I Married A Communist – by Philip Roth

I Married A CommunistI decided to take a little trip back in time, to a novel published in 1998 by one of my favorite authors, Philip Roth. Maybe I needed a sense of stability in these seeming uncertain times, or maybe I wanted to ensure that I chose a book that would be worth reading. In any event, I knew that virtually anything by Philip Roth (and there is very little by Philip Roth I have not read) would make me think, make me appreciate that as much as things change they stay the same. And boy oh boy did I get my money’s worth (figuratively of course since I took it out from the library) from “I Married A Communist”.

Part of Roth’s American Trilogy, which includes The Human Stain and the Pulitzer Prize winning American Pastoral, I Married A Communist does not disappoint. Part political commentary, part  story of love and vengeance and part mystery, I Married A Communist explores a difficult period of time in American history, focuses on some extreme personalities and emphasizes the importance of introspection.

The story begins in 1998, when the narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, runs into his beloved high school English teacher, Murray Ringold, the brother of Nathan’s childhood idol, Ira Ringold, aka Iron Rimm.  Nathan had been Murray’s student 47 years earlier and when Nathan runs into him, Murray is 90 years old and enrolled as a student at a small New England college in a course entitled “Shakespeare at the Millennium”. Nathan and Murray spend the next 6 days recounting the story of Ira Ringold.

Nathan first met Ira in front of Murray’s house in October of 1948. For the next year and a half or so, Ira and Nathan spent a great deal of time together and enjoyed each other’s company, but there were things about Ira that Nathan did not know. After Nathan went off to college in 1950 they had very little contact. Ira was a radio star, performing under the name Iron Rimm. He was a large 6 foot 6 man, and a self-proclaimed Communist with a penchant for violence. While in the military and serving in Iran, Ira met Johnny O’Day, a staunch American Communist who influenced Ira’s political philosophy. While describing Ira’s story to Nathan, Murray muses that “It’s so fickle, isn’t it, who you wind up with, how you wind up?” Unlike Ira, O’Day lived every aspect of his life consistent with his political ideology. Ira and O’Day kept up a correspondence over the years.

When Nathan met Ira, Ira was married to the famous and glamorous actress, Eve Frame. Eve had been married three times before and had a difficult daughter, Sylphid, who, although an adult, lived at home with Eve and Ira and created various problems for an already tumultuous and volatile marriage.  Despite his political convictions, Ira lived in luxury and tolerated Eve’s numerous parties and high society friends, including Bryden Grant, the descendant of Ulysses S Grant and his wife, Katrina Van Tassel. Grant was a gossip columnist with aspirations of becoming a Congressman (which he ultimately accomplished).

Before meeting Eve, Ira, a high school dropout, had worked in a record factory and in a zinc mine in Zinctown. Ira maintained a shack in Zinctown where he retreated when the life of luxury was too much for him.

After discovering one of Ira’s infidelities, and in a rage, Eve turned over Ira’s letters to O’Day to Grant and Van Tassell. They convinced her to write a memoir, entitled I Married A Communist, which resulted in Ira being blacklisted and losing his radio job. Solely by virtue of his familial relationship to Ira, Murray also lost his teaching job. And in 1998, Nathan discovers that as a result of his relationship with Ira, he was denied a Fulbright 25 years earlier. “Of course it should not be too surprising to find out that your life story has included an event, something important, that you have known nothing about…”

The relationship between Ira and Eve, the impact of the memoir and the complexity of devastating impact of no holds barred political ideology and ambition are brilliantly conceived in this WOW novel. There are also some great passages dealing with the relationship between literature and politics (“Politics is the great generalizer…and literature the great particularizer”) and the influence of overwhelming personal relationships and communications (“Occasionally now, looking back, I think of my life as one long speech that I’ve been listening to…Everyone perceiving experience as something not to have but to have so as to talk about it. Why is that?”).

The novel addresses so many interesting aspects of political and daily life as to make the reader realize that today’s tumult is yesterday’s story. This is a challenging and dense read and worth every minute! Reserve it now at Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11012105__Si%20married%20a%20communist__P0%2C1__Orightresult__X4?lang=eng&suite=gold

Judas – by Amos Oz

Judas by Amos Oz“Here is a story from the winter days of the end of 1959 and 1960. It is a story of error and desire, of unrequited love, and of a religious question that remains unresolved.” This novel’s first two sentences set the tone for the balance of the story, and the error, desire, love and religious question described are all intermingled in its 300 plus pages.

