This the third of Kate Atkinson’s books I’ve read and as in reading the others (Life After Life and A God in Ruins) I discovered it takes a nimble mind, some patience, and a lot of trust. The author likes to play with the traditional rules of story arcs, time, and points of view. She weaves back-stories and other bits of ephemera into the narrative, picking up a thread here and there. This book includes “footnotes” which are referenced as the story moves ahead and tell stories of secondary characters who likely think they are main characters. And as is so often the case, the family secrets they reveal hold keys to understanding seemingly inexplicable behaviors.
Behind the Scenes at the Museum begins in 1951–at the very beginning– with Ruby Lennox, the omniscient narrator saying, “I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock…I’m begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into a dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith’s Best Bitter…my mother was pretending to be asleep—as she often does at such moments.”
Atkinson is expert in infusing her writing with period details, especially the habits, standards, and expectations of middle class women of that time in England. However, I was glad to have read this on my Kindle so that I could easily look up unfamiliar British slang and products of 1950s and 60s. Ruby’s description of her beloved Mobo horse tickled me, as my husband’s Mobo is one of our prized possessions.
I’m torn between advising you to savor this book or read it fast. There are several generations of characters to keep straight and if you wait too long between readings–as I did– you might forget who the heck they are. Another advantage to the Kindle–its x-ray feature allows you to easily backtrack. I think a long day of travel or a rainy weekend in a comfy chair would be just about right.
Reading Atkinson—at least these three books—reminds me of looking at a pointillist painting. The big picture doesn’t emerge until you step back from it. Nonetheless, her wry humor and use of language are definitely worth the effort.
As a newborn in the nursery, Ruby tells us:
“We lie in our cots, wrapped tightly in the white cotton-cellular blankets, like promises, like cocoons waiting to hatch into something. Or little baby parcels.”
On discovering Catholicism with her friend:
“I’m more than happy to help out—banking up good deeds with the Lamb, for although He is meek and mild He is also (inexplicably) part of the trio that can consign you to the Inferno.”
And imagery after a long, cold walk home:
“By the time we get back to the Shop there are frozen roses in our cheeks and little shards of ice in our hearts.”
After the loss of her sisters:
“I’m an only child now with all the advantages (money, clothes, records) and all the disadvantages (loneliness, isolation, anguish). I’m all they’ve got left, a ruby solitaire, a kind of chemical reduction of all their children.”
And a difference of opinion:
“’The past is what you leave behind, Ruby,’ she says with the smile of a reincarnated lama. ‘Nonsense, Patricia,’ I tell her as I climb on board my train. ‘The past’s what you take with you.’”
There are lots of reasons to recommend Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible to you. First, it is a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, that pioneer of the romantic comedy genre. The writing and the humor are fresh and lively. While it is a longish read, it’s broken into many very short chapters, which kept me turning virtual pages on my Kindle long past my bedtime.
If you’ve read P&P or even seen any of the cinematic treatments, you will recognize members of the Bennet family and the rest of the quirky cast. Darcy and Liz take an instant dislike to each other, of course. Bingley is a recent contestant on a Bachelor-like show, called—what else?–“Eligible.” Even Lady Catherine de Bourgh shows up as Kathy, a Gloria Steinem-like icon of feminism.
The inciting incident here is Mr. Bennet’s heart attack. Liz Bennet, a journalist, and sister Jane, a yoga instructor, are in their late thirties, single, and living in New York City. Their father’s illness and recovery bring them back to their Cincinnati home, which is in a sad state of disrepair. While Mr. Bennet remains sardonic, he is unable to see a way out of the mounting financial difficulties which have caught him by surprise. Mrs. Bennet is still petty and worried about appearances. Her prejudices are only lightly veiled and she appears to have developed a problem with catalogue shopping and hoarding. The younger sisters have remained at home. Reclusive Mary is always studying, except for a mysterious Tuesday night commitment. Lydia and Kitty are unemployed, unmannerly, and vain.
Since what was shocking in Regency Era England, might be pretty ho-hum today, all the scandals and social issues have been updated. Think IVF, LGBT, CrossFit, reality TV, and what can happen to a family’s wealth when they don’t have health insurance. Oh, and there is a lot more casual sex. Even “hate sex.”
I found Eligible to be great fun.
The One and Only Ivan, a middle grade bestseller and 2013 Newbery winner, has something to appeal to animal lovers of any age. Inspired by the true story of a real captive gorilla, Katherine Applegate tells of unexpected friendships and kindnesses from the point-of-view of a gorilla.
After being stolen from his family in the jungle Ivan is raised by well-meaning humans until he grows too big to be a pet. He then finds himself caged and isolated from others of his kind for decades in a sad little mall. He spends his days watching TV, painting, and conversing with two friends: Stella, an aging elephant crippled by abusive trainers, and Bob, a stray dog who has made the mall his home. When Ruby, a new baby elephant is brought in to attract more visitors, her sadness causes Ivan to see his domain is for what it is. He promises to help her. With understanding from the janitor’s young daughter, Ivan is able to communicate their plight. You’ll have to read it to find out how.
“Humans speak too much. They chatter like chimps, crowding the world with their noise even when they have nothing to say.”
