Author: Ian MacEwan
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2005)
Books Read By Same Author: Atonement
MacEwan’s novel follows a seemingly ordinary day in the life of a London neurosurgeon as he goes about his tasks and ruminates analytically on his life and work. It’s interesting how seemingly major things (like a car crash) are detailed with less intensity than the seemingly mundane (a game of squash). Towards the end of the novel things come together too neatly with a dramatic twist that I think undercuts the more interesting stream-of-conciousness aspects of the early part of the novel. Still an interesting read with a good focus on developing character and internal monologue.
“What a stroke of luck, that the woman he loves is also his wife.”
Recommended books: Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith.
Author: Connie Willis
Title: All Clear
Publication Info: New York : Spectra, 2010.
Previous Works By Same Author:
As noted in my review of Blackout
this book is less of a sequel and more of a direct continuation of one lengthy work about three time travelers studying life in England in the early years of World War II. Both books are part of a larger series of loosely connected works by Connie Willis about a future Oxford University where graduate students in history are able to study the past by traveling through time via a mechanism known as the net. I enjoy Willis’ approach to time travel fiction and particularly am impressed with her well-researched and detailed descriptions of contemporary life.
The three main characters Polly, Eileen, and Michael finally met up toward the conclusion of Blackout and now begin working together to find a way to an open drop in the net that will return them to Oxford. The mysterious characters of the previous book turn out to not be so mysterious after all and are woven fairly well into the narrative, although through unlikely coincidences that approach the edge of plausibility. And yes, they do get out of the past (well, sort of) but the conclusion is satisfyingly unexpected.
I did find the greatest flaw of both of these novels is that a character will come up with an idea, will then discuss the same idea, and then carry out the idea which created a lot of unnecessary repetition (especially since every attempt to return to the future is a flop). If Willis could have tightened up the novel and created more tension if she did more showing and less telling, perhaps even condensing the story to one volume. Still I found these lengthy tomes to be mesmerizing and read straight through to find out what would happen next, so it’s still an engaging work with a great attention to detail.
Author: Connie Willis
Previous Works By Same Author:
Connie Willis is one of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy authors and I particularly enjoy her take on time travel fiction in works such as Doomsday Book and To Say Nothing of the Dog so I eagerly sought out this book once I learned of it. This book like the two previous I mentioned is set in a future Oxford where graduate students in history study the past by traveling through time through a device known as the net. Blackout shares some of the supporting characters of the earlier novels but focuses on three young historians studying England in the early days of the second World War. Polly, the main protagonist of the novel, is an experienced time traveling historian observing people in shelters during the London Blitz. Eileen is a new historian spending time working with children evacuated to the countryside. Michael is hoping to learn about heroism by visiting various battles including the evacuation of Dunkirk.
<Spoilers Begin Here> All three historians find themselves unexpectedly trapped in their time. Furthermore, they find themselves participating in major historical events and seemingly affecting their outcome, something that the time travel theory of the net says should be impossible. The main conflict of the novel becomes whether Polly, Eileen, and Michael can find a way out of the past which means first they must find one another. <Spoilers End Here>
I find the best part of this novel is that it captures the everyday life of English people during the War in great detail, almost as if Willis were a time traveler herself shedding light on the ordinary life of the past. Willis’ thorough research and attention to detail carries the novel through even at times when the plot and dialogue are a little flat. There are other characters introduced in the novel who are seemingly dropped although their resolution is made clear when I realized that the next book All Clear is not so much a sequel as a direct continuation of a lengthy work.
This novel begins when a woman from a wealthy family and a poor artist meet, fall in love, and marry with parental disapproval in 1930s London. What follows is a narrative of three generations of women in the family today. It’s a lyrical text that seems oddly plotless, just kind of multi-generational vignettes. In fact the title is an interesting choice. All fiction in a sense is about consequences – a protagonist makes a choice and then must respond to the consequences. Yet this book seems to be less about consequences than your typical novel. Anyhow, it’s a short book but it took me forever to complete, so I think that says something.
Author: Audrey Niffeneger
Title: Her Fearful Symmetry
Publication Info: New York : Scribner, 2009.
