The Martian by Andy Weir

book cover

I’m pretty much fucked.

Ok, show of hands. How many of you have uttered these exact words? (or words to that effect). Not everyone? I see we have some liars out there. How many have said them at least twice? Three times? Four? Those with hands still up, you probably need to make some adjustments to your approach, find a safer line of work, hobbies that do not entail long drops, stop trying the weekly specials at McBlowfish, or seek out people to date who are into less extreme…um…sports. These are the opening words of The Martian. Astronaut Mark Watney is definitely more screwed than most of us have ever been. Dude missed his ride and there will not be another along for, oh, four years. Supplies on hand were only meant to cover a few weeks, maybe months. And that Martian atmosphere is definitely no fun, lacking stuff like, oh, breathable air, and a reasonable range of temperature. It does, offer, however, extremely harsh (good for scouring that burned on gunk from sauce pans) and long-lasting (as in months) dust storms. And if that was not enough he faces an array of other challenges.

unfriendly locals

No, Kibby (the 12-year-old kibitzer who infects my brain), no Mars Attacks brain beasts, or that other guy, even though I know he is your favorite. Real challenges. For example, the music he has for his stay consists of disco. The viewing options include 70s TV. Most of us might give serious consideration to minimizing the guaranteed pain, frustration, starvation and inevitable death by, maybe, taking a short hustle outside sans that special suit. It would be a very, very short last dance. Watney is either a cock-eyed optimist or an idiot. I’m going with the former, as he is indeed made of the right stuff. He is armored and well supplied with the sort of can-do designer genes that might make the rest of us feel like the can’t-do sorts we are. He is the poster boy for positive attitude. It does not hurt that he is way smart, with expertise in a wide-enough range of things scientific to matter. It does not hurt that he is an engineer who gets off on taking apart, putting back-together, figuring out, thinking through, testing, trying, and pushing envelopes. But his crew is headed home, and what hope is there, really?


The Martian tells of Watney’s attempt to survive in a literally alien environment, using only the tools on hand and his wits. It is a gripping story with one of the most adorable heroes you are likely to encounter, on this planet or any other. (No, Kibby, not a kitten) How could you not root for a guy who scrapes through Thanksgiving dinner for potato parts to plant for food? Of course, one might think “been there, done that,” particularly as 1964’s Robin Crusoe on Mars offered a retelling of Daniel Defoe’s classic tale in a more contemporary notion of a remote locale. A 1905 novel used a different classic traveler in the same sort of format.


Of course those tellings had a lot more in common with the Barsoom of Edgar Rice Burroughs as seen by Frank Frazetta than they do with the vision we have of the Red Planet today, or, say, reality.

Zabriskie Point 612

Or is it?
somewhere out there
One of these was a shot of you know where. The other was taken at Death Valley, which was used, BTW, in the filming of Robinson Crusoe on Mars

Most of the tale is spent on Watney’s very compelling attempt to survive, going through all the challenges he faces trying to make air, preserve and maybe generate water, make his food last, get some sort of communication set up, deal with things like exploding air-locks, biblical level dust-storms, toppling ground-transport vehicles, you know, stuff, most of it life-threatening. The other end of things is how the folks on the ground deal with this GInornous OOPS. There are technical elements, of course but more interesting, for me, were the political considerations. To tell the crew or not? Imagine how bummed out, embarrassed, and guilty you might be on that ship (the Hermes) returning home, knowing you had left one behind. Might it affect your ability to take care of necessary business for the next bunch of months? Another question is whether to tell the public, and if so, when. How about getting help from other space-capable nations? Are any international dealings simple? There is also some in-house (NASA) staff maneuvering that is wonderful to see.

Andy Weir – from Smithsonian

In her fabulous book on writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes

Having a likeable narrator is like having a great friend whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds your attention, who makes you laugh out loud…

Probably the greatest strength of The Martian is the narration of Mark Watney. He is engaging and funny, optimistic and capable. I suppose there are some who might find him lacking in sharp edges, but I thought he worked great.

Matt Damon as Mark Watney, enjoying the view – from the film.

The new earth-based shooting location was Wadi Rum, Jordan. I am sure they did plenty of color adjustments in post, but boy-o-boy does this place look like an alien landscape.

Yes, really, there is too much scientific detail. It is not that it is beyond the comprehension of a lot of readers (although it will skip by a fair number) it is the share of time, the number of pages, the sheer volume of obstacles to be overcome, and the very detailed explanation of so many of them that tilts the book a bit too much towards the MacGyver demo. Weir writes very well about the other elements of the story. Repetition of DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, with the subsequent amazingly clever repair du jour, does get a bit old after a while. I had to fight an urge to scan at times.

But that is really it. Otherwise, The Martian is an absolute delight to read. Watney is lovable as well as capable, and makes excellent use of his sense of humor to look on the bright side of life, in a very dark circumstance.

Whether he makes it out on time or not (not gonna spoil that one) you will cheer him on, hope for the best, and fly past those pages with considerable, if maybe not interplanetary, speed. Is there life on Mars? There will be while you read this book.

Review posted – 1/16/15
Updated and trotted out there again on release of the film – 10/2/15

Publication date – self-pub in 2011 – Bought, edited and published by Crown 10/28/2014

=======================================EXTRA STUFF
Links to the author’s personal and FB pages.

The Martian Chronicles on Gutenberg

Gullivar of Mars by Edwin Lester Linden Arnold on Gutenberg

For a real Martian experience check out NASA’s Mars page

For a realer Martian experience, and ideal for those trying to keep one step ahead of creditors and/or the law, you might want to consider applying to be on a Mars mission, no joke. There is more on this project below but the above link is for the selection process, just in case you don’t mind a strictly one-way journey.

A nifty article from the NY Times (10/5/15) about the woman at NASA responsible for seeing to it that we do not bring Earth germs you-know-where – Mars Is Pretty Clean. Her Job at NASA Is to Keep It That Way. – by Kenneth Chang

I bet you thought I’d forgotten these guys. No chance! I just ran out of time to figure out how to stuff them into the review. So, sorry, I am stuffing them here. That sounds so wrong.

If you want to experience Mars while still on earth, it is indeed possible


A general National Geo article on Mars

Planetary.Org has an excellent list of all Mars missions to date, and some that are in process

When you are checking your ancestry some of that unusual DNA might come from a place, far, far away. Two scientists look at the unfortunately named notion of Panspermia, (the natural result of guys watching really good porn?) which addresses the possibility that the genesis of life on Earth had its opening act elsewhere.

If you want to know Who goes to Mars for the waters, the answer is yes

And speaking Eau d’Ares a nifty article on the presence of H2OMG you know where in the 9/28/15 article in the NY Times – by Kenneth Chang. Thanks to my pal, Henry B, for this refreshing item.

Downhill streaks indicate water has flowed – image from NY Times who got it from NASA who got it from JPL

Here is a nifty article from The New Yorker, on work being done to cope with inter-planetary cabin fever. Moving to Mars: Preparing for the longest, loneliest voyage ever by Tom Kizzia – from the April 20, 2015 issue

All right. We’re all done now. You’d better get going or Marvin will lose his cool


Oh, sorry Marvin, just one more thing, lists.

