Monthly Archives: April 2014

Make full use of the breakfast buffet: the lovely variety and unused potential of “Life after life” by Kate Atkinson

atkinsonedit“Life after Life” by Kate Aktinson was a frequent addition on the Best Books of 2013 lists I was perusing at the end of December. So when I stumbled upon “Life after Life” in my local used bookstore, I snatched it up. Now I have to admit, I actually finished this book a couple of weeks ago. I have been busy planning my upcoming 1 year wedding anniversay Europe trip for me and my husband, so I have gotten a little behind in my blogging reviews. So I am going to be posting a couple of late reviews this week before we jet off for Paris on Saturday.

Atkinson’s book explores a unique idea: what if you could live your life over and over again? I was slightly confused for the first 20 pages or so, so let me clarify how this living life again and again works for the main character, Ursula. Every time she dies, her life starts over again….back to her date of birth on February 11, 1910. But each time her life starts over, a little detail may change. For example, the first time her birth story is told, little Ursula dies. A couple pages later, her birth story is told again but in this version, the doctor arrives in time to save her. Ursula is not a time traveller; her life story just gets retold over and over again; but, as she relives her life, she retains an intuition from events in her past life. For example, when she approaches a scene which caused a tragedy or resulted in her death in a previous life, her intuition tells her what must be done. For example, that she needs to prevent Bridget from going to London at all costs or punch her brother’s friend, Howie, in the face or run out to the lane to walk Nancy home.

Atkinson brilliantly describes these life scenes. I found myself hardly able to put the book down. There is a particularly humourous part of the book where Ursula has a hard time avoiding the Spanish flu and dies four times before she is able to prevent the event that causes her to catch the flu. With each attempt, the chapter of the event gets shorter and the description of her death more brief, which seems to reflect the narrator’s frustration that she has died of the flu yet again.

Each time Ursula restarts her life, she gets a chance to have a different life and Atkinson gets a chance to weave another tale with this narrator. In one of her lives, she faces horrific events like rape and domestic abuse. In the next, she seems to learn from that life by ensuring the rape incident does not happen, and living her life in confident singleness. Atkinson paints a picture of various life paths that a woman in that period could have, which makes the book even more fascinating to see one character living out so many different lives. In particular, Ursula’s life during the Blitz in London is described so vividly and captured the emotions of the time so well, that these scenes alone are worth recommending the book to others.

Unfortunately, I did end the book feeling disappointed. Atkinson had such a unique concept and writes so brilliantly, but I expected her to do more with the book. She toys with the idea of deja vu with Ursula as a child. Ursula has flashbacks from her previous life so she anticipates what present she will get for Christmas or her’s sister’s response to a situation. Yet once Ursula becomes an adult, this idea of deja vu or knowledge from a previous life is rarely brought up. I thought Atkinson could have used this concept more to her advantage in advancing the story and growing Ursula as a character within this unique life timeline. In particular, I was surprised that Ursula does not recall her daughter or feel any pull towards living her life in the way that brought her daughter into existence. The connection she feels to her child and the way they died is an event that I thought would have stayed with Ursula, and directed some of her decisions in the life after. The book description and the first chapter also led me to believe that Ursula would be trying to do more to change world events, but after one attempt on Hitler’s life, Ursula returns to her old life patterns. In the last few life restarts, Ursula seems to forget her previous life experiences. She prevents some tragedies but doesn’t prevent others, and there is no explanation why. Atikinson could have taken better advantage of the deja vu concept and the multiple lives Ursula had; and, could have shown a progressive growth in how Ursula could change her world and save those around her. 

“Life after Life” is an excellently written book with a unique concept that provides a little bit of everything for the reader to munch on: family, marraige, war, singleness, death, childhood, memory. But I felt that Atkinson could have done more with the spread should had before her with this “life after life” narrative. Still definitely worth a read!

4/5 bacon strips

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A whole tray of delicious mini muffins: Lorrie Moore’s “Birds of America”

birdsmooreeditA few weeks ago, I won event tickets through Twitter for a reading and interview with Lorrie Moore. I had never heard of Lorrie Moore before but that didn’t stop me from being excited for an author event. But to better appreciate the author, I wanted to read some of her works. Lorrie Moore had just released a new collection of short stories called “Bark”. However, the reviews I read convinced me that “Birds of America” is her best work, so I drove over to Chapters and picked up a copy. I must at this point admit holding some ignorant views of short stories. I had never really gotten into them before. I viewed them as the lesser cousins of novels and as unsatisfyingly short narratives like opening the container to find only a half-eaten giant muffin left. But I was wholly wrong in my impression of short stories. Good short stories are more like mini muffins: complete little morsels bursting with flavour. Plus a collection of stories means you get to try a variety of flavours all in one sitting. And I owe Lorrie Moore’s “Birds of America” collection of stories for this literary revelation.

Her stories are placeless and timeless, yet they take place in a present and place that I can recognize so it is easy to fall into the characters’ lives.  She deals with the dark aspects of life: cancer in children, affairs, broken houses, destructive relationships, lost careers. Yet she brings humanity into the stories in a way that made me delve into the issues with the characters without feeling depressed. Like examining a body in a mortuary, identifying its cause of death and recognizing its demise, without feeling the striking grief of loss for the actual person.

She also introduces such shocking bouts of absurdist humour that I found myself laughing out loud in almost every short story. I still smile when I recall the racoons in the fireplace event from “Dance in America”. Or the crazy idea that is sanely put forward in “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens”  about the psychiatrist who specializes in Christmas specials and promises that if Aileen isn’t over her cat grief by Christmas then her last session is free.

