Review: Solar, by Ian McEwan

Solar, by Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday 2010
283 pages
From 2007 to 2011 I was in a bit of a McEwan whirlwind. The film treatment of Atonement spun me one way, and the novel itself threw me off my feet and into a corner where I wept for about three days. So naturally I picked up everything I could easily find by McEwan, trying to piece together my sanity (which, if you know McEwan's writing) isn't really a smart thing to do. His protagonists are flawed, often unlikeable, quite often undeserving of the lives they lead. It's a reality that few would be eager to confront (and, yet, here I am)

I first heard of Solar via Walter Kirn (author, Up in the Air) when he reviewed it for The New York Times in March of 2010. The review was all-but scathing. To put it much simpler than he did: it's too high-concept, too scienc-y, and too contrived. When I read that review, I was disturbed somewhat. I don't think I believed that a McEwan novel could truly be any of those things. Naturally, I immediately sought the book out.

Not wanting to spend money on a hardcover, I thought I would get it from the library. But of course, all of the copies were already checked out, and there was a backlog of reservations. I was not going to be stopped. For the first (and, markedly, only) time, I downloaded Adobe Digital Editions and was able to borrow a digital copy of the novel from NYPL that way. This was before I had an iPad, so I started reading it on my computer.

Now if you know me, or you know my blog, you're aware that I dislike the concept of an e-reader. I won't go into it here, but just know that I am very solidly on the side of actual books - unfortunately for Solar. I tried - I truly tried. I got through a third of the novel when I had to stop - not because my borrowing was expired, but because I could not take reading those words on a screen any longer. I moved on immediately to another novel. As a result, I did not finish the book until this September - over four years later.

It was stumbling upon another Times review - this one by acclaimed critic Michiko Kakutani - that made me think to find the book again. I'm not easily swayed by the critical opinions of other writers, but had Kakutani clearly disliked it as much as Kirn had, I might not have given it a second glance. But Kakutani saw in the book what I eventually did as I read it - just how funny it is.

Yes, we've got another protagonist who is not just unlikeable but nasty and unctuous and - worst of all perhaps - forgetful. He has a memory like swiss cheese and is the epitome of an unreliable narrator. But, unlike some of McEwan's other creations, the author seems to want the reader to be in on his little joke at his character's expense. And yes, it's a lot of high-concept science that is inevitable above most readers' heads - but perhaps that's the point. The math and science are meant to buzz about like static while the characters play on, letting the reader focus more on their personal deficiencies than on their intellectual ones.

At least, that's how Act I plays out. Kakutani and I hold the same opinion that Acts II and III are mostly gratuitous and unnecessary. I hesitate to use the word contrived, but the structure of those later parts is as predictable as any Greek tragedy, and the ending is somewhat nebulously contrite - but one gets the feeling that even the author cannot stand the character any longer and so, as I did four years ago, he gave up.


Review: Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck

Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck
The Viking Press, 1945
This edition - The Centennial Edition
Penguin Books, 2002
181 pages
John Steinbeck's work really needs no introduction. As the writer of the most renowned examples of the rise and fall of the American Dream, his stories are both well-known and (often) very carefully ignored by many. He's the kind of writer one gets forced to read in high school and then abandon because the learning is finished.

The beauty and irony of that idea is that Steinbeck didn't stop learning. He worked up an interest in marine biology after The Grapes of Wrath was published, and he sought out ways to learn a great deal. Many modern writers get so focused on the writing deadlines and the press junkets, that they never find time to learn anything new. And if they do it's because they brought in a specialist to tell them why the science works the way the story needs it to work, etc. But it's very rare to find a modern author who writes what they know, or what they themselves have experienced. That type of writing seems limited to the ghostwriters of memoirs on the sale table at Barnes and Noble. No one goes on adventures anymore.

Steinbeck's desire to learn brought him into the path of Ed Ricketts (on whom Doc is based) who taught and adventured and collaborated with Steinbeck, and whose character is the heart of Cannery Row. The book is almost less like a novel and more like a magnifying glass on a real place in a real time. On the outside, the novel is about a rusty little fishing town. But inside, as Steinbeck put it, it's "a tide pool teeming with life after the ocean of commerce recedes."Unlike The Grapes of WrathCannery Row takes place in one petri dish, one tide pool, bleached by the sun and stinking like the sea. It's the kind of place you might pity someone for living in. But if Steinbeck's writing has ever proved anything, it's that those whom we pity most often have the richest and most colorful lives.

This novel is about innocence where it crosses paths with ignorance, and the danger at that intersection. It's ecofiction on a scope that boggles the mind. You don't need a plot to make a good story - not when you have characters like these. You don't need a clear beginning and a clear end, you just need beautifully-detailed people whose habits and mannerisms will stick with you beyond the novel - as if you're recalling a memory of a person you actually know rather than someone who may or may not have been dreamt up.

