“Reading — the best state yet to keep absolute loneliness at bay.”
Reading for pleasure also helps to decrease stress and increase empathy. Each year on April 23rd, international celebrations acknowledge the power of books — and Sunset Years recommends titles for your enjoyment.
City of Thieves (2008) by David Benioff takes place during the siege of Leningrad in WWII. At times brutal, at times funny, at times painful, the adventure follows two dissimilar boys coming of age together. We learn a bit about Russian and German soldiers, the Patriots, and the Einsatzgruppen — mobile killing squads of the SS.
Having appreciated Coventry (2008) a few years ago, I decided to binge on books — each one strikingly different in style and theme — by Helen Humphreys. First was The Evening Chorus (2015), set in a German POW camp and in England during and post World War II. The novel tells of three ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances while also presenting a meditation on the natural world. Next came Machine Without Horses (2018). The title does not guide readers into the real and imagined life story of Megan Boyd (1915-2001), who worked for 60 years as a salmon fly dresser in a small village in northern Scotland. Rabbit Foot Bill (2020) is another blend of genres in which Humphreys explores the effects of a violent murder in small town Saskatchewan in 1947. After becoming a psychiatrist, the protagonist reunites with the murderer at the Weyburn Mental Hospital in the early ’60s. Helen Humphreys began her writing career as a poet, which led a critic to observe: “Her novels — with lasting images, economical prose, and musical phrasing — read like an extension of her poetic gift.”
The Woman in the White Kimono (2019) by Ana Johns is a poignant love story told from two different perspectives, set in Japan and the U.S. during the late ’50s and the present day. The Japanese aphorisms sprinkled throughout are refreshingly insightful; for example, “Worry gives a small thing big shadows.”
B.A. Thomas-Peter’s beguiling title, The Kissing Fence (2020), made me want to read this historical fiction recommended by one of my nieces. It develops two story lines: one set in the 1950s when 200 Russian Doukhobor children were separated from their families to live in a residential facility in the Kootenay region of BC and another in contemporary Vancouver to illustrate how the past inhabits us and influences our choices in the present. The author not only informs about the unjust treatment of the Doukhobors but also entertains as the plot unfolds and the story lines converge.
My undisputed favourite book of the year is A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) by Amor Towles. Coincidentally, I read about Count Rostov living under house arrest for 30 years at the Metropol Hotel when I was sheltering in place due to COVID-19. Set in the newly formed Soviet Union under Bolshevik rule, the story is utterly captivating, the writing sublime. Take this passage: “What can a first impression tell us about anyone? Why, no more than a chord can tell us about Beethoven, or a brushstroke about Botticelli. By their very nature, human beings are so capricious, so complex, so delightfully contradictory, that they deserve not only our consideration, but our reconsideration – and our unwavering determination to withhold our opinion until we have engaged with them in every possible setting at every possible hour.” I lamented closing the book on the familiar characters so borrowed Rules of Civility (2011), set in class conscious Manhattan in the late ’30s. Once again Towles caused me to pause often and admire his descriptions, for example, on writing: “the letter was a paragraph too long, a verb too insistent, and an adjective too obvious.” Or “That comma too early. This colon too late.” Having worked as an investment professional for over twenty years, Towles now devotes himself full time to writing. I count on a third novel.
I don’t remember how I discovered The Shadow of the Wind (2004) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, but this gothic tale, mystery and love story delighted me. It features colourful characters, a suspenseful plot, lovely turns of phrase, and an examination of Barcelona before the civil war and post WWII. Zafón’s elegant, imaginative writing keeps readers turning the pages despite encountering a few flaws along the way. Indeed his style led me to read the prequel, The Angel’s Game (2008), also set in Barcelona in the 1920s and ’30s. And I will read the sequel as well as the final story in his “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” series. Zafón’s untimely death last year at age 55 brought to an end his career as the most widely published contemporary Spanish writer.
Gertrude Stein called mysteries “the most demanding form of fiction, because a good mystery requires a watertight plot with believable events and logical characters. Anything less and the story falls apart. But a writer who pulls all this off creates a story that can’t be stopped until the finish.” I confess to reading dozens of mysteries as a sure means of escape from the gloom.
On my birthday last year Glen gave me Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier as an older mystery novel, yet many critics prefer to call it a classic of modern gothic literature. Gothic fiction is characterized by “picturesque settings, an atmosphere of mystery and terror, and a hint of violence and the supernatural.” Rebecca exemplifies the genre and more. Glen and I spent 90 minutes discussing it during an in-home date night.