Abbott and Costello go to Mars
The Angry Red Planet
Bad Girls From Mars
The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars
Capricorn One
Devil Girl From Mars
Empire of Danger
Escape From Mars
Flight to Mars
Ghosts of Mars
Invaders from Mars
The Last days on Mars
Lost on Mars
Mars Needs Moms
Mars Needs Women
Mission to Mars
Race to Mars
Red Planet
Red Planet Mars
Robinson Crusoe on Mars
Rocket Man
Roving Mars
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
The Terror from Beyond Space
Total Recall

TV Programs
Is There Life on Mars – PBS
My Favorite Martian
Life On Mars – British
Life on Mars – American
Mars One – Proposed – (check this one out)
Race to Mars

2312 – Kim Stanley Robinson
The Barsoom Series by Edgar Rice Burroughs
—– A Princess of Mars
—–The Gods of Mars
—–The Warlord of Mars
—–Thuvia, Maid of Mars
—–The Chessmen of Mars
—–The Master Mind of Mars
—–A Fighting Man of Mars
—–Swords of Mars
—– Synthetic Men of Mars
—–Llana of Gathol
—–John Carter of Mars
Blades of Mars – Edward P. Bradbury
C.O.D Mars – E.C. Tubb
The Caves of Mars – Emil Petaja
Children of Mars – Paul G Day
City of the Beast – Michael Moorcock
The Daughter of Mars – Thomas Keneally
The Empress of Mars – Kage Baker
First on Mars – Rex Gordon
Icehenge – Kim Stanley Robinson
Life on Mars – Jennifer Brown
Life on Mars (a different one) – Jonathan Strahan
The Long Mars – Terry Pratchett
Mars – Ben Bova
Mars is my Destination – Frank Belknap Long
Mars Plus – Frederick Pohl
The Mars Trilogy – Kim Stanley Robinson
—–Blue Mars
—–Green Mars
—–Red Mars
Marsquakes – Kevin F. Owens
The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
Masters of the Pit – Michael Moorcock
Moving Mars – Greg Bear
No Man Friday – Rex Gordon
Old Mars – George R.R. Martin
Packing for Mars – Mary Roach – ok, not a novel
Podkayne of Mars – Robert Heinlein
Prelude to Mars – Arthur C. Clarke
Priests of Mars – Graham McNeill
The Road to Mars – Eric Idle
The Sands of Mars – Arthur C. Clarke
Sebastian Of Mars – Al Sarrantino
Shadow Over Mars – Leigh Brackett
Sin in Space – Cyrill Judd (Cyril M. Kornbluth and Judith Merril)
Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert Heinlein
Urania – Camille Flammarion
White Mars – Brian Aldiss

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Departure by A.G. Riddle

book cover

It seems I’m involved in a conspiracy that spans space and time and a conflict whose outcome will determine humanity’s fate in two separate universes.

Oh, is that all? Flight 305 from New York to London runs into a little space-time turbulence and finds itself, or a piece of itself, anyway, in an English lake. Help should be along shortly, right…um, right? The passenger list included five people of interest. Venture capitalist and take charge sort Nick Stone has done nicely in tech and is en route to meet with some folks who are looking for him to invest in their projects. Harper Lane is a ghost-writer of biographies. She is facing a knotty question about her career direction, to take on the bio of a very high profile businessman and philanthropist or attend to her heart’s true writing passion, an original adventure series. Can’t do both. Theirs are the alternating viewpoints we have throughout Departure. The other three are Grayson Shaw, son of a billionaire, who seems determined to make everyone loath him with his persistently boorish behavior. How he got that way, as the King of Siam might say, is a puzzlement. Sabrina Schroder is a German genetics researcher, a doctor with a less than warm and fuzzy crypt-side manner, and Yul Tan (or you won’t) is that mysterious Asian guy who not only kept banging away at his laptop through the abbreviated flight, but who is at it still. What’s up with that? There are plenty of LOST-type goings-on in the opening, but we soon get an inkling of the predicament that underlies everything and that is when the story gets going for real. And who are those guys in the latest Haz-mat couture being dropped off by airships and why are they pointing weapons at us?

A.G. Riddle – from PBS

A.G. Riddle is one of those rarest of the rare, a very successful self-publisher. His trilogy, The Origin Mystery has, according to his site, sold over a million copies and has been optioned for film. Riddle used to be involved with starting internet companies. Not sure what that means, but he was able to quit his day job and devote himself full-time to writing, so I guess it worked out well for him. It is not hard to see Nick as a magnified version of the author. Departure was, likewise, a self-pub. It came out on January 1, 2014 and did well enough that a major publisher made an offer.

Departure is a turbo-charged maze of sci-fi action adventure tale that will keep you flipping the pages, wanting to find out what happens next. There is plenty of high tech, some of which seemed a bit gratuitous. And there is even some substance, with a focus is on the importance of decisions.

I wonder what the world would be like if we could all glimpse our future before every major decision. Maybe that’s what stories are for: so we can learn from people living similar lives, with similar troubles.

Yeah, sounds a bit teenaged to me too, and this is not the only example of such fourth-wall breakage about writing. But it is fleeting. The book is actually very much about decisions, turning points in which the future is determined. Harper may be looking at a tough career choice, but it has implications that might affect the future of the human race. A butterfly effect of Mothra-like dimensions, but without the adorable twins.

There are a few mysteries to be sorted out, for the first half of the book anyway. What was Yul Tan so into on his computer? And if it’s a game where can I get it? Where can Grayson find more alcohol? When will Nick and Harper get a room? Can the future of humanity be saved? And can you please explain quantum entanglement?

Yes, there is eye-rolling over-simplification, and character names that sometimes sound like they came from pulp novels of a bygone age. There are some absurdly large, Akashi Kaikyō Bridge level, (or for us Yanks, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge level) suspensions of disbelief that one must endure in reading this book. I will not specify them here, but am putting them in a red portion of the EXTRA STUFF section.So if you don’t want to know, skip the red stuff. Your eyes will roll, and if they don’t, they really, really should. Skip on by those and try not to let them interfere with the story. These items have nothing to do with time travel, but more with land use and international politics. But there are always complexities and minds to be bent when it comes to explaining movement and communication across timelines. Riddle offers a particularly nifty take on the communication piece. Kudos for that.

It is no stumper figuring out what AG Riddle is up to, keeping you strapped into your seats, breathlessly turning pages. Departure may take leave of its rational senses a fair bit, (not unlike Dan Brown offerings) but, nonetheless, it is a fast-paced, engaging sci-fi thriller that will impair your ability to make your travel connections. And if it prompts you to think a tiny bit more about the decisions you make in your life all the better. Having secured booking with a major publisher, and a film option to boot, Departure is about to take off and I expect you will enjoy the ride.

