Thursday, September 19, 2013

SWEET TOOTH by Ian McEwan (fic)

Ian McEwan is a prolific writer, and each of his novels has an interesting and different plot.  His latest book, Sweet Tooth, is yet again a different story from any of his previous work.  This book has gotten cracker-jack reviews, but I did not enjoy it as much as some of his other novels.  His main character is a young girl named Serena Frome, a recent graduate of Cambridge University. Serena in the present day is reminiscing of events which took place 40 years previously. From this point on, the story is placed in London of the 1970s.  Serena is the daughter of an ambitious but distant mother and an Anglican bishop father who takes no interest in the lives of his two daughters. 

Serena seems strangely naive for a young woman living in swinging London, an era when women were exercising their new found liberation. As the story opens she is having an affair with a much older man, her Cambridge history tutor.  She passively acquiesces to her mother's demands that she study maths as "she has a talent for numbers."  Serena wanted to study English, and she quickly discovered at Cambridge that she is only a mediocre math student. She graduated from University without the sought after First that she might have had a shot at, if she had read English as she had wished.  Fleeing to London after an unhappy ending to her love affair, she is recruited for MI5 by her ex-lover who himself is running from a shady past.

Serena acts passively and dreamy as she drifts in and out of scenes and schemes put together by the spooks of MI5.  One odd scheme is to recruit writers by offering writing grants to young authors who might have a more mainstream bent, as a countermeasure to the popular left leaning writers.  Serena is ordered to offer one of these grants to Tom Haley, a writer and lecturer at Sussex University, a school she would rather have attended than Cambridge.  The grants are set up through a phony cultural organization funded by the secret service.

So begins a tissue of lies and intrigue, the action picks up and the story now becomes interesting.  Serena's relationship with Tom deepens.  It seems he also is keeping secrets.  Other minor characters enter the picture and muddy the waters further.  All this leads to an ending that is unexpected as the reader tries to determine truth from subterfuge. 

All this makes for a fun read constructed with a clever plot and a good dose of mystery.

Monday, September 16, 2013

FLIGHT BEHAVIOR by Barbara Kingsolver (fic)

If you have read Barbara Kingsolver before, then you know she is a beautiful writer of descriptive prose, as well as the inner life of her characters.  Nature figures largely in her novels, as in Lacuna which won the Orange Prize, or humanitarian disasters as in The Poisonwood Bible. 

In Flight Behavior we meet a character with the delightful name of Dellarobia Turnbow.  She and her family live in southern Appalachia in the small town of Featherstone, where life in this rural community centers around farming and church gatherings.  The Turnbows own a sheep farm on which they are barely eking out a living.  Kingsolver paints vivid word pictures of the difficult life of a sheep farmer through the sheering, sorting wool and the birthing of lambs.  Dellarobia's days are filled with farm duties, cooking, knitting, raising her children and dealing with cranky in laws and a lunky husband who is devoid of imagination. She was 17 and pregnant when she married Cub Turnbow and began a life that was completely different than one she had imagined. Dellarobia is the heart and soul of her family.  She is also intelligent and curious, traits that have been passed down to her young son who, like Dellarobia has a fierce interest in the nature which is part of their everyday life.

The story opens with Dellarobia climbing the mountain behind the farm for an illicit rendezvous.  Her heart wasn't really in this meeting, and when it doesn't pan out we feel relief along with her.  Instead, she sees an amazing, and for her a life changing, sight.  Clustered in the trees as far as the eye can see are thousands and thousands of Monarch butterflies which the locals call Orange Billys, an old term named for the English King, William, and the Orangemen of Protestant Ulster.  Somehow the butterflies have lost their home in Mexico to mudslides and floods where they had migrated for eons.  Now they have alighted on the mountains and hills of the Turnbow land.  Kingsolver shows us  the different attitudes and reactions in this small and unsophisticated community.  Some think Dellarobia was sent this gift from God, some think the family should make money by encouraging busloads of tourists.  A clueless female reporter hypes the feel-good story while ignoring the environmental disaster that it really is.

Dellarobia's life is changed forever when a scientist, Ovid Byron, who has devoted his life to the study of Monarchs, comes to town with his associates and students to study climate change and its effects on these unfortunate and beautiful insects.  Dellarobia's interest is peaked, and suddenly her life is no longer full of a dull routine as she discovers the magic of scientific study.  At the same time she is moving in a direction away from her husband and toward a future she had only dreamed about.  Still, nature is not finished with this family or the butterflies, who are fighting to survive a winter colder than any they had lived through in Mexico.  It is a season of punishing rains with disastrous results for the family and the town. 

Kingsolver is wonderful in her descriptions of farm life, small town life, and the nature of her characters.  The book is filled with people who have lived through tough times, but continue meeting life head on.  It is not unusual these days, to see the havoc wreaked by natural calamities, almost on a daily basis.  We can feel for these sturdy and plain speaking people, and hope only for the best for them.  Kingsolver is a gifted writer who has appeal for all interested in good writing coupled with intelligent information of the natural world and environment.  The book does not disappoint and is a good choice for a reading group and a follow-up discussion.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

THE GREAT SILENCE by Juliet Nicolson (non-fic)

This book follows The Perfect Summer, Juliet Nicolson's previous study of the social life of Britain just before the First World War.  This time she concentrates on the two years after the war has ended and before the Jazz Age has begun.  It is fascinating look at, as well as a reminder, of what civilians and returning veterans have to deal with, as a major war winds down.  You may have recently viewed the popular t.v. show Downton Abby and seen a small piece of this readjustment.  But, the reality was so much larger than that.