Shmuel Ash is a confused and naive 25 year old student in Jerusalem, when his father’s financial collapse causes him to leave University and set out on his own. He responds to a notice on a bulletin board in the university seeking a companion. “Offered to a single humanities student with conversational skills and an interest in history, free accommodation and a modest monthly sum in return for spending five hours per evening with a seventy-year-old invalid, an educated, widely cultured man.” When Shmuel first arrives at the house, he is struck by its solemn state. The house “seemed to Shmuel Ash basement-like, lower than street level, sunk almost to its windows in the heavy earth of the slope.”

Samuel accepts the assignment and agrees not to tell anyone what he does at the house or to provide any information about the inhabitants of the house. He is not permitted to bring any visitors to the house which is not a problem for him as he has no friends. Thus begins Shmuel’s intellectual and somewhat surreal immersion into Israeli history and the relationship between Christianity and Judaism.

Shmuel’s ward, Gershom Wald, “was an ugly man, broad, crooked, and hunchbacked.” Wald enjoys philosophical argument and spends many hours on the phone with unknown associates on the other end, deep in discussion. When Wald is not on the phone, Shmuel and Wald engage in intense and sometimes contentious philosophical debates. In this way Shmuel and Wald get to know and appreciate each other and Shmuel learns details about Israel’s history.

Wald’s daughter in law, Atalia, also lives in the dreary house. Shmuel feels an immediate attraction to Atalia, although she is many years older. Both Wald and Atalia have experienced great sorrow that permeates the house, the conversation and the general mood of the novel. Through that sorrow Shmuel ponders many complex religious questions, as well as the direction of his own life. Shmuel stays with Wald and Atalia for about three months.

The book does a good job raising and addressing the many sides of difficult religious and political questions, but offers no answers, perhaps because there are none. This is not a book for everyone but it is a thoughtful assessment of a variety of religious and political issues. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11224811__Sjudas__P0%2C3__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

Anything Is Possible – by Elizabeth Strout

Anything Is PossibleIn early 2016, Random House released Elizabeth Strout’s lovely novel, “Lucy Barton”. You can read my review of Lucy Barton in this blog. In May of this year, her new novel, “Anything Is Possible” will be released. Anything Is Possible is a set of nine interlocking stories, with the common link being Lucy Barton and her home town of Amgash, Illinois. Although the stories are written in a relatively light style and each is in its own way thought provoking, unfortunately, unlike Lucy Barton, this novel is dark, fatalistic, cynical and dreary.

The novel starts out with a story called “The Sign”. In The Sign we meet an elderly Tommy Guptill, who on the surface appears to be a perfectly happy and satisfied man. Early in his marriage, due to a fire at the farm he inherited from his father, Tommy moves his family to cramped quarters in an undesirable part of town and spends his working life as a janitor at Lucy Barton’s school. As a result of the fire and the move, his family transitions from a life of relative affluence to a life of modesty and simplicity. When we meet Tommy late in his life he muses on the spirituality that overtook him when his life so rapidly changed. He seems to be generally content with his present and past. Yet there is something dark and uncertain lurking beneath that rosy surface.

Tommy has taken it upon himself to periodically look in on Lucy Barton’s brother, Pete, who lives alone in the old Barton family house. In one of his drives to the Barton place, Tommy thinks about his own brother and his stories about World War II and thinks “it seemed the older he grew–and he had grown old–the more he understood that he could not understand this confusing contest between good and evil, and that maybe people were not meant to understand things here on earth.” By the end of the story, Tommy is questioning everything he ever believed.

The Sign sets the tone for all of the remaining stories, the themes being: life is hard and requires perseverance, everyone has secrets and no matter how hard you try, you can never know another person, family and marriage are difficult and regret is consuming.

In “The Hit Thumb Theory”, Charlie Macauley, a war veteran, is awaiting his mistress in a hotel room and, like almost all the characters in this book, his mind is racing about the issues that make up life.  “You could buy a snow blower or a nice wool dress for your wife, but beneath it all people were rats scurrying off to find garbage to eat, another rat to hump, making a nest in broken bricks, and soiling it so sourly that one’s contribution to the world was only more excrement.” Ugh, ugh, ugh!

