Friday, April 30, 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.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Like I Need Another Reading Challenge

But I can't resist. I'm going to try to read all of the six Orange Prize-nominated books before the June 9th deadline. I figure, if the jury can do it, so can I. Right? And, plus, we publish three of the books through work, so that makes it easy to at least procure the first three on the list. Like I said, I've started with Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, and it's a massive, massive book (645 pages) but it reads so well that I'm already three-quarters of the way through. Thankfully, the other novels aren't as daunting (one would hope).

#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...

Thursday, April 22, 2010

My Arrested Development

My life these days is an embarrassment of riches. I have about a dozen books on the go, all of them exceptional in their own ways, and no less than another dozen on the rails dying to jump into my TBR pile.

Here's what I'm reading right now (as in have a bookmark in the middle of or have read the first few pages to wet my whistle):

Solar by Ian McEwan
I'm three-quarters of the way through McEwan's latest novel, and it's predictably excellent. His prose is dense but accessible; his character obtuse, irresponsible but brilliant; the story remains intriguing but there's something I needed to read first...

Lost River by Stephen Booth
...for work. They're [meaning elements of our marketing department] doing a B2B promotion this summer that involves a lot of in-house peeps reading and "championing" certain books. Booth was "assigned" to me. So far, I'm really enjoying it. It reminds me both of Mo Hayder and Law and Order UK. However, I had already started...

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

...a friend @Penguin had read how much I enjoyed the second book that she kindly sent me her hot-in-demand ARC of the third book. I'm about 100 pages into it and LOVING ever minute of it, but also need to move on to...

The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle
Because A Star Called Henry is one of my top 10 all-time favourite books. I couldn't get through the second book in the series (I'm convinced it just wasn't the right time to read it) but when it landed on my desk, I couldn't help but read the first 15 pages. Right now, Henry's lungs are soaking up the air as he returns to Ireland after being away for years. Doyle's writing is just so captivating. But speaking of reading first pages...

Secrets of Eden by Chris Bohjalian
...when this book landed on my desk I read the first 5 or so pages and it also caught my attention. Bohjalian is one of my favourite "weekend" authors. Every single one of his books I've devoured in one fell swoop from start to finish, taking few breaks in between, and preferably at the cottage being surrounded by warm sunshine and a cool lake. However, before I get to summer reading I need to finish...

Wolf Hall, Black Water Rising and The Lacuna
...before June 9th when the Orange Prize is announced. I'm going to try to read the shortlist, which means tracking down the other two books. Until I do that, though, I need to be sure and finish...

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
...which I started at a doctor's appointment about two weeks ago and thought was just charming.

As you can see, I'm all full of starts and not quite up to scratch with my finishes this week. This list doesn't include the pile of books I have beside my bed that includes a New Face of Fiction, a few books of poetry for April's Poetry Month, and Beatrice and Virgil, whose first chapter turned me so off the rest of the book that I'm not sure if I'll be charmed by the remaining pages.

Now, the bets are in. What will I actually finish this week. I've got to get at least ONE book read to completion so I don't feel like a complete reading failure.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

#17 - So Much For That

Amanda (my intern) and I will be co-reviewing the book over at Savvy Reader, just like we did for Cool Water, but I still wanted to write my own thoughts down about this exceptional novel. No, that's not hyperbole -- I truly think Lionel Shriver's So Much For That is exceptional from start to finish. And when I did finish the book on my way home yesterday, I ended up bawling like a baby on the subway with all kinds of commuters looking at me oddly. Yes, it's a good thing I had the physical book and not a gadget, or else they would have really thought me strange.

Shep Knacker has always been a self-starter. Despite his lack of a university education (his pastor father still holds the fact that he never went to college against him), he managed to build up a million-dollar handyman business before selling it to a bohunk (one that keeps him employed, more to humiliate Shep than anything else). On the eve of Shep finally taking the plunge into his ultimate dream of The Afterlife, escaping to foreign soils where he and his family would live off of the proceeds of his company's sale, tragic news stops him in his tracks. Shep's wife, Glynis, has never been all that supportive of The Afterlife. She resents the idea that he wants to get away from everything (modern life, her) and spend his dying days on Pemba, an island off the coast of Tanzania. So when Glynis announces that she has a very rare and very virulent form of cancer (mesothelioma) that requires immediate and expensive treatment, it's almost a passive aggressive attack on her husband and his dreams. Upon hearing he's about to up and leave for Pemba, has even bought the tickets, she announces almost blithely, "I do wish you wouldn't... I'm afraid I will need your health insurance."

