A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

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Best title ever. And since you cannot copyright a title, it’s been used before, by Leon Uris in his 1999 novel about a presidential election. I haven’t read it, but according to some reviews, the story gets lost in the single-minded hammering of the author’s political views.

The title comes from “Nature”, a poem by Emerson:

A man is a god in ruins. When men are innocent, life shall be longer, and shall pass into the immortal, as gently as we wake from dreams.

Why am I going on about the title when there is a book to discuss? And it is a book by one of my favorite authors. Because I thought it a shame to see Atkinson’s brilliant wordsmithing wasted on such a miserable story.

This book is a companion piece to Life after Life, her novel exploring the many lives of Ursula Todd, which asks: what if when we die, we get to go back and try again? And so we return over and over to a snowy night when a baby is born, with a longer or shorter time to go before death comes to reset the game. Aside from one bratty brother, the characters around Ursula are not unpleasant: a large family in a comfortable country home waited on by a few servants. Their rather ordinary joys and sorrows change slightly with each go-round, some permutations lasting long enough to thrust the family into WWII and bleak post-war England.

It’s a neat trick, certainly, and well-handled, but not a story that touched me or moved me particularly. I was slightly interested in the way Ursula’s previous lives began to push through the veil, manifesting themselves as odd impulses or déjà vu. Atkinson can make a scene incredibly vivid, but any emotion conjured up is quickly dashed away. Death begins to mean no more than the buzzer at the end of a video game before it starts up again. With the stakes lowered to almost nothing, the events of Ursula’s life, each life, lose all significance. The drama fizzles out, leaving the story curiously flat.

Let me say it again: Atkinson is an incredible writer. I could pull passage after passage to show you what I mean. But the book as a whole just seemed like a bloodless experiment.

I hesitantly began this companion book, which follows Ursula’s little brother Teddy from adulthood into old age, dipping repeatedly back into his experiences flying a bomber in WWII. Again, individual scenes are brilliant. However, the story never took off for me. The characters seemed nothing more than chess pieces being moved about to demonstrate the clever structure.

Without do-overs, the stakes should have seemed higher for these characters. Teddy, after all, faces death day after day during the war. Yet, although a confident and successful pilot, he is an oddly empty person, letting things happen to him, accepting what comes without a murmur. Not a bad philosophy in wartime when pilots didn’t survive long, but not making for an interesting protagonist to follow through several hundred pages.

The other main character is his daughter Viola, a horribly selfish and nasty person without a single redeeming characteristic. Atkinson gives her every negative stereotype of a hippie boomer: rebellious, wearing sandals year-round, making inedible vegetarian meals, neglecting the two children she’s named Sun and Moon, just to list a few. Even if all I knew of hippies and boomers were the labels used to mock them, I could not accept such a flat, uncomplicated beast as a real person.

I recently read Elizabeth George’s Playing for the Ashes, which features a similarly crude, rebellious and angry young woman. She has devoted herself to making her parents and herself miserable, perhaps even causing her father’s fatal heart attack. But by the time we meet her, she has come to love one person, though she cannot yet admit it to herself, and the animals he cares for. That’s all it takes to make her seem real.

Viola simply loathes everyone and everything. Near the end, we are given a possible reason for her awful behavior; perhaps if it had appeared near the beginning I might have been able to see her as more than an ugly cartoon. Atkinson’s vivid writing makes Viola’s beastliness into something truly atrocious, as when for example we are plunged into Sun’s misery when he is sent to live with his father’s cruel parents because Viola can’t be bothered with having him around. The author is able to work her magic by giving us Sun, previously only seen as a brat, in all his complexity of competing needs and desires, even while leaving the grandparents as simple monsters.

Great writing, but in service to what? I know the book has gotten some rave reviews. I thought the best parts were of Teddy’s wartime experiences. The other sections gave me that sensation of chess pieces being cleverly—if somewhat obviously—manipulated. I’ve loved Atkinson’s books ever since stumbling across Behind the Scenes at the Museum. All the more disappointing then that A God in Ruins, like its companion novel, seems more like an intellectual exercise than a novel. Still, it’s a wonderful title.

Have you ever chosen a book primarily because of its title?

