Tag Archives: United Kingdom

Ian McEwan, Nutshell

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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.

Reference:

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

Other things:

http://www.themillions.com/2016/09/the-body-doesnt-lie-on-ian-mcewans-nutshell.html

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/aug/27/ian-mcewan-author-nutshell-going-get-kicking

Nutshell by Ian McEwan

https://bookmunch.wordpress.com/2016/08/31/mcewans-best-since-atonement-nutshell-by-ian-mcewan/

Stella Collins, Neuroscience for Learning and Development

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This book provides a good overview of brain functioning and of how the physical structures and its biochemistry is related to the psychological and behavioral elements in learning.

While there is currently a strong interest in neuroscience and lots that is published about it, Collins warns about being critical about what we read that starts with “what neuroscience says…”. As for everything that comes from scientific literature, we should be critical of whether what we are told is in fact scientifically sound or not. (Key questions to ask: Who did the research? What’s on their agenda? Where was it first published? When was it published and when else? How was the science done? What is the result saying?)

One of the key things Collins tells us about is that to learn we must first be curious. The positive feelings that come from satisfying curiosity are generated by the same mechanisms as other pleasurable experiences, such as eating a delicious piece of chocolate if you are a chocolate lover. Dopamine is released and it’s quite addictive!

Second, there has to be a way for learning “to stick” or to be remembered. This means that we have to create the right level of attention and motivation for learning to be persistent about learning. Sometimes, it means providing options to practice and repeat, in order to create new neural pathways. It is also helpful to make the learning multisensory (for all learners!). And focus is better than multitasking, of which you can remind learners that try to learn while keeping in touch with the day-to-day of their work. Other tools to help learners remember and anchor learning: linking learning to emotions, novelty, stories, smell or context. And foster creativity by helping learners to be playful and to experiment with new ideas and behaviors.

If you are a learning and development professional, chances are you use techniques and tricks that you have learned on the job, rules of thumbs acquired from others, and your “good old common sense” based on your own experience. This book looks at why some things work and some things don’t. And you might be surprised at the things that we do that are not as effective as we might think. Understanding why will make us far more effective.

Thanks to Kogan Page and NetGalley for access to a review copy of this book.

Reference:

Collins, Stella. Neuroscience for Learning and Development: How to Apply Neuroscience and Psychology for Improved Learning and Training. Kogan Page, London, 2016.

Other things:

Lesia Daria, Forty-One

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This novel tells the story of one year in the life of a middle-aged stay-at-home mom, her forty-first year. Eva Holden is a Polish immigrant who married British lawyer Harry and leaves with him in an upper-class neighborhood not too far from London. They have two young children, and in an effort to ensure a better for his family, Harry hatches The Plan, which consists in him working abroad for a year to avoid high income taxes and increase making his chances of making partner. While Eva agreed to The Plan and vowed to make her best to make things work and be supportive to Harry, the situation proves to be much harder on her than she expected. A fight over the repair or replacement of frayed drapes risks becoming a metaphor for a failing marriage…  The trials that Eva and Harry go through in that long, difficult year force both of them to reconsider what really matters and the ways they will adopt to both be happy and healthy, and keep their family financially secure. The issues they encounter are not very different from what many couples go through… and they find their own special ways to manage them.

We gradually discover through Eva’s reminiscences and her encounters with old connections that she has led a complicated life with many ups and downs, and that she is far from being the angelic, blond mother of two that she may appear to be. In fact, two old relationships come back to haunt her and risk derailing the efforts she has made a building a respectable life.