Published – January 1, 2014 (self) – October 20, 2015 (Harper)
Review Posted – September 11, 2015

======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Tumblr and FB pages

Pods. Although the sort of system Riddle posits is akin to the pneumatic tube notion being supported by Elon Musk , among others, the look Riddle described for the vehicles seemed to me more like that from this article from


I did wonder up above about Quantum Entanglement – Here are a couple of pieces that try to explain this very real form of weirdness

Spoilerish eye-rollers. I am not entirely certain that the items noted here qualify as actual spoilers, but why take the chance?

The Podway first united Europe then Asia and finally the rest of the world, enabling safe, convenient, cost-effective mass transit.

Piece of cake, right? The transportation system that is projected to take over mass transit may or may not be a wonderful thing, but little attention is given to how insanely challenging it is to get rights of way, then to build the infrastructure, and what of the existing mass transit? Did it cease to exist? If it didn’t, then what happened to the real estate it occupied? And for there to be an underground tube connection to some building in the burbs or boonies? Really? And there is a bigger eye-roller. The core organization here has put forth a plan to erect a dam across the Gibraltar straits. That is probably do-able. What is not do-able is for every country with a border on the Mediterranean to go along with a project that will wipe out a vast swath of coastal sea for those nations, creating a new nation in the middle of the former body of water. Really? Not only will Mediterranean nations ok the loss of a fishing industry, they will be ok with the creation of another country on their sort-of borders? And what about nations with military ships? Are their navies to be use to decorate the dam? Are you insane? We are in wishing-will-make-it-so land. And not even a wizard, even if he’s a whiz of a wiz, could persuade me that this is doable on a planet still occupied by a large number of humans, hell, by any number of humans. It is possible to look past these bits of silliness, but it is not easy.

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Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

book cover

All we seen is hard trials and sorrows. I’d not deny it. Burdens are plenty in this world and they can pull us down in the lamentation. But the good Lord knows we need to see at least the hem of the robe of glory, and we do. Ponder a pretty sunset or the dogwoods all ablossom. Every time you see such it’s the hem of the robe of glory. Brothers and sisters, how do you expect to see what you don’t seek? Some claim heaven has streets of gold and all such things, but I hold a different notion. When we’re there, we’ll say to the angels, why, a lot of heaven’s glory was in the place we come from. And you know what them angels will say? They’ll say yes, pilgrim, and how often did you notice? What did you seek?

How loud the sound of a fear-formed tear? How long the sorrow from a thoughtless wrong? The past. It informs, shapes, bolsters, damages, inspires, depresses and often defines who we are, who we become. In Ron Rash’s latest novel, Above the Waterfall, characters struggle with their past. William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The past is indeed never finished with us until we’re done. It can no more be finished than our blood. It picks up nutrients there, drops them here, carries disease and defense, history, legacy and possibility. Is the past a medium or a message, a means or a purpose? Maybe the past gathers until enough force has been amassed and it breaks through the dam that has governed its power, spilling into the present.

Becky Shytle is a forty-something with deep scars from a childhood trauma and a dodgy history of more recent vintage. She was only a school kid in Virginia when a shooter left a trail of carnage that included her teacher. Becky became mute for so long that her parents sent her away to stay with her grandparents. It was while there that she was introduced to the beauty of nature, seeing in the natural landscape a form of salvation from her terrors.

I had not spoken since the day of the shooting. Then one day in July, my grandparents’ neighbor nodded at the ridge gap and said watershed. I’d followed the creek upstream, thinking wood and tin over a spring, found instead a granite rock face shedding water. I’d touched the wet slow slide, touched the word itself, like the girl named Helen that Ms. Abernathy told us about, whose first word gushed from a well pump.

And now, a state ranger at Locust Creek Park, she continues to find sustenance in nature, her spirit still trying to heal as it bonds with the beauty in the world. (I’m not autistic, she’d told me later, I just spent a lot of my life trying to be.) It is in Becky’s portions of the novel that Rash best joins his prose with poetry to create an eyes-rolling-back-into-one’s-head, toes-curling work of literary ecstasy.

Freight Car at Truro by Edward Hopper – from Wikiart
On first seeing this in Les’s office Becky notes “Even Hopper’s boxcars are alone”

Becky feels she can share what she sees in the woods and fields with Les, a kindred spirit. Les is the sheriff in a small Appalachian town, three weeks from trading his gold star for a gold watch after thirty years on the force. He’s a decent man but carries the weight of a critical mistake he had made with his wife and a debt from his youth that he had never repaid. Becky and Les are friends, at least. They share an appreciation for the glory of nature. Les chose to build his retirement house where he did, for example, because of the view he expects to spend considerable time painting.

Above the Waterfall is organized into more or less alternating chapters, his and hers. Les’s perspective is presented in a traditional narrative, but Becky’s take on things is heavily poetic. She mentions early on favoring the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a man who wrote much on the beauty to be found in nature. And while Hopkins may have been looking for Jesus in the natural world, Becky is looking for peace without, necessarily, Hopkins’ religious associations.

The story centers on an assault, not on people, but on nature itself. At least in appearance. Gerald Blackwelder is in his 70s and owns a piece of land that abuts what is now a fishing resort that features a considerable stock of trout above the waterfall of the title. Someone dumped kerosene into the water, killing the fish, and harming business at the resort. The unpleasant owner of the complex is sure that old man Gerald is to blame and pressures the sheriff to arrest him. Les is not so sure. And Becky, who feels for Gerald as if he were her own grandfather, is certain he is innocent.

Ron Rash

CJ is a local from a particularly impoverished background who had toughed it out, gotten past his familial disadvantages to become a man of substance in town, working now as an assistant to the resort owner. He carries with him the scars of his past, physical as well as emotional. The past of all four characters threatens to come cascading down when a sequence of seemingly unrelated events brings them together.

The town is home to some folks in the meth production and consumption business, which gives the sheriff something to do and avenues to investigate for a rash of local crimes. The depiction of Appalachian meth users is chilling. Les does his investigative due diligence and the story of his figuring out just what is what is indeed interesting. But that is not where the glory in this book resides.

There are several items you might keep an eye on throughout the novel. Silence comes in for considerable attention. Not only Becky’s muteness, but pondering what silence looks like, Les’s silence in not speaking up to correct a costly error when he was young, among other mentions. Mental health issues recur a fair bit, from Becky’s PTSD to Les’s wife’s depression, to whatever it is that makes a meth addict, to some household violence in Les’s family tree. If you are a young shrink looking for plentiful business you could do worse than to set up shop here. Water references pervade. Sometimes it is just something wet, but more than likely, given the subtext, there is more to this water than something to drink, a pretty stream or a place to cast your line. Maybe a connection, a flow between being and not. And of course, there are trout.

