BOOK Review: THE NUN’S STORY by Kathryn Hulme

Whenever the movie version of The Nun’s Story comes on TCM, I end up transfixed, watching until the end, regardless what else I’d planned on doing during those hours. The film, starring Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke, is beautifully shot and a magnificent piece of storytelling.

So is the book upon which it was based, which I reread recently. Published in 1956, the novel reads like autobiography, the tale of Gabrielle van der Mal, a Belgian nurse, daughter of an esteemed doctor, who enters the convent in 1927, desirous to serve God as a missionary sister in the Congo. The tale follows her early life as a postulant and novice and her continual struggle with obedience, a battle which she cannot win, ultimately choosing to leave the sisterhood at the end of World War II, when seething hatred for the Germans, who killed her father, provides the impetus for self-examination that leads her to the lonely door to the world again.

The Nun’s Story fascinates on many levels, one of which is the rich detail of convent life, the descriptions of the many silent humblings sisters embrace–everything from learning to lift the back of their habits when descending stairs, so as not to wear out the hems, to how to close doors silently and keep one’s keys from jangling. All of these actions focus on obedience to the will of God through the Rule of the convent. Simple actions, to be sure, but fraught with difficulty for a smart and eager intellect. Sister Luke’s focus from the outset is on the care of her patients, and she chafes at and even forgets rules that prevent her from ministering to their needs as fulsomely as she desires. Intellectually and medically gifted, she excels in her studies, but instead of being rewarded for her achievements, she is asked to humble herself by deliberately failing an important exam, so a less confident sister could surpass her. Mightily wrestling with this request, she cannot honor it in good conscience. She passes, but doesn’t earn the trip to the Congo she’d craved. Instead, she’s sent to nurse at an asylum.

After her asylum assignment, however, she finally wins the right to serve as a missionary sister. For many years, she nurses in the Congo, and it is during this time, under a loving Superior and a cantankerous surgeon, she feels closest to God and most in sync with her sisterhood. Nonetheless, she constantly must say “mea culpas” in front of her convent for her sins against the Rule, as nursing needs push even the thought of them from her head during exigent cases. She agonizes over these lapses, and the reader feels acutely her inner fight:

How many times in the name of obedience and for its sake alone had she asked the little permissions which she dared not even hint at to the doctor each time she slipped away, because she knew how completely meaningless, possibly slavelike, they would seem in the eyes of the world? How many times? So often that now it no longer irked what was left of her pride to ask….May I break my sleep tonight, ma Mere, and visit Monsier Diderot, who is going to die? May I skip a meal in penance for my sins of omission? Besides, I mean, doing the penance you gave me in the culpa?

She listened to her interior monologue as if she were in the world and reading a nun’s mind. It was pitiful and astonishing to note the things a nun could agonize over. You’d think their Creator had said to them, This is a way of being that must not perish from this earth and you and your sisters are the keepers of it pro tem, each one of one small part of it according to her lights and strengths.

While her obedience lags, her communion with her sisters soars. They each act individually yet in the same way, coming to the same conclusions about natives wearing fetishes, for example, after a sister is killed (they all urge the natives to keep wearing them, to show them their lack of value–a conclusion they reach individually, yet as one).

When she eventually must transport a case back to Belgium, war prevents a return to her beloved Congo, and the struggle with obedience consumes her spirit. She decides to leave.

The Nun’s Story, in both movie and book form, is great storytelling, but not just because it allows readers to peek inside an old convent, surreptitiously viewing the lives of nuns. Sister Luke’s inner conflict is universal. It is, simply, the struggle to be good, to ascertain what God wants of us, what the universe is saying to us, where we are most needed and how to use our talents to maximum effect even in the smallest of ways. How to be thoughtful and loving every second of a day.

A little research revealed that Kathryn Hulme, the author, was not a nun herself, but met a former sister, Marie Louise Habets, after World War II when they were both doing work with refugees. They stayed together the rest of their lives. When Hulme died, she left her literary estate to Habets, and upon her death, she gave the rights to several sisters and family members. Because of the confusion of who really owns the rights, The Nun’s Story has not been reprinted. This is a tremendous shame as it is a story for all ages.

 

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Book Review: A LETTER TO MY CONGREGATION

A LETTER TO MY CONGREGATION by Ken Wilson

“For the love of God is broader than the measure of the mind….”