In “Sister”, the last of the nine stories I will subject you to, Lucy Barton comes back home to visit with her sister and brother, whom she has not seen for 17 years. Needless to say the visit is not entirely smooth and the story addresses the complexity of the family relationship. This story is perhaps the only one that has some positive messages about the reliability and forgiveness of family. But even with its relative hopefulness, it exudes a powerful sense of sadness.

If you have been reading my blog you know that I like serious, thought provoking meaning of life novels. And in general I enjoy Elizabeth Strout. But this set of interlocking stories (is it a novel or short stories–I’m not sure) seems determined to plunge you, the reader, into a deep dark place, offering nothing to pull you back out again other than the insatiable need to go on living. I don’t know about you, but I need more than that! If you want to read Anything is Possible when it comes out in May, you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11247154__Sanything%20is%20possible__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

Top 5 of 2016

2016 is gone in a blur, the blink of an eye, a flurry, fast as lightning– you get the idea. 2016 was full of change, we elected a new president and a new Congress and we had a smooth leadership transition here at Ulmer. And as ever, books, books and more books. Here are my top 5 of 2016:

  1. Moonglow–Michael Chabon. If there was one book in 2016 that stood out, this was it. The novel immerses the reader into a compelling and fascinating story and Chabon writes like no other. “A dreamlike river of children coursing in and out of shadow, pooling on stoops, and out there somewhere a woman with a crack in her brain that was letting in shadows and leaking dreams.” How does he do that? I have absolutely no idea.
  1. A Gentleman in Moscow–Amor Towles. This novel is a captivating glimpse into Russian history from 1922-1954. Almost the entire story takes place in one hotel and yet you experience so much more. Great story, interesting historical perspective, well developed characters and beautifully written.
  1. Commonwealth–Ann Patchett. Commonwealth is a tale of families, bruised and broken yet always coming together. Patchett hits the trifecta with this one–great writing, great storytelling and great insight–all with a sense of humor and hopefulness.
  1. Swing Time –Zadie Smith. This is a sensibility broadening novel about race, class and culture, taking place in London, New York and Africa. Although slow developing this book is worth your patience.
  1. Underground Railroad–Colson Whitehead. A chilling story about slavery and cruelty, this novel won The National Book Award in 2016, as well as the 2017 American Library Association’s Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and is a must read.

2016 was a great year for reading and 2017 is off to a good start. Thanks for following my blog!

The Wonder – by Emma Donoghue

The Wonder“The Wonder” is a complex story about an 11 year old child, Anna, believed to be a spiritual Wonder for her seeming ability to exist without eating. The story takes place in a small town in Ireland in the late 1800s, where a committee is established to effectively authenticate the Wonder. The committee hires two nurses to observe Anna 24 hours a day for two weeks to confirm that the child in fact does not eat.

One of the nurses retained is a nun from a nearby convent, who believes in the possibility of religious miracles and more significantly believes in following instruction. The other nurse, Lib, is from England and studied nursing under Florence Nightingale. Lib is not Catholic, has no religious beliefs and follows only her own instruction. To say she is skeptical of organized religion and the idea that a person, let alone an 11 year old child, could survive without food, may be an understatement, although her skepticism is tested in many ways.

Anna is a charming sensitive child who spends much of her day quoting scripture. People come from near and far to see the Wonder, and when asked how she survives, Anna responds “I live on manna from heaven.” Anna and Lib develop a close relationship throughout the novel.

The novel is complex in that it addresses difficult issues such as religion, gender roles, science, education and poverty. The novel raises questions about the medical profession in terms of its ethics, training and the compassion of its providers. In speaking to another character in the novel, Lib explains the relationship between patient and medical professional as follows: “It seems to come naturally, to care more about the individual than the crowd. ..[t]hat’s why Miss–the lady who trained me…wouldn’t allow us to sit down beside a particular patient and read to him and so on. Said it could lead to attachment.” The novel also raises interesting issues about journalistic integrity and responsibility.

It is impossible to say much more about the story without giving away its many twists and turns. The characters, as well as the themes of the novel, are perspicacious, although the novel suffers from slow development of the story and characters, repetitiveness and the all too neat and convenient ending. I’ve read worse but I’ve definitely read better.

If you want to read this novel by the author of “Room”, you can reserve a copy at the Cuyahoga county public library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11213182__Sthe%20wonder__P0%2C5__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

Moonglow – by Michael Chabon

MoonglowMichael Chabon’s wonderful “Moonglow” is a fictionalized memoir of his family history, based on Chabon’s maternal grandfather’s story, portions of which his grandfather shares at the end of his life. We first meet Chabon’s grandfather in 1957, as he is attempting to strangle the president of the company he works for with the frayed end of a telephone cord. As you might expect, that activity lands him in jail for some time. Of course there is a before attempted murder and an after.

