I am not ashamed to say that I have been feeling a bit blue lately. Life has gotten a bit topsy turvy around here and what with the baby transitioning into the terrible twos, I have felt a totally stressed out. I tried to let things wash over me (observe do not react) for a week or so but then I broke down and reached for the only thing that I knew could bring me comfort…a book. As a rule, I am not reading books right now because I am committed to writing the separate sections of what I hope will one day be my own published book and of course I am writing for this blog, but let me tell you, I needed that written word.
English books are extremely expensive here: double or triple the price in the UK or Canada so I was thrilled when a friend’s girlfriend and her companions came for a vacation because upon their departure they off loaded some magazines and books onto me. I enjoy getting books this way because often the offerings are not what I would chose to read myself and I think that as a writer you can learn a lot about how to write from reading books of all sorts: from the beachy paperback to the crime thriller to the autobiography. So I chose one of those books to break my bookfast and after a few days I am over half way done. Ironically, I am not overly impressed by the book, but the setting is Canada and the premise is interesting. There is, in my opinion however some annoying inconsistencies within the author’s characterisation. For instance, one of the characters is an uptight, law and order loving accountant, yet when another character ventures into his hotel room it is a complete mess of his things. Additionally, he just recently took up drinking, yet really doesn’t like the stuff on offer where he is and mainly drinks to be one of the lads, yet when away from his place of living and work, he takes a flask of whiskey with him. It is things like this that an attentive reader will pick up on and which the author and editor should have better considered. It is also the things that can buttress the interest of a reader, especially one that has no qualms about abandoning the reading of a book that they find untrue or lacking. I am not one of those readers and will happily see where the author’s journey took her. I guess that is because a) I always want to know what happens at the end, b) I appreciate how hard it is to write a novel and do not want to give up on the writer’s effort and c) finally as already mentioned, you can learn a lot about writing from reading a tomb that is imperfect.
So this book is not turning my crank and because of that I was thinking the other day of books that did. I randomly let my mind wander over to books that I had read over the years (and there have been thousands) that really stuck in my mind. The first one I came to, probably because it was partially set in Canada was Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden. This is a book which tells the very unrepresented story of Native Canadians who fought in the First World War for Canada. I love history; I took my first degree in it, so I am always up for a historical novel but Boyden’s first novel goes beyond its telling of history. It is simply incredible. It is cleverly crafted with clear roles for its antagonist and protagonist at the centre of the story which is then played out with Native Culture and World War as the back drop for thier relationship. The book tells the story of Xavier and Elijah who serve in France and Belgium as snipers for the Canadian Army. As I said, the book is a triumph in construction but it is the searingly realistic descriptions of the World War I battlefield that makes it unforgettable. This is one of those books that you would happily read again and again. With so many books out there I rarely do so, but this book would be in that category for all of the reasons listed and for the fact that when reading it you forget that it is fiction.
A book that can convince me that it is actually a true story shrouded in a novel is the type of book that all avid readers love. When the characters jump off the page and into your mind. When you think about their plight even when you are not reading about it. When you start turning them over and over in your thoughts then you know that you are lost in the magic of a good book. Another book that did that for me was one called Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. It is the story of an Australian who flees jail in Australia and ends up living in Mumbai (or Bombay), India. There he learns how to survive with nothing, having had all of his belongings stolen and goes on to have different adventures in his quest to live day to day. The story reads like an autobiography because Roberts did go to and escape from prison in Australia and thereafter live in India for 10 years. What he did there is in the book but you would be hard pressed to separate fact from fiction and I am not sure if you can trust the author to tell which is which. At any rate, if you have ever been to India and fallen in love with that country of extremes then you would love this book because it describes India as it really is and tells an entertaining and at times heart wrenching story. There is no doubt that this is Robert’s life story and he is very skilled at it embellishing it so it becomes a real page turner.
Another great book about India set in the 70’s and 80’s is A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. It tells the story of four separate characters who all come together during a period in Indian history called The Emergency. The author chooses very different characterisations to give a sense of the social, political and cultural systems in India. It is a good teacher of what the country had gone through to become what it is now: what it left behind and what it will never shed. The characters are so real and three dimensional and their plights so challenging that you are stuck to the page willing them to succeed. I know many people who have read this book and it is one that they can never forget.
A book of the same ilk is called Chronicles of the Tao: The Secret Life of a Taoist Master by Deng Ming-Dao which is actually three separate books about the life of Master Kwan Sai Hung with whom the author studied. When I was in university this book travelled through my group of friends and eventually made it to me. I loved it so much that years later I bought a copy and read it again. The story starts off in China in the 1920’s and takes you through the life of a young boy that becomes a Taoist Monk in the Huashan monastery. It details the fantastical lives of the monks there as they practice a Taoism that is almost akin to sorcery. It describes their practices but also tells of their real human lives through the Second World War and the Communist Revolution. The last section of the book deals with the main character living in San Francisco away from all that he knew in China and the poignancy of his fear, longing and loneliness is palatable. If you wanted a brain vacation into another reality that will make you believe in a different time and dimension then you would just have to read this book.
It is really an author’s ability to create a separate world which by turning each page you step into. If that world is populated by characters that are well drawn without any discrepancies then you have a great book. An author’s world and characters could be totally unbelievable as they sometimes are in Deng Ming-Dao’s work but if the author is skilled then they can make you believe the unbelievable. A book which I read in Varanasi, India (there seems to be an unintended theme here) when I was deathly ill with Delhi Belly was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book pins a fantastical premise down with a picture drawn of seven generations of a family. The events in the book are completely bonkers, but it is the humanity (and often hilarity) of the characters that make it a viable world. I do not think I can aptly describe what this book is about except to say that for five days I lay in a hotel room in a holy city, too weak to eat, barely drinking, but alternately sleeping and reading this book. I only need to see its cover in my mind to feel my physical pain and emotional despair at being alone and very sick in a foreign country but beyond those two sensations is my gratitude for that book. If I hadn’t had that book to escape into, then my pain and despair would have been ten-fold
I guess this is what this out-of-character, out-of-content post is about. It is about how art, specifically literature, can transport us away from our daily trials and tribulations to another place where we are flies on the wall of other’s trials and tribulations. Think about any book you have ever read: is there one you can think of that didn’t involve a conflict or challenge? Of course not, because that is the human condition. We are all little boats bobbing up and down on a huge sea of uncertainty facing one condition at a time. Sometimes the sea is calm and clear and we can sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. Other times the sea is wicked and wild and we are hanging on for dear life. In my life when times are tough, I have always had books to give me a little reprieve from the condition of the sea I was facing. In a swirling storm, those pages of print are an oasis of calm. So I thank all authors that have written a book, be it a masterpiece or a dud and I have read countless of both. I could go on listing books that have transported me and transformed my thinking but it would be practically neverending. Instead I hope that if someone reading this finds themselves in a swirling storm, they might reach for one of these oasis of calm or any other one that takes their fancy. Perhaps one day, I might author of one of those oasis myself, but until then I will be thankful that others have done so before me.