Book Reviews

Anthony Doerr

You can buy All The Light We Cannot See on Amazon here.

It strikes Werner just then as wondrously futile to build splendid buildings, to make music, to sing songs, to print huge books full of colorful birds in the face of the seismic, engulfing indifference of the world—what pretensions humans have! Why bother to make music when the silence and wind are so much larger? Why light lamps when the darkness will inevitably snuff them? When Russian prisoners are chained by threes and fours to fences while German privates tuck live grenades in their pockets and run?

                                from  All the Light We Cannot See

What the war did to dreamers, laments a character at the end of Anthony Doerr’s new novel, All the Light We Cannot See.

It’s 1944 in occupied France, a few weeks after the D-Day invasion. Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a sixteen-year-old French girl who is blind. Werner Pfennig is an eighteen-year-old German soldier. Their lives are about to converge in the historic walled town of Saint-Malo.

The story then jumps ten years earlier, and in brief, alternating chapters, we follow Marie and Werner through their childhoods and adolescences as they make their way to the approaching rendezvous in a future they cannot discern.

Marie loses her sight at six, but her devoted father, who works at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, finds creative ways to help her compensate for the loss, and she develops a curious and active mind.

Werner and his younger sister, Jutta, are orphans in Germany as Nazism rises around them. Werner has a fascination and aptitude for mechanical things, and he builds radios from discarded junk. With these, he and Jutta entertain themselves listening to programs.

Because of this technical aptitude, Werner is sent to an elite school for Hitler Youth, where he devises the equipment and methodology to “triangulate” and identify the location of another radio transmitter’s signal.

With the outbreak of war and the Germans advance on Paris, the museum attempts to safeguard its greatest treasures. Marie’s father is entrusted to take with him and hide a large exquisite diamond, called the Sea of Flame. He and Marie depart for the small seaside town of Saint-Malo in Brittany, where they stay with Marie’s eccentric great uncle Etienne. Hidden within his house, Etienne has a radio that he uses to send messages for the French resistance.

The Wehrmacht has successfully used Werner’s skill to locate and destroy the radio transmitters of the resistance fighters in Eastern Europe. As the Germans prepare for the Normandy invasion, Werner is sent to France to locate the French resistance’s radio signals.

And the scene is set.

When Marie and Werner’s lives at last converge, we see what they cannot: their personal stories trailing behind them like the tails of two comets.

What we call destiny may be sensing the way one has come before it happens, and glimpsing the trajectory of the soul working backwards in time.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (August 15-September 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.

You can buy All The Light We Cannot See on Amazon here.

Thomas Piketty
(Translated by Arthur Goldhammer)

The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press

You can buy Capital on Amazon here.

In a way we are in the same position at the beginning of the twenty-first century as our forebears were in the early nineteenth century: we are witnessing impressive changes in economies around the world, and it is very difficult to know how extensive they will turn out to be or what the global distribution of wealth, both within and between countries, will look like several decades from now…Their answers were not always satisfactory, but at least they were asking the right questions. There is no fundamental reason why we should believe that growth is automatically balanced.

                         from  Capital in the Twenty-first Century

One of the pleasures of history is the perspective it provides, placing this present moment in the context of what has gone before. Those who prefer some intellectual heft to their summer beach reading might enjoy Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century.

Concerned that the dialogue about the distribution of wealth has been based on “an abundance of prejudice and a paucity of fact,” Piketty, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, brings a historical perspective to the issue.

He begins with Thomas Malthus whose Essay on the Principle of Population reflected the uneasiness of the European aristocracy in the 1790s (the French Revolution had erupted in 1789.) For Malthus, the major threat was overpopulation, leading to mass poverty, leading to political upheaval.

Both he and David Ricardo, author of “the scarcity principle,” understood capital in terms of land and rents. Standing on the cusp of the industrial revolution, they could not foresee the vast technological changes coming and the societal implications of those changes.

By 1867, when Karl Marx published the first volume of Capital, both capital and capitalism itself had been re-defined in terms of manufacturing and the means of production. The mass “misery of the industrial proletariat” was another of its defining characteristics. Eventual revolution was inevitable, predicted Marx.

But by the mid-twentieth century, economists’ “overly developed taste for apocalyptic predictions gave way to a similarly excessive fondness for fairy tales, or at any rate happy endings.”

The leading proponent of these “fairy tales” was U.S. economist Simon Kuznets. who espoused the idea that long term growth would benefit everyone, summed up in the trope: “Growth is a rising tide that lifts all boats.”