Trout have to live in a pure environment unlike human beings; they can’t live in filth! And so I think there is a kind of wonder; to me, they’re incredibly beautiful creatures. I can remember being only four or five and staring for long periods at them, just watching them swimming in the water. But also, like Faulkner in “The Bear,” the idea that when such creatures disappear, we have lost something that cannot be brought back. And I think this is what McCarthy is getting at, at the end of The Road. They mean many things: beauty, wonder, and fragility, in the sense that they can be easily destroyed. – from the Transatlantica interview

But the big catch here is the application of Gerard Manley Hopkins to contemporary Appalachia. His work pervades the novel. References to his poems are many, sometimes overt, sometimes popping up in the arcane words he favored. I would urge you to read this short novel through once, take a bit of a side trip to Hopkins, (I have provided tickets to that boat in EXTRA STUFF below) then read it again. There is a lot going on that may evade your hook on the first cast. But in case you opt to leave your tackle in the box, a bit of a short look.

You may have come across Hopkins’s main chestnut, Spring and Fall, in an English class at some point in your elementary school education. A young girl is saddened by the fall of autumn leaves, seeing, but not understanding that she sees her own demise and the demise of all in nature’s annual shedding. Hopkins, who not only converted to Catholicism, but became a Jesuit priest, looks through the tinted lens of nature in seeking the eternal. In a way this is what Becky does, and the language in which her chapters are written is suffused with the spirit, sound and feel of Hopkins’s poetry. If methworld is a hellish place, the flight of birds, stars tacked in place in a light-pollution-free sky, sun setting and a silver birch glows like a tuning fork struck offer the opposite. Birds seem to pull Becky. One even alights on her. What does that portend? Here is a taste of a Becky chapter, in fact, the opening chapter of the book, using some of the forms Hopkins was fond of.

Though sunlight tinges the mountains, black leather-winged bodies swing low. First fireflies blink languidly. Beyond this meadow, cicadas rev and slow like sewing machines. All else ready for night except night itself. I watch last light lift off level land. Ground shadows seep and thicken. Circling trees form banks. The meadow itself becomes a pond filling, on its surface dozens of black-eyed susans.

Ron Rash’s novels have a fair bit of darkness to them. There is a fair bit of optimism here, despite the challenges his characters face, and some of the less appealing goings on in the setting.

One thing I want to do is for landscape and my characters to be inextricably bound together. I believe the landscape people live in has to affect their psychology…This…novel is…about wonder, about how nature might sustain us. I wanted to look at the world a little more hopefully. – from the Transatlantica interview

Most writers would be happy to have written one masterpiece in their career. Serena is certainly that. But, with Above the Waterfall, Ron Rash has produced a second. There is a golden inner glow to Ron Rash’s literary world. He uses words to scrape away the covering crust so we can spy what lies inside. It is a beautiful landscape to behold.

Review posted – 9/4/15

Publication date – 9/8/15

======================================EXTRA STUFF

Reviews of other Ron Rash books
—–Burning Bright
—–Nothing Gold Can Stay
—–The Cove

Rash does not, so far as I can tell, have a facebook page. But his son, James, set up a Fan Club FB page for him.

Here is the Poetry Foundation’s bio of Rash, who, after beginning his writing life with short stories, spent about ten years focusing on poetry, and has published several volumes. His skill as a poet is eminently clear in …Waterfall

This is the Poetry Foundation’s page for Gerard Manley Hopkins

A wonderful article that explains Hopkins’ poem, The Windhover, which is mentioned in Above the Waterfall

There is a cornucopia of intel on Hopkins in this Sparknotes piece

Interviews with the author
—–TINGE Magazine – by Jeremy Hauck and Kevin Basl
—– by Pam Kingsbury
—–Transatlantica by Frédérique Spill

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God Help the Child by Toni Morrison

book cover

No lonesome wandering child with a fishing pole passed by and glanced at the adults in the dusty gray car. But if one had, he or she might have noticed the pronounced smiles of the couple, how dreamy their eyes were, but would not care a bit what caused that shine of happiness.
A child. New life. Immune to evil or illness, protected from kidnap, beatings, rape, racism, insult, hurt, self-loathing, abandonment. Error-free. All goodness. Minus wrath.
So they believe.

The children in Toni Morrison’s novel can use all the help they can get, whether from God or some other source. Lula Ann Bridewell was not what her high-yellow parents had expected:

She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black…Ain’t nobody in my family anywhere near that color…I hate to say it, but from the very beginning in the maternity ward, Lula Ann embarrassed me.

Toni Morrison said in an interview, “For me, the tar baby came to mean the black woman who can hold things together.” In this instance it is about a very black woman who cannot.

While she may be a successful cosmetics pro, beautiful, successful, rising in the world, we meet the adult Lula Ann, who has erased the rest of her name and now calls herself by the mononym “Bride,” as she is unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend, The One, Booker Starbern, who announces, “You’re not the woman I want,” before exiting to the percussive accompaniment of a slammed door. How this came to be, and Bride’s quest to figure out why it did, provide the foundation to which the rest of the narrative elements are added.

Bride has a bit of a tough go, as her appreciation for people and relationships is only skin deep. She tells of her Diet Coke-like sex life, “deceptively sweet minus nutrition.” She tries to blow off her dumping,

Well, anyway it was nothing like those double-page spreads in fashion magazines, you know, couples standing half-naked in surf, looking so fierce and downright mean, their sexuality like lightning and the sky going dark to show off the shine of their skin. I love those ads. But our affair didn’t even measure up to any old R-&-B song-some tune with a beat to generate fever.

but fails at that. In fact the departure of Booker sparks a physical demise for Bride, well, a magical-realist retreat that no one else seems to see, as she progressively devolves back to a child, losing her ear-piercings, pubic hair, weight, sense of taste, menstrual cycle and breasts.

Toni Morrison – from The LA Times

Bride’s erstwhile, and very secretive bf, Booker, has issues of his own. (He especially liked her lack of interest in his personal life.) Where Bride is totally focused on the surface of things, Booker, who plays jazz, hides behind his intellect, applying himself to the study of the root of all evil, but never really freeing himself to become an entire person. He carries a burden of rage from his childhood that keeps him from being his own person. Only if Bride and Booker can build themselves up to actual three dimensional people, by looking beyond their own skins to consider the feelings of others, can they have any hope of anything more from life than ephemeral pleasures. Only then can they truly connect.

Much of God Help the Child focuses on children, how they are treated, the long-term impact of that treatment, on themselves and on others. Childhood here is a particularly fraught state. Lula Ann (Bride) is almost shunned by her own mother, who won’t even allow her to call her “Mama,” insisting that she call her “Sweetness” instead, lest people on the street know for sure that someone that dark came from someone that light. As a child she witnesses an act of child abuse. Another character loses a relation to a child abuser, and encounters a school-yard flasher as an adult. Bride had falsely testified against an allegedly abusive teacher, done to gain at least some acceptance from her mother, so children are capable of inflicting harm as well as receiving it. Another child was prostituted by her mother, and a serial abuser, “the nicest man in the world,” is reported to have preyed on many. One might be inclined to wonder a bit at the Cabot Cove-like concentration of awfulness on display here, even if much of it is by reference.

