Friday, September 26, 2014

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Booker Prize-winning author, Ian McEwan’s sixteenth novel, The Children Act again delves deeply into the human psyche.  He spares no feelings, leaves no secrets unrevealed, in an attempt to demonstrate the difficult decisions we must make throughout our lives.

Fiona Maye holds a seat on the English Court dealing with domestic issues of marriage, divorce, alimony, child support, and the welfare of children.  The Children Act of the title refers to a set of laws first passed in England in 1989 and updated in 2004.  The paramount consideration is the welfare and best interests of the child.  Before her sit the parents of Adam, who suffers from a rare, but treatable form of leukemia.  The boy is 3 months shy of his 18th birthday, and thus considered by the act of not being capable of refusing treatment.  His parents and Adam belong to Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose beliefs include the refusal of blood transfusions.  The drugs for Adam’s disease cannot work without the transfusion.

Meanwhile, the childless Fiona navigates the tangled difficulties of the case while her own marriage disintegrates.  Her husband, Jack, has decided the passion has gone out of their marriage, and wants a fling to experience what he and Fiona had in their early days together.  She has an amazing ability to separate her personal and professional lives.  While she thinks of Jack when she is off the bench, no thought of him intrudes while she hears cases and deliberates.

McEwan’s prose, in this short novel, will not let the reader’s mind stray.  He writes, “Among fellow judges, Fiona Maye was praised, even in her absence, for crisp prose, almost ironic, almost warm, and for the compact terms in which she laid out a dispute.  The Lord Chief Justice himself was heard to observe of her in a murmured aside at lunch, ‘Godly distance, devilish understanding, and still beautiful.’  Her own view was that with each passing year she inclined a little more to an exactitude some might have called pedantry, to the unassailable definition that might pass one day into frequent citation’” [in law journals] (15). 

As do many members of the judiciary, she must walk a razor thin line in the case.  Fiona does so with aplomb, confidence, and clarity.  Her musings on the case explore the situation from all angles.  McEwan writes, “On the other side of the city a teenager confronted with death for his own parents’ beliefs.  It was not her business or mission to save him, but to decide what was reasonable and lawful.  She would have liked to see this boy for herself, remove herself from a domestic morass, as well from the courtroom, for an hour or two, take a journey, immerse herself in the intricacies, fashion a judgment formed by her own observations” (36).  She does visit him, and the two share a tender moment.  She returns to the courtroom and renders a decision. 

Ian McEwan has a marvelous talent for spinning a story, and The Children Act is an impressive addition to his works, and surely will add to the staggering list of literary awards he has already received.  I believe a double meaning lurks in the title.  5 stars

--Chiron, 9/21/14

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

I usually like to spread out over time the authors I review.  However, Haruki Murakami has taken a firm hold on my imagination, and when his newest book arrived recently, I immediately began reading.  Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a fascinating tale of relationships, the meanings of friendship, and the effect misunderstandings can have.

Five friends in high school – three young men and two young women – band together to complete a community service project.  When the project ends, they continue to hang out with each other.  Four of the members of this group have, as part of their names, a kanji symbol which also refers to a color: red, blue, black, and white, which they used as nicknames.  Tsukuru’s name did not contain any color, so he remained Tsukuru.  After graduation, they all went their separate ways to college.  Tsukuru receives a strange message, that his four friends no longer want anything to do with him, and furthermore, he was not to contact any of them in any way whatsoever.  This message contained no explanation of what had happened.  Naturally, Tsukuru becomes devastated to the point of contemplating suicide.  Then he meets a woman who urges him to contact his friends and learn why he was ostracized from the group.  His “pilgrimage” involves traveling around Japan and Europe to track down his friends.  What he discovers about them – and more importantly about himself – is a rather poignant story.

As he has done in previous novels, Murakami sprinkles lots of references to music in his story.  He also plays with the colors and the occupations of the five friends.  Also, like Tengo in 1Q84, Tsukuru is a rather fastidious creature of habit.  Again, like Tengo, Tsukuru frets over his fear of being alone.  Murakami writes, “Maybe I am fated to always be alone, Tsukuru found himself thinking.  People came to him, but in the end they always left.  They came, seeking something, but either they couldn’t find it, or were unhappy with what they found (or else they were disappointed or angry), and then they left.  One day, without warning, they vanished, with no explanation, no word of farewell.  Like a silent hatchet had sliced the ties between them, ties through which warm blood still flowed, along with a quiet pulse.

