Thursday, October 20, 2011

Surmising Information is Much More Convenient Than Actually Knowing It

The Last Dickens
By Matthew Pearl

The best thing I can say about this book is that Matthew Pearl has done a lot of research and has included many accurate historical details about book publishing in the 1870s, the opium trade, London's opium dens, historical buildings in Boston, and anecdotes from Charles Dickens's speaking tour in the United States. And some of these are even relevant to the plot.

The plot of The Last Dickens suggests that Charles Dickens wrote the missing chapters (the last six chapters of the book) for The Mystery of Edwin Drood while he was on his second US speaking tour… and then hid these chapters in a medical college in Boston because of an overwhelming fear of trains and ships, before going back to England and writing the first six chapters (huh?). Not only are cutthroat and honest publishers falling over each other to find the missing chapters, but so is an evil opium dealer (the long lost son of a jovial inn keeper who prances around dressed like Falstaff) who is convinced that Dickens's unpublished book is about him, and that the book's publication might be bad for his opium business. Seriously?

Pearl writes his book apparently in an ode to Dickens: "Dickens alone, among all the writers of popular fiction of the day, could employ wit and discernment, excitement and sympathy, in equal parts in each one of his books. The characters were no mere paper dolls, nor were they thinly veiled extensions of Charles Dickens's own persona. No, the characters were utterly themselves. In a Dickens story, readers were not asked to aspire to a higher class or to hate other classes than their own but to find the humanity and the humane in all." Well, Pearl ain't no Dickens, and his attempt falls flat.

The range of characterization in the novel runs from flat and uninteresting character portrayals (Dickens, Field), namby-pamby boring (Osgood, Rebecca Sand), evil delusional (Wakefield/Edward Trood), evil inexplicable (Herman), to evil capitalist (Harper publishers of New York). Plus an extensive number of incidental characters, some of whom show up at magnificently convenient moments who help extract the "heroes" from tight places, like Tom Branagan and Jack Rogers (aka Dick Datchery, aka 'George Washington' scalper), who repents for working for the publishing competition Harper; plus the cartoonish Bookaneers, such as "Molasses" who happens to be in the empty building that Osgood runs into while escaping from the evil Herman (although Bookaneers is a clever term that Pearl has coined).

The plot was convoluted and breathtakingly contrived. Are we seriously supposed to believe that a drug trafficker is afraid that the publication of a novel might harm his business? The man supplies opium addicts, not literary critics. Maybe if we were introduced to the character Edward Trood earlier in the novel, we might sympathize with his dilemma, and his reason for living under an assumed identity; but he is not developed as a character, so we don't really care about him, and it isn't interesting. The history has some merits but the labored word choices, unnatural syntax, and hackneyed phrasing make ploughing through this novel no fun at all. For the writing alone, this one of the worst books I have read in a very long time.

The character Dick Datchery very neatly explains Pearl's method of writing and resolving a mystery: “How did you possibly know about that?” “Oh, I didn't! I merely surmised it as well, which is a rather more convenient way of obtaining information than actually knowing it.” (Loc. 2819-20)

Some gems from the novel:

