Friday, September 10, 2021

Best of the Fiction Stack


A look back at my list of most recent books assures me that I've managed to keep a steady diet of good reading, even when I have more to read than ever for school. I have always enjoyed a book that gives a glimpse into the lives and work of great artists. Nothing enables time travel like a good book either. Laura Morelli's novel The Night Portrait follows multiple perspectives in two time periods: Much of the story takes place in Milan, Italy, during the 13th century, following Leonardo da Vinci and one of his few portrait subjects Cecilia Gallerani, captured by the master in "Lady with the Ermine"; the other storyline takes place during WWII, following Edith Becker, a German art conservator pressed into serve by Hitler's regime to locate works of art owned by wealthy Jewish families to add to the German collection, and Italian-American soldier Dominic Bonelli, assigned to guard the Monuments Men, who were working to protect art and architecture and locate stolen works.

I read the book Monuments Men before the movie was released and was particularly fascinated to learn that one of the real Monuments Men, Robert Posey of south Alabama, shares ancestors (named in the book) with my husband's family. 

Morelli weaves the story lines together smoothly. Edith feels guilty for her unwitting role in stealing art from private owners, particularly when she discovers that many pieces end up not in German museums but in the private collections of high-ranking Nazi officers. She decides to take the risk of keeping records of works taken, their owners, and their place of "safekeeping." Bonelli has a natural artistic talent, but questions putting soldiers in harm's way to safeguard art, not lives. His desire to return home to his wife and daughters, one he has yet to meet, exists in  tension with his realization of the importance of art to human beings.

Leonardo, caught in the intrigue of a palace where he is painting the mistress at the time the Duke weds, comes across as an interesting, multi-dimensional character. Cecelia's story is a variation of the that of many women whose future is decided by others, often fathers and older brothers. 

Another novel that kept me reading recently is Catherine Lowell's novel The Madwoman Upstairs. The protagonist Samantha Whipple is a young woman in her early 20s, the last living relative of the Brontes. Raised and educated by her father in Boston after her parents' divorce, she arrives at Oxford, where she is placed in a dorm room in the "Tower" in a part of the old school that is a regular stop on campus tours 

Having lost her father prematurely in a fire, she seems to be looking for the part of him left behind. While the world speculates about her supposed inheritance, Sam is baffled as one by one, his father's personal copies of the Bronte sisters' novels appear in her room.To complicate matters, Dr. James Orville, her tutor (or don) challenges her every idea about literature, while avoiding the Brontes as long as he can.

Though I haven't Googled for confirmation of my theory, as I read the novel, I realized that Lowell must have engaged in academic research on the Brontes. The novel has material that could, instead, have been a dissertation. Samantha's conversations during tutoring session with Orvilles, as well as in her interior monologue, explore a variety of interpretations of literature, the Bronte works in particular. She and Orville argue about reliability of narrators, the meaning of text, and the value (or lack of value) in reader response theory. All of the literary talk is supported by direct textual evidence, making me think of re-reading Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and picking up The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. 

Sam, the novel's protagonist is socially awkward, certainly missing opportunities to make new friends at Oxford in favor of following her own muse and trying to discover what her father wanted to tell her. Lowell incorporates some plot turns that require a willing suspension of disbelief. The romantic story line is less plausible. Teaching in a college environment myself, the teacher-student complications set me on edge a bit. Sometimes Samantha isn't even very likable--but she is curious, courageous, and willing to try different perspectives. I learned a few things about the Brontes and their works as well that 'd much rather have learned reading a novel than a dissertation.

I got the suggestion to read Pickard County Atlas by Chris Harding Thornton from a former colleague who regular pops up in my messages with great book selections. I had trouble finding it at first because autocorrect had changed the title to Pickle County. The novel's main character Harley Jensen is a deputy sheriff in a small town in the Nebraska Sandhills still haunted by his mother's suicide. The story opens just as the patriarch of the Reddicks, a local family, decides to go ahead and have a funeral--without a body--for his son who disappeared years before, a crime Jensen's department has been unable to solve. 

Thornton also follows one of the Reddick sons, something of a reprobate who knows hot to get Harley's goat, and the other Reddick son's wife Pam, a young mother completely restless in her role as wife and mother. The unsolved murder and the disappearance of the elder Mrs. Reddick, long unbalanced, keep the tension and suspense throughout the story. The author deftly creates such a strong sense of place. Pickard County Atlas is a dark tale, but one that gets under the reader's skin.