alwaysanswerb’s #CBR5 Review 48: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Goodreads summary: “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. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.”

Life After Life is a fascinating conceptual novel, the potential of which I am not sure was ever fully realized. In many ways, it comes across as a refurbished and more bombastic “Groundhog Day”: more historically captivating (WWII setting) and with the chance to observe Ursula Todd throughout her life as opposed to on just one day, we feel like there is more at stake, but the same basic conceit of being able to re-do your life until you get it right applies.

Ursula, here, doesn’t exactly know that she is re-living her life. She does have premonitions and sometimes strong feelings that she needs to take some kind of decisive action in order to prevent something that feels instinctively bad, which is a clever choice by the author because it keeps the novel grounded in reality despite the somewhat fantastical premise. By connecting Ursula’s “multiple lives” to her intuition and a sense of deja vu, rather than an exact knowledge that she has lived that life before, Atkinson plays on the reader’s questions about life and existence — what does it mean when we get deja vu or that intangible, yet powerful, feeling that something is amiss?

There are some parts of this novel that are extremely difficult to read. I don’t want to get into specifics as they will probably constitute spoilers, but some versions of Ursula’s life are depressing, and others are deeply uncomfortable in different ways. There is one specific version that I found to be incredibly problematic, but again, I can’t really discuss it without giving away a major event. What I will try to say, as cryptically as possible, is that in a story like this, there is the implication that Urusla, or whatever protagonist, is responsible for the outcome by the choices they make. There are some outcomes here that Ursula had absolutely zero control over, but the way the narrative develops suggests that she did, and I found those particular threads to be kind of presumptuous at best and offensive at worst.

Otherwise, the overall story was very engaging and the prose lyrical and tight. It was sometimes hard to tell when one life was ending and a new one beginning, but there is a pattern to the chapters to help make it more clear. At the end, despite being harrowing at times and problematic at others, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it. I have seen some reviews with proclamations that this book may be some kind of manual or have a moral message; I wouldn’t go that far. When you look at the choices that led Ursula to her happiest life, they weren’t necessarily the most enlightened or selfless, but they did make the most sense. Maybe that’s what the message is, then: have some common sense.

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ElCicco #CBR5 Review #27: The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

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Gavin Extence has written a superb young adult novel dealing with some rather mature themes: secular humanism, Kurt Vonnegut, growing cannabis, and death/end of life decisions. I think this may turn out to be my favorite novel of the summer.

Alex Woods, our narrator, is 17 when we start and all of the action of the story has happened. Alex is returning to England from Continental Europe with the ashes of his neighbor Isaac Peterson and a glove compartment full of marijuana. Alex is detained at customs and brought in for questioning. From this point, Alex tells the amazing story of his life and his friendship with the reclusive Mr. Peterson.

Alex is already famous by the time we are introduced. At the age of 10, he survived being hit by a meteorite, was in a coma for several weeks and then developed epilepsy, which caused him to miss school for most of a year. He is the only child of a single mother who runs her own shop and reads tarot cards for clients. Alex is drawn to math and sciences, particularly astrophysics and neurology.  Unfortunately, bullies are drawn to Alex for these same reasons. Alex’s path and Mr. Peterson’s cross as a result of a bullying incident. Peterson is an American veteran of the Vietnam War who writes a lot of letters for Amnesty International and whose favorite author is Kurt Vonnegut. Over time, a strange but beautiful friendship develops between the two. Alex matures, learns to manage his epilepsy, and actively pursues his interests as well as action that seems right to him. I found him to be a thoroughly interesting and admirable character, although I suspect that those who are more politically conservative might find him to be immoral or, at the very least, misguided.

An overarching theme is about us and the universe — is there a God? Where do we fit in? Can we know the universe? I like that the title is The Universe Versus Alex Woods and not the other way around — that it’s not Alex who is trying to mess with the universe, but rather the universe seems to have taken on Alex. Throwing a meteorite at his head is only one example. He and his mother have no idea who his father is; he is a target for bullies; he has epilepsy. Yet for the most part, Alex faces it all in a calm, rational way. The one exception, when he calls a bully an especially offensive word in front of the headmaster, makes him feel powerful in the short run but is regretted in the long run. Alex is patient and a planner, and this serves him well (although it makes him seem odd and is sometimes frustrating to those close to him).

I think what I find most impressive about the novel is that while I don’t necessarily subscribe to the same view of life and the universe as Alex, I understand why he thinks as he does. I can’t help but like him. Gavin Extence does a marvelous job of presenting Alex’s point of view in a reasonable and convincing manner. The writing is humorous and intelligent, and would appeal to the high school crowd. Mature themes and some crude language might make it inappropriate for those younger.

