Monthly Archives: July 2016

Book Review: “The Children Act,” by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan’s 13th novel explores weighty issues: the clash between religious beliefs and science, the promise of youth and the challenges of middle age, the corrosive effects of family conflict, and the power of the judicial system. At its core, though, The Children Act is less about societal issues and more about matters of the heart.

Like his masterful 2001 novel, Atonement, McEwan has crafted an intricate story that hinges on one moment of horrible misunderstanding. The main character, Fiona Maye, is extremely well drawn. Fiona, 59, is a British high court judge who presides over the family division. Fiona handles this difficult assignment with fairness and balance. McEwan takes the reader through the reasoning of her decisions on several thorny cases. She is clearly a judge who rules with sensitivity and wisdom, doing as little damage as possible to the fragile children whose fate rests in her hands.

It takes a special person to rule on family matters and Fiona is well aware of the human toll of these cases. She observes, “Loving promises were denied or rewritten, once easy companions crouching behind counsel, oblivious to the costs.”  Fiona learns first-hand the pain of a union riven apart when Jack, her husband of 35 years announces one evening that he plans to have an affair. Fiona tells him that if he follows through their marriage is over. Hours later she receives a call about an urgent case to which she has been assigned. Adam Henry, a 17-year-old Jehova’s Witness stricken with leukemia, has refused a lifesaving blood transfusion on religious grounds.

After hearing both sides of the issue, the judge decides to meet young Adam in the hospital. The scene in the boy’s hosptial room is the most powerful in the novel. Though Adam is sickly and short of breath, Fiona is struck by his vitality and his passion  for life. He has taken to writing poetry and learning to play the violin. Adam, in turn, is touched by how much the judge cares about him. She ultimately rules in favor of the hospital and Adam receives the transfusion.

But that’s not the end of the story. The judge has a subsequent contact with Adam that goes terribly wrong, much like the famous scene in Atonement when Briony makes a false accusation against an innocent man after misinterpreting something she has seen. Though the scene in The Children Act felt stage-managed it did not detract from this eloquently written novel. McEwan’s prose is such a pleasure to read and I recommend this novel.

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Going Sideways in Denver

The 2004 movie, Sideways, is one of my favorites. Two former college roommates in their 40’s embark on a one-week road trip the week before one of the men is getting married. Miles Raymond (played by the brilliant Paul Giamatti) is a depressed teacher, aspiring screenwriter, and wine expert. Jack Cole (Thomas Haden Church) is an over-the-hill actor about to settle down, but who is restless and unsettled.

During the trip, Miles meets Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress and fellow wine lover, and Jack meets Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a local wine pourer. Smitten by Stephanie, Jack arranges a double date with Miles and Maya. Things start out promising and then, well, go sideways.

The lesson of that movie for me is that life doesn’t always happen as planned. I couldn’t help but think of the movie, Sideways, during a recent trip that turned into a travel adventure.

It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon and I was flying home to Hartford after seven days in Phoenix, with a stop in Denver. We were in the air about three hours when things started to go sideways. First there was a medical emergency on the plane, which turned out to be minor. Then as we approached Denver, the pilot announced that the airport was closed due to storms and microbursts. We headed south for Amarillo, TX, to refuel. One hour later, we landed in Amarillo and sat on the plane for an hour while the plane got fuel. Then it was due north for Denver again. As we got close, the pilot announced that once again the airport was closed. We were diverted this time to Albuquerque, NM. The pilot let us off the plane and the great ground crew at Southwest Airlines bought pizza for us. We descended on the pizza like a swarm of bees. We hadn’t eaten in hours. Then we were herded back on the plane before I had time to explore the terminal in Albuquerque, so I didn’t find out whether it had a Walter White gift shop.

Headed to Denver for a third time, I checked my SWA app and found out my plane to Hartford had just departed. We finally arrived in Denver just before midnight. The crew instructed us to go to the ticket window to get re-booked as all of our departing flights had left. It took four and a half hours to reach the front of the line. It was 4:40 a.m. by the time I got rebooked. That axiom about people being at their best in a crisis rang true. I met some folks from Connecticut and California on the line and we became fast friends. People could have been grumpy, but everyone remained in good spirits.

Unfortunately, SWA couldn’t get me out of Denver until the following day. So I booked a room in a downtown Denver hotel and took the light rail into the city. Sitting on the train, exhaustion overtook me. I was loopy and could think of nothing but food and sleep.

Wondering what I would do all day (besides eat and sleep) I discovered that the Colorado Rockies were playing the Toronto Blue Jays that afternoon at Coors Field, near the hotel. One of my bucket list items is to visit every Major League Baseball stadium and I had a great time that afternoon at Coors Field. Then I treated myself to a nice dinner and went to bed, knowing I’d be up in a few hours to catch a predawn flight to Tampa, through Dallas, and then to Hartford.

I finally arrived home just before midnight on Thursday evening, exhausted but happy.

So what is the lesson here for writers? The lesson is that sometimes life goes sideways. Obstacles get thrown in your path. You have to make the best of it. I discovered that Denver isn’t a bad place to spend 30 hours. I walked around the 16th Street area (a pedestrian street teeming with people, restaurants and shopping), took in a ballgame, and had a good time.

Life goes sideways with no warning. It’s up to us to deal with it. And if you can get some writing done while you get back on track, all the better.



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