Archive

Tag Archives: books read

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Amor fati is a notion that comes up again and again in Kate Atkinson’s new novel, Life After Life. It’s the idea of loving one’s fate, of learning who one is, knowing yourself, and embracing your self, your destiny, for better or worse. The entire novel, really, is about that very idea, and it’s exemplified through the tales told in each chapter.

When I first heard Kate Atkinson had a new book, I  was excited, had to read it!  … But then I read on Goodreads what it was about, and the description of it sounded like something I wouldn’t like at all:

On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways.

Oh. That sounds awful.

But I got the book anyway, from the library (placed a hold and it came in really quickly for me – love the LION libraries!), and jumped in. The thing about Kate Atkinson is, her story-telling capabilities are so fully developed, her words are so full of life and her almost tactile phrasings clamber off the page. Her words are delicious, her characters are people I feel like I know or want to know. So, despite my doubts about that description, I truly enjoyed the book. I feel more grounded and appreciative of the people in my life, the choices I’ve made, the good and bad – it all serves to make me, me.

______

I first read Kate Atkinson right after my daughter was born. I’d sit and rock and read, and the little babe would sleep in my arms. They were peaceful, lovely moments, and Kate Atkinson’s book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, was a perfect accompaniment to them.

The first line in the book is “I exist!” Reading that as I gazed down at my newborn forged such a strong feeling of friendly co-conspiracy with the author, I felt like I had a wise, all-knowing-but-full-of-faults friend sitting with me. Atkinson did not fail me in any of her subsequent books, and with this latest one, she underscores her understanding of and love for humans, with all their strengths and all their weaknesses.

I was paging through an arts & entertainment magazine when I came across a mention that Amy Adams was set to star in the movie adaptation of a book called Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. It’s a murder-mystery-thriller, with some family drama mixed in. Coverage of the movie-to-be is all over the place – could be a good one. Reading about the movie made me curious about the book. My library had a copy on the shelf, so I grabbed it. Once I started reading, it was really hard to put down. It’s a story about people – a poor family who is struggling to keep a farm. They’re loving but flawed. It’s a reminder that no matter who we are, no matter how good we try to be, we’re human and we make mistakes, we are petty and insecure and jealous creatures.

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

But that’s also part of what makes us so sympathetic, so relate-able to each other, so cherishable. Maybe it’s easier to love a person who’s flawed because we all are. Don’t we really just want to love ourselves? Maybe the compassion we can show for each other stems from the compassion we hope others will show us.

Or something like that.

The book throws in some murder and mayhem on top of the family drama – it’s horrific, but not gratuitous. I’m not usually a crime-murder-thriller reader – but once in a while, you just need a good creep-out. This definitely did it.

The story follows, Libby Day, whose mother and two sisters were murdered when she was young. She escaped, but hasn’t really gone anywhere beyond that day. Twenty-five years later, and she can’t get her life together to, well, save her life.

A murder-mystery hobbyist group finds her, wanting to hire her to talk about her experiences – she had testified that it was her brother who committed the murders, sending him to jail for life. Since then, everyone who has examined the case is convinced he didn’t do it. Libby agrees to talk to the group, needing the money they’ve promised, and her whole world starts to tilt – she ends up running for her life a second time.

The book is a quick read, it pulls you along for a bit of a wild ride – getting more so as it progresses to the end. It wraps up kind of unbelievably, but not enough to ruin the story.

This was a nice little break in between stories of Paris – before this book, I read The Paris Wife… and coming up is Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Sometimes you just gotta mix it up… C’est la vie.

Not too long ago, a patron requested a book she had to read for her book group – it had something to do with “mud.” That’s most of what she could remember…”mud” was in the title (maybe), and it may have won an award – it could be newish, and maybe had a female author, but she wasn’t sure.

…  …

I actually found the book she was looking for! Mudbound by Hillary Jordan.

______________

Well, she was pretty sure that was the book. I was proud of myself for coming up with that, at any rate.

