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Archive for August, 2009

Another by McEwan

I really like his writing (Ian McEwan that is), and this book, Enduring Love, while pretty disturbing was more than a study in a scary obsession – it had also excellent scenes, characters and plot development.  There is one really funny scene – when the main character is trying to buy a gun from some seedy ex-hippies.  The great thing about McEwan is his careful cataloging of our shared human nature – the moods, whims, defensive and protective strategies that fill our days.  I also liked his description of Joe’s attempt to distract himself with work: 

Within twenty minutes I had drifted into the desired state, the high-walled infinite prison of directed thought.

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A good read

While discussing books with a friend, we discovered a shared love of mysteries.  He recommended an Irish author, Tana French, whose first book, In the Wood, he described as a psychological thriller.  I got hold of the book and couldn’t put it down.  The central crime is sad and disturbing, but it is well-handled and the range of characters, suspects and subplots are all superb.  Reading this book reminded me of my book-obsessed childhood, spending hours and hours absorbed in a story, emerging only for meals, no worries about tasks or responsibilities.  It’s a great feeling.  Of course, now I have to read  her second book, a teasing first chapter was included at the end of this one, with some of the same characters and an intriguing new mystery.  I’ll be looking for The Likeness as soon as I have a block of time to devote to it.

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Roth on Aging and Death

I haven’t read much Philip Roth as I tend to be a bit prudish and he is known for his graphic writing; however, I did read and enjoy The Plot Against America (it is told from a young boy’s point of view so not too much in the way of sex going on). I was interested in Everyman because of the idea of an aging author taking on the subject of death. In Plato’s Republic, there is an account of Socrates visiting an older friend, Cephalus, who urges him to come often as he, Cephalus, cannot get around much anymore and enjoys the pleasures of conversation.  Socrates replies: 

There is nothing which for my part I like better, Cephalus, than conversing with aged men; for I regard them as travellers who have gone on a journey which I too may have to go, and of whom I ought to enquire, whether the way is smooth and easy, or rugged and difficult.

 In Everyman, Roth sets out to chronicle a man’s life, beginning at his funeral and seen mostly through his own flashbacks.  It is well done and sad and truthful, and it shows us that the way is rugged and difficult.  It is especially painful when he propositions a young woman whom he has been watching every day jogging on the boardwalk.  His humiliation and loss of his old confidence is truly poignant.  However, Cephalus quotes Sophocles on this subject, who, when asked how love suits him as an old man, answers in a way that might have been useful to Roth’s narrator:

 Peace, he replied; most gladly have I escaped the thing of which you speak; I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master.

 Cephalus adds:  For certainly old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold, then, as Sophocles says, we are freed from the grasp not of one mad master only, but of many. 

When he speaks of the complaints that his contemporaries have with aging, he says: 

that these regrets, and also the complaints about relations, are to be attributed to the same cause, which is not old age, but men’s characters and tempers; for he who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition youth and age are equally a burden.

 In Roth’s book, the sadness is in the relinquishing of all that one cares about and the reader participates in the sense of unfairness that overcomes the narrator whose body is breaking down with what seems, to  him, to be premature haste.  Roth’s chronicle is at times a searing account of this process, complete with surgical and anatomical details.  When he describes old age as ”a massacre”, one can feel his savage delight in the word, in telling this bitter truth to all.  One might wish for a more philosophical protagonist but cannot wish for a more courageous author, for he faces unflinchingly that which he (and we)are approaching, which is so hard to face or fathom– oblivion.

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On aging and death

I  used to trick myself by adding a year or two to my age by way of becoming used to the idea of being 40 and then 50.  So, recently, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I am actually turning 52, not 53.  The term over-the-hill is a bit of a joke bringing to mind silly Hallmark greeting cards; however, as with most cliches there is a kernel of truth in the saying, because there is a time when you do feel yourself cresting, that you’ve gained a certain high spot from which to look forward and back (I’ve been trying desperately to find the passage in Netherland (see previous post) that describes this feeling but I can’t seem to locate it).  You see the accumulated years behind you, but the road ahead is dim and shadowy.  You realize,for the first time, the finiteness of life, that yours is going to end.  Not to be morose, but it bears thinking of, for the illusion of immortality is surely what causes cruel and senseless behavior, is what is behind inertia and inevitably our disappointments in ourselves.  While rereading “How Proust Can Change your Life,”by Alain de Botton, he quotes Proust’s response to a newspaper editor’s question of how one should live if a calamitous event were foretold and a certain number of days only remained.  Proust answer was essentially that we all only have a certain number of days and that the calamity of death awaits all of us and should daily inform our actions and goals.  Coming to terms with death is tricky as what can be accepted intellectually may not really feel true to us on the quotidian level.

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Netherland

After reading descriptions of Joseph O’Neill’s new novel Netherland which talked of it as a post 9/11 novel, I was not really interested in reading it and that is the reaction of most people when I attempt to describe the book in reference to that date.  However, after hearing the author interviewed by Terri Gross on Fresh Air, I decided to give it a try, and I’m glad I did.  It touches on the events of September 11, 2001, only in the most delicate way, so that the mind that fears pressure on a sore spot is put at ease.  The story is a somewhat dark, yet dreamy (and occasionally funny) meditation on adulthood, national identity, parenting, marriage and life, but again the touch is light.  The main character, Hans is struggling with the dissolution of his marriage and the death of his Mother, which among other things including Cricket, make up the book’s several threads. The comparison to The Great Gatsby seems apt, but is not overstated (the reference to Daisy brought a smile).  In the end, I found myself flipping back through the book for certain passages that resonated as when Hans describes his own tendency toward dreaminess and mystery resulting in him “stepping around in a murk of his own making” and his concern about his own son and how to “ensure that he does not grow like his father, which is to say, without warning.”  Speaking of his confused state of mind, he adds, “I still have no firm idea whether my own descent into disorder was referable to an Achilles heel or whether it’s a generally punishable folly to approach life trustingly — carelessly, some might say.” I’ve been thinking lately about the fate of dreamers and pondering how one might possibly fit into this life, the answer seems to be not very well or only by luck.

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