And maybe that's what has always drawn me to Steinbeck - the way the characters sort of float along with you like grimy fairytales, until you stop believing in that sort of thing, and then you're left with the grit that calls on the American spirit to keep adventuring and, more importantly, keep living - even when, maybe, all you have to call your own is a set of curtains on the rusted out boiler tank you call home.


Top Ten Tuesday: the top ten authors represented in my collection

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature of The Broke and the Bookish

This week's theme: 
Ten Authors I Own The Most Books Of 
(or, if we're being grammatically correct: 
Top Ten Authors Represented in My Collection)

I have more than 300 books in my personal collection, about 75 (or 25%) of which have not yet been read. My TBR pile is two shelves deep and growing. I'm a mess. So I'm using LibraryThing.com to pull this information. 

1. Jane Austen (14)

Yes, I know what you're going to say: she only wrote 6 books! WTF?? Slow down, grasshopper. First of all, she did more than just write 6 novels. Second of all, in some cases I have multiple editions of one novel because that's the kind of crazy person I am. Thirdly, because she's officially listed as an author, LibraryThing is counting Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters as Austen books. 

In case anyone's counting, there are two different editions of Emma, three different editions of Persuasion, four different editions of Pride & Prejudice (including the Marvel graphic ed. and the Zombies version, and then two editions of Sense & Sensibility (one of which is the Sea Monsters version). 
The other items are her Letters, one single edition of Mansfield Park, and a bound version of Abbey that includes Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon as well. 

2. Brian Jacques (9)

I own the first 9 books in the Redwall series (by publication, not by chronology). I'm still missing (and will look forward to at Christmas....): The Long Patrol, Marlfox, The Legend of Luke, Lord Brocktree, Taggerung, Triss, Loamhedge, Rakkety Tam, High Rhulain, Eulalia!, Doomwyte, The Sable Quean, and The Rogue Crew

3. Stephanie Barron (9)

These are the "Being a Jane Austen Mystery" books. I have #'s 1-7, 9, and 11. I'm still without a copy of (#8) Jane and His Lordship's Legacy, (#10) Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron and (#12) Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas

4. Charlotte Brontë (8)

Again, I know what you're thinking - but she wasn't that prolific! Actually, five of these titles are from her juvenilia, published by Hesperus. 

If anyone wants to purchase a copy of The Professor for me, I'd be much obliged. 

5. C. S. Lewis (7)

The Chronic--what!--cles of Narnia

6. Ian McEwan (7)

Aesthetically, I'm upset that my copy of Atonement does not have the same cover concept as the other books, but I'm enjoying that, in the order they're in above, there's a through line of title placement. My inner aesthete is happy. I just finished On Chesil Beach a few weeks ago, but that was a library copy. I also have, sitting on my desk, library copies of Solar and Sweet Tooth. On my wish list are First Love, Last Rites; The Comfort of Strangers; The Child in Time; Black Dogs; Saturday; and The Children Act

7. Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson (combined total of 10)

I can't really include one of these without the other, so they've been slapped together here. Since five of the books are joint ventures, it works out to eight Pearson books and seven Barry books: two comedic works, the first three books from the Kingdom Keepers series, and the five Starcatcher books.

8. Alexandre Dumas (6)

This is pretty self-explanatory. I'm just glad that the D'Artagnan romances have been split up as they are. The last three (Vicomte, Louise, and Mask) were originally one volume (no, thank you). 

9. William Shakespeare (5)

The only reason he's edging out Lillian Hellman is that my Hellman collection consists of two books - a standalone actors' version of The Children's Hour, and a copy of The Complete Plays which takes care of the rest...

All of these editions are pretty old. The first one on the left is a 1931 edition of Hamlet which we found among my grandmother's belongings. The others all came from my office's "lending" library (read: dumping ground) and include a 1959 ed. of The Tempest, a 1963 ed. of Macbeth, a 1967 ed. of King Lear, and that 1966 ed. of Othello which seems to be a bit of a find - I dug around the interwebs for an image of the cover you see there, but could only find one (on Amazon, not in a Google search). 

10. Jack Kerouac (5)

So all-in-all the 10 most-represented authors on my selves account for about 25% of the books on my shelves. According to LibraryThing, there's one author with four books, another five with three books, and then about nineteen with two, accounting for another 18% of my library. That means that more than 50% of the books on my shelves are by individual authors. I can't decide whether that's cool (as in hey, I must like a wide variety!?) or if that's disappointing (as in oh, my curatorial skills suck). I have to think about this. 

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