In 1941 (before the ineffective strangulation attempt) after obtaining an engineering degree and specializing in hustling pool, grandfather enlisted in the Army Corps of Engineers, where “His frugality with words got interpreted variously but to his advantage as manliness, self-possession, imperviousness.” He enlisted one day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and shortly after his enlistment he is sent to officer candidate school in Virginia.

Due to the proximity of Washington DC, and his apparent restlessness, grandfather writes up a plan to take over Washington DC and begins, with the assistance of his roommate, to plot the bombing of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. That activity gets him promoted to the Office of Strategic Services, where he is sent to Germany and spends much of the war unsuccessfully hunting Wernher Von Braun, the inventor of the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany. Von Braun crops up throughout the book. The novel includes chilling descriptions of the Nazi war machine manufacturing facilities.

Grandfather’s brother, Ray, is an unlikely Rabbi and when grandfather returns to the US after the war, he moves in with Ray. Grandfather accompanies Ray to Ray’s synagogue’s Monte Carlo night and meets Chabon’s grandmother (who was supposed to meet and fall in love with Ray). Grandmother grew up in a convent after the rest of her family was sent to and died at Auschwitz. She ultimately became a displaced person and came to America. Grandfather immediately fell in love with her, despite her deep seated emotional issues. “She was always threatening rain; he had been born with an umbrella in his hand.”

Grandmother is in and out of mental institutions and Chabon’s mother at some point is sent to live with Uncle Ray, well after Ray has given up the ill suited rabbi thing. Grandfather goes through a variety of jobs and vocations and somehow is always able to keep things together.

There is a lot going on in this book, all of it fascinating and brilliantly described. The novel moves back and forth through time seamlessly. Chabon is a master writer, his descriptions of time, place and feeling are vivid. When grandmother goes missing on Halloween 1952, grandfather goes searching for her and describes the scene as follows: “A dreamlike river of children coursing in and out of shadow, pooling on stoops, and out there somewhere a woman with a crack in her brain that was letting in shadows and leaking dreams.” A description like no other.

This novel is a gem. Read it! You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11222971__Smoonglow__P0%2C4__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

Swing Time – by Zadie Smith

Swing Time“Swing Time” is an incredibly complex book that delves deeply into a variety of topics, including class, politics, race, friendships and relationships, privilege and culture. The story begins in 2008 when the narrator, whose name we are bewilderingly (at least for me) never given, has been ostracized by her famous employer and is hiding in a luxury condominium in London.

Looking back over the 30 plus years of her life that caused her to find herself in seemingly catastrophic isolation, she observes that “A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”  We then learn, from the very beginning, how she ended up identifying herself through the accomplishments and recognition of others and how she is suddenly thrust into a life of her own.

In 1982, at the age of 7 (or maybe 10–this is not clear), our narrator, the daughter of a Jamaican mother and a white father, starts taking dance classes. Dance class is where she meets Tracey, the black daughter of an effectively single mother and an intermittently present, but usually absent, father, who turns out to be a dangerous conman. The girls are drawn together by the commonality of race and their love of dance. Tracey is the significantly more talented dancer of the two, which draws our narrator toward her. The narrator’s mother, a beautiful woman, is a student, feminist and aspiring politician, who disapproves of both Tracey and Tracey’s mother. Despite her mother’s disapproval, their friendship grows.

Tracey and our narrator bond over dance, race and their mutual admiration of a musician named Aimee. As time goes by, Tracey and our narrator grow distant although their lives continue to intersect. Tracey goes on with dance and ultimately has children and a life of struggle. Our narrator goes off to college and after a few missteps (during which she briefly reconnects with Tracey), the narrator becomes one of Aimee’s personal assistants, a job she holds for more than a decade.

Aimee is rich and spoiled, privileged and idealistic. She is also charitable and decides to fund a girl’s school in a village in Africa. Our narrator goes back and forth to Africa over a period of years, developing relationships and we learn how good intentions can subtly go awry when an idealistic person of privilege fails to understand the culture of the world which she is attempting to “improve.” Where Aimee sees poverty and deprivation, others see happiness and joy; where she attempts to effect positive change, the results are frequently unanticipated.

