Sunday, December 27, 2009

Fiction Corner: Some Time to Read

     Well, now that the Christmas tree (as predicted in the Tree post) has been taken down and placed in readiness for its return to the Earth as garden compost, the holiday festivities are almost over. We'll probably sit around the living room on Thursday night with a couple of friends, maybe drink a glass of wine or eggnog and eat a few snacks, and hold a somewhat nostalgic but desultory conversation about the ups and downs of 2009 -- ultimately wishing it goodbye at the stroke of midnight.
     Meanwhile, it's been kind of nice to have a break from copyediting work and even from working on the etsy shop. Next week I start up again with both. A friend has taken a bunch of great new BIG photos with her supermacro camera of lovely earrings that I'll be listing soon.
     But one of the true pleasures of some quiet time -- while that cold white stuff falls outside the cozy house  --  is reading books. I've enjoyed quite a few recently, and I want to share some favorites from times past as well, in the form of suggestions for your 2010 reading, dear readers. 

     An excellent novel that I just finished the other night is Simon Mawer's The Glass Room. Mawer is a British writer and this novel was long-listed for the prestigious Booker award.  

I've read many many Booker-award novels and quite a few of those that were short- or long-listed for it as well over the years, and they are almost always a very good bet. Mawer is a superb stylist, IMHO, and the content was fascinating.

It's the story of a family in what is now called the Czech Republic -- their personal saga and that of their amazing modern glass house -- from 1929 until the 1990s. The Landauer House in the novel is modeled after an actual house (Villa Tugendhat) in Brno created by Miese van der Rohe. The story details the family's emigration when the Nazis take over the town, their life in exile in Switzerland, Cuba, and finally the United States. In parallel, it traces the "life" of the house, an object of memory, art, and event in its own right, as it passes through various official hands (German, Soviet, Czech, etc.), survives bomb blasts, serves as a gymnasium for disabled children and ballet dancers, and finally becomes a museum. The beauty of the book is the way that a very personal and
engaging story of characters who suffer love, loss, and betrayal opens out to tell a broader tale of a country in conflict, a continent in the throes of a disastrous war, and a world of clashing ideals and turbulent cultures.

     Another novel of World War II from a totally American point of view is Four Freedoms by John Crowley. Crowley is not a new author for me, as Mawer was, having loved Little Big, first read decades ago. This novel is a tribute to the incredible women (and men) of the United States (my mother's generation, called "The Great Generation") who worked to support the home front of the war by building airplanes, knitting sweaters, saving scrap metal, and facing challenges of many kinds. The characters, in the usual Crowley mode, are eccentric to say the least. But they are also believable and poignantly sympathetic. Their story is the tale of a nation that can and did pull together (one hopes that could happen again without a world war) when it really counted. If you've ever been curious seeing old posters of Rosie the Riveter and so on, check out this book.

    Books can be old friends that you want to share, so also let me introduce you to a world of wonderful books to enjoy in 2010 if you haven't already had the opportunity: the four marvelous series of books by the Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith.

     Some of you may know the series set in Botswana from the HBO episodes telecast this summer (we don't own a TV but went to view those at a friend's place) based on the books starting with The Ladies' No. 1 Detective Agency. They have to do with a wonderful woman, Precious Ramotswe, who solves problems for ordinary people in Botswana and manages meanwhile to share with readers her profound wisdom and warm humor, great heart and traditional common sense, on questions of ethics and of honesty, love, and compassion. There are now many books in the series to go with a delightful set of characters you will end up feeling like you know personally.

     Check out McCall Smith's website for details and for information about his other series, including the Isabel Dalhousie books. As the website explains, Isabel also loves solving problems and is particularly fond of pondering and answering philosophical questions posed to her as editor of The Review of Applied Ethics. But, like McCall Smith's detective heroine, Precious Ramotswe, she often embroils herself in problems that are none of her business, including some that are best left to the police.

     And there's the 44 Scotland Street books that are being serialized (yes, just like Charles Dickens did long ago!) in the newspaper The Scotsman. All of McCall Smith's trademark warmth and wit come into play in this series chronicling the lives of the residents of a boardinghouse. Complete with colorful characters, love triangles, and plenty of light-hearted personal drama, this is an unforgettable portrait of Edinburgh society.

    For academic satire, try the Portuguese Irregular Verbs books: the insane and rarified world of Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld of The Institute of Romance Philology, who is engaged in a never-ending quest to win the respect he feels certain is due him--a quest that has a way of going hilariously astray.

    Alexander McCall Smith has written more than 60 books, including specialist academic titles, short story collections, and a number of immensely popular children's books. The Botswana series has now been translated into 45 languages and has sold over 20 million copies worldwide. McCall Smith was born in what is now Zimbabwe and was educated there and in Scotland. He became a law professor in Scotland, and it was in this role that he first returned to Africa to work in Botswana, where he helped set up a new law school at the University of Botswana. For many years he was Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh and has been a visiting professor at a number of other universities. He was also the vice chairman of the Human Genetics Commission of the UK, the chairman of the British Medical Journal Ethics Committee, and a member of the International Bioethics Commission of UNESCO. He is the recipient of numerous awards.

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