Solar is a hilarious, intellectual romp for our times. It's a satire that aims its shots in many directions: at the narrow worlds of academia and scientific research; at the New Age/hug-a-tree/love-can-save-the-world philosophy; at the idealism of the young and the cynicism of their elders; at the wheeling and dealing behind corporate American enterprise; at the inexplicable nature of love and its counterpart, lust.
Michael Beard, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, has been sitting on his laurels for years, working half-heartedly for a British energy center that sees wind energy as the future, spending more time mocking the "ponytails" (the young post-grad physicists who work under him) than developing new theories or resources. In his spare time, Beard has lumbered his way through five marriages and numerous affairs, and his penchant for alcohol, beef, pancakes, and crisps have added more weight to his physical profile than his professional one.
But then things start to happen--call them accidents or fate or coincidences, or just plain opportunities. And Michael Beard is there to pick up the pieces and use them to his best advantage.
I knew how dark McEwan could be, but I had no idea that he could be quite so funny. Several of the scenes, including the one on the Paddington train alluded to by others, had me actually laughing out loud.
I was delighted to find an interview of McEwan by his editor at the end. In it, he discussed his research process and the fact that he has already been approached by a number of physicists who claim they know upon whom he based the character of Beard (he claims it wawas his own creation, but that it's probably a "good thing" there are so many likely Beards out there rather than just one).
Solar is a smart, funny, and perceptive novel. Don't expect it to be another Atonement or On Chesil Beach; McEwan is attempting something entirely different here, and you will have to
This collection of short stories by Australian Olga Masters left me very frustrated. I didn't care for the way many of them started by throwing the reader into the middle of the story, and I cared even less for the abrupt, unresolved endings (the stories just stopped, as if the writer had fallen asleep at her desk). Worse still was the overall tone and subject matter. Nearly every story involved child or wife beating, intended, I suppose, the show how tough life was for people trying to scrape a living in small towns and the outback. I just can't get into a father beating his son bloody at the dinner table while all his wife does is offer him brownies in an attempt to distract him, and one of the daughters keeps throwing out more suggestions for why her brother needs to be beaten to ramp up the violence. I got about 2/3 through this one and just couldn't take any more.
I know that I am part of a very small minority, but I am not an Alice Munro fan. Her stories aren't bad, but to me, they are just incredibly boring. I will give her credit for writing realistic contemporary dialogue, and I guess it's a talent to be able to write a long story about ordinary people in fairly ordinary situations. And there are brief moments of insight into human nature. But that's about all I have to say. I've now read several of her collections, and I've felt the same way about each. It's never a good sign when you are about halfway through a story and just want it to end . . . For the last 100 pages, I kept thinking about what I will read next. (Hint: It won't be by Alice Munro.) The reader is OK; she has that quiet monotone that is typical of readers of "important" literature that supposedly speaks for itself--the Poetry Reading Voice.
Sorry to say that, in the end, I'm rather disappointed with this one. Gardam uses an epistolary framework--although it's hard to remember that midway, when the letters become so lengthy and self-absorbed that the reader forgets there is a supposed recipient. The writer/narrator, Eliza Peabody, is a middle-aged know-it-all who initially feels compelled to proffer her superior wisdom--gained a s a hospice volunteer--to her neighbor, Joan, who apparently suffers from debilitating pain in one leg. Eliza has decided that Joan's pain is psychosomatic and advises her to just get over it, offering her own help as an amateur psychotherapist. Surprisingly, after a few more letters, it is discovered that Joan has run off, leaving her leg brace in the marital bed. Although Joan never replies to Eliza's letters, we learn that she has embarked on a new life, travelling to exotic locations and having affairs with much younger foreign men. Periodically, gifts from Joan arrive--but never a letter. In the meantime, Eliza's own life takes a turn for the worst as her husband moves out to take a flat with Joan's abandoned husband. The letters continue, with Eliza portraying herself, narcissistically, as the abandoned spouse, now abandoned as well by any borderline friends she might have had, and making herself out to be the heroine of everyone's lives, from Joan's university-student daughter to Barry, a young man dying of AIDS in the hospice.
