Bookshelf — On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan

If there is one indelible line among the many memorable words that form this compact novel, it is this: “The entire course of life can be changed – by doing nothing.”

Edward and Florence are newlyweds. They are “young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.”

The couple is as inexperienced at communication as they are in the carnal arts. Their courtship was “bound by protocols never agreed or voiced, but generally observed;” in other words, they had friendship – but no benefits. Florence abhors the notion of sex. She does not want to be “entered or penetrated,” verbs she found in a how-to handbook for brides. Edward, his perception warped by priapic frustration, misinterprets Florence’s reticence as a dormancy awaiting a passionate reawakening.

Perched uneasily aboard their honeymoon bed in an inn overlooking Chesil Beach in Dorset, England, Edward and Florence attempt to reconcile their fantasies – he yearning for relief from his passive torment, she determined dutifully to grin and, ahem, bare it. Then, in an instant, these dreams collide, revealing sharp edges that had been hidden behind the dullness of cordiality.

“On Chesil Beach” is set 1962, “when to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure.” McEwan, as artful as ever in nuance, and as theatrical as necessary when the tension tightens, captures the era perfectly: Edward and Florence are innocents, duped by cultural norms and lacking the means – neither language, patience nor honesty – to overcome their entrapment.

 “On Chesil Beach” is a penetrating story of loss – of love, of opportunity, and of saying the right words at the right time. I highly recommend it.

Bookshelf – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

If you believe everybody’s broken in some way, or at least capable of being riven by life’s random tribulations, then you will bond with Eleanor Oliphant.

Nine years ago, Eleanor showed up for a job interview with “a black eye, a couple of missing teeth and a broken arm,” got hired nonetheless, and, at age 30, alone and hermetic, holds her fractured self together through rigid routine, harsh dismissal of others, and wet weekends of self-dosing with bottom shelf vodka.

Eleanor is far from fine; she’s a mess. She’s also the keeper of horrific secrets rooted in past violence.

Yet, Eleanor yearns to be more, and thanks to a series of chance encounters with open-hearted people who look beyond her physical disfigurement and emotional deep-freeze, she slowly morphs, leaning more and more into life’s small pleasures. Ah, the kindness of strangers – such magical medicine.

Eleanor could be a caricature (another heroine of the “resurrection” genre) but Honeyman humanizes her via clever, direct writing that mostly scrubs the narrative clean of cringeworthy gasps and heart-tugs. She also astutely perceives of what it means to be different in a society where normality is prized perhaps even more than celebrity.

“A nose that’s too small and eyes that are too big,” says Eleanor in self-appraisal. “Ears: unexceptional. Around average height, approximately average weight. I aspire to average … I’ve been the focus of far too much attention in my time. Pass me over, move along please. Nothing to see here.”

But there is much to see in the pages of “Eleanor Oliphant.” It is an enjoyable mix of mystery and empathy, fun to read, but also a reminder that we humans are ourselves books whose content cannot be divined by our crumpled covers.

Bookshelf – Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman

What if?

There is hardly a more revolutionary question. All human accomplishment rises from this two-syllable query, both beneficial and malevolent. The seeds of tools, language, art, philosophy, and science always sprout from an imagining of possibility.

In this context, think of young Albert Einstein, on the verge of publishing his famous formula, his mind churning with dreams about “the many possible natures of time.”  What if, he wonders, that unlike our familiar concept of linear time, there are worlds in which “time is a circle, bending back on itself,” or where people live just one day or, the opposite, live forever? What would life be like in such worlds?

In “Einstein’s Dreams,” physicist and novelist Alan Lightman answers that question with short, fantastical scenarios that presume how other versions of time would shape human behavior. In one imagined world, for example, where time advances more slowly at higher altitudes, the wealthy occupy the most vertiginous terrain in order to live longer. In another world, one without future, “each laugh is the last laugh” and “beyond the present lies nothingness (so) people cling to the present as if hanging from a cliff.”

In each tableau, people do what they always do: some conform to the demands of time out of greed or fear or simple acquiescence, others choose their own paths, occupying eddies of tranquility amid the surging river of time. These choices offer meditative lessons for your consideration.

Lest “Einstein’s Dreams,” seem too wonky, I assure you it is not. Lightman writes in spare, entertaining language whose rhythmic nature at times flirts with poetry. It is highly descriptive and fun to read.

Bookshelf – Annie Bot, Sierra Greer

Be careful what you wish for, wheezes the cautionary bromide, or you just might find yourself overcome by it.

