Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson

Before I Go to Sleep47 year-old Christine has lost her memory for twenty some years due to trauma. She wakes up every morning to a forgotten past. She spends her day piecing together a life, who and where she is, her personal history, and, who her husband Ben is. Upon the advice of Dr. Nash, she writes it all down in a journal before she goes to sleep at night, for she’ll wake up the next morning wiped clean of her day old memory once again.

The book deals with some interesting issues. If the past is horrible to recall, would it be better if one does not remember, or, would one be better off knowing the truth despite pain? Is one made more vulnerable by knowing or not knowing? Further, if mental images conjure up, how can one be sure they are memories of actual happenings and not one’s imagination?

Author S. J. Watson leads the reader into a maze of intrigues, teasing us with an unreliable narrator Christine, casting shadows of imminent dangers, and trying to capture us with her vulnerability. So memory loss is an effective plot device, keeping us in the dark guessing, creating suspense, and revealing ever so slowly what really had taken place that caused the amnesia to set in, and how she could ever escape.

The book starts off with a most interesting scenario as Christine wakes up to an unknown world, but towards the middle it seems like it has forgotten that it is just the protagonist who has amnesia, not the readers, as it repeats the facts and descriptions with Christine’s journal entries. The last part is a page-turning thriller, albeit with a relatively improbable ending. The last pages explaining everything with a neatly wrapped up ‘here you go, see how logical it is’ kind of finish.

Memories… such a thematic element can be exceptionally gratifying to explore with deeper characterization. Surely the author has brought up the idea that memory defines us, a reader seeking for a more contemplative rendering of such a concept would be disappointed however, for Watson has chosen to use this interesting thematic material to craft a suspense thriller and not an idea-driven literary work. So what we have with notions relating to memories, to the nature of our identity and personality… etc. are merely used to build up a suspenseful plot. As a thriller, the book aims to lead on and not delve in.

Am I being a bit harsh here? Why, I just caught myself. I could well have been more lenient if I were not reading it along with Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past). Am I being fair to make comparison? It’s like comparing apples with oranges. Yet the coincident is too fascinating… both deal with remembering and sleeping, albeit one trying to fall asleep while the other trying not to. Just thinking… even the book covers that I have are similar.

Lots of ‘I love you’s’ are uttered, but none that can stir up any emotions in me the reader. Several films kept conjuring up in my mind as I read… Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Vow, and I must say the latter two managed to stir some affective resonance in me while exploring the topic of amnesia and a love relationship. But with this book, I just wanted to race to the end. For some, this might well be proof of an entertaining read.

And that is why I have high hopes for its film adaptation. Yes, I must applaud Watson for his strong debut. This novel published in 2011 has gained awards and accolades, on the bestseller lists in several countries, and translated into 30 plus languages. Its film rights has been snatched up by Ridley Scott. Filming now, it features the impressive cast of Nicole Kidman as Christine, Colin Firth (The King’s Speech) as Ben, and Mark Strong (Zero Dark Thirty) as Dr. Nash; Anne-Marie Duff (Nowhere Boy) is also on board. This is definitely a film I want to watch, not just because of the actors, but the screenwriter Rowan Joffe, who will direct as well. Joffe has shown us, with his script for The American (George Clooney stars) that yes, sometimes the film can be better than the book. Let’s hope this is also the case.

In the end page Watson notes that his novel, though totally fictitious, is inspired by actual medical cases, particularly that of Clive Wearing‘s, the British musicologist, conductor and BBC music producer, who has the same condition as Christine’s, albeit his is an even shorter memory span, just a short minute or so. His real life accounts have been recorded by his loving wife Deborah Wearing in her book Forever Today: A Memoir of Love and Amnesia. While he lives in the constantly present, he does not forget music or his love for his wife. Now that would be one inspiring book to read.


Click here to watch a short clip on Clive and Deborah Wearing on YouTube. Does he not remind you of another real life character, a pianist, whose life had also been made into a movie?

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

When we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.

