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. 


Top Ten Tuesday: 10 characters I'd want with me on a deserted island

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

This week's theme: Top Ten Characters I Would Want With Me On A Deserted Island 
(pick based on however you want...skills they would bring, their company...or pure hotness factor :P)

1. The entire family from Swiss Family Robinson (which, btw, not their name).

2. Captain Wentworth...because firstly, I needed an Austen guy in here somewhere and secondly, he's handy with the ocean and stuff. 

3. The Woodsman (The Book of Lost Things) and if he's not available, I'll take the Huntress. But she needs to understand boundaries - no animal/human head swapping!

4. Matt Hooper (Jaws) for obvious reasons.

5. Lennie (Of Mice and Men) because he's handy. Maybe a little too handy, but we'll address that later. 

6. Edmond Dantès (The Count of Monte Cristo) another handy guy to have around. He's good at escaping stuff, right? 

7 & 8. Hawkeye Pierce and Hot Lips Houlihan (MASH) more obvious. 

9. Hermione Granger (Harry Potter) hopefully with her handy dandy bag full of a steamer ship and food. 

10. The Mariner (Waterworld) OK maybe this one doesn't completely count because the book (which I read) was based on the screenplay, but he's got GILLS and he's Kevin Costner. Soooooooooooo obviously he's coming with, the end. 
Your argument is invalid. Good day. 


Review: On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

On Chesil Beach
by Ian McEwan
Anchor Books
(203 pgs)
2007's On Chesil Beach exemplifies what I admire about Ian McEwan's writing - the simplicity, the matter-of-fact straightforward style of his hand is beautifully displayed in this 200-page novella.

Edward and Florence have just been married, and have arrived at an inn on Chesil Beach for their honeymoon. The reader is immediately thrown into an extremely intimate setting, one that becomes all the more uncomfortable when the internal monologues and histories of these two characters are brought to light.

Separated into chapters, McEwan deftly alternates between their individual past and present. perspectives, giving his reader the sense that we know a little too much - even more than one does of the other. Their combined story, though it will only take an avid reader an hour or so to finish the book, reads like a five-act Shakespearean tragedy, filled with those slight betrayals which always bring a tragedy to its unpleasant climax.

McEwan has never been one to shy away from explicit naturalism (Enduring Love) and this story, though tantalizingly brief, is no exception. But that gritty sort of treatment is, unlike in the case of many of McEwan's contemporaries, never gratuitous - rather, it always plays into the larger metaphor at hand. In this case: an all-embracing criticism of inaction and the failure that follows. And instead of giving the reader the romance that one might want out of this kind of story, instead the author embraces the melancholy of reality and is absolutely merciless in rending one's idyllic image of happiness and reconciliation in two.


"Space Invaders" - Slate.com

Freshman year of high school I was forced to take an elective...I can't remember if this was my parents, or my guidance counselor, or just me putting off taking that third .5 phys ed credit...and it was a class billed as something like "Business Systems & Technology" something like that. I had a copy of my high school transcript for the longest time because I didn't apply to a 10th university as originally planned, but that seems to have been lost in the wind over the last few moves, so I can't quite recall how it may have been listed.

On the first day of classes, I knew it was a joke. We were in a media room on the second floor of the 500-block. The classroom was filled with 10-year-old computers (in 1999) and the class was taught by a man in his mid-forties who gave the impression that he did not understand computers at all. This was explicit on the second day of classes when he expressed the need for assistance in actually setting the computers up so that they were functional for the purposes of the class.

My knowledge of computers is almost completely self-taught. My dad helped briefly, but by the time I was in elementary school playing Oregon Trail and Nigel's World (does anyone else remember Nigel's
World??) it was all me. It's also worth pointing out that this was my first day in a new school where there were a total of five people that I knew from my last school. One of them was in this class, but we weren't friends. And everyone else in the class came from a lower income demographic than I did, so they were pretty useless when it came to computers, too. 

So I guess it fell to me - between actually knowing a thing or two more than the teacher, and wanting to feel occupied when I had no friends to talk to - to set up the computers for the class. I can't say it was much use, though. In the course of the entire school year we did little more than speed typing tests. Over and over, drilled into our heads, one space after commas, two spaces after a period. Over and over. 

What the teacher certainly didn't comprehend is that those rules we followed in those speed typing tests were archaic. A dinosaur at a manual typewriter in 1965 might approve, but no one with any sense of typographic rules in 1999 would have. And that's why I love this article from Slate.com that someone posted on Facebook earlier today. The article might be a few years old, but the facts remain the same. 

And while one could argue that typographical awareness is not something at the forefront of our common intelligence, it's something of which (in this internet age) everyone should at least subconsciously be cognizant. I've been a single-spacer since even before this class (I defied the speed test rules and ended up with a lower score every time because I knew it was wrong and didn't need a computer to tell me how quickly or efficiently I could type) and am alarmed to think that there could still be proud two-spacers among us - unaware, lurking...


