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26 March 2013

'Sweet Tooth' by Ian McEwan

Ages since I read Mc Ewan, now I remember why... Ian McEwan has mastered his art.  Unfortunately, I sense a deep arrogance along with his talent.  Even Nabokov, at his most recherche did not make me so angry.  My anger took away the euphoria I often feel in the presence of art, of a book so well written the story becomes secondary to the telling. I first read Enduring Love, years ago.  McEwan made me feel uncomfortable.  I squirmed with distress at the premise of the book.  I thought that McEwan had that talent that makes the reader feel the discomfort of the people in his books.  I experienced the book rather that witnessed the book.  Then I tried to read Solar. Somehow I enjoyed it too little and was frustrated too much.  It is a sign when one of my German acquaintances, who rarely reads for pleasure and rarely reads frivolous books gushed about this book.  Books are not for pleasure, I think is her motto.  In any case I always felt that Stephen King can give me a stomach ache but I finish his books with a huge smile.  So we come to Sweet  Tooth...  I was angry when I finished this book.  Furious.  It has taken me weeks to calm down and to look at my reaction with some distance.

I think I have to mention that many books have caused me to feel deeply.  Beloved, Kafka on the Shore, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Schindler's List are just a few.  I have cried, I have laughed, I have been afraid, I have been angry but I rarely feel cheated by the author.  Usually I feel like this when the book is bad, like Twilight.  I was angry and in my insecurity I asked Beloved Proof Reader to read it and see if I was over reacting... no the book is badly written and badly thought out.  Just bad... So if McEwan is so good, then why was I so angry?

My problem with this book is two fold...  The treatment of the protagonist by her lovers, typical of the times in which the book takes place, made me catch my breath many times.  On the other hand, chauvinism even today is common enough and often a cause of anger.  I was emotionally engaged and then came that final twist in the story. It took me a while to disentangle my anger. I felt deceived as a reader. The final twist took her voice away.  The whole story became suspicious, deceitful, unreliable... the unreliable narrator is a common enough topic in high school literature but this was the final slap to the face of a woman.  Her voice had never been her own.  It was always the voice of a man who even in love, obviously thought little of her. Second, it turned love into a whip against a woman, and against the reader. Love of writing is no excuse to patronize the reader. Love of reading does not make me a target.  I want to be a part of the story, of the unfolding, of the telling not the butt of its joke.  I want to trust a writer even in manipulation for art's sake like in Catch 22 or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  I cannot trust Ian McEwan.

So my conclusion is that Ian McEwan is a talented writer but I cannot find any joy in his books.  This is the kind of talent that will be studied in literature classes but not loved.

Ian McEwan 
ISBN: 9780224097376 

06 March 2013

'The Life of Thomas More' by Peter Ackroyd

If you wish to know the true difference between a medieval mind, however brilliant, and the Renaissance mind, then this is a wonderful book

Sometimes friends hand me a book quite at random.  This time I was handed Sir Thomas More, well, 'The Life of Thomas More'.  I started the book out of curiosity but was hooked early and hard.  Peter Ackroyd can write.  He does not state facts...he unfolds a life.  His subject, Sir Thomas, was a learned man on the edge of Medieval Europe and the Renaissance World.  Ackroyd from the first sentence immersed me into what is essentially a medieval city and a medieval life.  It was a life full of harsh absolutes.  A man's place in society was determined at birth, where God saw fit to place you, rich or poor.  Hierarchy, respect for those above you and The Church kept order in the world.  God was above all.  To help man please God, to help him attain Heaven and to protect him, the Holy Catholic Church stood as a wise intermediary.  Today people often forget that catholic means universal.  One God, one church, one authority.  'One above all' is what Thomas More defended , which is of course, where Thomas in a very real sense lost his head.  He ultimately believed the church and its voice the Pope are above a mortal king.  King Henry VIII disagreed.  But this rigid system is a medieval system. So was Thomas More a man who in spite of his intelligence and humanist connections could not adjust or was he a man who understood the new world but rejected it because he would not give up his scruples on the whim of a king?  Peter Ackroyd leads us to this question but first he lets us become acquainted with Sir Thomas More.

The Renaissance destroyed the Medieval world and its philosophy. It encouraged the rereading of Greek and Latin philosophers. Man became the center of creation.  Martin Luther crystalized the Renaissance way of thinking by insisting there is nothing between a man’s conscience and God; private faith is enough for salvation.  This new way of thinking was an anathema to Thomas More.