One of the interesting aspects of Murakami’s fiction is his attention to microscopic detail.  He describes an encounter with the new friend who urges him to solve the mystery of his lost friends.  Murakami writes, “She took a sip of coffee and returned the cup to the saucer.  She paused, and checked her enameled nails.  They looked beautiful, painted in the same maroon color as her handbag (perhaps a little lighter).  He was willing to bet a month’s salary this wasn’t a coincidence” (147).

Compared to some of his other novels, this small format book of a little less than 400 pages, really seems like a novella.  Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami would be a great introduction to this important figure in world literature.  5 stars

--Chiron, 9/20/14

The Geographer’s Library by Jon Fasman

The Geographer’s Library by Jon Fasman, a recent read for my book club, got off to a slow start, but it gradually gathered some substance and proved to be an interesting and entertaining read.

Paul Tomm, a recent graduate of Wickenden College in Connecticut, has returned to the town of his alma mater to take a job at a local newspaper.  He writes a few pieces about local events, and then his editor assigns him to write an obituary for a former professor.  Paul discovers few people know anything about Professor Jaan Pühapäev – not even his age or date of birth.  Then the coroner who examined the body dies after a hit and run accident.  Paul is a rather naïve young man, who seems to lack some pretty basic knowledge for a college grad.  For example, he does not know the meaning of the word “caduceus.”  The lure of interest in the story by an editor at a large Boston daily paper drives Paul to dig into the case.

This novel is a really quick read.  It also has an interesting structure.  At the root of the murders is a collection of mysterious alchemical items – stolen from the library of a prominent philosopher, geographer, and alchemist in the 12th century.  Persons unknown are collecting the items, which have been scattered around the world.  Interspersed between the chapters Fasman has inserted line drawings and catalogue descriptions of the items.  For example, Fasman writes, “Item 1: An alembic is the top part of an apparatus used for distilling.  This one is made of sturdy green glass, 36 centimeters tall, 18 centimeters around at the widest point of the base.  The top part of the vessel is narrow and fluted, and turns sharply to the right; alembics are set over a still to collect and carry vapors to another vessel” (18).  This information is followed by date and name of manufacturer, place of origin, last known owner, and estimated value (18-19).  Each of these items figures in the story of the murders and the shadow characters trying to sell or acquire these items.

Fasman also has a nice eye for description and details.  He describes a train ride for one item sought after in Siberia by some corrupt Soviet officials.  Fasman writes, “As soon as the train’s chuffing settled into a regular rhythm, Yuri fell into a boozy and heavy-headed sleep.  When he awoke, the familiar chaotic Moscow vista – squat brick factories either half built or half ruined, birch trees stationed haphazardly in front of massive apartment blocks, wires and streets radiating outward from the tracks into the city’s heart – had given way to endless pine forests punctuated once in a rare while by villages consisting of little more than a few dirt roads and twelve to fifteen tiny dachas, aglow from the inside, nestled close together like gossiping smokers in a tavern” (70).  He also has some rather clever sentences.  For example, “mountains poking through the snow like crumpled birds spanned the other bank, stretching and rising all the way to the Tien Shan Mountains in the distance” (75).

For mystery fans, the connection among these characters and items is not easily apparent.  My hope is that a sequel is in the works to tie up many of the loose ends.  3 stars

--Chiron, 9/21/14

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

In a graduate class on Victorian Literature at Baylor, we read most of Woolf’s works.  I had come to the class having only read Mrs. Dalloway, which I greatly enjoyed.  Orlando immediately became another favorite of her novels.  On October 5, 1927, Virginia Woolf began writing a story she had worked through her mind for months.  Now Woolf, an early modernist influenced by James Joyce, is most certainly an acquired taste.  The novel, Orlando, is, as she wrote, a fictional “biography beginning in the year 1500 & continuing until the present day” (Nissley, A Reader’s Book of Days 316).  I decided to revisit this unusual novel, but a rather peculiar thing happened to me.  I found the story a tough read, and as the novel progressed, I found it harder and harder to continue.  For once a novel did not stay with me, and I can say I did not enjoy the read at all.

The story begins with Orlando, a handsome young man, heir of titles and lands dating back to William the Conqueror.  He becomes a favorite of Queen Bess.  As Woolf writes, “For the old woman loved him.  And the Queen, who knew a man when she saw one, though not, it is said, in the usual way, plotted for him a splendid ambitious career.  Lands were given him, houses assigned him.  He was to be the son of her old age; the limb of her infirmity; the oak tree on which she leant her degradation.  She croaked out these promises and strange domineering tendernesses (they were at Richmond now) sitting bolt upright in her stiff brocades by the fire which, however high they piled it, never kept her warm” (9).