Clever Girl, by Tessa Hadley

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I like to read stories about ordinary lives, so I looked forward to this novel by Tessa Hadley. In ten discrete chapters, we experience the life of an ordinary Englishwoman named Stella from childhood to middle age. Written in the first person, we see Stella’s life as she sees it: her experience of the events of the last half of the 20th century.

Hadley beautifully captures what life was like during that turbulent time: we get Stella’s teenaged rebellion of embracing punk culture with her androgynous boyfriend Valentine, and later her avoiding the arguments about politics in her commune, and so on to the end of the century. Hadley also shines at using quick, precise details to capture a person, place or thing. When she finds buttons at an old bombsite, they are “a coral rose, wooden toggles, a diamanté buckle, big yellow bone squares, toggles made of bamboo.” Of Stella’s grandmother, she says:

She bought her clothes from the children’s department (cheaper), and went to the hairdresser’s every week to have her hair set in skimpy grey-brown rolls pinned to her scalp: not out of vanity, but as if it was her duty to submit to this punishing routine.

As writers, we’re told that the first page of your novel should not only grab the reader but also introduce the main character, the time and place, the main character’s goal, and a hint at who or what might stand in the way of achieving it. Looking at this novel’s first page, we can confidently check off a few items. Our narrator is a child living alone with her mother in the 1950s and early 1960s, though only later do we find out they are in Bristol. She and her mother get along well, sharing the same tastes.

The first paragraph is about Stella’s missing father, “unpoetically” named Bert. Her mother says that he is dead but in the same sentence we are told that “I only found out years later that he’d left, walked out when I was eighteen months old.” As it turns out, this undercutting of Stella’s present-day experience by the interjection of knowledge acquired in the future will continue throughout the book. As a result, there is little suspense. We know, for example, who will die before the scene plays out.

Another aspect of this paragraph gave me a qualm. It seems to indicate that the book is going to be about how Stella’s life is shaped by a man. Sadly, that turns out to be true. Each chapter is focused on a man who changes Stella’s life. The only references to the women’s movement of the seventies come from an intense lesbian at Stella’s commune.

What about Stella’s goal? A structural difficulty with starting the book with her as a child is that children rarely can articulate a goal that will carry through their lives into middle-age, but even within each chapter she doesn’t seem to have a goal. We have the clue of the title. There is this sentence on the first page about her father having absconded rather than died: “I should have guessed this—should have seen the signs, or the absence of them.” From these slight tokens, I guessed that Stella’s goal through the book would be to grow into her cleverness. Accurate enough, as it turns out, though references to it are few and overwhelmed by the drama of deaths and dirty dishes and diaper pails. The rare times she mentions something related to her emerging intelligence (“cleverness” is pejorative and somewhat demeaning to me, but means something different in England) I began to be interested, but it didn’t last long.

The book would have been a lot stronger if this goal—or any purpose on Stella’s part—had been sharpened and used to tie the incidents together. Without it, the book is not so much a story as a hodgepodge of happenings.

For what might stand in her way, we have this sentence about things that were powerful at that time: “shame, and secrecy, and the fear that other people would worm themselves into your weaknesses, and that their knowledge of how you had lapsed or failed would eat you from the inside.” As it turns out, what stands in her way are her abrupt changes of direction, the consequences of her decisions or more often non-decisions. I can see where these could be a result of that fear. She even says at one point that “I couldn’t bear the idea of being exposed in my raw, unfinished ignorance.” Even at the end she says, “I still feel sometimes as if I’m running away, escaping from something coming up behind me.”

I’m confident that Stella’s fears, sudden changes of direction, and concealed cleverness, not to mention her way of letting men define her life, accurately reflect the lives of many women. However, I found myself observing her from a distance; I did not care what happened to her. Perhaps that’s because I found little to admire in her. And oddly, she always fell on her feet. As a single mother myself, I found it unrealistic that she always found someone willing to take care of her and her children.

Other roadblocks also magically melted away: for example, she suffered no teenaged angst because she had the perfect boyfriend; the woman who learned her husband was having an affair with Stella immediately volunteered to give him up so they could be happy; plus the wife’s children showed no resentment towards Stella for breaking up their family. Since Stella didn’t have to struggle to overcome her obstacles, the story lacked drama and I couldn’t muster any concern for her.