It fit all the criteria – published recently (2008), woman author, has “mud” in the title, and it was the winner of the Bellwether Prize for Fiction (2006), NAIBA Book of the Year – Fiction (2008), ALA Alex Award (2009). I had never heard of the Bellwether Prize, and so I started researching that.

It’s a prize that was started by Barbara Kingsolver in 2000. It’s given for “socially engaged fiction.” Now, I had heard of Barbara Kingsolver, and have thought her books sounded pretty interesting, I’ve just never been intrigued enough to actually read one. But maybe now I will.

Barbara Kingsolver, herself, seems like an interesting person. According to her website, she was named one the most “important writers of the 20th Century by Writers Digest. In 2000 she received the National Humanities Medal, our country’s highest honor for service through the arts. Critical acclaim for her books includes multiple awards from the American Booksellers Association and the American Library Association, among many others”. And she is known for her fiction as well as her non-fiction works – I’ve heard people rave about both.  I love the idea of her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:

Hang on for the ride: With characteristic poetry and pluck, Barbara Kingsolver and her family sweep readers along on their journey away from the industrial-food pipeline to a rural life in which they vow to buy only food raised in their own neighborhood, grow it themselves, or learn to live without it.

It reminds me of some other books about city folk uprooting themselves and going on adventures in the country, on the farm. That seems to be a big thing these days, the transplants planting crops. But it’s a good thing – raising awareness about the food we eat can only help us and our environments.

Other city-to-farm stories:

The Dirty Life
by Kristin Kimball
Read more about the author and her farm at http://www.kristinkimball.com.

The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels
by Ree Drummond
See more here: http://thepioneerwoman.com/

Righteous Porkchop : finding a life and good food beyond factory farms
by Nicolette Hahn Niman
More information at http://www.righteousporkchop.com/

___

And if you just can’t wrap your head around the idea of being inspired to move to a farm, plant a vegetable garden, or raise your own chickens, then just buy one of these hen footstools and call it a day.

_____

Working on your novel?

 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, Founded by Barbara Kingsolver

The Bellwether Prize, which was established in 2000 by Barbara Kingsolver and is funded entirely by her, was created to promote fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.

Beginning in 2012, the $25,000 prize will be awarded biennially to the author of a previously unpublished novel of high literary caliber that exemplifies the prize’s founding principles. The winner will also receive a publishing contract with Algonquin Books, which will be the participating publisher for at least the next two awards cycles. The first PEN/Bellwether Prize will be conferred at PEN’s Literary Awards Ceremony in New York City in the fall of 2012.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is a Pulitzer Prize winner. It’s also the book I chose to give out on World Book Night, which is today/tonight, April 23.

World Book Night is something I only found out about a couple of months ago, and I signed up to be a Giver. I picked a book title, and was sent 20 special copies of it. These titles are to be handed out today to people who are light or non-readers. We’re supposed to choose a book we loved, so that we can hand it to someone and say: Here, read this, I loved it and hope you do too.

And so, today, tonight, I’ll go out and give these copies away to whoever will take one (I also gave some copies to coworkers to help hand out, too).

In order to be able to talk this book up, I started to re-read it. I knew I liked it but I couldn’t remember exactly why.

I do now, though. As the New York Times put it, it’s “a young-adult melodrama draped over a multigenerational immigrant family chronicle that dabbles in tropical magic realism, punk-rock feminism, hip-hop machismo, post-postmodern pyrotechnics and enough polymorphous multiculturalism to fill up an Introduction to Cultural Studies syllabus.”

I agree with that. The story itself is cool, but the writing is, too. Mr. Diaz writes like you’d imagine an energetic storyteller would talk – for one chapter. Then he switches voices, telling the story from another character’s point-of-view. He sprinkles in Dominican slang words throughout the text, and you don’t always know exactly what the word means, but you still get it.

I was looking up a couple of the words, just to get an exact meaning, and found this site, which provides definitions and annotations on things said/written in the book. I like some of the things on here – the annotations cover comic book character descriptions, in case you’re not familiar with Galactus, as well as historical figures and events, and translations. It’s a handy resource to have as you read the book, should you want to really get into the nitty gritty. And it’s worth it – there’s a lot there. But I say, save that for the second reading. Get through it once and enjoy the words, the story, the language.

