“Reading is an escape, an education, a delving into the brain of another human being on such an intimate level that every nuance of thought, every snapping of synapse, every slippery desire of the author is laid open before you like~well, a book.” ~Cynthia Heimel
It’s been a good book year so far. I’ve been “delving into the brains” of some very fine authors, and their words have been like~well, Natural Opium, if I may borrow the title of my most current selection, a book of travel essays by Diane Johnson that reads more like a witty memoir or eclectic collection of short stories than a travelogue.
My literary travels have taken me to the court of Henry VIII via Phillipa Gregory’s The Constant Princess. Gregory’s portrait of the young Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, and her fiery determination to be the Queen of England, puts a new spin on this often told tale. “I shall not give myself to heartbreak,” Catherine writes after the death of her beloved first husband, Henry’s brother Arthur. “I shall give myself to England. I shall keep my promise. I shall be constant to my husband and to my destiny. I shall plot, and plan, and consider how I shall conquer this misfortune and be what I was born to be. How I shall be the pretender who becomse the Queen.” Lush with drama, atmosphere, intrique, and sensuality worthy of the finest of romance writers, this entry in Gregory’s series of historical novels was both informative and enchanting.
From the courts of medieval England, I was carried to the far east where Lisa See immersed me in a fascinating novel set in 19th century China. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, is a story two small girls who are committed to each other as laotang, or lifelong friends, and their struggle to survive in 19th century China. They communicate in nu shu, a secret “women’s writing” developed by Chinese women to convey their deepest thoughts and feelings. See’s writing is absolutely luminous, and her depiction of a woman’s place in Chinese society is heartbreaking. “We women are expected to love our children as soon as they leave our bodies,” writes Lily, the narrator of the tale. “We may love our daughters with all our hearts, but we must train them through pain. We love our sons most of all, but we can never be part of their world, the outer realm of men. So we love our families, but we understand that this love will end in the sadness of departure. All types of love come out of duty, respect, and gratitude. Most of them, as the women in my county know, are sources of sadness, rupture, and brutality.”
After these travels through history, Patry Francis’ first novel, The Liar’s Diary, catapulted me right back to the 21st century. Liar’s abound in this chilling suspense novel, and their web of deception results in devastation and death. Jeanne Cross, a school secretary married to a hotshot doctor, has spent her life portraying the part of the perfect wife and mother, ignoring the way her husband’s behavior is destryoing the life of their 16 year old son, Jamie. Enter 46 year old Ali Mather, a free sprited, seductive musician, whose own secret past allows her valuable insight into the evil that lurks in Jeanne’s family. Her struggle to help Jeanne and Jamie face the hard truth about their lives results in chilling psychological suspense and violent death. Francis’ characters had me hooked from page one, and I eagerly followed this thrilling roller coaster ride to it’s surprising and satisfying conclusion.
I’ve also been working my way through Reading Like A Writer, Francine Prose’s “Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them.” Prose offers the idea that one should “learn to write by writing, and by example, by reading.” Her book is a look into the method she uses for carefully studying great writing, for “putting every word on trial for its life,” for absorbing, “almost by osmosis” what works and what doesn’t in the realm of literature.