Some things struck me as I read this book:

  1. There was no description of contact with other Poles while Eva was in England. While she is somewhat close to her family and visits Poland regularly, she does not seem to associate with her countrymen while in England. This is very different from my experience of having a partner from a Greek family. Given the size of the Greek community in our area, there are Greek churches, Greek community centers and cultural associations, as well as Greek businesses scattered through the metropolitan area. I have a hard time conceiving of a Greek immigrant remaining completely disconnected from all this, which seems to be the case with Eva.
  2. The description of disconnectedness, fatigue and lack of motivation associated with Eva’s post-meningitis depression feel quite realistic, as well as the mood swings of post-partum depression. It is interesting that given the stigma associated with mental illness, the author would choose to portray this. But then this book is relentlessly down to earth and realistic in its descriptions of difficulties that many people go through in life but may not choose to talk about due to fear of social ostracism.
  3. In also enjoyed Eva’s reflection on social change in Poland as well as her thoughts on whether she still belonged or was a stranger to her own country. This is also an experience quite common to many immigrants who maintain ties with their country of birth.

In summary, this book was a good exploration of what gives meaning to one’s life, of how one makes sense of the unintended consequences of life choices, and how one creates a good future even on shaky foundations. It also looks at how we can forgive ourselves for our own real or imagined transgressions, and keep believing in our own power to move forward.

While in the beginning of the book, I felt that Eva was portrayed as the oppressed party in the relationship with some exaggeration, Harry’s point of view and perception of their situation (as well as their occasional mutual inability to see the other’s point of view) eventually made its way into the story and into their conversations, to add to the complexity and realism of the relationship.

The author offers a bibliography of works of nonfiction and fiction that have influenced her, which includes Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and the answer to everything is forty-two…

Reference

Daria, Lesia. Forty One. Matador, UK, 2015.

Paul Brown, Joan Kingsley, and Sue Paterson, The Fear-Free Organization: Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform Your Business Culture

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In this book, the authors seek to demonstrate how fear, a powerful emotion that tend to override others, gets in the way of individual performance at work. As a consequence, it also affects organizational performance negatively, and it especially damps down efforts in implementing change. One of the questions they are trying to answer is how we manage and lead in such a way as NOT to induce fear?

While reading this book, I had the following questions in mind:

  • Why do we need a fear-free organization?
  • Why does fear matter?
  • How do we control fear or manage its impacts?
  • What roles do leaders play in organizations?
  • How do we create and maintain organizations where individuals thrive?
  • How de we create and maintain organizations that perform well and who can adapt to changes in market conditions without deletious effects on individuals?

Given the often difficult conditions in which organizations must carry out business and the need to manage ever-accelerating change (or so it often appears to individuals within organizations), it is essential to understand the underlying mechanisms that influence behaviors and relationships in order to foster the most fruitful ones.

The authors look at the neurobiological foundations of emotions, the self and the ability to learn. As an opposite of fear, trust generates more energy and leads to more positive results.  They say on page 218:

Fear is the wrecker of trust. Trust is the antidote to fear. It can only come from individuals who first of all trust themselves, understand their own strengths and weaknesses, do not  exaggerate on either side of the scale, and have integrity.

Because fear is linked with survival and because the brain associates change with a threat to stability, we can conclude that human beings are hard-wired to resist change and to fight for the maintenance of status quo. In extreme cases, constant change may create so much stress and fear as to drive people crazy. On page 21, the authors give the exemple of King Christian of Denmark whose fear-ridden childhood drove him to madness and whose strange behavior forms the basis for Per Olov Enquist’s novel The Visit of the Royal Physician.

Five of the eight basic human emotions (fear, anger, disgust, shame, and sadness) lead human beings to focus on survival, whereas only 2 (excitement/joy and trust/love) foster a sense of attachment. The remaining one (surprise/startle) can lead to either depending on context.

The authors propose the following process to ensure a fear-free organization: First, we must start with a good-hearted leader, use human resources professionals to “organize energy”, have the right metrics to understand how energy is mobilized to generate the right results, and design all systems to “secure attachment”. On page 224, the authors say “Begin to see that profit is the statement of how energy has been applied in the system and that there is a remarkably bountiful supply of energy in people if properly attached so that energy is outward flowing, in the service of the organization, no inward flowing, in survival mode.” We must also foster the right cultural dynamics, make sure we make good use of meeting time, bring joy back at work and encourage behaviors that highlight the joy and trust that people feel. And lastly, let’s be clear that is not going to be a final end state, but will require constant work to maintain.