- Loc. 88-89 At the top of the stick was an exotic and ugly golden idol, the head of a beast, a horn rising from the top, terrible mouth agape, sparks of fire shooting from its outstretched tongue. [The walking stick appears many times in the novel; no more flames however.]
- Loc. 604-6 Not long after Dickens's death, Officer Carlton had delivered the shocking news about Daniel. Osgood had sent him to the docks to retrieve those three latest installments sent from England in response to Osgood's cable. It was yet another test to prevent emotion from becoming paralyzing.
- Loc. 607-8 Daniel Sand's senseless accident caused Osgood to feel a sadness of heart more intimate and stranger than that brought on by Dickens's death.
- Loc. 610 How much more real this seemed, in a way, than Dickens's apotheosis. [For some reason Osgood seems surprised that he is more affected by the death of his office boy, with whom he works every day, than the death of an author.]
- Loc. 806-7 a hoarse whisper as suits a man fading from the mortal state of life—‘It is God's,’ said he. It was much like a sentimental novel.”
- Loc. 1076-77 Rebecca went upstairs, her hands clenched in fists on her desk. [Can anyone make sense of this sentence?]
- Loc. 1086 The walk home seemed to be both instantaneous and cruelly tedious.
- Loc. 1241-43 Rebecca, turning to look at Herman. As she met the accused's eyes and innocent smile, a sudden, almost magnetic repulsion forced her to take a step back. The dark, malicious eyes gave her a rush of inexplicable fear and hatred.
- Loc. 1330-31 Those burning orbs of the thief had remained seared in Osgood's mind.
- Loc. 2144-45 “In truth, Mr. Osgood, we only wish there were more guests who were not dreadful auctioneers or house seekers tramping up and down the stairs.” Aunt Georgy had a ready smile [Because we all wish we had more houseguests after a death in the family.]
- Loc. 2322-23 The room displayed some expensive books but a greater number of dead, stuffed animals: a rabbit, a fox, a deer. The frightful artifacts emitted a stale, bleak odor [Let's see: that means there were two expensive books and three taxidermy animals.]
- Loc. 2346-47 He leaned in toward Rebecca—not exactly unfriendly to Osgood's predicament but entirely lacking in interest relative to the pretty bookkeeper sitting across. [He lacks interest in the pretty bookkeeper? Sitting across what?]
- Loc. 2819-20 How did you possibly know about that?” “Oh, I didn't! I merely surmised it as well, which is a rather more convenient way of obtaining information than actually knowing it.”
- Loc. 5159-62 This spot [the Medical College in Boston], this dingy lonely place, may have been the only safe place on earth for these pages. They would reside here undisturbed until he was ready to call for them to be retrieved—which he would do when he finished the first half. But when he died suddenly, it was too late for him to communicate it.”
- Loc. 5514-15 “I am, Osgood. You love her.” “Yes,” Osgood said, unhesitating. Rebecca for a moment lost all her terror. [She has just witnessed a murder and is being held with a gun to her head, but she is no longer afraid now that Osgood has said he loves her. Barf!!]

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Are we the sum of our experiences, or the shadow?

Fire in the Blood
By Irène Némirovsky

This book sent me into a bit of a crisis. I read it with fascination and despair. It called up the memory of times I had loved, lost love, sought love, and doubted whether I would find love.

Fire in the Blood looks at the all-consuming passion of young lovers, the love of a middle-aged couple, parents' love of a child, and the love between old friends. It questions the lengths that we are willing to go to live our love and what we would be willing to sacrifice. Would we sacrifice passion for security? Would we give up a child to be with a lover? Would we sacrifice a loving partner if we felt more passionate about someone else?

In the book, the choices made at different times in a character's life reflect the values and drives of those moments. The inability of one generation to comprehend the experiences of the other is another of the book's themes. "The greatest favour we can do for our children is to keep our own experiences secret." After all, love can't be lived vicariously, and no one else's cautionary tale can substitute for feeling and experience. Youth denies that it could ever be reduced to a middle-aged or elderly half-life existence. Youth denies that parents could have once lived the same sort of intense, passionate experiences. Youth cannot believe because passion has to be lived; it cannot be taught.

Are we the sum of our experiences, or the shadow? Which is our real identity? Are we the careless, burning, passionate 20-year-old, who acts on impulse, blinded to consequences in this extreme, even leading to the death of others? Or are we the responsible mother, whose existence consists of the quiet embers of love that warm the heart and sustain the family? Or the older man, living in bitter, impoverished, loneliness, eschewing company and barely remembering the shadow of his younger passionate self?

Fire in the Blood is part of Némirovsky's lost oeuvre: some of the pages were among the papers entrusted to her husband and the rest were in the suitcase left with her daughter Denise, when Irène was sent to Auschwitz in 1942, where she died a month later at age 39. A relatively young author, Némirovsky is nonetheless skilled and mature at depicting the human condition.

