Book Review – Amsterdam by Ian McEwan, 1001 Books to Read Before You Die #171

amsterdamSince reading Atonement, I’ve read and enjoyed a number of Ian McEwan’s novels. But with the exception of Atonement, they all seem to have one aspect that pushes things that last step too far and Amsterdam, while one of his more lauded works (and a book that gets me back to working on my 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, which I’ve fallen behind on this year) is no exception. Its explorations of morality, mortality, and friendship are incredible but the way those thematic lines culminate as far as the plot is concerned don’t quite work for me.

One funeral brings together a woman’s three former lovers and her husband. Two of the former lovers happen to be good friends, Clive and Vernon, and Molly’s drawn out deterioration due to dementia and eventual death has the two men wondering what they would want if they found themselves in her shoes; ultimately they agree they would want someone to end it for them. But Molly’s death also brings some compromising photos of a politician (the third of her former lovers whom neither of the two friends like) to light. Vernon, a newspaper editor, seeks to publish; Clive, a composer, sees things differently and the men’s friendship is tested as news of the photos’ content begins to catch the public attention.

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1001 Books to Read Before You Die (Sort Of) Challenge #164

“You can spin stories out of the ways people understand and misunderstand each other.” – Ian McEwan

comfort of strangers - book coverThe more of Ian McEwan’s work that I read, the more convinced I become that when I started with Atonement, I started with his best work. The Comfort of Strangers took me two tries a year apart to get past the first chapter. Colin and Mary are on vacation in an unspecified ancient city and don’t appear to be enjoying themselves too much. They’re not quite connecting. They keep getting lost on their wanderings and the frustration is building with more than a week left of their holiday. One night a local man named Robert helps the lost pair, taking them to his bar where he tells them stories about his childhood. Coming across them again the next day, he invites them to dinner at his home with his wife, Caroline. Though Mary and Colin aren’t quite sure what to make of Robert and Caroline, they politely accept the couple’s hospitality. The experience seems to open the flow of communication between Mary and Colin for the rest of their vacation. Of course, in the end it turns out those odd, uncomfortable feelings were more than justified.

There wasn’t much I found to really hold onto in this story. Mary is an overt feminist and those few conversations where women’s rights arise were the parts I found most engaging. The twist at the end didn’t feel particularly genuine; Mary and Colin are impulsive but I can’t help feeling that some of their behavior was tweaked according to the laws of horror films (in which everyone does the exact thing any real person would know instinctively not to do). I wasn’t sorry for this book to end. I have higher hopes for the other McEwan novels on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list.

(And I just found out it was adapted into a film with Christopher Walken, Helen Mirren, Natasha Richardson, and Rupert Everett in the early 90s; not sure what to make of this new information.)

1001 Books to Read Before You Die (Sort-Of) Challenge: 51-55

“You can’t get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me.” – C. S. Lewis

Except for me it would be a cup of cocoa (not a fan of coffee or tea). There’s nothing like sitting curled up in a blanket with a cup of cocoa warming your hands, a good book open in your lap and fat flakes of snow falling outside. It’s even better when you’ve just come in from shoveling that mess outside. There’s been a lot of that for me this winter.

But I digress. Here are my next five recaps/remembrances. Continue reading

1001 Books to Read Before You Die (Sort-Of) Challenge: 11-15

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” — Oscar Wilde

Today’s books include a trip around the world, a few jumps back in time, and one giant leap forward in time.

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne


I won a cheap paperback copy of this book in math class in the seventh grade (yes, I was so nerdy that after winning a small math contest in class, I topped it off by selecting a book as my prize). But then, who doesn’t love a good adventure story? And this one involves travel, which I’ve always enjoyed and wanted to do more of (so far, my passport is looking sad and the Bermuda stamps are lonely but hopefully, some friends are on their way). Which reminds me: when reading, don’t bother getting hung up on pronunciation, specifically characters’ names. It’s something I’ve come across when I recommend Russian literature to friends. “How can you stand the names?” Try to get them right if you’re reading for class or book club or any discussion really, but if it’s just you reading for fun, substitute a tough name for a moniker that won’t slow you down. In Around the World in Eighty Days, I initially had difficulties trying to accommodate Passepartout. When I started thinking of him as “Passport,” it made things move more comfortably. It also comes in handy when there are multiple characters with the same or similar names (I think this habit/technique is why I was able to keep characters straight in One Hundred Years of Solitude when my classmates struggled and why I was able to enjoy the novel more).

