my tragic right hip

Busting out bad joints all over the place

February 9th, 2011

#14 – Emma

When I was younger, much younger, the first time I went to university, I sort of decided that “old” books weren’t worth studying. I did my whole English degree trying to avoid anything remotely written before the 21st century. It wasn’t easy. I think I had to do a Romantics and a Victorian class, along with Shakespeare, but I filled every elective with Post-Colonial, American, Modern British, anything to avoid what I perceived to be “boring” books.

No one ever said I was particularly smart in my youth.

But what it means is that I haven’t read all of Jane Austen. I’ve barely scratched the surface of some of the best work in the English language, actually. And it’s a good time of my life, two degrees later, working in publishing, to be reading these books for the 1001 Books list. So, in my quest for alphabetical order in my off the shelf reading, Emma came up first.

We all know the story: Emma Woodhouse makes all kinds of matchmaking mistakes, often puts her foot in her mouth, gets jealous, and sometimes becomes a person she doesn’t like very much. Emma takes the young, impressionable, yet pretty, Harriet under her wing (a girl with lesser prospects and an unknown lineage) and finding her a suitable husband (first Mr. Elton, then Mr. Churchill, then, disaster when Harriet falls for Mr. Knightley and Emma is not particularly pleased with this turn of events) becomes her goal. Throw in a little petty jealousy when the talented and accomplished Miss Jane Fairfax arrives on the scene and there’s plenty of picnics and parties to entertain the romantic in everyone. Of course, there’s a happy ending, and much emotional development upon Emma’s part. In a way, it’s a little bit of a coming of age novel — as we watch Emma develop from girl to woman.

Any critical analysis of the novel on my part would be ridiculous, I’m sure there’s nothing I can add to the conversation. We live in a society that’s already Austen-obsessed: There are mugs (of which I own four), multiple movies, numerous (far inferior) books, and a whole host of ivory tower work surrounding her life and her novels. But I will say this, from a format perspective, in terms of pacing, humour, theme, and depth of character, Austen certainly defined the novel for, well, just about every novelist to come after her writing in this genre. The more I read, the more I am astounded at the depth of her structure, how it perfectly suits the characters, and reaches a conclusion, while completely predictable only because I’ve seen Clueless about a half-dozen times, that made me smile.

I read in the introduction that Jane Austen, while writing Emma, that she was creating a character that people wouldn’t like very much — and I heartily disagree. I loved Emma, couldn’t stand Mrs. Elton (as I am sure I was supposed to), and thought that Jane Fairfax should just come clean already — she’d feel so much better. See, how you just get caught up in them like they’re real people? Sigh. So, I’ve got two more Austens on my shelf, so by the time I get back to the 1001 Books section, I’ll have two more delightful reads before I get into the real down and dirty stuff that I’ve been avoiding reading for years (like Murakami — I honestly have zero desire to read Murakami, but it’s on my shelves and I will at least attempt it. But, luckily, it’s in the “M’s” so it’ll take me months to get there. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the first letter of the alphabet on any shelf).

WHAT’S UP NEXT: I’m reading the new Per Petterson, I know, it’s out of order, but I’ve got to read the books sent to me from the publishers — they do get priority. Then I’ll be back on my Canadian “A’s”, which I think is a novel by Jason Anderson from ECW.

January 31st, 2011

#11 – The Very Thought Of You

When I got the British/Irish/Scottish section of my shelves, the book that came up first was Rosie Alison’s The Very Thought of You. At the time, I couldn’t remember a) why I had this book in the first place or b) where it came from. Most of the books on my shelves are from various jobs I’ve had, things I’ve traded with friends at other publishers, blogger review copies, you get the idea. But this novel was a rarity, something I actually bought. I think I was trying to read all of the Orange Prize novels for some challenge I had invented for myself, or something.