The lack of suspense bored me. Things certainly happened to her (She says, “I thought that the substantial outward things that happened to people were more mysterious really than all the invisible turmoil of the inner life.”), but without any buildup to them, there was no tension. She would also change direction with no warning, such as when from one sentence to the next she loses interest in the university degree she’d spent pages acquiring and heads off in another path. Without foreshadowing or dramatic tension, these events coming from out of the blue don’t create the kind of narrative I expect from a novel. The book feels like a random collection of incidents. Life can be like that, but it doesn’t make for an interesting book.

One friend who liked the book a lot said that it was the story of a person who floated through life, letting things happen to her, and didn’t live up to her potential. She added that it was an important book because many people don’t live up to her potential. That may be true, but doesn’t make it a compelling story. Another friend pointed out that nothing that happened to Stella changed her; she didn’t grow or become wiser, so she still sounded child-like as she aged.

I don’t mean to be overly negative. There are many things to like about this book: the novel-in-stories aspect, the evocative images and wordplay, the recognition when you stumble across things from your own past. One friend said that recognising so many incidents made her feel as though she were reading the story of her own life. Adding something to be achieved and suspense over how that might happen would make this an excellent novel. Even an ordinary life can be a good story.

What does the first page of the novel you are reading tell you about the rest of the book?

Nora Webster, by Colm Tóibín

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Newly widowed Nora doesn’t want to answer her door. In the Irish town of Wexford in the middle of the 20th century, it is customary for people to stop by the home of someone in mourning in the evening. Without phones there’s no way to call first to see if they are welcome, so they just come and knock on the door.

Despite her yearning to be alone, Nora always opens the door. To a neighbor who commiserates with her, she says, “‘They mean well. People mean well.’”

Bound by convention, missing her husband’s steady presence, Nora must begin making her own choices. As the sole support for her four children, she is first confronted with financial decisions. Later she has to contend with emotional issues as her two young sons come to terms with their own grief. Their two older sisters are away at school.

Nora is a fascinating character. She does not seem to be close to anyone, now that Maurice is gone. Though she says at one point that she never loved her mother, she’d expected at some point they would find a place to meet. However, it hadn’t happened before her mother has passed away. Nora is not interested in being with her two sisters and aunt, though she and they make the customary visits.

She is not even close to her children, thinking at one point “that she had never before put a single thought into whether they were happy or not, or tried to guess what they were thinking.”

She seems to hold herself at the same distance. Practical, focused on the everyday things that must be done, she barely touches the fringes of introspection. The reader, too, is held at a slight distance from her. Tóibín uses a close third person point of view, telling the story through Nora’s eyes, but her lack of self-analysis leaves us as much in the dark as she is. We hear her think one thing and then see her do the opposite, and have to assume that she is giving in to convention again or to what another person wants her to do.

When we discussed this novel in my book club, one person pointed out that much of the drama in this quiet book came from the space between Nora’s thoughts and her actions. Whether you call it drama or conflict or tension, I think that this analysis is accurate.

I called it a quiet book, though things large and small happen, and there are plenty of emotional upheavals. Another book club member praised the way political events of the time were woven into the story, giving it additional depth and universality.

In the end, though, what we all liked about this book was the close look at an ordinary life, one of the reasons we like Anne Tyler’s novels as well. A master storyteller like Tóibín can make us care about a single, ordinary individual. He can find the value in that life and as a result help us understand more about ourselves and our own lives.

In the first chapter, a neighbor Mrs. Lacey mentions her daughter. Ellis Lacey is the young woman whose story is told in Tóibín’s best-seller Brooklyn, recently made into a film. What did you think of that story? How do you think it compares with this one?

Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, by Terese Svoboda

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How could I have never heard of Lola Ridge before? A central figure in Modernist poetry, she seemed to know everyone: from Robert Frost to Amy Lowell to H.D. Praised by people like Stephen Vincent Benét and Louis Untermeyer, she was considered one of the top American poets. Her fiery poems describe the real life of immigrants and others struggling to get by. A lifelong anarchist, she was devoted to the ideal of personal and artistic freedom. She worked for years with Emma Goldman and participated in many political protests, including the outcry against the Sacco and Vanzetti executions and the railroading of Tom Mooney.

