Sunday, 30 October 2011

Plotting Marriage With Eugenides

Weeks ago, I jumped the gun at a quasi-review of this book. I wasn't impressed with it the first time around. A colleague's e-mail prompted another go at it. Though my overall verdict on the book hasn't changed, the book wasn't as bad as I first thought.

I'd only punched this out and submitted it several days ago. Didn't expect it to be out so quickly.

Love and marriage
Do they go together like a horse and carriage, as the old song would have it? Persevere through the many details in this exploration of the theme and you will find a good love story.

first published in The Star, 30 October 2011

The "marriage plot" categorises a storyline that typically centres on the courtship between a man and a woman and the obstacles faced by the potential couple on their way to the altar. You'll find it in the works of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, in most rom-coms and Bollywood productions.

But with the hallowed halls of the institution of marriage sullied by gender equality, rising divorce rates and the like, whither the marriage plot in modern times?

That's the question explored in a thesis by bookworm and Brown University English student Madeleine Hanna, the heroine of Jeffrey Eugenides's The Marriage Plot.

Though it's the 1980s, one of her lecturers has already, apparently, pronounced the marriage plot in literature more or less dead, except in places where traditional cultures are still strong. (A Malaysian might start thinking about rice mothers, mango trees and silk factories....)

Thing is, Maddy soon finds herself navigating a love triangle with two fellow students in a version of the trope she's studying.

Though he's the one who gets to hook up with Maddy, manic-depressive Leonard Bankhead's status as a fluffy grey ball of gloom threatens the relationship – again and again.

Her old friend Mitchell Grammaticus is a spiritual hippie-type who's immersed in Christian mysticism – and the idea that Maddy's destined to be his wife.

The Marriage Plot offers wit, humour and fine storytelling.

The author displays a certain degree of sensitivity for his subjects, who go through the usual painful motions of the young in love: sometimes happy, often funny, and at times heartbreaking.

But we get too much background on characters we don't care about.

For instance, do we need to know that Maddy's semiotics lecturer is a former English department renegade who's hygienically bald, has a seaman's moustache, wears wide-vale corduroys and has a reading list comprising Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco and Roland Barthes?

By page 28, I was desperate for a drink of water and an open window.

But had I put down the book and never picked up again, I'd have missed out on some pretty good stuff.

Like the story of the mystery stain on Maddy's borrowed dress.

Why Maddy hooked up with Leo, the walking stormcloud. And how crazy Leo can get.

The drama that set Mitch and his friend Larry on their Big Fat Greek Adventure and Then Some.

The drama that is Mitch and Larry's Big Fat Greek Adventure and Then Some.

The realisation that hits you when Mitch asks Maddy if there's an Austen-esque book that ends happily, even if the girl doesn't end up with the right guy.

Mitch's time in Mother Teresa's Kalighat, the Home of the Pure Heart in India. And what sends him fleeing from there in a rickshaw, repeating the "Jesus Prayer" over and over again in his head. Oh, that bit was hilarious.

The author of Middlesex, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 , seems to be having fun in attempting a smart and entertaining rewrite of the marriage plot for an era where the very definition and idea of marriage itself is being rewritten. A little too much fun, perhaps, as I feel the book is about 100 pages too long.

Throughout history, courtship and marriage are often tricky affairs. If anything, they should be simplified, rather than complicated. And, as Maddy would learn, no amount of reading can prepare anyone for the pitfalls.

Stripped of the reading lists and textbook extracts, The Marriage Plot is a good love story that would also translate well into a screenplay.

The Marriage Plot
Jeffrey Eugenides
Fourth Estate (2011)
360 pages
ISBN: 978-0-00-744128-0

Saturday, 29 October 2011

MPH Quill Oct-Dec 2011 Delayed

This quarter's MPH Quill (October - December 2011) has been delayed.

Things were held up by about a fortnight after resources were temporarily diverted elsewhere. While the issue was being put together, the editor went on her much-needed Deepavali break.

I'd guess that it would be another week before the whole issue has been put to bed, which means it would only be out around the middle of next month. I'll put something up when the issue is, hopefully, out.

On behalf of the crew at Quill magazine, apologies for the delay.

Party Pooper Party

With protests like this cropping up so predictably, it wouldn't surprise me to hear foreigners saying that Malaysians don't know how to have a good time.

Laying aside all the usual arguments pro- and con- Elton, there are several reasons why I think the objections to this concert are irrelevant.

First, the venue: it's the Arena of Stars in Genting. Second, tickets for that concert are priced between RM380 and RM1,380.

You'd have to be someone of a particular stripe to pay that much to attend an Elton John concert at the Arena of Stars. Would it include the demographic whose souls or morals Pahang's PAS Youth intends to save? I'm not so sure.

