Thursday, December 30, 2021

Character-Driven Novels of 2021


One of my favorite books recently has been The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams. The book, set in London, focuses on two main characters, with a charming cast of secondary characters. Mukesh is an older man, recently widowed, who discovers one of his wife's library books, The Poisonwood Bible, under their bed. He reads it to try to connect with her. The second main character Aleisha works at the library, though she certainly wouldn't consider the job a calling or even a career.

Her brother is the reader of the family, and the two of them awkwardly share responsibility caring for their mother, who suffers from mental illness. When Mukesh comes to the library, asking for other book suggestions, Aleisha initially brushes him off. However, feeling guilty--and not wanting conflict with her boss--she finds a book list someone has left behind and decides to read the books on it, beginning something of a book club for two with Mukesh.

Throughout the storyline, others find copies of the same list as well--To Kill a Mockingbird, Beloved, Cry the Beloved Country and more. Not only does the list bring together unlikely friendships, but each reader gets the lesson that seems to speak to him or her. Mukesh has to navigate new relationships with his adult daughters now that their mother is gone. Aleisha faces her own painful losses. What blossoms is a hopeful, mutually rewarding friendship in a story that explores the power of books and libraries.

I was introduced to Rachel Joyce's novel several years ago, and I particularly loved The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Frye and The Love Song of Queenie Hennessey. Joyce develops quirky, endearing characters and sends them on unexpected journeys. At the beginning of her latest novel Miss Benson's Beetle, the title character is that awkward stereotypical "spinster" school teacher, the one the students mock without really taking care not to let her see. In response to just such mockery, she quits her job and leaves, stealing a colleagues boots, and sets out to explore New Caledonia in search of the mythical golden beetle about which she had become obsessed as a younger woman.

Miss Beetle advertises for someone fluent in French to accompany her, striking out with each applicant. In desperation, she ends up taking along Enid Pretty, who arrives in a bright pink suit and hat as they board the ship. Only after they are underway does Enid confess the the only French she knows is bonjour. At first, both of the characters seem like such caricatures, but with subtlety, tenderness, and much humor, Joyce makes the characters come alive. Along the way, this mismatched pair alternate between the needy and the caretaker, the leader and the assistant.

The story will not make readers want to head out for a similar adventure, but like me, they may hope to see this funny little book come to the big screen. I'd cast the same lead actress for this book as I would for Olive Kittredge.

Several other books I've read at year end have been populated by unforgettable characters. The Man Who Died Twice, Richard Osman's sequel to The Thursday Murder Club managed to live up to the first novel. The four charter members are back with new crimes to solve. I hope he's already writing the next one.


Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Reading the Classic with the Current Bestsellers

After teaching composition to first-year college students for five or six years, I had the opportunity to teach World Lit I this semester. Even though British Lit has always been my comfort zone, I jumped at the chance for some variety. Following the lead of my colleague who usually teaches the class (when he's not in London for the Study Abroad program), I focused on epic poetry, starting with Gilgamesh, which I paired with Robert Alter's translation of the book of Genesis from the Pentateuch. Then we read the Iliad and the Aeneid, immersing ourselves in the opposing sides and the aftermath of the Trojan War. We finished with Dante's Inferno (always making me think of a fellow in North Carolina who referenced the work: "...Dante's Inferno. Now who wrote that?"  Obvious answer: Dante). 

What I found, as did so many of my students, was that once you are tuned in to a classic work, you find allusions everywhere. Hardly a day goes by that the crossword puzzle doesn't have a clue related to Homer or the pantheon of Greek or Roman gods. Recently, I started reading the latest novel by Amor Towles, The Lincoln Highway. I loved Rules of Civility, and maybe even more A Gentleman in Moscow. This book holds up to Towles' standards without resembling either book in the slightest.

Set in the 1950s, the novel follows Emmett Watson, a Nebraska boy, newly released from juvenile detention upon the death of his father. He and his younger brother Billy, upon learning their father left them over their heads in debt, decide to take the Lincoln Highway to California to start a new life. Billy dreams of finding the mother who left them a few years before, while Emmett plans to use the construction skills he learned before his life took a rough turn, to buy and repair dilapidated houses, selling them and starting again.

Their plans are interrupted by the arrival of two of his former juvenile inmates, Duchess and Woolly, who slipped out in the trunk of the car dropping Emmett at home. They are determined to take a detour in the opposite direction to collect Woolly's inheritance.

Billy's brother, a precocious boy and an avid reader, reads and rereads Professor Abacus Abernathy's Compendium of Heroes, Adventures, and Other Intrepid Travelers, providing inspiration and parallels to their journey. The young boy called Duchess has grown up with a father who was part vaudeville part Shakespearean actor, much of which has rubbed off on the charming trickster. Even their encounter with a railroad hobo named Ulysses didn't challenge the readers suspension of disbelief.

With Song of Achilles next on my reading stack, I look forward to another perspective on these old stories into which authors continue to breathe new life.