Piketty, who has studied income inequality in the United States over the past twenty years, describes how income rose sharply for those at the top of the wealth distribution during the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, then became more equal during the era of post-war prosperity (1945-1975)—the top income tax rate was ninety per cent, the federal government had set minimum wages in many industries, supported trade unions, and invested heavily in the nation’s infrastructure.

Income inequality began to grow again in the nineteen eighties and nineties with the policies of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States. The tide continued to rise, but the majority of boats did not rise with it.

By 2012, the top one per cent of American households took 22.5 per cent of the nation’s wealth, making the level of income inequality in the United States “probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world.” If these current trends continue, warns Piketty, “the consequences for the long-term dynamics of the wealth distribution are potentially terrifying.” (Revolutions can be so messy.)

To address this growing imbalance, Piketty proposes a global wealth tax, like an annual property tax, that would apply to all forms of wealth, thereby requiring individuals who have largely managed to avoid paying taxes to now pay their fair share. One senses we’re back in the realm of fairy tales.

Capital in the Twenty-first Century is one of those occasional books that captures and contributes to a moment in history, summarizing the issues and providing the historical and statistical background to foster intelligent dialogue that could result in policies that benefit all members of our capitalistic society and its commonwealth.

True, not your typical beach read, but you’re going to be terrific in those conversations at the summer barbecues.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (July 15-August 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.

You can buy Capital on Amazon here.

Peter Stark
Harper & Collins Publisher

You can buy Astoria on Amazon here.

Astoria constituted a tiny dot of “civilization” on this farthest, wild rim of the continent. The ports of China lay 12,000 miles across the Pacific. The ports of the United States lay 21,000 miles around Cape Horn—five times farther than Jamestown or Plymouth had lain from their supply ports in England…Should the Astorians need to flee, they had no one to run to, and nowhere to hide. The remoteness and exposure were profound. The nearest reliable help lay at least a year’s journey away.

                                                  from  Astoria

In 1811, John Jacob Astor organized and outfitted two parties to establish a fur trading post on the coast of North America. One would go by sea around Cape Horn; the other, over land through the Rockies.

During the whole of Lewis and Clark’s perilous expedition (1804-1806), only one of their party died (of a ruptured appendix); more than half of those in Astor’s parties would die violent deaths, others would go mad, and most would nearly starve to death.

Peter Stark, author of numerous books on exploration and a contributor to Smithsonian and The New Yorker, has written a gripping account of Astoria’s founding.

Arriving in America in 1784 as a penniless youth from Germany, Astor would amass a great fortune from the burgeoning fur trade. The lustrous sea otter pelts could be bought for one dollar’s worth of trinkets from the Northwest Coast people and sold for the equivalent of one hundred dollars in China.

The leaders of his two parties were poles apart in personality and styles of leadership. Captain Jonathan Thorn, a U.S. naval hero in command of the Tonquin, was decisive yet arrogant and uncompromising. His refusal to listen to those who understood the native cultures would doom him, his men and his ship.

Wilson Price Hunt, a businessman inexperienced in the ways of the wilderness, was a consensus builder, and his gentle hand would hold his party together through the worst of their ordeals. Unnerved by reports about the Blackfeet and their penchant for torturing their captives to death, Hunt departed from Lewis and Clark’s established route. Instead, he set off to find a southern course through uncharted territory, guided by three trappers who turned out to be less reliable than Google Maps. He and his party would become lost and nearly perish in the wintry mountains.

Stark’s book relies heavily on the journals of the survivors, which brings a you-are-there authenticity to the experiences. The account of the Tonquin’s arrival at the Columbia River is harrowing to read. Eight of its crew would drown, trying to find a way through the treacherous bar at the mouth of the great river.

Stark also provides a description of the sophisticated native cultures of that time. Enjoying an ample and protein rich diet (an estimated 300 million salmon ran in predictable patterns each year), their standard of living was in many ways superior to late-eighteenth century conditions in Europe and the U.S.

For those of us in the lower Columbia region, there is the added enjoyment in learning about the men behind the place names we have grown up with, such as the tragic tale of John Day—At least he got a dam named after him.

This is history as it was lived, capturing the vision that propelled people into an uncharted future, and the price they paid for that vision.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (June 15-July 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.

You can buy Astoria on Amazon here.

Ruth Ozeki
Penguin Books

You can buy A Tale for the Time Being on Amazon here.

