A Moral Dilemma

Jonathan Franzen has a new book coming out, Purity. I know this because a) the internets are in a collective fury and b) an ARC of it is sitting on my desk.

I’ve never read any of Franzen’s work. And I’m not sure that I want to even though this lovely ARC is sitting here waiting for me to.

See, everything I’ve read about Franzen and the stuff that comes out of his mouth makes me think that he’s not a very nice man. I’m not a fan of the things that he says and am often offended by him. This week’s declaration that he had toyed with the idea of adopting an Iraqi orphan so he could study it and his assertion that he can’t do anything about his maleness do nothing to make me like him more.

But it did get me thinking.

Just because an author is a terrible human being, should that stop me from reading and even enjoying their work?

I have a habit of this actually. I can’t cheer for athletes who have proven themselves to be terrible human beings, either by cheating on their spouses, hitting their spouses or being a general d-bag. I’ve never read any work by Ernest Hemingway, again, because I think he was not a great person, even though many people tell me that his work is genius and beautiful and moving etc. I just can’t bring myself to read his work.

That said, I have read Machiavelli’s The Prince, despite the fact that it’s basically a manual on how to be a despicable person. I’ve certainly read a lot about Hitler and his cronies. I’m also kind of a fan of Woody Allen’s work despite that whole mess and I admit I watched 19 Kids and Counting out of a sick kind of curiosity until I really couldn’t stomach them anymore.

Obviously I’m a total hypocrite here, making my own rules. I would say that The Prince and anything Nazi-related are a part of my enjoyment of history. And I’m really working on the Woody Allen thing.

But where do we draw the line? Does a person’s work have anything to do with who they are as people?

I suspect that I would never buy a book of Franzen’s, even if I decide to read one of them. And that seems like a good compromise to me right now – if I’m not actively supporting the vile garbage that comes out of his mouth with my money, I’m not really contributing to his power am I?

What do you think? What are your own boundaries in this regard?


1920s Kenya: Circling the Sun

The Paris Wife was one of the first books my book club read together. And I just did not like it.

So I wasn’t sure at all if I was going to read Paula McLain’s new book, Circling the Sun. I was lucky enough to get an ARC of this book and took it with me to the lake earlier this month.

It turned out to be the perfect place to read this absorbing story. I could not put it down and ended up finishing it in two sittings.


Circling the Sun is the story of Beryl Markham, someone I’d never actually heard of before. The novel opens with Beryl attempting to fly solo across the Atlantic and as she’s attempting to switch the fuel tanks her mind wanders back to her childhood in Kenya. Her father had bought a large piece of property as part of a plan by the government to get a settlement started near the railways in the area. He’s a great horse trainer, and has no problem living very simply but his English born wife and delicate son don’t feel the same way and when Beryl is 5, her mother leaves her to go back to England. Beryl is more or less left to her own devices, becoming friends with the local people, learning their ways of life, indulged to run around as the boys do because she is white.

As she grows up, Beryl constantly runs up against the conventions of her time: she should wear a hat and gloves, she should be educated at boarding school, she should ride side saddle, women can’t train horses, she should get married etc. Each time she bucks the trend and forges her own path, earning a training certificate for horses, probably the first woman to do so. When her father’s farm fails, she hastily jumps into marriage with a neighbour she barely knows, Jock. Because of her work training horses, she winds up hob nobbing with the Happy Valley set, a group of wealthy expats who thrive on the excess. Beryl becomes entangled in a relationship with safari hunter Denys Finch Hutton and Karen Blixen.

I had no expectations of this book so I wasn’t prepared to love it. I’ve been waiting for a female character like Beryl (who isn’t a character at all of course, she was a real person), someone who wasn’t content to just let her life go by the way other people wanted it to be, someone who grabbed her own destiny and lived by her own rules. She struggles with her decisions, she’s never convinced that she’s made the right ones but she tries her best and she never backs down. McLain does a fantastic job of creating the world Beryl lived in, of bringing these people back to life in all their flawed glory. 1920s Kenya blazes to life, bringing with it a reminder of the struggles it faced and the way it used to be, when big game was still plentiful and allowed to be free.

Quite simply, I loved this book. McLain said in the afterword that she had read Beryl’s book, West With the Night, and that it took a powerful hold of her imagination. Obviously I’m now on the hunt for this book that Hemingway himself called a “bloody wonderful book.”

Thanks to Penguin Random House of Canada for providing me with an ARC of this book. 


The Paris Wife

I just finished The Paris Wife by Paula McLain. It was my Book Club’s choice this month. The Paris Wife is the fictional account of Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage to Hadley Richardson, told from her point of view. Even if you haven’t read any Hemingway (guilty) you’ve heard the stories and that should make The Paris Wife a compelling and interesting read.

But I just could not connect with Hadley. I tried. I really wanted to have something connect us. I thought at first that there might be, as she discovers her freedom after the death of her mother only to squander it by marrying Ernest. Then I thought maybe Hemingway would treat her like a queen, use her to inspire his work, his wife as muse. But he’s pretty horrible to her and leaves her out of all of his work.

It’s hard to know for sure how much of the story is based on actual events and how much is McLain weaving her own ideas into the narrative but in the novel, Hadley’s mother is a suffragette, working to make the world a better place for a woman to live in, so that she is her own person, no longer defined solely by her husband. And yet? Hadley’s entire existence is wrapped up in her husband. If he isn’t happy, she isn’t happy.

Maybe it’s just my 21st century-ness coming through but I expected more. Why couldn’t Hadley rail against Hemingway’s ill treatment of her? Why didn’t she embrace the life of a 1920s flapper? The inside cover has Hadley and Ernest being some amazing golden couple in 1920s Paris, hobnobbing with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. The Hemingways run off to Pamplona for the running of the bulls, spend months in the German Alps, vacation in the French Riviera and yet it’s all hollow and meaningless.

McLain has used loads of idioms and slang that was most probably de rigeur in the 1920s but in this novel, I felt like it came off forced and fake. There’s just something about all the nicknames everyone has and the way everyone is a “chap” or a “fellow”, even the women, that really bothers me.

I wanted to like it. I tried to like it. But I just didn’t. It didn’t even leave me with any desire to rush out and get my hands on Hemingway’s great works. Normally these kinds of books spark some new interest in a person or a time, but this time I was just relieved to be finished.

Grade: C-

Stars: 2