So I boldly said on this site that I don’t read a lot of novels, and then I plowed through four in a row recently. Be careful the claims you make, I guess.
But all my many reasons aside for not reading a lot of novels, I’m still enchanted by a good story and accomplished writing. The following books were worth every page.
City of Thieves by David Benioff. Awhile back I watched Benioff on a random little show called The Writer’s Room, and from that I learned he’d written a couple of novels before he got into the writing-for-television business. I looked him up, read some reviews, and decided to give City of Thieves a try. It’s about two young men in World War II Russia who are thrown together and forced to go on a strange little quest that doesn’t turn out to be so little. I’m not usually drawn to plot-based fiction—and there I go with another claim—but this one was so well-crafted that I couldn’t put it down. Then I gave it to my boyfriend and he couldn’t put it down either. Apparently Benioff had to do a lot of research for this, and I’m thankful that he did, because now I realize there’s a whole section of history I never knew about, and it makes me sad all over again for what I was taught—or not taught—in school. Sigh.
Lemongrass Hope by Amy Impellizzeri. You won’t find this on the shelves…yet…but I was lucky enough to receive an advanced reader’s copy from my friend and fellow writer Amy. Lemongrass Hope is both an exploration of contemporary love and a tale of time travel, which poses these questions: If we had the chance to go back and make different choices, would we? And what if life is simply about what you do with the choices you make—good, bad, or indifferent? I was honored to read her touching and thought-provoking work. But here’s a really interesting thing about Amy. She was a total stranger until a few months ago, when she sent me an email out of the blue and told me she was reading my first novel. We started exchanging emails, and from this I learned that she was finishing her first novel (the very same Lemongrass Hope). She inspired me to keep writing—renewing this blog is, in fact, a direct result of her—and is now at the beginning of her own journey as a published author of whom you should take note. Lemongrass Hope will be released in October of this year.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. One afternoon I was walking through a book store on my way out when I passed by a shelf with a sign saying something like “Staff Recommends.” Constellation was front and center. I was leaving on vacation in a few days and already had a lot of reading material to take with me, but thought, “What the hell.” Not only is the book divinely wrought, it is also, like City of Thieves, about war-time Russia and unlikely partnerships, set during the Chechen wars in the 1990s and early 2000s. When I got to the end, I read the author’s notes and found out that Marra had read City of Thieves prior to writing Constellation. Marra considered Benioff’s novel a kind of green light to launch into the unearthing of his own unique story in a country and during a time in which he had no particular background (more history that escaped me…what was I doing all those years?). Anyway, after I was done falling off my chair, I realized I was grateful to have been one of the many anonymous third points in this reader/writer triangle, and to have stumbled upon the connection between these two authors.
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. I read an interview with Kingsolver a couple of months ago in The Sun, and was intrigued by her, even though I’d never particularly taken to her fiction before. I bought The Lacuna and dove in. The protagonist is a boy from two worlds—the U.S. and Mexico—who comes of age in the 1930s when the art and political influences of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and their friendship with Leon (Lev) Trotsky, pressed upon the sensibilities of both countries. He eventually grows up and moves back to the States from Mexico, where he becomes a popular writer and then, true to the times, suffers accusations of anti-American activities. It was the Mayan part that made my skin prickle (when he makes a trip to the Yucatan peninsula to research the Mayans for one of his books), because a few weeks earlier, before I’d ever even considered reading The Lacuna, I had written a blog post about my adopted brother and his Mayan roots. As well, the window into history, the blind hysteria around communism, and the pulse of revolution present in City of Thieves and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena culminated in a great crescendo for me there in The Lacuna. The book is close to genius and I now have a newfound respect for Kingsolver.
It’s not an accident that I read these novels. I’ve learned to pay close attention to those small coincidences, the lines drawn between seemingly unrelated things, and the people who come into my life with insistent messages. Many times books have cracked open the world just a little bit more for me, and I’m always in awe of what authors can do when they tell the truth—the truth as they see it, anyway.
And I shall now officially stop telling people that I don’t read novels.