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.