Actually, I stopped doing that [blogging] a while ago. It made me sad when I caught myself pretending that everybody out there in cyberspace cared about what I thought, when really nobody gives a shit. And when I multiplied that sad feeling by all the millions of people in their lonely little rooms, furiously writing and posting to their lonely little pages that nobody has time to read because they’re all so busy writing and posting, it kind of broke my heart.

                         from  A Tale for the Time Being


Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being.

So begins the diary of 16-year old Naoko Yasutani, and a rather extraordinary story by novelist Ruth Ozeki (My Year of Meats, All Over Creation.)

Nao’s diary, wrapped in plastic inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox, is among the detritus that is carried across the Pacific following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. It washes ashore in British Columbia where it is found and read by…a novelist named Ruth.

Lonely and bullied by her classmates, Nao (pronounced “Now”) immerses herself in her diary, telling how she plans to “drop out of time,” by committing suicide.

Out of her intense loneliness, she writes to the imagined future reader who will eventually find her diary (How cool is that? It feels like I’m reaching forward through time to touch you, and now that you’ve found it, you’re reaching back to touch me!). She wonders what the person is like who will someday be reading her words (Are you a male or a female or somewhere in between?) as she tells him/her/it about life as a Japanese teenager living in the twenty-first century.

At times she fears that her diary may never be found, and that she is talking to no one: …what if you’re not reading this at all? What if you never even found this book, because somebody chucked it in the trash or recycled it before it got to you? Then…I’m just sitting here wasting time talking to the inside of dumpster.

Weighed down with adolescent despair, Nao is sent to spend the summer with her great-grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun, and it is by learning Jiko’s story that the girl begins to find her place in time.

Ruth becomes captivated by the girl’s voice, at times chatty and whimsical, at other times, sharply observant and profound, and realizes that she, Ruth, is the future reader Nao was writing to. She becomes obsessed with learning more about this girl, whether she did commit suicide, or was she a victim of the earthquake and resulting tsunami?

In its mix of humor and pathos and profundity, the novel reminds me of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which captured the experiences and thoughts of another bright, lonely girl planning her own demise.

A finalist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, A Tale for the Time Being becomes a metafictional meditation on time and how, through time, we are interconnected with all other “time beings.”

Like Ruth, we become Nao’s future reader of her diary and need to know what became of the girl. Take it from me: This book is well worth your time.



This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (May 15-June14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.

You can buy A Tale for the Time Being on Amazon here.

Elizabeth Kolbert
Publisher Holt

You can buy The Sixth Extinction on Amazon here.

Very, very occasionally in the distant past, the planet has undergone change so wrenching that the diversity of life has plummeted. Five of these ancient events were catastrophic enough that they’re put in their own category: the so-called Big Five. In what seems like a fantastic coincidence, but is probably no coincidence at all, the history of these events is recovered just as people come to realize that they are causing another one.

                             from  The Sixth Extinction



This is probably not going to be the feel-good book of the year.

In 2008, an article appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled, “Are We in the Midst of the Sixth Extinction? A View from the World of Amphibians.”

Over the past half billion years, there have been five great extinctions during which “the planet has undergone change so wrenching that the diversity of life has plummeted.”

The first great extinction took place during the Ordovician period, about 450 million years ago, when life on this planet was still basically a watery affair. The greatest extinction event happened about 250 million years ago at the end of the Permian period, when life on earth came close to being snuffed out altogether. The most recent mass extinction occurred around 60 million years ago in the Cretaceous period, when a huge asteroid struck the earth; the resulting “nuclear winter” killed all large life forms, most notably the dinosaurs.

The paper’s authors, David Wake of the University of California-Berkeley and Vance Vredenburg of San Francisco State argued that, based on the current extinction rate of amphibians around the world, we are now in the midst of an event of similar catastrophic magnitude. This sixth extinction is of particular interest to humans because (1) unlike the others, we are living during this event, and (2) we are causing it.

Elizabeth Kolbert, science writer for The New Yorker and author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006) about the impact of climate change, set out to investigate this idea. She traveled to various parts of the world, witnessing first-hand the loss of our “biodiversity.”

The scientific data is staggering: “It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.”

This current extinction event probably began around 12,000 years ago (which is like only this morning in geologic time), and the main agent is modern humans, who have continuously spread over the planet and altered the ecosphere of whichever area they have inhabited, in much the same way as an invasive species.

