Review: Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson


When I was in my teens, summer nights were often spent in the company of three or four neighbor kids, all the same age.  I remember sitting under the stars, eating pizza, playing cards, and sharing our hopes and dreams.  One summer, we became a little obsessed with the ways small events could completely change our lives.  It probably started with something serious, but eventually we came to see even the tiniest detail as potentially significant:  “If I hadn’t eaten this pizza, our whole lives would be different.”  It was a bit of silliness, really, but reading Life After Life sent me down memory lane, wondering which seemingly inconsequential events and decisions actually had far-reaching consequences.

In Life After Life, Ursula Todd is born again and again, and each time her life takes a different course.  She dies repeatedly, in many ways and at different times.  In the first few pages, Ursula dies immediately after birth.  Later, an adult Ursula dies in one of several bomb blasts in London during World War II.  Each of her lives plays out differently, and often has an effect on the lives of family members and friends.  Sometimes Ursula’s life feels vaguely familiar to her:

And sometimes, too, she knew what someone was about to say before they said it or what mundane incident was about to occur—if a dish was about to be dropped or an apple thrown through a glasshouse, as if these things had happened many times before. Words and phrases echoed themselves, strangers seemed like old acquaintances.

And at other times, she acts impulsively to change the course of events:

Ursula had done a wicked thing, she had pushed Bridget down the stairs. Bridget might have died and she would have been a murderer now. All she knew was that she had to do it. The great sense of dread had come over her and she had to do it.

I absolutely loved this book.  Kate Atkinson brilliantly constructed a series of intricate life stories, repeatedly taking the reader back to specific points in time: Ursula’s birth, the 1918 Armistice, the London Blitz.  It was fascinating to see lives take so many paths, and how often this was due more to small everyday events than to life’s “big decisions.” I enjoyed the way Ursula would sometimes act to change the future based on knowledge from an earlier life.  Atkinson also kept me guessing about other characters in the story.  In one life, something bad would happen to them.  Would it happen again in Ursula’s next life?  Or would their fate take a slightly different turn?

Life After Life was a bit like working a challenging puzzle.  This book begs to be re-read as I’m sure there are details I missed.  And I know I’d enjoy it just as much the next time, and the next …

Review: Sovereign, by C.J. Sansom

After my last read, which was bleak and somewhat depressing, Sovereign was just what the doctor ordered: an intelligent, historical mystery.  This is the third in the Matthew Shardlake series set in Tudor England.  Shardlake, a London lawyer, receives orders from Archbishop Cranmer to travel to York with King Henry VIII’s 1541 Progress.  There, he is to watch over the health and well-being of a prisoner, who is part of a conspiracy that threatens Henry’s right to the throne.  Shardlake and his assistant Barak arrive in York ahead of the Progress; the city is alive with preparations for the big event.  When a craftsman dies a grisly death, Shardlake suspects it was no accident.  He takes it upon himself to investigate, and so the tale unfolds.

There is so much to enjoy in these books.  First, there is the historical context.  Shardlake operates on the edges of court.  Well-known figures like Cranmer and the Duke of Norfolk are seldom central to the plot but never far away.  Familiar stories unfold, but as a backdrop instead of the centerpiece — such as, in this book, the events leading to Queen Catherine’s execution.  Second, Sansom fills Shardlake’s world with several interesting characters, and convinces the reader that just about any one of them could be guilty.  Then he weaves several threads into a web of major and minor mysteries.  In Sovereign, not only is there a murder to be solved, but someone is out to get Shardlake too.

My only quibble with these books is that Sansom can run on a bit: why use one word when ten will do?  The dead body didn’t show up until page 75, and it took nearly 600 more pages to solve the crime and tie up the loose ends.  However, I was hooked on the story and found myself sneaking short bursts of reading into my day, just to see what would happen next.  I’m happy to have the next installment already on my shelves.

Review: The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

Americans had become a force of awful geology, changing the face of the earth more than ‘the combined activities of volcanoes, earthquakes, tidal waves, tornadoes, and all the excavations of mankind since the beginning of history.’ (p. 127)

In the 1930s, the American prairie was repeatedly subjected to dust storms: huge clouds of dirt that moved across the land.  The storms made roads impassable, filled homes with dust, suffocated livestock, and infiltrated people’s lungs.  Many died from what was called “dust pneumonia.”  This was initially thought to be a freak of nature, a rare meteorological happening.  But as the storms pummeled the plains day after day, the government commissioned experts to investigate.  They soon learned the storms were the result of human behavior going back to the turn of the century.