How reliable is our memory? How accurate are our thoughts, analysis of situations, perception of people? Yet we live by them and interpret our experiences through their lenses.

The winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending plays with these subjective faculties and crafts a scenario that’s captivating and with a touch of surprise at the end. A man in his 60’s looks back at his life, focusing on what he can remember about his relationships and their aftermath.

In the first part of the book, we see three school buddies in the upper form, the narrator Tony Webster with his classmates Alex and Colin,  happy to befriend a newcomer, Adrian Finn. Obviously superior in brain, insight, and self-composure, Adrian soon becomes the model they look up to. Apart from the pretentiousness of youth in intellectual matters, Tony has to concede that Adrian is indeed  superior material. When asked by the teacher “What is history?”, while Tony gives the relatively pat answer “History is the lies of the victors”, Adrian articulates this thought:

History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.

With these words at the beginning pages of the book, Barnes has quietly laid the enquiry of his story.

Post-secondary life leads them to different paths. Adrian, not surprisingly, gets into Cambridge on scholarship, while Tony goes to Bristol to read history. There, he starts to go out with Veronica Ford. One weekend, Veronica brings him home to meet her family. In Tony’s memory, that is a humiliating episode. He leaves with bewilderment: Veronica’s aloofness, her father’s joking insults, her mother’s mysterious gesture, and her brother’s silent wink.

After that, Tony introduces Veronica to his friends. Naturally, she strikes up a good rapport with Adrian right away, with a common tie of Cambridge where her brother also attends. Later, Tony and Veronica break up.  Adrian soon starts to date Veronica. As usual, Tony seems resigned to his circumstances and  moves on with his own life, and assumedly, others too with theirs… until later he hears the shocking news about Adrian. Time flows by, Tony marries a less mysterious Margaret, has a daughter Susie, and years later, his marriage ends in divorce.

Tony is now retired in his 60’s, expecting a life that’s bland and uneventful. Retired life for him is a natural drift of time, flat and oblivious. But he’s roused by an unexpected letter from a solicitor one day, naming him to receive £500, a bequest in the will of someone he has only met once forty years ago, Veronica’s mother. What’s more intriguing is together with this money, he is to be left with Adrian’s diary.

Life to Tony now is a quest for finding out what had actually happened to these people. His investigation has cast fearful doubts on his own memory and sense of personal history. In his retirement, Tony is awakened to re-interpret his past.

… the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent.

It will take his whole remaining life to solve the mystery of how real his perceptions are, and what has taken place in the lives of those he once knew as close friends. Such queries only lead to a more taxing question: “Does he play a role in other people’s fate?”

In just 150 pages, Barnes has opened a floodgate of inquiries into our subjective mind, carrying us through with a tantalizing story, towards an ending that, I feel, is a tad bit sensational, however reserved the tone. Nonetheless, I come out of the reading experience marvelling at the power of the economy of words in the hands of a master storyteller.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes, published by Random House Canada, 2011, 150 pages.


The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Hemingway’s voice has been heard the world over. His persona and perspective reflected from his prolific writings. Now fifty years after his death, Paula McLain has gleaned through facts and whatever that’s true to create the novel The Paris Wife, revealing the point of view of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife.


Hadley’s voice speaks from the shadow. It reflects the thoughts of one who had seen it all from the beginning. Within seven short years, she had witnessed the transformation of a disgruntled journalist into a promising, full-fledged novelist. And she was the one who, after only three months of marriage, sailed with Hemingway to Paris and began her fateful role of the ever supportive and loving companion. How we need to listen to her side of the story.


There are those who have read The Paris Wife and then want to read more of Hemingway’s works.  For me, after reading the book, I want to read more of Paula McLain’s.  It’s interesting that her MFA is in poetry, and that she has published two volumes of poetry collections before this novel. I wonder if it takes a poet to write prose like this, highly sensitive and nuanced, while surprisingly void of ornaments. I find the no-frills narrative style of McLain’s a bit like Hemingway’s, spare and direct, like his memoir A Moveable Feast. Consider something like this as Hadley recounted her earlier life:

And everything was very good and fine until it wasn’t.

