Just As Good the Second Time I Read It

Sometimes I get tired of being the one who is responsible; it often means I get stuck doing everything myself. My mother told me to ignore little imperfections and let others do some things for me, but it isn’t easy. I’m working on it, and sometimes people surprise me.

In Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand, Marie Curie lurks in the background as the model for two responsible girls who aspire to make a difference in the world of science, and would rather do it themselves. Kit Owens doesn’t realize her full potential until she is challenged by the seemingly perfect new girl in class, Diane Fleming. Best friends and competitors, the two rise to a final challenge when they meet again as adults, and then their worlds explode.

Secrets challenge the reader’s expectations, and Megan Abbott writes in the same vein as Ruth Ware, with complicated characters and twisting plot notes. Lots of murders dot the landscape, and the story is scary.

When I started to read this book, I thought I had read it before; pieces seemed familiar Sure enough I found I had reviewed it last year, but I had forgotten the plot and how it ended. Has that happened to you?

I Needed a Plot

The list of books I’ve started to read is growing.  Each had something to offer but it took a while before I found one with a plot.

shopping I couldn’t explain my quiet laughter to my husband as I read Cathy Guisewite’s Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault.  How could he appreciate trying on a pair of jeans in a department store dressing room?  After all, her funny book is described as  “a look at the challenges of womanhood”; her audience is not men.  If you remember her wry comic strip “Cathy,” you will find yourself back in the world of hilarious insecurity and funny truth telling.  I hadn’t finished all the essays before returning the book to the library, but I’ve bought a copy and plan to open it randomly whenever I need a restorative boost.

UnknownMelinda Gates’ The Moment of Lift simultaneously shamed me into realizing all the good deeds I have not yet done and reassured me of what some women choose to do with their influence – and money. She teased my curiosity about her private life before and after Bill, but most of the chapters focus on the changing of societal goals she supports:  family planning, educating girls, women in the workplace, and women’s equality. Although she sprinkles her insights with anecdotes from their marriage, her main purpose seems to be to highlight their good works in third world countries and how it has improved lives.  Some of her deductions applied to women’s empowerment  in Africa may seem a little over simplified here:

“The process of changing from a male-dominated culture to a culture of gender equality must be supported by a majority of community members, including powerful men who come to understand that sharing power with women allows them to achieve goals they couldn’t achieve if they relied on their power along.  That itself serves as the greatest safeguard agains any overbearing bossiness from outsiders.”

Her note reminded me of a colleague who described her experience as the only woman administrator in a meeting to determine policy.  Although she had some good ideas, none of the men listened to them.  “Too bad,” she told me later, “I could have made them look good.”  The best she thought she might have accomplished was to have her ideas absconded by the men.

I skimmed over the last few chapters to the epilogue with her adage: “Love is what lifts us up.”  And then I remembered the epigraph at the beginning of the book – a quote from Marianne Williamson, guru and current candidate for President of the United States.  Maybe next I’ll look for Mackenzie Bezos’ book, or one by one of Warren Buffet’s wives?

thOcean Vuong has a conversation with his dead Vietnamese mother in a language she doesn’t speak or read, as he reflects on his life.  Stream of consciousness – no plot. Dwight Garner’s review for the New York Times noted “this novel picks up genuine force and has some of the mournful resonance of the Bruce Springsteen song ‘The River’ in its second half.” I stopped before I got there. Have you read it?

UnknownI needed a book with a plot, so I turned to the new Kate Atkinson book on my shelf – Big Sky.  I had not read her Jackson Brodie detective novels, but liked her other books.  Since detective novels are usually full of disparate characters, and the plot inevitably will lead to the solving of a murder or two, I thought reading this would be a mindless effort. But this is Kate Atkinson who requires the reader to pay attention, and who included subplots and tangents in her stories.  Big Sky was entertaining with secrets and lies, a sinister network of corruption, and a few asides to Brodie’s life in his thoughtful meanderings.  It has a complicated plot – not what I expected – but finally, a plot to try to follow.

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Life After Life by Atkinson

Transcription

Summer of ’69

I missed my chance to meet Elin Hilderbrand in June on the Cape, but my friend sent me her book, with a personalized note from the author.

th    It took longer than I had anticipated to read Hilderbrand’s Summer of ’69, but maybe I really didn’t want to leave the Nantucket beaches, imagining myself eating lobster and ice cream, while walking the storied town. Following Hilderbrand’s New England family while they summered in Nantucket and Edgartown transported me.  The times seemed simpler, yet it was a year with its own excitement – the landing on the moon, Ted Kennedy and the Chappaquiddick incident, and Woodstock are all featured in the story.

