I’m sitting on my balcony on a breezy summer afternoon as the chimes play above my head and the fresh basil from our planter overtakes any other outside smells. Starting week 3 of post-surgery recovery, there is no place I’d rather be then in this vantage point, perched above the swimming pool, enviously eyeing the empty lap lane and hoping I’ll be in it soon.
Swimming and sunbathing, my favorite summer pursuits, being temporarily on hold, I’ve turned to that reliable fallback option – reading. This time I pawed through the shelves of our community library downstairs and came up with three very different but very good books.
1. The Red Tent by Ania Diamant. I’d never heard of this book, apparently a best seller when it came out 20 years ago. In a colorful, dusty, zesty narrative, Diamant tells the story of Dinah, a minor character in the Old Testament, daughter of Jacob. The eponymous Red Tent is the place where the women of Jacob’s tribe would go during that time of month, or to give birth, and so it is a place celebrating the sacredness of women.
I am not a historian, nor am I (embarrassingly) very familiar with the details of the Old Testament story of Dinah. It does seem to me that the author took a very liberal interpretation of certain events and characters, and simply used them for her own purposes of highlighting the importance of women and yet their tragic circumstances in the culture of the times. Certainly the behaviors of Isaac (a foolish, old blind man) and Rebecca (a cold, heartless witch) do not accord with any images of them I had based on Biblical readings. However, I do think Diamant spun a good story – one that has beauty, tragedy, and depth, and one that brings to light the circumstances in which Judaism was born. Hers is a dynamic, detailed, disturbing canvas on which she has painted her impressions, not an accurate, citation-based rendering of the facts as they have been documented. If you treat the novel as a story, rather than the truth, you will perhaps be less disturbed by any unsatisfactory portrayal of Biblical characters. It is worth a read.
2. Rebecca by Dauphne de Maurier
For the longest time, the names Dauphne de Maurier and Danielle Steel were synonymous for me. I’m not sure why – something about the first names being similar? Having read both authors this summer (or attempted, in the latter case), I can now assure you that the quality of their writing is very, very different.
First – let’s get Danielle Steel out of the way. I made it through about 20 pages of her book (Magic) before I threw my hands up in the air. I’m usually more persistent – and I really wanted to give her a chance – but I just couldn’t do it. Her style of writing is extremely simplistic. No depth, masses of cliches, and so. much. repetition. For example, she was trying to emphasize a divorced woman was lonely as her grown kids were living their own lives. That was followed by sentences saying how alone she felt because her children were busy and didn’t have the time to call her, and she missed them and didn’t know what to do with herself. They were living on their own and independent and while she was happy for them, she felt sad that they were ignoring her. Being divorced wasn’t easy for her because she had spent so much time with her children and now they didn’t want to spend time with her. It was painful to spend weekends alone without her children. OK WE GET THE POINT. One of those sentences would have been entirely sufficient, you just start feeling like each sentence is a stick to keep beating a dead horse of an idea. Not enjoyable even as a light summer read.
So it was some trepidation that I picked up Rebecca, worried from its cover that more hackneyed cliches would invade my existence. I was very pleasantly surprised. Rebecca is an eerie, complex novel, reminiscent in the outdoor and inner landscapes it paints to the Bronte Sister novels, or other of the darker Romantic works. The story of a young ingenue marrying a much older, mysterious man on a whim and travelling to his dark, cold ancestral home – and the ensuing secrets and drama which play out – is quite a page-turner. The dialogue is vivid, the scenic descriptions carefully crafted, and the ending – not quite satisfying. All in all, a very good and engrossing read, and to be recommended.
3. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
This was my favorite of the three. The story of a typically grumpy neighbor in a Nordic country reveals layer after layer of plot twists and of the life story of the main character. In scenes of desperate comedy interspersed with tragic flashes, the author deftly covers topics of life, death, love, meaning – challenging our perceptions of others and revealing that we truly do not know what those around us are going through. You will find yourself alternating between laughter and tear-soaked eyes, and even sometimes finding yourself laughing while tears run down your cheek. Backman is a master of describing and putting you in the middle of a scene, of showing and not telling, and it is those small insights or short sentences that touch your heart the most. Highly recommended, just don’t read in public on a bus lest your fellow passengers think you are slightly odd (not that that happened to me…).
I have a few more days of rest ahead of me – any books you would recommend, or movies I should absolutely see? What other classics or modern masterpieces am I missing?