BOOK REVIEW: Lessons by Ian McEwan

LessonsLessons by Ian McEwan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book not only shows the characters learning their lessons, it has a few teachings for the reader, as well. The story follows the protagonist, Roland Baines, as he receives a series of harsh life lessons, at the center of each is a woman. There is Miriam, his piano teacher at boarding school, a woman who enters into a manipulative sexual relationship with Roland while he’s still a minor. There is Alissa, the wife who abandons Roland and their seven-month-old child to pursue her writing career. Finally, when a woman, Daphne, comes along with whom he can at last have a healthy relationship with a dependable partner, he has difficulty embracing the relationship because of his earlier experiences. We also witness the intergenerational learning of Alissa, whose mother never made good on her own potential as a writer.

The lessons for the reader are profound. First, after developing an intense and visceral dislike for Alissa because she abandons a baby and seems so oblivious to the suffering her actions have caused (e.g. her husband being suspected of a murder that never happened,) we are reminded that disappearing dads are par for the course; we may think poorly of them, but we rarely have an intense emotional response to such situations. Second, we are offered insight into the “intentional fallacy” – i.e. thinking one knows the author’s intentions and subjective thought processes from what she writes.

I found this to be a powerful story that asks one to confront all manner of intriguing questions. (e.g. If an individual ditches her [or his] family for career, does it make a difference if that person is the best at what she does or if she’s mediocre or if she stinks?) I’d highly recommend this novel for readers of literary fiction.


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Macbeth Limerick

Macbeth and Banquo Meeting the Witches;
Théodore Chasséria (1855)
There was a great General named Macbeth.
All that kept him from kingship was a death,
but - as with a Pringle -
he couldn't do a single.
So, he showed seven more their last breaths.

Hamlet Limerick

Hamlet Stands Over Polonius;
Eugène Delacroix (1855)
There once was a wavering Prince of Denmark
whose uncle replace his dad as monarch.
The ghost of his dad
said, "Kill 'em, my lad!"
Too bad he took that stab in the dark.

A Midsummer Night’s Limerick

Four Athenian youths fled out to the trees,
lacking the love geometry to put hearts at ease.
It might've been tragic,
but Puck worked his magic.
They returned by twos, not ones or threes.

BOOK REVIEW: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

A Short History of Tractors in UkrainianA Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a comedy of family dysfunction. The family consists of Cold War era immigrants to England from Ukraine. One adult daughter (Nadezhda) narrates the story, which about how her estranged relationship with her sister (Vera) is renewed through battle with a common enemy, Valentina, the gold-digging Ukrainian woman (younger than either sister) who’s moving in with the sisters’ eighty-four-year-old father.

There’re a few divides that generate the story’s tension. First, Vera grew up with war during her formative years, while Nadezhda was a child of the post-war peace. This informs how each sees the world and the other. Vera sees her younger sister as a naïve bleeding-heart socialist, while Nadezhda sees Vera as a cold and distrusting Thatcherite scoundrel. Second, there’s the chasm between established immigrant and new arrival, the former feeling that they kept their heads down, did the work, assimilated, and earned their status as citizens, while feeling someone like Valentina is tricking her way in and expecting to be handed all the perks of first-world living without working for them. Finally, there’s the gap between what a new immigrant expects life is like in a wealthy country, and what it’s actually like. Valentina has a television view of England that assumes the characters she sees are typical.

The story is funny, but occasionally poignant – e.g. as when we learn the family’s war-torn backstory or even when Valentina is shown in a more sympathetic light by our “bleeding-heart” narrator, who waivers between her family obligation self (who despises Valentina) and her socialist-feminist self (who empathizes with Valentina to some degree.)

I’d recommend this book for readers of literary fiction. It’s well-crafted and humorous. But it’s literary fiction, so if you need your characters likable and your plot strong, you may find it a bit dull.


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ESSAY REVIEW: Confessions of a Book Reviewer by George Orwell

Confessions of a Book ReviewerConfessions of a Book Reviewer by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Available free through the Orwell Foundation

An amusing essay that reveals the dirty secrets of book criticism, while proposing that the vast majority of books don’t merit a review. Just a few pages long.

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BOOK REVIEW: An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

An Essay On CriticismAn Essay On Criticism by Alexander Pope
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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View free at The Poetry Foundation

This essay is a poem, i.e. heroic couplets in iambic pentameter, to be precise. It advises both poets and critics of some of the mistakes made in their respective pursuits (though at the outset he warns that bad criticism is a bigger sin than bad poetry.) To critics, Pope advises against nit-picking, as well as failure to recognize the tradeoffs inherent in poetry – i.e. sometimes the better sounding line is grammatically strained, or the wittier line may be less musical. To poets, he lays out a range of insights from stylistic to psychological, and it is an essay both about improving the product of writing as well as improving the relations between writers and critics.