What wasn’t fine is an understatement. It’s ironic that what happened to both Hadley and Ernest was quite similar. A domineering mother and a depressed father whose fate led to suicide by a self-inflicted gun shot wound. We know now that Hemingway himself could not escape such a fateful end himself.

But from the start, it was love at first sight for Hadley and Ernest as they met in a house party in Chicago, after Ernest returned home from the war. He was 21, she 29. A year after they met, on September 3, 1921, they were married.

Hadley’s voice captured me right away from the very beginning. I like her down-to-earth persona, her self-deprecating anecdotes as a simple American gal in Paris among the ‘lost generation’. I like it that she played Rachmaninoff and Chopin and not jazz-savvy. I like her ignorance in fashion and avoidance of the dazzling Parisian glitz and glamour:

 If the women in Paris were peacocks, I was a garden-variety hen.

It’s interesting too reading how other writers advise Ernest. They point to the bare essentials, as Hadley recalls Gertrude Stein saying:

Three sentences about the color of the sky. The sky is the sky and that’s all. Strong declarative sentences, that’s what you do best. Stick to that.”

As Stein spoke Ernest’s face fell for a moment, but then he recovered himself. She’d hit on something he’d recently begun to realize about directness, about stripping language all the way down. “… leave only what’s truly needed.” She’d said.

Or this from Ezra Pound:

Cut everything superfluous… Go in fear of abstractions. Don’t tell readers what to think. Let the action speak for itself.

Hadley was with him all the way. When she was later pregnant, Hadley felt the need to go for better birthing care in Canada to deliver her child. I was amazed to read about such a currently hot issue in their time. They sailed to Canada in September, 1923. One month later, Bumby was born.

They lived on the fourth floor of an apartment on Bathurst Street. And since I’m in Toronto now as I write this review, I’m able to go over there and take these photos for my readers. Currently, the building at 1597-1599 Bathurst Street is a comfortable and elegant looking five-storey apartment aptly named The Hemingway.

A plaque is placed at the entrance to mark this historic site:

It reads:

Ernest Hemingway

American-born Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), internationally renowned author, lived in this apartment building 1597-1599 Bathurst Street, in 1923-24, while working as a journalist for the Toronto Star, where he became friends with novelist Morley Callaghan and writer/broadcaster Gordon Sinclair. He returned to Paris, France, where he began his career as a novelist, producing such masterpiece as “The Sun Also Rises”, “A Farewell To Arms”, & “For Whom The Bell Tolls”

Toronto Historical Board

Ernest had worked for the Toronto Star before, and had developed an amicable working relationship with his boss John Bone. But this time he encountered tumultuous problems with his new boss, causing him to shorten his stay. This is what I found a block away from The Hemingway apartment:

Four months after their son Bumby was born, in January, 1924, the Hemingways sailed back to Paris. Upon seeing Gertrude, Ernest said:

I know we meant to be gone a year, but four months is a year in Canada.

I just can’t help but smile upon reading this. Interpret whatever way you will.

Once back in Paris, Ernest discarded his journalist hat and went all out to pursue his dream of a published writer, encouraged by his mentor Gertrude Stein. He began to be noticed and gain publishing success. And with success came fame, and fame, a different circle of friends, richer, more glamorous and drunk. Within their group of acquaintance, people were falling for each other’s spouses, messy and totally lost.

Hadley began to fall out of it all. One time at a tense exchange among the group, she was so fed up that she had to excuse herself and left early with Don Stewart, their writer friend. And here’s the sentence that leaves such an impression on me:

“Before we’d even gotten to the door, the gap had closed around the table and you couldn’t even tell I’d been there.”

The American journalist for Vogue magazine Pauline Pfeiffer soon became Ernest’s new preoccupation. She had not only won his heart, but Hadley’s trust and friendship. But the balance was bound to tip. Hadley’s innocence was soon shattered by betrayal from both her friend and her husband; her naivety ebbed away as she watched helplessly the painful disintegration of her marriage and small family.

