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Life After Life After Life After Life…
Jan31

Life After Life After Life After Life…

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life is a book I admired more than I enjoyed. I’ve always meant to read Atkinson, and have friends who have highly recommended her earlier crime stories Case Histories and Started Early, Took My Dog. When this new book came out, reviews seemed to indicate it was a departure in style for her, as well as something of a literary tour de force, so I decided to begin at the end, as it were, with her most recent book. Life After Life is the story of…well, that’s hard to say. It’s the story of Ursula, born outside London in 1910 on a very snowy day. The plot tracks the path of Ursula, some of her family members, friends, and acquaintances, as they wend their way through two World Wars. That path, however, is far from straight. This is a book that plays with timelines in a major way. Plot lines start and then stop, wind their way back to their starting point and begin again. Stories repeat with multiple endings. Characters live or die, survive or don’t; each character’s outcome changes in the story’s telling. Atkinson’s literary feat is impressive. One pictures her in her study with a huge collection of Post-its hovering overhead to help her keep track of plot strands. Being the puppet mistress pulling these strings was no easy feat. The concept itself is imaginative and original; the execution is excellent. When I say I admired the book more than I enjoyed it, what I mean is that, while reading it, I appreciated its literary acrobatics, but that kept me at a distance. While many of the characters, Ursula included, where quite likeable, compelling or entertaining, they did not so much draw me in as keep me watching from afar. Nonetheless, I think the book well deserves the accolades it has received and I recommend it for readers of serious and well-written literary fiction. I do plan to include it in my one of my Open Book discussion classes this spring as well, so check the events page for more...

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A Reliable Wife: An Unreliable Read
Jan08

A Reliable Wife: An Unreliable Read

I had a funny conversation while out with a few girlfriends the other night. “Do you ever read books just for fun, beach read kinds of books?” one of them asked me. “No,” I replied, explaining that I just really like good writing, and fluffy books don’t engage me. I’m a literary snob, I know. You won’t, therefore, generally find me reading bestsellers, but now and then I do try to read a book that I hear the people who take my classes talking about. If it’s good upscale commercial fiction, I’ll give it a try. What do I put in this category? The Help, for example. Well-written, good story. I liked it. There are other books I want to read that, from what I hear, I suspect fall into this category, books such as Sarah’s Key or Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. They’re on my list. Another book I had heard about in this way is A Reliable Wife. So when I professed my literary snobbiness to my friends and they asked me what I was reading, I told them I had just started this book. Little did I know that A Reliable Wife would turn out to be merely wearing the cloak of literary fiction, but that underneath lay the heaving bosom of a bodice-ripper Yes, it’s reasonably well-written, although the faux-Victorian third person voice is often stiff and awkward. Yes, he draws vivid characters and creates a strong portrait of the landscape in which the story takes place, the frozen winter world of northern Wisconsin. But really, the book is about sex. Who’s having it, who’s not having it, and a main character who pretty much thinks about it non-stop. The only difference is, unlike the more traditional romance-novel plot, in this book the rape scene takes place at the end of the book. I did a quick scan of some reviews to see how I became so misled about this book. Here are two reviews I found: “A tantalizing pace that will have you flipping faster and faster through the pages… A beautiful and haunting read, a story about all the different manifestations of love—a story that will stay with you.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune “Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife is my must-read recommendation… This engrossing and addictive novel will leave you both chilled and satisfied.” —Chris Livingston, Summer’s Best reads on NPR’s Morning Edition Well, I really don’t agree with those critics, it turns out. But wait, here’s what The Washington Post has to say:”A Reliable Wife,” isn’t just hot, it’s in heat: a gothic tale of such smoldering desire it should...

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