Ken Wilson’s sweet, tight epistle to his evangelical church about his conversion from gay marriage opponent to supporter is not just about acceptance of homosexuality or gay marriage. It’s much more. It’s an expose of how a deeply religious, scripturally bound shepherd of souls confronts a controversial moral issue. For that reason, of the many people I wish would read this book, a surprising group came to mind: those already on board with gay marriage. It seems an odd audience to recommend it to. After all, these are people in agreement with Pastor Ken Wilson at the end of his journey of faith.

But the reason they should read it is because his analysis, his prayerful, thoughtful, grace-full listening to his conscience, analyzing scripture and trying to figure out what is the right thing to do puts the lie to a lot of stereotypes of his ilk. He’s not a bigot and never was one, the convenient canard hurled at gay marriage opponents. He’s not a cretin, nor a thoughtless, careless man. He struggles, as we all do, with thorny topics, and his struggle takes place within the context of someone dead serious about religion, serious about following what he believes is God’s will, serious about listening to the “still, small voice” of God.  So, please, all of you who were quick to throw the “bigot” charge at gay marriage opponents, who were swift to lump the Ken Wilsons of the world into the same category as that of the hateful Westboro Baptist Church, pick up this book. It’s at least worth a heavy skim, and it will reveal to you the thinking of a man focused on his faith when dealing with controversial topics where competing pressures push at one’s heart and soul.

And, of course, the main audience Wilson writes for are all those who, like him, have begun to experience a “fleeting unease,” as he puts it, with the anti-gay marriage stance of their churches. For them, this book will bring solace and enlightenment.

Wilson isn’t just any Christian. He’s an evangelical pastor. His colleagues and spiritual friends are people who take the Bible very seriously, who know it well, who seek to lead Godly lives even in ungodly times. They walk to the beat of a different drummer, out of step with most of contemporary society, viewing with sadness the decay of some moral values throughout society. He’s not an I’m-okay-you’re-okay moral relativist, willing to view the Bible as a Rohrschach image in which one can see…whatever one wants. And when he began to walk away from his evangelical compatriots on this issue, he felt the distance acutely, wondering if serving the greater good — his congregation — would require him to be silent on the topic.

But Wilson began having doubts about his church’s views on homosexuals as he saw all churches changing views on marriage after divorce, becoming less exclusive, more inclusive. After all, Biblical teaching meant, to him, that divorcees couldn’t remarry. And, early in his career, he turned a cold shoulder to those who sought remarriage, much to his later regret. But his eyes and heart began to open to a message of inclusiveness on this aspect of marriage as he began to view Biblical teaching on marriage as more nuanced, or less dogmatic, than he previously had thought.

As he reexamined those ideas, he was also confronted with more gays and lesbians seeking church membership. Yes, Virginia, there are gays who want to join evangelical churches — as one told Wilson, they are seeking “more Jesus” than a mainline Protestant church might offer, despite those churches’ more inclusive attitude toward them. And as Wilson confronted these godly people, he couldn’t fully embrace the “love the sinner, hate the sin” philosophy of his fellow pastors and colleagues. To him, it seemed a “less than” arrangement that implied inequality. It wasn’t welcoming enough.

He goes through the scripture passages used against homosexuality and sets them in context, even using the writings of colleagues who are not on the same page with him on this issue to make his broader point — that the Bible is, for the most part, not expansive on the issue of homosexuality, and when it does speak, most notably through the epistles of Paul, context plays a key role in understanding what the writer was really addressing. His heavily footnoted epistle lists the clearly prohibited activities detailed in the Bible and talks about “disputable matters” (which he believes is where gay marriage and homosexuality fall). He covers previous controversies in the early church of Paul between meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters, and how that battle helps shed light on how Paul would want us to view any current similar church-rending issues.

Occasionally, when reading a book, I get so excited about it I can hardly wait to share it with people. That’s the way I felt about A Letter to My Congregation. I turned down the corners of so many pages, hoping to find a particularly stirring passage to quote in this review, that I discovered I’d practically marked every single page.

So, I’ll end this review with a quote from an old hymn that Wilson uses at one point:

 

But we make His love too narrow

By false limits of our own;

And we magnify His strictness

With a zeal He will not own.

