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11 June 2015

Book Review: A God in Ruins

A God in RuinsA God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my first Kate Atkinson so her style of non-linear chronology is new to me. I liked the way her structure allowed me to discover characters almost as if I was getting to know them in real life; when you meet someone, they don't just lay out their lives from day one in concise chronological order. The problem with memory is that chronology is the first thing to go so how we tell our stories to others often has the wandering, disjunct feel that this book has.

Disjunct is not a fair adjective, though, as I made the leap fairly easily from one time to another. I raised my eyebrow every time the omniscient narrator mentioned the future while telling the story of an earlier version of a person but, again, like when you tell a story, sometimes you throw in what will happen.

Fans of "Life After Life will recognize Teddy and Ursula (which version of Ursula this might be could be great fodder for conversation) but I won't delve into plot. Plot isn't what makes this book readable for me. It was the writing. The observations. The cogent asides.  All of which created moments of clarity about life and human nature. Finding clarity in a pull quote is one of the main reasons I read and Atkinson gave me that in abundance.

Things like:

"Good manners, the armour that one must don anew every morning."

"Teddy's idea of Utopia would not have included the Kibbo Kift. What would it have included? A dog, certainly. Preferably more than one. Nancy and his sisters would be there--his mother too, he supposed--and they would all live in a lovely house set in the green countryside of the Home Counties and eat cake every day. His real life, in fact."

"'Like' was hardly the word Teddy would have used for a time in his life when every day was fragile and seemed as if it might be his last on earth and the only tense was the present one because the future had ceased to exist even though they were fighting so desperately for it."

"It was true, in the last year or two he had begun to lose the thrifty habits he had once had, growing tired of the relentless culling and resolution that the material world demanded. Easier to let it pile up, waiting for the great winnowing of goods that his death would bring."

"A whole life could be contained in a dinner-service pattern."

"She was always looking to be given things, a cuckoo rather than a predator."

"He was currently living in a sordidly unruly flat with several members of his peer group, all too self-centered to qualify as friends."

"Every cloud has a silver lining. Conversely, every silver lining was in a cloud."

"Love had always seemed to Teddy to be a practical act as much as anything--school concerts, clean clothes, regular mealtimes."

Of course, later in the book, the good pull quotes were often roaming through the head of Viola, the writer, and her aside would be "A good phrase. She tucked it away," which pointed out the trite surfaceness of finding meaning in a pull quote. Almost as if Kate Atkinson is making fun of me. Which maybe she is. And rightly so.

I could have chosen to get angry about that. Just like I could have chosen to get angry about "THE LAST 15 PAGES."  But I didn't.

And don't keep reading if you don't want spoilers. But...

The title "A God in Ruins comes from an Emerson quote; ""A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be ... as gently as we awake from dreams."

That, and the first pull quote on the front cover flap, "He had been reconciled to death during the war and then suddenly the war was over and there was a next day and a next day and a next day. Part of him never adjusted to having a future," was a clue, if a clue in hindsight to what Atkinson was going to do to me as a reader. Trickery, Ms. Atkinson. Pure trickery! How dare you?

Teddy couldn't exist because the war devoured his innocence. It's as simple as that.

Atkinson says in her Author's Note, that if you asked her what this book was about, she'd say that "it's about fiction (and how we must imagine what we cannot know) and the Fall (of Man. From grace.)"

And there you are.

In the end, I have to admit that it's kind of silly to get mad about an author of fiction pulling a blind like this. After all, I was mad that these characters, who aren't real, aren't real. What sense does that make?

Fiction is always a lie that hints at a truth we have trouble finding by looking at our own lives. This book simply slaps you in the face with that.

And that's why it will be memorable. Good trickery, Ms. Atkinson.

08 June 2015

Book Review - One Summer

One Summer: America, 1927One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love proletariat hodge-podge histories; an interesting point in time treated to an exploration that goes just deep enough to intrigue but not so deep that the reader becomes mired.  Histories that are like reading an extended New Yorker profile because they feel less like histories and more like current event feature stories.

One Summer is one of those histories. Bill Bryson wanders his reader through the summer of 1927. Though Bryson divides his book into five sections, each named for a month and titled with a major happening or person of that month, he doesn't stick to his construct, but rather ambles from subject to subject and back again, almost as if he is living it without the benefit of hindsight.

1927 was a big year; Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, Al Capone, the Mississippi flood, Prohibition, Sacco and Vanzetti, Jack Dempsey...

Bryson peppers us with details like, "The statistics of the great flood were recorded with chilling precision: 16,570,627 acres flooded; 203,504 buildings lost or ruined; 637,476 people made homeless. The quantities of livestock lost were logged with similar exactitude: 50,490 cattle, 25,325 horses and mules, 148,110 hogs, 1,276,570 chickens and other poultry. The one thing that wasn't carefully recorded, oddly, was the number of human lives lost, but it was certainly more than a thousand and perhaps several times that. The tallies weren't more scrupulous because, alas, so many of the victims were poor and black. It is a shocking fact that a closer count was kept of livestock losses than of human ones. It is perhaps only slightly less shocking to note that outside the affected areas the flood received less coverage on most days than the murder trial of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray."

