Atonement, by Ian McEwan

Like most readers, I usually despise films made from books that I've loved. Most of the time, they are ruined by the cuts necessary to compress a book into a two-hour film, not to mention the distortions added by studios in search of blockbusters, like the smooch scene added to the end of the version of Pride and Prejudice that came out a few years ago. There are always exceptions, of course, like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but they are rare.

So I wasn't sure I wanted to see this film. I usually dislike McEwan’s characters but always admire his writing. And Atonement is a masterpiece. I couldn’t bear to think of it being ruined by a film. One of the things that I particularly liked about this book was that the conflict, the violence came from within the family, instead of from some diabolus ex machina dropped in to jumpstart the plot.

My book club talked forever about this book, caught up in its ambiguities. We compared notes on the possibility of atoning for things you have done from the perspectives of our different religious backgrounds and from our own experiences. We discussed redemption and how it differed from atonement.

Several people disliked the first section of the book, when Briony is a child, complaining that it was florid and overwritten. As most people already know, she happens to see a scene involving her older sister and a young man. Briony's misinterpretation of the scene has tragic consequences. The second section follows the young man as a soldier in the Great War, while the third section deals with the years just after the war, when Briony and her sister are both nurses in London. A brief final section is set in the present.

The style of each section is markedly different. It seemed to me—and this was my defense to my clubmates—that McEwan deliberately wrote the sections in styles reflecting the literary styles of the period in which they are set. The first section, the idyllic country house and family life, seemed to me like the romanticism of some Georgian literature, Rupert Brooke's poetry for example. The Great War section was written in the gritty realist style of Graves or Owen, while the immediate post-war years section reminded me of “angry young men” such as John Osborne and Alan Sillitoe. The final section, of course, is pure post-modernism, playing games with the narrative and structure.

Well, I'm just a reader and experts in lit crit will undoubtedly find my summary laughable, but I still think the progression of literary styles in Atonement is remarkable. The film, despite the necessary elisions, manages to preserve these differences while crafting a coherent story. Well done, I say.

The Conjuror's Bird, by Martin Davies

I followed the Barnes book with another story about a search for a stuffed bird. No post-modern dictionaries or bestiaries here, simply good writing. No choppy sentences or jump cuts between characters, just good story-telling. I was completely enthralled by this book, racing through it and, yes, caring deeply about all the characters, heroes and villains alike.

The bird in question here is the Mysterious Bird of Ulieta. The naturalist on Captain Cook's second voyage to the South Seas brought back this stuffed bird, the only one of its kind ever seen, and presented it to Joseph Banks, who had been the naturalist on Cook's first voyage. Then it disappeared. So much is true. Two hundred years later, the chase is on to find this valuable specimen.

As in Byatt's Possession two storylines are intertwined, one in the present and one in the past. Davies does an excellent job of maintaining the focus in each and switching from one to the other without losing this finicky reader. In the present, we follow Fitz, a taxidermist and lapsed conservationist, and his young student boarder, Katya, as they race to find the bird before two other groups, who both intend to sell it to a pharmaceutical company planning to pull the bird apart in order to copyright its DNA. In the 1770s, we follow Joseph Banks himself as he struggles to weave together the different threads of his life: the woman he loves, the renown he wants, and the work he cannot relinquish.

Without spinning it out unnecessarily Davies gives each scene the time and space it needs to develop fully. Thus, he makes each scene so intense, so vivid, that thinking of them is like remembering my own past. And, as in the Barnes book, Davies is concerned with what we can make of the shreds of the past. And with where we run out of ways to knot them together, leaving them to fall apart in our hands.

Curious as to why it only took one paragraph for me to be fascinated with Fitz, I went back to the beginning. I already knew he was a taxidermist from the chapter heading, so wasn't surprised to find him working on a dead owl, but intrigued, certainly. The description of the December evening, the heat from the lamp, the feel of the skull and the skin made it seem as though I were there in the room with him. I felt Fitz's cautious elation when his difficult task seemed to be working and his irritation when the phone's ringing interrupted him. Remembering the practical jokes callers often pull on him, he decides not to answer it, only to change his mind out of concern that it might be Katya's mother trying to reach her.

So, what do we have here? His obvious competence at and concern for his work put me on his side immediately—I love reading about people at work—but it was his consideration for Katya and her mother that made me like him. The sensory descriptions and touch of humor pulled me into the scene, and the questions raised (Why is someone calling a taxidermist late at night? Who is Katya? Will the owl be ruined?) pushed me to read on.

And read I did. I'll certainly be looking for more books by this author.

Flaubert's Parrot, by Julian Barnes

Enough bad books! I knew I could count on Julian Barnes and he did not let me down. I waited to read this book until I had read the Flaubert novelette upon which it was based. Un Coeur Simple is the story of a servant who despite her low position in life and the many losses she endures, maintains her placid ways and her love for those around her. She also maintains her faith, although towards the end she gets a little mixed up and prays to a stuffed parrot given her by a neighbor, as well as to the more traditional Catholic god. After all, she reasons, the Holy Spirit is shown as a dove, so why not a parrot?