The variety of lives Moore explores in “Birds of America” is astounding: a blind gay lawyer on a road trip with his lover (“What You Want to Do Fine”), a group of middle aged professionals bickering at a New Year’s Eve party (“Beautiful Grade”), and a woman who accidentally kills a baby and has mind-altering massages at the Italian academic retreat centre she is brought to by her new husband (“Terrific Mother”). Moore also spans lifetimes and involves multiple perspectives in her short stories. I was surprised at how much complexity can be fit into a short story. For example, “Real Estate” tells the story of Ruth (who is a cancer survivor trying to renovate the rundown house her husband bought in an attempt to save their marriage) and Noel (who breaks into people’s houses in the middle of the night to steal and gets them to sing him a song). And somehow Lorrie Moore gives us an understandable picture of both complex characters and merges their stories together in a way that brings a conclusion in under 30 pages. (Noel is another one of  her hilarious absurd, yet somehow real, plot points; a man whose ex-girlfriend teased him about not being able to remember any songs from memory, so he puts a gun to people’s heads to see what song they would sing and to help him build his musical repertoire.)

I would definitely recommend picking up Lorrie Moore’s “Birds of America” if you are a short story lover or need to be convinced. These collection of short stories is full of dark, humourous, striking portrayals of human experiences. I have also been inspired to undertake a story of short stories. I have picked up Alice Munro’s “Runaway” and Mavis Gallant’s “Home Truths” to start. I am open to further suggestions!

4/5 bacon strips

Breakfast in bed with burnt toast: Mr. Rochester ain’t no Prince Charming but it’s a love story all the same in “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte

janeeyreeditOf course after reading “Wide Sargasso Sea”, I had to read “Jane Eyre” again. When I pulled out my copy, I realized from all the florescent sticky tabs that the last time I read Charlotte Bronte’s book was in university. Although I know the storyline well, I had forgotten how good the writing is in this book. It follows the pattern of many novels from the 19th century: It is very detailed and a little slower at the beginning; but, the details and the slower pace help you to really understand the character when the life-changing events take place later in the book.

I also love re-reading books….let me clarify, I love re-reading really good books. I find that you discover something new in the narrative either because you have a different perspective, or a new layer reveals itself. The last time I was reading “Jane Eyre”, I was looking for its Gothic motifs so I could write a good paper for my 19th Century Novels course. This time around, I was looking at Mr. Rochester through the light of “Wide Sargasso Sea” to see if the crazed, possessive, and selfish man appeared in Bronte’s novel. As I looked at the book through this lens, I felt surprise at the love story I read. All of the movie versions emphasize this is a love story, Bronte ensures there is no doubt  for the reader of  Jane’s love for Mr. Rochester, and they do end up so happily together in the conclusion. And yet, “Jane Eyre” is missing so many of the themes and emotions that characterize love stories today.

For one, the Mr. Rochester in “Jane Eyre” is not that far off from the portrayal of Mr. Rochester in “Wide Sargasso Sea”. He demands things are done his way, displays violent anger, speaks irrationally by insisting Jane is a witch or a fairy, disregards Jane’s desires, and deceives her in thinking he is free to marry. He even tries to alter Jane once they are engaged by forcing her to wear silks and jewels, calling her Mrs. Rochester or Janet instead of Jane as before, and lavishing her with flowery affections instead of speaking to her in their normal discourse. And yet he is clearly the hero of the story; he is the desired husband.

For another, their courtship is unlike any romantic story I have read. Normally, once the man and woman have admitted their love for each other, there is a passionate courtship before marriage. Yet once Mr. Rochester and Jane decide to get married, Jane thwarts Mr. Rochester’s affections insisting they carry on as they had before as governess and master. She indicates provocation to the point of irritation instead of an acceptance of caresses and endearments is more pleasing to Mr. Rochester’s character in the long run and more acceptable to her in their courtship stage.

“It was only in our evening conferences I thus thwarted and afflicted him…He had no such honeyed terms as “love” and “darling” on his lips: his best words at my service were “provoking puppet,” malicious elf,” “changeling,” &c. For caresses too, I now got grimaces; for a pressure of the hand, a pinch on the arm; for a kiss on the cheek, a severe tweak of the ear. It was all right: at present I decidedly preferred these fierce favours to anything more tender.”   (p. 360-361 end of Chapter XXIV)

Mr. Rochester is definitely not what I consider the ideal romantic hero, but there is something of truth that strikes in their love story. There is no flowery brushstrokes like we see in Nicholas Sparks’s or Nora Robert’s books where the characters fall instantly in love, passionately in love, dramatic declarations of love, unrealistically in love and end up completely happily ever. There is a happily ever after that happens between Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre, which I think is what does characterize this novel ultimately as a love story. But this ending is mixed with the knowledge of all that occurred before: the jealousy games, the strange Mr. Rochester soliloquies, the irritable courtship and enforced distance by Jane, the rushed and deceitful almost-wedding day, and the fact that both could have a life without the other (as they do for most of Volume III). Even when Jane declares in the conclusion “no woman was ever nearer to her mate than I am” (p. 554), these practical words about love from Jane earlier in the novel ring in my head:

” ‘I am not an angel,’ I asserted; ‘and I will not be one till I die; I will be myself. Mr. Rochester, you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me, —for you will not get it, any more than I shall get it of you; which I do not at all anticipate….For a little while you will perhaps be as you are now,—a very little while; and you will turn cool; and then you will be capricious; and then you will be stern, and I shall have much ado to please you: but when you get well used to me, you will perhaps like me again—like me, I say not love me. I suppose your love will effervesce in six months, or less.” (p. 346)

Real love is seeing the person as they really are, acknowledging that the passionate stage of love will end and recognizing that many other emotions besides love will appear in marriage. At the end of it, real love in marriage is getting used to each other and remaining lifelong companions.

4/5 bacon strips