Saturday, June 21, 2008

Recent Reading; McEwan, Brooks & Mirren; The Good, the Bad and the Guilty Pleasure

In the last couple of weeks, I have been working on four different books. I am still dipping now and again into Roy Jenkins' biography of Churchill. I admire it but it is not, alas, entertainment. I get a few paragraphs down, they are rewarding, but then I fall asleep. I mark this down to my own inadequacies. The book is thorough, disciplined and intelligent. I am less so.

The books I have been really reading lately are recent and made to be consumed; one is naked entertainment, (so to speak) Helen Mirren's autobiographical scrapbook cum valentine to her friends, In the Frame. The other two are serious fiction by serious writers; Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach and Geraldine Brooks' The People of the Book.

In the last three days I have gotten through all of them. With Brooks, admittedly, "getting through it" amounted to abandoning The People of the Book at the last CD (12 CDs in all in the unabridged audio version). I had been driving around with it for weeks, trying to push through to the end, but, even prisoner of the car that I am, I couldn't stand it anymore and I didn't care how it ended. Bad news first and all, so I'll start with this one.

The People of the Book; Buckle On Your Helmet - I'm Comin' Out Swingin'!

I have all kinds of reasons for disliking this wearying story; one that, my views notwithstanding, has proved wildly popular with commentators and critics. Is there a short way to say why? I hate novels that put white hats on some characters and black hats on others. Maybe even pithier, a reader review on the Barnes & Noble website said it was just as good as The DaVinci Code. Need I say more? (Those that have ears to hear...)

The plot revolves around a medieval sacred Jewish prayer book, the Sarajevo Haggadah, and it's conservation in the 1990s by a young Australian woman. Each little stain, spot and hair on the parchment has a story to tell. Though the young woman can't know those stories herself, the reader gets them all, stretching back through the centuries. It turns out that the book was created by absolutely the last sort of person that one would have expected (not Jewish, not a man). Expect the unexpected! That in itself is a dull trope and second rate. The Haggadah has been rescued over and over down the centuries by good people and saved from bad people. These bad people are the usual villains of history and our contemporary world. As I said, black hats, white hats.

Muslims consider Christians and Jews "people of the book"; fellow monotheists who are worthy of some regard, at least, as not being pagans. Brooks gives us an extra helping of good, kind Muslims here. This special regard feels to me like a lesson being administered to Western yobs who have disapproved of this particular group of People of the Book. Setting Snidely Whiplash, Dudley Do-Right and Little Nell in 16th century Venice or 15th century Spain, with all kinds of poetic, womanly literary folderol, still leaves them Father Whiplash, Dudley bin Do-right and Nell Avramovich. Dull (and dishonest).

As this was an audio book, there was also the "performance" of the text with which to contend. The poor Australian actress who read it was confronted with Bosnian, American, English, Spanish, Italian, German, and Hebrew accents. The UN cafeteria at lunchtime has less variety. The poor woman in the end was overwhelmed. The 15th century Venetian, who saved the book from the inquisition, sounds like 1990s Bosnian librarian and curator who saved the book from the Serbs (who bleeds gold, by the way, and provides the love interest to the conservator). In the end I had to abandon ship.

Phew. I am glad I got that off my chest.

On Chesil Beach: "The Good"

I offloaded The People of the Book at the Stowe Library and, desperately needing another audio book, I checked out the unabridged audio version of On Chesil Beach. This is read by McEwan himself and the contrast between this and Brook's audiobook was immediate and apparent. That contrast it mostly what compelled this post.

Over 4 CDs McEwan unfolds the story of the wedding night of a pair of nice 22-year-old English people in 1962. The central fact of their existence at the moment is that they are both virgins. Also, they have grown up in a time and place that completely constrains them from talking about this difficulty. The story goes back and forth from their hotel room, where we get excruciating detail of their attempt at first marital intimacy, to the "backstory: their origins and lives so far. My colleague, after reading this post, pointed out to me that there is a hint that the woman was sexually abused by her father as a child. I had almost missed that but it's true. Since the girl's feelings toward her father seem otherwise equable, and there is next to no discussion of it in her internal monologue, I didn't assume a childhood horror, but it is there as a possiblity.

The interior state of each character is precisely and acutely rendered. McEwan's descriptions of all he touches upon are accurate and economical. He makes an excellent reader as well. The reviewer in the New York Times says McEwan has a "dazzling authority" and I agree. It was this authority that struck me so forcefully when I decamped from The People of the Book and landed On Chesil Beach. "Here I am in the hands of a real master," I thought, before McEwan read through the second paragraph.