This shows Bryson at his best and worst. The details that a closer count was made of lost cows than lost people and that a trial that is now lost to history was bigger news are enlightening. But Bryson's use of words like "oddly" and "alas" and his almost judgmental "shocking" and "slightly less shocking" gets a bit heavy-handed. I'd like it better if he presented the facts and let me reach my own conclusions.

Bryson also tends to repeat himself and has an annoying habit of presenting something and giving you a sense of timeline by referring back to something he's already presented. His most used point of reference is the attempted Atlantic crossing of the French pilots Nungesser and Coli, which was frustrating because I could never remember when they tried to cross so knowing something else was happening at that time was not terribly helpful to me. I wished for a timeline, rather than constant editorial finger-wagging about what I should have already learned.

But let's overlook my occasional quarrel with Bryson's editorial presence because it was more like a tiny pebble stuck in my shoe than a large rock; I could usually wiggle my foot around a little to move it and keep enjoying my walk.

And I'm glad I did. So much of what I read was instructive about the time he was writing as it was about our current time.

Take Herbert Hoover, the hero of the Mississippi flood. Why did we think he was a hero? Because he told us he was. "He traveled through the South in a private train, which included a car exclusively devoted to press operations. From this issued a stream of press releases mostly devoted to Hoover's vision and hard work. He also made sure that every Republican senator received a copy of a magazine article praising him. To any newspaper, however small, that questioned or criticized his efforts, he wrote a personal letter of rebuke." Hoover made himself into a very public hero. Imagine what he could have done with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Or the fact that the government of the United States poisoned alcohol so that the random deaths would inspire the rest of America to stay sober. See, alcohol was still necessary for many things besides drinking and because it still had to be produced for those purposes, the government "denatured" it to prevent it from being diverted into the bootleg trade. Denaturing alcohol simply means putting strychnine and/or mercury in it. According to Bryson, "Figures vary wildly on just how many people died wretchedly from drinking denatured alcohol," and then quotes a source at 11,700 (though some people claim many less). He then goes on, heavy-handedly but accurately, to say, "However small or large the total, it is surely the most bizarrely sinister episode in American history that officialdom was prepared to deliver to its own citizens an agonizing death for engaging in an act that had until recently been an accepted part of civilized life, was still legal nearly everywhere else in the world, and was patently harmless in moderation."

Bryson suggests that the labels we have for the 1920s, the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties, the Age of Ballyhoo, the Era of Wonderful Nonsense, do not tell the whole story. He suggests that the 1920s might be labeled the Age of Loathing. "There may never have been another time in the nation's history when more people disliked more other people from more directions and for less reason. Bigotry was casual, reflexive, and well nigh universal. At The New Yorker, Harold Ross forbade the use of the term toilet paper on the grounds of taste (it made him queasy), but he had nothing at all against nigger or darkie." This is the era that created the Ku Klux Klan. "The Klan hated everybody, but it did so in ways strategically contrived to reflect regional biases, so that it focused on Catholics and Jews in the Midwest, Orientals and Catholics in the Far West, Jews and southern Europeans in the East, and blacks everywhere." Sadly, I see shades of this type of savvy, organized bigotry happening right now, in our enlightened 21st century.

The whole book is full of interesting tidbits of history, some fleshed out beautifully, some only a passing mention that sparks an interest to read further.

For example, who knew that Time magazine used to have an odd habit of clunky, almost Germanic word-order? "As Wolcott Gibbs put it in a famous New Yorker profile of Luce, "Backward ran the sentences until reeled the mind."

Or that "flapper" was a word that originated in late 19th century England, an offshoot of the term "bird," still in use to describe females, and originally signified a prostitute?

Or that Lindbergh was one of the first individuals to use a transatlantic phone line, so he not only flew across the Atlantic, he spoke across it, too?

Or that the King of England was extraordinarily interested in how Lindbergh peed during his solo flight?

Or that Henry Ford thought the American Revolution was fought around 1812 and claimed that he had voted only once, for James Garfield, who had in fact died three years before Ford was old enough to vote? (This evidence of ignorance came out during the proceedings when Ford sued the Chicago Tribune for libel; he won but the jury awarded him only 6 cents in damages, which the Tribune never paid).

Or that Jerome Kern was supposed to be on the Lusitania but he overslept so he survived to change the course of musical theater with the most successful and influential show ever written, Showboat?

Then there's Philo T. Farnsworth and Mabel Walker Willebrandt. I want to read whole books about them. If you've never heard of them, look them up.

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