Top Ten Tuesday: other ways to tell stories

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

This week's theme: Let's talk about other types of stories! Top Ten Favorite Movies or TV Shows! (can break it down to top ten favorite romance movies or comedy shows etc. etc.)

I want to talk about good storytelling. Not just oh this is a great romantic comedy or what have you. Just fantastic storytelling in mediums other than books. This is unorganized, semi-stream of conscious, and a little frivolous. Please bear with me. 


music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
book by John Weidman
based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr.
The cast of Roundabout Theatre Company's Assassins; Photo Credit: Joan Marcus, 2004
For those of you unfamiliar, Assassins is a musical about the various assassins (and would-be assassins) of U.S. presidents. On paper, this is an episodic subject that doesn't really benefit from any kind of attempt at theming. You take a book like James W Clarke's American Assassins: The Darker Side of Politics and you don't really think "Hey! This would make a great musical!" But it does. And, in this format, it becomes a tale of striving for the American Dream, a tale of the everyman. Confronting that concept through the eyes of the likes of John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it makes for a very clever way of doing each story a bit of justice. 


"Call the Midwife"

I was going to try and avoid things actually based on specific books, but then I remembered "Call the Midwife" and I gave up that hope. As someone who was exposed to A Child is Born as a kid, and who went to Catholic school, the last thing I ever expected to be watching was a show about nuns and childbirth. But here we are. And it's because the storytelling is so engaging - and that has a lot to do with the memoir it's based on - these characters were real people, and the sensitivity to their true stories that the memoir surely shows, shines through here. It's sweet and painful and just really really...human.

"Battlestar Galactica"

We're talking '04 people, not '78. Definitely not '78. 
There are very few dull moments in the contemporary "Battlestar Galactica." Now, granted, I binge-watched this entire series last summer, so I didn't have the benefit(?) of watching it in real time with commercials and week-long or summer-long breaks, etc. So it all seemed pretty quickly-paced to me. I can understand that maybe that opinion is a little skewed. But let's say it's not. The way that this story unfolds (though some will argue it wasn't satisfactory) is pretty stellar. (okay that was a little bit of a space joke, sorry.) Joking aside, the way they pull back the layers and explore each character - human or cylon or...both...or something - is really well-thought-out. And the relationships feel real. The best of these (though Bill-and-Laura is the most touching) is Gaius' relationship with himself/ the vision of Caprica 6 which at the end of the day is legitimate, but which can be taken as an examination of conscience, which is brilliant. 

"The Twilight Zone"

I don't think I should even have to explain this one. But basically, it all goes back to Ambrose Bierce. Always waiting for the other shoe to drop. And for an example of what I'm talking about, look no further than the episode that's actually an Ambrose Bierce story, but not actually a Twilight Zone episode - An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.


The Sting
The Sting, 1973
Everything about this film from the production design, to the use of "The Entertainer" as the core of the score, to using title cards for each scene...everything tells a story. The film even goes so far as to play the audience as a mark, which is kind of what it's like to be inceptioned, I guess...

The Rescuers
image by Mel Shaw
I just want to talk about the opening title sequence for this film. Mel Shaw's paintings tell such a beautiful story with the bottle making its way through the water from Penny to her saviors. It's so moving...I actually cry every time. The rest of the movie is fine. The paintings in the opening though - I love the way that they zoom in on what must not be very large pieces, and then pull out - in the above image you can see the grain of the paper - it's just visually stunning. Frozen hearkened back (see: ripped this off) to this with the parents on the ship sequence, but nothing beats Mel Shaw's artistry.

When Harry Met Sally

I was going to talk about this one, but Vulture's Jesse David Fox beat me to it by about 12 hours. Read that article here


Review: The Water Theatre, by Lindsay Clarke

The Water Theatre
by Lindsay Clarke
450 pgs
Alma Publishing Company, 2011
Confession: I picked up this book thinking it was by a different author, and because I'd enjoyed that author's work. Call it an effect of suddenly being ill-read for more than a year. But once I realized my error, I kept reading - partly in interest, partly in defiance. Truth be told, this isn't a book that I would have picked up otherwise, but it's had a very cathartic effect on me, and so I cannot discount it.

This story - part romance, party mystic religious adventure - follows Martin, a war journalist who in his youth had Pip-like existence, constantly led on by his Estella (the highborn Marina) whose brother Adam was his schoolmate. Their mother seduced him, their father befriended him and opened doors for him that would have been otherwise impossibly closed, and yet a rift some thirty years deep has separated these former friends and lovers when the novel begins.

Had the story remained in England or even simply maintained the necessary visit to the fictional African nation of Equatoria, it might have been a simple enough story of lost love. But things take a turn.