This vexatious thought traverses the easily troubled mind of Doug, a thirty-ish New York bro possessing no last name but enough cash to buy what he always wanted: the perfect girlfriend, a beauty who cooks and cleans and services his libidinous desires, doing it all with the smiling compliance of a high-class robot, which, in fact, is what she is.

In Annie’s company, Doug has never been better fed or better bedded – especially since he had Annie designed to look just like his ex. Being autodidactic, Annie becomes more and more humanlike, which also thrills Doug – until she acquires some of the lesser qualities of the species.

Annie is a Stella, a sentient blend of a CPU, AI, and a human embryo. She is capable of being a nurturing nanny, an efficient housekeeper, or an insatiable pleasure partner when switched to Cuddle Bunny mode, Doug’s preferred option. She is the best $220,000 can buy.

Danger, Will Robinson!

It turns out the complexities of human relationships remain intact even when one of the partners needs to carry a charging station with her. When “Annie Bot” moves beyond the story of a boy with a toy (these passages are NSFW), it reaches for a morality tale of endangered male dominance vs. awakening female independence – the eternal clash of the chromosomes. At minimum, “Annie Bot” is a well-told preview of an inevitable future. At its best, it is an admonitory tale of powerful machines possessing the failings of the humans who design them.

“Annie Bot” is Greer’s first published book, and there are moments where this shows through (what does Doug do for living? why is Annie alternately bold and timorous? who is that guy at the end?), but there are not enough lapses not to recommend the book.

Bookshelf – Rabbit, Run, John Updike

Since I am of an age where secrets have long lost their utility, I am only somewhat abashed to admit that until now I’d not read any of John Updike’s “Rabbit” novels. Blame this oversight on, first, the ignorance sired by youthful arrogance and, then later, a senescent narrowing of perspective.

“Rabbit Run,” the first of the quartet, arrived in 1968 to both coy acclaim and snooty dismissal (a “shabby domestic tragedy” croaked the New York Times, despite being “artful and supple”). At the time I was a truculent teenager awhirl in the rejection of everything conventional, so I knew nothing of Updike and could have cared less about the angst of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. The second novel, “Rabbit Redux,” came out in 1971, still before maturity bloomed in me. And, by the time “Rabbit is Rich” (1981) and “Rabbit at Rest” (1990) appeared, I’d cast Updike onto the dusty reaches of my father’s bookshelf, like Cheever, Roth, and Bellow.

An advantage of advanced maturity (there are not many) is the ability to do an accounting of the errors of the previous decades and, if lucky, rectify them, which I have done in a small way by reading and being amazed by “Rabbit Run.”

The novel ranks high in many academic curricula and is therefore endlessly analyzed, so I have nothing sagacious to add to what is already written about Updike’s commentary on the constrictions of religion, the expectations of male responsibility (leading to the subsequent belittling of female agency), and the mendacious myth of the post-War American Dream. The non-scholastic word that does come to mind, though is: rubbernecking – because following Harry Angstrom as he careens from one emotionally chaotic soap bubble to the next is like seeing a train wreck in slow motion: both fascinating and horrifying.

Rabbit Angstrom is a detestable protagonist, pathetic, whining, exploitive; thoroughly unlikable. The highlight of his short life was being a high-school basketball star in the working-class suburb of a modest American every-town. At 23, married to a woman he thinks is stupid, the father of one child with another on the way, and employed as the salesman of the MagiPeel kitchen gadget, Rabbit’s disenchantment with every aspect of his life causes him to shed his leash and flee in search of …. well … what? Not being a man of more depth than the agility needed to pivot and launch a jump shot, he has no idea what he wants. As he tells a clergyman who tries to lure him back to the flock:

“If you’re telling me I’m not mature, that’s the one thing I don’t cry over since as far as I can make out it’s the same thing as being dead. … but I tell you, I do feel, I guess, that somewhere beyond all this (he gestures around him) there’s something that wants me to find it.”

Domesticated man searching for meaning in life. Enough to launch a thousand books.

Rabbit’s selfish boorishness is tough to take a times – not again! I gasp – but Updike’s wonderful writing more than offsets the unpleasantness of this man/boy-on-the-run. Updike writes with such precision that his words fit like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Unlike so many contemporary novels, which (to me) feel loose and in need of several more drafts, “Rabbit, Run” is tight. No words are out of place, no dialog added for padding. Here is an example:

“His car is waiting for him on Cherry Street in the cool spring noon mysteriously; it is as if a room of a house he owned had been detached and scuttled by this curb and now that the tide of night was out stood up glistening in the sand, slightly tilted but unharmed, ready to sail at the turn of a key.”