I’d chosen my role as supporter for Ernest, but lately the world had tipped, and my choices had vanished. When Ernest looked around lately, he saw a different kind of life and liked what he saw. The rich had better days and freer nights. They brought the sun with them and made the tides move. Pauline was a new model of woman and why couldn’t he have her…

When I think back on Hemingway’s memoir of those Paris years, A Moveable Feast, in which he writes about his early love with Hadley, I can’t help but feel for both of them. How can we command our own feelings, passion, love? The bull fighting scenes in Pamplona which mesmerized Ernest so had become such an apt metaphor… the bulls charging madly through the narrow streets towards the ring, aroused by a mere spot of red, driven by brute instincts and raw impulses, yet all come to the same gory end in the ring.

In the book, McLain has their writer friend Don Stewart declared:

I can take the bulls and the blood. It’s this human business that turns my stomach.

You might ask: “But is this all true?” After all, this is only a novel. From his notes on A Moveable Feast, Hemingway stated that all was fiction. Conversely, in McLain’s The Paris Wife, she has this quote from Hemingway:

 There’s no one thing that’s true. It’s all true.

Looks like it’s for us readers to pick and choose.


~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, published by Bond Street Books, Random House, 2011, 314 pages.

You might like to read my review of:

A Moveable Feast (Restored Edition) by Ernest Hemingway.

Midnight In Paris, a film by Woody Allen.

Lost In Austen: Episode 3 (2008, TV)

Japanese man petitions to marry comic-book character“, thus says the headline. Taichi Takashita has launched an online petition to the Japanese government for the legalizing of marriages between human and cartoon characters. He’s aiming for a million signatures, as of the end of October, he’s got a thousand. In this day and age, I’ve more or less braced myself for any type of shocking news.

Now, back to fiction. I’m not surprised to see Amanda Price falling in love with a fictional character, especially one like Fitzwilliam Darcy, but I am quite unwilling to accept Darcy to be ardently in love with her. But of course, this is a parody, albeit in this episode, the humor has gone from LOL to subtle satire.

wet-shirt-scene-in-lost-in-austenI suppose the wet shirt scene in which Darcy heeding Amanda’s request to dip into the pool is meant to be the most notable moment, or maybe even the climax, of the whole production. This scene just confirms my view that Lost In Austen is more a parody on Pride and Prejudice adaptations, rather than the novel of Jane Austen’s. There never is a wet shirt scene in the book. The parody could well be on Andrew Davis’ imaginary take on wooing modern female viewers, or a satire on the cult following of Colin Firth’s role as Darcy since the 1995 BBC production.

The scene also offers another Firth moment when Amanda asks Darcy whether he loves her because of her change from the spikey and vulgar modern female to the simpering klutz trying to fit into the Regency mold. Well, truth be told, Darcy finds her character, both before and after, equally disagreeable, but he still loves her with all his heart. Isn’t that the Mark Darcy line to Bridget Jones, “I like you very much, just as you are.”

Anyway, there really isn’t much else to be excited about in this episode. The director seems to be indecisive as to where he wants to take us, and in what form. The lively and fresh beginning of Episode 1 has subsided and the production has turned into another TV drama, one that has taken itself a little too seriously.

So now, another week, another episode…oh, the ennui and the ambivalence.

Yet, I shall conquer this, I shall.

Episode 1

Episode 2

Episode 4

The Savior: Book Review

The Savior is the debut novel written by Eugene Drucker, the founding member of the renowned Emerson String Quartet.   It is a fictional Holocaust story, but what it depicts is not far-fetched.  Based on his father Ernst Drucker’s experience as a violinist in Germany during the 1930’s, and mingled with his own performing episodes in hospital wards and infirmaries, Drucker has created a riveting and believable narrative. Most importantly, he has packed into the short 204 pages some questions that humanity has long found impossible to solve, the problem of human depravity and personal redemption.