It is a little unsettling to think of humans as an invasive species, perhaps even capable of killing its host. Kolbert quotes Stanford’s ecologist Paul Ehrlich: “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is sawing off the limb on which it perches.”

The good news is that, based on past extinctions, the planet will survive and life will go on in some form; the bad news is that we humans may not be part of it.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (April 15-May14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.

You can buy The Sixth Extinction on Amazon here.

James McBride
Riverhead Books (Penguin Group)

I don’t know what it is, but every time the Old Man started talking holy, just the mention of his Maker’s name made him downright dangerous. A kind of electricity climbed over him. His voice become like gravel scrapin’ a dirt road. Something raised up in him. His old, tired frame dropped away, and in its place stood a man wound up like a death mill. It was most unsettling thing to see…He believed God was on his side. Everybody got God on their side in a war. Problem is, God ain’t tellin’ nobody who He’s for.

                                                from  The Good Lord Bird

You can buy The Good Lord Bird on Amazon here.

It’s 1856 on the Kansas-Missouri border; a time when you could be stopped on a lonely road by a group of armed men asking, “Are you Pro-Slave or Free State?” How you answered would determine whether you made it home that night.

The Kansas Territory was a battlefield, being fought between those who wanted it to enter the union a slave state and those who were just as adamant that it become a free state. There was no lack on either side of extremists willing to slaughter families or entire populations of frontier towns for their beliefs.

James McBride, author of the moving and tender memoir, The Color of Water, captures this turbulent time in his novel, The Good Lord Bird, winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction.

The story is narrated by Henry Shackleford, nicknamed “Onion,” who as a 10-year old boy is freed by the abolitionist John Brown, he of Harper’s Ferry fame. Onion is light-skinned and comely, and, dressed only in a potato sack as slave children often were, Brown mistakes him for a girl. Though he at first resents this, Onion soon realizes that it’s in his best interest to maintain this guise. (“You just trying to save your skin.”/ “Why not? It covers my body.”)

Hovering over the story is the character of Brown, the “Old Man”—sentimental, murderous, possibly crazy, and, depending upon one’s point of view at the time, divinely or diabolically inspired. (“He got downright holy when it was killing time. ‘Take thine own hand and split an ax with it,’ he said. ‘That’s Eucclestsies twelve seven or thereabouts.’”)

By the time he’s twelve, Onion has been recaptured and is working (still as a girl) in a saloon and whorehouse, where he falls in love with the beautiful but hardened Pie; and where it’s become increasingly difficult to hide the fact that he’s a boy. He’s freed a second time by Brown, and finds himself on the road to Harper’s Ferry.

In a number of ways, The Good Lord Bird reminded me of another story, also set in Missouri, also set in the pre-Civil War years. It, too, had a boy who like Onion, though white, needed to use all his wits and wiles and flexible ethics to survive a series of adventures; who encountered a number of colorful and memorable characters, and who told his story also in a distinctive voice, employing humor and satirical insight into his society and the institution of slavery. And as I recall, at one point Huck disguises himself as a girl, too.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (March 15-April 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.

You can buy The Good Lord Bird on Amazon here.

George Packer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Clinton wanted to be loved, Gingrich wanted to be feared. They spent 1995 circling around the budget. When they met in the White House, Gingrich dictated terms, while Clinton studied Gingrich. He saw the nine-year-old’s insecurities writhing beneath the fiery words. He understood why none of Gingrich’s colleagues could stand him. He saw how to exploit the grandiosity. Clinton’s need for love gave him insight, and he used it to seduce his adversary while setting traps for him, and when at the end of the year the United States of America was forced to close for business, it was Gingrich who got the blame.

from  The Unwinding

You can buy The Unwinding on Amazon here -

“No one can say when the unwinding began—when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way.”

How did we get to this point? A deeply polarized society— Democrats distrusting Big Business, Republicans distrusting Big Government, and the Tea Party seeming to distrust Big Anything—where diatribe has replaced dialogue, and politics is reduced to pranks (anyone for Green Eggs and Ham?)

In The Unwinding, winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2013, George Packer attempts to understand what is happening by presenting a social history of America over the past three decades.

This could make for flat reading, but Packer, author of The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq, tells the story through a number of different people’s lives—a tobacco farmer in the South, trying to find a new future; a factory worker in the Midwest, fighting to hold her family together as wages and benefits are eroded while productivity and profits soar; a Washington political insider losing the idealism that first drew him to politics.

