Today marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination and in a flood of material that's been released to cash in reflect, honor and exam...more Today marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination and in a flood of material that's been released to cash in reflect, honor and examine a pivotal moment in history, LIFE magazine's retrospective coffee table book stands out. It is a beautiful piece of work, thoughtfully put together, a must have for the average history buff and JFK afficionados alike.
The best part for me is the inclusion of a full reprint of LIFE's November 29, 1963 issue (which sold on newsstands for 25 cents!) I poured over every page of this thing, including the ads (which made me think of Mad Men -- all those ads for cigarettes and cars, how could I not?) Reading it really is a form of time travel. Fantastic.
Deciding to tell a story about a physically disfigured child who lusts after his biological mother while living out their lives in the long, judgmenta...more Deciding to tell a story about a physically disfigured child who lusts after his biological mother while living out their lives in the long, judgmental, crucifying shadow of the Catholic Church in 1950's St. John's Newfoundland ... is ... curious at best. But also weird and ... questionable.
I'm not sure what kind of a book Johnston thought he was writing. At first it seems humorous and whimsical, a slice of Frank McCourt meets a heaping portion of John Irving. There's poverty, a dysfunctional family, religion, sexual awakening, and some odd occurrences that make you laugh just for their very oddness and inappropriateness.
But as the book progresses, the oddities start to fall flat onto the very shoulders of uninteresting and boring. If Son of a Certain Woman is meant to be Johnston's indictment of the corrupt and nasty hold the Catholic Church at one time held over the historic and capital city of St. John's it really doesn't succeed, neither as a parable, or tongue-in-cheek satire (if that's what you're looking for, get Codco on DVD).
Where it really fails is as a meaningful and emotional coming-of-age story. I didn't fall in love with anybody and did not feel as if there were any stakes worth cheering for. (view spoiler)[Despite Percy's precociousness and precarious place in the world, I could not open my mind wide enough to hope that his gob-smackingly, sensual mother finally lays him. (hide spoiler)]
My disappointment here is heartfelt. I love Johnston's writing and his unerring ability to capture the layered realities and eccentricities of my home and my people. I did enjoy some of his descriptions of the 1950's streets of St. John's, but sometimes, in an effort to paint that portrait, the brush strokes felt a little heavy-handed and clumsy, like a travel book or described video.
While it pains me to do it, I am recommending a pass on this one.
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.
I'm pretty sure the idea of being forced to live my life over and over again is something plucked from my worst nightmares, but who among us hasn't be...more I'm pretty sure the idea of being forced to live my life over and over again is something plucked from my worst nightmares, but who among us hasn't been at least tempted to dream of it occasionally with a wistful sigh. Please, please, please, just one more chance to live the best moments again and when necessary, to make different choices? But I would imagine if any of us were actually tasked to unravel all the "right" and "wrong" choices from our life and to relive the bad with the good, we'd go screaming into the night like raving banshees.
For what is a perfect life? How many kicks at the can would it take for you to answer that question, if it is indeed answerable at all? Change one thing, change everything, change nothing, change all the good, change all the bad. Round and round and round. It's exhausting just thinking about it. What's the saying? If I only knew then, what I know now...what? What would you do different? And would different choices always translate into better choices?
Ursula is a normal British girl except she's pretty certain she's lived her life before, maybe many, many times. The older she gets, the stronger these feelings of deju vu become, hounding her like ghosts in the night. Her prescience is rarely crystal clear, more like moods or instinct. Do this. Don't do that. Run away. Run toward. Stay still.
Life After Life starts slow and unassuming. The story is teasing, the pacing a dawdling, scenic walk through the English countryside. But from the very first page I was enthralled and little did I realize what a powerful spell Atkinson was casting on my reader brain. Because as you continue to read, the book picks up gravity and speed and texture. Each life after life reinforces the tender bonds you have been working on with each of the characters. Your acquaintance with them is not one brief life, but many, many lives. Like Ursula we are both cursed and blessed with the long view, the big picture. We come to know all the various permutations of death, cruelty, love and loss. We bear witness through two World Wars and how some forces, no matter how forewarned, are unstoppable, greater even than the hand of time.
