I have always loved reading about places and time periods that are new to me. It probably goes hand-in-hand with my love of traveling. Books are much cheaper than airfare, plus the only jet lag you’ll get is if you stay up too late reading.
When I realized that I was writing a historical novel, these books gave me courage. They are meticulously researched to give readers an evocative and precise sense of place, but they are not history books. They are about relationships, family, love, and the minutiae and immensity of human experience in times of great political turmoil.
The God of Small Things
By Arundhati Roy
Each time I return to this book, I’m scared I won’t love it as much as I think I do, which gives you an idea of how much this book was an Event in my life. My fear is unfounded, though, because I’ve read it half a dozen times in its entirety and who knows how many other times in pieces, and loved it more each time. One of my copies is utterly destroyed with notes and tags and dog-ears because I’ve figuratively ripped it apart to understand how it works. I think Ms. Roy wouldn’t mind that, though, because she was trained as an architect, and she has said that “writing is like architecture. In buildings, there are design motifs that occur again and again, that repeat — patterns, curves. These motifs help us feel comfortable in a physical space. And the same works in writing, I’ve found. For me, the way words, punctuation and paragraphs fall on the page is important as well — the graphic design of the language. That was why the words and thoughts of Estha and Rahel, the twins, were so playful on the page . . . I was being creative with their design. Words were broken apart, and then sometimes fused together. ‘Later’ became ‘Lay. Ter.’ ‘An owl’ became ‘A Nowl.’ ‘Sour metal smell’ became ‘sourmetal smell.’ ” (http://ift.tt/2xWCDAI)
That playfulness of language mixed with the power of her themes and plot, which are serious and often tragic, is intoxicating. Maybe because English is my second language (though now it’s my more fluent language by far), Roy’s deconstructed words and manners of speech lit all sorts of pleasure centers in my brain.
The Invisible Bridge
By Julie Orringer
This was a surprise love for me, the kind of deep dive into a book-world that made me resentful of intrusions like eating, sleeping, and remembering to reply to my husband if he asked me a question while sitting four feet away. A 600-page story about World War II and the Holocaust might seem like a heavy burden, and of course it is — it’s a book to read when you have the mental and emotional space to bear it — but the rewards more than compensate. The wartime experience of Hungarian Jews, who suffered from anti-Semitic laws in their country but were “protected” from Nazi camps for the early years of the war because Hungary joined Germany, was a history I had not known about. This story alone would have been an achievement, a 300-page epic. But what makes this novel truly great is how Orringer intimately portrays the main characters’ prewar lives, their “normal” hopes and dreams — to be an architect, to be a physician, to fall in love — and how those ambitions became narrowed to survival with the onset of war. And although this could be considered Andras and Klara’s love story, I was most moved by the bond between the brothers Andras, Tibor, and Matyas, by how these most fundamental, taken-for-granted relationships can be sources of strength and endurance.
By Nora Okja Keller
I devoured this in one sitting in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep — or more accurately, it devoured me, because this is a story with teeth. Sharp teeth meant for tearing. Keller’s prose here, following the experiences of three teenagers growing up near the U.S. army base in 1960s Korea, is brutal and riveting. Hyun Jin is the narrator, and the distance between her mind and the reader’s collapses to nil as she describes what happens to her best friend, Sookie, the abandoned daughter of an American GI and Korean prostitute. Lobetto is another abandoned child, the son of a black American GI and Korean mother. The three friends struggle to survive and claim their identities in the sex- and violence-fueled economy around the army base, called America Town.
The story of children, particularly mixed-race children abandoned by American soldiers and Korean women in postwar Korea, is one that I hadn’t encountered before in American literature. This was a courageous, unflinching portrayal of a painful subject. After the sun came up and I finally stumbled to bed, I remembered these characters as if I had known and loved them for much longer than a night.
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