The Barnes book is a first-person narrative by Geoffrey Braithwaite, a pedantic doctor whose interest in Flaubert leads him into a search for the actual stuffed parrot that sat on Flaubert's desk as he wrote the story.

First off, hurray! One main character, with layers and layers of complexity to unpack, even if he does talk more about Flaubert than about himself. Secondly, this is one smart book. Not just the details about Flaubert's life and works, but the way they are presented and woven into the narrator's life. By an odd coincidence, I had just finished reading the wonderful Henry James Goes to Paris by Peter Brooks which is about Flaubert's influence on James, well, Maupassant, Zola and Balzac, too, but mostly Flaubert, so I had just been thinking about the relevance of his stories to the way we live—and write—today.

In his final, unfinished book Bouvard et Pecuchet Flaubert stepped beyond the realistic narrative he helped develop and began to play with the structure of the book in a way we would now describe as post-modernist. Similarly, Barnes intersperses chapters of straight-forward narration (though brimming with allusions, of which I barely caught a fraction) with chapters of lists, chronologies, a dictionary, even a bestiary. And yet, amazingly, these games move the story forward, while making me want to laugh and cry from one sentence to the next.

And what is the story? Ostensibly, Braithwaite is trying to determine which of two stuffed parrots was Flaubert's, the one at the Hotel-Dieu in Rouen, where Flaubert spent his childhood and his father practiced medicine, or the one at the museum at Croisset, where Flaubert went to live with his niece at the end of his life. However, Braithwaite is constantly second-guessing himself and his motives. He undercuts his own research into Flaubert, with debates about the value of learning about the writer's life. “Why aren't the books enough?” he asks.

But this book is really about the difficulty of capturing the past. For all his research and reading, his placing of one detail against the next, there is really no way for Braithwaite to know for sure what happened or what someone was thinking. The same handful of facts can be shuffled and made to produce multiple, quite different storylines. Also, a new discovery can change everything, such as finding that the kind of cab used for Emma Bovary's seduction was actually so tiny that such a scene would have been awkward and ludicrous.

Braithwaite's attempt to sort out and understand Flaubert's history turns out to be the method he has chosen to understand—if not recapture—his own past. I found his quest profoundly moving. This is a book I will read again and again.

The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud

This book was so tedious that I would have abandoned it after a couple of chapters if it hadn't been my book club's selection for the month. The writing style wasn't bad—many of her sentences and images were quite good—but the book simply had no content. The story follows a group of whiney, self-centered young people who, despite their privileged lives, complain constantly. The story also follows their parents, who have been fingered as the villains of the piece by the author and the young people themselves. Even though the parents have fallen over themselves giving these spoiled children everything, sent them to Ivy League schools and in some cases continued to cook for them and do their laundry even though the “children” are almost thirty years old, still it must be the parents' fault that these children are not happy. Obviously.

Last week I wrote about making the reader care about the characters, saying that it helped if they were likeable, but that it was not necessary. If this author had set out to write a book that ensured I would not care about her characters, she could not have done a better job.

For one thing, no, I could not like this bunch of drama queens. For another, there were seven equally main characters, with each chapter flipping point of view between them. If you don't stay with characters for more than a few pages, how can the reader get to know them? How can the author dig deeply enough into any one character to present any depth or complexity, any nuance? And that's another thing: in this gaggle of main characters, there wasn't a single one who was more than a superficial stereotype: daughter of famous man who fears she can't measure up, pompous middle-aged daddy having affair with young girl, uncomplaining earth mother who loves hubby despite all, effeminate and promiscuous homosexual man, confused 20-year-old in search of identity.

So much for characterization. As for plot, well, there was a lot of yakking about love affairs and wanting to be special. There were a couple of books and some articles being written, a magazine being prepared. Ho-hum. To manufacture a climax, the author had to drag in the attack on the World Trade Center, not that it was anything more than a backdrop to the lives of these self-centered characters. Who cares if thousands of people die? The important thing is that hubby goes back to earth mother, the magazine launch is OBE, and the 20-year-old leaves town.

Perhaps the author is right and most New Yorkers did react to the attacks on the World Trade Center, not with concern for those who died or for the first responders who put their lives at risk, but with selfish, melodramatic glee: Maybe I knew someone who died! Oh, poor me! Everybody pay attention to me!

I would hate to think that.

It's rare for me to say that a book isn't worth the paper it is printed on, but this one sure isn't. Some people in my book club enjoyed it, although (as one said) it was like reading a tabloid. Someone who used to work in publishing said that the author's descriptions were perfect and only too true. Another member of the book club thought it might be a spoof on the New York publishing industry, but we agreed that it wasn't funny enough for that, citing The Devil Wears Prada as a good example of an industry spoof. Another person suggested that the book itself was a spoof, that the author set out to write a ridiculously terrible book that would not only be published (because it was about the New York publishing industry itself), but also get excellent reviews and become a best-seller. If that was her intent, then she certainly succeeded. What a waste of time.