A few years ago in book club we read Irène Némirovsky Suite Française, which I also enjoyed very much. Suite Française looks at different French social classes under German occupation, coolly appreciating the pragmatism, resistance, and foibles of the French psyche. It is a social study of a cultural under duress. Fire in the Blood is a different sort of book because the experience of love, its triumphs and failures, is a much more universal story. It is impossible to read this book without looking inward and examining about one's own life, and wondering about the choices made in life and love.

Great Quotes

"The flesh is easy to satisfy. It's the heart that is insatiable, the heart that needs to love, to despair, to burn with any kind of fire . . . That was what we wanted. To burn, to be consumed, to devour our days just as fire devours the forest."

"If they could see their own youth resurrected before them, it would horrify them, or else they wouldn't recognise it; they would stare at it and say, "That love, those dreams, that fire are strangers to us." Their own youth . . . So how can they possibly expect to understand anyone else's?"

"The life you live ends up transforming you: a calm, happy existence gives the face a gentleness and dignity, a warm, soft look that is almost a kind of sheen, like the varnish on a painting. But now the smoothness and decorum of their features had vanished and you could see their sad, anxious souls peering through the surface. Those poor people! In nature, there is a moment of perfection when every hope is realised, when the luscious fruits finally fall, a crowning moment towards the end of summer. But it quickly passes and the autumn rains begin. It's the same for people."

"I once possessed what is now dead and gone, I possessed her youth."


Can we compromise on passion? Is it possible to once again feel that same intense desire and longing without the attendant selfishness? Is there a different sort of passion for the no-longer-young? The ability to feel keeps us alive. Passion may be dangerous, but it is the lack of passion that leads to death.

This book made me want to live that sweet, heady, intoxicating, blinding all-consuming passion… but what would I be willing to sacrifice?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Solar by Ian McEwan – Book Club Facilitating Notes

Can a despicable character make a good protagonist?

Jaded, bloated, resting on his laurels, consuming alcohol, food and women in excess, former Nobel Prize winning physicist Michael Beard now makes a living by plying the conference circuit and lending his name for the boards of different scientific organizations, even though he hasn't done any significant work in years.

That all changes when, in typical McEwan style, a circumstantial incident sets into motion an intricate chain of events that transforms our antihero into a champion for the cause of global warming… not that he becomes any more sympathetic on the way.

The narrative barrels along with wry observation, evocative description, yuk yuk humor, and a stern warning for humanity about what we have become and how we are treating our planet (and each other). If the main character had been more likeable, the book would have been preachy and lame. But since we can distance ourselves from the appalling Michael Beard, he serves as a marvellous vehicle to take us through this examination of bloated consumer society in denial about the consequences of its actions: Michael Beard represents the worst of humanity and he is pointing the finger right back at us.

Book Club Facilitating Notes:
1. My review
2. Ian McEwan biography
3. Solar Plot summary
4. A couple of other reviews.
5. Discussion Questions
6. The book's ending and the change McEwan made following the Copenhagen conference.
7. Reading Guide discussion questions

2. Biography

Ian McEwan was born on 21 June 1948 in Aldershot, England. He studied at the University of Sussex, where he received a BA degree in English Literature in 1970. He received his MA degree in English Literature at the University of East Anglia.

McEwan's works have earned him worldwide critical acclaim. He won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976 for his first collection of short stories First Love, Last Rites; the Whitbread Novel Award (1987) and the Prix Fémina Etranger (1993) for The Child in Time; and Germany's Shakespeare Prize in 1999. He has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction numerous times, winning the award for Amsterdam in 1998. His novel Atonement received the WH Smith Literary Award (2002), National Book Critics' Circle Fiction Award (2003), Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction (2003), and the Santiago Prize for the European Novel (2004). He was awarded a CBE in 2000. In 2006, he won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his novel Saturday, and his novel On Chesil Beach was named Galaxy Book of the Year at the 2008 British Book Awards. McEwan has been named the Reader's Digest Author of the Year for 2008, the 2010 Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award, and in 2011 was awarded the Jerusalem Prize.