Annnywaay, I was ultimately disappointed in this book, and found myself, more often than not, rolling my eyes at her prose and complaining, loudly, to my husband about how melodramatic and often nonsensical the book was as I was reading it yesterday while we were playing Scrabble on the iPad as the RRBB slept (you get a pattern here… a LOT of reading goes on while the RRBB sleeps these last few days). The story of a young girl evacuated from London at the start of the Second World War, The Very Thought of You simply tries too hard to capture the essence of the time and place. The novel opens promisingly — echoes of The Remains of the Day float through the book as it describes the fall of the house of Ashton, whose last remaining heir, Thomas, had just died leaving the house to the National Trust and its inevitable treasures up for auction.

Thomas, and his wife Elizabeth, opened their home to 80-odd boys and girls during the war. With his body destroyed by polio, and the remaining members of his family dead, Thomas and his wife, Elizabeth, who is, natch, beautiful but damaged, find solace in children roaming the halls and playing outside while the war rages around them. Anna Sands, a quiet, contemplative child, misses her mother desperately but finds her way at Ashton Park. The girl gets drawn into the complex adult relationships between the Ashtons and the various other people embroiled in their unhappiness.

There are way, way too many characters in this book, and much of the narrative consists of awkward, cliched prose that melodramatically describes not only the failing relationship between the main characters, but also the multiple extra-marital affairs that seem to happen all over the place. No one is happily married in Alison’s novel, and it gets a bit tiresome after a while. The story could have been simpler, the prose more direct, and then I could actually understand its inclusion on the Orange Prize longlist last year.

The author does an exceptional job of getting into the mind of Anna as a child, but then falls down by dragging the reader through the rest of her life in a Titanic-like moment that feels very put upon as an ending. There’s no doubt that Alison has talent, but the novel suffers from a lack of true perspective, it tries too hard, which ends up meaning a lot of it just isn’t believable. There’s a point where too much tragedy between the pages simply becomes too much tragedy. I felt something similar when watching The Company Men last week at Stars and Strollers. Sometimes, the reader just needs a break from all awful things humans can do to one another, they need to actually love their partners, and someone, somewhere needs to find a bit of happiness, even if it’s only for a moment. I’m not saying that Alison’s characters don’t — I’m just saying that it’s all a bit overdone.

London during the war is a fascinating subject for me. One of my favourites to read about, and the idea of the novel works, as does its basic plot — but there were two secondary characters, Norton, a diplomat with whom Thomas Ashton worked, and his wife Peter, whose lives would have made for a far more interesting novel than the sappy “love gone wrong” and then “love lost forever” storyline occupied by the Ashtons, the two main adult characters. It’s a shame when one gets to the end of a book and all one has to say for it is, “well, I’m glad that’s done.” And considering the other Orange Prize nominees, including Barbara Kingsolver’s exceptional The Lacuna, I’m surprised that the panel included this book at all. However, despite Alison’s first novel jitters (overwritten sentences, the tendency to say something, then repeat it just in case the reader didn’t get it the first time, introducing bucketloads of characters that never appear again, the need to tell the WHOLE story), I’m curious to see how she matures as a writer. I’m sure her next novel will straighten out some of the above and what great exposure for an up-and-coming writer regardless of how I ended up feeling about the book.

January 27th, 2011

#9 – Weight

So, before I hit upon my latest reading strategy, I was at a loss for what to read next. I was in the bedroom with the baby and said to my RRHB, “just get me a book, any book.” He picked Jeanette Winterson’s Weight. As part of The Myths series, I’m not sure how to categorize this book — part fiction, part philosophy and part mythology, Weight re-tells the story of Heracles, a scoundrel of a god, and Atlas, the man charged with holding up the world.

Again, this was a short book, so it took me merely an evening to read (including breastfeeding bouts throughout the night). Overall, I enjoyed Winterson’s re-telling, and while I have read very little mythology in my lifetime and have only the cursory understanding of these stories in the first place, I liked the moral underpinning she employs here — that we all have our own burdens, and like Atlas, we can choose or not choose to hold them up or simply let them go. Winterson relates everything back to her own life throughout the telling, and there are chapters where she explains her history, and how and why she came to write as she does. The personal element adds a little something to the tale and there are whimsical elements (like Atlas finally getting some company in the form of a pet; I won’t spoil it, it is very cute) that I also enjoyed.

