Saturday, 31 July 2010

Solar, by Ian McEwan

Five Minervans met this week to discuss Ian McEwan's Solar. We missed those tripping in other parts of Australia (singing in the Red Centre for one, and sunseeking in Queensland for another) and those in their sickbeds. We wish you - you know who you are - a speedy recovery!
Used by permission of the Random House Group

A quick plot summary: Solar tells the story of aging Nobel Laureate physicist, Michael Beard, who at the beginning of the novel is overweight, at the end of his fifth marriage, and resting on his laurels rather than doing any useful science. As usually happens in McEwan, an event occurs which serves to alter the course of people's lives - in this case, Michael Beard's in particular. As it happens, he's not above a bit of dishonesty here and there to ensure things work out to his advantage. How that happens and how it falls out makes up the rest of the book. All this occurs within the world of climate change, hence the title.

The general consensus was that we all enjoyed the book, but some enjoyed it more than others! The two who loved it greatly enjoyed the humour and felt that McEwan's ability to write about anything shone through. The others of us agreed more with Kate's blog post on the book. We felt it was readable but that it missed the mark in one way or another. The member who phoned in a late apology was in this camp too - she felt that it was a good story but that it got lost in the technical details.

We all though did enjoy some of the humour, particularly the episode where Beard goes to the arctic with a bunch of artists (he is the only scientist) to see climate change first hand. Chaos and disorganisation, not to mention a little hypocrisy (as they rush about the ice in their gas-fired skidoos), abound and we are left wondering whether the climate change community is capable of coordinating anything that would be positive for the environment.

Some of us found the constant description of Beard's eating, drinking and womanising a little repetitive and tedious though agreed that he represents a good example of "the unexamined life". That said,  we also felt that Beard had his better moments, such as his ability to tell a story against himself (eg the stolen potato chips story).

We talked a little about the book's exploration of issues like logic and reason versus imagination, and also about McEwan's focus on middle-aged men. One of the members who really liked the book said this aspect of his recent books have put her off, and that it was the humour in this one which got her attention. Usually, she said, she prefers to read about middle-aged women. I suspect that's true for a lot of us.

Finally, we briefly discussed the last line and what it meant - but to discuss that here would be a bit of a spoiler if you haven't read it. We were in general agreement though that it was effectively open-ended: a couple of interpretations are possible but all point to roughly the same thing.

I don't think I've fully captured the discussion, so please add a comment if you'd like to flesh it out a little more OR if you weren't at the meeting and would like to add your 2 cents' worth.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Thoughts on Solar from the northern sun-seeker

Here are some thoughts on Solar by Ian McEwan. Have a good discussion...wish I was there ...or better still you were ate Agnes Water listening to the waves with me...
McEwan has made a comical farce, supposedly resting on the most serious challenge of our generation: climate change. The two forces in the book sit uneasily with one another. His protagonist: Beard, a flabby middle aged (well late 50’s) scientist, seems to exhibit many sins of the generation: he is a glutton, selfish, a philanderer, a thief and a liar.... probably some others. He is completely unlikeable, although a source of some comedy, as for example he pretends to have a woman in his room to make his wife jealous. And he seems completely incapable of redemption, for example as offered by the ponytailed scientist tom Aldous. He simply steals his idea, and tries to profit from it.
His relationship with x, and his unwanted daughter may offer him redemption, as they seem to believe the best of him. However the farce comes tumbling to an end... I kept thinking heart attack, he must have a heart attack soon, as McEwan delights in describing one ghastly fast food overdose after another...
So it seems we are not to take it seriously, Beard is a caricature, hard to identify with (although he is shown as quite pitiful to us) and it surprised me to hear his public address which actually sounded quite reasonable....
So why did McEwan write the book? Why create such an unlikeable character, and such a farcical series of accidents, and human frailty...
I wondered if Beard was his attempt at Everyman....the 20th Century human representing our foibles and weaknesses...particularly in an era when we need to rise above our petty squabbles to do something about Climate Change... He is intelligent, has the knowledge to solve the problem, but gets immersed in his own petty problems, ego, and base drives, and if we did not laugh at him, we would certainly weep at such a wasted life....
I think McEwan must have decided that a serious tome on Climate Change would not be appealing, so he has gone to the other extreme and kept the tone very satiricial and farcical. The book was readable and amusing: the scenes of him freezing his penis off on the Snowmobile ride were funny in an excruciating Basil Fawlty like way - in his ineptitude and inability to admit to his problems, and to worry about having taken his penis off...probably would have been better for all concerned if he had! I found myself wondering aghast at what ridiculous mess he would get into next... and when he would get discovered.
I agree with the review in the Guardian by Christopher Taylor who says that some elements of the comedy do not come off as well as they might in McEwan’s hands:
Lightness, however, comes less easily to McEwan, whose style depends on deliberateness and a certain ponderousness. The ominous lining up of causes and effects and the patient tweaking of narrative tension don't always mesh well with the aimed-for quickness and brio. Some of the humour is quite broad: there's a rather clunking motif concerning polar bears, and Beard gets involved with a stereotypical Southern waitress who's called, in the way of trailer-trash types, Darlene. He emerges as a figure of some comic dynamism, but the pages on his childhood and youth, though brilliantly done, articulate poorly with the knockabout parts of the plot.(Christopher Taylor, The Guardian, 13 March 2010)
On most levels I found the book unsatisfying, compared to Enduring Love, Saturday or On Chesil Berach. The humour and unlikeable main character distanced me emotionally from the book. McEwan says it was about human nature, rather than climate change, and getting us to look at the barriers in our nature to living differently and thus reducing the impact of climate change. The plot felt contrived, and I thought he spent a lot of time with Beard dealing with his infidelities. It would have been good to develop the Aldous character a little more, as he was the alternative good scientist to Beard the cynical scientific figure.
In the finale, it looked as though he might finally get his just desserts... although I would have liked to see him working in a menial way on some alternative energy scheme that might have just had a glimmer of hope, but that’s me...