Along with these individuals, Packer also reflects on people who have become almost iconic when we think about this period of history:

Newt Gingrich—“Donors were more likely to send money if they could be frightened or angered, if the issues were framed as simple choices between good and evil.”

Oprah Winfrey—“If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it.”

Walmart’s Sam Walton—“Mr. Sam launched a Buy American campaign, winning praise from politicians and newspapers around the country, and Wal-Mart stores put up MADE IN THE U.S.A. signs over racks of clothing imported from Bangladesh.”

The short story writer Raymond Carver—“a man who had wandered into a book party from the scary part of town.”

Colin Powell, at once noble and tragic—“When the (Iraq) war began, the president said that he was sleeping like a baby. ‘I’m sleeping like a baby, too,’ said the secretary (Powell). ‘Every two hours I wake up screaming.’”

If the social fabric of this nation is unraveling, it is not anything new. Packer notes that there have been other “unwindings” in our history—such as the years leading up to the Civil War, or during the Great Depression—and each time, the nation went through the crisis, regained its equilibrium, and in the process reinvented itself.

His conclusion is ultimately—eventually—positive: “Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.”

Stay tuned.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (Feb 15-Mar 15, 2013.) Reprinted with permission.

You can buy The Unwinding on Amazon here.

Louise Erdrich
Harper Perennial

You can buy The Round House on Amazon here.


My father could out-weather anybody. Like people anywhere, there were times when it was the only topic where people here felt comfortably expressive, and my father could go on earnestly, seemingly forever. When the current weather was exhausted, there was all the weather that had occurred in recorded history, weather lived through or witnessed by a relative, or even heard about on the news. Catastrophic weather of all types. And when that was done with, there was all the weather that might possibly occur in the future. I’d even heard him speculate about weather in the afterlife.

from  The Round House


Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, winner of the National Book Award, is one of those occasional novels that can be classified both as “commercial fiction” (fast-paced, strong narrative, action) and “literary fiction” (complex, literate, multilayered, and “serious”.)

The narrator is 13-year old Joe Coutts, living on an Ojibwe reservation with his father, Bazil, a tribal judge, and his mother, Geraldine, who works as a kind of social worker and whose job is “to know everybody’s secrets” on the reservation.

The novel begins with the brutal assault on Joe’s mother in the Round House, a sacred place of worship for their people. Severely traumatized, Geraldine withdraws into herself, unable—or unwilling—to say who attacked her and why.

Emotionally shut out by his mother, frustrated that the police are turning up no clues, Joe begins his own investigation, assisted by his friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus.

The austerity and strain of life on a North Dakota reservation provides the backdrop for the story, highlighting the poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence, and tense, mutually mistrusting relations between the whites and the “rez Indians”—“Just yesterday a white guy asked me if I was a real Indian. No, I said…The real Indians are in India. I’m a genuine Chippewa.”

A number of reviewers have compared The Round House favorably to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird—there is the complex adult world seen through the eyes of a young person, the father as a good and decent man, issues of racism and justice (“Any judge knows there are many kinds of justice—for instance, ideal justice as opposed to the best-we-can-do justice.”)

The mystery of what happened in the Round House drives the narrative. But this is also a coming-of-age story, and amid its bleakness and intensity, there are some very funny scenes: Cappy goes to confession, where he admits to Father Travis that he had sexual relations with a girl…from the visiting Youth Encounter Christ group…inside Father’s church. Joe watches as Cappy comes tearing out of the confessional, running for his life, as Father Travis, an ex-Marine and very fit, chases him throughout the reservation, intent on throttling the boy.

Eventually, Joe and his friends will uncover the truth of the Round House, but will find little comfort in it—“I couldn’t tell anyone. Even I didn’t want to know what I knew”—and learn that the pursuit of truth must sometimes settle for the best-we-can-do kind of justice.

This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (January 10-February 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.

You can buy The Round House on Amazon here.

Ivan Doig
Riverhead Books -- You can buy The Bartender's Tale on Amazon here.

Somewhere in the back of our minds lurked the disturbing knowledge that when school started in the fall, I would have to turn into a boy among other boys again and she would have to find a best friend among girls. But that fact of life lay whole months away yet, and in the meantime, all we had to live up to was for each of us to do half the laughing.

from  The Bartender’s Tale

Soon before daybreak on my sixth birthday, my mother’s breathing wheezed more raggedly than ever, then quieted. And then stopped.