Thematically, there is a lot in here about erasure, not only Bride’s Richard Matheson-reminiscent fairy tale reduction, some of it involving what appears to be a magic razor, Sweetness erasing Lula Ann as much as possible, Sofia, the convicted molester, doing her best to erase Bride from her life, as Bride had attempted to erase her guilt for what she had done, and it can be no accident that Bride is the designer of cosmetics, and even thinks about people in terms of how the right makeup can erase their flaws.

The pages are damp with mentions of precipitation. It rains on Bride the day after Booker leaves. Booker is rained on when he leaves a family gathering in a huff. A child of a prostitute is found while on the street in the rain, and rain moistens one of the most beautiful passages in the book, as Booker celebrates seeing his Galatea for the first time:

The sun still blazed so the raindrops falling from the baby-blue sky were like crystal breaking into specks of light on the pavement. He decided to play his trumpet alone in the rain anyway, knowing that no pedestrians would stop to listen; rather they closed umbrellas as they rushed down the stairs to the trains. Still in thrall to the sheer beauty of the girl he had seen, he put the trumpet to his lips. What emerged was music he had never played before. Low, muted tones held long, too long as the strains floated through drops of rain.

There are plenty more passages that ripple with poetic feeling. And there are some subsidiary characters who brighten up the scene. A fifty-something hippie couple seemed like magical forest dwellers, an epitome of innocence and goodness, with maybe a touch of Tom Bombadil and even Bjorn the Berserker. Booker’s aunt, Queen, is a delight, vivacious, colorful, and very interesting, worthy of an entire book just on her alone. The rescued daughter of a prostitute is fascinating as well.

God Help the Child is a rarity, in that it is a Toni Morrison novel set in the present. Her eleventh novel is a spare one, at 177 pages, similar in girth to Morrison’s previous novels, Home, which weighed in a very novella-like 147 pages and A Mercy, another slim volume, at 167 pages. Not that Morrison is given to producing tomes, but her books these days seem on the thin side. A larger frame might have allowed her a bit more space in which to give us a bit more. I am reminded, though, of Lincoln’s response when asked about the proper length of a man’s legs, he said “they ought to be long enough to reach from his body to the ground.” I expect that the proper size of a Toni Morrison story is the number of pages she needs to say what she has to say. She has said she is, “writing less in order to say more.” A little Toni Morrison goes a long way.

The author is in her 80s now. While God may have been asleep as the wheel when most of the children in this tale suffered what they suffered, maybe God can help the author, at something she is most definitely inclined to do, keep writing until her last breath, and help push that day far off into the future. In this way God will also be helping the reader .

You will need no assistance enjoying God Help the Child. While I would not rank it with her recognized classics, like Sula and Beloved, even a lesser Toni Morrison book is better than most of what is out there.

Review posted – August 7, 2015

Publication date – April 21, 2015

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Morrison’s Facebook page

GR interview by Catherine Elsworth
—Video interview at the 92nd Street Y
— NPR’s Fresh Air, with Terry Gross
The Paris Review – with Elissa Schappel

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter

book cover

The world stops for you when you’re pretty. That’s why women spend billions on crap for their faces. Their whole life, they’re the center of attention. People want to be around them just because they’re attractive. Their jokes are funnier. Their lives are better.

Well, there might be some downsides. Pretty Girls is a white-knuckle thriller that will keep you turning the pages long after you should really have gone to sleep. Do not read this while on a train. You will miss your stop.

The story is told from three alternating perspectives. Claire Scott, newly free of that nasty ankle-monitor, has a pretty good life. 38, in great shape, no kids, a studly, attentive hubby who makes much more than a decent living, cool digs. What’s not to like? After a celebratory dinner out, Paul wants to do the nasty in an adjacent alley, way out of character, but, whatever. But sorry, no nookie for you guys. An armed, tattooed criminal element sort robs them. Things go too far and Paul winds up on the sidewalk, tinting the pavement with considerable quantities of red, and the game is afoot. What Claire discovers in going through her late mate’s computer files after the funeral will rock her world.

Lydia Delgado’s life is somewhat different. Single mother, 41, struggling to get by, alienated from most of her family, runs a dog grooming business. Her past would not look very nice on a resume. She’d hit rock bottom a while back and lived there for a spell, with a pick and shovel. But these days she is respectable. Owns a dog-grooming business. Met her pretty nice bf in a 12-step program. Her teenage daughter is a peach. Lydia is on the wrong side of pudge these days, with an addiction to the sort of culinary drugs that come in crinkly bags at supermarkets. Life’s a bitch and then you diet. Lydia used to be a looker. Not surprising, really. Her sisters were easy on the eyes too, but one vanished when she was 19, never to be seen again, and the other one just saw her husband get killed.

Sam is a determined sort, bulldog with a bone. He never believed the official cop line that his Julia had simply run away. So he dedicated his life to finding out what had really happened to his eldest daughter. It cost him his marriage, and maybe even more. We see the progress of Sam’s investigation through his journals, from the time when he was on this quest. Claire and Lydia’s adventure takes place today.

The two sisters join forces to continue searching for the truth about Julia’s disappearance, and must face the consequences of Claire learning some very disturbing secrets about her husband.

Karin Slaughter – from her FB pages

Karin Slaughter is not new to the best-seller lists, having sold more than 30 million copies of her crime books books in 32 languages. She was born in a small Georgia town and now lives in Atlanta, where Pretty Girls is set. Her books include six in the Grant County series and nine in the Will Trent series, set in Atlanta. She was working on another book entirely when the notion for this one occurred to her in dream, so she checked in with her publisher, put the planned book on the back burner and dove into this one.

There are several elements at work here. In a book of this sort, if you are not engaged by the characters, the rest does not much matter. Lydia certainly has had her troubles in the past, but she is pretty supportable now, finding her best self in this worst of times. Claire makes us wonder how she could have buried her head in the sand for so long, ignoring what look like warning signs to us. But in wondering, it is worth keeping in mind that we are all sand-dwellers, from the neck up at least. Maybe it is an innate and useful skill to be able to simply ignore warning signs of peril. If we recognize them then we might have to do something about them, which entails personal risk, of either physical or emotional harm. Most of the time most of us prefer to keep a lid on things. Thus we live to ignore another day. So it feels entirely credible that reasonable people can overlook behavior that might stand out to an external observer. Particularly in Claire’s case, as she has tried to keep her head down in most situations for most of her life. We can see her vulnerability, however cloaked it may have been, and can easily feel for her. In addition we see the characters develop over the course of the tale, Claire moving from passive to assertive and Lydia moving from nobody to a sort of anti-hero. Family dynamics plays a major part in the sisters’ struggle, both to find the truth and to find a way back to sisterhood across a very large distance. Check.

The story must be engaging. Will Claire and Lydia find out what really happened to their missing sister? Does Sam? Do we care? If you can’t empathize with this as a driving force, it must be because you are too busy torturing kittens. Check.

Pace must be maintained. Slaughter must have a metronome that is set for increasing tempo. Check.

