Book Review – Life after Life & A God in Ruins

Each Christmas The Wine and Ugg Book Society (aka my book club) gather for a suitably bookish festive season celebration.  This involves lots of good food, an ample supply of wine (or cocktails!) and, of course, a book swap.  The idea is that you select a book that you think others will like, wrap it up and then on the night they all go into the middle of the table.  We randomly select a book from the table (or steal from someone else if they’ve opened something you can’t wait to get you hands on).  It’s a lot of fun and we get a new book to add to the collection, often one we might not have picked up otherwise.

It was through this book swap that happened across Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life and subsequently, the companion novel A God in Ruins.  And I’m looking forward to making my way through her entire collection.  She is a spectacularly good writer and offers one of those reading journeys that leaves you somewhat breathless and certainly not wanting to leave the world she has created.  These are two pretty long novels and yet I still wanted more – that rarely happens to me!

The premise of Life after Life is this: Ursula Todd is born one blisteringly cold night in the middle of a blizzard.  The doctor can’t get through, the newborn dies.  Except that she doesn’t, or rather she dies many times over in many different ways.  With each new version of Ursula’s life previous mistakes are righted and sometimes new ones are made, for Ursula is important and history will not see her written off before her eventual fate is met.

Atkinson’s plot structure is unique and innovative, she plays with time and history and weaves a coherent narrative into this meandering maze of a plot.  What at first seems to make no sense, very quickly becomes clear and easy to follow.  Character relationships, are slowly built up, each return to the past adding layers of depth and complexity to both Ursula and those she is surrounded by.

Much of the novel is set against the backdrop of WWII and the bombing of London, but this is no war book of the common variety and even those averse to reading war stories are encouraged to pick this one up.  The story plays with themes like gender roles, degrees of personal responsibility, morality and intimacy.

It’s companion novel, A God in Ruins, focuses not on Ursula, but her most beloved brother Teddy.  He is a bomber pilot in the WWII, flying daringly over Germany, dropping bombs and then turning tail and heading home, repeatedly.  Bomber pilots have among the worst survival rates of the entire fighting forces of the war and Teddy doesn’t expect to live…. and yet he does.  Learning to live with himself and in this unexpectedly long life is a challenge Teddy struggles with at every point, from marriage, to children and grandchildren.  Nothing quite turns out as expected.

Again Atkinson brings her lyrical prose and unique form and structure to A God in Ruins.  She is both darkly comic and bleak in the her characters and plot.  I found myself in tears several times, especially with regard to Teddy’s horribly neglected grandson.  Thankfully the story is also incredibly compassionate and redeeming.

I really can’t put adequately into words how much I enjoyed these two novels, how swept up in the grandness of the plot(s) I became or how fondly I took the characters into my heart (Ursula’s Aunt is someone I wish I really knew instead of just in my own head).  I would love to hear your thoughts on these, if you’ve read them, or another novel that has truly transported you to another time and place.

Til next time,

Barbara.

 

 

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Podcast: S – Town

Some time either last year or the year before I began dabbling in the world of podcasts.  As with many online phenomenon, I was a little overwhelmed at first and it took me until recently to really start exploring all that there was on offer.  What prompted my initial exploration of podcasting was reading a review on the first season of Serial.  This was a 12 part audio documentary of a murder case in which there guilt of the accused (currently serving a long sentence for the crime) was questionable.  It was incredibly compelling and I found myself listening to episode after episode as I cooked dinner, did house work or gardened.  It was fabulous, so good that you’d have thought I would be a total podcast convert.  But I wasn’t.  By the time I finished this series, season two had been released.  Two episodes in and I just wasn’t feeling it, didn’t care about the case being investigated and I never ended up finished the series.  And so ended my adventure with podcasts.

Then, last year I found Litsy, an online app for book lovers which is possibly the most brilliant online space there is (it’s so good I’ll devote a whole post on it soon) and yet again podcasts came up.  I asked for some recommendations and BAM, I was hooked.  I had found podcasts on books, history, science, current events, politics, culture and fictionalized worlds.  And most recently, S-Town, which is made by the same guys as Serial and also This American Life (another great podcast).  S-Town is a seven part series which I have binged over the last two days, it is absolutely incredible story-telling and it left me reeling, lying on the rug in the fetal position kind of reeling.

