Book Review: Nutshell

I like Ian McEwan’s books. I’ve read pretty much everything he’s ever written, and I’ve never disliked anything that he wrote. I’m sure that some of my love comes from the fact that one of the main characters of Atonement is named Cecilia; I really love that there’s a strong literary character in a great work of fiction who shares my name. I also love the way in which McEwan looks at the major issues of life and morality in his books. He’s engaging, insightful, and thought-provoking. (I said much of this when I reviewed The Children Act in January of last year.)

I bought McEwan’s latest book, Nutshell, about a week after it came out. I’d been wanting to read the book from the moment that I heard that McEwan, one of my favorite authors, was writing a modernization of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in which Hamlet is an unborn baby whose mother is having an affair with his father’s brother. Oh, and Hamlet is the narrator of the story.

Well, color me intrigued. I bought the book. I was immediately captured by McEwan’s narrative style and the characters he brought to life on the page. I read it every time I had two seconds to rub together. The book deepened my love of McEwan. He is intelligent, and he has to know that. But he never seems to rub it in your face. His modernization of Hamlet isn’t absurdly highbrow or elitist.

Rather, it deals with the mundanities of real life adultery. How does one comfortably have sex with one’s brother’s pregnant wife? How does a woman handle being pregnant with one brother’s child but involved with the other brother? What is it like to be the unborn child in the middle of all of this?

It is the characterization and development of the unborn baby that most intriguing. McEwan creates a child who is weeks from birth, who understands what is happening around him. The baby is sentient. He cannot yet see color, but he knows what it is. He has opinions on what his mother eats, drinks, and hears. He has opinions on politics and philosophy. The idea of writing a novel from the perspective an unborn child is complex and difficult. Many writers could have tried it and come off as pretentious or trying too hard. McEwan makes it work. The child is a well-developed character and a believable (if not entirely reliable) narrator.

The book is a smooth read. It does, as all McEwan novels do, present challenging ideas. It is a worthwhile read. I enjoyed it, and I can’t wait until I have another new McEwan novel to read.

Someday May Never Come

Early this morning, three men died in the water near Miami, Florida. I don’t know much about two of them, but I know that one of them was an amazingly talented pitcher named Jose Fernandez. In twenty-four years, Jose had fled Cuba for the United States, played professional baseball, and been a friend, a son, a boyfriend, and an expectant father. Everything that I’ve read about him describes a man who loved life, who loved other people, and who lived with great joy. He did what he loved, and he made sure to share that joy with others.

I was particularly struck by a quote I read from the managed of the Pittsburgh Pirates. (Emphasis mine.) “If you use your eyes and ears, there’s reminders throughout your week that life’s short and you don’t call all the shots. A sense of gratitude and a sense of joy needs to be more prevalent. … It’s just sad. It’s so horribly sad on so many different levels that there’ll be no more of that, there’ll be no more of him, there’ll be no more of that emotion on the mound, that skill set, that human being, that young man with such a gift, such a great smile. … Be where your feet are. Enjoy the moment. There’ll be a day where there won’t be another day.

Let me repeat that. Be where your feet are. Enjoy the moment. There’ll be a day where there won’t be another day. 

Our days are numbered, but none of us know the numbering of our days. Arnold Palmer died today at the age of 87. Jose Fernandez was 24. There was a numbering to each of their days. Arnold was allowed the long path; Jose was given a shorter path. But for each of them, there came a day when there was not another day. That day will come for each of us, and the same question that is being asked of them today will be asked: How did we use our days?

It’s easy to say “Someday I will…” but lately I’ve been thinking that someday doesn’t always come. It’s easy to say that you’ll do something when you’re older or richer or healthier or thinner, but the reality is that we don’t always get a someday. We eventually run out somedays, and we don’t always find that day when we’re prettier, richer, or more successful. We have to make the most of what we have. Our lives are judged by what we have done, not by what we might have done.

For me, the lesson of Jose Fernandez’s death is to make the most of the time that we’ve been given. Don’t wait for someday. Don’t procrastinate on life. We don’t know how many days we have. We can’t assume that there will be a day when we’re richer or smarter or thinner. We need to act now. We need to live now. Choose joy. Choose passion. And live. For God’s sake, live. We don’t know how many days we have, so we have to use those that we have as best we can.

So teach us to number our days, That we may present to You a heart of wisdom.

-Psalm 90:12

Can a mother forget her child?

I need to come clean about something.

Guys, I really LOVE hummus. You know that tahini/garbanzo beans/garlic mash that you put on pita bread or toast or chips or eat out of the container? I love it. I love it more than reason.

