I recently read four books by Chris Bohjalian, having never read any before.
I began with Skeletons at the Feast, recommended by some blog I stumbled upon. Set in Germany as World War II draws to a close, the novel follows a Prussian family’s attempts to reach the safety of allied lines. Bohjalian spares no detail describing the atrocities man inflicts on man, whether German or Russian soldiers, balanced with a lusty romance between the protagonist Anna and her Scottish prisoner of war lover.
I moved on to novels set in his home state of Vermont, where the landscape becomes as much a character as any person. I loved The Buffalo Solider. A Vermont state trooper and his wife lose twin daughters in a flood then take in a foster child, a black boy. A gripping tale of grief and recovery.
Next I borrowed The Law of Similars from the library and found myself skimming sections. It’s a lawyer story—akin to a Jodi Picoult or John Grisham- a patient of a homeopath dies after treatment. Midwives, written earlier, is a similar story only a pregnant woman dies under the care of a midwife. I liked this one much better.
I earmarked a sentence I loved in Midwives.
“Those nights when sleep would come easily, those afternoons when naps would come quickly, those hours when her dreams would be untroubling and serene, were gone forever.” (p. 98)
Like Lahiri who wrote she “used to underline sentences that struck me, that made me look up from the page,” I collect sentences that invoke images and inspire writing craft. When I taught, I emphasized sentence imitation as a way to learn how to write, encouraging students to find words, phrases and sentences that jumped out at them, that they loved the look or sound of, and try to do the same. I used sentence composing books by Don Killgallon and would supplement by finding sentences from my own reading, including a tough one by Lahiri: “Her soliloquies mawkish, her sentiments maudlin, malaise dripped like a fever from her pores.” (From “The Treatment of Bibi Halda” in Interpreter of Maladies.
This sentence packed vocabulary, alliteration and a simile into one lesson. (Try it and send to me in comments!)
Basketball & Birds
I went to a Knicks game with my daughter, home from college for spring break, and a professional basketball addict. She loves the Knicks. I had suggested we go out one night and had forwarded her some listings—dance, music, theater. “How about a Knicks game?” She asked, scouring online sites to get tickets. I enjoyed the game and the entire “New York City” experience. The zooming in on the celebrities (Adrian Brody and John Lithgow) and of course the halftime proposal, though the girl, flashing her ring, didn’t’ seem too surprised. And guess what? The next day, I found myself reaching for the sports section, wanting to know more about the inner politics and personalities.
While watching the birdfeeder outside my kitchen window, I wonder about the birds. Why does the female cardinal seem to linger longer than the male? In olden days, I might have turned to an encyclopedia; my family owned a World Book set, to learn about something that intrigued me. Now I turn to online search engines and have answers within seconds.
Which brings me to the freedom to read. I select books, begin books, abandon books, recommend books, reject books, borrow, buy and donate books. As a parent and teacher, I encouraged the freedom to read. Unfortunately, in Arizona, high school students can’t read author Matt de la Pena in their classrooms. The Arizona state legislature has ruled it’s illegal to teach his books.
One more book recommendation. Nathan Englander’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank. Provocative, funny, different. And “The Reader,” the second-to –last in the collection, will resonate with every reader and writer.