Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Recent Reads

My introduction to Ian McEwan's writing was through the wonderful The Cement Garden in the early Eighties. I loved the tautness of the writing - how the words seemed to be tugged tighter by each tension in the story until it seemed impossible for something not to snap.

Almost twenty years later, I picked up Amsterdam from a bookshop in Cardigan, Wales (which has long since stopped trading), and found this a difficult book to enjoy. As I remember, it seemed very introspective and made me feel as if I was at a wake, which may have been the intention as the action centres around the death of Molly Lane and begins with her funeral. Even though I didn't particularly enjoy it, rather than leave the book in Britain I posted it to myself in Australia so that it could sit next to The Cement Garden on my bookshelf.

A couple of years back, I bought On Chesil Beach and found it a difficult book to put down. Loved it. Looked forward to coming home from work and putting that side of the day behind me so that I could stretch out and wallow in his prose. If ever a piece of writing was so evocative that it not only transported me back to a different period of time but made feel like the proverbial fly on the wall, then this was it.

Last week, I tried Saturday. After 20 pages, I was invoking my 40--80 page rule: if it doesn't grab me by that point, I let myself decide that it isn't the book for me and that I needn't persevere. (I have to tell myself this because, for many years, I found it impossible not to finish a book once I'd begun.) At page 72, I stopped reading. It's powerful writing and convincing, but I didn't feel that was enough.

There's a section on page 67 that caught my attention, where Perowne, a neurosurgeon, is talking about some of the classics that his daughter has set him the task of reading (
Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary) and notes: '
If, as Daisy said, the genius was in the detail, then he was unmoved. The details were apt and convincing enough, but surely not so very difficult to marshal if you were halfway observant and had the patience to write them all down... They had the virtue, at least, of representing a recognisable physical reality...'

I sensed at this point that what Ian McEwan might be working towards in Saturday was to move the reader in the way that Perowne wasn't, for the detail he provides, second by second at times, is minute and convincing. It struck me as a neat idea, although it didn't move me enough by page 72 to keep me interested (I prefer broad brushstrokes to microscopic detail these days, I think). As far as Saturday is concerned, and knowing that I was tired when reading it, I'll defer to a friend who stayed with Preowne, who found the descriptions of neurosurgery convincing and compelling, and who certainly enjoyed it.

Sometimes, enjoying a book, I find, can come down to mood or level of alertness when you're starting it, or what your life needs at that particular time. However, if the pattern I've
established holds true, I'm sure to enjoy the next Ian McEwan book regardless of that.


Mike French said...

Hmm interesting

I must have got to about the same place in Saturday before deciding that I was going to leave it.

It wasn't that it wasn't good for what it was, but for me it seemed a little to full of itself and kind of forgot the reader interaction as it tried to carve a place for itself as a key novel for that moment in history.

gary davison said...

Now that's more like it. On my top shelf, amongst my all time favs, sits Amsterdam. I loved this book. Then, like you, I tried another of Mr McEwan's. I forget which one, but my twenty second rule kicked in and it was kicked into touch. Nice to see we're back to normal on our reading comparisons :) p.s What channel am i tuning into on saturday afternoon? you're in my diary, but I'm not sure what radio station you're on.

Swubird said...


I have never read anything by Ian McEwan, but recently I was reading a short story by Truman Capote. It was filled with beautiful descriptions, as he always does, but I found myself in the same place that you were at in Saturday. Microscopic is a good way to put it. I love the descriptions, but there were just too many of them to hold my interest. The problem was that I was so busy reading the descriptions that it was difficult for me to stay on track with the story.

Happy trails.

Paul said...

Cheers, Mike, Gary and Swubird.

The different ways in which people respond to books is intriguing, and I always try and make mental notes to emulate styles I like and avoid those I don't. How best to capture the reader's engagement is certainly the key question, Mike.

Haven't read any Truman Capote, Swubird, and I'm not sure the film about his life made me want to -- although it did leave me with an even greater admiration for Harper Lee.

The podcast interview will take place Tuesday, Gary, but I'll post details soon.