The Discomfort Zone

by Jonathan Franzen

My second foray into Franzen’s writing, ordered by mistake from the library but hugely enjoyed nonetheless.  I love this author’s use of language, perceptions and indeed the topics and settings he chooses.  In this case, the book is a series of autobiographical essays from Franzen’s childhood and youth.

He is a contemporary of mine (about two years younger) so the era he grew up in, and the Zeitgeist of his life, is something I can relate to. Even though his experience was in the US and mine in the UK, there is a freedom of movement and expression that permeates his youthful experiences and this resonates to quite an extent with what I remember of my younger years.  I don’t think my own children, or the children of today, had this amount of freedom.  Perhaps they are safer as a result – but at a price.

I have another volume of Franzen essays to look forward to (this time purchased, so I can take my time with them).  And then I will savour (I hope) his other novels, and hope that he has a few more in him!


The Children Act

by Ian McEwan

A short but brilliantly executed novel.  The story is gripping, the plot believable, disturbing, and so tightly told that you don’t need to read ahead or try to second-guess what will happen (though I did both).

The story opens with the main character Fiona Maye, who we are told in the first paragraph is a High Court judge, experiencing some kind of trauma in her emotional life.  We gradually find out what is the cause of her distress, and the novel takes us through Fiona’s analysis of the cases she tries and the unfolding of her own marital problems.  At no point does the reader feel compelled to take sides with either Fiona or her husband Jack.  They are, like the couple in another compact McEwan tale On Chesil Beach, caught up in the cause-and-effect drama of almost any relationship.

Fiona’s work is an important part of the story, and the reader is left to work out to what extent her work influences her personal life (a lot, probably) and to what extent her personal life influences her work (can she be impartial in her judgments when her marriage is in crisis?). McEwan has clearly done his research, and I found the descriptions of family law cases that reach the High Court, and the factors influencing the judgments, fascinating to learn about and also to reflect upon.

I could come back to this novel again and again.  I think McEwan’s best work inhabits a part of one’s consciousness – perhaps because the issues he addresses are both personal and troubling, and encourage us to reflect on our own life decisions.

Grace and Mary

by Melvyn Bragg

I picked this book up in the library, having had it on my ‘ to read’ list a while ago while reading up about dementia (but then let it drop off).

There are two stories here, loosely connected.  One is the story of Mary towards the end of her life, and the memories that she is able to evoke vividly with the help of her son John, who sees reminiscing as a valuable way for Mary to experience brief moments of pleasure in her increasing dementia.  I have the feeling that this is a thinly-disguised autobiographical story of Bragg and his mother.

The second story is that of Grace, who, as we later learn, is Mary’s mother.  We follow Grace’s birth, her childhood under the care of grandparents (her mother having died in childbirth), her relationship with her father and jealous stepmother, and her seduction by an injured solider in WWI which ends in Mary’s illegitimate birth.

Whilst both stories are well told, it is Mary’s (and John’s) story that grabbed my attention.  Bragg writes well but his prose does not sparkle; he writes, I would say, popular rather than literary fiction.  Nothing wrong with that!  But then the story, setting and characters must be interesting enough to make the book worth reading.  For me, Grace’s story was sad but predictable, and hers was the only character in this story that really came to life.  Mary and John, on the other hand, have a present-day story that is meaningful, and there characters held my interest.

I would not read more Bragg in a hurry, though I have huge respect for him a presenter and scholar.


by Jonathan Franzen

What got me started on Franzen?  It was in fact a FutureLearn course that I have started but not progressed very far with – Literature in the Digital AgeI’m still not sure whether I will continue with this course, but a photograph of the cover of this novel was shown alongside another cover page – of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – on one of the course videos.  I don’t remember the point that was being made, but it encouraged me to look up Franzen and Freedom, and download a sample.  I liked what I read, and immediately ordered this book from my local library.

On my next visit to the library, I saw a copy of Franzen’s Purity on the shelf, and borrowed it.  But I hadn’t started to read this before Freedom arrived, so I turned to my first choice and returned Purity to the library.

I love Franzen’s writing style and the stories, and especially the characters, that he is able to bring to life.  I feel as if I know Patty and Walter Berglund, their son Joey and Walter’s best friend Richard at least as well as I know my own family members.  Perhaps it helps that three of the four main characters are contemporaries of mine, so I can see their lives and choices in the context of my own life.  Growing up in the seventies; raising a young family in the eighties; being interested in matters of global concern while still trying to create a comfortable and warm home environment; nurturing and encouraging one’s children but being unsure whether you have done it right.  There are so many freedoms that the book’s title may refer to.  Fundamentally, I think this novel is about choices and their consequences.  Patty fancies Richard but chooses to live her life with Walter.  Richard chooses the lifestyle of a rock musician but values (and secretly envies) Patty’s and Walter’s  home life.  Patty has achieved success as an athlete but is insecure and has never met her parents’ aspirations for her.  Walter and Joey choose to become involved with what turns out to be a corrupt organisation – and subsequently choose to distance themselves from it.

