Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Atonement by Ian McEwan (23 down, 77 to go)

This is the first time I've read Atonement or Ian McEwan. It is the first-person narrative of Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old child in an upper-class British family, beginning in 1935. Published in 2001, I believe by definition it is post-modern, but it reads more like a modernist novel.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like many novels, Atonement started a bit slow as the characters were developed, but by the time the principal conflict was revealed I was captivated. The conflict: a gross injustice, had me thinking I would dislike this novel as there seemed little hope of setting things right, but I clung to the clue in the title and hoped for satisfaction. But of course, a novel of such acclaim could not be so simple or predictable. The innocent are falsely accused, punished, and never fully exonerated, while the guilty go free and prosper. All of which would ordinarily cause me to hate the story, but credit the author, somehow McEwan does a masterful job of confusing my emotions, and creating an unexpected ending that left me somewhat relieved, though not entirely satisfied. It's simply too complex to explain, so I'll spare the spoiler.

The story revolves around the upper class Tallis family, beginning at their estate somewhere in England, 1935 and principally around Briony, the youngest of the Tallis children. Briony is a 13-year-old aspiring writer. One of the most surprising parts of the story is how likeable Briony is, in spite of being the cause of the great injustice. She realizes her fault – her crime, too late to prevent the catastrophic results. The story is her atonement, which is imperfect; justice is never truly served. Perhaps that is the charm. In my experience injustice is seldom set completely right. I think that is part of the masterpiece. McEwan resisted the obvious plot, the vindication of the pure, the downfall of the evil. Most often, when the natural laws of right and wrong are violated, there are scars that endure. McEwan forsook happily ever after, for more authentic consequences, but still with a sense of hope and triumph.

Briony might even be called the heroine, in spite of the fact that she is responsible for the miscarriage of justice. She is never hateable, often pitiable, and ultimately admirable.

I found one particular nuance of the story wonderfully vindicating – for myself. Briony's first attempt at publication receives a rejection from the publishing company, that elaborately advises her writing shows talent, but that she should abandon stream of consciousness style, for something more narrative. AMEN! It's an opinion I know, but I've made it clear in this blog how much I dislike stream of consciousness writing. It was nice to find someone, even an imaginary publisher, who agrees.

Film Rendition: 2007 version starring James McAvoy and Keira Knightly is a very faithful portrayal...until the very end. In the novel, the author leaves a little doubt in the reader's mind about two possible endings, and which is true. Though, neither is truly true; it's a nuance of the book that is hard to describe. Anyway, the film leaves no doubt and that was a bit disappointing. Otherwise very good. It also starred three different actresses as Briony at three different ages, including Vanessa Redgrave as the aged Briony.


Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder by Evelyn Waugh (22 down, 78 to go)

These memories which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past—were always with me. ~ Charles Ryder

This is the first time I’ve read Brideshead Revisited or Evelyn Waugh. The book is a modernist novel, and the first-person narrative of Charles Ryder regarding his association with the Flyte family, 1920s England and leading up to World War II.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Waugh’s writing is superb. I’m looking forward to my next read by this author, though it won’t be for a while.

There were a number of things that initially mislead me however. First, Evelyn Waugh is a dude. Ah the Brits, whatcha gonna do? Next, the novel begins with Captain Ryder's account of Army life. I confess that excited me a bit more than the English-Lit, Bronte-esque, romance novel I was expecting based on the title. However, the Army portions are reserved only for the prologue and epilogue. The intervening chapters are not quite Bronte-esque, though they do indeed include a romance.

In the prologue, Captain Charles Ryder, finds himself, and his troops quartered at Brideshead, the abandoned English manor where Charles spent much of his early adult life. The bulk of the novel is his reminiscing of those days.

Beginning when Charles befriends the young aristocrat Lord Sebastian Flyte in college, and is then introduced to Sebastian’s family: mother Teresa Flyte, the Marchioness of Marchmain; older brother, the Earl of Brideshead, known as Bridey, but whose true name is never revealed, younger sister Lady Julia Flyte, and youngest sister Lady Cordelia Flyte. Sebastian's father, Lord Marchmain, the Marquess of Marchmain, Alexander Flyte is estranged from his wife and living with a mistress in Italy.

The story is the long association of Charles with the Flyte family who are Roman Catholic. Lady Teresa and Cordeila are devout, while Sebastian and Julia have their doubts, but won’t quite abandon the faith. Julia even defends it to Charles who is agnostic. Lord Marchmain became a Catholic only to marry Teresa, but has by all appearances, forsaken religion along with his wife.