The other set of main characters in the novel are Jackson, Shep's coworker and best friend, and his family. His eldest daughter, Flicka, is a teenager who suffers from Familial Dysautonomia (FD), yet another rare and difficult disease. Carol, Jackson's wife, is Flicka's primary health care provider, and the family's other daughter, Heather, often feels excluded because her sister demands so much attention. They are a typical New York family -- they own a house in Brooklyn with a hefty mortgage and the couple works night and day to afford the care for their daughter, much of which isn't covered by their combined insurance policies.

Regardless of how you might feel about the debates raging south of the border -- the ridiculous "Tea Party," the sensational news coverage by the right, the objections by the right, all of it -- the idea that health care and the fundamental lack of affordable ways of getting it, form a central thesis in the novel. It's topical and timely, but not preachy. Oh, it passes judgement but more in the sense that it allows the reader to draw her own conclusions by presenting facts and an honest, if fictional, situation.

Annnnwaaay.

In the face of their diseases, both Glynis and Flicka find comfort in one another -- that's not to say that they are "happy" by any means to be sick. The opposite, in fact, is often true, and Shriver's uncanny ability to write characters who are at once complex and yet so unbearably human comes into sharp focus in this novel, just as it did with We Need to Talk About Kevin. The impact of the two unhealthy individuals shatters each family in different ways. The patients are angry, upset, and unflinchingly honest when they need to be about their diseases. But the road to acceptance, to leading a life where disease is always present and can never be escaped (and here's something I know better than most), is never easy. Glynis fights to live. Sometimes, Flicka fights to die.

The moral issues Shriver explores, the sheer expense of health care in the States, the value of a human life (the millions of dollars spent on treatment), becomes so much more than a moral question -- it's the entry point for examining American society in general. From Jackson's anti-establishment rants to Glynis's fervent need to blame someone for her cancer (in this case, it's the company who produced artistic supplies for her metalwork training when she was a student -- they contained asbestos, the cause of her cancer). And because Shep has always paid for everything, that's just his role in his family, he pays and pays and pays -- for Glynis's treatment, for his father's old age home, for his sister's heating bills (and is she ever a piece of work). No matter how hard he works, no matter how much he cares about his family, his life seems to crumble down upon him as penny by penny disappears from his Afterlife account.

At any point in this novel, there are moments when you simply don't like the characters. You can't believe they're acting so selfishly, are so obtuse. And then, something happens and you see them in a different light. I'd argue that few living novelists do this as well as Shriver. She has a talent for pulling out extraordinary details in ordinary lives and writing them in a way that's original and provocative.

As a girl who has dealt with a serious illness for all of her adult life, I couldn't help but associate with the two characters dealing with disease. And while my Wegener's is nowhere near as aggressive as Glynis's cancer (because it's moderated with medicine, unchecked it'll kill me in terrible ways) or as impactful as Flicka's FD (primarily because you can't tell I'm sick by looking at me; at least I hope you can't), the psychological warfare that disease plagues one with remains ridiculously effective throughout this entire novel. Shriver's research reads impeccably -- she writes the side effects, the symptoms, the treatments, the physical implications of each disease in such rich detail -- and it's the main reason the reader becomes so emotionally involved with this story. And the ending, well, I'm not going to spoil it -- I'm only going to say it's absolutely perfect and calls to mind the absolutely perfect ending of another exceptional novel, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible.

Highly, highly recommended. This is not a novel that will disappoint even the most cynical of readers.

WHAT'S NEXT: Ian McEwan's Solar. I'm 30 pages in and loving the Salman Rushdie "man in midlife crisis" of it all.

