Wednesday, December 25, 2013

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

This book has Kate Atkinson's signature snappy dialog, but, other than that, it's atypical, although her other books rely heavily on coincidence or serendipity, and there's a bit of that here, too. Certainly, the author points up how the direction of someone's life can hinge on a seemingly inconsequential decision.  Ursula dies over and over, including the day she is born, but gets to relive each life-threatening experience in such a way as to live another day (similar to the movies Groundhog Day, Sliding Doors, and Source Code).  It's unclear as to whether she imagines these various alternatives or actually lives them, but there are so many scenarios, and there's so much movement back and forth in time that it's challenging to keep up.  Ursula was born in 1910 (unless she was strangled by the umbilical cord and never lived at all), and each chapter's title is a date, so that I had to keep calculating her age for the chapter at hand.  Besides the element of confusion, though, the thing that bothered me is that it was difficult to become very attached to Ursula, not only because she kept dying, but also because with all her wildly divergent life segments, I didn't gain a sense of who she really was.  Did she become friends with Eva Braun and Hitler in Munich, or was she helping rescue survivors of the blitzkrieg in London?  The opening pages suggest that she may have even changed the course of history.  With all the permutations and combinations, she has more lives than a cat.  She's sort of a pawn in this constant rewinding, although she has a sense of déjà vu that allows her to steer her life away from events that will result in her death or that of someone else close to her.  I kept wanting to know which sequence of events characterized her real life, but this is fiction, after all, so reality isn't a requirement.  This book is a critics' darling, but I'd still like to have another Jackson Brodie novel from Ms. Atkinson.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Controversial books make me a little uneasy, as though I need to hide what I'm reading.  This one is about an adolescent boy, Hayat, growing up in Milwaukee in the 1980s, whose parents are non-practicing Muslims from Pakistan.  His mother's close friend Mina comes to live with the family, fleeing with her son from the oppression of her ex-husband and her family in Pakistan.  Ironically, she begins mentoring Hayat in the Quran, and he eagerly sets out to memorize the entire book without necessarily fully grasping or embracing its meaning.  Hayat's father is a non-believer and provides the counterpoint to Mina and Hayat's devotion to Allah, scoffing at what he considers to be total foolishness.  Mina's engagement to a Jewish colleague of Hayat's father sets off a series a fireworks, including a rash and hateful act on Hayat's part whose tragic consequences will haunt him for the rest of his life.  This book has some striking similarities to John Updike's Terrorist, especially with regard to the power of religion to mold the beliefs of a young person in a radical manner, and in both cases that religion happens to be Islam.  This book, however, is not about violence, although there is some of the domestic sort.  This author populates his novel with devout Muslims, liberal Muslims, and Muslims who bend the Quran to rationalize their hate and prejudices.  Hayat and Mina both examine and reconsider their faith as this very compelling story unfolds.  Their journeys ultimately diverge, and we know from the beginning that Hayat abandons at least some of the strictures of Islam, whereas Mina chooses to remain steadfast to her faith, at the cost of almost everything else that she holds dear.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Aaron has just lost his wife Dorothy to a freak accident.  Months after her death, he begins to see her and have conversations with her in which he makes some new discoveries about their lives together.  Is she real or a ghost or just a figment of Aaron's imagination?  In any case, these encounters go a long way toward facilitating Aaron's healing process.  Theirs was not a perfect marriage, but he finds that he can barely function without her and moves in with his pushy sister Nandina, whose love life is just starting to blossom.  I think this is the first Anne Tyler book I've read in which there's an element of the supernatural, but she presents these sightings as remarkable while sticking to her story of an ordinary man.  My favorite thing about this book is how she handles the question of whether other people who knew Dorothy actually witness her reappearance.  Clearly, Aaron thinks that she is visible to others, but he doesn't discuss the phenomenon with the other witnesses, so that he never really gets any validation.  In any case, the author certainly doesn't intend this to be a ghost novel.  Her books strike me as being generally about a lonely person, and Aaron fits the bill.  His home and his life are shattered, and the author allows us to share his grief without forcing us to endure a weepy pity party.

Monday, December 9, 2013


I think this is the third Anne Tyler novel I've read in which a woman becomes disenchanted with her mundane life.  (The other two are Ladder of Years and Back WhenWe Were Grownups.)  Charlotte Emory has decided to leave her husband, but she hadn't planned to do it as the hostage of a bank robber named Jake.  She's not exactly a complicit victim, but neither is she furiously struggling to get away.  Of course, Jake does not seem all that threatening, really, even with a gun poked in Charlotte's side.  As he sees it, he's not really even a criminal; he's just impulsive.  He steals a beat-up car, and then the pair embarks on an unlikely road trip.  One of their first stops is to pick up Mindy, pregnant with Jake's child, and eager to escape a home for unwed mothers.  Next stop is Perch, Florida, to check in with Jake's buddy, Oliver.  This is the point at which Mindy finally discovers that Jake is on the run from the law and that Charlotte is his hostage.  Before I give the impression that Mindy is incredibly dim, let me just say that she has a way of wrapping Jake around her little finger that is pretty impressive.  Here's the thing:  Charlotte is the main character, but she's so passive that she's almost like window dressing—a fly on the wall watching the interaction between Jake and Mindy.  She can't remain as a third wheel to this couple, forever, though, so something's got to give.  I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I wasn't wild about the ending, which diminished my enjoyment of the book just a bit.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

MISTER PIP by Lloyd Jones

Matilda is a 14-year-old living with her mother on a war-torn island near Australia.  (For some unknown reason, I kept imagining this child as a boy, but then the author would jolt me with a reminder of her gender.  Except for a critical scene late in the book, it doesn't really matter.)  Since all the teachers have evacuated, the one lone white man in the village, Mr. Watts, lures all the kids back to the schoolhouse by reading Great Expectations aloud.  Matilda develops a particular affinity for the character Pip, and there is so much talk about this fictional youth that he poses somewhat of a threat, not only to the beliefs of Matilda's mother and others, but ultimately to the lives of everyone in the village.  Matilda is pulled in two directions, torn between love and loyalty toward her mother, and the respect and admiration she has for Mr. Watts, who has introduced her to a world beyond her own.  This dichotomy is not new in literature, but I liked the presentation here.  Both Mr. Watts and Matilda's mother are martyrs to their own causes, and perhaps a bit of practicality would have been useful for both of them.  Matilda faces a moral dilemma and will eventually have to choose her own course, blending the best of both influences.