Got it?

Good.

Now I need to tell you something else.

Are you ready for this?

I also really LOVE guacamole. You know that avocado/tomato/garlic/onion mash that you put on chips or burritos or tacos or salad or eat out of the container? I love it. I love it as much as I love hummus.

So, I really like these two condiments. That’s okay. I’d never put guac on my falafel, and I’d never put hummus on my burritos. So far, so good, right?

Right, we’re all good. We’re all fine. I can eat one sometimes and the other at other times. It’s all good.

Until a BuzzFeed article asked me to pick between the two.

Seriously, I had to pick my preference.

I DON’T HAVE A PREFERENCE. I WANT THEM BOTH. ALL THE TIME.

Just not together.

Don’t make me choose. I love them both.

They are both smooth and delicious and garlicky and beautiful. Parents shouldn’t have favorite children. And I can’t have favorite condiments.

Book Review: The Paris Wife

Ernest “Papa” Hemingway is one of the best known writers in the American literary canon. We know a good deal about him-four marriages, three sons, some remarkable but volatile friendships, some serious struggles in both mental and physical health. But as a woman, I’m interested in those four wives. We know a good amount about Zelda Sayers Fitzgerald, the only wife of Hemingway’s contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald. But who were those four women who married Papa?

In her 2011 novelThe Paris Wife, Paula McClain attempts to answer that question with regard to Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. Hadley married Papa when she was 29, and he was 22. The pair were married for about five years and had one son together. The book covers the span of time from their meeting in Chicago in 1920 until their divorce in 1927.

The novel is primarily told from Hadley’s point of view. We see Ernest as she sees him. Now, I had background knowledge about Ernest and the fate of their marriage, so I couldn’t look at him as optimistically as Hadley did. From the beginning, I knew where their relationship was headed, and a part of me definitely wanted to protest against their marriage. I wanted to warn Hadley not to marry Ernest.

One clever device used by McClain is giving us an occasional glimpse into Ernest’s mind. This allows us to see events that Hadley might unaware of as well as showing us some of the darkness with which Hemingway struggled for much of his life. We often see and understand more that darkness than Hadley did. Perhaps this is because we’re looking back on this with more knowledge than she had, but perhaps it is also because we have a window into Ernest’s mind.

The book was an enjoyable read. I loved seeing the Lost Generation from the perspective of a wife who sat next to them and spent time with them but felt that she didn’t completely fit in with them. It was interesting to see how Hadley felt about sitting with Alice Toklas (Gertrude Stein’s partner) and others like them while the “husbands” sat around talking about their art.

On the other hand, it was difficult to see Hadley’s behavior at times. I know that various Hemingway biographers have described her as somewhat childish at the time of her marriage to Papa. She seems naive about the world and about Papa. From my perspective, she seems to need someone to look after her-although she would probably resent that. She had little or no real independence prior to her marriage, and while she claims to want independence, she seems perfectly content to let her husband govern her life. She moves to Paris because that is what he wants. She follows him around Europe. Her only real act of rebellion is getting pregnant with their son, Bumby, and she often shrugs off her maternal responsibilities on nannies and such in favor of getting tight with the Lost Generation.

If the above paragraph implies that I found Hadley to be weak, that would be accurate. The only act of strength that I ever saw from her was the decision to leave her husband in light of his affair with Pauline Pfieffer. I found Hadley to be a guide of how not to act as a woman. Do not marry based on passion as she did; wait for a man who is capable of being unselfish. Papa was always a selfish being; that can be seen in his friendships, his affairs, his marriages, his relationships with family. While Hadley needed him, he did not need her, and that was one of the downfalls of their marriage. Hadley needed Papa, but she also wanted him to need her.

From my perspective, when she got married, Hadley seemed to believe that it was better to be unhappy and partnered than happy and alone. As someone who disagrees with that premise, it was interesting to see how that perspective impacted her life. I don’t think that she ever regretted marrying Hemingway, nor do I think that she should have. However, I think that she came to see that negatives of their relationship outweighed the positives. For her sake, I wish that she had seen that when she was twenty-eight rather than when she was thirty-four. However, she did find love again, and I have to believe that her second husband (Paul Mowrer) made her happier than Papa did.

Do I recommend the book? Yes, I found it to be an interesting adventure in history, art, and life.

Should you read it? Yeah, probably, if you like reading historical fiction.

Why did I only give it only four stars on GoodReads? The book was really well-written, but I spent too much of it wanting to hit Hadley upside the head. Now, that’s way more Hadley’s fault than McClain’s fault, and it’s a sign of a well-written character.