Previously read by same author: The Time Traveler’s Wife
As she used and refined elements of time travel mythology to create The Time Traveler’s Wife, Niffeneger uses the ghost story as a means of telling a human story of relationships, identity, and loss. The characters of this story are trapped in some way – literally in some cases – but mostly trapped in relationships or trapped in their own past. Elspeth, the ghost of the story, is trapped in her former apartment near Highgate Cemetery in London. The gist of the novel is that Elspeth wills the apartment to her twin nieces whom she’s not seen since their infancy on the condition that the twins reside in the apartment for one year before selling and that they not allow her sister Edie (also a twin) to enter the apartment. The tightly connected sisters Julia and Valentina start to see their relationship erode under Elspeth’s ghostly watch as well as befriending their neighbors Robert (Elspeth’s grieving life partner) and Martin (a man so overcome by OCD that he cannot leave his house).
Halfway through this book I thought this was a brilliant novel balancing the intertwining tales of these five characters with the mystery of Elspeth’s afterlife. And then a twist in the story* breaks the narrative tension and makes the novel more pedestrian, in my opinion. Another twist** pushes the boundaries of the absurd and really broke the suspension of disbelief for me. A revelation late in the novel*** and the conclusion† are utterly predictable and disappointing (see footnotes for spoilers). Ultimately, Her Fearful Symmetry is entertaining enough but fails to deliver on its strong start. I think Niffeneger could’ve done much better with a promising premise.
As a side note, the parts about Highgate Cemetery are really fascinating. I find it interesting both because I live near an historic cemetery and because of the insights into the lives and motivations of preservationists and tour guides.
Recommended books: Miss Garnet’s Angel by Salley Vickers, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.
* Elspeth learns to communicate with Valentina, Julia, and Robert through Ouija boards and controlling their hands to write notes.
** Elspeth learns to tear out the souls of living beings and then place them back in their presumably dead bodies.
*** Elspeth is the twins’ real mother.
† Elspeth removes Valentina’s soul but puts herself into Valentina’s body.
Long ago when I was in high school I read and enjoyed Shakespeare of London by Marchette Chute, an attempt to reconstruct William Shakespeare’s life and times as a celebrated dramatist. Thus I was attracted to this similarly themed book The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street by Charles Nicholl. This book is built upon one scrap of the public record which includes a rare instance of Shakespeare’s signature which is upon a deposition in a court case regarding a bride’s dowry. That dowry is unpaid by Christopher Mountjoy who with his wife Mary are French immigrants living in London and manufacturing head-dresses for women. Mountjoy also rents out rooms in his home and thus is Shakespeare’s landlord as Shakespeare takes a room to live in while working in the theaters of London.
From this court record, Nicholl extrapolates details about Shakespeare’s life in London around the time that he turned forty. He builds his case on public records, written experiences of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the plays and poems of Shakespeare himself and lots and lots of speculation. It is at times fascinating, tantalizing, and just down right irritating, but mostly fascinating. We learn a lot about what houses were like in the Mountjoy’s Cripplegate neighborhood, the trade of “tire-making”, 17th-century marriage practices, the immigrant experience, and the solitary and bawdy aspects of working in the the theater. Nicholls also speculates about Shakespeare’s atypical positive view of foriegners in his plays as well as the attention to detail in apparrell that may have been influenced by Shakespeare’s association with the Mountjoys.
If you’re interested in learning about the life of Shakespeare you’re probably going to be disappointed by this book, but on the other hand you will get a healthy dose of “his times” which is not a bad thing. Nicholls is both detailed and imaginative and always lively in his writing even at the times where the details may grow tedious.
Author Nicholl, Charles.
Title The lodger Shakespeare [sound recording] : his life on Silver Street / Charles Nicholl.
Publication Info. Old Saybrook, CT : Tantor Audio, 2008.
Description 8 sound discs (9 hrs.) : digital ; 4 3/4 in.
Volume III of the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson, The System of the World (2004), begins with Book Six “Solomon’s Gold.” This book picks up where the very first book, Quicksilver, left off with Daniel Waterhouse returning to England. Waterhouse immediately finds himself in the midst of intrigue including attempted assasinations by an Infernal Device, counterfeit coinage, and various missions for Leibniz, Duchess Sophia, and Isaac Newton. All around him rumors swirl about Queen Anne’s succesor. Will it be the Hanovers supported by the Whigs or the Jacobite restoration of the Stuarts?
While this is primarily Daniel Waterhouse’s story, the book ends with a cliffhanger as Jack Shaftoe, aka Jack the Coiner, attempts an audacious (and comical) heist at the Tower of London. I like how Daniel Waterhouse comes into his own in this book. He’s still plagued by doubts but shows resourcefulness and leadership. In an interesting reflection on fear he wonders if everyone else is as afraid as him. This novel also really uses London as a character with Waterhouse visiting the various historic (and not-so-historic) haunts of the city. The London map in the flyleaf is a vital part of this book and I enjoyed following Daniel around town.