For the love of God is broader

Than the measure of the mind;

And the heart of the Eternal

Is most wonderfully kind.

    — Frederick William Faber (1814-1863)

Thanks to son Joseph, who recommended this book to me. I read it on the eve of his own wedding to his partner, Jack.

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I admit it: I love country music

by Libby Sternberg

hero-acoustic-guitars-category-baritone-taylor-guitarsI drive an old Buick, a car my late father owned. AM stations don’t work on its radio anymore, so listening to talk radio babble is out of the question when I run errands throughout the day. (Note to talk radio critics: It’s entertaining.) What to do? Well, for years now, I’ve had the radio tuned to a local FM country station, and I’ve become a fan of this genre. Oh, I used to catch the occasional country hit back in the day, but now I know who Eric Church, Dierks Bentley, Jason Aldean, the Band Perry, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert and Sugarland are. Favorites include the aforementioned Lambert, Church and Bentley, as well as Rascal Flatts and Keith Urban. Mute-button triggers are Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw.

I’m not unsophisticated musically, so what is it that attracts me to this genre? First, let’s stipulate that all western popular music, from hip-hop to techno to country, is based on some pretty simple chord progressions. Therefore, no popular genre is traveling to new frontiers of harmonic complexity. Within the I, IV, V chord outlines, melodies can be mind-numbingly repetitive to clever to sappy to sentimental to so monotone that a classically trained musician might suggest they resemble recitative.

But, given the fact that most popular music shares a simple common musical language, here’s why I prefer country:

Country music lyrics are easy to understand:  You can actually get 99 percent of what they’re singing about, with little guesswork.  In pop music, it’s often hard to pick out the words. They’re mumbled or covered by dense guitar strumming or drumming or…stuff. Back in the 1980s, I remember a coworker confessing to me that for weeks, she thought Huey Lewis and the News were singing about wanting a new “truck” instead of the “I Want a New Drug” hit saturating the airwaves. I don’t think her experience was atypical. But virtually every country music song has clearly articulated lyrics.

Country music has a wicked-good sense of humor: Speaking of those lyrics, they often contain a good measure of self-deprecating humor. Take, for example, Steve Holy’s “I Got a Brand-New Girlfriend,” which celebrates, tongue in cheek, a man’s quick turnaround after a breakup. Or how about Brad Paisley’s “I’m Gonna Miss Her,” which similarly pokes gentle fun at a man’s caddish behavior in choosing fishing over his girl. These songs are funny.

Country music has a wicked-good sense of humor grounded in brutal frankness: In addition to the songs mentioned above, country music is full of hits filled with clever, honest humor. Dierks Bentley is a master of this with his “What Was I Thinkin’?” a song about a man’s lustful pursuit of a girl who gets him into trouble time and again (“I knew what I was feelin’, but what was I thinkin’?”). Bentley’s recent hit “I’m Getting Drunk on a Plane” gives voice to the wishes of many a broken-hearted gal or guy: a desire to drown one’s sorrow in booze, living it up while mourning an aborted relationship.

Even songs that don’t have a smile-inducing chorus can have slyly funny lines.  Rodney Atkins’s “If You’re Going Through Hell,” a song about toughing out bad times, contains this gem: “You…ask directions from a genie in a bottle of Jim Beam…and she LIED to you.” Speaking of Atkins, he has another, uh, funny song called “Cleaning My Gun” about a father waiting up for his daughter to come home from a date. He tells her fellow before the couple takes off: “You all run along and have some fun/I’ll see you when you get back/Probably I’ll be up all night… still cleanin’ this gun.”

Or what about the Band Perry’s “Chainsaw,” a tune about cutting down the tree upon which is carved the initials of a couple who is no more. (“It’s hard to bury the hatchet… holding a chainsaw.”)

Country music contains interesting rhymes: How about the last syllable of “listening” rhyming with “game?” Taylor Swift manages it in “Mean.” ‘Nuff said.

