A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson is a goddess.  Besides the inimitable Margaret Atwood and the delightful Jess Walter, she is my favorite living writer.  She’s a fearless risk-taker, smashing any sort of rule about what “literary” fiction can do.  Her Jackson Brodie novels (Case Histories, etc.) are some of the best mysteries around, although they’re not categorized as such in my library.  Her short stories in the collection Not the End of the World can be described as magical realism.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she attempted (and mastered) a science fiction novel next.

Saturday night I finished her latest book, A God in Ruins.  It’s a companion novel to 2013’s Life After Life.  While that one focused on Ursula Todd, and her many lives before, during, and after WWII, this one centers on her younger brother Teddy.

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It’s about love, death, duty, parents and children, aging, goodness, and the countless voices and lives that are silenced by war.  (“The dead are legion” is a recurring phrase.)  In her superb Author’s Note at the end, Atkinson says that the book is about two things:  fiction and the Fall.  (Of Man.  From grace.)

War is Man’s greatest fall from grace, of course, especially perhaps when we feel a moral imperative to fight it and find ourselves twisted into ethical knots… the bottom line is that war is savage.  For everyone.  Innocent or guilty.  This is a novel, not a polemic (and I am no historian) and I have accordingly left the doubts and ambiguities for the characters and the text to voice.

She may not be a historian, but reading this novel has given me a deeper grasp of the courage (in spite of any doubts) of the very young men and women who served in World War II in England.

And Teddy!  I adored Teddy.  He’s a truly good person, having made a promise that if he survived the war, he would live a good and kind life.  He has a poet’s soul, he loves nature, he’s a patient and loving father and grandfather, and he’s a steadfast and calm leader as pilot of his bomber crews.  (The scenes up in the air in the Halifax bombers he flies are truly exciting and interesting, by the way.)

I don’t think you necessarily have to have read Life After Life to appreciate A God in Ruins, but I think it adds an extra layer of enjoyment, seeing the same characters from another point of view.  Personally, I feel that I must re-read Life After Life.  While I loved and respected it, it was such a challenging book structurally that I feel like I just barely grasped it.  With this one, I FELT it.  I lived and breathed it.  I missed it when I had to put it down.  I could barely see the words as I read the last few pages, I was crying so hard.  It spoke to me on a deep level as a book that wrestles with life’s beauty and sadness, love and mortality.  I think (I hope!) that we will see this novel on many best-of and award-winning lists at the end of the year.  Put yourself on the hold list at your library – or better yet, give Kate Atkinson your money- NOW!

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Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill

I fall in love with books sometimes.  I become so attached to them that I can’t even articulate well why I’m so in love with them.  They’re just a part of me now, and I will defend them and recommend them to anyone and everyone. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is such a book.  So is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. This week I’ve found another book to fall in love with:  Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.

Slim, devastating, funny, profound; these are words I would use to describe this novel.  Others have used: experimental, radiant, powerful, exquisite.  My favorite review of it from a Goodreads user says this: “6 stars.  I’m doing my inarticulate book-clutching thing.”  That’s precisely what I do when I fall in love with a book – clutch it to my metaphoric bosom and sigh and grasp for words.

Dept. of Speculation is “experimental” in that Offill tells the story in short paragraphs with lots of open space on the page, letting her readers fill in gaps and make connections themselves.  But the narrative remains fluid and propulsive.  It’s about many things:  women as artists, marriage, motherhood, living in New York City, bedbugs, thinking too much, getting older, the vastness of space.  The greatness of this novel is not so much in the story itself as it is in the way that she tells it.  The connections Offill makes from the particular and intimate to the universal and expansive are just brilliant.

There are devastating sentences.  Like this one, about the difficulties of parenting:

“Of course it is difficult. You are creating a creature with a soul, my friend says.”

Or this one, which resonates so much with me, an over-thinker, married with one child:

“There is still such crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it.”

One Goodreads review says, “I underlined basically the entire novel.”  I feel the same way, like Jenny Offill has peered inside my brain and taken my mashed-up tangle of feelings and thoughts and straightened them out and made them pretty and profound on the page.  I read it twice; started it again right after I finished it. It’s such a fast read that I wanted to go back and make sure I didn’t miss anything. I wanted to make sure that I read what I thought I’d read, which is one of the best books published last year.

 

The Road to Lichfield by Penelope Lively

Sometimes I’m in the mood for something Very British.  Oh, heck, I’m in the mood for that all the time!  When it comes to books I’m very much an Anglophile – Ruth Rendell, Barbara Pym, Graham Greene, Virginia Woolf, Anita Brookner, Kate Atkinson – they’re some of my favorite authors ever. The wit, the famous reserve, the atmosphere – there’s something about books set in the UK that I find hard to resist.