Nicci French, the pseudonym of an English husband-and-wife duo, wrote The Lying Room (2019). After Neve Connelly discovers her brutally murdered lover, she and the readers, not the Detective Chief Inspector, attempt to solve this murder case. Neve feeds us clues as she uncovers — or covers — them. A suspenseful read, it led me to eight other books by Nicci French, each one featuring Frieda Klein, a psychotherapist in London who consults on murder cases.
Darktown (2016) by Thomas Mullen is a first-rate historical mystery. In 1948 the Mayor of Atlanta succumbs to a demand by black community leaders; in exchange for them delivering their voting blocs, he hires eight black police officers. Mullen recreates the setting into which these men are admitted, albeit with severely restricted rights and authority. As two black officers try surreptitiously — and at great personal risk — to solve the murder of a young black woman, Mullen exposes the egregious racism of the time. (FYI: black and white police officers did not work side-by-side in Atlanta until 1969.)
Peter Robinson (thanks, Pat) continues to top my list of preferred mystery writers. I adore the character of Inspector Alan Banks: his personality, his habits, his methods of detection. And Robinson’s writing is arresting. In a scene from When the Music’s Over (2016), for instance, Banks observes “the final lines of Paradise Lost, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, still reverberated in his mind: ‘They, hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,/Through Eden took their solitary way.’ There was something deeply tragic about it that was as much, if not more, in the solemn music of the syntax as in the meanings of the words themselves. … Even if you didn’t understand a poem, you could still enjoy its music.” Just as Robinson educates me about music, a constant companion to Banks, he almost prompts me to read Milton’s epic poem.
Thank you, Marilyn, for introducing me to Iona Whishaw, a Vancouver-based writer who sets her series in Nelson BC and environs. In A Killer in King’s Cove (2016), we meet mid 20-something year-old Lane Winslow, who worked as a British spy during WWII; in 1946 she flees her memories to settle in a remote community of rather eccentric individuals. Although Lane becomes enmeshed in murder cases, Whishaw wraps the mysteries in larger themes, such as love, betrayal and trauma. Her engaging prose and charming central character motivate me to read her other six books published so far.
In The Fire Next Time (1963) James Baldwin (1924-87), acclaimed essayist, novelist, and playwright, urges white America to change its attitudes and policies toward black Americans. It’s remarkable, and demoralizing, to realize how applicable his treatise is almost 60 years later.
The Promised Land: Settling the West 1896-1914 (1984). Outsized personality Pierre Berton (1920-2004) provides a solid analysis of the massive immigration to the barren prairie flatland of the Canadian West. To prepare for settlement, colonizers dispossessed the indigenous population, nearly destroying them through disease and violence. They also slaughtered the bison almost to extinction. Then Liberal Minister Clifford Sifton embarked on a campaign to recruit non-traditional immigrants — Ukrainians, Hungarians, Romanians, Doukhobors and Mennonites — to the Prairies with offers of free, 160 acre homesteads. Berton brings history to life with well-researched stories of hardship and hard work, discrimination, broken promises, political corruption, class struggles, big personalities, boom and bust businesses, and more.
The Stories Were Not Told (2020) by Sandra Semchuk gives reminiscences of Ukrainian men interned during WWI as related by their family members, plus provides a collection of archival and current photos of the camps across Canada. On September 13, 2013, Jason Kenney, then federal minister of employment and social development and minister for multiculturalism, opened a special exhibit at Banff’s Cave and Basin National Historic Site about Canada’s WWI internment operations. In his remarks, he reflected on Elie Wiesel’s words about a moral society committed “to remember the good of which we have been blessed and the evil we have suffered.” About the camps, Kenney said “Many of these places kept internees until 18 months following the armistice of 11 November 1918. If there was any evidence of bad faith and injustice, in this policy of internment, this is it… We look back with deep regret on a policy that never should have been implemented.”
The sub-title “Build a Better Brain at Any Age” of Keep Sharp (2020) by Sanjay Gupta, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, inspired me to buy this book. After all, who doesn’t want a better brain? Especially as thoughts of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease creep uninvited into our minds. I learned not only about the science of the brain but also practical ways to protect and improve it. Dr. Gupta expands upon five pillars — Move, Discover, Relax, Nourish, and Connect — of healthy cognitive function and even outlines a 12-week, easy to follow program. I will soon dive into the five new habits of weeks 1 and 2.
Thanks to loyal blog reader Ian for suggesting a few novels on this year’s list. I invite all readers to add their recommendations in the comments below. •
P.S. My apologies for getting carried away in writing this post. Amor Towles would say it’s several paragraphs too long!