The Premise: John B. wrote to a journalist at This American Life asking him to investigate some strange goings-on in his small, Alabama town, a possible murder and police cover-up and corruption.  However, a couple of episodes in the story takes a dramatic and unforeseen turn and instead of uncovering a murderer, it becomes a journey of discovering center on John B. himself.  Nothing is quite as it seems and, in literary fiction terms, the story is full of unreliable narrators (maybe life itself, is just a series of unreliable narrators).

S-Town is tragic and I found it terribly, terribly sad.  It’s, in some ways, easy to forget that these are real people, living real lives and not fictional characters filling the pages of a remarkable novel.  But it’s also impossible to separate that from the story and that’s what made it so sad.  John B., his mannerisms, speech and personality could easily come straight from the imaginings of some brilliant Mark Twain-esq writer, and he propels the story forward with the same frenetic pace with which he talks – which is why I binged it in two sittings.  The story twists and turns its way to the end and all who inhabit it are changed in the listeners minds by the conclusion. But like most real-life stories, the ending is unsettling, there is so much left unresolved and possibly unsaid, I found it abrupt, I wanted more.

Every year I have a goal of reading more books than the last, an easy target this year given all the extra time I have.  If I’m not reading or listening to audiobooks I feel like I’m wasting some sort of opportunity I have to rack up another stat on my Goodreads account.  I’ve come to realise, however, that there are many ways to get a story out there and so many of them are legitimate and worthy of my time.  So while I could have listened to or read an entire novel in the time it took me to get through S-Town, I’m so glad I didn’t.

If you haven’t checked it out already – and I know so many podcast-listeners have been all over this – I really, REALLY recommend S-Town.  I don’t think you will regret the time invested.

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Anne with an ‘e’ – Netflix

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As it turns out there are some very brave TV producers out there.  I come to this conclusion knowing that the very, VERY committed Anne of Green Gables fan see Megan Fellows and the 1980s Anne series as the absolute pinnacle of Anne greatness, a feat never to be bettered…. and yet, recently, some tried.  Netflix released the first season of its new take on the L. M. Montgomery classic, Anne with an ‘e’.  As one of those committed fans of both the original novels and the 1980s series (which, it turns out, is not the first screen adaptation) I was apprehensive, to say the least knowing, that my favourite story was being retold.

I put those fears aside and dived into episode one last Friday night.  My initial thought was, “No, it’s all wrong.  That’s not Anne, not Matthew, not Marilla and definitely not Gilbert.”  But I continued watching…. and I’m so glad I did.  If you’re a purest you’ll probably hate this, however if you’re willing to accept that this is a re-imagining of the story, with creative license taken with some of the back stories and a few other modifications as well as a heavy dose of reality, then you might just fall in love with this Anne as you did with Megan Fellows.

The most obvious difference between the story as we knew it and this one is the darkness, the new version does not shy away from the harshness of life as an orphan.  The emotions Anne feels about the rejection she experiences from Marilla, in particular, on discovering the boy they expected turned out to be a girl and again when she is accused of being a thief and threatened with return to ‘that Blewitt woman’ are heavy hitting.  The church picnic is no friendly matter either and being accepted at school proves an almighty challenge.  I always felt that Anne’s orphan-hood was glorified or glossed over in a rather unrealistic way (not that I minded, the story being just so charming as it was), this series rectifies that.  However, this has been a major sticking point for some fans who disliked the bleakness and darkness of the new series.

The casting in this latest version is wonderful.  Amybeth McNulty plays Anne and she is just as L. M. Montgomery described – red of hair, skinny of limb, and homely, as Rachel put it).  She’s also a spectacularly good actor as such a young age, adapting to the darker plot elements but also bringing Anne’s enthusiasm for life, flighty attitude to domestic tasks and the never-ceasing talk.  Marilla (played by Geraldine James) and Matthew (played by R. H. Thomson) are also extremely good in their parts and showing a flawed humanity (Marilla especially) that was, at times, omitted in previous adaptations.  Writer, Moira Walley-Beckett of Breaking Bad fame, fleshes out the back story of these two characters and I felt that this really added depth and understanding to their characters.