Ackroyd does a superb job of letting Sir Thomas speak in his own words and defend the old order he loved.  Ackroyd's research and subtle interpretation of his subject is humbling.  Thomas More, it can be argued, was the last brilliant gasping breath of the Medieval world and a whole Church.  But what a wonderful lawyer, writer, poet, orator he was.  God, order, loyalty and peace of mind were the lights by which he lived his public life.  To him there was no private life or a private man in a private world.  All was under God, King and Church to be judged.  To live an obedient hard working life was to live according to the wishes of God.  I can only wonder at a life lived in such certainty.

Thomas More must have been a formidable man to share a home with.  There is an old saying "It is harder to live with a Saint than to be one".  This is what came to mind when More married and then a month into widowerhood, married again.  His second wife seems to have had the correct character to manage and encourage him.  I like that Ackroyd spends time on her and the children.  The family was fundamental to More and to neglect it for his intellectual accomplishments is to miss the life he lived.

Peter Ackroyd walks me through the crowded streets of London and introduces me to high and low men.  All the important buildings and churches are pointed out like a good guide, he lets me miss nothing of importance... the noise, the pageantry and the dirt are all disclosed.  If you wish to know the true difference between a medieval mind, however brilliant, and the Renaissance mind, then this is a wonderful book.  I finished the book and regretted the obstinacy and blood lust of a King.  I also regretted the obstinacy and unyielding mind of More.  He is a man who could have guided the coming age if he had embraced some of the good that change would bring.  He seems to have seen only bad in change; the end of the world.  This was a complex, satisfying read.  I learnt a great deal, remembered a great deal and reconnected with my love of history.

Peter Ackroyd 
ISBN: 9780749386405 

03 March 2013

'Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall' by Anna Funder

This book is about the impermanence of political structures, about the price of a soul, about the innocence of children and the love of parents.  It should not be forgotten.

I have lived in Germany longer than I have lived in any other country, including the one on my passport.  It is ironic given that neither my husband nor I have family or other attachments here.  It is a convenient place to live, is the best I can say about this situation.  It is also a safe, healthy place full of beautiful trees.  In any case, I have been able to observe Germans in their natural habitat for some time now.  As a group they are slow to warm up but loyal once you are indeed a friend, on a first name basis (don't laugh, long story about the use of names).  I am privileged to have several German friends.

It is my habit to be careful about certain topics but (I hope) polite and inquisitive at the same time... What's the point of being here if I can't eventually, you know, ask...  And so the National Socialists turn up in conversation.  No Problem!  My friends are often relieved, yes lets discuss those bygone days...  Then I mention East Germany.

There is usually a moment of embarrassment.  Of course the notorious Wall was awful, almost ridiculous.  If I ask about more details there are often excuses but no real discussion.   Sometimes kids blame the teacher for a bad grade.  And in truth there are bad teachers in this world.  It happens.  A bad teacher does not justify my own disinterest or lack of effort, though.  What I mean is that many could not do much about the political situation called The Cold War.  Many on the West side did their best to help people on the East side.  But as far as I can tell, people have done their best to forget or ignore the German Democratic Republic since 1989, like many would, a bad teacher.  The rest of Germany does not want to know more.  The mentality is that Germany is whole now, therefore healthy.  I hope my friends do not resent this description but it is accurate.

Then another foreigner who has lived here a long, long time handed me this book.  I am grateful.  The book begins with a hung-over journalist.  She wants to investigate and write about the people from East Germany. Not the politics. The people who lived in the shadow of a wall and could not trust anyone, ever.  Anna Funder's interviews are successful because she listens to what is consciously given and willingly shared. Not what is taken and recorded to use and twist.  It was shocking to see the effects of hyper surveillance on the psyche of a whole society.  The lack of privacy was obscene.  It puts me in mind of the arguments for and against privacy in the internet.  Eventually, people are not for sale.  Privacy and intimacy are worth more than quick results on the search page and what you can sell me there.  This book is not about the past it is about our future.  It is about the impermanence of political structures, about the price of a soul, about the innocence of children and the love of parents.  It should not be forgotten.
Suspicion was a sign of guilt and the punishment even to children lasted a lifetime.  These people are now free.  I wish.  Torturers, spies and vicious prison wardens have not been brought to justice.  Many politicians kept their old jobs with new titles.  Many of them are still alive.  Freedom does not happen when you remove the shackles or tear down the wall, but when you free the mind.  If you see the same person that tortured and raped you in jail shopping at your local then maybe free is too abstract a concept.  Anna Funder touches on the concepts of justice, fairness, closure, hope and despair.  She tells stories and uncovers wounds that do not heal.  By the end of the book I feel she deserved a drink now and again.  This book is required reading.

Anna Funder 
ISBN: 9781847083357