Sebastian is at first an amusing character, keeping a teddy bear in college named Aloysius, and other eccentricities, but he becomes a hopeless alcoholic, which ruins his relationship with Charles and family. Charles occasionally returns to his own home to reside with his father. Their interactions are quite amusing as Charles' Father uses the opportunity to chide Charles for living beyond his means. He is never unkind, but rather, very clever with his comments, and the chiding is well deserved. Charles and Julia both have unhappy marriages, and turn to each other, but the final scene of the novel, not counting the epilogue, changes everything.

Religion, which has been a theme throughout, becomes paramount in the end. Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead to die. Cordelia, and Julia with new found faith, are determined their father will have the last rites, but he refuses. Charles is critical of the notion, and it creates obvious tension between him and Julia. Lord Marchmain lingers for a while, but then takes a very serious turn. The priest is again called, and a great moment of truth evolves, with surprising attitudes exhibited by a number of those present. I was prepared to dislike the ending. I am not Catholic, but I did not like the obvious contempt that Charles had for the faith of Julia and the Flyte family. But then, another surprise, and I was relieved.

The epilogue: Years later, Charles revisits Brideshead, now as an army officer. Though he is not terribly happy, neither is he unhappy. While visiting the old Brideshead chapel he says a prayer, 
...uttering an ancient, newly –learned form of words. 
Upon returning to the Army quarters, a fellow officer notes: You’re looking unusually cheerful today. 

Other excerpts:

Charles description of one Mr. Samgrass: 
He had… an over-large head, neat hands, small feet and the general appearance of being too often bathed.

Charles on New York City: 
...for in that city there is a neurosis in the air which the inhabitants mistake for energy.

Anthony, a friend of Charles: 
Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear my dear Charles, it has killed you.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey (21 down, 79 to go)

This is the first time I’ve read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Ken Kesey. The book is a post-modern novel, set in a mental hospital, probably in the late 1950s. It is narrated by Bromden, a giant Native American patient in the hospital. He is, as you might guess, not entirely reliable as a narrator.

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars

I enjoyed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, though it is a little...oh I'll say unnerving. As you can imagine, treatment in mental institutions was remarkably different than today. At least I hope so. Having never been institutionalized myself, I don't really know, but Kesey reportedly worked in a mental institution, so I assume he knows what he was writing about. I believe the novel was an exposé of sorts of the degrading and inhumane practices of the day.

There are three main characters: Nurse Ratched, the head nurse that rules the ward with absolute authority. She bullies uncooperative doctors, has three dim witted and cruel orderlies to carry out her will, and she manipulates the patients with subtlety, veiled threats, token rewards, and in extreme cases electro-shock therapy or even lobotomy.  The ward is her domain, and she has no apparent interest in healing or helping the patients, just a perverse ambition to control. Some of the patients seem to have little wrong with them other than low self-esteem, and Nurse Ratched feeds their insecurities, to keep them weak and under her control.

Randall McMurphy, a new patient challenges her control from day one. He is quick witted, sly, worldly, and probably not truly in need of psychiatric care. He is a gambler, con-man, letch, and overall scoundrel. He manages to get transferred from a prison work farm because he thought the hospital would be an easier life. He quickly becomes a hero to many of the other patients. There are a series of minor contests of will between McMurphy and the Big Nurse. Nurse Ratched wins most, but in each instance, McMurphy rises again, and continues to bring her down a notch at each turn. At the same time, he bolsters the confidence and defiance of the other patients, and even the timid doctor that had been under Nurse Ratched's thumb. The reader learns to despise Nurse Ratched, cheer for McMurphy and yearn for an epic showdown between the two.

The narrator is a giant half Native-American, named Bromden, affectionately and/or mockingly referred to as Chief. His father was an actual Chief, so the title is less ironic than it seems. Bromden has been in the hospital since the end of WW II, and has always feigned to be deaf and dumb. By this ploy, he overhears things not intended for patients. To other characters in the story, Chief is barely a person, just a hulking presence of no threat or consequence. But the reader learns his thoughts, and respects, even loves the gentle giant. The Chief is a good person, but also truly delusional, though it might be the result of "treatment". McMurphy suspects Chief can hear and speaks to him as if he does; eventually Chief reveals his secret first to McMurphy, then to everyone.

The epic contest does indeed finally erupt, and although there is poetic justice, it comes with tragic consequence. There is one joyous result, but I'll spare the spoiler and let the reader discover it themselves.

The title of the book is derived from a nursery rhyme the Chief's grandmother sang to him.
Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,Apple seed and apple thorn,Wire, briar, limber lockThree geese in a flockOne flew EastOne flew WestAnd one flew over the cuckoo's nest

Film Renditions: The1975 film starring Jack Nicholson won five Academy Awards and also starred Christopher Lloyd and a barely recognizable Danny DeVito. The movie was reasonably true to the book, but didn't even attempt to tell the entire story from Chief's perspective. That made it less enjoyable to me, though it was marvelously cast and well acted.