These days I bet you'd get more information about gay sex in our local papers, thanks to the extensive coverage of Sodomy I and II, than a night (or two) with Glambert and/or Sir Elton.

The man will be here to play his music. The man is known for his music. He's been a musician - that's his job description - for decades. That he's married to a man does not make him a gay marriage advocate.

Buang yang keruh, ambil yang jernih. This is an old saying, which meant that we once knew how to take the good and leave the bad. When did we forget how to?

Monday, 24 October 2011

It's Just Piling Up

I really shouldn't be doing this, but the compulsion to is strong. If I delay any further, it'll only grow stronger.

The need to "update" viewers.

I'd just completed a second round of edits for a rather tricky manuscript, but nothing like what I've done previously. But it should be mostly done. Once the author comes back with comments, it's going straight to the designers.

I've also completed a review to be published; another is being put together. The book wasn't as bad as I'd thought it'd be.

And of course, there's the pile you see opposite. There are books to be reviewed for the papers and the blog, but I've decided not to separate the two groups.

It's just as well. Both feel more and more like work these days.

I'm finding it difficult to review books without a pen or pencil and some paper in hand. I've found it quite fast to get all the points down with non-electronic means of note taking. Putting it all together - that's still the hard part.

Did I say "work"? Feels more like school.

"Best years of your life"? Like hell they were.

At least the words are flowing again. Just have to keep it up.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

What Happened Last Week

...Nothing much.

A doozy of a week saw me doing some heavy editing and finishing off a three-book review - finally! The latter left me so relaxed I didn't feel like doing more than the usual for the rest of the week. But I'm hoping things will pick up again.

I've been making toast. Toast bread. With lots of butter. Unsalted butter. Never use salted butter for toast. Salted butter tastes funny. An odd smell will manifest at the back of your throat, near the smell receptors. Does that happen to you? It does to me.

I bought salted butter by accident. For that brand, salted and unsalted butter has very similar packaging, except for a tiny word at the top. "No.1 in Singapore"? Who cares? And how can they tolerate that odd smell? I may have to throw out a whole block of good butter. I'm depressed. The butter is innocent...

...Correction: I bought only nine books at last week's big bad book event, still a modest haul. About half are non-fiction titles, an indication of where my interests lay.

  • 10,001 Timesaving Ideas
    Reader's Digest (2008)
    447 pages
    ISBN: 978-192134415-2

    Reader's Digest churns out some of the most amazing non-fiction titles. Although time and the Internet have lessened the need for these volumes, it's nice to have a handy guide to nearly everything under the sky that doesn't require electricity, electronic hardware and an Internet subscription. This title is just the thing.

  • The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge
    A Desk Reference for the Curious Mind
    St. Martin's Press (2007)
    1320 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-312-37659-8

    You'll feel like a good editor with one of these on your desk. Though it isn't incumbent on the editor to be an expert on everything, he should at least check up on facts, names, etc that look dodgy on a manuscript. A pity this edition is a bit out of date, but at RM20, this monster is worth it.

  • Vintage Singapore
    Souvenirs from the Recent Past
    Editions Didier Millet (2006)
    191 pages
    ISBN: 978-981-4217-01-9

    At least one other person agrees that there's something about the cover that screams, "Buy me!" No mean feat, considering that hundreds of other books in the venue were doing the same. A testament to Didier Millet's expertise in coffeetable books.

    This one is, as the title suggests, is a museum display in a book of all old things in Singapore. That it invokes a sense of nostalgia for old things in Malaysia is no surprise.

  • The Book of the Dead
    Lives of the Justly Famous and the Undeservedly Obscure
    John Lloyd and John Mitchinson
    Faber and Faber (2009)
    435 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-571-24491-1

    A witty, informative volume about some of the world's most famous and notorious personalities. Because you just need to know. ...Ah, George Psalmanazar! Greetings old friend. Haven't seen you since that Reader's Digest Amazing Facts book.

  • Word Fugitives
    In Pursuit of Wanted Words
    Barbara Wallraff
    Collins (2006)
    192 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-06-083273-5

    The Internet age has, arguably, seen the coining of new words, some of which are amalgamations of and extrapolations from existing words. But not all of them have been corralled into a single, easy-to-reach source; ever tried looking up Though not an exhaustive guide to (more like an exploration of) strange new words, lexophiles will love this slim little thing.

  • Little Hut of Leaping Fishes
    Chiew-Siah Tei
    Picador (2008)
    389 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-330-42391-5

    I had... no idea why this ended up in my bag. Probably leapt inside when I wasn't looking. Or perhaps I absentmindedly chucked it into my bag for no reason other than the price tag. A balmy Saturday afternoon is waiting for this novel.

  • Much Obliged, Jeeves
    PG Wodehouse
    Arrow Books (2008)
    203 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-09-951396-4

    One of two books by Wodehouse I managed to pick up at the sale. It's also, it seems, one of the only two books by Wodehouse on sale at the sale.