The baddie must be truly scary, and up to some really awful stuff. You have no idea. Check

The hero/heroine(s) must face believable peril. Is it possible that one or more of our core three might come to harm of the terminal sort? You betcha. Check

A thriller is never without a bit of misdirection, a few fish-hooks hoisting red-herrings for us to consider. Yep. Get your scaling tools ready. Check.

And there is that old favorite, the twist. Let’s just say that Chubby Checker would be pleased. Check. Wait, what’s that? My advisors inform me that not everyone will appreciate my lame boomer refs, so, fine, whatever. For you kids out there, ok, rewind. Start over. Twists. Let’s just say that after reading this book, I was in need of a good neck brace. Ok? Sheesh.

Finally there is the issue of payload. That is the extra information one learns about the world in reading a work of fiction. I suppose there is a bit of that here. I have no idea if the awfulness that is depicted in Pretty Girls (aside from Paul’s questionable taste in décor and labeling) has a real-world basis. Although it does seem that if one can imagine a particularly grotesque form of depravity, there is probably someone, somewhere who is practicing it right now, and with so many folks on the planet, probably more than a few. So if the book is highlighting some actual form of human awfulness, then bad-a-bing. Check

Gripes. You knew there would have to be one or two. The title, Pretty Girls suggests that those on the 10 side of life are more at risk than those closer to the 1 end of things. The theme of prettiness is noted with frequency early on, in comments on the attractiveness of some and the unattractiveness of others. Slaughter seems interested in giving some serious thought to how people react to beauty and to how the beautiful react to the world. Certainly there is peril about for those blessed with pleasing countenances, whether it comes from a wicked witch or the ravages of time. She keeps up the mentions for a while, sometimes offering actual insight. But then it seems to fade, as if she had run out of things to say about prettiness, until it is brought back into the spotlight for a final bow or two. Like, oh, the title is Pretty Girls. I guess I should put something in here to give that some closure. It looked totally like an afterthought. I thought this could have been better handled, maybe spread out a bit more, maybe dig a bit more than skin deep. But that is a quibble. No one is going to read this book to get enlightened about beauty. My second gripe will have to be a bit clouded. I don’t want to spoil anything. I found the particular fixation of the baddie on the specific group that is targeted curious. Why did this person focus on these targets? I did not get that there was a particular reason why the baddie was so set on this particular subset of victims. Perhaps the significance of this is in the eye of the beholder? But no matter, really.

The bottom line here is that you will be ripping through this book, dying (well, almost) to see how things turn out. Pretty Girls is an outstanding thriller, a very engaging, entertaining, and disturbing read, and that is a beautiful thing.

Review posted – 7/31/15

Publication date – 9/29/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages

How serial killers choose their victims

The Advantages of Being Beautiful
8 Scientifically Proven Reasons Life Is Better If You’re Beautiful – by Dina Spector in Business Insider
—A Smithsonian article on
How Much is Being Attractive Worth
– by Abigail Tucker
10 Pleasures and Pains of Being Beautiful by Dr Jeremy Dean on PsyBlog

A lovely audio interview with the author by Steve White of Literary Week. The sound levels are off a bit, his volume being too loud relative to hers, but it’s worth putting up with.


Offering a bit of further discomfort, after reading this book you might find some of these listens a bit disturbing

Pretty Woman – Roy Orbison and friends

Oh You Pretty Things – David Bowie

PYT (Pretty Young Thing) – Michael Jackson

You’re Beautiful – James Blunt

You are so Beautiful– Joe Cocker

And the all time best stalker theme song – Every Breath You Take – The Police


Filed under Fiction, Thriller

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

book cover Atticus Finch as racist. There it is. Tough to swallow, isn’t it? Atticus Finch, the embodiment of decency, brought to life in To Kill a Mockingbird, widely considered one of the greatest novels in American literature, magnificently brought to cinematic life by Gregory Peck in the film, defender of the powerless, dispenser of wisdom, a hero to generations of readers and movie-goers, spouting opinions that do or should make most folks cringe. Here are a few samples:

…You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? You realize the full implications of the word ‘backward’ don’t you?

…If the scales were tipped over, what would you have? The county won’t keep a full board of registrars, because if the Negro vote edged out the white you’d have Negroes in every county office—

…I’d like my state to be left alone to keep house without advice from the NAACP, which knows next to nothing about its business and cares less.

…do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?

So what are we to make of this?

First, let’s step back from the this version versus that one controversy and consider the book on its own. Jean Louise Finch (JLF) is returning to her home town for the fifth time since moving from Maycomb, Alabama to New York City. She sees the place where she grew up more clearly this time than she ever had before. She professes, based on her experience of having been brought up with exposure to all sorts, and having never been overtly taught to be a racist, to be someone who is color blind. That makes her unique in Maycomb, as everyone else has been very much aware of color all their lives. What comes as the biggest shock for JLF is seeing that her sainted father, a man everybody loves, and other people she cares for, despite their positive qualities, hold views that are shocking. JLF struggles to come to terms with this realization. The crux of the story is how she deals with this. While she is already physically an adult, Jean Louise must cope with coming-of-age truths. She realizes that when it comes to her appreciation for the people of Maycomb, dad included, she has been, as Jem describes in Mockingbird, “a caterpillar wrapped in a cocoon.” The watchman of the title is taken from a biblical quotation, (Isaiah 21:6), and refers to conscience. JLF tries to reconcile her conscience with what she now sees, and realizes had been present all along. She is anguished by her internal conflict. With amazing memories of her childhood in this town, it is a huge part of who she is. In facing the possibility of rejecting her father and the place in which she became the person she is, she is faced with rejecting a part of herself and that is the core conflict of the story.

Harper Lee – from

Set in a time when Brown vs the Board of Education had recently and unalterably changed the legal and social landscape, many in the South perceived changes mandated by that decision as nothing less than another war of northern aggression. One of the biggest strengths of the book is how it communicates the locals’ feelings about and arguments against Civil Rights, and particularly the activities of the NAACP. There is real insight here into the local psyche, from a true local. Another strength of the book is the clear voice of JLF, Scout as a kid, particularly in her recollections of a glowing childhood. The voice of Scout will take you by the hand and lead you through. It is the same voice that appears in Mockingbird, warm, familiar and welcome. I enjoyed JLF’s relationship with her uncle Jack, a character absent from Mockingbird. Jack offers a perspective that is definitely homegrown, but is also decorated with the baubles and gewgaws of an advanced education and unusual interests. The affection between JLF and Jack is palpable. Her interaction with Henry, a friend since childhood, was kludgy. There are moments of real connection between the JLF and the young man who wants to marry her, but so much of their conversation is peppered with excessive use of “honey” and “sweet” that it was distracting from the content of the interaction. It felt forced. The scenes in which JLF confronts Atticus are powerful and even upsetting, but she lays into him without even asking what was up. I do recognize that many people, and particularly the young, jump to conclusions, but I wondered whether Scout, who is portrayed as a pretty bright person, would really be so close minded as to form an opinion, particularly so strong an opinion, based on unexamined evidence.