Author Stephenson, Neal.
Title The system of the world / Neal Stephenson.
Publication Info. New York : William Morrow, c2004.
Edition 1st ed.
Description xv, 892 p. ; 25 cm.
I don’t know what it is with me and Charles Dickens. I read a book by Dickens and while my eyes scan the words and my fingers turn the pages, my brain comprehends nothing. In the eyes and out the ears! In college I was assigned to read Hard Times for two different classes, and I never finished it either time. This may not sound unusual for your typical college student, but I was a geeky college student who read every book cover-to-cover.
This is not a criticism of Dickens. It’s not him, it’s me. To make it worse, all my book-reading friends love Dickens. The love his language, they love his descriptions, they love his brilliant satire and witty humor, they love the funny names that tell you something about the character. I just don’t get any of it. It makes me sad
Reading Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens didn’t help my Dickens Problem. It is a book of great girth with approximately 50,000 characters, give or take a thousand. The main story is about an endless Chancery law case and an orphan who discovers her mother and people falling in love and getting married and some skullduggery and silly people and a murder! Side-stories offer vignettes of people ranging from the aristocracy to the most destistute so that the novel sums up the entirety of life in mid-Nineteenth century London. I had to peak at Cliff Notes to get that much.
Obviously, I didn’t pick this book for myself, it’s the W&M Boston Alumni Chapter book club selection for June (& July). The worst part is that I won’t even be able to attend the meeting.
Anyhow, Dickens’ fans can have it against me in the comments. I deserve it!
On 2 March 1998, I went home. Sort of.
I had to wake up early to make sure I made it to Heathrow Airport on time so I got promises from my French dormate Nadja and a Danish woman that they’d wake me before they left for work. I was so keyed up I didn’t need any waking and woke long before I needed to. While checking out of the hostel, I had a very friendly conversation with an Australian woman checking in. In the “go figure” department, it may have been the most promising initial conversation I had with a member of the opposite sex in the entire 6 weeks.
Earl’s Court is conveniently on the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow, and the Tube whisked me to the airport (something Londoners tell me is not typical). The flight home on Virgin Atlantic was festive. The flight attendants gave out shots of Bailey’s and brandy (I had one of each). I watched the James Bond flick Goldfinger and the Muhammad Ali documentary When Were Kings on the Virgin TV. I distinctly remember drunken women singing “Brimful of Asha” in the rows behind me.
My sister Barbara met me at Dulles. My first impressions on being back in the States is that all the green money looked odd, and it was weird to see cars driving on the right. Barbara had taken my car in for repair while I was gone, but it had problems. “It’s the darnedest thing I ever saw,” said the auto mechanic. So my travels extended to one more night in Richmond before I made my triumphant return to Bastardsville on March 3.
This is probably where I should list my favorite parts and lessons learned, but I think I’ve bored you enough with my travelog. Thanks for reading, and if you enjoyed this maybe I’ll tell you about some of my other trips one day.
The end of the journey: rain jacket, passport, journal, and otter with Otto the Cat.
On the first of March 1998, I made a rail journey across London to the borough of Greenwich. I had one day left on my Britrail pass so I figured I may as well use it. Part of the adventure was a transfer at Clapham Junction which claims to be the busiest station in Britain and seems to have a gazillion tracks so I’ll believe that claim.
In Greenwich, I straddled the Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory. I strolled through the timely exhibits but the coolest thing I saw there was a camera obscura which projected an image of Greenwich onto a white table. I thought it was a photograph at first until I saw the cars and boats moving. I also visited the National Maritime Museum where I learned an awful lot about Admiral Lord Nelson. I also admired, but did not board the Cutty Sark clipper (which I wrote about previously), which is in dry dock in Greenwich.
I’d not enjoyed any nightlife since Liverpool, and it would not happen in London either. I passed by many intriguing pubs but was turned off by the crowds of suit & tie wearing patrons who looked like they were discussing stock prices. Really, the Big City was intimidating me. On Saturday night I attempted to go to a night club but when I saw all the hip, attractive young people in the queue I turned around and went home.
For my last night abroad, I wanted to do something and selected from the Time Out listings a early Sunday, relaxed chill-out club night in Brixton. I took the Tube to Brixton with Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” and The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” in my head. But I couldn’t find the club. I mean, I found the street, but the street number of the club just plain didn’t exist! So I ended up wandering aimlessly again, taking the tube to Piccadilly Circus where I gazed at neon and played a couple of games in a big arcade. Kind of a bum last night.
The Otter and I at Greenwich Mean Time.