Saturday, 26 January 2019

Unenviable Decisions

Ian McEwan's novel The Children Act (2014) is a slender volume which packs a punch.  The author wonderfully depicts the streets of north London, the drama of social services, the complexities of religion, and the challenges of family relationships. 

Now in her early sixties, Fiona Maye is a high ranking judge in Britain's High Court. Specialising in family law, each day she has to make difficult judgements on custody, spousal support, the division of family assets. While some of her cases are mundane or routine, there are others that are heartbreaking for which there is no good decision. Fiona battles between her heart and her mind, balancing up diverse interests and legal precedent to make decisions which she believes to be in the interests of those concerned.

Lately Fiona has had back to back cases which have truly tested her. She has had to decide between divorcing parents conflicting views on religion and child-rearing. She also had to rule on whether to seperate conjoined twins knowing that together they would both die but apart one might live. Now she is faced with a new case in which young Adam Henry is not quite of legal age where he may make his own decisions about his health, and Fiona must decide between his parents' wishes and those of the hospital. 

While she faces intense stress and drama at work, her home life is also on the verge of unravelling. Her husband of three decades has decided he wants to have an affair with a younger woman - one last fling before he gets too old - and essentially seeks Fiona's permission. She refuses and is now in a state of flux, not knowing whether her marriage has ended.    

Reading this book brought back floods of memories for me. I studied family law as part of my law degree and spent countless hours in courtrooms, so I had flashbacks when McEwan described some of the legal principles in Fiona's judgements.  Plus, whenever I travel to the UK I stay in London near where Fiona does, and I am well acquainted with the streets McEwan describes. 

Last year The Children Act was adapted into a film, with McEwan as screenwriter. It stars Emma Thompson as Judge Maye and while I haven't seen anything more than the trailer (below), I reckon the casting is spot on!

I have a lot of Ian McEwan novels on my bookshelves, many unread. My first McEwan was Enduring Love (1997), given to me by a friend who moved to Britain when I moved to Australia and we used to send each other fiction from our new homelands. I really enjoyed The Child in Time (1987), Amsterdam (2001) and Atonement (2001) but then for some reason stopped reading his books even though I continued to collect them. The Children Act has encouraged me to pull some of his other books off my shelves and get reading.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

Under the Surface

As soon as I cracked the spine on Patricia Highsmith's 1957 thriller Deep Water, I was hooked. For the next few hours I savoured every word of this suspenseful tale of a failing marriage.

Set in a small town, Vic Van Allen is well regarded by locals. He runs a boutique publishing house, keeps snails, and dotes on his young daughter Trixie. His wife Melinda is unhappy in her marriage and spends every afternoon in the bar at the Lord Chesterfield Inn in an effort to meet good looking, available men.  Vic knows about Melinda's indiscretions, in fact the whole town does. She brings the men home, and invites them as her guest to neighbourhood parties, creating much awkwardness with hosts who suspect her unfaithfulness but don't want to upset Vic.

The Van Allens have an arrangement wherein Melinda can do as she pleases as long as she doesn't abandon Vic and their daughter.  In fact, Vic's only objection is that she chooses 'such idiotic, spineless characters'. His friends express concern at his being cuckolded and he is seen as having the patience of a saint while the frivolous Melinda drinks excessively and fawns over a seemingly endless parade of lovers.

When one of Melinda's former lovers is murdered, Vic scares off her current flame by joking that he killed the last one. But when another lover drowns, Melinda becomes suspicious that Vic has a hidden dark side.

Highsmith is an incredible writer and has a gift for creating complex characters who are not what they seem. She manages to make readers feel contempt for victims and empathy for a perpetrators. Suspense builds with each chapter and you never know what is going to happen next.

My review of Highsmith's The Talented Mr Ripley (1955) is also available on this blog. I am looking forward to exploring more of her novels this year.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Out of the Wilderness

One of the books that was highly recommended by many 'best of' lists last year was Tara Westover's memoir Educated (2018). It is the tale of a girl from Idaho who never attended school but went on to earn a doctorate from Cambridge. Her journey is made all the more remarkable by needing to break free from her family in order to do so.