After reading The City Man, it’s interesting that I got through another book so quickly — and pleased to have read something slightly different than pure fiction. I have one more book from the series on my shelves, Karen Armstrong’s, and will probably get to that shortly as well. For now, I’m moving on to American fiction and have started Russel Banks’ The Reserve. Lots to get through!

December 19th, 2010

#61 – Affinity

In a lot of ways, I am neither here nor there with Sarah Waters. By that I mean, I either really love her books, like Fingersmith and The Night Watch or I really, really don’t like them at all like Tipping the Velvet and the incredibly boring (by my estimation only) The Little Stranger, which honestly put me to sleep more than scared the bejeezus out of me, as was probably intended. So, I’ve had Affinity languishing on my shelves for years. And, at first, I thought it was going to go the way of The Little Stranger, but I actually ended up quite enjoying the novel.

Set in the 1870s in London at the height of the spiritualist craze, the novel’s protagonist, Margaret, falls head over heals for an inmate at Millbank prison. Selina’s an infamous spiritualist who finds herself in hot water after her patron dies unexpectedly following a fairly intense visit from “beyond.” Being the cynic that I am, of course, you know that Margaret’s being swindled, but it’s a long con, and a devastating one when you look at the novel in terms of options for women, single women, of her class, stature and sexual orientation. So, the harder Margaret falls for Selina, and her impressive parlour tricks, the more you, the reader, realize that it’s all going to turn out very, very poorly for the trusting, intelligent, yet wholly gullible girl.

Devastated by the loss of her beloved father, Margaret’s an easy target. Set adrift by lack of options, she will neither marry but nor does she want to spend the rest of her life caring for her demanding, controlling and often obnoxious mother. She sees her mother growing older and more demanding, can’t bear a life of calling cards and visits, and longs to visit Italy. But the upper middle classes aren’t the place for women to go travelling alone, and without a sustainable relationship, Margaret’s trapped in her drafty house with only her diary, and her visits to Millbank prison, to keep her sane.

The novel speeds along and the format suits the subject matter impressively. Interspersed with Margaret’s own journal/diary entries, you get more and more backstory from Selina. Are her psychic powers authentic? Can she truly call upon the spirits to come? Or is it all just a ruse? Waters is careful to parcel out the truth and the tricks throughout the narrative in a way that intends to keep one guessing but it’s fairly obvious early on what’s going to happen. Knowing that Margaret’s being duped didn’t lessen the impact of the novel but increases the emotional quotient — you are that much more involved when it gets to the end.

All in all, I am glad I stuck with Affinity through the wee hours. I almost abandoned it halfway through and picked up AS Byatt’s latest book, which I am starting this evening. And, it cleared yet another book off my shelves!

December 13th, 2010

#59 – Birdman

Mo Hayder remains one of my favourite crime writers. I had the good fortune to interview her a couple of years ago when she was in Toronto promoting the Walking Man series, still Jack Caffrey mysteries, but with the introduction of Flea Marley, the police diver, who becomes the other central character in the books. She’s self-educated, incredibly smart, and it was one of the best interviews I had ever done (and she was very gracious when she signed my book).

Annnywaaay, I’ve had Birdman, the first Jack Caffrey mystery, on my shelf for about four years. Every time I look through my books to see what I should pick up next, I think, I should really read that Mo Hayder novel. I guess, with everything, and with my own superstitious nature about reading (books are ready for you at the right time in your life and never before… that’s why you can’t finish them if you start and put them down again
, and why it took me at least seven tries to get through Crime and Punishment; it just wasn’t the right time), it languished. There were always other books to read first. But I had just finished The Post-Birthday World and wanted something that I could read in a day — and grabbed Birdman on a whim.

I don’t know what it is about motherhood that inspires me to want to watch and read about murder and mayhem. I’ve been only keeping up with shows like Law and Order UK, Detroit 1-8-7, and watching the boxed set of Prime Suspect. My friend Duncan suggested it’s because crime novels are easy to pick up and put down. You feel like you’ve accomplished a little something when you get to the end of a police drama: there’s a mystery, it gets solved, people are punished. It’s all my overloaded, exhausted brain can handle. Well, he’s got a point. And maybe the escapism I used to get from watching movies, I’m finding in a good, solid, mystery/thriller here and there.