Please excuse my longer-than-usual scribbling, but I felt I least owed Updike a few extra words for having ignored him for so long. I am, however, thrilled to discover him. As I soon as I finished “Rabbit, Run,” I ordered the next three.

Bookshelf — The Man Who Saw Everything, Deborah Levy

Despite being, as the title declares, a man of omniscient vision, Saul Adler manages to live his rather truncated and self-consciously disengaged life without every becoming himself.

From the opening of the book, when Saul is struck by a car on London’s Abbey Road and then hours later kicked out of his girlfriend’s bed after he asks her to marry him, he is a man in flight – fleeing from intimacy, seeking what cannot be had, indulging in pleasures that consort with pain.

A professor of history whose field is the communist countries of Eastern Europe, Saul is a cipher, an androgynous wraith of a man berated by his father and bullied by his older brother for being a “Nancy boy” and told by his girlfriend, “You are much prettier than I am.” His beauty attracts men as well as women, but it alone cannot sustain relationships that wither for lack of emotional commitment. His girlfriend, a photographer, tells him, “You were so detached and absent, the only way I could reach you was with my camera.”

The story begins in 1988, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall – a moment critical to the narrative – and leaps to 2016, when another car accident in the same place (the crosswalk immortalized by the Beatles album cover) sends Adler somersaulting through his memories, a jumble of conflated moments lacking a cogent timeline. His life of flight becomes a free fall.

This is a beautiful book, exquisitely written, and loaded with trenchant dialogue, both spoken and heard through Saul’s introspection. The story is intimate, but not idle. There are many surprises, but Levy delivers them slyly. If you read “The Man Who Saw Everything” looking for the blow of a hammer you will miss the sting of Levy’s stiletto.

Finally, about the ending (without giving it away): the last few pages are among the most moving I’ve ever read, forcing a reader to turn toward a mirror and ask: Who am I?

Bookshelf – “If I Survive You,” Jonathan Escoffery

As a man of the Anglo-Saxon-mongrel variety, I never had to worry about identity. Sure, in the working-class, industrial city where I grew up we kids would ask each other What are you? But whether we answered Irish or Italian or Polish there was never any doubt what we were: White.

Such certainty eludes Trelawny, the protagonist of “If I Survive You.” The son of Jamaican immigrants he traverses childhood to adulthood afloat in a sea of swirling colors and cultures. In a Miami high school, he is too brown to hang with the Blacks, too mono-lingual to hablar with the Latinos, and too Yankee – meaning adverse to speaking the island patois – to other Jamaicans. In a Midwest college, amid a cloud of pink-toned classmates, he is “unquestionably Black.”

His older brother, Delano, tells him: “You’re Black, Trelawny. In Jamaica we weren’t, but here we are. There’s a ‘one-drop’ rule.” But then a white co-worker, after making a racist remark, says to Trelawny: “What do you care? You’re not Black. You’re Jamaican.” Suddenly, thinks Trelawny, “Black Americans are the only Blacks. Blacker than Africans. Black in the (lowered voice) bad way.”

Escoffery places Trelawny’s personal journey amid a prism of stories about the searches of life: Cukie, a friend of Trelawny’s searches for his father, only to find that truth can lead to betrayal; a tragedy gives Delano one more chance to follow the ambition he abandoned for more pragmatic pursuits; a mysterious middle-aged woman, smitten with love, wishes to weasel her way into the old-folks home where Trelawny works.

Again and again, “If I Survive You” returns to Trelawny’s relationship with his father, a general contractor who dotes on Delano and sees his younger son as weak and adrift, an affront to his immigrant mindset that places survival about all else.

Trelawny does indeed wander. Booted from father’s house, he moves into his car, and uses the perception that “every light brown thing in Miami is exotic” to entice female tourists with “colonial desires” to take him back to their hotels, where he will have a bed for the night. He cycles through jobs both tedious and perverse (punching a woman in the face for an art project, watching an affluent white couple have sex). Through it all, he seeks to make peace with himself and, at least inwardly, with his father.

The New York Times called Escoffery “a gifted, sure-footed storyteller, with a command of evocative language and perfectly chosen details.” Dead-on right. There are not many pages in “If I Survive You” that lack a savory turn of phrase or a piquant observation, many of them about Miami and its environs, an extra treat for those of us who, rightly or wrongly, see South Florida as the slightly off-kilter uncle in the American family.