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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Visiting Fictional Worlds in January

My introduction to M. J. Rose was with the novel, The Book of Fragrance, much of it set in Paris. With her new work of fiction, Seduction, once again Rose seduces readers with a journey of exploration into the mysteries of mind and time. We walk beaches and descend into caves on the Isle of Jersey. Traveling to the past, we sit in seance with Victor Hugo as he tries desperately to make contact with his drowned daughter. Do you believe in ghosts? This novel will suspend your disbelief and hold you enthralled.

What I Was, by Meg Rosoff, took me by surprise. The slim volume opens with an unhappy young boy, going off to yet another English boarding school, anticipating yet another academic and social failure. When a new relationship blooms to change his life forever, it isn’t the one you expect—and you certainly don’t anticipate where it will go. Like Seduction, What I Was is set in the United Kingdom, the latter on England’s rocky coast.

What can I say—what do I need to say—about Alexander McCall Smith’s Miracle at Speedy Motors, another in the series of books about Mma Ramotswe of Botswana’s fictional Ladies #1 Detective Agency? These stories never disappoint me. I love my visits to Botswana’s world of red earth and bush tea, and I enter completely into Precious Ramotswe’s investigations and home life. She is not perfect, and sometimes her errors embarrass her, but she is a good, kind, thoughtful, and strong person. Her beloved father would be very proud of her!

The Land of Green Plums, by Herta Müller, brought a radical shift in mood, as I moved from sunny, democratic Botswana to find myself in bleak Romania under a harsh dictatorship permeating every institution, every place of work, and every personal relationship. The best future the young people can hope for is escape. The style and chronology of the novel are disorienting, probably intentionally so. I was halfway through before I “found my feet,” and even then the going wasn’t easy but was well worth the effort.

Then there was The Hour I First Believed, by Wally Lamb. Put off by the length of Lamb’s novels, I had never read one before but something about this one—maybe the title—drew me in. Beginning with the actual shooting at Columbine High School, Lamb takes his fictional narrator, a high school teacher, back to childhood and forward years after the event, exploring different kinds of violence, what it means to feel like an outsider, family secrets, marital and family relationships, disturbed adolescents, post-traumatic stress, women’s prisons, and so much more that I know the list begins to sound like a sociology textbook, but believe me, it reads like real people living real lives, and everyone I know who’s read it says the same. For the first 200 pages you wonder if you’ll be able to read on much longer—how can you stand to keep going???--and then you are so caught up that you can hardly put the book down to attend to your own life, wanting to know what is going to happen to Caelum, Maureen, Velvet, and every incidental character whose life intersects with theirs.

And now, the novel I’m reading at present: Very unlike any of these others, The Son of Marietta, by Johan Fabricius, published in 1936, opens with a group of “players” (actors) traveling in horse-drawn coaches across central Italy in late fall. They stop at an inn in a provincial cathedral town. One of the women with the troupe has a baby but is unable to nurse the crying child, and after the landlord’s wife offers her own breast the child is left behind, with a little money, and grows up in the public house. Later, for a few years, the girl Marietta takes refuge in a convent, and there the new bishop finds her and takes her into his own home, first as help to his housekeeper, then as his almost-adopted daughter, and—then? I am about a quarter of the way through the book, and the main character, he of the title, has not yet appeared on the scene. This is not a fast-moving story. And yet the portraits are well drawn, and the situations, though far from modern, are very recognizably human, so I am not at all impatient. It is a luxurious escape on cold winter nights, a good excuse to go to bed early!

Have you read any good novels lately?


Kathy said...

Thank you for all the good fiction suggestions, Pamela. Having read many stories about Mma Ramotswe, I will probably find my way to Alexander McCall Smith’s offering. Have not really been novel reading for a while so can't add a single suggestion at the moment.

P. J. Grath said...

I didn't plan it this way, Kathy, but just totted up books read since Jan. 1 and see I'm running 50/50 fiction/nonfiction. And, of course, some books, regardless of category, are faster to get through. In general, I read more novels when I remind myself that I am a bookseller--if that makes sense.