The explorer Stephen Long wrote about the Great Plains, “I do not hesitate in giving the opinion that it is almost wholly uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.”  Nevertheless, after the US government ousted the Native Americans from their lands, a syndicate sought to make a buck by offering cheap land and promises of prosperity.  They distributed attractive brochures across the eastern part of the country, and to immigrants at major entry points.  The people came, and they farmed.  But agricultural success was short-lived.  Extensive farming and over-plowing, coupled with drought, weakened the soil system and sent it blowing up into the air.  As the dust storms became a daily occurrence, along came the Depression, and by 1940 the Great Plains were a very different place indeed.

Timothy Egan tells the story of the dust bowl through the lives of those who survived life on the plains during that time.  These survivors were still living, and his direct access resulted in a vivid, realistic, and very human portrait of this period in American history.  His accounts of dust storms are real page turners — narrative non-fiction at its best.  Egan had access to historical records too, of course.  Don Hartwell’s diary was one of the most moving parts of this book, recounting the decline of his farm, his livelihood, and his community in spare sentences, like these from 1939:

Feb. 5

I have felt lost lately — not knowing where to turn or what to do. In fact, if one hasn’t ‘got’ anything, there is not much he can do.

July 10

The same clear, glaring sky & vicious blaze killing sun. Cane is about dead, corn is being damaged; it will soon be destroyed. Those who coined the phrase ‘There’s no place like Nebraska’ wrote better than they thought. In Nebraska, you don’t have to die to go to hell.

Sept 18

There are no dances here anymore — nothing but silence, emptiness, ‘respectability.’

It’s positively heart-breaking, and with growing concern about climate change today, I couldn’t help but wonder if humankind is heading down a similar path.  Have we learned from past mistakes?  It gives one pause.

Review: Fault Lines, by Nancy Huston

This multi-generational family saga explores the impact of World War II and Nazi Germany, from some very unusual angles.  It’s told through the eyes of four 6-year-olds, each from a different generation.  The reader meets each generation through Sol, a precocious boy living in California in 2004.  His father Randall works as a computer programmer, and circumstances have recently forced him to take a job with higher pay but a much longer commute.  Randall has a distant relationship with his mother, Sadie, and is closer to his grandmother, Erra, a professional singer known as Kristina in her youth.  Sol’s section of the novel ends as the entire family arrives in Germany to visit Erra’s dying sister.

From there, author Nancy Huston takes us back to 1945 one generation at a time, from Randall to Sadie to Kristina (all age 6).  She peels the onion of family relationships and secrets to show how they came to North America, and the physical and emotional toll wrought by the Nazi regime.  I can’t say much without spoilers, but their story was not at all what I expected.  Judaism and Nazi atrocities played a part, but in unusual ways.  And both the family tree and the inter-generational relationships were much more intricate than they first appeared.

I found Erra/Kristina the most interesting character, perhaps because she appeared in each generation’s story.  She arrived on the scene first as a staunchly independent elderly woman who dearly loves her great-grandson, and is appalled at some of his parents’ philosophies.  She despairs over their plans to surgically remove a birthmark.  Her fears seem irrational, but by the time Kristina appeared as a child, I understood the birthmark’s significance and her modern-day reaction was completely understandable.  Fault Lines was filled with revelations like this, that really drove home the importance of understanding the societal and familial forces that shape each generation.  This was a well-written, enjoyable, and thought-provoking novel.

Review: Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain

To me and my contemporaries, with our cheerful confidence in the benignity of fate, War was something remote, unimaginable, its monstrous destructions and distresses safely shut up, like the Black Death and the Great Fire, between the covers of history books. … What really mattered were not these public affairs, but the absorbing incidents of our own private lives — and now, suddenly, the one had impinged upon the other, and public events and private lives had become inseparable. (p. 98)

For those who read this memoir, War will never more be “something remote, unimaginable.”  It will be real, searingly painful, ineffective and so obviously wrong.  When World War I broke out in 1914, Vera Brittain was only 18 and had recently overcome tremendous odds to be admitted to Oxford.  When her fiancé Roland, her brother Edward, and two good friends all joined the Army, Brittain left her studies to become a nurse.  She served first in London, later in Malta, and finally at the front in France before returning to England.