I have become accustomed to the way once-popular artists and activists disappear from the cultural consciousness. I have heard the argument that the guardians of the Western canon needs to let go of the belief that only white men can write lasting literature, and add more women and minorities (and new majorities!). I’ve shaken my head at the way hysteria around World War II and McCarthy’s reprehensible anti-Communist tactics attempted to wipe out the memory of the social reformers, labor activists, anarchists, socialists and, yes, communists who were active in the first half of the 20th century. But I’m still surprised that I’d never heard of such a prominent figure.

This biography rescues Ridge from history’s dustbin. Svoboda embeds us in her life, from her birth in Dublin in 1873 through emigration to New Zealand as a child, then to Australia, and finally to the U.S. in 1907 where she mainly lived in New York City. Her travels didn’t stop there though. Always on the edge of bankruptcy and starvation, she scrounged money for trips to Mexico, Baghdad, Taos, and California. She was awarded residencies at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony.

And always she wrote poetry. By including so many poems and fragments of poems, Svoboda give us what is truly a writer’s story: Ridge’s experiences and convictions drive her fierce work that captures the lives of the poor and disadvantaged, the dreams that possess them and the forces that beat them down. Here is a poem from her first collection The Ghetto and Other Poems:

Debris
I love those spirits
That men stand off and point at,
Or shudder and hood up their souls—
Those ruined ones,
Where Liberty has lodged an hour
And passed like flame,
Bursting asunder the too small house.

Described as fragile and intense, Ridge often invoked images of fire in her work. She went on to publish three more collections, each more popular than the last. She won awards like the Guggenheim, and edited the avant-garde magazines Others and Broom, as well as Margaret Sanger’s magazine on birth control. While editing Others and afterwards, she hosted weekly soirées in her one-room apartment to discuss art and freedom. These lively gatherings drew famous and not-so-famous writers and artists and activists, including William Carlos Williams, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Man Ray, Alfred Kreymborg, Mitchell Dawson, Jean Toomer, John Reed, Louise Bryant, and Evelyn Scott.

The New Critics, who rose to ascendancy during WWII and afterwards, insisted that poetry should not be political in any way and claimed that women, with their overactive emotions and weak intellect, were unsuited for writing anything but love poetry. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that Ridge’s poetry, so famous in her lifetime, sank into obscurity after her death in 1941. Svoboda compares the way Ridge’s influence on Crane and others has been lost to the way few today know of how TS Eliot drew on Hope Mirrlees’s Modernist masterpiece Paris while writing The Waste Land.

I hope that Svoboda’s biography helps to bring her back into the light.

What early 20th century poet fires your imagination?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, by Kathryn J. Edin & H. Luke Shaefer

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Did you think that the days of extreme poverty in the U.S. were over? Did you think there was a safety net in place? Think again.

After over 20 years of poverty research, Kathryn Edin began to see an entirely new level of despair: families in the U.S. getting by with almost no cash income. Luke Shaefer, an expert on the Survey of Income and Program Participation administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, didn’t believe her. He decided to prove Edin was wrong, using the World Bank’s poverty threshold as his upper limit. After crunching the numbers, however, he found that in 2011, “1.5 million households with roughly 3 million children were surviving on cash incomes of no more than $2 per person, per day in any given month.”

How could this happen in a country so prosperous? We hear a lot about income inequality these days, but not about this kind of extreme poverty. Through stories of individual families backed by solid research, the authors detail the reasons why this kind of poverty has been increasing since 1996, “and at a distressingly fast pace. As of 2011, the number of families in $2-a-day poverty had more than doubled in just a decade and a half.”

1996: you remember. That was the year welfare reform destroyed the safety net. No longer was there any guarantee for those whose severe poverty qualified them for assistance. And what federal money remained was changed to go to the states as block grants with wide leeway on how they could spend it; it didn’t actually have to go to poor people. As documented in this book, people are so routinely denied—often being told there is no more money—that most poor people don’t bother applying. Many don’t even know there is a benefit for which they qualify. The authors call the commentators who in 1996 foresaw the coming catastrophe “remarkably prescient”, but those of us who’d been poor saw it all too clearly; we knew how fragile and under siege our benefits had always been.

