Two I Couldn't Put Down

I'm still working my way through my summer reading list (summer lasts here 'til Halloween, so I have plenty of time left, and I'm about 987th down on the local library list for J.K. Rowling's pseudonymous mystery novel, so this could go on awhile), but I wanted to share two of them before my mind gets muddled up with more. 

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First off, let me say that Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, published last April, utterly lived up to the hype. It's a bestseller that certainly doesn't need my (minuscule) help, but I believe it deserves as many kudos as possible. Don't be turned off by the fact that it is about a woman who lives her life over and over again, with the ability to make changes each time she's reborn. When I first read about this novel I thought, well, I'm really not into that sort of book. But I was wrong, because it's actually an engaging look at a British family evolving through a time period that I am quite attached to -- pre-World War I through to just post-World War II. Ursula, the protagonist, is born in 1900 and takes us through her childhood in the Edwardian England countryside, to 1930s Germany, to Blitz-era London.  Even without the reincarnation aspect, Atkinson presents her readers with characters worth getting to know, prose that is hard to put down, and a plot that is fascinating. Add in the fact that Ursula starts to remember bits and pieces of each life the more times she's reborn, and you have a spellbinding premise around which to spin some already-captivating historical fiction. In the midst of this genius narrative construction, Life After Life asks profound questions about free will, the costs of war, and the frailty of life. It is dazzlingly absorbing; a book that is meant to be shared and talked about.

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The second novel I read this summer that I am ridiculously excited to share with you is Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, which was published last summer and came out in trade paperback this past April.  Like Kate Atkinson, Walter is an established and lauded author (and journalist), and Beautiful Ruins finds him at the top of his game. (I especially love reading authors who get better and better as they write, and Atkinson and Walter are just those.) Walter worked on this novel in various bits for 15 years, abandoning and re-engaging it between other novels, and the end result is well worth the wait. Beautiful Ruins jumps back and forth in time between the end of World War II, the early 1960s, and the present day, and is set in Hollywood, the American Northwest, and Italy. It sounds complex, but Walter weaves his tale quite seamlessly. The novel pivots around Pasquale, a young Italian innkeeper, and a fledgling movie star named Dee Moray. Pasquale and Dee meet in 1962 when she is sent to a remote coastal area to recuperate during the filming of Cleopatra (yes the one with Liz and Dick).  When the unmarried actress learns her illness is actually a pregnancy, careers, lives, and loves are forever altered. The novel spans the next fifty years, and we meet players whose lives are intertwined with these two main characters, as the author catapults us toward an evening in which Pasquale and Dee are reunited.

Jess Walter worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood, and his inside knowledge is in full force when he depicts writers, producers, and actors struggling with moral quandaries: some slip into the quagmire of ego and fame while others try to survive a cutthroat world with their principles intact. It sounds like a beach read, and it moves like one, but Walter tackles complex issues of love, choice, and art in this soulful novel. Walter's ability to interweave comedy and pathos is remarkable, and he is undeniably skilled at  making you laugh as he simultaneously tears your heart out of your chest. I'd argue that this novel is more literary than light, but paced so that the pages fly by, entertaining the reader as it prods her/him to ponder what it means to be a beautiful ruin of a human being. 

So go buy or borrow Life After Life and Beautiful Ruins asap!  I promise you won't be disappointed, and you will be moved.