The authors provide a foundation from neuroscience for all the idea they propose. Given I have little knowledge in this area, I could not assess whether their presentation is accurate but it has certainly sparked my interest.

Reference

Brown, Paul, Joan Kingsley and Sue Paterson, The Fear-Free Organization: Vital insight from neuroscience to transform your business culture. Kogan Page, London, UK: 2015.

Books and authors recommended by the authors:

Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations: A guide to creating organizations inspired by the next stage of consciousness, Nelson, Parker, Brussels:2014.

Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations by authors associated with Vital Smarts

Stone, Patten and Heen, Difficult Conversations

David Rock’s SCARF model

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant

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I rarely feel like a rush through a book just to say I’ve finished it, but this is what happened with this one. In a way, it was worth it because there were some interesting things to think about towards the end. So I will not summarize the plot here. Others have done that. Let me just share some thoughts that occurred as I was reading the book.

  • The description of sleeping quarters and eating were highly reminiscent of Sigrid Unset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, so I had the same pictures in my head when Axl and Beatrice, the two main characters, visit various dwellings while they are on their quest.
  • Obviously this is a “quest” novel, so it stands to reason that achieving the objective was not easy and there were many obstacles along the way. And of course, what was thought of as the objective turns out to be somewhat of an illusion…
  • In the end, the warrior Wistan succeeds in killing the she-dragon whose breath was creating a mist that caused everyone to lose their long term memory. Her death did result in the slow return of some memories. A question arises though: were these memories worth recovering if they are only to cause pain?

Many discussions in the book are about things and conversations forgotten, and about trying hard to remember. Here is such a conversation between Axl and Beatrice, which also touches upon the risk of recovering lost memories.

“Axl, tell me if the she-dragon’s really slain, and the mist starts to clear. Axl, do you ever fear what will then be revealed to us?”

“Didn’t you say it yourself, princess? Our life together’s like a tale with a happy end, no matter what turns it took on the way.”

“I said so before, Axl. Yet now it may even be we’ll slay Querig with our own hands,  there’s a part of me fears the mist’s fading. Can it be so with you, Axl?”

“Perhaps it is, princess. Perhaps it’s always been so. But I fear most what you spoke of earlier. I mean as we rested beside the fire.”

“What was it I said then, Axl?”

“You don’t remember, princess?”

“Did we have some foolish quarrel? I’ve no memory of it now, except that I was near my wit’s end from cold and want of rest.”

“If you’ve no memory of it, princess, then let it stay forgotten.”

The dialogues have a strange rhythm, as if stringing words together was also becoming difficult, as if rational thought was being slowed to a crawl, in the same way as Beatrice becomes more slow and frail as their quest goes on. There is a haunting quality to this book and its bittersweet ending.

Reference:

Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Buried Giant. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

Other things:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/23/the-uses-of-oblivion

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/04/the-buried-giant-review-kazuo-ishiguro-tolkien-britain-mythical-past

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/the-book-of-sorrow-and-forgetting/384968/

http://io9.com/kazuo-ishiguros-new-novel-is-a-weird-mess-but-it-still-1690654031

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/books/review/kazuo-ishiguros-the-buried-giant.html?_r=0

James McCalman and David Potter, Leading Culture Change: The Theory and Practice of Successful Organizational Transformation

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There is no shortage of change management books on the market (or in my library!) but new takes on it, given the utter difficulty of successfully implementing change initiatives in the workplace, are always welcome. What I particularly like about this one is the explicit use of tools from the social sciences toolkit (both conceptual models and research methods) and their application to the practice of fostering cultural change in the organization. Of course, my bias as a sociologist shows when I say that. I have so often been asked what was the use of my graduate studies in sociology if I only ended up managing learning and development activities in a for-profit company, as if developing leaders and contributing to organizational change projects was in no way informed by a background in the social sciences. And what is management if not an application of social sciences and psychology?