Finally, even if you don’t appreciate the changes made in this series, you may appreciate the cinematography, which is stunningly beautiful.  The sets are greatly pared back, Matthew and Marilla’s house being sparsely furnished, and the outdoor scenes are shot in grand, sweeping motions that truly encapsulates the sometimes pensive, sometimes whimsical elements of the both the story and the landscape – this is especially true of the winter scenes.

So having watched episode one I immediately started on the second and then the third, finishing all 7 by the end of the weekend.  I really did find myself loving Avonlea and all her crazy characters in a whole new way and I am so glad that this is being introduced to a new, younger audience.  There’s some classic Anne lines in here as well.  Had anyone else watched it?  What are your feelings?  Or are you decidedly in the camp of “not-going-there”?

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Book Review – A Man Called Ove

It’s been a very long time since I wrote my last book review, but rest assured that’s not because I haven’t been reading.  In fact my reading pace has kicked up a gear or two thanks to my introduction to audio books (just to be clear, I’m firmly in the camp that says audio books are not cheating, they’re just another way to get in more great stories).  In light of this, I found it somewhat difficult to decide which book to review first.  Looking through my list for just this year, I opted to start at the beginning, my January Book Club pick (called, by the way, The Wine and Ugg Boot Society, because we’re all class), A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.

Backman is a Swedish writer and this charming novel has all the hallmarks of that quirky Scandy style.  The story follows, unsurprisingly, a man called Ove and his attempts to kill himself – yes I did say it was charming.  His attempts, of which there are many and of various forms, are repeatedly interrupted by his incompetent neighbours and their incessant need for someone else, as in Ove, to do something for them.  I should say, at this point, that Ove is a truly grumpy old man, on the surface at least.  Think Mr Wilson from Dennis the Menace or the Jack Nicholson character in As Good As it Gets.

There’s two things that hold this novel together for me, making a fun, light-hearted and, as I said, charming story.  First is the characters.  Obviously Ove is the main one, but the secondary characters are fantastically well established also.  Backman has given each a fullness that secondary characters often lack, and the way they weave in and out of the storyline and eventually come together gives the plot a richness and depth that it greatly needed.

The second aspect I appreciated was the structure.  I’m a non-linear kind of gal and this book ticked that box.  The opening scenes begin in the present, but as you progress through there are flashbacks and jumps forward.  The reader is never quite given all the information up front, you have to work for it, adding pieces to the puzzle as you go.  This allows the reader to predict and then predict again what, for instance, might have brought this cantankerous old man to hit a clown in a hospital.  I like the interactive-ness of the style, the gradual metering out of the information so that you really only see the full picture right at the end.  And then the ending that asks you, begs you, as the reader, to imagine the next bit.

Now, given that I had no real criticisms of this book I took it upon myself to scour Goodreads for the one and two star reviews – of which were only a few.  There seemed to be a couple of main gripes for those who disliked this book, all of which I can understand.  Firstly, the cat.  It’s possible (in my opinion) one of the best literary cats ever written, but Ove does treat it abominably and the fact that it keeps returning, jumps in Ove’s car and even accompanies him to the shop is possibly an unlikely action for a stray cat.  I can forgive that, others not so much.  Secondly, Jimmy, one of Ove’s neighbours is fat and Ove (or Backman perhaps) continually refers to this fact.  I think I agree with critics on this one, the point is hammered a little too heavily.  Finally, some couldn’t warm to Ove himself (which to like this book you really have to) and considered any growth in the character or any acts of heroism to be forced on Ove by others.  While this may in part be true, I don’t think it tells the full picture.  I loved Ove, I could see a few people I know in Ove.

A Man Called Ove was an ideal light, summer read for me and I think it would be equally good now that the cold weather has hit the southern hemisphere and it’s time to cosy on up to that heater, cup of tea in hand and a good book to bask in.  This could be just the thing.

Any other Ove fans out there (real or ficitional)?  Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

Barbara.