The other factor, of course, is the ever-worsening lack of jobs. Even if they can get a job—as everyone interviewed has done in the past—the pay is so low, the hours unreliable, the benefits non-existent, that it is not enough to lift them out of poverty. And that’s not even considering the ways that bosses take advantage of their employees, since it’s a buyer’s market for them.

How is it even possible to manage without a cash income? You can only use food stamps for actual food, not soap or kids’ shoes or rent or light. We meet many families in this book, each with their own strategies. Their stories are told with the calm of a social scientist, tempered by compassion. You cannot help but be moved by the stories of people like Modonna Harris standing in line for hours to apply for benefits only to be turned away. “Everyone knows you have to get here by at least 7:30, a full hour before the office opens.” We learn about her background, her search for work, everything that led her to this point.

The authors see this work experience as a cause for hope: those they interview have worked in the past and are desperate to work again. I found the same thing when I was on welfare 40 years ago. In the final chapter Edin and Shaefer lay out a roadmap for getting people back to work and helping those who cannot work.

My only disagreement with them is their blithe statement that “reverting to the old welfare system is not the answer.” I agree that in addition to money, Aid to families with Dependent Children (AFDC) dispensed stigma and isolation. As a former AFDC recipient, I experienced both and the hopelessness that comes with them. However, I would take that stigma and isolation a thousand times over to spare my children what happened to the children we get to know in this book: chronic malnourishment, abuse by sexual predators in overcrowded households, the temptation for a tenth-grade girl when a teacher offers her food in exchange for sex. I would make the same decision I made all those years ago when I said to myself: the kids come first.

Of course, I know there’s no going back to AFDC, even though it would be better than what we have now. The voting public has been too blinded by politicians determined to demonize the poor—such a handy target! so powerless to fight back. They have also been blinded by their own comfortable lifestyle, not recognising the privilege that got them there, or, for those in a lower income bracket, their fear of falling into poverty themselves.

I do endorse the authors’ proposed solutions. However, it will take a huge groundswell of public opinion to overcome our society’s bias against helping the poor. It will take all of us speaking out.

I hope you are moved. I hope you read this book. I hope you act.

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

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My book club rarely comes up with a unanimous verdict on a book, but we all loved this book by Anne Tyler, as we have loved other of her books we’ve read. It’s not just because she writes about Baltimore, and specifically the part of Baltimore we are most familiar with. No, it is something more.

In this, her 20th novel, Tyler introduces us to the Whitshank family. You know families like this one: while there are tensions and long-held grudges between Abby and Red and their four grown children, there is also love and concern and care, even if these emotions are sometimes tempered with frustration or incomprehension. They take for granted their connection with each other, just as they know that if asked to go for a walk on the beach, one is expected to agree.

Part of the glue holding them together is their belief that they, as a family, are special, though Tyler undercuts this assertion by telling us that it is based, among other things, on their ability to keep pets alive to a great age. There are also the stories that they tell about themselves. One has to do with the way Red’s father came to build and then own their house on Bouton Road. The house itself is a character, a vessel for all of their narratives: the wide, deep porch where Abby discovered her love for Red, the curving staircase that funnels sound up to someone hidden upstairs, the kitchen where the real heart-to-hearts take place.

Abby and Red, in their 70s, are starting to experience the effects of aging. Red has trouble hearing and has pulled back from the family construction business started by his father. Abby has begun to blank out for periods of time, finding herself in odd places when she comes to. Over their protests, their dutiful son Stem and his family move in with them, only to be joined unexpectedly by Denny, the black sheep son.

Abby’s baffled love for Denny, a rebel from a young age whom she has never understood, won my heart for this story. I know so many families where one child seems to absorb all the oxygen in the room, driving parents and teachers to distraction. In some ways I was that child, with my constant refrain: Leave me alone! Tyler’s portrait, not just of Abby, but of Denny himself subtly evolves through the book and is just so utterly true to life.