This is a very English story, and is steeped in pre-1950 historical detail. Not ever having watched an episode of Downton Abbey I'll go out on a limb here and suggest fans of that show will love this novel for its acute sense of time and attention to detail. Atkinson is ruthless in her pursuit for authenticity. This is wartime England, no time to pussyfoot around. This has got to be right, and in her quest I believe she succeeds magnificently. The details are small but glorious, and paint such an intimate portrait you will feel absorbed into Ursula's quiet family life where there are disagreements and births, and jealousies and forgiveness. Yes, there is the rumble of the earth as the German bombs fall during the Blitz, but such terrible moments co-exist with the stark ordinariness of a life lived. Dinners, and picnics, and birthdays and games of cricket, and work, and gardening, and lots and lots of tea.
"Ow!" one of the evacuees squealed beneath the table. "Some bugger just kicked me."...Something cold and wet nosed itself up Ursula's skirt. She hoped very much that it was the nose of one of the dogs and not one of the evacuees.
This knowledge of the ATS girl's background seemed to particularly infuriate Edwina, who was gripping the butter knife in her hand as if she were planning to attack someone with it--Maurice or the ATS girl, or anyone within stabbing distance by the look of it. Ursula wondered how much harm a butter knife could do. Enough she supposed.
There is whimsy and humor laced throughout this novel and it makes for a beautiful contrast to the more serious components of tragedy and war. Life is a farce after all; if you can't find the humor in it you've been doing it wrong or have missed the point entirely. Atkinson has not missed the point. As readers, we are in capable hands. She has one helluva story to tell you, and trust me, you don't want to miss it.
Hope, I've discovered, is a sad nuisance. Hope is a horse with a broken leg. ~The Gods of Gotham, Lyndsay Faye
New York City, 1845. Helped by an explosion of combustible saltpeter, a great fire has once again decimated Lower Manhattan, claiming the lives of four fireman and 26 civilians.
Across the Atlantic, a terrible potato blight is beginning to take its toll, and shiploads of desperate, starving Irish pour into the city despised for their race and religion. Despite having traveled so far, work and food continue to be scarce commodities. Gang violence is commonplace as Dead Rabbits clash with the infamous Bowery Boys.
The city forms its first police department. The men are greeted with a mixture of fear, hostility and suspicion. Pinned to the men's chests is a roughly cut copper star.
Welcome to Gotham, where the streets of Five Points are plagued with filth, prostitution, spilled blood and political corruption. Children are left to fend for themselves hunted by disease, hunger and predators who will draft them into a life of thievery or sexual exploitation.
The Gods of Gotham is historical fiction at its best -- filled to the brim with vivid characters, authentic dialogue, and a sense of place so strong you can taste it in the back of your throat. As an audiobook, it is a marvel, drawing you in, caressing your ear, transporting you back in time.
In one fell swoop, Timothy Wilde is left unemployed, disfigured and penniless. In an attempt to save his brother from utter desperation, Valentine gets Tim a job on the newly drafted New York City police force. One fateful evening walking home to his modest lodgings atop a bakery, Tim crashes into a young girl clad in a blood-soaked nightdress. She is frantic, almost delirious, and murmurs "They will tear him apart." And so Tim is pulled into a tangled and depraved web of conspiracy and unholy murder. It will change him irrevocably, as the streets of New York hold their own council and wait to see what the remaining 19th century has in store.
I loved this story, everything about it. Timothy Wilde is a great character as is his vice-ridden, brawling brother Valentine and the prickly relationship they share, weakened by years of mistrust and animosity. Little Bird Daly, just ten years old, is memorably precocious and heart-breakingly real, a symbol of the abominable acts perpetrated on orphaned children in the years before the law started to identify and protect them in earnest.
And New York City -- how grand and tawdry and exciting and perilous you really are. You've been romanticized as often as you've been vilified. You are notorious, legendary, epic, and any story set in your streets must be all of these things too or become lost in your long shadow. The Gods of Gotham is that story. You two are well-met and well-matched. I cannot wait to return.
***For anyone interested, BBC America has created the series Copper set in 1860's New York featuring a young Irish cop tasked with policing in the Five Points. I haven't seen an episode yet, but you can bet I'm going to give it a try.(less)