There’s something to enjoying the feeling of a foreign word, even if you don’t know exactly what it means, maybe because you don’t know exactly what it means. Much of the joy of reading a book is that you can imagine whatever you can – for the characters, how they sound, what they look like, what they mean. Having words that you don’t know the meaning of here and there doesn’t mean you won’t get the idea, and they allow you to focus more on the idea of the sentence, to put a little bit of your own meaning into it. That allows you to make the book yours.

I think that’s the definition of good literature – on one level, the story is good, told well, and characters are fully-developed. You know these people. On another level, it leaves enough OUT of the story, some part of it, that you can put yourself into it, you-at-this-moment fill the holes, create the final story in your head. And it’s those works of writing that you can revisit in 5, 10, 25 years, and the story will still be good, but for some reason, it’ll be different. Because you  are different. What more can you ask for from anything? Be it a story, a parent, a lover – a good one allows you to grow, grows with you, still remains true to itself.

After reading a book about Teddy Roosevelt, I wanted to learn more about early American politics – my civic knowledge is sorely lacking. A book crossed my path that looked really good – Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. It was written by Walter Isaacson, the same guy who wrote the recently published Steve Jobs biography. Benjamin Franklin is a BIG, intimidating book, but I thought I’d give it a shot and am sooo glad I did! I have a new-found admiration for the complex person that Benjamin Franklin was.

This very large, potentially very dry and boring book covered Franklin’s entire life, but did so in a way that was far from dry and boring. Franklin himself was not dry, was not boring – this bio paints him in such a way as to highlight his charm, his curiosity, and his intelligence, without glossing over his less endearing personality quirks.

When I read John Adams by David McCullough (a wonderfully well-written book about our cantankerous but endearingly earnest second president), Franklin’s exploits were touched on, and in this book, the reverse is true. Adams and Franklin had a sort of love-hate relationship, and it’s interesting to read about it from both sides.

Franklin led a full, full life – this book covers all of it. After reading this book, I’ve gotten to know better the man behind the myth. Franklin was full of nuance and depth. It seems that what we need now, in this world, is another Franklin. Someone who has a curious, practical mind, who embodies the American dream, who is a champion of the middle class and who believes in the community supporting each other. He was against “big government” but believed in fair taxes, and felt that wealthy people should give back to their communities – of their own volition, without any government regulation. He was a stickler for clear rules and regulations, but didn’t mind playing a part during a negotiation, bending the truth or leaving details out to benefit the newly forming America. He was shrewd, yet had a charming naiveté.

This book helped me understand more about the events leading up to the Revolutionary War, and brought Benjamin Franklin to life – it was interesting, and very much a page-turner (which is huge – I almost never finish non-fiction works; they just fade out at the end into ‘blah’. This was a far cry from blah).

It definitely has made me want to read more about the founding fathers, the beginning of our nation, the Civil War, our presidents…. There’s so much to know, and I’m looking forward to finding other well-written books to help learn it.

After finishing The Orchid Thief, I resumed reading Feenie Ziner’s Within This Wilderness (see previous posting about being unable to get to my book.. too cold, too far).

Witihin this Wilderness was recommended to me by my boss–she knew Feenie Ziner, and said I would have liked her. I certainly like the way she writes, what she says… I think we would have gotten along just fine.

This book was also described to me as being similar to John Krakauer’s Into the Wild, another book I really enjoyed.

It is similar, and yet, it’s not.

Into The Wild is a very compelling read because it was pieced together by a journalist and told in a clear-eyed yet sympathetic way. There is an air of mystery around Christopher McCandless, the missing man-child — Why’d he go? How’d he die? For that matter, how’d he live?  Krakauer is exceptional at telling a story around the story – putting up the frame, so that we can picture the whole house.

Feenie Ziner’s story is different, in that the tale is told by the mother of the man-child who removes himself from society. She describes her struggle–at first, to get him home, and finally, to accept him as he is.