Given the “messy and unpredictable” nature of change management work, there is no simple recipe that can be applied and rational, linear models emphasizing simplicity are unlikely to work. This is where careful study of the situation using methods developed by the social sciences to study social reality are useful. One has to dig deep to understand the meaning systems that have been embedded in a given social setting to effect lasting cultural change. The authors devote a few chapters to the elements that make up a culture.

They also define organizational development (OD) as the process of managing changes to cultural elements using methodologies from the social and behavioral sciences. The book also contains interesting discussions on power and leadership and on the role of language both in creating and stabilizing culture (or “cultural hegemony”) as well as in changing culture.

The authors make great use of the gardening metaphor, where changing culture starts with planting seeds and creating the right conditions for these seeds to grow. As we all know, the results are not always as expected and this very well reflects the emergent nature of cultural change. We may very well end up with the intended consequences but also with some unintended ones. The authors say:

These cultural seeds may flourish and sprout new cultural themes, or they may fuse with established cultural themes and produce hybrids that continue that continue to preserve established norms but perhaps enhance the positive aspects of these norms, or they may lie dormant and spring into life once fertile cultural conditions emerge that favour their growth and development as new dynamic cultural assumptions, value and ultimately themes. The gardening metaphor is helpful in understanding what cultural change is really all about. It is a form of cultivation. It involves the sowing of symbolic seeds that may or may not take hold. These seeds need the right conditions to mature and it is these same conditions that are required to kill off unwanted cultural constructs. So even when the formal stage of the OD process is supposed to be complete, these symbolic seeds can spring into life as derivatives of the original cultural change work. (p. 218)

The authors present an extensive case study and describe the approach they have taken with their client to effect cultural change. This nicely complements the first half of the book that lays out the theoretical foundations of their approach to cultural change.

In my experience, what I have found to be most problematic is when the predominant culture includes attitudes towards that change that are in and of themselves antithetical to change. In some organizational cultures, strong assumptions are made about the nature of change as being mostly an issue of structure, and it is assumed that implementing the right structure will produce the right cultural changes. In such change projects, new processes and tools are put into place, and no explicit efforts are made to facilitate the culture changes that will help embed these new structures and will generate the desired results, often measured through performance indicators. McCalman and Potter present a solid case for how and why cultural change work must be explicitly planned and managed.

This book has also made me think about how current my knowledge of social science methods is… I still have the basics from when I was a graduate student 25 years ago, but I have not look into any of the current thoughts that may take advantage of new ideas or new tools available. It might be something interesting to dig into.

The book may be quite useful to what the authors call “change managers”, that is, any actors in the organization who intent on effecting change. Paying explicit attention to the cultural aspects of change may not come as naturally as focusing on the structural aspects (new organizational structure and new work processes).

Reference

McCalman, James and David Potter. Leading Culture Change: The Theory and Practice of Successful Organizational Transformation. Kogan Page, London, 2015.

Ian McEwan, The Children Act

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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.

Reference

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

Other things

http://www.ianmcewan.com

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gray%27s_Inn

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/sep/11/the-children-act-ian-mcewan-review-novel

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/11061406/The-Children-Act-by-Ian-McEwan-review-diminishing-returns.html

http://www.npr.org/2014/09/05/346060805/in-the-children-act-the-electrifying-human-dimension-of-a-legal-drama

Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto

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Another rare foray into classics and it’s back to Gothic! I had heard of The Castle of Otranto around the time I was reading The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Ward Radcliffe. I had downloaded it to my Kobo and I was waiting for the inspiration to read it. Unlike The Mysteries of Udolpho, which took me 27 hours to read, this is a rather short read, at 3.4 hours. It is also a lot less scary. And I am not sure that the strangest mysteries get explained satisfactorily (How did the gigantic helmet kill the heir?) whereas in Udolpho, most mysteries had a very logical explanation and their apparent strangeness was magnified by fear and anxiety.

Horace Walpole wrote this book in 1765, when Ann Ward Radcliffe was only a baby. The Wikipedia article on the Gothic novel considers it the origin of the genre. The so-called preface to the first edition gives a fictitious origin to the manuscript:

The following work was found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England. It was printed at Naples, in the black letter, in the year 1529 How much sooner it was written does not appear.