Those unfamiliar with the essay will still be aware of a few of its lines, these include: “A little learning is a dang’rous thing;” “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread” and anyone who’s learned to write iambic pentameter (and the sins, thereof) will remember: “And ten low words oft creep in one dull line.”

But those everyday aphorisms are by no means the full extent of this essay’s wise words and its clever phrasing. My favorite couplets of the poem include:

“Some neither can for wits nor critics pass, // As heavy mules are neither horse nor ass.”

“Trust not yourself, but your defects to know, // Make use of ev’ry friend – and ev’ry foe.”

“For works may have more wit than does ‘em good, // As bodies perish through excess of blood.”

“Words are like leaves; and where they most abound, // Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.”

“True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, // As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.”

“Some praise at morning what they blame at night; // But always think the last opinion right.”

“Unhappy wit, like most mistaken things, // Atones not for that envy which it brings.”

“All seems infected that th’ infected spy, // As all looks yellow to the jaundic’d eye.”

“’Tis best sometimes your censure to restrain; // And charitably let the dull be vain:”

I delighted in this poem. It’s full of food-for-thought, and reads remarkably well for a piece from the year 1711.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Critic as Artist by Oscar Wilde

The Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing NothingThe Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing Nothing by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this dialogue, the characters of Ernest and Gilbert reflect upon the value, nature, and limits of artistic criticism. Ernest serves largely as foil and questioner, taking the everyman view that critics are failed artists and that criticism is a puny endeavor that isn’t good for much. Gilbert, on the other hand, defends criticism of art as an art unto itself, and a difficult one at that, one that requires revealing elements and ideas of the artistic piece that the artist didn’t put in the piece in the first place. Throughout, Gilbert lays down his counterintuitive bits of wisdom about the job of the critic, the characteristics of good critics, and – also – about artists and art, itself. [Ideas such as that all art is immoral.]

Oscar Wilde was famed for his wit, quips, and clever – if controversial – turns of phrase, and this dialogic essay is packed with them. A few of my favorites include:

“The one duty we owe to history is to re-write it.”

“Conversation should touch everything, but should concentrate itself on nothing.”

“If you wish to understand others you must intensify your own individualism.”

“Let me say to you now that to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.”

“Ah! don’t say that you agree with me. When people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.”

“…nothing worth knowing can be taught.”

This is an excellent essay, and I’d highly recommend it for anyone who’s interested in art, criticism, or who just likes to noodle through ideas. You’re unlikely to complete the essay as a convert to all of Gilbert’s tenets, but you’ll have plenty to chew on, mentally speaking.


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BOOK REVIEW: Supernatural Shakespeare by J. Snodgrass

Supernatural Shakespeare: Magic and Ritual in Merry Old EnglandSupernatural Shakespeare: Magic and Ritual in Merry Old England by J. Snodgrass
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Like – I suspect – most of humanity, I’m a big fan of Shakespeare’s work, but I’m also not alone in feeling that I’ve missed a some of the depth and texture of his plays. Both language and the body of common / popular knowledge have evolved and migrated tremendously since the Elizabethan era. This makes a market for books that offer insight into the age and the role that the beliefs, norms, and daily life played in Shakespeare’s theatrical works. This book is one such work. It focuses on the role supernatural beings and various festivals play in the Shakespearean canon and why they do so.

Conceptions of the supernatural may be one of the areas in which human beliefs have changed most severely since Shakespeare’s day. The book has chapters on witches, ghosts, fairies, and enchanted forests that are interspersed among chapters that deal with various seasonal festivals of Pagan origin. I did find this leapfrogging around a bit odd, but I would speculate two possible reasons for it. First, the author may have wanted to build cyclicality into the overall organization, and thus put beings and creatures that seemed thematically related to a season near its festivals. Second, it may have seemed like a good idea to break up the festivals because that discussion could have felt tedious to a general reader if it’d been clumped together (as opposed to the “sexier” topics of witches and ghosts and the like.) This organization didn’t bother me; it just seemed a bit strange, but I could imagine it being for the best.

I learned a great deal from this book, and my newly gained knowledge wasn’t all about the supernatural elements of Shakespeare. The author dropped some fascinating facts regarding other domains as well – such as Elizabethan sexuality and lifestyles as well as biographical facts about Shakespeare. If you’re looking to expand your understanding of background information relevant to Shakespeare’s plays, this book is worth looking into.

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