  • Pigs Have Wings
    PG Wodehouse
    Arrow Books (2008)
    253 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-09-951398-8

    This book was how I learned that Wodehouse had written other than the Jeeves series. Not sure if it's reputed to be just as witty and engaging.

  • The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency
    Alexander McCall Smith
    Abacus (2008)
    250 pages
    ISBN: 978-0-349-11675-4

    I've been curious about this author for a while, but sadly, the first of McCall Smith's novels about Mma Ramotswe appears to be the only No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency novel on sale. Finished this one. It has a certain charm.

Also, some things have happened in the last week which I've been too distracted to write about. And a whole bunch of books to review, with several more candidates in the pipeline.

So, no Occupy Dataran Merdeka™ for me. Not when my own time is so Occupied™ already.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Big Bad Wolf Eated Me

My first time, and it was not gentle.

This year, they held the sale at Hall A, the Agricultural Exposition Park in Serdang, within the sprawling grounds of Universiti Putra Malaysia. It was a bit hard to get to from Puchong, with a bit of a crawl and bottleneck en route. Got a bit lost too.

I'd parked a bit farther down the hall, which was located up a hill. A five-minute hike from my car to the entrance left me winded.

But what an eye-opener.

Abandon all inhibition, ye who enter here

It was Saturday, and it threatened to rain (which it did, briefly). There was already a crowd in the hall when I arrived. They were probably expecting a huge turn-out; Pizza Hut had a truck outside the entrance.

One thing for sure: they know the kinds of venues that'll work, and they know how to market. Even the music set the mood - no downer tunes, so patrons feel good ... and maybe set aside their inhibitions.

Yes, it'll be a horrible shame not to buy these... and these,
and these and THESE and...

I imagine one visitor weighing the pros and cons in the head: "I probably don't need that Manicka, and my to-read pile is threatening to breach the ceiling-"

Then Beyoncé comes on. Yes, that song. What Kanye West said was "the best music video of all time".

"...never mind, it's RM8! I'll put it in the office and read it later!"

I suppose that it's ♪ cuz if you like it then you shoulda put your ringgit on it ♫ if you liked it then you shoulda put ya ringgit on it woo oh ooh... ♪

People mountain, people sea; Big Bad Wolf so, so happy

Packed, packed, packed! This was perhaps almost an hour later. Visitors were carrying books by the boxful. Not enough boxes? Dump your full box at one of the several service counters and get an empty box to fill.

Parents came with their kids, and their prams, and- look at the size of the children's section! Kids and young adults occupied nearly a third of the floor space.

Just wondering: Will all these people actually read the stuff they've bought? Because as far as I know, our reader cred hasn't gone up a lot in the past few years. Still, it's as if a whole town turned up today.

Perhaps it's a Malaysian thing: price something cheap and we go bananas, oranges and mangosteens. Case in point:

Evening is a Whole Day, so spend it here in the Wolf's lair.
Look! Only RM8! Don't you just want to... take it home? Maybe
get some for... friends? It's almost Chrissstmasss, after all...

Evening may be the whole day, but the Big Bad Wolf will not be deterred! Chomp! Munch! Gulp! Slurrrp...! And just like that, a novel that used to cost over RM50 now goes for RM8. What's not to like?

I suppose there is something to be said about such warehouse sales. There are half a ton of books right now that I want but can't afford in terms of time, money and space.

My haul at the end of the day was modest: about ten books. The two biggest books in the pile were last-minute purchases. I loved these big big books of ostensibly useless facts as a child. As a pay-drawing adult, however, I found these to be quite expensive. But at a price tag of RM20 each? Mine, mine!

Perhaps, for their trouble they took to get there, Big Bad Wolf gave away these bookmarks, and an offer of three years' free membership at BookXcess, to be claimed 90 days from the date of the receipt.

For an arm, a leg and your first-born, the Wolf thinks you should
get more than just cheap books and a bookmark or two

I'm not sure if a minimum purchase amount is involved, though. But hey, whatever. Besides, would it make sense to drive all the way to Serdang for less than ten books, at such high discounts?

Not sure if I like the title selections for this year. I wanted some Haruki Murakami but they gave us Ryu Murakami instead (are they siblings or the same person?)

At the risk of sounding awed, fawning or impressed... see you next year, Big Bad Wolf.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Lost In This Plot

The term "marriage plot" categorises a storyline that typically centres on the courtship between a man and a woman and the obstacles faced by the potential couple on their way to the altar.

The Wikipedia says it became a popular source of entertainment in the 18th and 19th centuries with the rise of the bourgeois novel, with such foremost practitioners as Samuel Richardson, Jane Austen, and the Brontë sisters. Today, it's a popular device in most rom-coms.

Marriage plot. Jane Austen. 18th and 19th centuries.

