Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Balm of Fiction

This year of reading was much lighter on nonfiction than my normal reading. Frankly I got enough of the real world as I followed the political news. I needed some escape from it, something to absorb my energies which were too easily distracted by disturbing news. Much of what I read was based on history, a topic of interest to me. 

In my prior post, I wrote of two authors who I especially enjoyed and of whom I read widely. I also wrote of my reading on art related themes, both fiction and non-fiction. This post explores some of the additional fiction which I highly recommend.  There is no particular order to this list. As I assembled it,  I was surprised to realize that it all fell between 2014-16, so is quite contemporary.

Flight of the Sparrow (2014) by Amy Belding Brown is based on the true story of Mary Rowlandson who was kidnapped by the Indians in the 1600s. In Brown's  fictionalized recounting, Rowlandson learns how to survive among the Indians and finds her ultimate return more challenging than anticipated. She actually had more freedom among the Indians. Indian life is not romanticized with frightening violence exhibited in raids, but the cultural differences are well delineated, many of them represented favorably over Puritan standards. This was not a topic I had previously explored and when I subsequently stumbled across Jiles' books (see prior post) I found myself inadvertently following a theme.

Last Bus to Wisdom (2015) is the last book Ivan Doug published before his death. It is a coming of age story set in the 1950s and somewhat autobiographical.  I have always been a fan of Doig and enjoy his wry humor. It is a defining characteristic of all of his work, but especially so in this book. The young man who is our protagonist gets wiser with each mile. As there will be no more Doig books, I plan to revisit those not yet read.

The Other Side of Life  (2015) by Andy Kutler makes use of a plot devise that lifts the main character out of Pearl Harbor and into the middle of the Civil War, two places I would never choose to be. Having said that, I must also say that I found it fascinating. I especially felt that it captured the reality of the Civil War.

Homegoing (2016) by Yaa Gyasi is written in chapters that represent parallel generations of two sisters who experienced different channels of black experience.  One becomes the "wife" of a white Captain involved with the British slave trade while the other is captured by Fante warriors and sold into slavery. It is an interesting way to reflect this experience although each generational chapter could easily have become a book of its own. An interesting perspective on how blacks also played a role in the slave trade.

A Man Called Ove (2014) by Frederick Bachman is an utterly charming book that captures the kind of man who exhibits emotion through guy stuff: cars, using his hands to make things, helping out in practical ways. Ove lacks an emotional vocabulary, but stumbles into emotion none-the-less. This book finds the goodness buried beneath the trappings of being an inarticulate man. Very heartwarming.

The Atomic Weight of Love (2016) by Elizabeth Church is set in Los Alamos where Meridian, a promising young science student is married to a physics professor who is now working on the atomic bomb. It offers a glimpse of the social community of Los Alamos where well educated wives abandon their career aspirations in the manner of the times, seeking what fulfillment they can find on the margins. We have the opportunity to follow Meridian more closely and observe her inner life.

The Secret Chord (2015) by Geraldine Brooks is the story of King David, the unromanticized version, as told through the eyes of his seer. In this version he is a man of talents, but also hubris, all story drawn from the Bible, but reframed to place us closer to the action. It is an interesting perspective through the eyes of the women who surround him, both wives and daughter. 

The Henna House (2014) by Nomi Eve is the story of Yemenite Jews and the secret language of the art of henna. It explores a love story in hindsight, both of female friendship and romantic love. It is touched by betrayal, by loved ones and also betrayal by history through the Holocaust and expulsion of the Yemenite Jewish community.

Commonwealth (2016) by Ann Patchett explores how a chance encounter both disrupts and reshapes families creating reverberations through subsequent generations. It is about family secrets and story and the ties between family in all its ill-formed misbegotten varieties. 

Miller's Valley (2016) is a novel by Anna Quindlen. I usually prefer essays by Quindlen, but I've watched her skills as a novelist grow and especially liked this novel. It is about a bright young woman freeing herself from a world that isn't designed for the mobility that she ultimately requires. She receives encouragement from her mother who recognizes her potential, and supports her escape from her hometown. Her home is soon to be flooded and the valley reclaimed, submerging secrets in the wake of her escape. The novel is strongest when it is focused on her life in the valley, struggling to maintain its momentum when she departs.

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