My book club had a long discussion over one critic’s remark that this was a “comic novel”. We agreed that Tyler’s humor is everywhere, but that it is subtle and witty rather than comic. One person, reading it a second time to remind herself of the story, suddenly noted all the little clues scattered in the text that would come to fruition later. Tyler’s craft is astonishing; she distracts us with a compelling story so that we do not notice her writer’s guile.

What we love about Tyler’s novels is her genuine compassion for her characters. She does not shy away from their faults and peculiarities, but she never mocks or criticises them; she instead treats them with respect and dignity. In a recent post on Writer Unboxed, literary agent, author, and writing teacher extraordinaire, Donald Maass suggests that readers are drawn to positive characters, those who have a hopeful outlook on life (though not the uniform optimism of a Pollyanna). These are the kind of characters we readers want to spend time with, whose spirit inspires us. Maass says in another post, “Generally speaking, we choose company that is pleasant. People who are warm, open, curious, compassionate and interesting are good to be around. We gravitate to people like ourselves, who share our outlooks, interests and values.”

In a story, characters encounter obstacles that try them to their limit (in a workshop with him, I started calling Maass The Don—thinking of The Godfather—because of the creative ways he kept pushing us to torment our protagonists). A positive character, confronted with barriers, does not wallow in helpless despair but pushes forward. As Maass says, “The human race is hopeful, yearning, seeking a more perfect world and full of faith that we can make it one.”

It is this quality that we love in Tyler’s novels: her ability to give us people who, with all their quirks and flaws, yearn for something better and have faith that they can get there, people whose stories play out in families so true that we recognise them immediately.

What do you look for in the protagonist of a novel?

Emily, Alone, by Stewart O’Nan

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O’Nan is one of my favorite writers, for his appreciation of and immersion in his characters, however humdrum or exciting their lives might be. Here, we inhabit Emily Maxwell, an elderly woman living out the tail end of her life in the modest home in a Pittsburgh suburb, the one she’d shared it with her husband Henry until his death. Her friends are also dying off, leaving her with her brash sister-in-law Arlene as her regular companion for breakfast buffets and conversations about the grown children. Alone at home besides her elderly dog, Emily makes an elaborate routine out of her regular chores.

Emily relies on Arlene’s driving which, if shaky, is better than her own. However, all of Emily’s arrangements are thrown into disarray when Arlene faints in a restaurant. Not only does she have to drive Arlene’s car, but she has to navigate the hospital and run errands for Arlene. As her confidence blossoms, she buys a small car and, little by little, begins to expand her world.

I love how O’Nan uses specific details to bring a memory to life and then submerges you in Emily’s reactions and emotions. Here, she is recalling a birthday dinner for her daughter, Margaret, at the country club Henry had introduced her to:

It must have been forty-five years ago, because Margaret was slim as a ballerina in her pinafore, curtseying to everyone for the fun of it. Emily’s own parents were there, a rare occasion, her father gawking in his cheap brown suit, impressed by the high windows and the murals on the ballroom’s ceiling, the white-gloved waiters circulating between tables to deliver iced pats of butter stamped with the club crest. Emily would have arranged for Margaret to have her favorite–yellow cake with chocolate icing–and Henry would have paid by signing his name. Forty-five years.

She could not stop these visitations, even if she wanted to. They plagued her like migraines, left her helpless and dissatisfied, as if her life and the lives of all those she’d loved had come to nothing, merely because that time was gone, receding even in her own memory, to be replaced by this diminished present . If it seemed another world, that was because it was, and all her wishing could not bring it back.

This 2011 novel is a sequel to Wish You Were Here which I read in 2007. I have to admit I don’t remember much of it beyond the characters’ names, the premise of the story and how much I liked it. Liked it? I was buried in it.

I came to this one with some apprehension. Though younger than Emily, I know what it is to live alone once children are grown and gone. I know what it is to have to create a life almost from scratch once work and family fall away, how to find new routines and habits. But once engaged in the story, I thought mostly of my mother, how she sat alone in her townhouse for years until, over her vociferous protests, we persuaded her to move to a comprehensive care facility. She bloomed there, making friends, taking up water-color and quilting.

