Sunday 5 August 2007

Bother you, Ian McEwan

It's always a good idea, on the hottest day of the year, to spend a couple of hours in an Aga-warmed kitchen, jointing, boning and marinading a chicken, ready for the barbecue. Why can't I just go and buy steak or sausages like most people*?

With luck, however, I will not be called upon to cook.

And I'll have a splendid bowl of chicken stock. And bits for Tilly, who will be happier today than she was yesterday.

Yesterday, she decided to roll in a fresh cowpat and was bathed by the Sage in water from the hose. I use tepid water from the tap. He also used liquid soap rather than shampoo. I didn't say anything, I was appreciative that he hadn't left the job for me to do.

Today, Tilly has been eating cowpat instead. Her breath is a bit stinky.

I finished the book I'd been reading and mused on the possible explanation for why, at present, I'm finding so many novels difficult to get through. I've always read voraciously, until the past year or so. I concluded, tentatively, that many books just aren't good enough. They may be well written, but with clunking plot-holes, or they may not be written well enough, but they rarely grip me any more. For the same reason, I watch very little television fiction now.

This particular book, for instance, was by Tracy Chevalier. It was written as if in the voices of each of the main characters, and she dealt with that tricky matter rather well. It was engaging and, having read most of it in bed, I brought the book downstairs to finish this morning, which was a good sign. However, like just about every work of fiction set in the past that's written nowadays, the spirit of place and time missed the mark and this irritates me considerably. The writer had researched, in some depth, the conventions of burial and mourning in Edwardian England (she described the niceties of mourning dress in slightly boring detail) but she missed the mark with the upbringing of middle-class children, and there were several incidents that jarred.

Similarly, I have never forgiven Ian McEwan for making Briony understand the explicit sexual language of the letter (which would never have been written, nor could the mistake have been made over its delivery) which was the pivot of the plot of Atonement. Everything about the vital parts of that story simply could not have happened and so it made nonsense of the whole convoluted story, however well it was written.

I've just (no honestly, I'm having it now) had a revelation. That bloody book did it. It's been ever since I read Atonement that I haven't enjoyed reading fiction. Unless it's preposterous fiction, that is. I can suspend disbelief like an acrobat, but I can't deal with being tricked.

*I don't care for supermarket meat is why**

**Please correct to 'is the reason' if your grammar-loving sensibilities are wounded


Dave said...

I've lost track. Tilly is the grandchild, right?

McEwan is vastly over-rated. I found his novel to be pretentious, predictable and dull. I used to think it was my duty to finish any book I started. Now I can toss a book aside, rather than waste any more precious hours (when I could be playing cricket on the computer).

Z said...

That's right, Dave, she is.

I think an awful lot of novelists are, indeed, pretentious, predictable and dull and I, like you, no longer feel I should finish a book. I have a number of books lying around unfinished, some of which are by no means bad but which I don't care enough to read to the end. Sometimes I skip to the end to see if it'll be worth my while.

Pat said...

i too am suffering with the Aga. Most of the time it's a blessed comfort. At least we haven't any guests to moan about it. I think one of the reasons one spends less time reading - m'aussi - is the amount of time one spends writing or plotting. I bought 'Atonement' for one of the kids and am ashamed to say I didn't read it. I do think the days when I read voraciously are over but there has always been a strong leaning to non fiction.

Z said...

Atonement was, I think, written mainly for earnest book group members to discuss.

Much of the time I used to spend reading was when I was watching the television. My children used to be irritated that I would not let them change channel, protesting "I'm watching that" when my nose was in my book half the time.

Reading was also an escape from too much to think about. I lost myself easily in a book. Peachy life nowadays, nothing to forget about.

Rog said...

I always find rolling in poo a viable alternative to reading Ian McCewan

Z said...

Horse poo is nicest, I find, Murph

heybartender said...

My dogs, prefer rolling in cow poo and eating rabbit poo. I do wish they would learn to bathe themselves and brush their teeth. Ah well, at least I'll never have to pay for them to attend college.

My patience with fiction depends on my mood, but mostly I like Terry Pratchett and the like- light and funny and yes, suspension of disbelief but not all of my senses. I am happy that I finally learned to put books down that are not worth my time. I'll remember to steer clear of Ian.

Z said...

We used to have a stallion donkey. He gave off certain male scents in the spring and my then dog Chester thought that a good roll would make him irresistable. It smelled appalling and several baths in scented shampoo didn't completely clear it.

Z said...

Irresistible. Sorry.

I, Like The View said...

funnily enough I left my book group after having to read Atonement

dreadful book

however, when I'm feeling a bit miz there is nothing like the wit and human observation of the witches of the Discworld to cheer me up

weirdly, I don't read half as much as I used to either - altho I did enjoy Natural Flights of the Human Mind (but not Astonishing Splashes of Colour)

am currently stuck on rereading the John Le Carre books that I read in my youth (and probably didn't really understand then)

those and sudoku

Z said...

I felt I'd maybe been rude to book group members, but a friend's group read it and I talked to him afterwards - he put forward some of my points and people were coming up with ever more convoluted defences that, actually, made the book more of a cheat than ever if they were right.

I like rereading books. One gains more from rereading a good book.

Do you think, perhaps, that reading blogs fulfils a need in us formerly met by books?

stitchwort said...

Don't read fiction much, but diaries are usually fascinating.
Not current political figures, but historical - Dorothy Wordsworth, Thomas Turner, and the great Parson Woodforde, to name 3 I can see from here.
Just like blogs.

The Boy said...

Nope, I didn't like attonement either, for your reason, plus, frankly, it was just dull. Didn't put me off reading though. Couldn't survive the commute if I didn't have a book for the train.

