Blasts from the Past: So Many Ways to Begin by Jon McGregor (2006)

Cover image This is the first in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could. It’s quite possible that if I read them now I might not feel quite the same about all the titles I’ve raved about to anyone who would listen but I’ll only include the ones I’m still happy to recommend. It’s partly inspired by Janet’s Under the Reader’s Radar series over at From First Page to Last which kicked off with Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things reminding me how much I’d loved that book when I first read it. The other reason is that this blog tends to be all about recently published books with the odd mention of backlist titles thereby turning its back on a huge number of novels well worth reading. I already have a list in my head and I know that some titles on that list will be out of print but if that’s the case I’ll be sure to mention it. Some may be a little obscure, some not so much and others not at all. Some I’ve already written about elsewhere in the past. So, with a nod to Janet’s post for its inspiration, here’s my first blast from the past: Jon McGregor’s So Many Ways to Begin.

Set in post-war Britain, McGregor’s novel explores both history and the possibility of new beginnings. Since stumbling upon a tobacco tin, still filled with cigarettes, dating from the First Cover image World War in his Auntie Julia’s treasure trove of memorabilia, David has been fascinated by the past. Regular trips to museums inspire a determination to run his own someday, and David takes his first step becoming a junior curatorial assistant in Coventry. On a field visit to Aberdeen he meets his future wife Eleanor, bright, sparky and determined to become a geologist as far from home as she can get. As Julia’s treasured memories become engulfed by her premature senility, she lets slip a secret that shatters David’s own history leaving him bitter and restless.

In vignettes constructed around small artefacts, often seemingly insignificant but freighted with a very personal meaning, this compassionate, quietly lyrical novel captures David and Eleanor’s lives and history – their disappointments and unhappinesses, their unfulfilled ambitions and their small compensatory joys. It’s both a tender exploration of a very personal history and an evocative portrait of post-war Britain.

What about you, any blasts from your own past you’d like to share?

38 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: So Many Ways to Begin by Jon McGregor (2006)”

    1. Susan Osborne

      Oh, please do! It’s so easy to be seduced by those bright, shiny new books, forgetting past goodies. I have Janet to thank for putting the idea in my head.

  1. Thanks for the mention. I agree with Marina, a great idea for a series of blog posts. Really enjoyed this one and I’m looking forward to reading more 🙂

    1. Glad you like it, Janet. I’m enjoying yours, too, and very pleased to have had the idea put in my head. Thanks for that!

    2. This is a great post and, I agree, a great idea! Excellent start from my point of view, because I too LOVE Jon McGregor, and I too mean to re-read him (and read for the first time his latest book. Or two latest?). You ask us for our own blasts from the past…hmm….where on earth to start? Almost at random, both because I can see it on the shelf and because it seems to have fallen into obscurity though was much lauded on publication (2005): It’s All Right NOw, by Charles Chadwick. Debut, written like a memoir but a novel. Author (b 1932) had many novels rejected until this one, thirty years in the writing, was finally accepted (author in his seventies by then) and praised by New Yorker, London papers, and more. Great book, very long but I thought justifiably so (need to re-read); and an inspiration to late bloomers and would-be bloomers.

  2. What a great idea. I read this probably ten years ago now and absolutely loved it. Atmospherically brilliant.

    I’m planning to read my own shelves next year (I turn 40 in 2017 and figure that gives me licence to do whatever I please). I hadn’t thought of revisiting old favourites but I might throw a few in now.

    1. Not to worry, and thanks for your contribution, Christine. I’ve just looked up the Chadwick and I see what you mean about the reviews – still in print, though. I’ll have to investigate further.

      1. As I recall one doesn’t at first like the narrator much…but he, and the book’s slow accumulation of detail and depth, grow on one. I think. Liked it so muchI recommended to book club at the time.

  3. As others have commented, it’s a great idea for a series of posts. I shall look forward to seeing your choices as and when they appear. I read McGregor’s Even the Dogs, maybe five or six years ago now, and was impressed with it. A very talented writer.

    1. Susan Osborne

      Thanks, Jacqui. It’s an enjoyable set of posts to put together. He is a very talented writer but not a prolific one. I’m rather hoping that there’s a new novel in the works

    1. Susan Osborne

      I loved that, too! Thank you – it seems such a shame to ignore all those brilliant books out there, many of them still in print.

  4. I love this idea, and from the look of it so does everyone else! There are so many good older books that still deserve lots of love. Can’t wait to hear about them! Although, it’s going to be rough on the old tbr… I have never read McGregor – he’s now on my list!

