Tag Archives: Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan, Machines Like Me


Charlie Friend is 32 and he is dissatisfied with his life. As a day trader, he hardly makes any money. He is an anthropology graduate, but his life has been built on a succession of schemes that never fully succeeded. He befriends a neighbour, a history graduate student called Melinda.

The story is set in the 80s, during the Thatcher years, not in present time, so advancement in machine learning and robotics would not be common knowledge. However, Charlie has had a bit of interest in the subject, even publishing a book on it.

At about the same time Charlie and Melinda become more intimate, Charlie acquires an humanoid robot, with the money he inherited from his mother. Charlie decides to share the robot, Adam, with Melinda. The introduction of Adam in the story becomes a good ploy to explore several aspects of human nature, ethical dilemmas, and issues of free will and agency.

It turns out that Melinda hides a big secret which suddenly changes the course of the story (and started making it much more interesting to me).

In the end, neither the world, nor the technology, appear to be ready for completely autonomous humanoid beings, but this book raises interesting questions. I think this book would foster lively discussion in a book club.

McEwan, Ian. Machines Like Me. Penguin Random House, 2019.

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Ian McEwan, Nutshell


It is an odd choice for a narrator, an unborn foetus. There is no way it can be considered a reliable narrator, hampered as it is with a narrow view of events and a propensity for napping at inopportune times.

Have the house-sale papers come already? Has she signed? I don’t know. Sometimes I doze and don’t hear everything. And I don’t care. Having nothing myself, property is not my concern.

In addition, a foetus would normally lack an understanding of the world and of human behavior, but this one seems gifted with an uncanny level of knowledge and wisdom. Some of this has to do with his close connection to his mother.

Her blood beats through me in thuds and I can fee her struggling with a choice. I’m an organ in her body, not separate from her thoughts. I’m party to what she’s about to do. When it comes at last, her decision, her whispered command, her single treacherous utterance, appears to issue from my own untried mouth.

 But still…

The book seems to an ironic study on presentation of self and deception. Given that we are told about the “facts” by the unborn foetus, there are frequent retellings and reassessments of what things must look like, what they must mean, and what must have been intended by the various actors (for the most part, the foetus’ mother, father, and uncle).

The plot is simple enough: The mother has taken the brother-in-law as her lover and kicked her husband out of his family home. The mother and her lover plot the early demise of the husband in order to assume ownership of the house and sell for the large sum that even decrepit houses can fetch in London, to live happily ever after. We are led to believe that the police are ready to arrest them as the mother’s waters break (two weeks early) just as they are packing to escape to another country.  So it is the story of an ill-conceived plan executed in a sloppy manner, with no happy ending.

The twists and turns that occur between these broad lines are written about in a chiseled language with great verve. There is humour and irony, and the pace is quick and lively from beginning to end. A quick 3 to 4-hour read, it is quite a bit of fun.


McEwan, Ian. Nutshell. Alfred A. Knopf Canada (Jonathan Cape/Vintage, a division of Penguin Random House), 2016.

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Nutshell by Ian McEwan


Ian McEwan, The Children Act


I finished this book seven days ago and had not found the time to write about yet due to a hectic schedule, business travel and 10-12-hour workdays. I am now having a quiet evening in a Salt Lake City hotel, the kind of somewhat recent, beige and brown, nondescript you-could-be-anywhere-in-the-world hotel room that just makes you want to go home. Not a home away from home… I had not travelled in the past few months due to a change in role, and while I do enjoy going places and meeting people, I had not missed the fake “homey-ness” of mid-range hotel chains. So here we go with the book commentary.

Fiona, an aging Family Court judge, is troubled by some sensitive cases she has had to rule on. In the course of year, she sees her share of marital disputes, custody fights, and diverging opinions of what is in children’s best interests. This turmoil has taken on a toll on her private life, in addition to the long hours spend reviewing cases and writing up judgement. Her husband, a Classics professor, is disheartened by her lack of interest in him and her suddenly reduced libido. He thinks that he needs to have a passionate fling and takes off to have a go at it with a much younger statistician (Is her profession significant? One generally does not think of statisticians as sexy and exciting…). When he leaves with a suitcase, Fiona decides to change the locks on their apartment.  She is disappointed in her own inability to deal with the situation rationally and tells herself she is really no better than some of the people she has to pass judgment on.

While all this is going on, she has to rule on a case which may turn out to be one of the most significant of her life: the matter of permitting a hospital to administer blood transfusions to a not-quite-eighteen-year-old young man suffering from leukemia. The leukemia treatment has caused his bone marrow to stop functioning and without the new blood he will die. He is a Jehovah ’s Witness and he and his parents are adamant that blood products not be used.

She works hard to separate her private and professional life, and to concentrate on the work at hand.

It would not have been apparent, but her spirits were heavy as she set about Tuesday’s life. The last case of the morning was prolonged by complex argument over commercial law. A divorcing husband claimed that the three million pounds he had been ordered to pay to his wife was not his to give away. It emerged, but far too slowly, that he was the sole director and only employee of an enterprise that made or did nothing – it was fig leaf for a beneficial tax arrangement. Fiona found for the wife. The afternoon was now cleared for the hospital’s emergency application in the Jehovah’s Witness case. In her room once more, she ate a sandwich and an apple at her desk while she read through the submissions. Meanwhile, her colleagues were lunching splendidly at Lincoln’s Inn. Forty minutes later, one clarifying thought accompanied her as she made her way to courtroom eight. Here was a matter of life and death.