Our narrator’s relationship with Aimee is complex, as was her relationship with Tracey. A portion of the book is an exploration of female friendships, which are portrayed as complicated and difficult. At one point the narrator tries to explain to a male date how Tracey is a good friend even though they had not spoken in years. His response: “See in guy world we’d call that an ‘ex-friend’, or better still, a stranger.”

Our narrator’s mother divorces her father, goes through a variety of life changes and she ends up in Parliament. Another aspect of this book is the changing mother child relationship. The narrator and her mother are distant and communicate infrequently, although they generally seem to get along.  Late in her mother’s life our narrator observes that her mother did not ask her much about her life. “Maybe it didn’t even matter to her any more what I did with my life. She didn’t have to take it as a judgment upon her any longer, or on the way she raised me.”

The book goes back and forth in time and the actual time frame is frequently opaque. It is also a difficult and dense read. That said, it is thoughtful and thought provoking, perceptive in its treatment of life events and profound in its descriptions of cultures and differences in perspectives. If you are interested in a book that will get you thinking, broaden your sensibilities and make you consider the world in a different way, this is the book for you. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11222985__Sswing%20time__P0%2C4__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

Barkskins – by Annie Proulx

BarskinsAnnie Proulx’s 700 plus page epic, “Barkskins”, is the complex story of two intersecting families and the multi-level impact of one of the family’s greed driven destruction of the world’s environment. When you consider that the story begins in 1693 and ends in 2013, it is an almost masterly accomplishment that the novel runs only 713 pages.

The story starts in “New France” where Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, both from France, become servants to Monsieur Claude Trepagny. Their job was to cut down trees in the grand natural forest, where forests seemed endless. “Day after day the chopping continued and their hands swelled, blistered, hardened, the rhythm of chopping seized them…” In exchange for three years of labor, Mr. Trepagny was to apportion Rene and Charles parcels of land in the new world.  Duquet wanted no part of the indentured labor and ran off into the forest, where Trepagny went to look for him and never returned.

Sel and Duquet’s futures advance in very different directions. Sel married Mari, a Mi’kmaq Indian with 3 children. Mari and Rene had three children of their own and the Sel line of Mi’kmaq descendants became wood cutters, struggling with the loss of their environment in varying ways through the centuries. The Sel family and the Duquet family unknowingly intersect throughout the novel.

Duquet, on the other hand, became a ruthless and opportunistic entrepreneur, taking advantage of the indigenous Indian population by trading liquor for animal pelts and later trading pelts in China. While in China, Duquet becomes obsessed with the forests and the potential for timber. Ultimately, he goes to the colonies and begins acquiring tracts of timberland in Maine and changes his name to Charles Duke.  He brings his sons to the colonies to join him in the timber business and so begins the business dynasty of Duke and Sons. When Charles Duke disappears and is never found, his sons take over the business.

The Duke family runs the business through the 21st century. The company dispassionately seeks and destroys forests throughout the world. In the 1800s, James Duke has a significant role with the company and when he suddenly dies, his daughter, Lavinia, takes control of the company, a rare woman in a man’s world. Lavinia is utterly ruthless in her ambition and her desire to acquire and destroy forests throughout the world. She marries Dieter Breitsprecher, a competitor and conservationist.

Throughout the novel forests are destroyed and the Mi’kmaq and other Indian tribes ways of life are rapidly destroyed. Certain Duke family and Sel family members become engaged in conservation efforts to try to stem the damage from the cutting and burning. Through those conservation efforts Proux explains the broad impact of the destruction of the forest on plants, people, climate and the future.

Tragedy and success befall each generation of the two families, although the successes are less frequent on the Sel side. Barkskins tells a grand tale of destruction, greed, sacrifice and regeneration. The novel, which is beautifully and flawlessly written, requires a commitment from its readers, both in terms of time and complexity, and includes a detailed, and indispensable, family tree for the Sels and the Dukes. If you like a challenging and thought provoking (and perhaps slightly preachy) read, you can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11197196__Sbarkskins__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

The Underground Railroad – by Colson Whitehead

The Underground RailroadColson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” is a chilling story of slavery, focused on Cora and her escape from the Randall plantation in Georgia. The story begins with Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, kidnapped from a village in Ouidah, and sold over and over again until she found herself in Georgia at the Randall plantation. At the Randall plantation Ajarry co-opted a small plot of land where she planted vegetables. Ajarry died in the cotton fields. Cora’s mother, Mabel, the only survivor of Ajarry’s five children, continued the plot, as did Cora later.