McEwan lives in London. His most recent novel is Solar.
From Ian McEwan's website:
The website contains considerable information by and about Ian McEwan, who has apparently been the subjects of an impressive number of articles, reviews, and studies.

Mr. McEwan spent his childhood on army bases, mostly in Libya, where his father, a career officer, was posted. He began writing fiction while getting a masters' degree in English literature at England's University of East Anglia, and published his first collection of short stories in 1975. He became known internationally for his 1998 novel "Amsterdam," about a composer and a newspaper editor, which won the Man Booker Prize. He lives in a town house in London's Fitzroy Square with his second wife, journalist Annalena McAfee (the pair met when she interviewed him for the Financial Times), and has two sons from his previous marriage who are in their 20s.

Mr. McEwan belongs to a literary cadre that includes his close friends Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens. Members of the group convene for occasional dinners (they've graduated from a kebab house where they gathered in the 1970s and '80s to a French restaurant). "He's a tremendously funny man, but apart from in 'Amsterdam,' he's kept it out of his fiction as a whole," Mr. Amis says. "In 'Solar' he lets it free."

3. Plot summary

Solar approaches the largest and most important of themes—global warming—through the very particular lens of Michael Beard, a disheveled physicist floundering in the aftermath of a career that had brought him the Nobel Prize many years before.

As the novel begins, Beard's fifth marriage is unraveling. But this time, in a reversal of roles, it is because his wife is having an affair. Infidelities are Beard's stock-in-trade, but being cuckolded is a new and unsettling experience for him, and it seems part of larger downward trend in his life. He still speaks at conferences, lends his name to scientific institutions, and leads a government program devoted to developing clean energy. But he does all these things in a halfhearted way and is largely indifferent to the problem of global warming. That all changes when Aldous—an earnest postdoc who is passionate about both climate change and Beard's wife—enters the picture. After a freak accident, Beard is left with Aldous's ingenious plans for creating solar energy by imitating the process of photosynthesis. He sees a chance to reestablish his prominence as a physicist and save the world while he's at it.

4. A couple of reviews and an interview

"What Climate Scientists Think of Ian McEwan's Solar Book"
Climate scientist (and consultant on McEwan's book) Stefan Rahmstorf writes a plaintively earnest review that addresses the use of humor to address a serious subject, science culture vs. social constructivists, and commends the accuracy of the science that McEwan presents.

"Solar by Ian McEwan. Ian McEwan excels at climate science but his one-dimensional protagonist makes you shudder"
Jason Crowley's bitingly funny review reviles Solar's main character Michael Beard, and compares the book a several of McEwan's previous novels.

"Can Climate Change Be Funny?"
In Alexandra Alter's 25 March 2010 interview in the Wall Street Journal, McEwan talks about the difficulties in writing a book about global warming that doesn't sound preachy, his personal experience with media controversy, popular and literary fiction, and the art of being a writer.

5. Discussion Questions

What is your understanding of global warming: fact or fallacy?
Review the speech made to pension fund managers. Kindle Location 2107.

Ian McEwan's books often hinge on single, opportunistic moments? What is the moment in this book and why does it work? How much of a stretch of the imagination is it?

How does Beard end up championing the cause of global warming?

Could this novel have worked with a more sympathetic main character?
What are Beard's character flaws?

What does Beard represent in terms of contemporary society?
Does he change over the course of the novel?

What do you suppose climate scientists think about Solar?

Michael Beard sparks controversy with his comments about differences in male and female brains. Kindle Location 1856 and onward.
What do you think about social constructivism?
(McEwan has also been the target of media umbrage for making controversial statements about Islam.)

6. Summary of the book's ending
Beard is still ignoring the melanoma on his hand
Jock Braby from the center is suing over the patents and theft of Aldous's work.
Aldous's father bringing charges of theft and fraud.
(Beard sees Tarpin getting into Lawyer Barnard's car)
While at dinner Beard gets a call from Toby: Tarpin has smashed the panels
Toby Hammer is suing to protect himself from Beard's debts.
Melissa and Darlene arrive.