Add Penelope Lively to the list.  I’d read two of her novels previously – Moon Tiger and Passing On – that’s what my Goodreads account tells me, anyway.  I couldn’t tell you a single thing about either one of them, truth be told!  It’s kind of sad how little my brain retains – I guess that happens to many voracious readers like myself.  If I don’t re-read a book, or perhaps discuss it in my book group, then chances are good I’ll forget most of it in a few years!

The Road to Lichfield is a quiet novel, but still waters run deep, don’t they?  Our heroine is Anne, a married forty-year-old mother of two, teaching history at a prep school.  Her husband is sort of bland, but nice, and they’ve been together for seventeen years.  Her father is dying, and the road to Lichfield takes her to visit him at the nursing home.  She begins cleaning out his house and finds some papers that open her eyes to another side of her father, one she never expected.  In the meantime, she meets his neighbor, David, a friendly, handsome, also married teacher about her age who used to spend some time with her dad fishing.  You can guess what happens, right?

Anne sort of wakes up, as from a deep sleep, seeing the landscape anew – the roads are not just roads anymore, they’re beautiful and sacred.

I have never before, Anne thought, realized that cooling towers are beautiful.  Or that front gardens of houses are infinite in their variety.  Or that clouds piled on the skyline take on the shape of castles and cathedrals.  If fields are always that color in late April, then it seems to have escaped me hitherto.  And never have I sat in a traffic jam, sandwiched between two shuddering lorries, and hummed or tried to all I can remember of The Marriage of Figaro.  I have never particularly enjoyed driving.  I have certainly never realized that roads one has known for years could be sanctified in the course of three weeks.

Written in 1977, it feels remarkably modern.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it – I relished every opportunity I had to return to its pages.  Making dinner, my son’s nap time, every chance I could I wanted to dive back in to Anne’s life – not so much to find out what happens, but more to experience Lively’s lovely, measured prose.  It’s not a revolutionary plot by any means, but it is the kind of novel I am often drawn to – one about tangled, messy relationships and family secrets, with lots of interior “action” inside the characters’ minds.  Sort of a cross between the more somber Anita Brookner and the witty Barbara Pym, this was just the novel I needed to re-energize my reading.  I now intend to read all of Lively’s novels and probably re-read the other two I have already (allegedly) read. It’s always exciting to add another author to the list!

Book Hangover (review of A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James)

Have you ever finished a book and been unable to settle into reading another one for a few days?  Have you ever finished a book, started another one, but couldn’t get the characters from the previous book out of your mind?  Have you ever missed a book’s characters or the narrative voice?  If so, then you may be suffering from what I call a Book Hangover.

I’m in the middle of one of those myself.  The book that affected me so profoundly? Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings.  It took me two weeks to read all 688 pages.  I’m a fairly fast reader when I get the time to read, in between working and mothering and wife-ing.  So this one was physically with me longer than the average novel.

I can’t stop thinking about it.  I miss the characters, all ninety-billion of them, and I miss the setting, mainly Kingston, Jamaica, with some Bronx, NY thrown in at the last section.  I miss the skill with which James dove in and out of each character’s voice.  I’ve never read a novel in which the voices were so distinct.  And I love stories told from multiple perspectives.

This book is not easy – it commands your full attention and respect, which is part of the reason I love it.  Much of it is told in Jamaican patois; it takes a little while to get into the rhythm, but once I did, I was hooked.  ( I learned LOTS of new words, most of which are Jamaican oaths!)  Besides the rather foul language, there is a lot of graphic violence and some graphic sex.  This is not a book for the faint of heart or the easily offended.  But NONE of the potentially offensive elements in the book are thrown in for shock value.  They are in total keeping with who these characters are – and for the most part, these are criminals and other shady characters.

The novel hinges on the assassination attempt on Bob Marley at his house in December of 1976.  (I knew so little about Jamaican history before reading this that I didn’t even know there WAS an assassination attempt on Bob Marley!)  Marley is not mentioned by name; instead, he is called The Singer. Nor is his voice one of the characters that James writes.  The characters all hover around him, however – they all want something from him or want to kill him.  The CIA is involved, and there’s a reporter from Rolling Stone as well.  There’s even a ghost.  We go from the time period leading up to the attempt on Marley’s life, to two years later, then to New York in the 1980’s as the crack cocaine boom hits the streets.  The repercussions of the attempted murder ripple out for years and years for all of the characters.

Most of the men we read about are “bad” people – Jamaican mob dons, drug dealers, killers.  But dammit if James didn’t imbue them with so much vitality and humanity that I didn’t sympathize with just about every one of them.  I actually CRIED when one of these so-called bad men died.

It’s long, it’s harsh, it’s raw.  But it’s so incredibly vivid and brave that I can’t stop thinking about it.  While I was reading it, I thought I’d look forward to something lighter after I finished, but I’m finding that the next book pales in comparison – so vanilla!  I’m going to have to read Seven Killings again just to marvel at the high-wire act Mr. James pulls off.  I can already tell it will be one of my favorites of this year. Highly recommended.