    1. Susan Osborne

      I’m delighted with the response to this, Naomi, not least that so many people on Twitter and here have said they’ll reread McGregor or put him on their list. Hurrah!

  5. I adore this book and pretty much anything by Jon McGregor. Thanks for reminding me of how much I loved this book. Have you read his recent short stories? They were fabulous too.

    1. Susan Osborne

      You’re welcome, Cathy. It’s been great to find that there are so many McGregor fans out there. I’ve only sampled a few of his short stories but what I’ve read I’ve enjoyed very much.

  6. This almost made me rub my hands with glee this morning and I spent a very happy half hour thinking about all my blasts from the past. I won’t bore you with them all, but Jon McGregor would definitely be one, as would William Maxwell’s ‘So long see you tomorrow’ (basically you can’t be my friend unless you’ve read or at least tried to read that). Wallace Stegner’s ‘Angle of Repose’ runs a close second. And I almost cringe to think of the number of people I’ve begged to read ‘A Fine Balance’. Oh and Mary Lawson and …Ok I’ll stop there. Thanks for this Susan – great post. Also enjoyed reading the other comments and discovering yet more books to put on the wish list…..

    1. Susan Osborne

      Thanks, Kerry, and I very much doubt I’d be bored! Mr Maxwell will be getting an airing here at some point so we’re still friends. The deal breaker for me on that is Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved but anything by Maxwell’s a close second. My Stegner is Crossing to Safety, and A Fine Balance is also on the list – no sign of a new one from him yet, sadly. Ah, the wish list…

  7. Looking back at what we read and loved is brilliant, isn’t it. I’ve done some of that in my ‘What I read pre-blog posts’ too. I can’t say I gelled with Jon McGregor though – I wrote in my notes of his first: “I agree it’s beautifully written, poetic even, in the descriptions of the minutiae of everyday life, but this made it soooo slow. By the time the terrible thing actually happened it was an anticlimax. I do appreciate fine writing but the lack of pace made it an endurance task for me.” I gave it 5/10 and I’ve steered clear ever since – except I nearly bought Even the Dogs for its textured cover! 🙂

    1. Susan Osborne

      Ha – It sounds as if what I loved about Remarkable Things was what you didn’t! I must have a root around in your pre-blog posts. I’ve so enjoyed putting my original list together. It’s expanding so much that it might take over the blog at this rate.

  8. I have never read this author, but certainly will be investigating Jon McGregor now- proving what a brilliant idea revisiting and blogging about writers/ books you have enjoyed in the past. The immediate one that comes to mind for me is Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel, which is brilliantly dark and ascerbic. I preferred it to Wolf Hall and think it showcases her insight and prosaic mastery perfectly. I might just have to have a go at blogging about it now!

    1. Susan Osborne

      Oh, excellent and I agree with you about Beyond Black, a nice dark vein of the sinister running through it with a hefty dollop of black humour.

      1. I am going to have a go at writing a Beyond Black review now, as feeling inspired! Thanks to you and Janet and Under the Radar Reads (and a Sarah Moss). So many great books and writers that could have been overlooked. What a great way to help redress this.

        1. Excellent, and delighted to hear you’ll be reading a Sarah Moss – another very fine writer.

          1. Beyond Black is up on my blog. I have credited yourself and Janet for the inspiration. Hope this is ok? Writing about it reminded me about why I loved it so much, when I first read it. Hope I manage to pass the bug on to someone!

          2. Susan Osborne

            Thanks so much for the mention. I’m delighted that someone else has been bitten by the backlist bug! I think you’re quite right about Beyond Black – it’s been somewhat eclipsed by Wolf Hall. Let’s hope your post will gain it a few more readers.

  9. I love how you highlight the compassion in the story. It’s a long time since I read So Many Ways to Begin but that’s what I remember about it too. And the lyricism and gentleness of it. Lovely to read your thoughts about this old(ish) but lovely read.

    1. Susan Osborne

      Thank you! I’m so pleased at the response to this post, both here and on Twitter. Very easy to be lured, magpie-like, by all those glittering new titles forgetting gems like this one.

      1. You’re absolutely right! I’m re-reading something at the moment (White Noise: I have a slight DeLillo obsession) but it’s rare I get chance to do so. So many amazing new books, too little reading time. If only we didn’t have to work (there would still never be enough time, but we can dream right?).

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