#16 - Sylvanus Now

Rachel loaned me Donna Morrisey's Sylvanus Now when we went to see (shhh! keep your thoughts to yourself) this in the theatre back when there was still snow on the ground. She gushed. I tucked the book away and meant to get to it sooner. But once I started reading it, not even the exhaustion of sales conference could stop me from finishing. It's addictive, sad, aching in parts and absolutely worth forcing yourself to muddle through the somewhat gross mass market edition (why this format; a TP could be so lovely!).

The novel takes place in Newfoundland in the mid-to-late 1950s when the government all but ruined the fishing industry and forced inhabitants from their outports into communities. The novel very much relates a society in flux: from fishing by hand in a little boat to giant trawlers with destructive nets; from an industry built up around drying salt cod to fish factories; from community built around family, neighbour and self-made lives to roads, towns, and government subsidies. Parts of the novel are achingly tragic, and Morrisey's descriptions of the havoc "new" "industrial" fishing has on the lives of her characters broke my heart into pieces.

The story centres around Sylvanus Now, the youngest son of Eva, a widow who had already raised many, many children by the time he came along. He's a fisherman, of the old-school variety, who prefers to go out with line in hand and fish the coastal waters near his outpost. The apple of his eye, Adelaide (Addie) sets herself apart from the rest of her kin almost immediately. She loves to be alone (almost impossible in a house full of so many kids) and wants to stay in school. When they marry, their relationship is all heat and tragedy, happiness and sorrow, but it's also about the essence of marriage -- the coming together in so many different aspects of life, how your lives become so entwined and in ways you never expect, and what it means to love someone over years and years instead of months and months.

The driving force of Sylvanus's life seems to be resisting a certain kind of change. I'm sure, we can all relate. The way of life, salted cod and all, has sustained his family for generations, and his obstinance to evolution seems level-headed in a way, knowing what we know now about the depleted state of our oceans and how we're fishing ourselves into extinction. Those were the most poignant moments in the novel -- how Morrisey describes the differences between how Sylvanus fishes and how it's done industrially. Like anything, progress comes at a cost: smaller fish in coastal waters; mothers harvested before they've had a chance to spawn; the decimation from trawling nets, all parts of what we sacrifice to have fresh fish on our plates.

It's an unbearably human novel, somewhat like Kevin Patterson's excellent, excellent Consumption. Morrisey does for Newfoundland what Patterson does for the Arctic, describe in indelible detail the destruction of a way of life, and while we're richer for her work, I'm not sure if our country's richer for the loss of Syllie's sustainable fishing industry. Maybe I'm making terrible generalizations, but this felt like a very fitting book to read one month away from celebrating the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, where we need, more than ever, to think about where we've come from and how we want to leave this earth for the next generations. Like Addie, I'd never leave the outpost either -- its beauty seemed breathtaking, regenerative and part of her, just like my cottage is part of me.

All in all, I'm so pleased I found time to read this book in between conferences, pet peeves, rain, sun, antiques, plane rides, train rides and uncomfortable hotel rooms.

READING CHALLENGES: Yet another for the Canadian Book Challenge. I wish I had a better idea of how many Canadian books I've actually read since last July.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Playing Catch Up

It's been a busy few weeks. I've been to 4 conferences in as many weeks and am quite sick of the inside of really large rooms with bottled air. That's not to say that I'm not thankful to have gone to all of them, but I feel so disconnected with my online life at the moment, and it seems like I'll never get back on track. Blogging once per day, what's that? Finding time to upload photos to Flickr, wha? Posting more than a couple silly Twitter tweets, impossible.

Where did it all go so wrong?

Right now I'm so filled up with pet peeves that every sentence coming out of my mouth is filled up with anger and frustration about things I can't control.

For once, I'm glad it's raining. Pathetic fallacy at its best. I know all I need is a proper, lying around on the beach vacation, but it's not feasible these days. I'm also not getting enough exercise -- that too is easily rectified.

We had a great, fun weekend, a long weekend, and it was really nice to get out of town in new and adventurous ways. The weather encouraged us to do some antique shopping in Guelph and Mennonite country. And while we didn't buy anything, we did have a nice day of just driving around looking at junk. How do so many knickknacks exist in this day and age? Why did people buy so much stuff?

Okay. Moaning finished. I've got two great books to review, and that's surely better than moping around in my digital life, isn't it?