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A Treasure of an Island

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I have few particularly distinct memories from primary school, most are kind of vague with the details blurred with a thousand other memories.  Let’s face it, most days a school were pretty much like the last (or perhaps that’s true of life in general).  However, there is one memory that has been seared so determinedly into my brain that just the mere thought of it takes me back to that spot, sitting on the floor in the library, second row from the front and slightly towards the window side of the room.  It was a grade 2 “cultural performance” – culture in Horsham in 1986 being pretty thin on the ground – a dance and music group from the South Pacific.  I thought it was THE BEST thing I had ever seen, better even than the Moscow Circus (which was a BIG deal in those days) that my parents spent a fortune taking us to.  The women were so, so beautiful, I couldn’t take my eyes off them.  Their voices had a melodic quality –  quiet, soft yet for me deeply affecting.  Their movements so light and fluid.  The men on the other hand were strong, definitive and striking.  They moved with vigor and incredible pace, the beat from the drum hammering with such intensity.  I was transported from that grey breeze-block rural Victorian school, to an Island paradise and ever since I’ve been drawn to the South Pacific.

Our most recent adventure was to Samoa, beautiful, awe-inspiring and ever so charming.  I loved everything about it (except the brief bout of food poisoning, but I won’t hold that against the whole country).  Lots of people seemed surprised, even puzzled, when we said we were going to Samoa.  I guess Fiji is the obvious choice for that part of the world, especially with kids.  But I was looking for a cultural experience, something to bring back those feelings of 8 year old me, a place that could offer Miss 6 and Miss 8 something more than a resort.  And although we did stay in a pretty flash new resort (because a bit of luxury is nice too, right?) we also got the cultural perspective I was hoping for.

Samoa’s tourist industry is still pretty fledgling, in comparison to places like Fiji, but that’s all part of the charm.  We also went at the very beginning of the dry season (which was still pretty wet), so there were very few other tourists around.  Our tour guides, the resort workers, the taxi drivers, all treated us with such warmth, like they were personally welcoming us to the country they loved so much.  Every conversation started with “Is this your first time in Samoa?”,  followed by “Are you New Zealanders or Australians?”  They loved the kids, there was lots of touching of their heads and terms of endearment for them.  The girls were a little unsure about it at times.  And while everything happened on ‘Island Time’ – don’t expect your morning coffee to take any less than 30 minutes to arrive – the charm and warmth of the people was by far the highlight of the trip.

Other highlights included: the Apia flea market – which I failed to photograph for whatever sill reason – and fresh produce market.

The Robert Louis Stevenson Museum – this is his house and the bed he did most of his writing in.

Piula Cave Pool and the nearby sea turtle sanctuary

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The Fia Fia Night (the tradition food served during this was delicious!)

Watching Mr Good and the girls spend so much time having fun in the resort pool.

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And getting out and have a bit of fun with my camera after a long hiatus.

Samoa, go there!  You won’t be disappointed.

 

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The Year of Sometimes Saying No

So I’m sure most of you have heard of the book The Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes.  It’s not one that I’ve read, though I do plan to… at some point…. eventually.  It sounds interesting, a year of saying yes to every opportunity that comes along and it certainly (from what I understand, not having actually read the book) seems to have worked for Shonda.  But I’m taking a different tact this year, one that will hopefully work for me.

You see, I’m a yes person naturally.  I pretty much say yes to everything.  I remember distinctly, burned into my brain, the advice Dad gave me when I got my first taste of employment as a 15 year old working the checkouts at Coles – ‘You say YES.  If they ring you with work, with extra shifts, with extended hours, you say yes.  If you don’t say yes, THEY WILL NEVER RING AGAIN!’  Okay, so that maybe my teenage brain exaggerating the message slightly, but you get the idea and I GOT THE MESSAGE.  I ALWAYS said yes – I earned quite a sum for someone without any real expenses.  And I have to admit it paid off.  I saved that money and then, again thanks to Dad, I invested it.  Years later that investment paid for my first car and a significant portion of our first home deposit.  That advice, given to fifteen year old me, has pretty much ruled my life for the last twenty years.  Mostly that’s been a good thing, however I’m at a very different point in my life now and I’ve decided to be more discerning with what I say yes to.

