Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bedside Table Reads That Won't Endanger Your Peace of Mind

In Monday’s blog, I confessed to how and why I read escapist books for pleasure. The best of these inspire hope without whitewashing all the troublesome aspects of the human condition. After all, although I certainly don’t want to read about Barbie and Ken living placidly in their singular dimension, I don’t want my bedtime reading to give me nightmares, either.

But it’s not always easy to find books that qualify for my nightstand these days. I disagree with the current vogue that catastrophic tragedy is a sufficient substitute for penetrating insight into the human psyche. I don’t want to be shocked by violence, enough of which pervades the news. I also confess that I dislike reading about empty, meaningless, power-driven sex. (I mean, honestly, whatever happened to innuendo?) And finally, it’s a rare book, modern or not, that manages to sustain its crescendo until the end, pulling together all its various harmonies and melodies into a resounding resolution.

Yet, one of my all-time favorite books, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, achieves all these things. A literary mystery involving two Oxford scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets, this book is an antidote to our sound-byte culture. Byatt takes her time developing her characters; she writes in beautiful, elegant sentences; and she weaves a tight, slowly gathering, inexorable plot. The threads are flawlessly woven, and if her characters are initially somewhat slow to draw the reader’s sympathy, her patient and subtle unraveling of their layers culminates in a multidimensional picture that I found immensely satisfying. Despite winning the Booker Prize for Fiction, I think this book is still underrated. I loved it so much that I even liked the movie.

Jeremy Northam (a former Royal Shakespeare Company actor) and the original source material are what make "Possession" an enjoyable movie -- but, of course the book is better!

Most books that qualify for my bedside table are a bit lighter. But what my favorites have in common with Possession is, to a greater or lesser degree, extremely good writing. Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution is one of them, a short volume of rich, creamy writing. The plot is minimal but sly; the characters are sketched rather than painted. (I daren’t give away more than that, and I entreat you, for the sake of your own enjoyment, not to read the back-cover blurb before beginning.) But the wonderful language is what makes this book worth reading. My husband was surprised I took so long to read it, given its brevity – my response was, “I’m savoring every sentence slowly.”

Jasper Fforde’s books, on the other hand, are fast. Given the dubious distinction of being equally appealing both to my husband and to me, The Eyre Affair and the three books that follow it in the series are a rollicking roller coaster of literary puns, swashbuckling adventure, and science fiction. Fforde blurs the line between literature and reality in a series that’s not particularly deep, but rather immoderately clever, very literate, and laugh-out-loud fun. The books are also social satires, though they’re not usually billed that way. I relished all four, but the third, The Well of Lost Plots, was perhaps my favorite. And although I have absolutely no right to say so, I’m sure Jasper Fforde had an absolute ball writing these books – his enjoyment and humor infiltrate every word.

Neil Gaiman, though, is someone I can’t picture at all. Angela in the children’s section at Kepler’s said to me once, shaking her head, “He’s a very strange man. . . .” I suspect she’s right. Gaiman is the kind of writer who does not guarantee that you’ll like all his books just because you happened to like one or two. And it’s one or two that I (quite) like: Anansi Boys and Stardust, his two lightest. Both adult fairy tales, both just on the very verge of what I find unacceptably creepy, they’re yet whimsically written and indulgent examinations of what motivates people to behave the way they do.

All these books are modern, obviously. But, for me, it's old-fashioned, graceful, uncontrived writing that's at issue here, whether written recently or in the last century. More of it on Friday!

It's not the Booker Prize (which is for fiction, anyway!), but I'm quite pleased that my book, The Muslim Next Door: the Qur'an, the Media, and that Veil Thing, is a Bronze Medal Winner of the 2009 Independent Publishers Awards.

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