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.

Related Reviews:

Life After Life by Atkinson

Transcription

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?

Related Reviews:

New Books I Am Looking Forward to Reading

Books I anticipate reading…

FC9781250295187The Dinner List by Rebecca Serle    (publication date – August 28, 2018)

If you could invite any five people—dead or alive—to dinner, who would you choose?

Preview:

“We’ve been waiting for an hour.” That’s what Audrey says. She states it with a little bit of an edge, her words just bordering on cursive. That’s the thing I think first. Not Audrey Hepburn is at my birthday dinnerbut Audrey Hepburn is annoyed.”

 

41pYhoGoKDL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_Goodbye, Paris by Anstey Harris  (just published)

Preview:

“We were staying at David’s apartment in Paris the night the woman fell onto the Metro tracks.”

 

shopping-1Transcription by Kate Atkinson  (publication date – September 8, 2018)

Preview:

‘Miss Armstrong?  Miss Armstrong, can you hear me?’

She could although she didn’t seem able to respond.  She was badly damaged.  Broken.  She had been hit by a car.   It might have been her own fault, she had been distracted – she had lived for so long abroad that she had probably looked the wrong way when she was crossing Wigmore Street in the midsummer twilight.  Between the darkness and the daylight.

 

shopping-2  The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Gower  (publication in USA – September 11, 2018)

One September evening in 1785, the merchant Jonah Hancock hears urgent knocking on his front door. One of his captains is waiting eagerly on the step. He has sold Jonah’s ship for what appears to be a mermaid.

Preview:

for in this world there is no achieving anything all alone. Cast in thy lot and share the purse. And this is why a prudent man does no business with drunks, with rakes, with gamblers, with thieves, or anybody with whom God might have cause to deal severely. You cast in your lot and you share his sin. And it is so easy for a little craft to be dashed against the rocks. So easy for cargo to settle five fathoms deep in the dark. Sailors’ lungs may brine and their fingers may pickle; all that protects them is God’s cupped hand.

What does God say to Mr Hancock? Where is the Calliope, whose captain has sent no word in eighteen months? The summer trails away. Every day the mercury drops. If she does not return soon she will not return, and the blame may well lie with him. What has he done, that might demand such punishment? Who will throw in their lot with his if they suspect him ill-favoured?

Somewhere a tide is turning. In that place where no land can be seen, where horizon to horizon is spanned by shifting twinkling faithless water, a wave humps its back and turns over with a sigh, and sends its salted whispering to Mr Hancock’s ear.

This voyage is special, the whisper says, a strange fluttering in his heart.

 

 

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

BehindTheScenesAtTheMuseumKate Atkinson caused a stir with her first book – Behind the Scenes at the Museum – by winning the Whitbread Prize in 1995.  Since then she has continued to win awards for her stories, but noted in an interview:

{her ideal situation would be} “to have enough money … [to] write and not be published”. {She doesn’t like reviews or critics.} “It’s a very uncomfortable thing for a writer, we’re very tender.”

When critics assaulted her for winning for her first book – over seasoned authors – Hilary Mantel (Bring Up the Bodies) defended the first-time author with a scathing op-ed piece in the London Review of Books titled – Shop!   After reading Atkinson’s latest success – Life After Life – I was curious to read her first book.

With the same theme of examining a life from birth through the voice of the narrator, Behind the Scenes at the Museum reflects the historical perspective and self-examination that later became the unique twist of rebirth in Life After Life.  In this first novel, however, the life of Ruby Lennox continues as everyone around her seems to die, and the story is dense with details that sometimes mask the clues that later reveal surprises in Ruby’s life.

Ruby’s story begins with conception and throughout the book she assumes a dual role.  Spanning the late nineteenth and twentieth century, Ruby tells her own story and that of the women in her life – her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.  She also acts as the omniscient narrator with access to the future fates of her sisters and lovers, revealed in chapters titled “footnotes.”  Atkinson withholds two major surprises in the telling – one about Ruby herself and the other about the father of a major character – no spoilers here.

As the scenes shift from each woman’s fate, their commonalities create a thread through relationships and hardships – all affecting Ruby and her life.  Atkinson neatly notes:

“The past is what you take with you.”

If I had not read Life After Life first, I’m not sure if I would have enjoyed this one as much.    Atkinson’s style takes some getting used to, and Behind the Scenes at the Museum has obscure moments that are sometimes confusing.  But I could hear Ursula (the narrator from Life After Life) singing in the wings – waiting to be born.

Related Reviews:

Life After Life: A Novel

“Ursula’s life begins, ends, rewinds, begins again – and again – in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.   Would she ever get it right?

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Atkinson’s use of rewriting the same chapters cleverly demonstrates that road not travelled.  Each time Ursula dies, the story rewinds to the alternative possibility.  If the cord had not strangled her at birth, if she had not reached for her doll and fallen off the roof, if she had not drowned in the ocean, or died young from the flu – Atkinson notes: “Such a fine line between living and dying…”

As the story progresses, and Ursula grows into her sixteenth birthday, another milestone, the difference between being kissed, by whom, and how, changes her future.  When she decides to leave her bucolic home as a young British woman venturing into the world, the choices seem inconsequential but they are not.  Atkinson writes Ursula into several possible lives – after she forgoes university to attend secretarial school – or graduates and spends a year abroad.  Even her study major makes a difference.

As Ursula matures, she begins to recognize the signs of a former life, sometimes to the point of trying to control the outcome.  When Bridget, the maid and carrier of the deadly flu, returns again and again, ending Ursula’s new lives, Ursula decides to take care of matters herself by pushing Bridget down the stairs.  Her parents, taking a dim view of her déjà vu, sign her up for a psychiatrist.

When the book opens, Ursula has just shot Hitler.  Eventually, her life rewinds back to this scene, but not before Atkinson has filled the pages with scenes of war from all perspectives and from both sides of the Channel.  Ursula’s roles in different lives range from British air raid warden to Eva Braun’s confidante at Hitler’s retreat in Berghof.  Descriptions of the Blitz carry the central focus of the novel and take you not only to the underground holes and devastating terror, but also to the lives of those trying to survive.

As I became invested in Ursula, the story became interactive.  I worried over her, knowing that the murderer was around the bend, or that the wall would fall on her – wanting to shout to her to stop.  When all seemed lost, I knew Atkinson would soon rewind and all would be well again in another chance – wouldn’t it?

Eventually, Ursula realizes her retakes in life carry a purpose.  She decides to focus and use her decisions to get her there – until eventually she does loop back to the opening chapter and change the world.  But Atkinson does not end the book there; she keeps rewinding…

“Don’t you wonder if just one small thing had been changed in the past…surely things would be different.”

What if one small thing had been changed in your life – in your decisions – makes you wonder….

My reading of the book reflected its theme: I started reading the first few pages; Ursula died.  I stopped, packed, saved her for my long plane ride.  Ursula lived again, and died again as an infant. When Ursula finally progressed to her fifth birthday; my Kindle battery died.  Travel in Spain distracted me and I did not return to the book – until a friend gave me a paperback copy of Atkinson’s first book Behind the Scenes at the Museum – and I remembered.    What would have happened if I had never finally read the book?  Like Ursula, I would have missed the most important part and an amazing adventure.