So, Birdman. It’s a fairly typical crime novel, of course, because it’s Mo Hayder, it’s extremely well written and utterly readable. It charges along at a fast clip and before you know it, Jack’s done it again: ruined another relationship, pissed off a whole bunch of people, and solved a heinous crime (in this case a lot of dead prostitutes/strippers/addicts) involving a serial killer (or killers). In a way, this novel is more structured than Hayder’s later books. I’m not sure if this is part of a series with anything more linking it than Caffrey as the main character because it’s all tied up very neatly at the end — that’s not to say it’s a happy conclusion — but there’s a finality to this book that the Walking Man novels don’t have. They all seem to pick up where the other left off in a deliciously addictive way.

Jack’s new to the force in London, and it’s his first big case. When they uncover the bodies of five women, all mutilated, all murdered, there’s conflict in the force. There are clues that lead a racist, repugnant DI Diamond in the wrong direction and Jack, along with his partner Essex, have to fight against the curve to get everyone working in the right direction. His profile is correct, and when we meet the villain about eight pages in, you get the feeling that it’s all coming together a bit too quickly, you know, like when the cops disappear too soon on Law and Order, and you know there’s trouble with the case…and low and behold, once the villain becomes known to the police, the killing doesn’t stop. So who is the real Birdman? Of course, it’s a race against time for Caffrey and Essex to figure it out because there are real people involved now — not just victims, but people with personal relationships to these officers.

Part of Vintage Canada’s World of Crime series, I love how the jacket copy says, “For some killers, murder is just the beginning…” It’s a pretty terrific tagline and utterly relevant to this particular book. I love it when there’s a twist that’s hinted, ever so slightly upon toward the beginning of the novel, and explodes at just the right time in the reading. Hayder’s exceptional at creating completely creepy villains who do absolutely disgusting things. Yet, the level of (for lack of a better word) “grossness” that Hayder employs in her writing is consistently balanced with razor-sharp prose, snappy dialogue and intense research. These novels are solid, have ripping plots (how else do you read them in a night while breastfeeding a baby?) and hinge upon a fascinating character that she’s created in Caffrey. I mean, he does remind me a little of Jackson Brodie — Kate Atkinson’s protagonist — they’re both damaged in a way that makes them so good at their job. In Caffrey’s case, it’s the disappearance of his younger brother when he was eight and the passionate way he’s convinced his next-door neighbour, whom he still lives beside, is responsible for his murder.

Unlucky in love seems to be the MO for these kind of men, which, of course, makes them irresistible on the page, both to the reader and to just about every woman in their path. But romance never works out for Jack and it’s a good thing too because how else would he solve the crime and save the day? I’d highly recommend any Mo Hayder novel for the crime/thriller lover. She’s such an exceptional writer that it’ll totally satisfy your craving for good sentences as much as your craving for, as my grandmother used to say, “a good whack on the head.”

READING CHALLENGES: The Off The Shelf Challenge, of course. I already have a British writer for my Around the World in 52 Weeks, so I can’t double count Hayder.

WHAT’S UP NEXT: I started Sebastian Barry’s A Long, Long Way this morning and it absolutely reminded me of one of my all-time favourite books, A Star Called Henry, and so I’m hoping to continue it this evening. Not too much time to read today as I was alone with the baby and we took an amazing nap this afternoon. How delicious is it to lie in bed with your baby tucked into your chest, and then wake up with him snuggled right into your arm all smiley and sleepy when you both wake up. Even if the moment only lasts for about five minutes before he wakes up fully and discovers he’s got shitty pants and is starving and, therefore, starts screaming, but it was a bit of bliss on a cold blustery day.