She rules in favor of the hospital and the boy is saved… for a time.

What I found interesting in this book was the description of the daily routine of the judge, and the description of life in a neighbourhood of London where only members of the bar can live or rent accommodations, Gray’s Inn, a sort of professional association (one of four), an enclave in the modern city of London. Far more picturesque than my dull hotel in Salt Lake City.

At this point, I have read McEwan’s three most recent novels and I still have to go to the earlier works, which do promise to be interesting when I find the time… and get through a good chunk of the current TBR pile.


McEwan, Ian. The Children Act. Knopf Canada, 2014.

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Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth


With a title like that, you might think that this is story about a successful dental practice, or the story of a young woman who becomes a pastry chef. It is nothing of the sort. Sweet Tooth is the code name for an old-fashioned Cold War spy operation by MI5, the domestic spy agency, where the main character Serena Frome is hired as a low-level operative when she graduates from university.

Sweet Tooth is a complex construction, like a present-within-a-present with elaborate wrappings, with many stories-within-the-story given that one of the main characters is a writer and that we get to “read along” when the main character reads his stories. It is a story about deception as well as self-deception. It is a story about trust and the foundations of trust.

Serena is asked to enroll a young would-be writer into an arts funding scheme that will provide him a pension for three years. The Foundation that officially provides the fund is not to interfere. What the young writer does not know is that the money comes from an MI5 fund to support authors that are seen as right-wing.

Serena then starts an affair with the young writer, without revealing who she really is. During most of the book, she reflects on what will be the right time to come clean, figuring out as time goes by that the longer she waits the more impossible a confession becomes. When she starts asking herself how she will live with herself if… she concludes that she is already living with herself quite well in spite of the deception. What I kept wondering about is whether any event would force her out of her complacency and make her feel the shame I thought she ought to feel.

The end took me by surprise, with a twist I never saw coming and you’ll have to guess who ends up with pie on their face, and in what way. And the character I found the most despicable is even worse than I thought he would turn out to be. Don’t you love a book where the villains are really villainous? However, if you think that maybe Serena should be exonerated due to her youth and innocence, I would rather cast her also as a villain, more so for being indifferent to others and self-centered than for being truly nasty. The unintended consequences are not milder.

I had not been too crazy about Solar, but now I am really looking forward to reading earlier works by McEwan (just don’t know when I’ll find the time).



Wednesday Night Ramblings


I am quite scattered this week. I actually have 6 books in progress (4 novels, a chronicle and a poetic essay), and I am feeling starved because my Kobo’s battery is dead and 3 of the novels are on it. Notice that there are still 2 books I can read, but I am itching to read the 3 that I cannot reach until I rescue my charger from my laptop back at the office tomorrow.

I am scattered in other ways as well, such as forgetting to buy my December monthly transit pass, but let’s not dwell on that for too long…

The 3 novels on the Kobo are Stephen King’s 11/22/63, Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. They’re all very different genres (fantasy, spy and speculative fiction) but I do have rather eclectic tastes. The paper novel is André Vanasse’s La flûte de Rafi, a historical novel. Also, I am reading Rodney St-Eloi’s account of his experience of the 2010 heartquake in Haiti and a book by Hélène Dorion about poetry.

Stephen King speculates about what could happen if one could go back in time and change a historical event, namely, the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Of course his time travel device presents some constraints and his time travellers have limitations of their own. They do think, however, that they would be doing humanity a service by allowing this great man a longer life span. That may be counting without “history” that resists being changed, as they clearly see from attempts at changing events that have much less impact on the world. All done in typical Stephen King style, with bad omens abounding.

The only other Ian McEwan novel I have read is Solar. So far, with Sweet Tooth, there is one similarity in the presence of a professor as a character, but whereas the professor was the main character in the former, the latter reserves a secondary role to the academic and the guy dies quite early in the novel. However, this existence is linked to major life choices of the main protagonist who so far, grew up as a bishop’s daughter and loved reading novels, studied math at Cambridge to please her very decisive mother, and who got hired as a glorified office clerk by MI5. Who know what the future holds for this young woman coming of age in England in the early 1970s? At about 17% into the novel, I can only see a lingering heartache from her short affair with the professor…

The Ishiguro novel is much harder to characterize… It is odd to say the least. It tells the story of a young woman who grew up at a very special boarding school where none of the students seem to have families. They are told they have been brought into the world for a very special purpose and that they have to keep themselves healthy so they can perform “donations”. I understand that to mean organ donations, but why that would be needed and under what conditions totally escapes me. These young people expect to be “carers” before they have to start donations, and that means, as far as I can guess, that they have to assist in the care and recovery of those who have made donations. The descriptions of the behavioural norms at the school as well as afterwards are made by the main character, in the first person, and reflect the usual thought process of someone trying to make sense of the world by inference, with little opportunity for asking for corroborating information. As the information shared is filtered by one ill-informed character is it not fully credible, so the reader is left to find out where the “truth” may lie. The story seems to be set in England in the 20th century but that is not explicitly said.

Well, enough for now… I do want to get some reading done before going to sleep.