This installment: a CD version of a powerful novel; Atkinson’s current masterpiece; a bad girl’s memoir; a well-meaning social worker in the South in the ‘60s; another tasty memoir focusing on food; and a novel about parental jockeying at an exclusive British school.
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht
Here I had the chance to listen to a book that had both intrigued and often baffled me the first time around on the page. This is what I wrote about it then: “What a strange, hallucinatory tale set in former Yugoslavia (though no specific country is named in the book). Scary fairy tale quality with ghosts, a man who has a great affinity for bears, and the eponymous deaf mute girl who befriends a tiger on the loose from the abandoned zoo. The narrator is a young doctor though part of the story is told by her grandfather. Obrecht sprinkles in Yugoslavian words which help immerse the reader in this complex culture. The war is omnipresent as a background. Kipling’s “Jungle Book “ had been the grandfather’s constant companion and reference when he visited the zoo for long contemplative stretches before it closed. Very powerful, if sometimes confusing. But I didn’t care because it was such a rich journey.” I can’t say I aced it the second time around either, but it worked very well in the ear. I especially liked the grandfather’s warm, weary, almost furry voice.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
History is just a chain of “what ifs” or so one of Atkinson’s characters surmises. The author herself plays this out brilliantly, with the same cast taking fateful turns and coming to different ends each round. Some very short, some more extended, but in each case “darkness fell.” It’s weirdly exhilarating rather than depressing, because it’s like a second—or in some cases sixth—chance at life. We start in 1910 and ricochet through decades; much of the action centers around WWII in England. I didn’t want it to end, but as in life, darkness keeps falling. A masterpiece!
Screw Everyone by Ophira Eisenberg
Subtitled: sleeping my way to monogamy. I love testimony by smart, wild girls who took a zigzag path to happiness, being one myself on a much more modest level. And Eisenberg certainly tore up the turf in big cities in Canada and the U.S .of A. Dead end jobs, lots of drinking and its attendant humiliations, but a dim ray of light: stand-up comedy. She’s very funny with sensibilities that skewer everyone in sight, most often herself. Though I wouldn’t want to see myself in print as one of her hapless “dates,” I felt oddly comforted that she’ a generous person at heart so not really as mean as she comes off. A delightful read.
Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain
Jane, goodhearted but naïve, takes a job as a social worker in the South in the ‘60s. Her new pediatrician husband doesn’t approve, and we know this marriage is doomed from the start. She discovers bleak poverty and other very disturbing situations on the tobacco farms she visits and ends up trying to save a very benighted family. One sister has already been unknowingly sterilized and the other is threatened by this too-common action of the times. Earnest and gripping.
Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen
A thoroughly satisfying autobiography “of my appetites” as the subtitle states. Food is a great hook for evoking moods and places; descriptions of meals and their preparation can reflect domestic pleasure, pain, or neglect. They mirror the needs and the psyche of the eater. In Christensen’s case she often yo-yoed between stuffing herself and then denying herself but also reveled in making delectable dishes and feasting with lovers and friends. Geographical stretches between growing up in the Berkeley counterculture, then in Arizona and as an adult with some time in France, Brooklyn, and finally at home and at peace in New England. A lovely read, intimate and candid.
The Hive by Gill Hornby
At St. Ambrose elementary school in England, the drop-offs, pick-ups, and fund-raising activities are packed with buzzing, intense jockeying among the mothers. The queen (Bea) is mean and manipulative, and her court is obsequious. Lots of scrambling to be in the inner circle but there are also some independent souls who don’t give a fig. Various events: the Lunch Ladder, the Boot Sale (rummage in car trunks), the Gourmet Gamble all present fine opportunities for satire as plans often go spectacularly awry. It’s broad, sometimes over the top, and very British, but it deepens at the end as the parents, for the most part, pull together as a functional, satisfying community.
Back first Monday in July. (I’ll be away at the ALA conference in Las Vegas on the last Monday in June!)