Is that why I couldn't seem to get Jeffrey Eugenides' latest novel?

Who wants to read about a love triangle among three university postgrads in the 1980s? I don't.

The title looked interesting though.

The storyline is also rather 1980s. Three youngsters are graduating from university, and of them all, Madeleine Hanna is perhaps the most normal one. She's a rather brainy student of semiotics who, despite looking somewhat like Katherine Hepburn, is not very confident in her looks or body shape.

I think there's something going on with her and two guys. Part-Greek Mitchell Grammaticus, said to be the author's sort-of avatar, is a spiritual hippy-type who did religious studies and went off to Europe and then India with his Francophile classmate Larry... something.

By the time I got to the bit about Leonard Bankhead, I couldn't care to find out what he'd studied. However, it seems that he's Madeleine's squeeze. Dude also came from a dysfunctional family, and suffers from depression. Madeleine's mom is uncomfortable with Leonard's condition, and it seems as though she's trying to keep the two apart towards the end of the novel.

I'll admit: I'm totally unfamiliar with Mr Eugenides's works. His list of literary influences make me look like a pre-Neanderthal. I gave up on Jane Austen after one paragraph (Pride and Prejudice, I think it was). I parsed, not read, it from cover to cover. Prior to the e-mail from a colleague who handed me the early reading copy (on which this review is based), I wasn't aware of Mr Eugenides's existence. Nor did I know that his 2002 novel, Middlesex, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Ambassador Book Award, or that said novel is said to be the precursor to the "long-awaited" release.

From what I could gather from The Marriage Plot, Eugenides can write. He has humour, storytelling and a certain degree of sensitivity to his subjects. The three go through the motions of the young in love: sometimes happy; at other times, heartbreaking. Mitchell's (mis)adventures in finding G*d and himself are fun, perhaps due to the injection of Eugenides's own experiences when he trod on a similar path.

But does all that exposition about semiotics, religion, etc necessary to advance the story? And all that backstory on the main characters and some supporting characters just adds to the ...chaos? Well, it's okay for the main characters, but... Too much going on in the background, I feel.

So, kudos to the reviewers who dug deeper and deconstructed Eugenides's marriage plot. But I can't concur with some of the more positive comments ("sedulously unplayful, with the exception of the odd Pynchonian near-aptonym ('Bankhead', 'Grammaticus', 'Thurston Meems') and a (rather perfunctory) metafictional gesture on the final page.") or observations ("The tight plotting and internalised psychology of this new novel, allied to the full sweep of ideas and social observation and quiet comedy that characterised Eugenides's earlier works, are signs of a new maturity.")

Because I can't. I couldn't go that deep.

I won't doubt that it's a good love story, with flashes of wit and humour, and that it'll translate well into a screenplay. And perhaps some, if not all of the niggling little details that made my experience with the book less than ideal would have been excised from the final edition.

The book is, I feel, a tad overwritten. The discussions and inquiries in the narrative don't do much for the enjoyment of the story, unless it's meant to be more than the usual marriage plot.

I'll wait for the movie. So...

Mr Jeffrey Eugenides, have mercy on me, a poor critic.
Mr Jeffrey Eugenides, have mercy on me, a poor critic.
Mr Jeffrey Eugenides, have mercy on me, a poor critic.
Mr Jeffrey Eugenides, have mercy on me, a poor critic.
Mr Jeffrey Eugenides, have mercy on me, a poor critic.
Mr Jeffrey Eugenides, have mercy on me, a poor critic.
Mr Jeffrey Eugenides, have mercy on me, a poor critic.
Mr Jeffrey Eugenides, have mercy on me, a poor critic.

05/10/2011  I put this up because I thought I was no longer required to do a review for this book, but turns out I still have to.

Anyway, I just received a "real" copy of The Marriage Plot, so there will be another version of this review somewhere down the line, which will probably re-use some passages from this version. Hence, this post is no longer a valid book review.

So, yes, I jumped the gun on this one. And I may have... really lost the plot. Apologies.

30/10/2011  Read the "official" review for The Marriage Plot here.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Weekend Wrap-Up

Had I not slept the whole afternoon away yesterday and repeatedly fling angry, vaguely bird-shaped creatures into wood and concrete structures on screen, I could, perhaps, have made more out of the weekend. I believe I could have:

  • Fleshed out a couple of book reviews and wrote one more.
  • Ironed my clothes sooner.
  • Cleared out my storeroom a bit.
  • Got rid of the old desktop tower CPU and CRT monitor.
  • Got rid of the IT and programming-related books I no longer need.
  • Went for my usual evening walks.
  • Swept and mopped the floors.
  • Cleaned the fridge.

I did catch up on some much-needed sleep, though. Which is what I seem to be doing with all my weekends of late.

Ah, well. Here's to a packed, more productive week ahead.