The Comfort of Strangers (1981)

(2006: Vintage) by Ian McEwan

[Read 22-24 February 2017]

Background: I reserved the book from Essex County Libraries for free after wanting to read some early works of one of my favourite author. I had no idea about the book but when I read the blurb I knew I would enjoy it.

Plot [SPOILER ALERT]: The book tracks Colin and Mary, an unmarried British couple as they holiday in an unnamed location on the continent. They dine and relax, existing in their own world, flitting between passionate love and profound loneliness. After getting lost one night they meet an unusual man called Robert, who leads them to his bar, where he recounts his childhood. Over the following days Colin and Mary encounter Robert again as well his disabled wife, Caroline. As Colin and Mary learn more about this foreign couple’s desires and pasts, they are inadvertently drawn into a fantasy of escaping their realities. A drastic but cunning plot exploits Colin and Mary’s passivity and weaknesses, which alters everyone’s future.

the-comfort-of-strangers

Strengths: The third-person narrative is somewhat detached, which fits the characters and their peculiar nuances. Certain features of the main characters are also omitted, which prompts the imagination beyond the surface detail. This demonstrates McEwan’s trust in the reader, which is a pleasurable experience and sign of an effectual author. The complex issues of isolation, sexuality, obsession and domestic violence are interwoven. McEwan’s language is flawless as always, both accessible and elaborate. The tone is often ominous and offers multiple potentialities. Further, McEwan’s choice to alternate dialogue and emotions with descriptions of the scenery and interior never slows the narrative. Robert’s back story, which is outlined early in the book, is a personal highlight.

The quotes I considered intriguing include “…never allowed sweet things…except fruit. It was bad for the stomach. But most important…bad for boys. It made them weak in character…” [page 23], “Whatever they might say they believe, women love aggression and strength and power in men. It’s deep in their minds… Women would protest at every war. Instead they love to send their men to fight. The pacifists…are mostly men…women long to be ruled by men.” [page 54-55], “…a subject was best explored by taking the opposing view, even if it was not…the view one held oneself; a considered opinion was less important than…opposition…adversaries…would be more rigorous in argument…subjects were not explored so much as defensively reiterated…” [page 62] and “The thing about a successful holiday is that it makes you want to go home. [page 83].

Weaknesses: Although there is much to admire about this fictional tale the final scene and concluding paragraphs appear rushed. The extraordinary actions of Robert and Caroline befit their character and back story, however it remains absurd and lacking in comprehendible motives. Therefore, McEwan’s ending feels forced and underdeveloped compared to the well-crafted narrative as a whole.

Conclusion: The book is an exceptional narrative of the literary genre. The pace McEwan writes is steady and deliberate, drawing the reader in just as Robert and Caroline do to Colin and Mary. The story contains engaging and unconventional relationships and characters. At a hundred pages with ten chapters, I found it enthralling and quick to devour. I would recommend the book to anyone who wants to read an original plot with intricate language. I have not watched the film version of the book, but this is a text that perfectly explores the minutiae of life to incite debate.

Word bank: lugubrious, aperitifs, collusion, diffident, battened, susurration, contrapuntal, mausoleums, citadel, wizened, accretion, equidistant, matelot, dishevement, rhomboid, louvred, whorls, ostentatious, acolyte, affable, aria, desultory, tauter, soporific, proprietorial, weals, baize, somnambulant, augmented, referent

Positive Internet Usage: Year 4 Overview

click-sites-image

My fourth year of contributing to my click-to-donate websites was a successful one. I followed a predetermined strategy and was able to contribute as follows (comparisons with 2015; overall totals in brackets)*;