We are, perhaps, the ‘freedom generation’.  Our parents and grandparents had far fewer choices.  And, in some ways, we had more choice than our children, who are more financially constrained than we were.  I chose, like Patty, to stay at home with my young children.  Few new parents these days have the freedom to make that choice.

The novel seems to me to be asking the question: “Does freedom of choice make you happy?”  The answer appears to be a qualified “No”.  You make mistakes, not all of which can be remedied.

This novel also contains plenty of humour, and some stupendous images and accomplished writing.  An brief example:

Patty felt like she was dealing with a huge ball of Bazooka that she couldn’t get unguided from her fingers; the strands of Veronica’s logic were boundlessly elastic and adhered not only to Patty but to themselves.

Or the often-quoted observation by Walter Berglund:

People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to.

I’m about to read some of Franzen’s non-fiction, and will definitely return to his other novels at some point.  He is a couple of years younger than me – and so I hope that he has a few more novels in him!

The Sunrise

by Victoria Hislop

I picked out this book from my mother’s collection, when I was just about to go away with my parents for a short break.  I felt it might make good holiday reading – and I was right.  Although I persevered for a few days with my previous book, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, I gave up on it soon enough and reached for the Hislop.

I’ve read two of Hislop’s earlier books, The Thread and The Island (neither of them reviewed on this site) as well as some of her short stories, and although I am not a fan of her writing style, she is a master of plot, and this story held my attention thoughout.  The setting for this story is Cyprus in the early 1970s, immediately before, during and after the 1974 coup and Turkish invasion.  I knew little enough about this history, despite having visited southern Cyprus (in 2002, shortly before the border to the north was opened) and having spoken with a colleague who was actually on holiday in Northern Cyprus when the invasion took place.

The real strength of this story is the way it demonstrates ordinary people caught up in seismic events that change their lives forever; how they support each other and try to retain friendships in the face of calamity; and how, even when we lose everything, life has to carry on.

The villain of the story (apart from the war itself) is a character who, at first, can be almost liked or at least admired.  His true deviousness is hinted at but it is only towards the end of the story that his bad character is fully exposed to the reader, as well as to the other actors in the story.  Through all their troubles, the Turkish Cypriot Özkan family and the Greek Cypriot Gorgeous stick together. But the fate of the island, and the populations who had formerly lived side by side, is forever changed.

The Little Stranger

by Sarah Waters

i can’t quite bring myself to finish this book. I have read about half of it, having picked it up in the library a few days ago while waiting for my latest reservation to arrive.

Waters writes fluently and naturally, and the historical and physical setting are interesting and well-observed. But I find that the story moves oh-so-slowly, and there is little or not character development.

Some critics have described these early novels of Sarah Waters as echoing the style of earlier authors: Dickens, or in this case, Du Maurier. I can’t really comment, as I have only read one novel by Du Maurier (Rebecca).  But I think it was more engaging – and more threatening – than this. Perhaps it is just that I am not keen on ghost stories.

A Little History of Religion

by Richard Holloway

This book was recommended, I believe, by my fellow Bahá’í Rob Weinberg.  I had only vaguely heard of Richard Holloway, and while waiting for this book to arrive in my local library, I read his memoir Leaving Alexandria – a Memoir of Faith and Doubt.  This gave me some insights into the man, and was quite helpful while reading his ‘little history’.

The book lives up to its name, with each chapter four to five pages in length, and no more than three chapters given to any one religion or topic.  The book is neatly structured: each new topic is introduced at the very end of the previous chapter, given the impression that there is indeed some kind of progression or common theme running through religions.  Holloway does not gloss over the shortcomings of religions and their adherents over the years.  Far from it; the last two chapters, on Holy War and the future of religions, asks some very serious questions.

It would be hard for me here to give much of a picture of this book without writing it again!  (And I am sure I could not do such a good job.)  The author gives the historical and social context of each of the religions and sects that he writes about, so that the reader can get a feel for how they evolved and the impact they had.  It is assumed that the reader knows something about religion – a reasonable assumption, if you have elected to read this book.  But he does not assume that they know anything in detail about any one religion, and so is able to explain in basic language, for instance, the content and message behind various of Christ’s parables; the difference between the Abrahamic religions’ emphasis on a continuing spiritual life after death and Indian religions’ belief in a continuing cycle of life on this earth; and the political as well as theological basis for the Reformation.

This is an excellent book, written in clear, accessible but not simplistic language.  It is one that I may well end up purchasing to read again and share with others.