December 7th, 2010

#57 – Little Bee

I am of mixed mind when it comes to Chris Cleave’s Little Bee. On the one hand, it’s an interesting novel that deals with important political issues; on the other hand, overall, I didn’t find the novel entirely plausible. Cleave has definite talent writing characters in voices that are atypical — female characters that read well, but there’s just something that rings false. I felt especially this way about Little Bee herself, that she was perhaps a bit too precocious for her age, but when you factor in what she’d been through (horrific, awful events in her home country of Nigeria; unspeakable violence and two years in a detention centre in England after stowing away in a boat), maybe it’s not so inconceivable that she would be wise beyond her years. Yet, it all didn’t sit quite right with me.

So, the plot of the novel revolves around two women, the aforementioned Little Bee, an asylum-seeking refugee from Nigeria who was subjected to an horrific experience of seeing her entire family destroyed by oil men; and Sarah, the wife of Andrew, a couple who met Little Bee on a beach on a fateful day that would change their lives forever. When Little Bee is finally released from the detention centre after spending two years essentially in jail as the British government evaluates her refugee claim, the only people she knows are Andrew and Sarah, and so she makes her way to them, which sets in motion a series of events that have tragic consequences.

And it’s not just the plot that felt forced but the relationship between the two women was awkward in many ways. I kept comparing the novel in my head to Dave Eggers’s What is the What, and to Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, both novels that have protagonists that go through unspeakable horrors, but both of these novels just pull it all together in a way that doesn’t make the reader feel as though the situations are jammed in just to make a point. Granted, it’s an important point — or an important book — and you can’t fault Cleave for his research or how hard he worked to create the voice of Little Bee. But how he chose to wrap her story within that of Sarah’s and how their lives are intertwined just doesn’t work. Further, there’s a fairytale element to the penultimate action that rang false and the end of the novel was quite flat compared to how hard he had worked to set up the situation from the start of the book. I didn’t believe the drama — and this book is ALL about dramatic situations that forever change people’s lives.

Overall, as much as I was looking forward to reading this book, I am not at all sure what I think or how I feel about it. I want to like it A LOT because I believe strongly in fiction that pushes the boundaries and tells important, political stories. But in a way, I don’t think they should be shoehorned in when they don’t fit the characters or the voice that’s actually telling the story. I wanted more for Little Bee — and I wanted more from the book. But maybe I’ll feel differently if/when I think about it some more.

Has anyone else read this book? What did you think?

WHAT’S UP NEXT: Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World. It’s a chunky, chunky book so I probably won’t finish it in a day but we’ll see how many hours my RRBB spends awake tonight.

READING CHALLENGES: The Off the Shelf Challenge — I think I’ve had this book on my TBR pile ever since it came out almost two years ago. Also, Chris Cleave is British, so that counts too for Around the World in 52 Books — he can be England.

May 7th, 2010

#20 – Wolf Hall

As a part of the “The Orange Prize is Definitely the New Black” challenge that we started over at the work blog, I finished reading Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Wolf Hall, last weekend. And then couldn’t put it down. For days. On end. Now, that’s saying something for a giant hulking 650-page tome about Thomas Cromwell, of all people. Mantel’s certainly not the first, nor the last, to dramatize the Tudor period in literature. The lives and wives of Henry VIII have been immortalized, studied, fictionalized and melo-dramatized for our modern age — movies, TV series, novels abound about Katherine, Anne, Jane, etc., to the point of overkill. I reached my Henry VIII peak after seeing about three episodes of the current series The Tudors on the Ceeb a couple of years ago, and it all felt wrong, wrong, wrong. First off, and I know it’s me being far too literal, but as attractive as Jonathan Rhys Meyers might be, he’s just not Henry VIII material — and neither, for that matter, is Eric Bana — not in looks, countenance or bearing. I mean, can’t Hollywood even get the hair colour right?

Annnywaaay, like most history, pop culture weeds out the most salacious aspects and runs with them, and it’s not like the Tudors were lacking in dramatic moments that would work well in terms of adaptations, but it all started to feel a bit tired. I mean really tired. Like The Other Boleyn Girl might just be one of the worst films I’ve ever seen kind of tired. So when Mantel’s novel won the Booker, I kind of thought to myself, “Really, another novelization of the Tudors? Really?”

