The butterfly effect flaps its wings for Lively

The butterfly effect is a metaphor used in the study of chaos theory to explain how a small action in a remote part of a system can have large effects far from the source. That’s the phenomena that Penelope Lively examines to great delight in How It All Began.

An elderly woman is mugged. She falls, breaks her hip, is forced to move in with her daughter and son-in-law while she recovers. And that particular flap of the butterfly’s wings leads into consequences in a multitude of lives, near and far.

Lively has taken a common premise — the effect of chance in all of our lives — and deftly turned out a uniquely charming and thoughtful novel. Charlotte is that elderly crime victim, a widowed retired schoolteacher. Rose is her dutiful and loving daughter, who brings her mother into her home completely unaware of the emotional havoc that will be wrought. Charlotte herself remains oblivious to much of the havoc that will result, even in the lives of people neither Rose nor Charlotte have ever met. Marriages are destroyed and saved, romances go sour and blossom, careers are ended and begun, and all because a juvenile delinquent decided to assault a total stranger.

Lively’s writing lives up to her name. On the surface it is lighthearted, breezy, casual, but I found myself stopping again and again to mark passages that managed to capture truths that felt universal:

Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has had an effect on who she is and how she thinks. She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.

Charlotte, left alone for great swaths of the day, has plenty of time to think about her current circumstances:

You are on the edge of things now, clinging on to life’s outer rim. You have this comet trail of your own lived life, sparks from which arrive in the head all the time, whether you want them or not — life has been lived but it is all still going on, in the mind, for better and for worse. But don’t imagine that anyone else wants to know about it; this narrative is personal, and mind you remember that.

Her injury brings her face-to-face with the reality of having lived seventy-seven years:

You slide, in old age, into a state of perpetual diffidence, of unspoken apology. You walk more slowly than normal people, you are obliged to say “what?” too often, others have to give up their seat on the bus to you, on train journeys you must ask for help with your absurdly small and light case. There is a void somewhere in your head into which tip the most familiar names. … When you were young yourself you were appropriately nice to old people, gave up your seat and so forth, but you never really thought about them. They were another species, their experience was unimaginable, and in any case it was irrelevant; you were not going there, or at least not for so long that there was no need to consider it.

And, of course, the ever-present reminder of her physical state:

Pain is in residence. Charlotte is a pain expert, or maybe connoisseur is a better term. She can rate pain on a scale of one to ten, as required in hospital, even slipping in a half on occasion. “Six and a half this morning,” and the nurse’s pen falters — the charts do not allow for this. But when you have lived for years with pain you are nicely tuned to that extra notch up or down. More than that, she is familiar with the way in which pain chases around the body, popping up where it should not be. Referred pain, this is called, a sly escape from the root site of the problem. Indeed — but Charlotte sees it also as pain’s malign capacity to mutate, to advance and retreat, to behave like some bodily parasite with its own agenda, gnawing away when it feels like it, going into deceptive hibernation only to spring back grinning just when you thought the going was good. … So pain has seized the opportunity, has danced into her spine — and into the backside and down the legs — and has shoved the hip aside for the moment. Tomorrow all may be otherwise; hip may snarl, back may be in remission — pain’s agenda is unpredictable, perverse, defiant.

And always, Lively celebrates the joy of reading, of books, of learning a second language:

Language blazed at him—all day, every day. It challenged him from the sides of buses, in the Tube, from newspapers. On the radio, the television, in the street. He looked and listened, trying to follow. He snatched what he could — Ah! that I understand, this I can get. Swathes of it escaped him, chattering away into oblivion. And parallel to this perverse, obstructive language ran the words in his own head, the easy, fluent eloquence of his own tongue. When in a foreign country, he thought, you are behind a fence, or in a cell — everything is going on around you but you are not quite part of it. You open your mouth and sound like a child; you know that you are someone else, but you cannot explain it.

Balancing a light tone with some heavy philosophical musings isn’t easy, but Lively manages to walk the tightrope without a wobble. I read this book as part of the British Author Challenge on LibraryThing, where Lively was one of two authors featured in January. How It All Began was a splendid introduction to the work of this venerable British writer.


‘Cuckoo’ takes flight without a wizard in sight

The Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Gailbraith. (Little, Brown and Company, 2013)

This one almost slipped past me. I knew, of course, that J.K. Rowling had written a detective novel for adults under a pen name, but all I remember reading about it was that fact; there must have been reviews of the book as a book and not a publishing phenomenon but I don’t remember reading any. But if you hang around LibraryThing or any other group of avid readers, you know how it goes: Listen to enough people talking about what they’re reading and eventually all those positive comments start to accumulate even in an overstuffed brain like mine. Off to the library!

And you know what? I’m glad I listened to all of you, because this one is pretty darn good. Cormoran Strike is a former war hero-turned-private detective, down to one leg and down on his luck, when a rich client comes to him with an impossible case: Prove that the death of his sister, a world-famous model, was murder and not suicide. Even Strike doesn’t believe it’s true, but he needs the money and brother John is willing to pay. And a funny thing happens on the way to a no-hoper payday: Strike starts to think brother dear is right.

Strike is no Sherlock Holmes. There are no wild “aren’t I clever” flights of deductive genius on display, just dogged determination and a tenuous sense for who’s not telling the whole truth. Temp secretary Robin ably plays non-Watson to Strike’s non-Holmes, with parts of the book told from her point of view. Galbraith/Rowling portrays Strike as a bit of a sad sack, reduced to sleeping in his office when he breaks up with his rich girlfriend, but somehow makes him an appealing sack for all of that. I’ve already put myself on the holds list the library for the second in the series, The Silkworm.

Oh, no! Not another series! But this one’s pretty good

A Duty to the Dead, Charles Todd. (William Morrow, 2009)

Another series? When I already have way too many series going (80, according to, and who ever thought that was a good idea, tracking series)? What can I say? I am helpless before the mighty ebook sale tsunami!

Alas, this series of mysteries featuring World War I nurse Bess Crawford was worth breaking all my self-imposed rules for. The first book finds Bess, home on convalescent leave after the hospital ship she served on was sunk at sea, traveling to Kent to deliver a deathbed message to the family of a soldier who died under her care. While there, she manages to get tangled in a decades-old murder mystery. As one does, apparently, when one is a spunky WWI nurse with a heart of gold and a brain of … steel (trap)? Whatever.

I liked that this series defied some of the typical conventions. Perhaps Bess is a bit too spunky for the times, but her family (including her highly respected military dad) cautiously encourages her free spirit to a remarkable extent. That’s refreshing, as is the near-total lack of a romantic entanglement for Bess, who while no raving beauty is apparently not a complete “antidote” (yes, I’ve been reading too much Georgette Heyer lately).

Will I continue with the series? Oh sure, why not? I liked Bess and I liked her dad and his faithful batman. I’m curious to know what she gets up to next. It’s a helluva thing when an English nurse has to worry more about the murderous deeds of her fellow countrymen than those blasted Germans, though.

Thriller about the dictionary (!) aims high and falls just short

The Word Exchange, Alena Graedon (Random House, 2014)

In the not-so-distant future nearly everyone owns a Meme, a sort of supercharged iPhone that can access information not only across the Internet but inside your brain. It knows to call a cab when you get in the elevator to head home from work. It can order for you at restaurants, anticipating what you will want to eat, bypassing the need for waiters and waitresses and their forced chumminess. And it can provide you with all the entertainment you could ever want, from videos (“streams”) to art (“glyphs”) to books.

In fact, so successful are Memes at running their owners’ lives, the need for the printed word is all but gone. Newspapers, magazines, and books have all gone online, the better to be accessed by Meme, and dictionaries have been superseded by The Word Exchange, an online program that instantly pops up definitions on the Meme’s screen when it hears a word spoken in your conversations that you don’t recognize. It’s so quick and easy to look up what you don’t know — phone numbers, song titles, word definitions — that people stop bothering to remember … well, anything. So what happens when a virus spreads a sort of “word flu” inside the Meme operating system that leaves people unable to think straight, speak coherently or use language at all?

That’s the premise of The Word Exchange, a book that has a big, exciting premise and lots of small successes but fails to completely pull together into a satisfying whole. The story is told almost entirely from the point of view of Anana, who works with her father, Doug, the editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL). The edition that is about to be printed will be the last printed dictionary on earth and when Doug disappears just prior to the big launch, Anana suspects something sinister might have happened to him. But who could be behind his disappearance? Who wants to suppress the NADEL’s publication? What is going on in the boiler room in the dictionary’s basement? And why are Anana and lots of other people suddenly unable to remember even the simplest vocabulary as she searches for answers?

Along with the suspenseful aspects of the plot (“a thriller about the dictionary” is how I described it to my friend Liz), Graedon provides long swatches of conversation and musings by Anana and co-worker Bart on the meaning of language and words. A fair bit of it went over my head, since I was sick the day we covered philosophy in school (ahem), but I got enough of the gist to appreciate what might be at stake in a world where printed words no longer exist. If there’s no authoritative source to prove what a word means (given that online definitions can be altered in the blink of an eye), who gets to write the definitions? And what if the people in charge don’t have the most noble intentions?

I wanted to love this book more than I did, although I liked it plenty. It felt as though Graedon expended so much energy and space on both the background of how Memes became so ubiquitous and the philosophy of language that the actual day-to-day plot got shoved to the side at times. The big reveal of the bad guys was a bit anticlimactic.

It felt as if The Word Exchange wanted to be two different books — a suspenseful mystery and a love letter to language and the written word — and in the end both suffered a bit for being crammed into the same suitcase. I still think it’s well worth reading, however, for the ways it will make you think about how much you’ve ceded your memory to your computer and smartphone, and how much you love the way language can communicate the human experience in all its glory and despair.

Classic Vonnegut still resonates

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut (Delacorte, 1969)

Thanks to a friend’s American Author Reading Challenge (read at least one book by a specific author in each month of 2014), I finally tackled this classic novel that has been on my shelves forever. It’s hard for me to understand how I didn’t know much about it beyond the fact that the main character was named Billy Pilgrim and the bombing of Dresden in World War II featured prominently, but so it goes. It was a surprise and a delight to discover the way Vonnegut used farcical situations and humor to illuminate some deadly serious events.

The central conceit of the novel, if that’s the right term for it, is that Billy Pilgrim has the unsettling habit of becoming “unstuck in time”, wherein he travels backwards and forwards in the timeline of his own life, experiencing and re-experiencing the things that have happened or will happen to him. Pilgrim himself is convinced that the catalyst is a race of extraterrestrials who at one point kidnap him and put him on display in a sort of human zoo on their home planet. Vonnegut leaves it to the reader to decide what they think is the real cause of the time traveling episodes. Is Pilgrim mentally ill? Did his traumatic experiences as a prisoner of war during WWII unhinge his brain? Are the Tralfmadorians real, with their non-linear understanding of what time is? Billy tries to explain their sense of time:

It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’.

It’s easy to see how such a philosophy might comfort a man who has seen unimaginable death and destruction, in the war and back home in upstate New York.

I found myself marking many passages as I read Slaughterhouse-Five and I could fill a review with them. But I’ll end with just one more quote, which though written in 1969 could as easily have been penned in some non-linear today or tomorrow:

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue, the monograph went on. Their most destructive truth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.

So it goes.

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and ‘Countdown City’ feels fine

Countdown City, Ben H. Winters (Quirk Books, 2013)

Hank Palace is back in the second book in the “Last Policeman” series. Hank is no longer a cop, after his homicide unit was disbanded at the end of the first book, The Last Policeman. Indeed, the police aren’t doing much of anything anymore, just biding their time like everyone else until an asteroid strikes the earth and destroys civilization as we know it. As the time grows nearer, people become increasingly unnerved and unpredictable, most governmental services are just a memory, and informal barter sites have sprung up to help people get the things they need to survive until the end.

That’s the situation Palace is living in when he answers a plea from his former babysitter to find her missing husband. No one he talks to can understand why he’s bothering. It’s not his job anymore, and anyway people are going “Bucket List” all the time these days, as impending disaster causes them to rethink their lives and cut to the chase of what’s really important to them. But then again, what else is there for Palace to do while he waits with everyone else for the imminent end of the world?

Palace has a quality that reminds me of Lawrence Block’s great noir series character, Matthew Scudder. Neither of them are brilliant analytical minds or geniuses at reading clues. But each has a bulldog tenacity that will not allow them to give up until they find the answers they are looking for. That stubborness leads Palace — and his bichon frise, Houdini — to a possibly mob-connected pizza/bowling joint, a commune established on the former campus of the University of New Hampshire, and an abandoned fort on the Maine coast. Every time he thinks he’s getting closer to find the answer, he realizes he’s asking the wrong question.

I found Countdown City a reasonably compelling read. As I did with the first book, I found the psychological impact of an impending asteroid strike irritatingly underdeveloped. Winters’ characters are well-drawn and interesting, and I found much to admire in Hank and his dogged insistence on doing what’s right even when no one else seems to care anymore. This one ends not with a cliffhanger but with a plot development that promises some interesting possibilities for the third book, which I look forward to reading when it comes out.

Overhype Syndrome claims ‘A.J. Fikry’

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin Books, 2014)

A.J. Fikry is in his late 30s, owner of a bookstore on an island that sounds similar to Martha’s Vineyard. He’s grumpy and bitter, partly because he’s a grumpy bitter person and partly because he is mourning the loss of his young wife just a couple of years earlier. So when publishing sales rep Amelia stops by the bookstore to try to sell him some books, he is startlingly rude to her and sends her on her way. Readers won’t want to spend much time with guy unless he changes his ways quick, and fortunately a plot device baby is abandoned in the bookstore to provide the catalyst he needs.

I may have been suffering a bit from Overhype Syndrome when I read this one. I can see why so many readers loved it, with its charming bookstore setting and its reverent attitude toward books. But I found the characters fairly undeveloped, to the extent that the bit I think was supposed to be a big emotional climax left me fairly unmoved. I also found the timeline to be a bit screwy, as the story unfolds over about 17 years. The stated lengths of time that were meant to have passed between certain events seem virtually impossible given the ages of the people involved at various points along the way.

Between each chapter the narrative is put on hold while we read an analysis of a short story. It’s clear that these are A.J.’s reviews of stories that he considers essential reading, but we learn only slowly who he’s writing them for and why. Many of the stories were familiar to me, but a few were not and I’m looking forward to checking those out. Regardless of my feelings about the rest of the book, I’m always happy to add to my already too-long to-be-read list.

I never expected that anything but time would help me get over my bitterness at losing this book in the Booktopia Boulder Yankee Swap, but now that I’ve read it I’m glad it went to someone else who with any luck will feel the same rapture so many of you did. That I didn’t is my loss, clearly.

Reading ‘The Shining’ at 19 and 49

the shining-newMy friend Mamie and I have embarked on a shared read of The Shining. I wanted to re-read it prior to starting the new sequel, Doctor Sleep, because it’s been so long since I read it. So far I have gotten to Chapter 20, which is about a third of the way through. I had forgotten how much stuff happens before the really really bad stuff happens, but that’s Stephen King for you. He builds the suspense with a plethora of quotidian detail and just a few hints of what’s to come, so that when the shit hits the fan you are totally invested in the characters and the situation.

I first read The Shining back in the mid-1980s. I was working part-time at the local newspaper as a sports stringer. Part of my job was hanging out in the office at night to take phone calls from coaches reporting their game results and box scores. The office was closed, of course, so I was alone in the building and usually didn’t bother turning on any extra lights other than the ones that burned all night and were more than adequate to see and read by.

I was 19, maybe 20 years old. I was already head-over-heels in love with newspapers and journalism, and I loved being alone in the building, where I could snoop around in the advertising department’s clip art library, play with the waxer (for page pasteup, not legs and eyebrows) and the old Linotype headline writer, and look at the pictures everyone kept on their desk. (Yes, I was a weird kid who grew up into a weird young adult and then … well, you can guess the rest.)

I would usually be there until about 11 p.m. or midnight, and there was lots of waiting time between coaches’ phone calls. I always brought along whatever book I was reading at the time. I locked the doors while I was there alone even though this was a small town (about 9,000 people) and there was little chance of anything bad happening. I was never afraid to be there by myself. Except…

Except the night I brought along The Shining. It isn’t particularly scary at first, as you know if you’ve read it. I mean, now we know what to expect from a Stephen King book so even when you’re reading the opening chapters of Under the Dome or 11/22/63  you are already mentally on edge for the horror to start, but back then I hadn’t read much of his stuff (there really wasn’t much of his stuff yet to read) so I didn’t know that.

The night I’m thinking of, I had gotten to the chapter I just finished reading tonight, Chapter 19, when young Danny has an encounter in a hotel hallway with a fire extinguisher. I won’t say more, but if you’ve read it I know you remember. I sat there at my desk in the newsroom of that empty, quiet-but-not-silent building, and reading every paragraph of that chapter was an agony of terror and anticipation. I kept forgetting to breathe and then gasping more air into my lungs. When the phone rang, I yelped out loud.

As I started re-reading The Shining this past Monday, I mentally prepared myself not to be disappointed because it was unlikely the book would affect me the same way now. Not only am I older and have more experience of the world, I already know what happens in the end. I told myself it would still be interesting to re-read from a more analytical perspective, to see how King’s writing has developed over the years and how he structured the story, etc etc etc.

Well, forget all that. Chapter 19 scared the bejesus out of me at 49 just as surely as it did at 19. I could scarcely stand reading to the end of the chapter and when I finally got there, I had to put the book down and do something else. I will not be reading any more in this book tonight, or any night after dark. We can analyze and theorize and intellectualize all we want about books and writing. Stephen King still scares the pants off me, and I hope he always will.

Plenty of pride & even prejudice on display in ‘Longbourn’

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

book cover of Longbourn by Jo BakerThat’s the iconic opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a 19th-century comedy of manners that centers on the Bennett family of rural England. The Bennetts have five daughters and a fiscal situation that dictates each of them must marry to the best possible advantage, as the property laws of the time forbid any of them inheriting their father’s property when he dies. The lengths Mrs. Bennett goes to in pursuit of that goal, and the lengths her various daughters go to either in aid or opposition of her goals, make up the heart of this satirical romance. For all the time spent with the Bennetts, however, Austen gives us very few glimpses of quotidian life at Longbourn, the Bennett family home.

Enter Jo Baker, whose recent novel Longbourn goes “downstairs” to plunge us into the lives of the servants who keep the Bennett household humming. Baker tells us right away what she’s about, with a first line that could be just as iconic as the one Austen wrote:

If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them.

Sarah is one of two housemaids who toils from dawn to dark at Longbourn, cleaning and laundering and sewing and laying fires and emptying chamber pots for five young ladies who scarcely seem to notice their existence, not to mention a mother prone to hysterics and a father who is not nearly as blandly benevolent in Baker’s telling as he was in Austen’s. There’s also a cook, her husband the butler, and a mysterious new footman who sets the servants’ buzzing. Fittingly, romantic intrigue and misdirection shows itself as prevalent belowstairs as it is above.

Each chapter of Longbourn begins with a brief quotation from P&P, which serves to orient the story in the original book’s timeline for readers like me who have read the original enough times to know exactly what passage each epigraph is referring to. Through the eyes of Sarah mostly, we get glimpses of the events of P&P as they would have been experienced by the household help. The arrival of the very rich and very eligible Mr. Bingley in the neighborhood, which sets the entire house aflutter in Austen’s tale, causes barely a ripple for Sarah and the others. In contrast, an event that was a mere throwaway line in P&P, the need to journey into town to buy shoe roses for the Bennett girls to wear to a ball at Bingley’s estate, is expanded into a epic quest for Sarah through a rainstorm, witnessing a flogging, and a chastely romantic encounter with a servant from a nearby estate.

That chapter serves as a perfect microcosm for what Longbourn adds to what is admittedly one of the most perfect novels ever written. Longbourn shines a light into the dark corners of 19th-century life, where the lower classes experienced hardship and dangers arising sometimes from necessity but more often from a mere whim of someone with the power to make them comply. I came away from Longbourn not liking Pride and Prejudice any less, but certainly having a new appreciation for things unsaid and people unseen in the Austen classic.


‘The Goldfinch’ soars high

Wow, what a sprawling, magnificent, compelling story Donna Tartt tells in this book that is about so much more than the painting referred to in the title. It’s about art, beauty, fear, abandonment, carelessness, remorse, redemption, sorrow and joy. It’s about the value of friendship, the pain of loss, the holes that life leaves in all of us and the ways we choose to fill them up.

Theo Decker is 13 years old when a tragedy leaves him without parents. He is taken in by the family of a school friend, and just when it seems his life has begun to stabilize he is uprooted and set on a path that leads him from New York City to Las Vegas to Amsterdam and back again. He bounces around between various sets of parents, surrogate and otherwise, some of whom are loving but all of whom seem incapable of giving him the sort of focused attention that could help anchor him in the world around him. Instead, he is forced to use an inanimate object — that painting pictured on the cover — to be his touchstone. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t enough to keep him safe in a world filled with so many easy ways to flirt with danger.

The story that Theo tells is long, involved, intricate, densely layered with events that seem loaded with meaning beyond what they or he can bear. The further into the story I ventured, the stronger was my feeling of constant low-level anxiety for what would become of Theo. It seemed impossible from the very beginning that he would live happily ever after — that anyone in his world would — and every page I turned ratcheted up the tension. I didn’t always like Theo. Often I disapproved of the choices he made and the things he did, but that didn’t stop me from desperately wanting him to find the sanctuary that he seemed to spend his whole life looking for. I didn’t always like the people he surrounded himself with. Or perhaps more accurately, I didn’t always like the things he did with and to the people who surrounded him, and I didn’t always like how even the most sympathetic of them still failed utterly at providing a safe harbor for a lost soul. And yet I still hoped, right up until the end, that each of them would be redeemed, that everything would work out, that everyone would — finally! — do the right thing for themselves and for Theo.

The Goldfinch isn’t a perfect book. It’s long, almost unbearably long, made bearable for me only by the fact of its being an ebook and thus not an intimidating physical chunk to remind me of just how much story was left to tell. There are sections that go on and on and don’t seem to do much to advance either the plot or the characters’ development. There are a few too many supporting characters who are sketchily drawn and serve mainly as a placeholder for a group stereotype. But always, there was some redeeming action or insight waiting on the other side, rewarding me for pushing on.

I finished reading The Goldfinch yesterday, and even as I’ve moved on to my next book I find myself thinking about Theo at random times during the day, as if he were someone I know. I recall particular passages or scenes and think about how often Tartt chooses to work against the expected tropes. The chilly upper-class woman whose family takes young Theo in turns out to genuinely like him and treat him as part of the family even long after he’s grown up. None of the most important characters are purely saints or sinners; just as in real life people turn out to be more complicated than that. Just as this book is more complicated than a story about a painting.