This year is the year of sometimes saying no.  And I said my first no quite recently.  It was invigorating, liberating, empowering….. and kinda pretty darn scary too.  You see I got offered a job, a proper non-teaching, paying (though not well) job.  I’d applied for this job.  On paper it looked great.  Then I interviewed for this job (terribly – the fact that they even wanted to hire me came as quite a shock, I wouldn’t have hired me!).  I came to realise, during the interview, that this job might not actually be the job for me (it was all KPIs, sitting at a desk on the phone etc).  Finally, a friend gave me another piece of advice that really stuck.  She said when you interview for a job, it’s not just them deciding whether you’re right for the job, but also you deciding if the job is right for you.  It was a revelation!  And I realised this job was not right for me….. so I said no thanks.

Saying no to an actual paid job when I currently don’t have an income feels like a pretty big deal and I’m well aware of the fortunate position I’m in to be able to do that.  But given that I am in that position it also seems crazy to take a job that I know is not going to be a good fit.  And so, my gap year at 37 years old continues with the dream goal of being able to do something that I love, perhaps something involving writing (that really would be a dream) or books.

This whole changing career thing at close to forty is a pretty daunting prospect.  A little voice keeps whispering ‘You’re too old for this” and “You should have it figured out by now” but I’m trying to keep those other more positive voices shouting over the top of that little one.  I’d love to hear of other people’s experiences/advice about career changes so if you’ve got something to share please comment (or share this post with others that might be able to offer me some insight).

Until next time….

Barbara

 

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Hate Face

Right now I’m reading a novel (one so good I feel hung over) called The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.  There’s a line in it from one rather sad and lonely character Ismay, it reads “It’s a well-known fact that hate shows up on your face once you’re forty.”  Ismay is attending the wedding of her brother-in-law.  He’s marrying for the second time, after his first wife, Ismay’s younger sister, died.  She is in a terrible marriage to a man who constantly cheats on her and she has had seven miscarriages in the last twelve years with no surviving children and now no hope of one.  She is forty-four years old.  She has very good reasons for being said and lonely, bitter and inside (though mostly well-hidden) hateful.  Ismay is not the character you are supposed to connect with in this book, she is secondary.  It is AJ or Maya or Amelia you’re supposed to love (and I do), but Ismay and this line also creep in.

This line creeps in because I feel it, I feel bitter and hateful and I wish I didn’t and I hoped it would fade.  It hasn’t.  And I’m not Ismay, I don’t have a terrible life, a terrible husband.  I haven’t experienced her loss.  Nevertheless, hate and bitterness reside inside me.  What happened to me has happened to thousands of people, I lost my job.  A job I loved and was good at and it happened in very unpleasant circumstances.  It was unfair and hurtful, that is where my (mostly well-hidden) bitterness and hate comes from and I wonder, is it showing up on my face?

I do my best to put a positive spin on things.  “Think of all the books I’ll be able to read” I tell myself.  Or “I’ll get back into blogging” I think – it seems wrong to write a post like this on a blog about the good life.  “Time for a change of career perhaps, that could be exciting” I say to people.  Except, how the heck does one change careers?  I don’t even know where to start really.  it’s not so much exciting as incredibly daunting, frightening.  The few jobs I’ve applied for haven’t even sent the thanks but no thanks email – I just get radio silence.  With one exception, I’ve had one interview….. oh it was so, so bad!

The self-wallowing, I am aware, is not a good look on anyone.  There ARE some actual positives.  I have read dozens of books already – and I’ve realised I probably love reading more than anything else. Can I do that for a living?  I’ve walked my girls to school and home every day and have watched Miss Five (nearly Six) start prep, it’s been a little shaky but things are improving.  We’re about to embark on an amazing family holiday to Samoa (outside the school holiday weeks!).  But still, at night, when the lights are out, that bitterness creeps in again.  That thing I can’t shake.  That thing I haven’t put a voice to until now.  Perhaps putting it out there, into the ether, will lessen its grip.  That’s how it’s supposed to work, right?

And as of today, I’m going to try writing again.  They won’t all be bitter, self-pitying ravings, but they won’t all be about the good life either.  I hope that’s forgivable even if my blog is called The New Good Life.  Should I change names?

Barbara.

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