There is also some wonderful, and playful use of language, although the content reflects some of the very not 2015-politically-correct zeitgeist of the era. There are also beautiful passages that reflect the attachment Harper Lee, through her avatar, feels to her native soil.

The political views on display are appalling, paternalistic, racist, sexist, homophobic, and do reflect the attitudes of the time and place depicted, I expect. But it galls to have characters portray their dark views as accepted wisdom and have far too much of that accepted by a character who should know better.

In short, as a stand-alone there is much to like here, including some strong characters, a wonderful feel for place and a willingness to take on serious and controversial subject matter, but there are plenty of flaws as well. Go Set a Watchman is no classic.

Of course Go Set a Watchman would not have become the literary event of 2015 had it not shared DNA with a novel widely regarded as one of the best American novels ever written, To Kill a Mockingbird. And just in case you are newly arrived on our planet, perhaps are recently thawed out from an extended cryogenic holiday, or have just come to after a nasty crack on the head in 1960, Mockingbird recounts, through the eyes of the grown-up Scout, a time when she was six years old and her father, Atticus Finch, was called on to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman. It offers a view of a golden childhood and a principled father taking on the bigotry of a deep South town in service of justice and decency. If you have not yet read it, go, scoot, scram, take a hike, go find a copy, and come back when you are done.

Ok, read it? Good. There has certainly been a lively reaction to Go Set a Watchman. Would that reaction have been different if there had never been a Mockingbird baseline against which to compare this version of Atticus? That is something we can never know. But it is helpful to think of To Kill a Mockingbird as the second and final version of Nelle Harper Lee’s (Yes, Harper is her middle name) seminal novel. Go Set a Watchman was Mockingbird 1.0. Harper Lee sold her book to the publisher JB Lippincott in 1957. But it was deemed not ready for prime time. I do not know the specifics of what editorial direction Lee was given by her editor, Tay Hohoff, other than to focus on the time of Jean Louise’s childhood. Racism is taken on very powerfully in 1.0. There is less telling and more showing in Mockingbird. The childhood recollections here, while wonderful, do not occupy as much of the stage as they do in version 2.0, but you can certainly see how an editor might laser in on those as strengths to magnify when trying to improve the book. And if one is then going to re-set the primary stage to the time of Scout’s childhood, it makes sense to make Atticus more purely heroic. In fact Mockingbird was intended to have been titled Atticus.

There is danger, of course, that this original depiction of Atticus will forever tarnish the gleaming ideal of a man we admire so from Mockingbird. Why splash racist graffiti over a cherished icon? Actually the racist element was there from the start, in this 1.0 version. It is instructive to see how Atticus evolved in the writer’s molding from the crusty first version to the graceful, fine character that illuminates Lee’s ultimate masterpiece.

There is no need to overstate Atticus’s racism in Watchman. In reviews and commentary some elements have been taken out of context and misrepresented. The KKK thing, for example. Atticus states that his purpose in joining was to find out who was behind the masks, not to further the organization’s agenda. Another item pertains to a racist screed handed out by a lunatic and found by JLF in her father’s home. Atticus agrees that the author is a nut, and that he had been granted the right to speak at the town council, as any other nut might have. Atticus does not subscribe to the views in the pamphlet. He subscribes to enough, though, to cause all who know where his character ends up in version 2.0, to take a large step back. You can get a taste of that in the quotes at the top of this review. It continues on, with nastiness about the NAACP, legalistic hogwash about SCOTUS violating the 10th Amendment, a general sense of feeling under assault by outside forces, and a paternalistic notion that all would be just fine if those northern rabble-rousers would just let Negro advancement proceed at a more measured pace. This is crucial, I believe, to one of the strengths of Watchman. While the views held by the residents of Maycomb, as represented by Atticus, Henry and others, may not receive a universal welcome in 2015, I believe they do fairly represent the beliefs of most educated southern whites during this era. The book might have been instructive to northerners, had it been released in its original form, as to the nature of the strident opposition the civil rights movement faced. As such, Watchman offers a valuable guide to a time and place, where even folks most at the time would consider pretty decent, like Atticus, maintained views that, while they remain widespread among some segments of our population today, are now generally seen as abhorrent.

There are other interesting elements that come from a consideration of the novels set side by side. What remains? What is lost? The courthouse where Scout watches Atticus heroically defend Tom Robinson in Mockingbird is a real place in Monroeville, Alabama, Lee’s birthplace. In Watchman it is a scene of horror as Jean Louise sees a racist propound his views in a public forum in which her father and friend are principal players. Calpurnia, the Finch housekeeper in Mockingbird plays a major role in Watchman as well. In one particularly chilling scene, Jean Louise, who had seen Cal as a nurturing force her entire life, now wonders if Cal ever really cared for her or, instead, saw her only through a racial lens. Dill, her avatar for childhood pal Truman Capote, is present in both novels, but Boo Radley was added in Mockingbird. Henry is gone from Mockingbird. JLF’s brother, Jem, a major character in Mockingbird, is much less of a presence in Watchman.

Go Set a Watchman may occupy a place in the shadow of what was to come, but it does offer insight into the author, her take on the world in the late 1950s, and into her characters. As a blood relation to one of the greatest books in American literature, it is most definitely worth reading.

Published – 7/14/15
Review – 7/24/15

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Harpercollins has made a FaceBook page for GSaW

Robert McCrum’s review in The Guardian is quite informative – Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee review – a literary curiosity

A Charles Leerhsen article in the June 2010 Smithsonian is also worth a look – Harper Lee’s Novel Achievement

A nice bit of extra intel on Tay Hohoff, Lee’s editor in this article by Emma Cueto on, Harper Lee’s First Editor, Tay Hohoff, Had A Lot To Do With Creating ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, So Here’s What You Should Know About Her

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

book cover

“Don’t you wonder sometimes,” Ursula said. “If just one small thing had been changed, in the past, I mean. If Hitler had died at birth, or if someone had kidnapped him as a baby and brought him up in—I don’t know, say, a Quaker household—surely things would be different.”

Kate Atkinson, author of eight previous novels, including four Jackson Brodie crime books, has come up with a nifty notion for a story. Kill off your heroine, early and often, while offering a look at the history of England from 1910 to the 1960s. I would love to tell you more but an SUV appears to have run a red light at the corner, had a too close encounter with a very large truck and seems to be heading into this café…Gotta go. Damn!

Now, where were we, a review? Yes, I seem to recall something about that. More of a feeling really. So, England, 20th century, perils of Pauline, well in this case Ursula, little bear, of Fox Corner, the manse of a well-to-do sort, not Downton rich, but, you know, comfortable. She has a prat of an older brother and a decent elder sis, with a couple of brothers arriving later.