Country stars sing about family and church and…family: Yeah, they sing about getting drunk and trucks and hot girls, too, but country music stars aren’t afraid to sing about the joys of family and about faith–either implicitly or explicitly. For example, Craig Morgan’s “That’s What I Love About Sunday” celebrates going to church, cutting coupons, swinging on the front porch…ordinary, sweet blessings.  Or what about Eric Church’s “She Loves Me Likes Jesus Does”? It’s not a song about religion, but it’s drenched in southern/western religion references: “I’m a back row sitter at a tent revival/But she believes in me like she believes her Bible, loves me like Jesus does….she carries me when my sins make me heavy…”  Or there’s “Down the Road,” one of whose singers has been – gasp, Kenny Chesney. A song about the cycles of life, it has this line in it: “Her momma wants to know if I’m washed in the blood or just in the water…” You don’t need to be a believer to enjoy these songs. There’s an unselfconsciousness about them that makes them charming. They’re not proselytizing. They’re saying, “hey, this is who I am, who we are…ain’t it great?”

Anyway, them’s my reasons for enjoying country music. Think I’ll go listen to some right now…

 

Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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A Mini-Rant on the overmarking of music… or the paint-by-numbers approach to making music

by Libby Sternberg

In addition to being a novelist, I’m a musician. I sing. (Yes, anyone who makes music is a musician–the word doesn’t just refer to instrumentalists.) I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in voice from a music conservatory. (That and a few bucks will get you a…well, you know.)

I have a pet peeve. It is: composers and arrangers who overmark their music, with every page cluttered with dynamic and tempo markings. I don’t know if this happens in instrumental music so much or if composers/arrangers of vocal music have decided that singers are just so danged dumb that they have to tell them in virtually every bar how soft, how loud, how fast, how slow they need to be singing.

Last night at choir rehearsal, I saw a marking on a choral piece that, to me, illustrated the depths to which this overmarking lunacy has descended. We were practicing an anthem, a piece by a still-living Very Well-Known Church Composer. Every choir in the country has probably sung something by this excellent composer at some point in their choral lives. One of our basses, a volunteer with a wonderful voice, who is not a trained musician, asked our choir director at one point what a marking meant. The word above a particular section read: cantabile.

Deep breath. Cantabile. In a choral piece.

Let’s think about this. Cantabile means songlike. So the composer is telling us to sing…as if we’re singing.

Good thing he put that in there because I think all of us had it in our minds to sing that passage as if we were, oh, I don’t know...drumming?

As you can imagine, if a composer feels the need to tell singers to sing as if they’re singing a song, he’s not bashful about telling them other things. Such as crescendos and decrescendos to mezzo-piano, mezzo-forte, lots of  dolce markings (sweetly, as opposed to, oh, I guess “sourly,” our preferred method of singing).

The irony is that in this particular piece, all of these markings are redundant. This composer is so skillful at writing sweet songlike lines where tension in the underlying harmonies pulls and pushes you toward natural crescendos and decrescendos that he could have left the entire manuscript as unmarked as an unedited sixteenth century motet, and even the stupidest choir on earth would have been able to get the dolce lines right, the swelling sounds, the diminuendo and rallentando molto at the very end. (“Molto?” Is that really necessary when it’s as clear as day that the piece is slowing down naturally at the end, Mr…..?)

The problem with this overmarking isn’t just how it insults the performer’s intelligence. It sets up a situation where the fastidious directors and singers are constantly trying to honor the composer’s intentions, trying to find that perfect mezzo forte at the end of a crescendo, trying mightily to delineate it from that mezzo piano marked at the end of some other decrescendo.

To me, the effect ends up being like a paint-by-numbers canvas. Instead of really listening to each other, we’re all focused on whether we’ve gotten loud enough on the forte to pull back to the mf at the precise moment it’s marked above the bar.

Painting by numbers is fun. I remember doing it as a kid. But in the end, you have a painting with no soul and no meaning except blotches of color. The whole is not equal to the sum of its parts.

Let singers sing, composers and arrangers. We might not be the brightest bulbs in the pack, but we’re not complete idiots.

End of ranty-rant.

Carry on.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist, freelance writer and editor. www.LibbySternberg.com

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Design Your Own Bookstore

by Libby Sternberg

Borders is gone, and Barnes & Noble is struggling. The book world keens. book_banner

Remember the days when these big-box bookstores were the subject of the same kind of criticism leveled at Amazon today? They were too big, too cookie-cutter, too impersonal, too greedy, too…whatever. Reacting, at least in part, to the rise of these mega-bookstores, the American Booksellers Association began Book Sense, a loose organization of independent booksellers who joined together for promotions and other marketing activities. Book Sense eventually morphed into IndieBound.