So it starts with this aura of mystery, a story coming from the depths of the past. In the Castle of Otranto, Prince Manfred and Princess Hippolita have two children, Conrad and Matilda. Conrad is sickly but is getting married to the lovely Isabella who has been living in the castle with the family since an agreement was made with her guardian of a future marriage with the heir. Prince Manfred, who has been obsessed with having an heir to bear the family name goes a little nuts. He conceives a plan to divorce his wife and marry Isabella in the hopes that she can give him heirs. Isabella is horrified and fleas.

We later see that Mandred is accused of carrying the name of Prince of Otranto somewhat fraudulently and a true heir surfaces, a certain Theodore who is the spitting image of a former ruler of Otranto whose picture hand in the grand gallery of the castle.

Towards the end, after Manfred accidentally stabs his daughter Matilda, a spirit appears to resolve the situation:

Behold in Theodore the true heir of Alfonso! Said the vision: And having pronounced those words, accompanied by a clap of thunder, it ascended solemnly towards heaven, where the clouds parting asunder, the form of St. Nicholas was seen, and receiving Alfonso’s shade, there were soon wrapt from mortal eyes in a blaze of glory.

After such a humbling moment, Manfred abdicates the principality of Otranto and he and his wife enter convents nearby. And of course, Matilda dies and even though she was Theodore’s true love, he eventually develops feelings for Isabella.

The story features some of the staples of such mysteries: strange noises, dark passageways, caves, intriguing visitors who don’t speak, priests with odd origins, lost relations who resurface, travellers stranded for years on islands, shrieking women, fainting women, submissive women await their fate to be decided by fathers or husbands, etc. Whereas Udolpho was quite dramatic, The Castle of Otranto has a strong comedic strain… the exaggerated affect of the characters quite nearly turns them into caricatures of themselves.

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/mar/14/castle-of-otranto-horace-walpole-review

http://www.theguardian.com/books/interactive/2014/may/09/reading-gothic-novel-pictures

http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-origins-of-the-gothic

Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth

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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).

http://www.npr.org/2012/11/14/164985216/ian-mcewans-sweet-tooth-leaves-a-sour-taste

http://www.npr.org/2012/11/13/164954966/delicious-deceit-abounds-in-mcewans-sweet-tooth

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

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This book was recommended by some participants in the MOOC on Fantasy and Science Fiction that I did this spring on Coursera. It is not science fiction in a “hard” sense, at least not of the improbable technological kind, but it does portray a use of science that is unlikely to be used in quite that way in real life (but it may not be that far from reality).

The genius of this book lies more in what is not said that in what is actually said. For a large part of the book, the allusion are tantalizing, hinting at a dark secret, but it is never completely spelled out, as if we are meant to discover the fate of the characters at the same time as they are. The book features a first-person character, Kathy H., who is at the center of the mystery. We meet her at the beginning of the book as a young adult struggling with the meaning of her work. Then the book flashes back to long years of a sheltered, yet lonely, childhood spent in relative comfort in a country-side boarding school. There are never references to parents or families, as if the children are all orphaned and completely alone in the world.

And of course, they are. And the ethical issues are huge… How could one create human beings solely for the purpose of harvesting organs for transplant, to cure cancer? And then suppose that such beings have no soul, and do not require to live a life worth living, except for those described in the book, taken in by a movement that was intent of given their short lives meaning and developing both their minds and their artistic abilities, even if that was never to come to anything?

Some characters say that conditions in other homes were nothing as nice as Hailsham where Kathy H. grew up. One can only imagine the worst, maybe even children held in small cages, like chickens in a chicken coop?

One of Kathy H.’s friends, Tommy, has terrible temper tantrums that must be the expression of the terrible anguish he feels when he gets a glimpse, somehow, of what life is to be about for them.

A movie was made based on this book. Kathy H. is played by Carey Mulligan in a subdued way that is quite how I pictured her in the book. The movie trailer as well as some movie segments can be found on YouTube.