Saturday, July 29, 2023

More Reasons to Love Historical Fiction


My reading this summer has been as eclectic as ever, but I find that when asked to recommend a book to someone, I often turn first to historical fiction. Often I am not sure until I finish and read the author's notes whether the story is based on fact. A good story can stand on its own, after all, but the historical basis gives me a good excuse to do a little digging.

One such novel I particularly enjoyed is Lynda Rutledge's West with Giraffes, a journey tale in the spirit of Towles' The Lincoln Highway or Krueger's This Tender Land--or Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Set during the Dust Bowl, with a frame story in the near future, this is the story of Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Nickels, who as a boy left his Texas home after losing his family, victims of the Dust Bowl. He makes his way to New York to find a cousin about the time a hurricane hits the area. 

At the same time, two giraffes on their way to the San Diego Zoo are caught in the hurricane, which injures the female "Girl." Woody, at not quite sixteen, convinces the zoo employee charged with taking the exotic beasts across the continent in a rickety truck that he is capable of driving them. Rutledge also introduces a female photographer desperate to publish her photos and stories of the trip--one of many items on her bucket list--who follows the truck and strikes up a friendship with Woody.

In the frame story, Woody at 105 lives in a nursing home where he fantasizes images of the giraffes peering in his window while he works desperately to write his story before his time runs out. 

Even without the historical basis, Rutledge weaves a compelling story. Background details (and photographs) of the giraffes en route, as well as details about the iconic Belle Benchley, the zoo's first female director, accessible online, add to the story's charm.

When I heard Luis Alberto Urrea had a new book, I was eager to read it, having thoroughly enjoyed his novel The House of Broken Angels. One thing that struck me about the earlier novel was his convincing portrayal of his female characters. 

In Good Night, Irene, Urrea draws from his own mother's experience as a "Doughnut Dolly" working for the Red Cross about a Clubmobile during World War II. The title character Irene is a city girl who leaves behind a wealthy but abusive fiancĂ© to join the war effort. She is paired with Dorothy, strong-willed and sharp-witted Midwesterner. 

Rather than staying back out of harm's way, the women follow the troops through France after D-Day, often witnessing horrific warfare at risk to their own lives. While Urrea includes a cast of characters, these two friends are central to the story, and they are evidence of the author's skill at characterization.

Again, the author's notes that follow the narrative explain how much of the story was inspired by Urrea's mother's story, offering a glimpse into one of the rarely highlighted roles in keeping up the spirits of the troops. With Urrea's skill at taking inspiration from his own family experiences, his readers will hope he has a vast well of stories from which to draw for his next novels. 


Thursday, July 6, 2023

 Like most voracious readers, the last thing in the world I need is to add to my "to read" list, but I can't resist someone else's reading suggestions. This week, at the bottom of a list of suggestions of short books, I came across mention Ian McEwan's novel Nutshell. I have no idea how it escaped my attention this long, since it was published in 2016.

The protagonist of the novel is Hamlet--as a fetus--in modern-day London. He is the ultimate insider--pun intended. The action covers two or three days in the last couple of weeks before his mother Trudy is due to deliver. Young--very young--Hamlet, with his ear pressed against the uterine wall, is privy to the conniving of his mother and her lover Claude, whom he realizes is his father's brother.

His father John is a poet who runs a small publishing house, while his younger brother has more financial success. As the book opens, Trudy has moved her husband out of the house while she is "on a break." 

One could probably read and even appreciate the novel with only passing familiarity with what is arguably Shakespeare's most famous play, but for those who have studied the play or taught the play (dozens of times), the pleasure of recognizing not just lines lifted from the play, but suggestions of themes. Hamlet's world-weariness is, in this case, fed by secondhand exposure to his mother's podcasts. He also experiences secondhand exposure to her increasing alcohol intake as the situation grows more complicated. 

Considering the book was published pre-Covid, some of the references to current issues are fascinating--including conflict between Russia and Ukraine, gender ambiguity, climate issues, and increasing violence. McEwan's unborn protagonist with his astute sense of observation, self-awareness, and impressive vocabulary comes across as far more than a gimmick. 

I am glad I encountered the audiobook first, but I suspect I will need to add a hard copy of the book to my library so I can revisit the story to see how many allusions I missed.