Personally, I don’t care whether a bookstore is big-box or small indie, as long as it’s good. So, what constitutes a “good” bookstore?  How would I design the perfect (for me) bookstore if I were as rich as Croesus?

Below are elements of what my Perfect Bookstore would look like. Before I begin, let me state the obvious: bricks-and-mortar bookstores, in order to be successful, have to find ways to compete with the online book-buying experience. I believe they can. But they won’t do it by trying to guilt customers away from online buying. Online purchases are a way of life. Don’t fight that. Join it. Think what makes online purchasing such a draw–depth of inventory and convenience–and what would complement that draw.

LIBBY’S PERFECT BOOKSTORE:

Size: It would be big, as big as the megastores.  Most Barnes & Nobles now have the footprint I like.

Offerings: It’s a bookstore. Books would be the primary products. They’d be the first thing you see when you come in the door. Not wrapping paper, CDs, DVDs, digital readers, a cafe or calendars. In-store coupons would provide generous incentives to browsers to keep coming back to the bricks-and-mortar store.

Other stuff: Despite the note above, my store would still offer CDs, DVDs, wrapping paper, goo-gaws, book-related merchandise, calendars, and a cafe. These are big revenue producers. And even I like to browse through these areas in bookstores.

Digital and POD: This is a crucial part of the new Perfect Bookstore, part of what will take the online experience and make it “more so.”  Currently, going into a bricks-and-mortar store can often mean not finding the book you want on the shelves. However, bookstores can lure the online purchaser into their stores to browse, to buy, if they also offer a superlative online buying experience. Somewhere in the store, there would be a corner devoted to online buys, digital offerings and POD books. Maybe several computer/tablet/digital reader stations?  My Perfect Bookstore would offer discount coupon codes at the entry to this area of the store for anyone buying this content AT THE STORE.  As to Print-on-Demand…my Perfect Bookstore would work with publishers to ensure that many books would be available this way, so that the customer looking for a read that’s not cost-effective to keep stocked in inventory can still get it quickly and easily…at a bookstore.

The Cafe: First rule: no print books in this section unless you’ve bought them. Second rule: you should be encouraged to keep browsing in the cafe…for books. Most tables should include a digital reader and/or other device that allows readers to sample books and then use an in-store coupon to buy digital material right there in the cafe.

Staff: The staff all have to be book lovers/readers. “Staff picks” should be promoted for all book areas and large displays would showcase the staff’s preferences. But here’s a qualifier: my Perfect Bookstore would require staff to choose favorites from independent authors and/or publishers. Readers already know James Patterson/Lee Childs/Michael Connelly/Nora Roberts/Jodi Picoult and all those fabulous best selling authors. And, they can pick up reviews of the latest Big Five literary gems. What readers can’t do is sort through the growing number of indie offerings and decide what’s best. At my Perfect Bookstore, staff would have to choose favorites from indies to help guide readers to what’s best in the indie field. (As an aside, one of my pet peeves with Book Sense was that it seemed to promote the same Big Five books I could get at big-box stores for less money.)

That’s all I have for now! But the goal of my Perfect Bookstore would be: to make the bookstore experience so enticing and so valuable that readers would hesitate before making an online purchase at home, thinking to themselves, “Hmm, maybe I should check out what Perfect Bookstore has to offer first.”

Send me your ideas for what your perfect bookstore would look like!

____

Libby Sternberg is a novelist and freelance writer and editor. www.LibbySternberg.com

 

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REVIEW: “The Poisoner’s Handbook” by Deborah Blum

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum (Penguin Books 2010)

9781594202438_custom-0b4b6f04142734d180d11b428295035e3dca4286-s6-c30Deborah Blum’s page-turning book about the rise of real forensic science in New York City during the Jazz Age is mistitled. It’s not a do-it-yourself tome on how to use poison (legally or illegally) but rather a history of how one medical examiner, Charles Norris, working with a very talented toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, began to bring strong scientific principles to bear on determining how people died–specifically, how they died of poison.

I became aware of Ms. Blum’s book after watching a PBS American Experience show of the same name and on the same topic  earlier this year. The author was interviewed extensively throughout the show, and, while it was a riveting hour of television, it left me wanting to know more. So I went in search of her book.