At the end of the war, 3,500,000 men had to be reabsorbed into British society.  They returned to a people who did not want to be reminded of the horrors these shell-shocked veterns, many suffering with PTSD, brought with them.  Many of those returning had missing limbs and horribly disfigured faces.  There is an enlightening account of a dedicated and brilliant surgeon from New Zealand named Harold Gillies who in 1917 established the first hospital devoted solely to reconstruction of faces, taking on the most difficult and tragic cases.  Gillies worked with a team of artists who formed visual reconstructions that the doctors used in repairing facial damage.  There is an eerie photo in the book of all these molded likenesses hanging on the hospital wall.  Each belonging to a real person.

Equally tragic are the stories of missing limbs in this age before social security or pension benefits.  It is horrifying to learn that government recompense was doled out according to which limb was lost.  If a man lost a right arm, he would receive 16 shillings, less for a left arm, something less for a leg and nothing for a face.

In contrast to the tragic lives of the returning warriors, are the accounts of the dawn of the decade of the 20s and the excesses of those like the Gatsbys of the world who were making money one way or another.  Large country homes and estates were being sold off to the nouveau riche and industrial giants.  Old families were falling into genteel poverty.  The frantic quest for good times was dogged by the arrival of influenza, popularly known as the Spanish Flu which killed off 40-50 million people world wide.

The author is the granddaughter of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson.  There is a wealth of first hand material in the archives of her own famous family for her to draw on.  Despite this, Nicolson is at her best when describing the mixture of hardship and good times in this short period before the boom of the 1920s, rather than the excesses of the more privleged class.  If you have read a lot about this era, you will not find much new material in this book.  However, if it is an unfamiliar period to you, this book is a good introduction.

DISQUIET by Julia Leigh (fic)

Julia Leigh, an Australian writer has written an unusual novelette.  At 121 pages, it can be read at one or two sittings.  It title is apt; it is disquieting with a touch of the sinister lurking throughout.  The word quiet which is embedded in the title is equally apt.  Few words are spoken, and those few are short and terse.  What the reader experiences is like viewing a movie.  We see pictures, carefully drawn like a series of photogenic scenes.  Sounds are not described, nor do we know anything about the characters' internal lives, or what they are thinking.  We barely know what their backgrounds are.  What we do know, we discover through the actions of each character in the story.  Nevertheless, the story is interesting and mysterious.

The action commences at a Gothic chateau on the outskirts of a small French village.  The time period could be Victorian, but then we discover the characters have mobile phones which play a part in keeping the action moving.  The main character, Olivia, is often just referred to as the woman.  She has returned home with two young children and is running from a husband who abused her.  She is curiously distant with her children,  yet at other times, shows some compassion toward them. The children seems to live in a world of their own making. Other characters are soon brought into the story: a brother and his wife who has just lost a child in birth, with weird consequences; and the faithful retainer, Ida, and her twin helpers.  Each character has a part to play in their remote and disfunctional relationships. 

If you want a quick read, perhaps for a plane trip, this book may be of interest.  It is strange, moody and dark, but well written.  I came away feeling like I had spent two hours at the cinema. The characters and their motives remained with me for some time.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

WHY DOES THE WORLD EXIST? by Jim Holt (non-fic)

I knew when I began this book there would not be an answer to existence vs. nothingness.  I asked myself why I kept reading.  The answer is, simply, that Jim Holt is an interesting and down to earth writer. As I have enjoyed his articles in the New Yorker, I was not disappointed in this book. It was a stretch to choose this for summer reading as it requires close concentration and mindfulness.  It is a good thing that Holt did all his research for me; I could agree/disagree or just throw up my hands in a complete lack of understanding, especially the bits containing mathematical formulas.  I didn't need Holt to remind me that there are limits to our intelligence.  However I kept returning for more.

While I didn't discover the meaning of nothing, I did discover that a number of modern cosmologists and philosophers have a sense of humor and are not imprisoned in ivory towers.  The reader meets:  David Deutch, Adolf Grunbaum, John Leslie, Derek Parfit, Roger Penrose, Richard Swinburne Steven Weinberg and most interestingly John Updike who not only was a surprise, but gave me new insights into his novels.  Holt's travels to meet these great and esoteric minds takes him to London, Oxford, Paris, Pittsburgh, and Austen, Texas.  There are delicious meals, wines sampled and sights to be enjoyed along the way.

One of the most delightful sections of the book tells of Holt's visit with Adolf Grunbaum.  We meet him in a chapter titled "The Great Rejectionist."  Grunbaum teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.  He is a philosopher of science and we are told "the foremost thinker about the subtleties of space and time."  It turns out this visit was not all gobbledygook about nothingness, but includes good meals and a harrowing journey to a mountain-top restaurant (Mt. Washington) for dinner and a picturesque view overlooking the city of Pittsburgh.

If, as I, you find thinking about the meaning of life makes you feel like a dog chasing its tail, you couldn't have a better guide than Holt.  Likewise, if you just want to catch up on modern thinkers and haven't had a cosmology course since university.  As I finished the last page of the book, I was sorry to leave the company of Jim Holt, but happy to get back to the minutiae of my little life and leave the heavy thinking to the philosophers.