In the 70’s, Feenie’s son, Joe Ziner, moved to British Columbia to get away from civilization and to find himself. She was able to visit her ‘missing’ son, and try to form a bond, a connection, a conversation, with him. The story comes from that tension. Will mom ever understand her son? Will he ever understand his mother? In the end, they reach an accord of sorts. It’s a beautiful story, of love in all its forms. Love for the wilderness, love between a mother and son, love for life… however it must be expressed.

Feenie was a children’s book author, had a long career teaching in the English department at UConn, and was most recently, a Branford, CT resident. Her son ended up becoming a book publisher. He did not completely disappear, the way the boy in Into The Wild did.  The story of Within is not that of “how could this person lose himself and completely disappear”. This story is one we are all familiar with–a story of acceptance of who we are, what we want, and what we must do to be happy when we don’t get it.

Within This Wilderness is also an exploration of how we reconcile ourselves to living in a world of consumption when we are, at heart, children of the land. We are all pure, yearning for simple lives. And yet, we struggle against simply ‘making do’. We humans must progress, achieve, build. Where do we draw the line and say, enough? For Joe, he opposed the Vietnam War, opposed American’s ignorance of its horrors and mindlessness, opposed immoral accumulation, opposed partaking of suburban America. His only solution to was to flee, and to set up in a minimalist shack in the wilds of British Columbia. but you can’t escape your emotions, and he had to reconcile those eventually, with himself, his mother, if not his country. As his mother wrote, “in time, everyone who undertakes a great moral journey must confront the fact that the Devil is always the stowaway.”

This book is almost 30 years old, but the emotional struggles are as relevant as ever.  Coming up next:  The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard.

Maybe it’s the falling leaves hitting my head, or maybe it’s the crazy weather we’ve had lately (an earthquake in New England, a hurricane in Connecticut, snow on Halloween, temps in the 50’s-60’s at the end of November), but I’ve been in the mood for books inspired by and embracing the wilderness.

I began with Feenie Ziner’s Within This Wilderness, which was recommended to me by my supervisor, and began reading it, but one night I left it in my car. Not wanting to brave the cold wilderness myself that night, I looked around and noticed among my ‘to-read’ stack of books The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean.

The Orchid Thief was the inspiration for the movie, “Adaptation”,  a strange journey through the wilds of the mind of a screenwriter tasked with adapting the book into a screenplay. I had seen the movie, was unsettled by it, but plowed ahead with the book anyway….

…and was really glad I did. The Orchid Thief was a quick read, but it covered a lot of ground. Orlean talks about orchids and their history, Florida and its history, Native Americans in Florida and their history, as well as a varied cast of characters and their own peculiar histories. Orlean links all these narratives together by following John Laroche around as he tries to show her Florida’s elusive Ghost Orchid.

Being a Florida native, I loved hearing Orlean describe the wild nature of Florida–it’s ability to be nothing and everything, to be changed by humans and yet, not succumb to alteration.

She talks about the changes humans have tried to effect–draining the Everglades, blasting the ground with dynamite just to be able to farm on the land, creating beaches by dumping sand–and notes how nature, when unchecked, quickly begins to reclaim itself, undoing these changes. Florida is malleable, but like water, it seeks out its own equilibrium.

Orlean also goes into the history of the Seminole Indians. This tribe is actually comprised of Indians from different tribes in the northern states–they escaped captivity and slavery and sought refuge in the swampy lands of Florida. Over time, different battles were fought with the US Government, but the Seminole tribe, with their brave leader Chief Osceola,  never gave up, never surrendered, and now have the distinction of calling themselves the “unconquered” tribe.

Orlean also explores the nature of obsession. Her book is much more interesting and coherent than the movie that referenced it. Her writing about people and their obsessions is much more real, sympathetic, and interesting. She covers a whole sub-culture of orchid-crazed people, but is especially intrigued by her main subject, John Laroche. He is serially-obsessed, going from one all-consuming passion to the next, with no mourning time in between. Orlean never truly discovers why is he is this way, but she has a wild ride while reporting on it.

Does everyone have a secret (or not-so-secret) passion? Mine seems to be stories… What’s yours?

Coming next: Feenie Ziner’s Within This Wilderness