Archived Reading Room

Falling into the rabbit hole of fiction

bookFor reasons unfathomable to me, I have spent the last two weeks on a fiction-reading jag. Until I was about 40, fiction was my favorite literary genre, probably because I wanted to write novels and reading fiction is the best way, other than actually writing, to learn how to put together such a beast.

In my forties there occurred one of those sea changes in taste that only gradually made itself known to me. I still read plenty of novels, but looking back I can see that my interest dwindled, giving way instead to biography, history and essays. Several opportunities came my way to write essays and reviews for publication, including book reviews for The Smoky Mountain News, and I found I enjoyed writing these pieces. Not only did I take pleasure in composing an essay on, say, Ernest Hemingway, the Catholic Church or the Muslim idea of fitna, I discovered as well that this sort of writing appealed to me as a reader.

At any rate, fiction held first place in my recent reading. Here are some novels that have given some added pleasure to this first month of summer.

Robert Harris’s Dictator (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016, $26.95, 376 pages) tells the story of Cicero and the bloody, fractious days of the dying Roman Republic. Harris, a British writer classically trained, has written other novels set in Ancient Rome and frequently pops up, deservedly so, on various best-seller lists. I have read some historical novels that have brought great rewards — authors Kenneth Roberts and Sigrid Undset come to mind — and Dictator did not disappoint. 

As we watch Cicero trying to balance obligations to friends, family and political ambition in this tumultuous era, we may find ourselves thinking of the current state of our own republic, wherein the wealthy and the elite seem to be fighting for the votes and favor of people they neither know nor care for, dictating to those in flyover country how to live instead of asking us how we’d like to live. Apparently, such folks have been trotting around for a lot longer than we generally recognize. 

Along with Dictator, I also read Harris’s The Ghost, now nearly 10 years old but as relevant as it was in 2007. Like Dictator, The Ghost, which Hollywood later made into a film titled The Ghost Writer, deals with politics, family and friends, but this time Harris sets his story in our own time. I had seen the film before reading the book, and was glad to see that the movie had remained loyal to the book. (Of course, it helps that Harris wrote both). Once again — and perhaps this is a theme that runs throughout Harris’s other work — we see the machinations of politicians and their effects on those close to the them. 

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In The Ghost, a former prime minister, Adam Lang, is engaged both in writing his memoirs with a ghostwriter and in a major political scandal involving his possible association with the Central Intelligence Agency. Here again we see what Harris showed us in Cicero’s Rome: the lying, the subterfuge, the confusion and the betrayals that can mark the arena of politics. It’s an ugly world, one that most of us can’t imagine living in, but Harris makes that world real. 

While driving around town, and to and from various family gatherings, I listened to a recorded novel, Nick Hornby’s Juliet, Naked. I am an admirer of his collection of book reviews titled Ten Years In The Tub, and Hornby fits snugly into this review because he is the brother-in-law of Robert Harris. Juliet, Naked features three main characters: Annie, who works for a modest English museum; Duncan, her lover who teaches in a college and has a fetish for a singer-songwriter, Tucker Crowe, who dropped out of the public eye some 20 years ago; and Tucker Crowe himself, who begins as a figure of mystery in the novel, but then gradually emerges from his self-imposed exile.

What struck me most about listening to this book rather than reading it was the humor. The three readers — Jennifer Wiltsie, Ben Miles and Bill Irwin — were excellent, and as I listened, I began wondering whether I would have caught some of the book’s humor without their voices. Jennifer Wiltsie, for example, gives us Annie’s voice, and I’m not sure, had I read the book rather than listened to it, that I would have caught her hilarious put-downs of Duncan or her fears of her own inadequacies. If you’re looking for a wise, humorous novel about music, love, and loneliness, Juliet, Naked might do the trick.

Finally — and I finished another novel as well, but will save it for a further review — I read Alexander McCall Smith’s The Novel Habits of Happiness: An Isabel Dalhousie Novel (Pantheon Books, 2015, $24.95, 257 pages). I have often seen Smith’s books — he’s written close to 50, including those in the popular “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series” — and I’m not sure why I picked this one up except, perhaps, being intrigued by the title.

The main character in Novel Habits is Isabel herself: a professor of philosophy, editor of a philosophy magazine, wife and mother. People from all walks of life come to her with problems, and Isabel helps solve them. What astounded me about Smith’s story were the everyday experiences he includes in his narrative. He spends pages on the most mundane aspects of life, which might sound boring but which struck me as refreshing, a sort of antidote to the rush-and-run world most of us inhabit. 

So there you go. Enjoy! 

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