Mabel disappears in an escape from the Randall plantation when Cora is 11 years old and never returns to the plantation. She is hunted by slave patroller, Ridgeway, who never finds her and his failure haunts him. The slaves living on the plantation have their own politics and system and Cora is shunned and abused after her mother escapes. Cora never forgives her mother for failing to take her along.

Cora lived on the northern plot of the Randall plantation, which was run by James Randall. The south part of the plantation was run by Terrence Randall. Terrence periodically visited the northern part of the plantation where he was known to be much crueler than James. When James dies and Terrance takes over the entire plantation, Terrance meets Cora and “claims” her as his own. It is then that Cora considers an escape along with her friend Caesar, who is educated and has contacts in the Underground Railroad.

Cora and Caesar make a successful escape, taking advantage of the literal and magical Underground Railroad, hidden in barns, houses and businesses, assisted by sympathetic whites, who in some instances pay for their assistance with their lives. Ridgeway is hired to find them and accepts his assignment with relish. Along the way, Cora kills a white boy thereby increasing the importance of her recapture.

Caesar and Cora end up initially in South Carolina, each living in a dormitory, working in jobs provided for them and Cora receives reading lessons. She had a bed and food and life had never seemed so good. But things were not as they seemed. The stores where she could shop charged 2-3 times more than the stores where whites shopped and the medical care available recommended sterilization and engaged in experimentation on the former slaves. Ultimately, Cora is required to escape Ridgeway, who follows her to South Carolina, then North Carolina and  Tennessee.

Each time Cora moves, it is through the Underground Railroad. And each time, the people who help her are made to pay a price for their assistance. When Cora finds herself on a farm in Indiana with other slaves, the politics of the farm and her history create divisions and unanticipated problems. Throughout the novel she never stops running.

The story is distressing and Colson’s writing brings each act of violence and cruelty to life, where people were thought of and treated as property. Cora’s story, her relationships and her observations remind us of the horror of slavery and that phase of American history and hopefully teach us that every person, whether similar or different, is to be treated as we would wish to be treated. A copy of this must read novel can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11213344__Sthe%20underground%20railroad__P0%2C3__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

Nutshell – by Ian McEwan

NutshellIan McEwan’s “Nutshell” is a most peculiar murder mystery (although not so mysterious) told by a most unusual narrator, the unborn child of one of the perpetrators. “So here I am, upside down in a woman…I count myself an innocent, but it seems I’m party to a plot.”

Although unborn, our narrator has certain very specific likes and dislikes and is not at all subtle about getting what he (she?–gender undetermined but I will refer to as he for the simple ease of it) wants, with kicks and motion. Observing the activity by listening, the narrator describes Trudy (the mother), John (the father) and Claude (the not so bright lover and the narrator’s uncle). Trudy and John are separated at the behest of Trudy, Trudy is living in John’s ramshackle but extremely valuable house and Claude and Trudy are plotting the murder of John so that they can cash in on the value of the house.

Trudy is a nervous and unhappy soon-to-be mother who does not seem to be all that engaged in her own pending motherhood. The narrator describes in unique detail the combination of their lives. “My mother is more than my landlord”. Her intimate relations are his intimate relations. Where she goes, he goes. What she eats, he eats. What she drinks, he drinks.  And my do they drink! “If she wasn’t drinking for two, if I wasn’t sharing the load, she’d be on the floor.” Our narrator becomes an expert on the quality and varietals of the wine they share.

This unborn narrator is an expert on virtually everything and has opinions on all things worldly, which is masterly considering that he has not even been born. He expounds on politics, war , race, religion, climate change, history, gender and politics. His pompous superiority and callow intellectualism make him almost as unlikeable as every other character in this very short novel.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the narrator is keenly focused on two things–the pending murder plot and himself. He is quick to take offense at every slight, particularly when he feels forgotten and not at the center of all things. Ultimately his narcissistic egocentrism (am I being too hard on an unborn child?) cause him to foil his mother and her lover’s best laid plans, changing all of their lives. You will have to read the novel to understand what this means.

Although the book is so strange, without a likable character, it is in it’s own weird way simply brilliant and wonderful. It is Ian McEwan after all. Nutshell would be a great book club book–short and full of things to talk about. Why don’t you read it and tell me what you think? You can check it out at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11222886__Snutshell__P0%2C3__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold

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