Life After Life (book review)

A book review from the desk of The Movie Snob.

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson (2013).  Apparently this was a #1 national bestseller.  It’s got a weird gimmick, for sure.  Ursula Todd is born in 1910 England.  And she immediately dies, strangled by her own umbilical cord.  Then she’s born again—but she’s not reincarnated as somebody or something else, in the usual way.  Rather, it’s like God hit the rewind button, and so she’s born again on the same day, at the same time, to the same parents.  Only this time, she’s not strangled by her umbilical cord.  And so the novel progresses . . . until she dies again.  And is born again, on the same day, etc., etc.  At first I thought this was just a series of different possible stories about Ursula, but it gradually becomes apparent that the same Ursula is somehow living all these lives sequentially because she starts getting these weird feelings and premonitions and déjà vu type sensations that lead her to act differently and thus live out completely different lives.  I thought parts of the book were very good, especially the parts about World War II (which she experiences in some very different ways in her various incarnations).  But the Groundhog Day-style gimmick didn’t do much for me, and at the end I wasn’t sure whether poor Ursula will ever get out of her timeloop.  So I’ll give it three stars out of five.

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The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, by Andrew Roberts (2011).  Is it possible to do more than skim the surface of World War II in a single reasonably sized volume?  Probably not.  But this one has a very readable style and seems to hit the highlights.  My enjoyment was diminished, however, when I looked at some reviews on Goodreads and saw some people calling Roberts out on some factual errors.  And then I saw some reviews criticizing the book for focusing much more heavily on the European theater than on the Asian/Pacific theater.  And I got kind of frustrated that the maps were all gathered at the front of the book and then weren’t even referenced in the text wherever they would have been useful.  So I can’t go more than three out of five stars for this one.

The Interestings (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Court.

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer (2013).  I enjoyed this novel about a group of teenagers who become friends at an artsy summer camp in the early 1970s and mostly manage to stay friends as they grow up and experience adulthood.  The central character is Julie Jacobson, an awkward girl from an undistinguished background who is nevertheless adopted by a gang of cool kids.  Rechristened “Jules,” our protagonist is intoxicated by her new friends and spends most of the rest of the book yearning to recapture those adolescent summers—and being a little envious of the seemingly awesome lives two of her friends make for themselves afterwards.  Having recently been a fortysomething myself, I was perhaps naturally inclined to warm to the book’s themes of growing up and dealing with the pressures of adulthood, family, responsibility, loss, and mortality.

Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

Language of the Spirit: An Introduction to Classical Music, by Ian Swafford (2017).  I’m barely a dilettante when it comes to classical music.  Nevertheless, I enjoy books like this one.  The author, who is a composer himself, gives just a very little explanation of how classical music “works,” and then he is off and running on a survey of Western composers and the works that he recommends listening to.  He doesn’t recommend any specific recordings, noting instead that pretty much every piece he recommends can be found on Spotify or YouTube.  (Actually, I don’t even know what Spotify is, but I’m sure he’s is right.)  The micro-biographies of the composers under discussion are interesting, and I enjoyed the author’s writing style.  But I haven’t yet tried to listen to any of the works he recommends.  Who has time for all that?

The Devil and Webster (book review)

A new book review from The Movie Snob.

The Devil and Webster, by Jean Hanff Korelitz (2017).  I thought I would like this recent novel more than I did.  It’s about Naomi Roth, the president of a small, exclusive, and very liberal New England college called Webster.  She’s a former 60s radical herself, so she’s fine with it when a bunch of students start camping out on the main campus lawn to protest the college’s decision to deny tenure to a popular (African-American) professor.  Unfortunately, the college denied the fellow tenure because it discovered he had committed some serious plagiarism; unfortunately for President Roth, the college’s strict confidentiality rules preclude her from telling the students anything about the tenure process or decision at all.  So the school year goes on, and the protest—led by a charismatic young Palestinian student—threatens to balloon out of control.  Making matters worse, President Roth’s own daughter is a Webster student and very much a part of the protest.  The story is entertaining enough, but I didn’t find the ending very satisfying—it somehow left me wanting more.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (book review)

Another book review from The Movie Snob.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story, by John Berendt (1994).  I believe this book was a huge best-seller back when it came out.  It spawned a 1997 movie directed by Clint Eastwood (American Sniper) and starring John Cusack (The Paperboy) and Kevin Spacey (Baby Driver), but I never saw it and don’t remember hearing much good about it.  Anyhow, I finally got around to reading the book, and I quite enjoyed it.  For reasons I have forgotten, New York author Berendt decided to live part-time in the sleepy backwater town of Savannah, Georgia.  In the first part of his book he chronicles many of the very colorful characters who live in the old part of the town, near the historic squares and away from the new mall.  This part of the book was pretty good.  Then there’s a homicide, and the story really picks up in interest.  Once I got to that part, I pretty much couldn’t put the book down.  I was a little disappointed to read in the afterward that the author not only changed some of the names but also took “certain storytelling liberties, particularly having to do with the timing of events.”  Nevertheless, I thought the book was effective at evoking the atmosphere of Savannah and in telling the story of a lengthy murder prosecution.

Trieste (book review)

A book review from The Movie Snob.

Trieste, by Daša Drndić (2012).  Drndić is a Croatian novelist and playwright, and this is a powerful and unusual novel about the Holocaust.  The central character is Haya Tedeschi, an assimilated Jew who lives most of her life in a town on the fluid border between Italy and what eventually becomes Yugoslavia.  She turns 20 during World War II, and she has an affair with a handsome German officer who is stationed nearby for part of the war.  But the novel’s focus doesn’t really stay on her all that much; Drndić stuffs the novel with facts and digressions about World War II and the Holocaust, biographical sketches of various Nazis, and testimony from Holocaust survivors.  She indicts the many bystanders who knew what was happening to the Jews passing through their cities and towns in railroad cars and did nothing.  She indicts the Catholic Church for baptizing Jewish babies to save them from the Nazis but then refusing to return them to their parents after the war.  There’s a lot of information about a secret Nazi project to increase the “Aryan race” by kidnaping promising-looking babies and then adopting them out to good German families.  And near the end, Drndić instructs us about how 5,000 Norwegian women who had liaisons with Nazis during the war were sent to work camps after the war, and many of their babies were adopted out and subjected to all sorts of abuse.  Anni-Frid Lyngstad of ABBA was the daughter of such a liaison (although her mother moved to Sweden in 1946 and they avoided the abuse)!  It is a powerful and disturbing book.