Tuesday, July 22, 2014

"Life After Life" by Kate Atkinson

I suppose this review is really a review of two books with somewhat similar premises but which are significantly different in the success of their execution.

The first review--the unofficial review--is of Jo Walton's My Real Children. The novel is the story of Patricia Cowen who, in old age, can recall two different lives: one with an abusive husband and another with a wonderful lesbian partner. The novel alternatively tells each version of Patricia's life. The stories don't overlap or relate to each other, and other than some subtle alternative history (e.g. in one version JFK is killed by a bomb), the novel is really just two different possible versions of one woman's life. The stories were so dull, lifeless, and unbelievable (and unbelievable in the most mundane way--like that fact that Patricia and Bee's relationship is honey perfect) that I only read a little more than half.

So, coincidentally, the next book I pick up is Atkinson's Life After Life. Her novel is also the story of one woman with multiple lives and occupies a similar period (overlapping especially in World War II) in history. But whereas Walton's book falls flat because the premise offers nothing especially new, Atkinson uses the multiple life premise to add interest and characterization. In Life After Life, Ursula is born and dies many times. But each time she returns--born into the exact same life--small things change. Sometimes the change is caused by Ursula herself, who retains a vague sense of dread/deja vu about her previous lives. Sometimes other external differences alter Ursula's course instead. In this way, Ursula's characterization is developed over the course of many lives, and it's interesting to see what she "learns" through each incarnation. 

Atkinson also uses the backdrop of World War I and II much more effectively than Walton. Though Ursula is an ordinary woman, she is intimately affected by both wars, from carrying out rescues during the bombing of London through interacting with Hitler himself.

Unlike Walton, who tries to cover the entire breadth of Patricia's life (resulting in a story that feels more like a Cliffs Notes summary), Atkinson easily skips large portions of Ursula's life, focusing on a few key areas and relationships in depth.

Both stories have some missteps. Each contains a story with an incredibly abusive husband that felt tired and excessively dramatic. Both continue the pregnant-on-the-first-go trope, which I hate, though My Real Children takes it a step farther by having Patricia get pregnant virtually every single time she has sex. We really can write better than this.

Nonetheless, Life After Life was engaging and worth a read while I'd avoid My Real Children (do try Walton's Among Others, though, which was much better).

Thursday, July 10, 2014

"We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" by Karen Joy Fowler

I haven't listened to an audiobook in awhile, but I decided to download We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves to listen to while I did my pregnancy walks. Fowler's novel was another book that I added to my "to read" list a long time ago but had long forgotten what it was about by the time I actually got it.

So, this total lack of awareness contributed to two large surprises (I don't think these are spoilers if you have any idea what you're reading):
1. When Rosemary spends the first part of the novel talking obliquely about her disappeared sister Fern, I didn't realize Fern was a chimpanzee until Rosemary "drops" the bombshell (rather coyly, she acknowledges).
2. I also didn't realize the book was fiction--not a memoir--until I finished the audiobook and it suddenly occurred to me that the author name I'd been seeing--Fowler--didn't match the name of the narrator.

So, through my own fault, I was rather hoodwinked the whole time. I don't know that being unaware hindered my enjoyment, though I might have been able to appreciate some of the literary structures more if I'd known it was a novel.

For those who are in the unawares like me, a brief description: Beside Ourselves is Rosemary's account of her family. The daughter of a psychologist father, she was raised alongside the baby chimpanzee Fern for the first five years of their lives as part of a social experiment. When both Rosemary and Fern were five, Fern was suddenly taken away for unknown (to Rosemary) reasons. Rosemary's brother, Lowell, left the family not long after in search of Fern and has been on the lam as an animal rights activist ever since. The story is not told chronologically or in long narrative sections. Instead, most of the telling takes place when Rosemary is in college, having avoided the topic of her sister for many years.

As Rosemary acknowledges, though Fern and Lowell are the more interesting characters, the novel stays mostly with Rosemary, and everything is told through her point of view. It's somewhat surprising that we spend much more time on Rosemary's college adventures with the crazy Harlow than on her childhood interactions with her chimpanzee sister, but, again, the book's not really about chimpanzees. It's about one woman who's avoided confronting what happened to her family for years, yet she's also deeply troubled by her missing sister.

The lack of traditional structure can make the book a bit jumbled, and you never get as many answers or details as you like. Nonetheless, it's an interesting read so long as you don't mind exploring the human more than the chimp.

Monday, July 7, 2014

"One More Thing" by B.J. Novak

The Office was one of my favorite shows for years, and B.J. Novak was always a part of that. Though he was only sometimes on the show as temp--and later boss--Ryan, his behind the scenes role as writer was much more significant. One More Thing is his first published book, a collection of fictional short stories.

The stories are very short--my high school students would be thrilled--which makes for easy reading. Most stories are perhaps 3-4 pages; some are only a few sentences.

The stories are absurd and random and frequently worthy of a light chuckle. But they also fail to go beyond such juvenile smirking--they lack any emotional resonance. For that reason, the book comes off as mostly fluffy rather than especially engaging.

That's not to say they're not occasionally clever, particularly when touching on pop and celebrity culture. A story about "Wikipedia Brown"--a spin-off of the Encyclopedia Brown of our childhood--was quite funny, as was a story about Stephen King suddenly recognizing one of his books was published with a stand-in (not permanent) title.

The book would be a good "time to kill" text--something to read snippets of while waiting for a doctor's appointment or wanting a 10-minute wind down before bed.