Monday, 5 July 2010

March, May and June 2010 meetings

Well Minervans, somehow we are not keeping this up to date, so I thought I'd try to do a quick run through from memory of the books we've not reported on - just for the record.

March : David Malouf's Ransom
All I can recollect of this one is that those present generally enjoyed it. We loved the language and we loved the more "lowly" human touches such as Priam's trip with Somax. A couple of us wondered a little what Malouf's point was in re-telling the story from this angle - was his retelling sufficiently "different" to add something to the myth? Some felt his humanising of the event - Priam's asking Achilles for the body of his son Hector - was, while others were not quite so sure. However, everyone (as I recollect) enjoyed the story and Malouf's lovely evocative writing.

May : Andrea Goldsmith's Reunion
There was perhaps a little more difference of opinion on this one, which is about the return to Melbourne some 20 years later of a group of old university friends. The novel describes the next few years of their lives - how the old friendships pan out, the various tensions and secrets that lie beneath the surface. Being friends ourselves, we discussed the drive to maintain friendships and enjoyed reading about people who were roughly our vintage! However, some thought that Goldsmith was just a little too simplistic about it all - and one member suggested  that Goldsmith did not follow as well as she might have that old dictum of "show, don't tell". Most, if not all of us, though enjoyed the read.

June : Louann Brizendine's The female brain
We were a small group for this one, with three away overseas or travelling up north and three deciding, for various reasons, they could not brave what was a pretty cold night. Our discussion consequently ended up being a little briefer and less focused than usual. We didn't really get our teeth into the book in an in-depth way but we did end up talking about some of the issues she raises for women of a certain age - not only understanding our own biology but that of our teenage girls/young adult daughters. It was an interesting discussion resulting in the sort of sharing that is an important part of reading groups.

This book was published in 2006 and describes the degree to which Brizendine believes women's brains are different to men's. In other words, she discusses the ways in which she sees gender differences as being biologically determined. We did discuss a little the fact that Brizendine's evidence for all her claims was not as clear/substantiated as we would like, that is, that hard scientific support was sometimes (often) missing. And there was some discussion about her language. Janet who phoned in her apology said she got rather tired of hearing about the brain being "marinated" (in hormones, etc). In fact the language over all tended to be a bit cutesy and sound-bitey at times. The jury, of course, is still out regarding how much we are biologically determined but - to put my own stamp on it - I am willing to believe that there could be differences in our behaviours that are biologically determined. However, I don't believe biology accounts for differences in skills and intellectual ability, and nor does it mean that women's opportunities and rights should be limited and less!

All this said, I think we all found it an interesting read and something a little different from our usual fare.

If anyone would like to comment, particularly those who didn't make the meeting(s), please go ahead!

Image: Courtesy HarperCollins Australia

Friday, 2 July 2010

Another bookgroup

Today I "met" online the member of another bookgroup that's been going for 22 years too. And, they have a blog that's a few years older than ours. Have a look at it: Booksnthings.

Does that get your creative juices going?