She’s a good writer who knows how to tell a story, and she sets the stage for her tale equally well. Prior to forensic science’s ability to determine the presence of toxic substances within a dead body, poison was a convenient problem solver for many a malevolent mind. So much so, in fact, that arsenic was dubbed “the inheritance powder.”

Eventually, scientists were able to conduct tests on tissues and organs that revealed deadly toxins in measurable quantities and helped point to those who might have administered them. But even as these scientific advances were marching forward, other obstacles to good criminal detection had to be overcome. Political corruption was one. Ms. Blum points out that, for many years, the position of medical examiner was a patronage job, given by politicians to favored friends. You didn’t even need to be a doctor to fill the position, and many who got it used it to line their pocketbooks–by accepting bribes in order to write a benign “cause of death” on a death certificate, by taking kickbacks from funeral homes to which they’d steer grieving family members of victims.

That began to change in New York City with the appointment of Charles Norris, a wealthy, ethical and determined doctor who then hired a man, Alexander Gettler, as toxicologist, who shared Norris’s ethos and work habits. Together, they began setting the standard for forensic work and police detection.

Ms. Blum organizes her story with chapters titled with poison names: mercury, chloroform, thallium, carbon monoxide, cyanide, and the inheritance powder itself, arsenic. She details how the poisons work on the body and then includes cases that Gettler and Norris worked on involving these poisons, often refining poison detection processes along the way. The individual cases are intriguing whodunnits, some of which have surprising denouements (such as one involving a man accused of poisoning his family with thallium, only to be exonerated by good detective/forensic work and the real culprit fingered).

Along the way, Ms. Blum also throws in a good amount of public safety history. In the days before the FDA regulated such things, poisons were regularly available, with no warnings as to their potential fatal consequences. In fact, many substances we know are explicitly harmful were touted as having life-enhancing qualities, leading to facial creams with arsenic in them, radium tonics, and even more dubious snake oil potions.

She opens readers’ eyes to why regulation of such substances was necessary. Not only were the items toxic, but often, businesses involved in their manufacture denied negative impacts to the point of delusion. In one incident, where workers were being poisoned into insanity by contact with an additive, tetraethyl lead (TEL), to gasoline, she recounts the story of Standard Oil’s rebuttal to concerns:

In answer to this new round of criticism, Standard Oil…brought (Thomas) Midgley, the TEL developer, to hold a press conference at its Manhattan offices. He assured reporters that handled properly there was nothing dangerous about his prize discovery. To prove it, he washed his hands in a bowl filled with TEL.

Eventually, unsafe TEL plants were closed or workers issued and ordered to use protective clothing. Mr. Midgley himself, Ms. Blum reports, went on an “extended European vacation” several months after his hand-washing press conference, “seeking treatment for the effects of lead poisoning.”

Another grim tale of corporate denial was the case of poor immigrant girls unknowingly poisoned by radium as they painted watch dials with the substance to make them glow in the dark. They’d often wet their brushes with their tongues to get a fine point, and this ingestion and exposure led to painful disability and ultimate death. Yet the company that hired them fought responsibility in court.

These and other incidents of businesses fighting regulation provide some useful context to today’s regulatory battles. That said, it’s hard not to have some sympathy for the company owners involved in these public safety debacles of the past. At a time when many poisons were used as “cures” and when Marie Curie herself carried around vials of radioactive isotopes in her skirt pockets to use in lectures, it’s easy to see how public safety concerns could be dismissed as alarmist jabbering. Madame Curie, by the way, eventually died of aplastic anemia, the disease that had claimed many of the radium-paint girls.

The government, however, has to take the prize for villainous behavior in this tale of poisonous activity. Ms. Blum points out that Norris and Tettler both regularly railed against Prohibition and its deaths due to wood alcohol poisoning, deaths that were surely increased as the government insisted on more and more poison being added to industrial alcohols to deter drinkers from using them as potable liquor.

Some online reviewers have criticized Ms. Blum for some sloppy scientific explanations here and there. For this nonscientist reader, those didn’t matter and weren’t the meat of the story anyway. Instead, the book is a very readable romp through forensic history, every bit as compelling as an episode of CSI.

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REVIEW: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Life-after-Life-The part I enjoyed the most about Kate Atkinson’s novel Life after Life was her note to readers after the book, in which she tells the origins of the story.