 

xoxoxoe’s #CBR5 Review #7: Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was an amazing read. Winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize and the first book in a trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII, Mantel took an oft-told history in an entertaining manner — how Cromwell helped Henry discard his first wife Katherine of Aragon, marry Anne Boleyn, and break away from the Emperor and Catholicism to create the Church of England. Along the way we witnessed Cromwell’s personal tragedies — his loss of his wife Liz and two daughters Anne and Grace, to the “sweating sickness,” his idolization of his mentor Cardinal Wolsey and his surviving Wolsey’s fall from the king’s graces, and his hand in the end of Thomas More. One might wonder if there was really that much more to tell, but Mantel’s second book in the series (the 2012 Man Booker Prize winner), Bring Up the Bodies, starts off with a bang and doesn’t let up, as it chronicles Henry’s growing impatience with second wife Anne, who has only been able to produce a female child (who will one day become Elizabeth I) as his attentions turn to the young and pliable Jane Seymour.

“She is very plain. What does Henry see in her?'”
“He thinks she’s stupid. He finds it restful.”

Henry VII and his Family, by an unknown artist. L-R: Princess Mary, Prince Edward, Henry VIII, Jane Seymour, Elizabeth

Cromwell’s charge is his King’s desire, and more than political power or religious reform, Henry’s main goal is to produce a male heir and continue the Tudor royal line. Cromwell, as intelligent as ever, looks at every situation from several angles, always trying to serve England. His knowledge of many languages and cultures creates a truly diverse household — in fact his home seems more sophisticated in many ways than the King’s many residences. Mantel sketches Cromwell’s life at home and at court in fascinating detail. If there is anything to criticize in Bring Up the Bodies, it is the author’s continued insistence of using a device she used in Wolf Hall, writing from Cromwell’s perspective with clunky sentences that start, “He, Cromwell …” But the rest of the book is so spot-on, so involving, that stylistic quibbles soon seem just that — quibbles.

“How many men can say, as I must, ‘I am a man whose only friend is the King of England’? I have everything, you would think. And yet take Henry away, and I have nothing.”

Mantel tells her story from Cromwell’s perspective, and at times we are privy to his dreams and memories. But our “hero” is not above using his station to exact revenge. He sees how the inevitable fall of the new queen Anne (of which he shows not much remorse nor pity) can be used to punish men who had insulted his revered Wolsey — the Queen’s brother George Boleyn, Henry Norris, William Brereton, and Francis Weston.

“Look, he says: once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, one you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.”

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell. New York, Frick C...
Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein

Cromwell may be on top at the end of Bring Up the Bodies, but the reader doesn’t have to know all the details of his life to know that he is poised for a fall. Medieval politics were rough and frequently brutal, and a rough man like Cromwell, from the wrong side of London was, for a time, the perfect man to get things done.

You can read more of my pop culture reviews on my blog, xoxoxo e

Originally published on Blogcritics: Book Review: Bring Up the Bodies – by Hilary Mantel

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Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #24: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

This is a well-told and stirring fictionalized account of the life of fossil collector, dealer and paleontologist Mary Anning, an impoverished working class woman growing up in the small British coastal town of Lyme Regis in Dorset in the early 19th century. As a child, Mary incessantly searched the fossil-riddled cliffs and shorelines of her home town in search of ancient teeth, bones and other exotic bits her family could sell to tourists, to stave off starvation. When she and her brother make their first major childhood discovery of a complete skeleton of the Mesozoic-era ichthyosaur, the family suddenly discovers that there is real money to be made, but for Mary, it is the beginning of a lifelong passion to bring these “beasts” to the attention of a world—and specifically an academic and religious community– not necessarily ready to admit that now-extinct life forms had existed well before mankind came on the scene, with all that implies for the average Victorian Bible-thumper.

Mary makes an unlikely friend in middle-class spinster Elizabeth Philpot, a strong-willed and independent woman whose married brother exiles her –along with two single sisters—to Lyme Regis to save himself the cost of supporting his deemed unmarriageable siblings in London style. Mostly content to live in her cottage by the sea, Elizabeth discovers her own fascination with fossilized fish, and becomes a contented beachcomber in the company of the much younger Mary, much to the dismay of many in the town who are discomfited by this unladylike pair.

The story takes a major turn when Mary’s discoveries are in turn discovered—and appropriated–by the scientific community, and Elizabeth takes on the fight for Mary’s reputation. Through this novel, Chevalier is both telling Mary’s story and simultaneously using every opportunity to wax indignant at the outrageous dismissal of women’s contributions to the academic and scientific communities of the era. While I enjoyed the book for bringing this amazing woman to light, I found that Chevalier’s fictional overlay of blighted romance, petty rivalries, and sisterly angst did a disservice to an otherwise powerful and compelling story. Chevalier’s descriptions of the fossils themselves and how they were found, excavated, preserved, presented and so on were fascinating, and her literary rendering of the circumstances under which Mary had to labor—from the poverty into which she was born to the sometimes dangerous environmental and geological conditions she had to navigate in her work—makes this a fine story worth the read.