The Copenhagen Summit
2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference

The Copenhagen Accord was drafted by the US, China, India, Brazil and South Africa on December 18, and judged a "meaningful agreement" by the United States government. It was "taken note of", but not "adopted", in a debate of all the participating countries the next day, and it was not passed unanimously. The document recognised that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of the present day and that actions should be taken to keep any temperature increases to below 2°C. The document is not legally binding and does not contain any legally binding commitments for reducing CO2 emissions.

McEwan told the Guardian he watched the outcome of the Copenhagen summit in December "very closely and with some despair" and then went back to his novel, Solar, to rewrite a section a few pages from the end.

The end of the book is set in summer 2009, and McEwan introduced a scene in which Michael Beard, the chief protaganist and a Nobel-prize winning physicist, receives an email that invites him to address a meeting of foreign ministers at the coming summit. "I just slipped something in to reflect the spirit of sadness," he said. "Everything has collapsed around him [Beard] and he knows that Copenhagen will be just the place for him. It is where he would be heading to add his confusion to everybody else's."

Had the summit produced a successful deal, as McEwan wanted, Beard and his failures would not have fitted in. "I would not have wanted my man anywhere near it," said the author. "I didn't want him there, believe me."

Guardian article

7. Reader's Guide Questions

1. Beard loves physics in part because he believes that it is "free of human taint" (p. 10). In what ways does the novel complicate this belief? In what sense is Beard's own work "tainted" by human entanglements?
2. The narrative structure of Solar is mostly chronological. What effects does McEwan achieve by occasionally departing from a straightforward chronological progression?
3. Beard claims he does not believe in the possibility of "profound inner change" (p. 77). Does he remain unchanged over the course of the novel?
4. How does McEwan manage to make Beard such a sympathetic character despite his many foibles? What are his most salient character flaws?
5. Why is Beard so attached to preserving what he calls his "unshareable core"? (p. 307). Why does he find it impossible to tell Melissa that he loves her? Why do his marriages keep falling apart?
6. In what ways is Solar a satirical novel? What are its main satirical targets? How, for example, do postmodernists come off in the book?
7. What are some of the funniest moments in Solar? How does McEwan create such brilliant comedic effects?
8. Look at the encounters between art and science in the novel, those occasions when Beard squares off with people from the humanities—novelists, folklorists, postmodern feminists, etc. Who gets the better of these confrontations? Is the book as a whole making a point through its depiction of these encounters?
9. What is the significance of the entropy in the boot room on board the ship that is holding the conference on climate change? What does this chaos and carelessness suggest about humanity's ability to stop global warming?
10. Beard has a remarkably clear conscience; he is largely untroubled by his affairs and deceits, his theft of Aldous's ideas, his framing of Tarpin, etc. Why is he so free of the guilt that might afflict most other men?
11. Several times during the course of the novel it appears that public infamy—born of journalists' insatiable desire for controversy and Beard's own willingness to step into it—will doom Beard's career. What enables him to emerge from these disasters relatively unscathed? Will he be as lucky getting out of the mess he's created at the very end of the book?
12. How surprising is the ending of the novel, particularly the final sentence? What is the swelling sensation that Beard feels in his heart as his daughter approaches him? What is likely to happen to Beard next?
13. How does the appendix containing the presentation speech for Beard's Nobel Prize alter the way Beard is finally viewed? Why would McEwan choose to attach this appendix to the body of the novel?
14.Solar is in many ways a picaresque and at times farcical novel, and yet it also engages a theme of major importance—global warming. What is the connection between personal and planetary catastrophe in the novel, between the meltdown of Beard's personal and professional life and the kind of greed, dishonesty, rationalization, and failure to face facts that has resulted in the climate crisis? What is the significance, in this context, of Beard's inability to moderate his eating habits and his sexual pursuits?
15. What does Solar contribute to our understanding of climate change?