“I have been in my domain for nine thousand eight hundred and fifty-five days.”
“I’ve never asked for a promise before, because promises are forever, and forever is an unusually long time. Especially when you’re in a cage.”
“Is there anything sweeter that the touch of another as she pulls a dead bug from your fur?
With its themes of friendship, compassion, and hope, Ivan reminded me of Charlotte’s Web, hence, I happily recommend it to you and any young ones you know.
This column is from seven–yes, SEVEN–years ago and it seems there are at least a few people who still can’t separate fact from fiction. Your in-box and Facebook page are probably filled with rants from one or two. Even when Snopes is free and easy to use. This retired teacher is compelled to repeat the lesson one more time. Click here to read about the lost art of critical thinking.
Both these books feature young women, both focused on their successful careers, but with personal lives that are a bit of a mess. One is unmarried and the other married with two little girls. Both books demonstrate the power of even lighter fiction to show us what is true about love, sacrifice, friendship, trust, jealousy, and regret. You know, the big stuff. And both allow characters to hear loved one’s voices from the past.
In My Best Friend’s Girl, BFFs Kamryn and Adele become understandably and bitterly estranged when Kamryn discovers that Adele’s daughter Tegan, was fathered by Kamryn’s fiancé. After years of silence between them, Adele dies but not before exacting a promise from Kamryn that she will care for and adopt now five-year-old Tegan. Kamryn’s life and priorities are turned upside down when motherhood is thrust upon her, a role she never aspired to. That role is made even more difficult by grief. Letters from Adele add a poignant touch to this angst-y but heartwarming story.
To her ex, Kamryn says:
“You’re the only person on earth I’d wanted to have a child with, and you did it with someone else. Someone I loved. That’s why I had to leave. I couldn’t stay when you’d made a baby, a new life, with someone else.”
And about Tegan:
“At least she knew she had me. I wasn’t her mum, but I was there.”
In Landline, the voice from the past arrives via an old yellow trimline phone found in the childhood bedroom of Georgie, a television comedy writer in Los Angeles and married mother of two. Because of a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to finally get the show she and her writing partner (and too-handsome best friend, Seth) have dreamed about since college, she stays behind when her husband Neal and girls go to Omaha for Christmas. Georgie’s mother believes that Neal has left Georgie, which begins a cycle of self-doubt. Had she been a neglectful wife and mother? Had Neal really left her? With her cellphone dead, she calls Neal on the landline and the Neal who picks up is the Neal she fell in love with fifteen years ago. Before marriage, before children. She’s careful not to break the spell throughout a week as she and Neal talk every night on that old yellow phone. This Neal still loves her.
“Georgie,” he said. “I love you. I love you more than I hate everything else. We’ll make our own enough–will you marry me?”
“Somebody had given Georgie a magic phone, and all she’d wanted to do with it was stay up late talking to her old boyfriend.”
These two books appealed to me because I wanted to explore the concept of friendship in Women’s Fiction. How friends support each other and how far they’ll go to fulfill a promise or commitment is compelling, but so is the push and pull between those friendships and all our important relationships–marriage, parenthood, even work. The novel I’m working on focuses on some of those elements and I wanted to see how these authors handled them. I was not disappointed.
I come from a long line of optimists. My great-grandfather was a card-carrying utopian-socialist. (I have his card.) His daughter, my grandmother, was a Christian Scientist. My other grandmother believed in Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking.” You see, the art and habit of re-framing obstacles and looking on the bright side are in my DNA. Couple that with a rather Ozzie and Harriet childhood in the fifties and sixties, and you get relentlessly (doggedly, stubbornly) optimistic me.
Author Anne Lamott’s life and lineage were different (read: dysfunctional, self-destructive, a little crazy) and everything about her reflects that. Even so, she attempts to find grace no matter what life throws at her. Like most of us, she fails sometimes. This collection of essays demonstrates her struggle armed with her faith and intelligence as well as her sometimes dark and self-effacing humor. She is also that rarest of creatures (if we are to believe the media) a flaming liberal and a churchgoing, Jesus-loving Christian. Oh, and she swears a bit, too.
Small Victories starts with a critique of the Bible, saying what’s missing is a “Book of Welcome.” Come in, come in! It should say. God loves you! In her opinion, there’s way too much judgment and not enough hugs. Not nearly enough unconditional love, acceptance, and yes, forgiveness.
This collection also deals with grief. A lot. It seems someone is always dying. Family, friends, a beloved old dog. Life’s like that. To cope, Lamott takes long walks in the woods, prays, and attends church. She marches in peace rallies. She remains sober, binges on M&Ms, and tries online dating. She does all this while attempting to make her injured, angry little human heart forgive the people who have hurt or disappointed her. A few relatives and ex-Presidents are on her list. She reminds herself that if she–as imperfect as she is–is precious to God, then others–as imperfect as they obviously are–must be precious as well. Good stuff.
A few quotes:
“Forgiveness is the hardest work we do.”
“They say we are punished not for the sin but by the sin, and I began to feel punished by my unwillingness to forgive.”
“I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”
Several members of my precious extended family–who run the gamut of religious and political persuasions, bless their hearts–agreed to read this as the first book in an online cousins’ book club. I think it was a good choice.
What should we read next?