Atonement by Ian McEwanUnknown-1

I absolutely love this book and it is definitely on my To Read Again (at Some Point) List (once I figure out who it was I loaned it to last and get it back). I picked it up just before the press for the film’s impending release was getting started. Though I’ve since read a few of Ian McEwan’s other novels (and plan to read many more), nothing’s matched the enjoyment I got from Atonement. The ways that he played with perspective and characters’ interpretations of a single scene or event are fascinating. Plus, it’s part war novel (and I am a sucker for war novels). Did I mention that it’s also beautifully written? (On a side note, my favorite part of the film adaptation is the minutes long, continuous shot on the beach at Dunkirk; with the fantastic score, it’s so hauntingly beautiful and amazingly heartbreaking).

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Unknown-2This novel appeared on four syllabi in three semesters while I was completing my undergraduate degree. It’s not my favorite Toni Morrison novel, but it’s not my least favorite either (sorry Song of Solomon). While it’s true that each time I read the novel, I became a little more frustrated, it is also true that I continued to find new things to say about it. There are so many levels and so many nuances within this novel. It is possible to passionately discuss this book for hours, regardless of how enjoyable you find it. Also, if you read Toni Morrison’s novels in the order they were chronologically published, her earliest works seem to culminate in Beloved. Certain elements, techniques, and approaches are pulled from each of the others and are woven together. It’s an interesting progression to examine. But don’t watch the film adaptation of Beloved. Just, don’t do it.

Bleak House by Charles Dickensimages

When is the best time to take a Dickens seminar? Why when there’s going to be a newborn in the house while you’re trying to do homework, of course. No? Well, somehow I managed (I have a list of ways to get through about 200 pages of Dickens a day for anyone who’s interested). It’s always a good sign when the professor assigns two of the longest Dickens novels along with several other shorter novels and stories. But within the first few hundred pages of Bleak House I was successfully hooked and now voluntarily subject myself to Dickens. There’s a reason his popularity doesn’t seem to fade with time (and he’s not on high school reading lists just because of tradition). The humor and compassion of his characters resonate nearly 200 years later. (Nerdy aside, the Dickens episode of the revamped Doctor Who is one of my favorites).

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

images-1I made Brave New World necessary to a paper I was writing for my undergraduate history seminar so that I would have to read it. It had been on my To Read list for ages but unless it was assigned reading, I wouldn’t be getting to it for a while, so I made it assigned reading. I really enjoyed the novel and what it contributed to my paper (geeking out again: I looked at the legacy of totalitarian and fascist regimes through the dystopic fiction of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, focusing particularly on texts that are taught in public schools, Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Giver, and the first two books in The Hunger Games Trilogy).

Book Review – On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

There have always been milestones used to suggest whether or not a person has reached maturity. At eighteen years old we’re considered old enough to fight for our country and help to determine its future by voting. At twenty-one we’re supposed to be mature enough to be responsible with substances like alcohol. But is there really any age or state we reach where we’re magically mature?

That’s the focus of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Set in the 1960s, On Chesil Beach watches the awkward wedding night of young and inexperienced Edward and Florence. At a time when getting married was a mark of maturity, Edward and Florence wait for the moment when they’ll feel the change and begin to realize that it isn’t as easy as they thought.

Using flashbacks, McEwan gives insight into the characters’ personal histories and family life, demonstrating the atmosphere that helped to inspire and encourage their misconceptions. These glimpses of formative incidents are my favorite aspect of the book. They provide the perfect space for McEwan’s beautifully descriptive prose to reign.

One thing that Ian McEwan has mastered is capturing families held in an uncomfortable balance by dynamic tension. In this novel, that extends to the brief and chaste relationship of Edward and Florence. The reader is allowed more insight into the hopes, dreams, fears, and insecurities of Edward and Florence than they ever considered the other might possess.

On Chesil Beach is well-crafted, well-written, and well-developed, but I’m not sure I can say that I really enjoyed it most of the time while I was reading it. The characters’ interactions with one another felt more developed than the characters as individuals, making it hard to feel too much about them. They were vague enough to stand as general social symbols but that hinders the ability to attach to them on an emotional level. The plot was necessarily simple and understated.

As I approached the final pages, I was disappointed, underwhelmed. I hadn’t expected it to be as good as Atonement but I had expected there to be more and as the number of unread pages began to decrease, my belief in a satisfying resolution dwindled. But, of course, Ian McEwan’s planning and skill proved to be beyond my imaginary scope. What first appeared to be a quick wrap up of the loose ends turned out to have a far deeper meaning than I anticipated. In the last page and a half, the full message of the short novel presents itself and the reader cannot help but wonder about his or her own life.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that I enjoyed the novel, but in those final pages I definitely found a greater appreciation for it. And it helped me to pinpoint another aspect that McEwan has mastered: the unexpectedly satisfying conclusion. From the few works of his I have read, the endings are rarely what the reader expects or would have wanted, and yet, they fit better than a more predictable ending ever could. They’re not overdone or unrealistic. They simply hammer home the point McEwan was trying to make about life and leave the reader in a state of unexpected contemplation.