How wrong I was.

While this is a novel very much about the Tudors, it’s from the perspective of an outsider. Someone who came from nothing to make something of himself, who used his very sharp mind to control people and situations to his benefit, and not necessarily with the ulterior motives that tend to drive most characters in historical fiction (sex, greed, lust). But what I really, really enjoyed is that this novel didn’t focus entirely on the melodrama, it’s actually devoid almost completely of it, and instead turns its focus to relationships of all kinds and how life functioned for these characters at this epic moment in time. It’s not about the romance between Henry and Anne and what it means for love and betrayal; it’s about how the romance between Henry and Anne changed everything — and the man who not only made most of these changes possible, but who also participated in creating the whole background of the time period, was Thomas Cromwell.

The novel starts off with a young Thomas getting the stuffing knocked out of him by his brute of a father Walter. Soon, he takes off into the great big world to make a name for himself, and when the story picks up again, he’s done just that — found himself a position working for / serving Cardinal Wolsey, and when that turns sour, for the king himself. Politics, or political machinations rather, take centre stage in this novel. It’s about maneuvering situations more than anything, about how to be a man, and how to teach his children to be good in life, but it’s also about power — finding it, taking it, destroying it — and all the ways it contributes to the ups and downs of the Tudor court.

It’s hard to describe the novel as anything other than engrossing. I found myself totally sucked in and read the first 300 pages in just over a day — sometimes the narrative’s a bit muddled (Mantel uses a lot of pronouns and the “he’s” get all mixed up sometimes. I just decided that if I was remotely confused that the “he” in question was Cromwell and that seemed to work for me) and the book’s unquestionably dense — but I couldn’t put it down. When I gave my copy away mid-read to a friend (I had another at work; we’d save on mail that way), and decided to finish the McEwan novel that I’d started, I found myself longing to know what was going to happen next to Cromwell. Would he convince More to change his mind? Would he ever find a second wife? Would these ghosts ever stop appearing in front of him? Who would he marry his son off to (we didn’t get that far; it must be in the second book).

ALL of these questions are answered in history, yet I longed for Mantel’s perspective. I loved how she would add rich description to scenes, sum everything up with a brilliant sentence, and keep my interest in her novel far passed my bed time. This book? Definitely better than TV.

WHAT’S NEXT. I’ve started Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising. That’s #2 of the Orange Prize nominated books. Will I make the June 9th deadline, probably not. But maybe…

April 30th, 2010

#19 – Solar

There’s little doubt in my mind that Ian McEwan is one of the English language’s greatest working novelists. If I’m not mistaken, almost every single one of his novels is on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list (perhaps not all deservedly), and Atonement still stands in my memory as a near-perfect book. Maybe that’s why I’m willing to forgive the missteps in Solar. No, rather, maybe that’s why I expected so much more out of Solar, his latest novel. I enjoyed the last two McEwan novels, especially On Chesil Beach, which I liked maybe even more than Saturday, but I found Solar hard slogging. It’s a relatively short novel at just under 300 pages, yet it felt dense, convoluted in places, and even somewhat implausible.

The protagonist, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard, bumbles his way through complete and utter moral corruption without any true sense of himself. As a man, he’s short, corpulent, and slovenly, but his apparent brilliance means he’s led a charmed life. Well, hard work and a sharp mind began a charmed life, and since winning the prize, Beard has essentially coasted off its fumes. From one marriage to the next, from one high-paying job to the next, from one meal to the next, Beard shows no remorse or even any kind of sustained thought over his actions. He’s a womanizer who has five failed marriages behind him; yet, at five-foot-three somehow remains ridiculously attractive to smart, accomplished women. Thus begins a number of somewhat implausible characteristics — that women would fall, nay, fight over such a man remains a little, well, unbelievable. A great mind only takes you so far, success only takes you so far — mushrooms growing out of your rotting apartment? That’s a sign you’re not fit for life amidst other humans.

