I sort of dread writing these, -something about trying to capture great (or even just ok) literary works in blog format is daunting- but I like the idea of being able to look back on books I’ve read as time passes, and I forget what they’re about. In an effort to write reviews less frequently, I’m going to try and combine them. Conveniently, my last two reads (sorta) shared a common thread, so it makes for an easy combo.
In the fiction department, I recently finished Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. I stumbled across it on Amazon’s Best Books of the Year So Far list, and it was just lovely. It was one of those books that permeated my entire life, and I found myself thinking about it at random intervals throughout my week. Life After Life is about a girl named Ursula who dies shortly after being born only to be born again. This cycle of death and rebirth repeats throughout Ursula’s life, but rather than travel the same life path again and again, it’s as if mini universes are created each time Ursula is reborn. Each decision she makes leads her down a different path towards a new destiny.
If it sounds as though this book is young adultish, it’s because I’m having a hard time conveying the essence. Really, this book covers some very heavy subject matter. Ursula is living in England through World Wars I and II, and Atkinson does a great job of conveying a variety of experiences and emotions associated with wartime life.
Rather than recount each life cycle from beginning to end, Life After Life zips through some phases of some lives and lingers on others, but I never found the narrative confusing (like, say, The Time Traveler’s Wife). There were so many aspects of this book that I just loved. The complexity of the female characters was wonderful to read. There were a few archetypes, but the three main characters were diverse and interesting to read about. I don’t generally enjoy reading about female leads because so many authors are myopic on the gender, but Atkinson really hits the mark.
I really enjoyed reading about World War I and II. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in that time period either, so it was fascinating to read about the World Wars especially from a Western European perspective. You don’t need very much prior knowledge on the subject to become immersed in the story.
I think my favorite part of the book though was the way Urusla’s past lives effected the present one. She couldn’t remember her past lives, but she remained connected to them. Often, when faced with a pivotal situation she had experienced in a past life, she’d experience a visceral reaction similar to Deja Vu. This was so interesting to me. When Ursula ignored her gut in favor of her more rational sense, she seemed to doomed to make the same or graver mistakes, but when she listened to herself, she avoided calamity. I think people -women especially- have a certain sense that alerts them to danger. I think so many of us are quick to ignore that sense because it’s sometimes frightening, and since it can’t be explained, it’s easier to conform to social norms than react to our instincts, but the older I get the more I’m learning to trust my gut. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not. I’d rather remove myself from a situation that feels wrong then stay in order to avoid appearing odd or offending someone’s feelings. Maybe 99% of my instincts are unfounded, but maybe they’re not. This just really resonated with me.
As far as the largest theme, the idea of reincarnations in order to figure out your mistakes and “get it right.” I’m still not sure how I feel about that. I find it both appealing and exhausting. On the one hand, who wouldn’t want another chance to undo some mistakes and relive life’s brightest moments, but on the other hand, you’d also have to relive your lowest points again and again. Plus, the idea of redoing everything until you get it perfect is daunting.
Life After Life was a great read that I’d like to pick up again at some point because it’s a book with a lot of layers worth exploring.
The next read was a non-fiction selection that I never would have opted to read had it not been for my book club. This month’s choice was Proof of Heaven by Eben Alexander. It’s been a New York Times Bestseller for a long time, so I had heard of it, but I had no idea what it was about. Eben Alexander is an accomplish neurosurgeon who contracted bacterial meningitis and lapsed into a coma for 7 days. During that time, his soul went to heaven, and when he came back to his body, he knew he had to share his story with the world. I cannot even express to you how far out of my normal range of interest this book falls, so if you’re rolling your eyes, stick with me. This book is a game changer.
Because Alexander is a brain surgeon, he’s as knowledgeable as they come about what the brain is and is not capable of, and he methodically and scientifically details why his experience cannot be explained by any random neural firings. It really is a complex scientific explanation of why science exists, so I don’t want to butcher it here, but while I believe in God, I consider myself a generally skeptical person, and every time I caught myself reading and thinking, “Ok but what about this?” he would explain exactly why “this” couldn’t explain away what he’d experienced. I thought it was a beautiful and uplifting book, and I truly think no matter your thoughts on this subject, it’s worth a read, and it will expand your horizons.
So, there you have it. Death and near-death and after lives and the Afterlife. While I did not plan this intersection, it came at a good time as I’ve been thinking a lot about life and death lately. I don’t mean that in a morbid way though I’m sure it sounds that way. Again, I think I’m just growing up with so much thinking about the future lately, it’s hard to avoid thinking things allllll the way through. These two reads came at a wonderful time for me in that they both present very different views but share the idea that death is not an end point on the spectrum. Maybe there’s no spectrum at all. Maybe it’s a circle or a pendulum. That’s been pretty comforting for me.