As Emily blooms here. Although I’m not there myself yet, I believe O’Nan captures the inner life of an elderly woman, moving through her days accompanied by memories of the past, finding ways however unexpected to be in the present and look forward to the future. I enjoyed spending time with Emily. I saw much of myself in her and the potential for more. I especially loved her conversations with her dog, Rufus. She calls him Mr. Feisty, Mr. Excitable, Mr. Pork Pie, and Chubbers McBubbers. They share the same difficulties moving around, taking multiple medications. They remind me of my conversations with my little cat, the Love Bug.

I’m not exactly looking forward to aging, though of course it’s better than the alternative, but Emily’s story helps me prepare myself for times to come, and more patiently appreciate those who are there now.

What books about aging and loneliness have you read?

Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill

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This is one of those books that I appreciated rather than enjoyed. Sure, there are beautiful sentences and sentences whose intelligence, perception, and depth of emotion require no ornamentation. There are quick, deft depictions of character, such as this one of our narrator, Hans:

“Let me introduce myself properly,” Chuck said. “Chuck Ramkissoon.” We shook hands. “Van der Broek,” he said, trying out the name. “South African?”

“I’m from Holland,” I said, apologizing.

Boy, are there characters. Chuck hails from Trinidad but is 100% American, with his handful of shady businesses, his huge appetite for life, and his outsize dream of saving the world by establishing a cricket club in an abandoned field on the edge of the city. Through him, Hans meets and becomes a part of a subculture of cricket clubs, made up of émigrés, himself the only white one.

Much as I appreciated the writing—more about that later—I have to admit that I was bored. So much so that about halfway through I set the book aside for two weeks, and debated whether to finish it or not. First off, I don’t share the fascination those who live or have lived in New York seem to have for novels about what it’s like to live in that city. Surely they know already. I am more fascinated by The Hague and deeply enjoyed the brief flashbacks to Hans’s youth. I was also fascinated by his enigmatic mother, by far the most interesting character to me, though barely present.

Secondly, the plot is not an attention-grabber. We learn in the first few pages that Chuck’s body has been found in a canal and that Hans and his wife have been estranged but are now back together. The exploration of cricket and Chuck’s world are somewhat interesting, but the story of yet another middle-aged man, estranged from his life and feeling disconnected from his fellow humans doesn’t excite me. At least there are those beautiful and penetrating sentences.

Some people have no difficulty in identifying with their younger incarnations: Rachel, for example, will refer to episodes from her childhood or college days as if they’d happened to her that very morning. I, however, seem given to self-estrangement. I find it hard to muster oneness with those former selves whose accidents and endeavors have shaped who I am now.

A little background: Hans, who grew up in The Hague and lived in London before moving to New York, is a successful equities analyst for a large bank. In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center, he and his wife and young son take up temporary abode in the Chelsea Hotel. The dislocation and the danger prompt Rachel to take the child and move back to London. Her refusal to let Hans come with them signals her intent to end the marriage.

If this almost casual use of the 2001 attacks is one of the successes of the novel—for once they are not used to ratchet up drama and sentiment—Rachel is one of its failures. Presented as active in contrast to Hans’s passivity, she is a mass of unexplained contradictions, secrets, and sometimes seemingly random decisions. While such a depiction makes sense given that we are being told the story by the mystified, miserable, and angry Hans, it turns Rachel into a chesspiece designed to move the story along rather than a person.

I liked the depiction of the fellowship Hans forms with his fellow cricketers, the way they watch out for each other even though their lives only intersect in this one area. I was not particularly charmed by Chuck, whom some reviewers have compared to Gatsby, and questioned why Hans became so involved with him. I derived some amusement from random oddball characters—no, I don’t want to give them away—but after living in Baltimore, they seemed mild to me.

I’m left with the beautiful and unexpected passages, such as this one:

The business world is densely margined by dreamers, men, almost invariably, whose longing selves willingly submit to the enchantment of projections and pie charts and crisply totted numbers, who toy and toy for years, like novelists, with the same sheaf of documents, who slip out of bed in the middle of the night to pitch to a pajama’d reflection in a windowpane.

I appreciate the transnational perspective brought by O’Neill, who is of Irish and Turkish descent, grew up in The Netherlands, and now lives in the U.S. His memoir, Blood-Dark Track, should prove interesting.

Have you ever set a book aside for a few weeks and then gone back to it? What did you end up thinking about it?