Monday, December 31, 2012

Behind the Scenes at the Museum: A Novel

Behind the Scenes at the Museum: A Novel
Kate Atkinson (1995, Picador)

    To start at the very beginning: Ruby Lennox is conceived, she informs us in the first paragraph, by a drunken father, George, and his wife, Bunty, who is pretending to be asleep. She uses her time in utero to examine the nooks and crannies of Bunty’s unhappiness, which we’ll hear more about throughout the novel, and to establish her cheeky, knowledgeable voice.

    Ruby’s life story makes up the main narrative of Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but between those chapters, we get extensive historical footnotes: capsule histories of Bunty; her mother, Nell; and Nell’s mother and step-mother, Alice and Rachel, none of whom is particularly blessed with good cheer or good fortune. Generation after generation, these women find their children intolerably burdensome. The husbands in the picture are no prizes either: when they’re not swilling down beer with their mates, they’re having a go at some willing floozy, or gambling away the family estate.

    Besides their miserable childhoods, and their own terrible choices, these people are at the mercy of the Twentieth Century. Nell’s marital fortunes are upset by World War I, as Bunty’s are by the second great war. There’s also plenty of poverty and neglect to go around, to say nothing of abuse--people fling things at other people’s heads every fifty pages or so--and all kinds of death.

    Yet somehow it’s all very entertaining. Partly it’s the writing, of which I can’t give you a sample because the meaning of each sentence depends so much on its context. It’s fun to follow various motifs as they loop through the family’s tangled history. Old photographs, a locket, a head of blond curls, a gesture, all turning up in new places, with new meanings that don’t erase the old ones: the china Nell’s suitors drink from turns up, two generations later, as a saucer to feed the dog from.

    Kate Atkinson’s authorial finesse, and courtesy, permits her to embed these things without drawing too much attention to them. She leaves us a few riddles, too; none of the characters, not even our Ruby, knows all that’s going on. (One of these riddles is what, precisely, the title alludes to, but maybe I’m overthinking it.)

    I enjoyed the ground-level tour of York, and the countryside of northern England, and the trenches at Ypres, rats and all. One of the reasons I prefer non-fiction to fiction is that the world it describes continues after I put the book down, and this book contrives to feel like history in that sense. It also feels like capital-L Literature, yet without being precious, or trying too hard to dazzle. Perhaps I just mean to say that you could read it again, the next day or a decade later, and get something rich out of it.

Any Good Books, email edition, January 2013

Monday, December 17, 2012

Drop Dead Healthy

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection
A. J. Jacobs (2012, Simon & Schuster)
     A. J. Jacobs’s specialty is finding things that most people do a little of, and doing them to wild, mad excess. In The Know-It-All, he read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica; in The Year of  Living Biblically, he grew a beard, kept a slave (well, an intern) and shunned poly-cotton blends. In Drop Dead Healthy, he does both journalistic and experiential research on the range of nostrums and practices modern Americans employ to stay healthy.

    Jacobs dives in, as always, head first. When he sketches out the things he needs to try, “[i]t’s an intimidatingly long list. Fifty-three pages.” For all his single-minded elan, he presents the information with a healthy dose of respect for the complexity involved. One study seems to disprove another every day, partly because there are so many of them, and partly because it’s categorically impossible to control for all the factors that may be in play, when it comes to matters like nutrition and exercise.

   But as a one-man experiment, Jacobs doesn’t necessarily have to control for anything but his experience. He buys a treadmill, finds out that he is annoying everybody who lives on the floor below, and parks it. He reads that sitting too much is bad for you, and he converts the treadmill into a desk “...after about a half-dozen collapsed versions involving dictionaries, filing cabinets, and masking tape. But it works.”

    And so on through acupuncture and yoga, meditation and triathlons, raw foods and low-carb diets. When Jacobs tells us what something is like, he includes how foolish he feels doing it, and how hard it is for his wife, Julie, to live with. (Julie remains the voice of reason; heaven knows where he’d be without her.) This improves his credibility, as does his admission that he is in danger of becoming overly focused on the health effects of everything. You could drive yourself to an early grave, or a padded room, worrying about all the potential toxins and hazards you meet every day; the current state of medical science is not as much help as you’d hope.

    At any rate, of course, Drop Dead Healthy is not intended as medical advice. Some of what Jacobs has tried would work for anybody; as for the rest, it’s just as well that he can tell us what it was like. He’s charming company, his characters are interesting, and he tells a good story--that’s really all I ask.   

Be well!

Email, December 2012