Kate Atkinson – from The Telegraph

Life is full of decision points. Walk this way, survive, walk that way and splat. It begins early with Ursula, who is offed before her first breath the first time around. She gets a better deal on the next go, managing to remain with us into childhood, and so on. The structure seems to employ the backstitch a fair bit, starting Ursula up a few chronological paces before the deadly decision point. She seems to be born again more than an entire congregation of fundamentalist Christians, or, maybe more likely a band of Buddhists, as she seems to pick up a bit of wisdom, a bit of strength with each reincarnation. I counted 15 passings-on, but sure, I could have missed one or two. The lady must have G. Reaper on her autodial. What if I had done this instead of that? How might that have changed the outcomes? One can imagine the fun, and challenge an author experiences. Taking her main character, and plenty of secondary characters as well, in one direction then another, then another. It must mimic, to a degree, the authorial process. What if I do this to Ursula? What might happen? What if I point her in a different direction? And as for stuff happening, while it is usually pretty calm here, writing while on a bench in Prospect Park, I must admit I have never seen tentacles that size emerging from anywhere let alone the very modest Park Lake. The slurping sounds are getting rather loud. That sumbitch is faster than he looks…Gotta go. Damn!

So, I felt like sitting with some coffee but the local café just seemed, I don’t know, not what I wanted. Then I considered maybe heading over to the park to work on a review, but it looks like it might rain, so I think I’ll stick at home for now. Of course the desktop has been a bit dodgy of late, but no big whup. I will dip into the special Kona stash, brew up a nice cuppa and set to, shoes off, no shirt. Maybe a nice bagel with butter and strawberry preserves. Yummm! Review, yes, Atkinson, Ursula, do-overs. Oh yeah, it does call to mind a bit of Groundhog Day, although Phil the Weatherman knew early on that he was coming back each time. Not Ursula, although as time goes on she does develop a bit of a sixth sense about some things. And the other major difference here is that Life After Life takes on some heftier purpose than Phil getting the girl and becoming a better person. Ursula is faced with some immediate challenges, like evading a rapist, a girl-killer, those annoying Nazi bombs during the blitz, not falling out windows, you know, stuff. But she also must contend with moral choices, and larger scale. Not only figuring out what the right thing is to do and then deciding, for her life, but thinking about how events affect other people, the nation, maybe the world. What sort of life does she want to lead? How can she help the most people? What sort of person does she want to be? Can she make an impact beyond her immediate concerns? And within that context, others face similar choices. Ursula is not the only one with multiple exit scenes. There are plenty in the chorus of secondary characters who come and go, or should that be go and come back in varying iterations. What if so-and-so did A this time and B the next? How might that change things? This is part of the fun of the book. Not all the decisions are of the life-threatening variety, but they can seriously impact one’s life, other lives as well. Excuse me a moment, Nala, sweetie, off the desk please. I will be happy to scratch you. No, do not rub up against my coffee cup. Nala, DOWN, NOW! Too late, brown milky liquid splatters from the cup on the desk, rushing over the top of the desktop tower, which is sitting on the floor between desk and couch. I get up to fetch some paper towels. Nala’s tail is vertical as she scampers from the room. Maybe I should have worn slippers. I step away from the desk chair, contact enough wet to matter, and only feel it for moment when my body hair begins to ignite and my heart goes into highly charged spasms. I hear the beginning of a scream and then….sonuva..!

Seems a lovely morning for some reviewing. Rainy out? Well, not yet, but you can feel it coming. So, open a few windows. Sit at the desk. Well. Maybe not. Might be a bit too much breeze there. Maybe the couch for a change. Yeah, book, they killed Kenny. You bastards! England. Ursula. War.

I’d always meant it to be very focused on the Second World War, and I don’t know what I was thinking when I decided to start in 1910, to get her born…I think that’s when the coming back again and again kicked in. And I was, on, oh, page 250 of the manuscript and still in the 1920s. I kept saying to people, “Yeah it’s a book about the war!” and then I’d think, it’s not a book about the war. I hadn’t realized how much I would get entangled in 1910-1939 as opposed to 1939-1945. – from Chatelaine interview

There have certainly been some wonderful novels in the last few years that play with structure. A Visit from the Goon Squad is one of the more dramatic of that sort. The rise of the novel comprised of linked stories has seen a boom in popularity. This year’s Welcome to Braggsville takes some chances with form as well. And so it is with Life After Life. While the notion of reincarnation is hardly new in fiction, how it is handled here is far beyond what we have seen before, a real risk-taking. And so effective.

Ursula is a very engaging character. Each time she comes back, you want her to stick around. And even when she makes bad choices you will be rooting for her to fix those in the next round. Her sister Pamela seems as decent a sort as their brother Maurice seems insufferable, maybe a bit too insufferable. We get to see dimensions to Atkinson’s characters over the many iterations, learn something new about them, sometimes surprisingly so. I found it to be entirely engaging, and was always sad with Ursula went dark yet again. The book opens with her taking aim at the worst baddie of the 20th century and you will keep hoping she finds her way back to that place and completes the mission. Will she?

One of the most riveting and memorable elements in Life After Life is the description of London during the Blitz, on the ground, you-are-there, offering considerable nightmare material, and making it clear just how hardy the survivors must have been, and how fragile the hold on life, whichever iteration a person is in. The best part of the book, for me.

There are many uses of animal references here. Ursula means little bear, The family name, Todd, means Fox. A group of Nazi wives is referred to as a wolf pack. Actual foxes move in and out of the story, residents of Fox Corner, the Todd family home. A German is named Fuchs which also means fox. There are more. A warden during the Blitz is named Woolf. At one point, Atkinson offers a wink and a nod to readers as her characters discuss time travel questions. There is much consideration here of the role and rights of women in the first half of the 20th century, and the changes in mores that marked the era. The difference between love and gratitude when considering marriage is considered. The effect of World War I on the nation is noted as well, the loss of a generation of men in the war, and the loss of vast numbers from both genders from the Spanish flu. While florid passages do not characterize the novel, there are some wonderful descriptions. One of my favorites regards the night sky during the Blitz

“It’s almost like a painting, isn’t it?” Miss Woolf said.
“Of the Apocalypse maybe,” Ursula said. Against the backdrop of black night the fires that had been started burned in a huge variety of colors—scarlet and gold and orange, indigo and a sickly lemon. Occasionally vivid greens and blues would shoot up where something chemical had caught fire. Orange flames and thick black smoke roiled out of a warehouse…”
“It’s spectacular, isn’t it? Savage and strangely magnificent.

Yes it is.

Now that the task is done, I think I will bring in a glass of juice and have some of these lovely hard sourdough pretzels. Maybe catch something from the DVR. Always loved these pretzels, except, of course, when bits get stuck going down. Sometimes large bits, uh oh, a very large bit…trying to self-Heimlich, but no go, hitting my head on the edge of the coffee table as I stumble and fall while trying to stand up. Maybe if I can get some liquid in there it will soften it, but the noggin-knock and the inability to get any air makes decision-making a tough go. Damn!

Published – 5/2/13

Review Posted – 7/17/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages

—–Chatelaine by Alex Laws – this is a two-parter. The link to the second part is at the bottom of this one.

—–NPR – with Scott Simon

—–The Sydney Morning Herald by Linda Morris

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Filed under England, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction