Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life” and “A God in Ruins”

Quickly – and then I’ll go back to doing what I’m supposed to be doing, which is nothing, or more specifically – resting. But resting, of course, means reading, and some wonderful books have kept me company in these past weeks.

A dear friend says she retreats to “things English” in times needing comfort, and I agree. I never tire of things being made better by cups of tea and a sense of humor.

Somehow I’ve missed Kate Atkinson’s books, but I’m catching up. “Life After Life” amazed me. Britain – beginning in 1910, through the period between the wars, to the Blitz.

A family home, Fox Corner, provides touchstone as the years go by – and the Todd family, matriarch Sylvie, four children, Maurice, Pamela, Ursula, and Teddy, and their dearly loved father named Hugh. (Are all solid, kind, slightly befuddled men in England named Hugh? The Reverend Seal I lived with was Hugh, and Hugh Crawley, of course.)

The central character, Ursula, repeatedly dies and reappears in another iteration. Dying and starting over, each time slightly or dramatically different. That doesn’t sound like it would work, but it does – and often to the reader’s relief. They can’t be real, these different possibilities, but Atkinson makes them seem perfectly plausible.

In “A God in Ruins,” Atkinson continues Ursula’s brother’s Teddy story – coming into the present. He’s a beloved-by-all character and a fighter pilot. Atkinson takes you into those little planes where so many died while dropping death.

I loved the literary references in thoughts or speech, like the character who realizes she’s “married a Casaubon,” and the oft-repeated meadow description that haunts the characters and reader: “Flax and larkspur, corn poppies, red campion and oxeye daisies.”

I came away having learned a perfect expression, “needs must.” It means getting on in that very British way with an unpleasant task because it must be done – crawl into a bombed building, fly the thirtieth mission: “needs must.”

Such wonderful books.


A Note: (Thank you to all who wrote messages, called, or emailed after the last post – I appreciated each and every one of your kind words. I wish I could offer you  a cup of friendship tea! xox)

V&A 11:2 Teapot from Bristol copy

The Truth of the Matter

This may be dedicated to my reader who looks for the dark side – I feel like I’ve glimpsed it, only just. Holding that gaze won’t help, but on the other hand, to leave out that I’ve had pneumonia doesn’t seem quite appropriate, it’s been so much of life for weeks. Diagnosed a few days before a planned Alaska trip where Lady Baby and Sweet Baby were to meet, and having nearly a full course of antibiotics on board (and being not contagious), I assumed I could go and bounce right back. Not so.

The whole family descended on Downtown Abbey. Mrs. Hughes soon left for a Red House West blog conference in Oregon, and our younger son flew out for a five-day wilderness cabin construction and backpacking adventure.

Mr. Carson took care of the left behinds (he was specially sympathetic to me, having had serious pneumonia once in Tibet), managing the feline lords and canine ladies, and feeding the rest of us.

Really the point of this post is not the dark but the joy of watching the cousins together!

If it disappointed Lady Baby that her cousin couldn’t respond to various toys and plans she had for her, she hid it well, and soon did what Sweet Baby loved – patty cake, many gentle kisses, and nonsense talk. Tirelessly interested in and kind to her “baby cousin,” as she called her, she regaled her with stories of when she, too, was a “teeny, tiny baby.”

One afternoon, after he got home, I found our younger son on the couch with both girls, having amazingly shushed the Sweet Baby to sleep with the help of Lady Baby who nestled along side of them, silent but for shushes.

Like her parents, Sweet Baby appears to be a champion traveler – she slept on the airplane, coped with Alaska night daylight, and, peacefully sleeping in the front pack, attended barbeques. She gazed at her cousin in fascination – a small person full of funny faces and motion – better than any toy or book.

Lady Baby “got it” with puzzles this trip – the kind with pieces to be fitted together, not just dropped into slots. “I like to start with the corners Granna Katy.” We bought a few more at the great used clothing and toy store and did them all over and over.

As always we read books, including more “Tin Tin” than I thought I’d ever have to read again. (I remember telling her dad at five or six that he needed to learn to read, because I’d had it with “blistering barnacles” and other repetitive linguistic machinations.) The Tin Tin books completely engage certain children – politically incorrect and confusing though they are. I never quite get it, but have watched two besotted generations. (Lady Baby’s favorite T-shirt is her “Tin Tin in Istanbul” shirt, worn thin, nearly outgrown, but beloved.

So many things we didn’t quite do – no big hikes – but a small one where Lady Baby rode her bike, Sweet Baby rode in the Bob stroller, and we picnicked in Kincaid Park on a perfectly still and warm day.

I think about the cousins as beautiful young women friends, hopefully having had years of family adventures together, even though they live so far apart. And I’m grateful to have seen this first meeting.


Scary Hot

For weeks here on the bluff we’ve had very warm days and glory sunsets. Some days (while we were away) the air didn’t move and the temperatures rose to unfamiliar heights – hard on our Pacific Northwest shade-craving house sitter.

And now wind from the north bears smoke from scores of forest fires raging on Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. Alaskans here recognize the yellow-tinged clouds, smoky air, and gray cloud cover – a common Alaska summer phenomena, but usually not this dire until August. A fire even burns in the Washington rain forest.