Anyway, when the novel opens, Michael’s latest wife, Patrice, has just discovered he’s cheated, again. And yet, when she dares to step out on him, Beard can’t bear it. He wants his wife back. He loves her, he even goes so far as to confront her boorish lover (their contractor) who smacks him right across the face. It’s not as if Beard doesn’t have a cause to dislike the man (beyond the whole sleeping with his wife sitch), he did give her a black eye. And to get back at him for ruining his marriage, Beard does something so morally bankrupt it’s hard to believe the character could possibly ever redeem himself.

Yet, the novel isn’t about redemption. In fact, I’d argue that Michael never considers redemption. Even more so, he never really even considers he’s wrong. His mind functions on a level where he can convince himself in any manner that his actions were good and true to himself. He justifies anything if it sits in his mind long enough: lies become truth, outcomes absolve actions, and another woman inevitably lands in his bed. Even if, by the end of the novel, Beard seems to have finally gotten his just desserts, the fact remains that his moral core is unchanged. The man takes absolutely no responsibility for any of his actions and still he’s rewarded. The complete and utter collapse of his life, the no less than three times that happens throughout the book, has almost no lasting impact on him. In short, Michael Beard does not change, evolve or become even slightly more informed about himself by the end of this book. He’s simply not that kind of person. And maybe that’s the point.

Even so, McEwan keeps the narrative tight to his point of view. We learn little about him, snippets of his home life, of his failed relationships, of his childhood, but mainly what we follow is his career, of sorts. As the book opens, Beard is part of a collection of scientists working on climate change, specifically funding wind turbines that will become alternative sources of energy. The solar from the book’s title comes from the secondary science-related plot, the ideas of a young post-doc, Tom Aldous, who works with Beard who firmly believes they can harness the sun’s power to use as energy. Beard’s skeptical at first, and abjectly refuses to listen to the younger man’s theories, but as the novel progresses, he comes around to Aldous’s science. But what he does with it is despicable and ultimately leads to his downfall, if you can call it that.

The force of the novel felt weak to me, there’s not enough plot to drive the narrative along, which is why I felt the book was kind of sluggish to get through. The science is fascinating, relevant and so interesting. And Beard does interesting things, he’s invited to amazing parts of the earth, but nothing seems to have any impact on how he lives or what he feels about life. That was the most disappointing aspect of the novel. It’s hard to get behind a character that turns your stomach. I know that’s the point — an exploration of someone who gives to society for no reason other than personal gain (it’s the Heidegger was a Nazi argument: does someone’s personal philosophy, personal beliefs matter given the ultimate overarching contribution they’ve made to public thought). McEwan takes it further — is a man’s mind enough to redeem him for being utterly repugnant as a human being, and does one great act give you license to coast on said act for the rest of your life? It makes for an interesting moral debate and discussion but not a terrific plot for a novel.

All in all, I kind of feel as though even McEwan’s brilliant writing couldn’t save Solar from itself. I wanted so much more out of the novel, a different perspective, a reason for any of these women to actually fall in love with him, a realization that using your big old brain for manipulative purposes isn’t always the best use of your talents, something, anything that signified change in Beard. But, alas, nothing happens in the end. I suppose, the fact that Beard made any positive change in the world, contributed a measure of science (slipped by as an appendix) that fundamentally altered the way our world is perceived, remains his single best quality. Most people don’t even do that. Still, you hope that the people with the power to change the world, the ones who are working hard to protect our dying planet, are doing so from a position of good. What McEwan tirelessly points out with Michael Beard that’s just not a realistic view of the world.

However, some of the reviews that I’ve been reading have been noticing how, for the very first time, parts of this book have the reader in stitches. And there’s one scene in particular that involved a bag of crisps that did have me laughing, but the few laughs and light touches, the mocking nature the author has with his main character in the way he describes him, writes about him, suggests a bit of an ironic perspective. In some ways, just feeling that way while I was reading made it even worse.