The women are the main features: Kate, her mother, and her three girls control the narrative, with peripheral husbands, one a scientist who is working on the moon landing and another who visits on weekends.  A son who is fighting in the Vietnam War ventures into the story on the sidelines through letters and flashbacks, and assorted boyfriends represent the good and bad of the times, with a nod to MeToo.  But Kate, Blair, Kirby, and Jessica are the stars – each offering perspective from a range of ages – from a blossoming thirteen year old to a rebellious free spirit, along with a soon to be mother of twins, and a distraught mother drinking away each day from worry about her son in the war  The determined grandmother has her moments as she vainly tries to control the lives of her daughter and granddaughters, but each has her own battle with herself, and in the end overcomes self-doubt and outside influences to have a happy ending.

A good beach read – even if you are not at the beach.

Reluctantly Returning to Reading

When I read a book a day, I never imagined not wanting to read.  Most of my life revolved around stories professionally and personally but when my own story became the drama, it’s plot was too complicated to let any other in.  Needless to say, I won’t reveal the personal – those who know me already have it – but my unexpected separation from bibliotherapy taught me to savor moments of inspiration and not take them for granted.

Kate Atkinson’s Transcription survived the purge of my bookshelves with two boxes of notable reads sent to the library annual booksale.  I uncovered its red cover under the dust jacket and it followed me until I gave in and opened to the first pages.  Many of you have already read this complicated spy novel with a twist I almost missed at the end, and Atkinson has already produced another book published last month.  But if you haven’t read Transcription, its story holds enough historical information to tease you into wondering what is indeed fact, as well as Atkinson’s trademark knack for plot twists to keep you  reading between the lines of the characters’ lives in this tale of espionage and treachery.

Juliet Armstrong flashes back to her life as a secretary secretly transcribing conversations for the British spy organization MI5.  Jonathan Dee neatly summarized the novel in his 2018 review for The New Yorker with enough detail to satisfy your curiosity if you are still deciding if you want to read the book – Kate Atkinson’s Spy Novel Makes the Genre New.

The Author’s Note at the end of the book led me to more books.  Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices is listed as  one of Atkinson’s references.  Firzgerald’s 1980’s novel tells “the fictionalised experiences of a group of BBC employees at Broadcasting House, London, in 1940 when the city was under nightly attack from the Luftwaffe’s high explosive, incendiary, and parachute bombs.”  I became a fan of Fitzgerald after reading The Bookshop.

Atkinson’s newest publication revives her detective series with Jackson Brodie as the star Cambridge detective.  Of course, I need to backtrack to the first book – Case Histories – and maybe proceed to the other four before my library waitlist number for her latest, Big Sky, comes up.

So I have books to anticipate, and more.  A friend sent me hardback copies of the newest Elin Hildebrand and Jennifer Weiner books; my stack is growing again.

What have you read lately?

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Late In the Day

My mother liked to say after my father died, all sins were forgiven when someone died young while the rest of us had to muddle on into old age.  When Tessa Hadley has one of her four main characters die unexpectedly and suddenly in the first chapter, his story is just beginning but he is not the hero of the piece.

Lydia and Christine have known each other since childhood, best friends forever, with compatible boyfriends who evolve into husbands and a foursome of dedicated friends as adults.  Inevitably, even their children become best friends.

In her review Johanna Thomas-Corr calls them “two upper-middle-class boho couples who sit around listening to Schubert…”

Hadley neatly fills in the backstory with flashbacks and updates, noting  the differences between the two women – Christine, willowy and fragile, a serious Ph.D. candidate who decides to pursue her talent for art when Zachary admires her work; Lydia, a flashy and charismatic schemer, who is happy to be lazy.  Lydia’s unrequited love for Alex, the poet with Czech refugee parents, drives her to marry wealthy Zachary, who has been dating Christine. Christine marries Alex, and the foursome survives, but it’s complicated. In one phone call, three decades of tangled friendship and love is dissolved.

Rebecca Makai’s review for the New York Times notes:

As their lives unravel, we wonder with Christine if the “questioning of impervious male knowledge had always come to women at a certain age, in their prime, as they grew out of the illusions of girlhood… By the end, the romantic fates of the couples’ two grown daughters are still being left to fate and chance, while Christine and Lydia begin for the first time to make their own choices…It might not be history that frees us, Hadley seems to suggest, but personal history, a late coming-of-age.”

I’m a fan of Tessa Hadley, having first met her on The London Train.  Once referred to as the British Anne Tyler, Hadley’s strength is not in the plot but in the nuances in her characters.  Have you read any of her work?

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