Initially, I was intrigued by Eliza's voice, which Gardam conveyed with much humor. But as the letters dragged on and the descriptions of her own escapades and musings became longer and more self-pitying, I got bored. Yes, I do understand that what Gardam was trying to portray was the sadness and near-madness of a woman who has isolated herself from everyone; it just didn't particularly interest me, and I found the one-sided epistolary device tedious.
Three stars for the writing and the creation of a complete character, plus the initial humor is Eliza's self-deceptive letters to Joan. But Gardam has written much better novels.
This was my first experience reading Edward St. Aubyn, and I quite enjoyed the ride. Lost for Words is a send-up of the British literary scene--in particular, the Man Booker Prize and all the hubbub surrounding it. St. Aubyn clearly took his inspiration from the controversy of a few years back, when a semi-qualified panel decided to invoke popularity over literary quality. Several of the judges for the Elysian Prize for Literature have spurious qualifications; others unabashedly admit to not planning to read all the submitted books, and each is promoting a particular book because of preference (e.g., one likes nothing better than Scottish historical novels). The hopeful authors have their quirks as well. (My favorite was an Indian writer whose publisher mistakenly submits his aunt's cookbook instead of his own novel, The Mulberry Elephant.) St. Aubyn provides subtle humor in the behind-the-scenes rivalries and passions as well as the public debates. I saw the ending coming, but it was still fun getting there.
This is the second adaptation of a Shakespearean play by Hartley and Hewson that I've listened to on audio, and it was just as much fun as the first. In part, this is due to the excellent choice of readers: Alan Cumming for Macbeth and Richard Armitage for Hamlet. If you are a Shakespearean purist who can't abide embellishments to the 1623 Folio, best skip these novelized versions. In the H & H Hamlet, for example, a key character is added: young Yorick, son of the old jester, who tries to knock Hamlet out of his melancholy with more wisdom than foolery and is a constant companion to the prince throughout the novel. You might also be put off by the cruelty of both Old Hamlet and Polonius, the portrait of Fortinbras as a rather bumbling and brooding braggart, the details offered regarding the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia,and the fact that Ophelia's death is not depicted as a suicide here. But if you are willing to suspend what you already know about this cultural icon, you're in for quite an entertaining ride.
I had not read any of Sue Monk Kidd's previous books--they sounded too much like the kind of schmaltzy Southern women's fiction that I really do not enjoy.. But this one sounded interesting, so I gave it a try. The main character is based on a real person, Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a Charleston judge and plantation owner. In the nineteenth-century, she shocked her family and community by becoming a Quaker and a noted abolitionist. Coming from a slave-holding family, she was the perfect spokesperson--once she overcame a stammer that she had had since childhood. She was also one of the first to speak in favor of women's rights. Her younger sister Angelina also became a renowned proponent of these causes.
The story is told in alternating chapters by Sarah and Handful, a slave she was given as a present on her 11th birthday and with whom the author imagines her forging a friendship. Both young women face struggles, Sarah to conform to social expectations that go against her core values, and Handful to survive the brutal realities of slavery.
At times predictable and also a bit longer than it needed to be, 'The Invention of Wings' is nevertheless an engaging read, particularly because of the unique and realistic voices Kidd creates for her two protagonists and the parallel events in their lives. The two readers are excellent.
While I did not appreciate this collection quite as much as I have others by Trevor, his usual skill in storytelling and style prevail. The twelve stories here are, if not exactly sad, wistful or regretful. Nearly all involve characters who have experienced the death of a loved one, the death of a relationship, or some other form of longing or loss, and the thin Irish melancholy pervades them all. Trevor is best writing about the 1960s and '70s, and the contemporary stories seem a bit lacking in truth. But, as always, Trevor is well worth the time. The various readers here are all quite good, however.