Woolf, an ardent feminist, details the habits and peculiarities of men, and then turns her attentions to the onerous life of women with all the strictures placed upon them in regard to marriage, ownership of property, and public, as well as private, activities.  She also comments on Elizabethan, Enlightenment, Victorian, and 20th century attitudes towards women.

Woolf writes, “crime and poverty had none of the attraction for the Elizabethans that they have for us.  They had none of our modern shame of book learning; none of our belief that to be born the son of a butcher is a blessing and to be unable to read a virtue; no fancy that what we call ‘life’ and ‘reality are somehow connected with ignorance and brutality; nor, indeed any equivalent for these two words at all” (13).  Yes, these lines found themselves on paper in her distinctive purple ink in 1927.

Orlando constantly struggles with loneliness and isolation concomitant with his position among the nobility.  As he rises to the title of Duke, he begins to detest the hypocrisy of the upper class and the shallow gossip of those who pretend to intellectualism.  Orlando befriends, Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison, and John Dryden and attends gatherings with Swift, Johnson, and Boswell.  Finally, an invitation is extended to Pope and Addison, and they have tea and conversations worthy of those eminent men.

Half way through Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, the well-foxed old paperback began to fall apart, as if trying to end the chore I had set for myself.  But I have ordered a new copy, with annotations, and I will try again soon.  So, I find myself perplexed.  Do I dare reread Mrs. Dalloway?  I think not.  I will hold that one in my memory.  From 1995 or thereabouts, 5 stars

--Chiron, 9/14/14

Friday, September 19, 2014

My Father Had a Daughter: Judith Shakespeare's Story by Grace Tiffany

The benefits of belonging to a book club go beyond the reading, the discussion, and the camaraderie with friends and colleagues.  For me, of equal importance, involves discovering new authors I might not consider for solo reading.  My Father Had a Daughter: Judith Shakespeare’s Tale by Grace Tiffany is a perfect example.  According to her website, Grace Tiffany is a professor of Shakespeare and Renaissance literature at Western Michigan University, and the author of five historical novels. Her fiction has been honored by the American Library Association and by Book Sense 76, the “best books” list of the association of American independent book sellers. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

At one time, I devoured as much historical fiction as I could, but like my phase reading fantasy/science fiction, it passed.  Tiffany’s take on Shakespeare’s youngest daughter, might just revive that phase.  In researching for this review, I see that she has a new novel, Paint, which delves into the mysterious “Dark Lady,” about whom Shakespeare wrote almost 30 sonnets.

Judith was the twin daughter of Hamnet, Shakespeare’s second and third children.  Hamnet dies when he was about 11, and the circumstances are unknown.  The young girl felt guilty about her brother’s death, missed her father, and feared her fate if she stayed in Stratford.  So she cuts her hair, wears boys clothing, and makes her way to London.  She passes as a boy, and gets a job in a pub serving ale.  Nearby, the Globe theater has recently been constructed, and she visits the site.  She approaches Richard Burbage, the premier actor on the Renaissance stage, and begs and cajoles him into giving her a small part in a play.  She narrowly escapes the notice of her father supervising rehearsals. 

Tiffany’s style captures the feel of Elizabethan England.  She writes, “My brother […] was open-faced and bold, and he did what I wanted, and for that I loved him.  That he was a boy and ten minutes my elder did not lead him to run riot over my desires; he was gentle and he listened and laughed out loud at all and any of my ideas and plots and was the willing reflection of my spirit.  We would hang from the ash trees like monkeys, though the first time we did it my smock fell over my face.  From then on, he lent me his second pair of trunks and hose, and in those I climbed as high as a squirrel.  We played mumblety-peg in the garden and then, when we were six and he went to school and I had to stay home, he lent me his hornbook to show me what he had learned each day, so we learned to read together” (4).  Judith faced a life of falling further and further behind the men in her life.  But the free-spirited Jude was not about to let that happen.

One of the fun things about the novel is the allusions to plays sprinkled throughout.  For example, when Will sends his daughter back to her mother, he comforts her when, “he kissed the top of [her head, and said] ‘All’s well that ends well, Jude’” (180).  Tiffany also puts references to the “Dark Lady,” Macbeth, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and Julius Caesar.  My Father Had a Daughter by Grace Tiffany, is a delightful read even for those not familiar with Shakespeare and his works.  5 stars

--Chiron, 8/24/14