Brittain was an early feminist; every decision she made went against the norm, something she was keenly aware of:

Probably no ambitious girl who has lived in a  family which regards the subservience of women as part of the natural order of creation ever completely recovers from the bitterness of her early emotions. Perhaps it is just as well; women have still a long way to travel before their achievements are likely to be assessed without irrelevant sex considerations entering in to bias the judgment of the critic … (p. 59)

She was driven, but also understood the “frivolity” of pursuing a degree in wartime.  Her nursing experience forms the heart of this book, and is also the most emotional.  Brittain describes each hospital’s harsh and inadequate conditions, and some of the soldiers under her care.  When she is assigned to a ward for German prisoners, the reader begins to understand that “the enemy” also have mothers, wives, and families who love them.  And, while Brittain is “doing her bit,” she experiences tremendous personal loss as those she loves lose their lives in the conflict.  I found myself holding back tears, and cautiously turning the pages, fearing the next death.

After the war, Brittain found that not only had her country changed, but so had she:

Only the permanence of my fondest ambitions, and the strange and growing likeness of my son to Edward, reminds me that I am still the individual who went to Uppingham Speech Day in 1914, for although I was a student at Oxford in both my lives, it was not the same Oxford and I was not the same student.  (p. 495)

Her experience left permanent emotional scars, and she struggled to cope with being part of “the lost generation.”  Still, she was able to return to Oxford, and obtained her degree shortly after the university began awarding them to women.  Brittain became a regular lecturer with the League of Nations Union.  She returned to Europe, touring several countries to understand the impact and aftermath of the war; this once again brought home the pointlessness of it all.

This is one of the most moving and powerful books I’ve ever read.  If all you know of war is strategy, tactics, good guys and bad guys, then you must read this book.  Brittain has left us an important legacy.  In her words:

Perhaps, after all, the best that we who were left could do was refuse to forget, and to teach our successors what we remembered in the hope that they, when their own day came, would have more power to change the state of the world than this bankrupt, shattered generation.  (p.646)

Review: When Everything Changed, by Gail Collins


This book is a modern history of women in the United States from 1960 through the 2008 US Presidential campaign.  Gail Collins, the first woman to serve as editor of the New York Times editorial page, begins with a detailed review of the role of women, and societal attitudes towards women, in 1960.  There were virtually no women doctors or lawyers.  Television had taken the nation by storm, with 90% of American families owning a TV, and most programs portrayed the men in lead roles and women as subservient.   Housework was very time-consuming, with labor-saving devices only just beginning to enter homes.  Most women did not feel poorly treated; it was just the way things were.  Surprisingly (at least to me), the civil rights movement was a trigger event that set waves of change in motion.  Collins takes the reader decade by decade up to the present time, showing how women gradually earned rights, both legally and informally, and celebrated the early pioneers who made it all possible.

The book effectively covers my entire life (I was born in 1962).  And while I had some idea that we’d “come a long way baby,” (as the ad used to say), I didn’t realize how much radical change had occurred until reading this book.  I also found it very interesting to reflect on my personal experience during each decade.  In that regard, the most meaningful chapters were those covering the 1980s and early 1990s: the time in which I came of age, went to university, got married, started a career, and had a family.  But the chapters covering the 1960s and 1970s were compelling, because they put into perspective events that were somewhat of a mystery when seen through a child’s eyes (Roe vs. Wade is one notable example).

I recommend this book for all American women who would like to better understand the key people and events that shaped the society in which we live today.

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Review: A History of Their Own, by Anderson & Zinsser

In A History of Their Own Volume I, authors Bonnie Anderson and Judith Zinsser serve up a richly detailed history of the lives of women in Europe, from the ninth to seventeenth centuries.  Traditional history texts structure the narrative around events central to the development and accomplishments of men (the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, etc.)  In their research, Anderson and Zinsser discovered that women were affected by very different forces, and organize their narrative accordingly.  Then they set out to explain:

Why had laws, economic systems, religion, and politics excluded European women from the most valued areas and activities of life? How had cultural attitudes evolved which defined women as innately inferior and placed them in a subordinate relationship to men? (p. xiv)

Volume I provides an in-depth analysis of women in several walks of life:  women of the fields, churches, castles and manors, and walled towns.  In each case, the authors show how over the centuries women gained power, and were subsequently subordinated to men.  Sometimes this occurred as the side effect of some technological advancement that changed the role of women.  In other cases their loss of power was the result of deeply held beliefs regarding woman’s physical inferiority.  In all cases, gender was the single greatest factor affecting the lives of women.

Anderson and Zinsser present a compelling thesis, meticulously researched.  At times I felt there was almost too much detail, with so many facts and examples that I wanted to say, “all right already!  I get it!”  And with so many stories of oppression, this book can be rather depressing.  And yet it’s important for women to understand their history, and this is a very good way to learn it.


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