I have to begin by saying that I am not a Dickens fan, and as I read this book, I began to like him even less. Tomalin focuses on Dickens's relationship with the Ternan family, in particular his presumed affair with the youngest daughter, Ellen, best known as Nelly. She was only 18 at the time their affair began, Dickens 45. The Ternans were an acting family, and Dickens used his prestige first to persuade Mrs. Ternan and the girls to perform in his play 'The Frozen Deep,' then to secure various roles for her with his theatrical friends. Before long, he abandoned his wife (the mother of his 10 children), spreading rumors about her mental health and the ingratitude of her family members for all his assistance. (Wikipedia notes, "Matters came to a head in 1858 when Catherine Dickens opened a packet delivered by a London jeweller which contained a gold bracelet meant for Ternan with a note written by her husband.") Dickens began to lead a double life, leasing and purchasing a series of homes for Nelly, her sisters and her widowed mother--homes deliberately located further and further from the public eye. After all, the man whose works were supposed to be the moral compass of England couldn't be caught with a mistress! His financial and personal arrangements were handled through coded letters to friends who acted as go-betweens, including Wilkie Collins. Nelly was kept such a deep, dark secret that her identity was even hidden when she suffered a serious injury in a train derailment while traveling with Dickens. Tomalin posits that she had at least one, and perhaps two, pregnancies by Dickens but lost both babies shortly after birth. Later in life, long after Dickens's death, Nelly supposedly confessed the affair to her pastor, saying that she greatly regretted it and loathed Dickens in those last years but could not, financially, break away.
The last section of the book addresses Nelly's life post-Dickens and the history of both the coverup and revelation of the affair.
I felt sorry for both Catherine, Dickens's long-suffering wife, and for Nelly, a young woman pressured by poverty and impressed by celebrity. As for Dickens, what a pompous, self-righteous hypocrite!
This third book in Gardam's Old Filth trilogy is fun, yet not quite as good as the first two installments. Edward and Betty Feathers and Terry Veneering have passed on, and the story continues with the lesser characters in the series, most prominently Fiscal Smith and Dulcie, widow of Pastry Willie, the judge who was Betty's godfather. Much of the novel is flashback telling Terry Veneering's past as the son of an impoverished mother and an Odessan circus performer who ends up making it good. Recommended for fans of this series.
The biggest problem I had was the change in reader. Graeme Malcom, who read the first two installments, was perfect. Roger Watson makes the characters--especially the females--sound like caricatures.
Another lovely installment in the Old Filth trilogy, this one told from the point of view of Betty Macintosh Feathers, Old Filth's wife. Like Edward Feathers, Betty was raised in the far eastern parts of the British commonwealth, and she, too, had lost her parents at a young age. She understands his loneliness and the pleas that comes with his proposal: "Don't ever leave me." Yet almost as soon as she accepts, Betty has regrets--particularly when she meets Eddie's arch rival, Terry Veneering. But a promise is a promise . . .
This is the same story we heard in Old Filth, at least from the time that Betty meets Edward Feathers, but here we get her perspective. It's quite intriguing to see how Eddie's interpretation of events differs from the reality that Betty reveals, and to learn of secrets that apparently were never revealed. Like so many women of her day, Betty focused on fulfilling her wifely duties and appeared to lead a rather dull life focused on her tulips, dinner parties, and her husband's career. Gardam lets us see, however, that she has a vibrant inner life, full of secret memories, dreams, and loves. Her relationship with Harry, the Veneerings' young son, is one such secret. Unable to bear children, Betty becomes attached to Harry, a charming and clever boy whom Filth later says is "the only one she ever really loved."
The Man in the Wooden Hat serves as a reminder that even ordinary lives can be extraordinary.
I'm looking forward to the last book in the Old Filth series and will be seeking out more novels by Jane Gardam, whose writing is beautiful, original, amusing, and moving. And Graeme Malcolm is the perfect reader. (I just started the third book and am very disappointed in the new reader.)
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