Also, there’s my reader’s bias — I’m tired of reading books by middle-aged men who create middle-aged characters who are nothing more than a mid-life crisis on the page. McEwan hasn’t gotten to the stage of say a Rushdie or an Irving, other novelists in his class who have fallen into the same narrative pitfalls, because there’s still an acerbic nature to this book that’s missing from say Rushdie’s last few novels, but I guess I was really looking for a female character to appear as something other than a foil in this book. I was looking for an actual storyline that wasn’t tethered to a despicable man who fails every single person around him, except himself. I was tired of hearing about his Nobel Prize and seeing his bumbling ways. I was offended by his politics, his obsession with terrible food, his tepid alcohol abuse — in short, I just didn’t care for him, despite the bloody excellent writing that surrounded him.

April 26th, 2010

#18 – Lost River

The blurb on my copy of Stephen Booth’s latest thriller, a Ben Cooper / Diane Fry mystery, says, “[a] modern master of rural noir,” The Guardian. For once, I readily agree with the blurb on the cover of a book. Set in the Peak District and in Birmingham (“Brum”) the book moves back and forth between the case that Cooper feels he should be working on (an accidental or so it’s been determined) drowning and Diane Fry’s own assault case.

Ben Cooper was off-duty when he noticed the body in the river. He raced into the water and tried to save the little girl, whose body was already blue with cold. All eyewitness accounts said the same thing, that the little girl, Emily Nield, slipped and hit her head on a rock. But Ben Cooper’s gut feels differently about the crime — he knows something else happened and he won’t stop until he figures it out.

In the other thread of the novel, Diane Fry’s dedicates the same kind of attention to her instinct. When the powers that be in Birmingham, where she was stationed before Derbyshire (doesn’t it make you think of Pride and Prejudice? All I kept seeing was the walking tour Lizzie takes with her aunt and uncle the whole time I was reading. Those huge trees. That lovely landscape.), tell her that her assault case (she was raped a few years back one night by more than one assailant) won’t be prosecuted, Diane sets out on her own to figure out exactly what happened. And what she uncovers tells her more about herself than she ever expected or wanted to know.

The most interesting aspect of both these characters and their stories is that they take place outside the usual police house. They’re not basic cases — a crime’s committed and the detectives (and the complex DS, DC, Acting DS, C, etc.) figure out what happened and make arrests. Both Diane and Ben go off the grid to an extent, look for truths they need to move their lives forward relating to both of these cases, and don’t necessarily escape unscathed. Booth’s a solid writer, one I’d be happy to read more from, and Lost River kept my interest (even if I figured out a twist or two early on) throughout. The pastoral setting of Ben’s crime balanced by the more urban, politicized setting of modern-day Birmingham worked well together to create a nice sense of tension.

WHAT’S UP NEXT: I got caught up in Hilary Mantel’s ridiculously addictive Wolf Hall, which I’m about three-quarters of the way through. I want to finish in and a number of other books this week, a few of those I’ve already started…

January 23rd, 2010

#6 – A Year In The Merde

Colour me foolish: I finished this whole book thinking it was a memoir before realizing that a) the author and the protagonist have different last names and b) wondering why I didn’t hear about the political/social events in the news. Sigh. It’s been a long week.

Stephen Clarke’s cute, engaging novel follows Paul West, an upstart, up and coming restaurateur who moves from London to Paris to accept a job to open a series of tea rooms for France’s largest meat producer. Paul finds it hard to settle into life in Paris. Of course, it’s difficult to move to a new country, and his learning curve along the way remains hilarious. Having never been anything but a tourist in Paris, I admire how hard he works to fit in — stepping in all kinds of merde along the way.

The narrative style of the novel reminded me of Nick Hornby — Clarke has an easy-going way of telling a good story. Even when things go wrong for Paul, and they do (or else there wouldn’t be a book), it’s still a lighthearted read. Something perfect for a sick day spent at home on the couch with a hot water bottle and some Vick’s vapour rub. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it would be like to live somewhere else, even for a year. And this book gave me some wanderlust — it was also lovely to read a novel set in a Paris I know and understand, from the perspective of someone who obviously just wants to (eventually) fit in.

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Girl with titanium hip will rock. Girl with titanium hip will write. Girl with titanium hip will read. Girl with titanium hip will battle crazy-ass disease called Wegener's Granulomatosis. Now stuff that in your spelling bee!

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