Marina and Adam's father Hal, with whom Martin has maintained a friendship since the beginning, is dying. He begs Martin to mend the familial tear and bring his children home from abroad before he dies. Martin immediately sets out for their last known residence in Umbria. Martin's journey from there is mostly mystical. There's a reliance in the narrative on a tumultuous general sense of loss which is addressed with an ancient religious fabrication that is rooted in equal parts geographic fact, recognizable Roman mythology, and wishful invention.

Clarke's novel (which, I understand, closely mirrors one of his earlier works) deals a lot in extremes - burning and freezing, blindingly bright and pitch black. Blindness itself is an overarching theme that explains every single plot point from Martin abandoning his poetry, to Hal's unwavering support for the new regime in Equatoria, to Adam's stumble in the mountains. Everything can be attributed to either an ignorant or stubborn blindness, and it is not until the characters are surrounded by literal darkness that they actually begin to see the truth and the light and the error of their ways.

I'll leave you with this:

I was reading this book in Bryant Park about a two weeks ago. It was a very hot - you might say blindingly hot - day and, as much as I was enjoying the sun I was afraid I'd have to duck in somewhere soon in order to not burn to a crisp. More than 2/3 of the way through the novel, I still didn't know what to make of it, and I was feeling a little bored.

A young woman whom I'd seen walk up to some other sunbathers approached me. Her skin was very dark and her dress was very white. Some of her teeth had been sharpened to points (which can be a little off-putting) and you could see the faded track marks in her dark arms. Being in a relatively good (though bored) mood, I didn't mind digging around in my purse for the quarter she asked for. While I did, she asked about the book. This book. She asked what it was about and I admitted that I wasn't really quite sure. I was a bit lost. She asked if she could read the back of it and I obliged.

I watched almost fascinated as her eyes scanned the words. I had made an assumption in my mind that reading would be a difficulty for her - the little socio-political racist in my head who understands the problem of illiteracy in this country spoke to me and I believed her. But when this woman - this girl, really - handed the book back to me she said that she could see the problem I was having...it's a book that wants to be about two lovers finding their way back to one another after a long time apart, but the way the writer sets it up to move back and forth in time must be confusing. When I agreed with her she added that she liked the idea of it, but she didn't know if it was worth waiting all of those pages for the writer to say why they didn't work out in the first place.

After now getting to the end of the book, I can't say I necessarily agree. The themes of loss and redemption are very thoughtfully explored and I really appreciated the culmination of the mysticism in Martin's visit to the subterranean cavern. And while the reconciliation that happens is satisfactory enough, I wanted more. I wanted the explosive energy that the story had kind of built up to, but we never really get it. We're never fully sated.

I gave the girl a dollar.


Review: I, Iago, by Nicole Galland

I, Iago
by Nicole Galland
370 pgs
William Morrow, 2012
Everyone knows Othello, right? One of William Shakespeare's more popular plays? Generally required reading at some point in high school English classes? The parrot sidekick in Disney's Aladdin who never really lives up to his namesake's potential until the third film in the trilogy, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, is named after the villain? (Yeah, I went there.) Maybe you've just seen the 2001 basketball-centered adaptation O starring Julia Stiles?

Just in case you have no idea what I'm talking about, let me break things down very simply for you: Boy meets girl. Boy elopes with girl. Boy's bestie gets jealous and tricks him into thinking the girl is a whore. Boy kills girl. Boy kills self. Definitely a Tragedy.

One of the benefits of writing an adaptation of a play so well-known is surely the fact that so many of those who will actually pick up the book already know the source material and can recognize all of the author's elbowed hints and easter eggs and run with them. But adaptations have their drawbacks as well, especially when the author is attempting to explain the motives of a well-known villain.

In the case of Nicole Galland's I, Iago (William Morrow, 2012) we're meant to understand that Iago was a totem of  honesty before he turned his jealousy into Othello's - a second son who, despite his best efforts and honesty, always pulled the short straw. And while this kind of simpering goodness if often annoying, Galland has done her job in making him into a character who deserves the reader's sympathy.

The novel takes us through Iago's pre-Othello life, and then proceeds through the entirety of Shakespeare's play, though this is addressed completely in prose and paraphrase. Relying on the bard to carry what approximates over a third of the book (sectioned off as "after" while all events preceeding are titled "before") is a risk that the author perhaps needn't have taken. The pre-play exploits could have stood alone as a rather good book (much in the way part one in a series might nod toward or hint at its successor without addressing it directly). But handing a diligent reader this book and expecting them to appreciate a modern author's version of the play itself, that's a welcome mat for comparison and criticism and, I'm afraid, more the latter.

Galland's handling of the play proper is sloppy. An apparent need for self-reference to the 211-page expository novel preceding seems insistent. Rather than allowing the reader to have received all of this new infomation and applying it to the play they know, it's shoehorned for them into the prose version of the play, and drawn out in such a way that one cannot help but roll ones eyes. It was a lot like reading the mockbuster version of the play, written and produced by The Asylum, though Ms. Galland is a few centuries late to really benefit from the attempt.