or a jazz bar) for a crazy night out.

That said, a quiet humour permeates; I can imagine him smiling to himself in some sentences. Each chapter is accurately stamped with a date and location (from Hawaii to Tokyo to Cambridge, MA) and labelled with titles such as “Even if I had a ponytail back then” and “Who’s going to laugh at Mick Jagger?”.  The sense of time and space is accentuated by detailed descriptions of his training runs which he clearly loves. My favourite parts of the book, other than the training runs, are the times when he gets all philosophical and off on a tangent about getting older/slower.

As yet I don’t know whether What I talk about will provide enough motivation to complete The Marathon Bet but so far it has inspired a determined writing work ethic which was previously so lacking. The Final Verdict: I might actually go the full distance with this book.

*I very rarely finish a book as those of you who followed me from www.frontlip.eu will know, hence The Half Way Through Review.