Westover's father was a Mormon survivalist who was obsessed with living off the grid, preparing for the end of days. He didn't believe in modern medicine - forbidding doctors, hospitals and pharmaceuticals. He thought government schools would brainwash his seven children, so insisted they be homeschooled without any concern whether they learned or not. His denunciation of the government went so far as not even registering his four youngest children, who didn't have birth certificates until someone wanted to get a driver's licence and had to prove their date of birth.

Her dad ran a junkyard. All of the Westover children were raised to scrap metal, jar peaches, and mix herbal remedies. Westover's mum was a reluctant midwife with a knack for inventing concoctions that would cure all ailments. Her services were regularly used, especially by her own children who were routinely broken and burned assisting dad in his scrapping. Further, Tara was injured, physically and psychologically, by an older brother.

While the kids were supposed to be homeschooled, any learning was done by sheer will and determination. Some of the siblings were keen to get an education and would acquire old text books with which to learn. Tara eventually studied for her college entrance exam and was accepted into Brigham Young University. She struggled when she arrived on campus, realising the gaps in her knowledge and the untruths she had been taught through her father's conspiracy theories. She was also confronted by a more modern Mormonism than she had been exposed to and began to question her upbringing. But she was also given opportunities, which lead her to her postgraduate studies in the UK, and widened the gulf between Tara and her family.

Tara attempts to reinvent herself and find a place in the world, but she is routinely lured back home by the family even though she knows it is not healthy for her. It was difficult to read these 'coming home' episodes because as much as she loves her parents and siblings, she is in danger there and could easily become stuck and forced to give up on her dreams.

I enjoyed this memoir and found it a fascinating read. I liked that Westover never sought to denigrate her family or faith, I appreciated how she questioned her memory of events, and I was moved by small acts of familial love like her brother Tyler leaving her some music once he left home. But I was frustrated and angered by her parents and the recklessness with which they repeatedly put their children in grave danger.

Educated reminded me in many ways of JD Vance's Hillbilly Elegy (2016) which is a similar tale of someone escaping their inevitable future and charting their own course. Of the two, I preferred Vance's account but Westover's book was well worth reading.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Planning for 2019

At the start of each year I like to set aside some time to reflect on my reading habits and prioritise my reading for the coming year. Today I spent some time perusing my bookshelves and sorting out my books. In doing so I found a range of titles I had forgotten about that I am still keen to read.

I have cleaned up my bedside cabinet of all unread or half-read books that will not be prioritised for 2019 and set up a new 'to-be-read' stack of physical and ebooks. This teetering tower currently consists of:

  • Becoming by Michelle Obama
  • The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
  • Stoner by John Williams
  • Warlight by Michael Ondaatje
  • Elizabeth Costello by JM Coetzee
  • The Iliad by Homer
  • It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
  • Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene
  • Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
  • Cosmo Cosmolino by Helen Garner
  • Outline by Rachel Cusk
  • The Journalist and the Murder by Janet Malcolm
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
  • The Long Prospect by Elizabeth Harrower
  • Hold Your Own by Kate Tempest
  • The Years by Virginia Woolf
  • Educated by Tara Westover
  • The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
  • The Power by Naomi Alderman
  • The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
  • Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
  • Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward

All books will be blogged about here and you can check my progress on My Challenge page. Of course I should note that I always go off course with my reading, and undoubtedly half the titles above will be shelved and replaced with other more urgent books. But it is a plan nonetheless. 

This year my main focus is on fiction and I am aiming for a target of 30 books in 2019 - which I didn't reach last year but I am still determined. To help me achieve this goal, and ensure my reading remains diverse, I have created a new Bingo board to stretch myself into new areas.
19th Century
First Novel
in a Series
Adapted into a
Film/TV Show
Australian Literary
 Prize Longlister
Short Story
Set in Space
or at Sea
Pre-19th Century
Fiction Based
on a True Story
Current Affairs
/ Politics
Book on the
1001 List  
Banned Book
Features Strong 
Female Protagonist
Set in the
New York Times
 Spin-off on from 
a Classic
Mystery or
Crime Novel
Booker Prize
in 2019
20th Century
Legal Thriller
or Memoir
Set during
Book with a 
colour in title
There are some books coming in 2019 that I am excited about too, like Ian McEwan's Machines Like Me, Margaret Atwood's The Testaments, Elizabeth Gilbert's City of Girls, Jane Caro's Accidental Feminists, Gerald Murnane's Green Shadows and Other Poems, and plenty more.

So, let the adventures in reading begin...