  1. Care2 (care2.com) – 11 clicks in under 5 minutes [2016 total – approximately 338 clicks to support causes that include children, the rainforest, big cats, breast cancer, seals, animal rescue, primates, oceans, global warming, stopping violence, wolves (> -6; 1,220 to 1,367] [my 2016 butterfly credits (accumulated online currency) have generated the following gifts – offset 200 pounds of carbon dioxide (-169; 734), provide 11 days of safe drinking water for a child (-52; 119), plant 6 trees (-31; 73), save 4 turtle hatchlings (+1; 9), provide 5 life-saving oral rehydration salts (+2: 8)], save 154 square feet of rainforest (-35; 373); provide 5 weeks of clean cooking (+2; 10)].
  2. Free Rice (freerice.com) – several core subjects such as English Vocabulary, Flags of the World and World Capitals, approximately three minutes a day [2016 total – 128,000 grains of rice (-17,000; 804,000)].
  3. Care to Click (caretoclick.com) – 10 clicks in 3 minutes [2016 total – 330 clicks for cancer research (+5; 938), 353 clicks for child medical care (+1; 988), 1,860 litres of purified water for disaster victims (-150; 5,310),  337 clicks to help fight animal cruelty (-203; 974), 322 days of child education provided (-229; 967), 1,124 days of clean water provided for poverty-stricken populations (+170; 2,678), 1,461 square feet of rainforest saved (+190; 3,794), 1,296 days of vitamins provided (-100; 3,845), 7,588 square feet of national wildlife refuge saved (+783; 19,400)] and 18,030 days of mobile phone energy offset (+2,130; 45,730).
  4. Ecology Fund (ecologyfund.com) – 3 clicks in a minute [2016 total – 25,574.1 square feet of land saved (-3,118.5; 104,294.9 = 2.39 acres) and approximately 1,400 pounds of carbon dioxide removed (+0; 5,200)]. I was therefore added to the ‘2 acres’ section on the honour roll of the website.

I encouraged others to commit to some click-to-donate internet usage too. My family donated 6,790 grains of rice for my group on FreeRice.com. Other people also contributed to my Care to Click account with 140 (+0; 280) clicks for cancer research, 140 (-1; 281) clicks of child education provided, 140 (-2; 282) clicks for child medical care, 144 clicks to help fight animal cruelty, 280 (-6; 566) days of clean water provided for poverty-stricken populations, 405 (-45; 855) square feet of rainforest saved, 560 (+2; 1,118) days of vitamins provided, 705 (+5; 1,405) litres of water purified for disaster victims, 2,254 (-143; 4,651) square feet of national wildlife refuge saved and 5,640 (-80; 11,360) days of mobile phone energy offset.

Like 2016 there are plenty of ways to support your favourite causes;

  1. For online activists join Care2.com and add me as a friend under the profile churchy1760.
  2. For gamers join my FreeRice.com group, Cosmo’s Rice Givers (named after my cat) at http://freerice.com/frog/join/1965169/409ec05ccc92f2a18c64aec2cfdcc1f4.
  3. For shoppers join CaretoClick.com and add me as a friend at www.caretoclick.com/?referral_id=2005-b588cb0f4ec5b7895f5162c7b1a25ab5.
  4. For people with little time join the EcologyFund.com group CARE2 CLICKERS.

2017 could be the year you make a more positive difference via the internet. Together we can give more and change the world.

*as at 31st December 2017.

My Published Short Story

Today a short story that I wrote has been published by the online literary fiction magazine STORGY. My short story, entitled  Nothing Left For It follows Matt as he is consoled by his neighbour after his home is burgled.

short-story-photograph

Originally entitled Nothing of His, I began writing the story in July 2015 and submitted it to STORGY in October 2016. It was rejected by at least four other magazines before being accepted.

Read my first online published short story here.

If you enjoy it, check out my ebook Couple of Moments (2015), a collection of another nine intriguing literary short fiction, for only £2.50. Buy here.

Maldon Half Marathon 2016: Race Report

Last Sunday (25th September) I ran my first Maldon Half Marathon (and my sixth half marathon race).

I was aiming to beat my time at the Southend Half Marathon and consequently finish in the top three. I had been training for the race for almost three months and was confident in the lead up to race day.

pre-maldon-race

The mild conditions were ideal as I began the race strong. I was in the lead for the first 0.7 miles (1.1 km) until I was passed by two runners. I stayed in third position until the second mile mark. I spent the remainder of the race in fourth position with often no other runners in sight.

maldon-start

I did my best to maintain a steady pace but the undulating rural route (through Langford, Utling and Woodham Walter before returning to Maldon) continually challenged my concentration and leg muscles right until the end. I finished in a time of 1 hour, 24 minutes and 10 seconds (6:25 average per mile).