In the book, the protagonist Gottfried Keller is a young German violinist during WWII. Due to a weak heart, he cannot serve his country in the front line, but he is drafted into the Nazi war machine by the SS for an experiment in a Holocaust death camp. Under the cultured yet ruthless Kommandant, Keller is to play four solo violin concerts to selective Jewish prisoners. The expressed purpose is to test whether music has the power to revive languishing souls.

As I read the summary on the book cover, the image of the movie Shawshank Redemption (1994) came to mind. When the character Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) sneaks into the prison control room and broadcasts Mozart’s Sull Aria from The Marriage of Figaro over loud speakers out to the prison grounds, the inmates are instantly mesmerized by the beauty of the duet, the music transporting them from their confinement to lofty realms.

But what readers are confronted with here in The Savior is a drastic contrast. When Keller plays the Bach sonata in G minor for the inmates, he witnesses the horror of despair. The melodies act like whips on their flesh, cruel reminders of the hopelessness they are in. The intricacies of the fugue evoke searing pain rather than the expected comfort and relief, driving them to eerie moans and groans, exasperated in unrestrained sobs and anguish.

The irony is apparent. The redemptive power of music is but a myth. The violinist, acting as a life-giver or at least a boost to waning souls, is but a pawn in a game of cruelty. As the story unfolds, the violinist, the savior himself, finds desperate need for self redemption. Memories of his past, the choice of security over love, come back as torrents pounding on his conscience.

In the discussion of St. Matthew Passion with the young prison guard Rudi, Keller struck the chord of betrayal and remorse. As pathetic as attempting to pull one’s weight off the ground, both Keller and Rudi find It impossible to redeem themselves. The part a person plays in the overall scheme of atrocity needs to be dealt with. Being a pawn in the game does not excuse one from responsibility, even though the issue is a complex one.

As an expert in musicology and a professional musician, the author is able to effectively weave the music of Paganini, Ysaÿe, Hindemith, and Bach into literary form, an expertise only a violinist like himself can provide. The book excels in these detailed renderings of musical and literary tapestry.

However, the mere 204 pages of succinct narrative could be expanded to better handle the complexity of the issues and characterization the book is dealing with. The unfolding of Keller’s love affair with his Jewish girlfriend Marietta could be told in more details to allow the poignancy to linger.

Overall, a captivating story and a springboard to further pondering.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Savior by Eugene Drucker, Simon and Schuster, 2007, 204 Pages.

 CLICK HERE TO VIEW A VIDEO of Eugene Drucker playing Bach’s “Chacone” from Partita No. 2 and his explanation of its role in the book The Savior.



To Read or Not To Read: Canadian Version

So here it is, the most recent Canadian statistics on book reading.  According to an Ipsos Reid survey commissioned by CanWest News Service and Global Television, conducted between Dec. 11 and 13, 2007,  31 % of the 1001 respondents of the survey did not read a single book for pleasure in all of 2007, 4% behind the U.S. in an identical poll.

Now, it really hits home…I know, we’ve been through all the discussions about how accurate these polls are, and the causes, and the biases…etc. in my last two posts.  So here, I’d just like to briefly point out a few interesting findings from this one:

  • The 69% of Canadians who were reading in 2007 did so voraciously, averaging 20 books in 2007.
  • According to industry giant Indigo Books, the Canadian market is remaining steady.  The biggest selling day of the year, Dec. 22, saw an average of 570 customers per minute.
  • West Coasters were Canada’s most avid readers in 2007.  B.C. residents devoured an average 33 titles.
  • Fiction was the most popular genre among Canadians, at 56% of books read.

My response remains the same as I wrote in my post on New Year’s Eve.  Again, after visiting your blogs, I was much impressed and humbled by some of your personal reading statistics, and glad to know about still others who have indicated reading resolutions and goals for the New Year, again I say…all is not lost.

So to all, enjoy your reading, whatever genre, whatever modes they may be, and have a rewarding 2008!