Good books: Some recommendations | Art & Appetite

By James Spangler | Aug 31, 2017

This time of year, perhaps more than at any other, people are gallivanting across the country and beyond. Some folks camp and some hike or boat, some have staycations.

Regardless of how we spend our summer breaks, a good book is a critical ingredient for many of us.

Even those of us who do read a lot don't like to waste time on something that doesn't really grab us and not let go.

Factor in a general malaise that many of us are feeling about the world around us these days, and you might want to join me in cracking open some total escapism.

For the last 220 days or so, I've been battling a mild but pervasive form of nausea with books like these:

“The Nine Tailors,” Dorothy Sayers (1934): Purists who have not encountered the golden age of mystery icon Lord Peter Wimsey may want to start with “Whose Body” (1923), the first of the series. But if you're willing to skip ahead a little, my favorite Lord Peter mystery is “The Nine Tailors.”

It’s expertly plotted by Sayers, with twists and turns that are plausible yet not too predictable. Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that Sayers weaves a tale that has the most satisfying outcome.

“The Eight,” Katherine Neville (1988): Some might compare “The Eight” to “The Da Vinci Code,” although it predates it by about 15 years. In summary, Charlemagne defeats the Moors and comes into possession of a very special chess set, the pieces of which have been scattered across the world. At least two very motivated, powerful groups will stop at nothing to assemble all the pieces once more.

Why is that? I can't tell you. But it's a pretty great work of escapism.

“Our Man in Havana,” Graham Greene (1958): I like Greene best when he writes with a comic edge. (See also “Travels With My Aunt” from 1972.) Greene chooses the unlikeliest of protagonists – a down-in-the-heals vacuum cleaner salesman – to become a spymaster of British Intelligence.

If you're familiar with the story of Lieutenant Kije, or with the work of P.G. Wodehouse, you'll have an inkling of what this novel is like – a tangled web of deception presented by one of Great Britain’s keenest social satirists. Perhaps it’s a comfort to glean from this novel that the world has long been a pretty screwy place.

“The Onion Girl,” Charles de Lint (2001): Patrick Rothfuss and George R.R. Martin have recently renewed my interest in the fantasy genre. My most recent foray is one set in the modern world. “The Onion Girl” follows the vibrant and indefatigable Jilly, who is torn between fighting for survival in “The World As It Is,” and choosing the attractive alternative of permanently relocating to “Dreamland.”

An early adopter of urban contemporary fantasy, de Lint began writing in 1983 before this sub-genre became so popular. Jilly is a character that you can't help but root for.

“The Twelfth Enchantment,” David Liss (2011): Liss, a noted author of compelling historical fiction, takes a detour into the world of magic in the 19th century, with Lord Byron and the Industrial Revolution providing the reader with a couple of cognitive hooks. It's a tale of a damsel in distress who grows in confidence, becomes empowered and overcomes what seems like insurmountable odds.

Some would say, “That's pretty improbable! That's why it's called fiction, right?” But I would argue that before anything good happens in the world, it comes to us as a thought. Good thoughts that become tangible and real are often first realized in the fiction we read.

Who knows, maybe escapist fiction provides a much needed retreat to the world of how things could be when “The World As It Is” proves to be a little overwhelming. However you see it, I hope you'll pick up a good book and allow yourself to escape a little.

After all, your mind might need a little vacation, too.



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