Although there were many positives from the race (my ‘comfortable’ fourth place out of over three hundred runners was sixteen positions better than my previous best) I was still disappointed with my performance. I felt that it was the perfect opportunity to run the best race of my life.

maldon-finish

Still I had a fantastic day, participating in a well-organised, picturesque event with support all along the route. I also stayed afterwards to clap in other runners, three of whom I knew. Fortunately, I did not feel too achy as I later enjoyed a vegan restaurant meal of salad and quinoa stuffed pepper.

 

maldon-post-race

Vegan Fruit Cake

For my birthday yesterday I decided to bake. One of my favourite desserts is fruit cake. As always I adapted a traditional recipe (this time from The Vegan Society).

  1. Machine whisk for 2 minutes 500g of mixed dried fruit, 150g of chopped dried apricots, 450ml of unsweetened soya drink200ml of vegetable oil and 350g of  self-raising flour. Then set aside.
  2. Grate 185g of (soft) carrots and add to the cake mixture (I also added 185g of fresh orange pulp).
  3. Add 3 tablespoons of (ground) cinnamon and machine whisk all the mixture for 2 minutes.
  4. Add the cake mixture into a (Vitalite) greased springform pan and bake for 1 hour at 150°C (with greaseproof paper over the top).
  5. Then reduce the oven temperature to 130°C for 2 hours.

The result is a thick, moist and sweet cake, best served warm with vegan ice cream. It is similar to other cakes I have made, including an apple cake and carrot cake. However, this cake holds its shape better and requires no added sugar. It is also packed with leftover ingredients.

CF Cake

CF Cake Slice 2

Homemade Vegan Victoria Sponge Cake

VP - The Cake 2

The Victoria Sponge is a famous British cake, but it has never been a particular favourite of mine. So yesterday I decided to make a non-traditional vegan version to see if I would change my mind.

  1. Machine whisk 300g of soya yoghurt (I used Alpro) and 15g of chia seeds (I also added 15g of tiger nuts). Then set aside.
  2. Machine whisk for 4 minutes 300g of caster sugar and 200g of vegan spread (I used Vitalite). [I then added an extract from a vanilla pod.]
  3. Fold in 300g of (buckwheat) flour.
  4. Fold the soya yoghurt mixture into the cake mixture.
  5. Add the cake mixture into a (Vitalite) greased springform pan and bake for 30-35 minutes at 180°C.
  6. For the butter cream, machine whisk for 2 minutes 200g of Vitalite and 250g of icing sugar (I used Silver Spoon).
  7. After baking the cake and letting it cool for at least an hour, cut the cake in half then spread one half with butter cream, the other with strawberry jam (I used store-bought, but you could make your own). Then sandwich the two halves together.

The result is a tasty light and airy cake that melts and crumbles in your mouth. Although the butter cream and jam continually oozed out this is by far the best Victoria Sponge cake I have ever eaten. The most essential step is the lengthy machine whisking of the sugar and spread.VP - A Slice

VP - A Piece

Southend Half Marathon 2016: Race Report

The Sunday before last (12th June) I ran my second Southend Half Marathon (and my fifth half marathon race).

I was aiming to run a new personal best of under 1 hour, 28 minutes and 52 seconds (6:47 per mile pace), which I had achieved three months ago in the Colchester Half Marathon.

My training had gone well, the best run coming almost three weeks before the race when I ran 9 miles in 57 minutes and 40 seconds (6:25 per mile pace). I felt confident after that effort.

Pre Race

Despite the cool, overcast conditions I began the race strong. I felt pain in my calf muscles near the two-mile mark and it refused to subside throughout the remaining miles.

I spent much of my time on my own, except for a couple of instances when I passed a few runners, and a few runners passed me. The large number of spectators along the seafront were always encouraging, and at times especially loud.Racing.

I maintained a steady, fast pace throughout the flat two-lap route and was extremely pleased with my final sprint to the end and my finishing time of 1 hour, 22 minutes and 50 seconds (beating my previous best by over 6 minutes at 6:19 per mile pace). I later discovered that I came 29th overall out of almost 2,000 runners (18th for my age category).

I later discovered that I came 29th overall out of almost 2,000 runners (18th for my age category).Racing

I was also pleased with the £140 I raised for Havens Hospices, a local charity that organised the event. I am always amazed and thankful for the support my family and friends give me.

Even the aches in my calves and quads for three to five days afterwards could not dent my deep satisfaction and pride in my achievement. I have kept my medal around my neck ever since, grateful that like five years ago my hometown brought the best racing out of me.

Post Race