“I was born at the end of 1951,” she writes, “and grew up feeling that I had just missed the Second World War, that something terrible and tremendous had occurred and I would never know it.”

Much of Life after Life takes place during that war, following the protagonist Ursula Todd and her family and friends through some cataclysmic homefront events, most notably the bombing of London.

I can sympathize greatly with Atkinson’s feeling. Like her, I’m a baby boomer and a novelist (though nowhere near her league in popularity or acclaim), and the war called to me, too. So much so that I penned my own novel about it, and it served as something of a catharsis to write about what I’d only felt through others.

The problem with writing a novel about a war one has only known through the experiences of others, most notably our parents’ generation, is that you always feel you lack verisimilitude, no matter how much research you do, and you can worry that your story will have a certain thinness to it, even if the subject matter is serious and thoughtful.

So I understand the need, too, to dress up a straightforward war story with other devices. And Ms. Atkinson has chosen a doozy. In her story, Ursula Todd is born–or not–in 1910 with an ability to live again. She has premonitions of impending doom, of deaths experienced in the past, and she is able to “correct” her future by reliving pivotal moments.

The story is told as overlapping vignettes. Her birth itself appears numerous times throughout the book. And a shabby and tragic marriage to an abuser ends when she “dies” and is able to avoid the incident–an assault–that led her to be a passive victim to such a man later in her life.

If this sounds confusing, it is, at least at first. Once you grasp the book’s conceit, it’s easy enough to follow, and Ms. Atkinson is a skillful, beautiful writer whose prose truly does sing. You don’t just read of pre-World War I England. You feel its “prelapsarian,” “Arcadian” stillness, to use words she chooses when talking about the book in her Afterward. She’s one of those immensely talented writers who doesn’t just describe something. She yanks you by the scruff of the neck and puts you smack in the scene where you can virtually smell its scents. She does this, not with overwritten passages and purple prose, but with simple observations that have you nodding your head to the deja vu you experience at the scene-building.

All of this, though, is what leads me to disappointment. About halfway through the book, I wanted to give up, jump to the end to see how she wrapped it all up (Does Ursula manage to assassinate Hitler?). I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did–the last quarter of the novel is its best part, when she allows us to stay with Ursula for an extended period in one time period, during the London Blitz. It was only then that I began to care about Ursula and what happened to her…because she remained one person.

In the previous scenes, and their retellings, I felt as if I were reading several related short stories whose protagonists might share the name Ursula along with other plot points, but nothing else. The Ursula of those stories seemed flat, a “cipher” as one critic called her. And, even though she has one Groundhog Day after another, she doesn’t seem to learn a critical lesson, like Bill Murray’s character did in the comedic film of that name, that allows her to finally move forward. Instead, it’s as if we’re seeing a dramatic enactment of Ursula’s versions of those Direct TV ads that rest on “what if” constructs (“When you pay too much for cable, you throw things, when you throw things….”). At the end of each ad, the lesson is clear: to avoid disaster, dump cable. Ursula seems capable of only learning that simple lesson, as well: to avoid disaster, change X.

When readers are finally allowed to settle in with Ursula during the war years, the author begins to drop in some hints as to why she used this time-changing device:

“What if we had a chance to do it again and again,” Teddy said, “until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
***
Life wasn’t about becoming, was it? It was about being.
***

Dr. Kellet: Time is a construct, in reality everything flows, no past or present, only the now.”

You can almost see an editor’s margin note: Kate, this is all fabulous! But could you explain to the reader more explicitly why all the time changes?

A number of nonwriters whose opinion I respect read and loved Life after Life. A couple writer friends read it and either didn’t think much of it or didn’t finish it after getting the conceit and deciding it wasn’t worth the time. I haven’t surveyed all my writer pals about it, but I do wonder if some writers might have a lower tolerance for book “gimmicks” because they themselves have left them in their own toolboxes, unused.

At any rate, I salute Ms. Atkinson on a beautifully written story, one whose war year tales speak to this writer’s heart. But I would have preferred a more linear, less “shiny” telling without the time-shifting thread.

For those like me who want such a read about England’s homefront stories during the war, try Elizabeth Jane Howard’s excellent series on the fictional Cazelet family.

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