The remembering begins out of that new silence…

One of the most evocative and powerful openings I had ever read began This House of Sky, Ivan Doig’s 1978 memoir of growing up in Montana. I was hooked and eagerly read the books that followed, The Sea Runners, Winter Brothers, Prairie Nocturne, The Whistling Season, Work Song. Like Wallace Stegner, Doig is a storyteller of the modern West and a master stylist, meaning that as important as the story he tells is the way he tells it; his books are full of sentences you want to highlight and underline and remember.

In his most recent novel, The Bartender’s Tale, Doig relates the experiences of Russell (Rusty) Harry when he turned twelve in 1960—“that year of everything”—when his life changed and the world would never be the same again.

The events take place in the small fictional town of Gros Ventre, Montana (“where people knew one another’s business almost before it happened”), the setting of several of Doig’s stories.

Rusty lives with his father, who owns the town’s most popular bar, the Medicine Lodge saloon, and who is some kind of legend in the area with his down to earth, no-nonsense philosophy (“All you can count on in life is your fingers and toes.” “Opposites attract, but usually not for long.”)

“Newly hatched from childhood into adolescence,” Rusty begins to explore the strange goings-on and baffling world of adults. To accompany him on his explorations is a girl new in town, Zoe Constantine. Overcoming the typical 12-year old boy’s suspicion of girls, he and Zoe quickly become best friends and co-conspirators in growing up.

Rather than the story of some dramatic, life changing event, the novel instead recounts the daily little discoveries and mini-dramas that together add up to what Rusty realizes was a turning point in his life: The prospect of his dad re-marrying, or as he called it “maddermoany,” selling the bar that had become a manageable microcosm of the world, or being confronted with the possibility that he has a half-sister neither he nor his father knew about.

Through the story of that momentous year, Doig captures the freshness of a 12-year old’s explorations and discoveries filtered now through the reasoned, seasoned reflections of the boy fifty years later: “That’s grown-ups for you. By the time we ever figure them out…we’ll be them.”

This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (September 15-Oct 14, 2013.) Reprinted with permission.

You can buy The Bartender's Tale on Amazon here.

Kate Atkinson
Little Brown & Co.

You can buy Life After Life on Amazon here.

She was eager to get on and earn her independence rather than be cloistered in another institution. “Time’s winged chariot, and all that,” she said to her parents.

“Well, we all get on,” Sylvie said, “one way or another. And in the end we all arrive at the same place. I hardly see that it matters how we get there.”

It seemed to Ursula that how you got there was the whole point.”

from  Life After Life


Life After Life opens with the heroine assassinating Adolf Hitler. It’s 1930. Not bad for a beginning.

When a novel starts this way you know that either you are setting out on an extraordinary journey of the imagination, or the novelist has an abysmal sense of history. In the case of Kate Atkinson (Case Histories), it’s clearly the former.

On February 11, 1910, Ursula Todd is born, and dies at birth (No breath. All the world come down to this.) In the very next chapter, she is born on February 11, 1910 (“A bonny, bouncing baby girl”) to live a full life, or several.

Probably most people have wondered: What if I had married that person rather than this one; if I had accepted that job; if I had taken more risks; if I had played it safer; if I had chosen differently. Life is a series of daily choices, with extenuating circumstances and unforeseen consequences. This is a novel about the great What Ifs of history and our personal lives.

Ursula is an odd duck, out of step with time and her family much of the time (“Try not to be precocious,” Sylvie sighed. “It’s a not a pleasant thing in a girl.”) and her life contains different scenarios with vastly different consequences. When she’s sixteen, she is casually raped by a friend of her older brother, and she grows up to be a timid woman who marries an abusive husband, who winds up killing her.

Take two: As a sixteen year old girl, she punches her brother’s friend in the jaw as he tries to kiss her, and he winces away. Same girl, different story; different life.

The book been compared to the film Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray’s character awakes each morning to live the day all over again. But Atkinson’s story rather suggests parallel universes, as if Ursula were living all these lives simultaneously. In one, she is an air-raid warden in London during the Blitz; in another, she is huddling with her small daughter in Berlin as the Russians approach. In its imaginative reach, the novel, I think, more closely resembles Slaughter House 5—“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

Typically, life comes with regrets—for what we did or didn’t do, and with the knowledge that we could have chosen differently, accomplished more, been better persons. It is a kind of consolation of the imagination to think that, maybe in some other universe, we were.

And that in that universe Hitler never lived to become Chancellor of Germany.

This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (July 15-August 14, 2013.) Reprinted with permission.

You can buy Life After Life on Amazon here.