Was in the kitchen yesterday as well. Its LL's bday today, and she requested a carrot cake. Plus we had some lovely Atlantic Salmon in, so grilled that up with steamed runner beans and tomatoe and garlic rice. Made for a very sweety boy, so its a good thing we ate outside.

Z said...

At present, I'm reading Peter Ackroyd's biography of Shakespeare, Vic Gatrell's 'City of Laughter' (London in the 18th century as portrayed by the satirical prints and cartoons of the era) and The Nice and the Good, an Iris Murdoch I haven't read before - I haven't read anything of hers for decades and I'm seeing if they stand the test of time (mind you, I was too young for her 40 years ago when I first read her).

Happy birthday to LL, Boy. Nice Sunday dinner!

badgerdaddy said...

I'm fashionably late, I see.

Can I recommend a couple of bits of fiction to you? Okay, okay, three bits.
Giant Under The Snow, by John Gordon (I'm almost certain it's set in Norwich - it's a childrens book, supposedly, but it's still a favourite of mine. I recently read it to SLF at bedtime, too. She liked it)

And two grown-up ones -
Memoirs of an Invisible Man, by HF Saint (terrifically realised and very practical book about surviving being invisible. I mean, where would you live?)

The Big Clock, by Kenneth Fearing (with a name like that, how can this be a bad book? Written in the 40s I think, and really stands the test of time. One of the finest and most original crime novels I have read)

Go on, give them a go.

Arabella said...

I couldn't finish 'Enduring Love' but I enjoyed 'Atonement'. Felt it was an interesting sort of homage to those 'Big House' between-the- wars novels by Elizabeth Bowen and Rosamund Leheman.
Remember the flack that Mary Wesley caught when she published 'The Camomile Lawn'? Poor woman spent so much time defending the fact that everyone she grew up with swore like troopers!

Z said...

Duly noted, Badgerdaddy: I will.

Hello and welcome, Arabella. I see you love Crime and Punishment too, so we're in harmony really.

What I disliked about Atonement was the sloppy plotting, and it mattered because it was the pivot of the story. There was no possibility that Robbie would have even written that letter to a girl he respected who was not of his social class (and whose family had so helped him). Having accepted that plot device, there was no possibility that he would have been stupid enough to have put the wrong one in the envelope. Okay, accept that one too. But Briony, a 14-year old from that particular stratum of the middle class, would not have read "In my dreams I kiss your cunt, your sweet wet cunt" and understood it. It was an impossibility too far. McEwan could have made the story work, by making no one able to envisage the possibility of Robbie's innocence, that he over-egged it.

The upper classe and aristocracy did swear like troopers. It was the upper middle women, themiddle and lower middle class and 'respectable working class' women who didn't (I despise the whole 'class' thing, but that doesn't mean I don't understand its nuances in social history).

I didn't read Enduring Love, but I thought Saturday was implausible and disliked the smug family. And that interminable ball-by-ball squash game...

Actually, I think McEwan is a good writer, though not as good as he thinks he is, but he annoys me, but I'm sorry for sounding off like this - not sure what's coming over me.

Z said...

Should have read -

McEwan could have made the story work but in his eagerness to ensure that no one would be able to envisage the possibility of Robbie's innocence, he over-egged it.

Bum. Sorry.

Arabella said...

Z - I have a lovely picture in my mind of McEwan in an oversize pinnie, cracking eggs.

Also made me think of the first time I heard "cunt" repeatedly in the theatre: in the 90s at The National - Judi Dench having a great time as the bar proprietor in 'Absolute Hell' (if you don't know it: set in a supposedly Colony Rooms type of place just after the end of WW2). There was a palpable sense of awkwardness in the audience at first. Needless to say, she was great.

Z said...

You are too, Arabella. Great, that is.

Anonymous said...

I think most modern fiction books are like most modern people - shallow, boring and inconsisitent.

"Do you think, perhaps, that reading blogs fulfils a need in us formerly met by books?"

Most of them (that I read) are better written...

I can't be bothered to read modern fiction. If I read fiction at all, it'll be something written pre-80s.

Non-fiction, however, I could happily read all day.

Z said...

"...most modern people - shallow, boring and inconsisitent" ... present company excepted, of course, I hope? (except for inconsistent, which I prefer to think of as mercurial)

On the whole, I agree. But hope still triumphs over experience, for I am, as you know, quite foolish.

I, Like The View said...

I wonder about the reading blogs thing satisfying a need to read. . .

for me it satisfies a need to write too - and satisfies a desire to communicate (irrespective of what one reads or writes about)

it reminds me of the pen-pals of my youth; it is more satisfying than a hand written diary (altho I do keep one of those too) in some ways, as I love the look of the finished piece, the addition of images reminds me of ripping pictures out of magazines to decorate a scrapbook, or sticking in photos; it (sometimes) has immediate feedback - more so than a letters page might if one truly published say, more so than waiting for a reply from a pen-pal; it seems interactive whilst indepedent but also interdependent - if you see what I mean

you never know what someone is going to write about next, so there is always a surprise waiting for you, even if it's only a comment in a column

I think it satisfies lots of needs


Z said...

I've never kept a diary, not past the end of January. I rarely write letters and I never had a pen-pal, though I have kept in touch with one schoolfriend. But writing a blog is different - and you've put it better than I could. I agree with you completely.

badgerdaddy said...

You'll be delighted to know the movie of Atonement is out in the UK on September 7th...

Z said...

And bother that too. I'm absolutely not seeing it - do you see the absurd novella Chesil Beach is longlisted for the Booker? Really me!

luckyzmom said...

I loved "Atonement", being unaware of the subleties you are aware of.