As for the story (beware, partial spoilers ahead) Florence, the bride, is convinced that her low libido means there is something wrong with her; she's a freak of nature and it will soon be revealed to her everlasting horror and shame. The boy, Edward, and at 22 he is a boy, is as pent up as he can be, trying to behave well, trying to read the signals rightly. Painful as it all is, I had to laugh.

I am not sure if McEwan intended that particular laughter. Some of it is meant to be comic,surely; Florence thinks of Edward's "early arrival" as so horrific, worse than if he had burst his jugular vein. Did he not mean us to laugh at that? Much ado about nothing? At the end of my audio version McEwan is interviewed briefly. He tells how he read one part of this agonized sex scene to an audience in Surrey (I believe) in England. The audience sat in complete (probably horrified) silence through it all. When he read the same scene to a Palo Atlo, California audience (where Stanford University is), many women in the audience burst into laughter. He attributed this laughter to his having struck a raw nerve, eliciting a kind of hysteria. I think what he actually got was the predictable response of a roomful of educated women remembering their own anxiety and the high drama regarding their passage out of virginity. Years down the road it is hard not to laugh at the ridiculous girl you were. Or maybe some of the Stanford audience just couldn't believe anyone would ever take such a thing so very seriously. I don't think, in any case, that it was nerves that made the women of Palo Alto laugh.

The book was too short for me. (Another contrast from People of the Book). My one complaint is that the ending, after such a true-seeming story, seemed false to me. I won't give it away completely; suffice it to say that Edward and Florence do not do what nervous young people in real life typically manage in the end. This rang a false note. Also, there is a tacked on post-script that focuses only on Edward, after having given equal time to both characters previously. I was sorry about that. In some ways this postscript is what gives the story a point; a sort of "road not taken" final analysis. But this seems banal coming from a talent like McEwan. Still, I admired it immensely and was glad to have stumbled on it.

Helen Mirren's, In The Frame; The Guilty Pleasure

While I was checking out On Chesil Beach I saw Helen Mirren's book on the shelf of recent library acquisitions. Naturally, I grabbed it. Now what chance does Mr. Jenkins and his great, thick, square book about Winston Churchill have against a glossy picture book by one of my favorite movie stars? Not much. I read all of In the Frame inside of 48 hours, not that this was difficult since it is mostly pictures and scraps of theater guides and newspaper articles.

I have written about Mirren and my general admiration for her here before. After I saw The Queen, I was in one my periodic bloggish raptures.

It is interesting to hear from her directly and unmediated. (It feels like she actually wrote this herself and that it was not ghostwritten). The book is not a tell-all, thank goodness. It is an older woman's loving look back at the places and people she remembers - an older woman who has had a remarkable career, obviously. Her manners are too good to bash people or to trumpet herself. What interested me particularly were her Russian origins. Her grandfather was a Russian aristocrat stranded in England by the Russian revolution. There are some striking pictures of her Russian ancestors in the first few pages. She had the most beautiful great aunts...

Also of interest, and a bit of a surprise, was that she was her English hippy phase. I got to know about Mirren only in the 90s with Prime Suspect. I knew, vaguely, that she had been a famous stage actress and had some history as a sex bomb in the sixties but I had no details. It turns out that once upon a time she actually travelled around North Africa with a crew of actors who performed for the locals some kind of experimental dumb-show theater. Even when I was 19 this would have sounded like a complete horror to me. Artsy fartsys from France and England and Japan torturing tiny, bewildered audiences, sleeping in tents, jouncing over bumpy desert roads. Mirren hints that this was not all such a great experience but is also clear it had its rewards. She had a lot of boyfriends; she took off her clothes (there are some topless shots here). Who knew? I think of her as The Queen or Jane Tennison but she had a life those characters would not hint at.

I also found myself wondering, noting her obvious restraint about her own success, what her peers would say about her as she was way back then. I expect the hippies she remembers so fondly would have been jealous of her. I also expect they would have been impressed, maybe even put off by, her ambition. She could not have got where she is without a lot of that.

She writes a little soupily but with feeling at the end of the book about her extended family. She married Taylor Hackford, an American producer, rather late in life. She never wanted marriage and a family as a young woman but she has one now - albeit of the stepson and niece and nephew variety. It seems that they mean a great deal to her.

Though it is an unpopular view I continue to believe that those who have not had and/or raised children have missed out on the essential life experience. Not an essential life experience, the experience. It's not for everyone, of course, but willed childlessness is often (in my experience) simple selfishness or brittleness. And while I don't imagine that Helen Mirren (or anyone else) cares for my judgment on the matter, I'll just say that a great artist - her to be specific- would get a pass from me on this point. The parable of the talents applies.

Well, back to work tomorrow morning. I have nothing to listen to on the drive. And I guess I am back to Mr. Churchill at bedtime tonight.