The drought in Western Washington is unprecedented. Record warm winter left scant snow pack, and reservoir levels are far lower than normal for early July. Winter rains are far away.

My niece, home briefly from the East Coast to a sweltering Seattle, wondered aloud if her generation would survive. They will enjoy recent joyful improvements to life – reluctantly provided by a divided Supreme Court – but suffer our degradation of the natural world. Although the respected Washington weather guru, Cliff Mass, writes that the heat wave is an anomaly and not explained by gradual climate change, it’s hard to think it isn’t a taste of what’s predicted later in the century.

And now, after the fire clouds cooled the air and land, familiar moisture from fog and mist drips from trees and buildings. Denial and hope descend again.







Traveling Granny Goes North

On a quick, early June visit to Downtown Abbey, Lady Baby greeted me by taking my hand and asking if I wanted to see some new things in her house.

A play kitchen is the standout – dishes, pots, pans, food – a stove with oven and a sink – everything needed to prepare a meal (wooden tomatoes make pasta sauce, a frilly fabric lettuce is salad) and serve it on her tiny table.

These meals take place in a much-enhanced playroom. One wall is now completely covered with an evocative wallpaper scene – it looks like an 18th century etching of trees in landscape with sky and clouds, all black and white and gray. A new spindle daybed sits under the big windows (with a little stepladder for Lady Baby easy access). A worn Persian rug stretches from wall to wall, and a lace tablecloth gracefully covers another window.

The look is a surprising setting for play – both calm and prepared for whatever excitement takes place in the center of the room, a perfect backdrop for imagination. And there is plenty of imagination on offer! I heard updates about Nick and family, though Baby Boy spent my whole visit in a little cradle covered with a blanket (I’m not sure why).

Mostly we had fun with friends – or outdoors. My painter friend invited us to tea and got out a treasure stash of toys – an old village with little people and vehicles, a cash register with coins and levers that provide much entertainment. My young friend and her mother came to a park with us and allowed themselves to be directed by the captain of a whale-watching boat. (I was the whale). We visited a park where a tall slide emerges through the mouth of a polar bear, each of its legs a tricky sort of ladder.

Daylight madness reigned in June Alaska – excess sunshine at crazy hours. Naps and bedtime became a bit of “our struggle.” (“It’s not time to go to bed, the sun is still up!”) One naptime (still a necessity) Lady Baby simply said “no” about getting into her crib. She told me her “baby brother” was sleeping in there, and she would sleep on the floor.

I agreed, and that night her parents put the crib mattress on the floor with favorite stuffed creatures, making a cozy nest. Recently I asked Mrs. Hughes about the current sleeping arrangement, and she told me that after several nights and naps of floor sleeping (with baby brother in the crib), Lady Baby now sleeps in a big girl bed.

We were always aware of sand running out on this short visit. On my departure day Lady Baby began summer “camp” with little friends – and that distracted. But her mom told me that, when talking about feeling sad that I was leaving, Lady Baby said, with palms turned up in a sort of exasperated and questioning gesture, “I’ve never known anyone who just leaves a house like Granna Katy.”

I’ll be back.

sunglasses with words

So Many Books

So little time – so the saying goes, unless you gain time by flying a lot and spending happy hours holding the sleeping Sweet Baby! After Book III of Knausgaard I texted Mrs. Hughes and asked for a quick recommendation – she suggested “Euphoria” by Lily King.

Reading Knausgaard is a little like enduring some physical ordeal. To turn from Scandinavian cold and gloom to King’s novel transports by Dickinson’s frigate to lands away – a good story replete with rituals, mysteries, and passion in a setting full of tropical heat.

In the novel King imagines the life of the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead during a time in the 1930s when she did field work with her first husband, and met the man who became her second. King says she “borrowed from the lives and experience of three people [Margaret Mead, Reo Fortune, and Gregory Bateson] but told a different story.”

I have only the barest knowledge of Margaret Mead, so could enjoy the protagonist Nell as her own person without wondering if the depiction of her and the others held true. I thoroughly enjoyed “Euphoria” – the intellectual and romantic heart at the center of it, the characters, the cultural investigation, the excitement of collaboration, and the pain of competition among peers.

Priya Parmar’s “Vanessa and Her Sister” is another book bringing real people to fictional life. It’s an amazing book about the much more familiar (to me) lives of Vanessa Bell and her sister, Virginia Woolf. Vanessa is the center of this book, though through imagined postcards, letters, diaries, and narrative, we hear the voices of other Bloomsbury characters – and much about a young Virginia.

Vanessa was the older sister in the Stephens family of four children – the one who stepped up when first their mother died, then their father, then their brother Thoby. The one who would be painter to Virginia’s writer.

In my years of unabashed Bloomsbury reading I could never read enough about Vanessa – she kept no diary, but she wrote letters (often taken up with running a house and caring for a family, and always expressing longing to be in her studio). Vanessa seemed such a whole and admirable person to me – serious about her work as a painter, competent, reserved, beautiful, an unquestioningly loving and devoted mother, and sufferer of a tragedy and a long and unrequited love.

I began Parmar’s book with trepidation, not sure I wanted someone telling me what Vanessa thought. But Parmar has executed this imaginative leap with such excellence.

I’m grateful for these books – and for time!