• By Theodora Drozdowski
  • Posted Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Books We Like

I probably don’t read as voraciously or as widely as many librarians do, or as librarians should. But I will cop to reading repetitively. That’s like spending time with your best friends! I thought I’d talk about some of my favorites, an eclectic bunch of titles that I will read again, and some over and over again.

For instance, I really do re-read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series from start to finish every two or three years! And when I’m lucky in those years, there might be a brand new book as a treat at the end. I don’t have to sell Diana Gabaldon; her fans are legion, both of the books and now, of the Starz television series. But in the event that you are a person who loves long books, loves historical fiction with detail and characters you grow to believe are real, relishes a bit of time travel, and connects with (grinning) an intense romantic connection, by all means, meet Diana Gabaldon. New readers come along everyday, right? And they need to know.

In the years that I’m not re-reading Outlander, I will usually pick up Dorothy Dunnett’s magisterial House of Niccolo series. Dunnett’s earlier, related series, the Lymond Chronicles written between 1961 and 1975 and the House of Niccolo 1986-2000 together rise to the top of the historical fiction genre. Many contemporary authors acknowledge that Dunnett was one of the masters of weaving together fiction and historical reality.

Fifteenth and sixteenth century Europe is the main stage for both series, but the action and the growth of the heroes takes them throughout a good part of the eastern hemisphere. These challenging books are erudite, lush, at times oblique; sometimes what is most important to know is not actually said, but inferred. You have to be an alert reader, but then you also are paid back if you re-read. The characters are not stock characters from some fantasy version of the European Renaissance; they are complex modern minds and hearts. I have found new connections in the House of Niccolo books with every re-reading, and relished new details that add facets to the sparkle.

In the House of Niccolo books, Claes van der Poele, a dyer’s apprentice and to early appearances, a simple, libertine oaf, is in reality a brilliantly skilled polymath who will rise to power in the markets and politics across 15th century Europe and the middle east, and prove a powerful force in the development of early modern Scotland. As destructive at times as he is creative, as vengeful as he is loyal, Claes/Nicholas has the opportunity across eight books to be fully developed, and could have become a caricature of himself. But Dunnett is too clever, and she created a story arc and supporting characters of such complexity and humanity that at the end of the last book, you become aware of mysteries that you did not even know existed, and their dramatic and touching solutions. And a confession, I am a new reader to Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles this year. I know I am in for a challenge and a treat. The two series are inextricably linked, but I won’t spoil the surprises. I’ve waited too long to start this series. So have you, if you crave challenging historical fiction.

Everyone should have a book they re-read every five-to-eight years. For me, that is an early favorite, T. R. Pearson’s A Short History of a Small Place, 1985. This book is about most of the small towns in North Carolina. Neely, NC, is a fictional place, but you will find that you have been in Neely many times if you’ve gotten around in our state, and you’ve met Neely’s citizens. You might even be from Neely yourself.

A small southern town, full of beguiling, confounding, duplicitous, broken-hearted, enterprising and outright peculiar characters, Neely is the home to the aristocratic Miss Myra Angelique Pettigrew. Miss Pettigrew, spinster and owner of Mr. Britches, a disrespectful ape who wears a porkpie hat, throws herself off the town water tower. Her suicide is nominally the center of the narration, but I say center the way you say a Jackson Pollock painting has a mid-point half-way across the canvas.A lot goes on around it.

Pearson’s style is swooping, convoluted, folksy, and you can hear many of your own favorite southern storytellers’ voices as he glides from one tall-tale vignette of small town life to the next. Scenes from the book can be devastatingly comedic. You can do yourself physical harm laughing at, say, the Christmas pageant scene. And then the narration can turn bittersweet, as thirteen year old narrator Louis Benfield observes the interplay between his two beloved parents. But…porkpie hat. You have to love a book that has a porkpie hat in it. On an ape!

And then there are the books that made a mark on me not because I laughed but because they scared me senseless. Dystopia is a broad genre; I prefer mine without a lot of science fiction in the mix, and two I have read in recent years have stayed with me and give me disquiet moments frequently. North Carolina writer William Forstchen’s-One Second After-from 2009 posits a world that could come to be any time now, not some time in a distant or indefinite future, when electromagnetic pulse weapons are detonated in earth’s atmosphere, destroying our power grid and returning us to a new Dark Ages.

That the center of action and the home of the protagonists is Black Mountain, North Carolina, creates an immediacy for me as a North Carolina reader. In a different way than with Pearson’s book, the characters are real.

We know the people in One Second After could easily be our families coming to grips with an incredibly dangerous world, with no medicine or modern conveniences, ongoing famine, and life-threatening factionalism. And just this morning, I picked up the sequel, One Year After, published last year, and plunged back into a frightening world just down Interstate 40 in the mountains. I expect a disturbing, but thrilling several days’ reading.

A more literary treatment of a near-future dystopia after global epidemics, terrorism, climate change and a breakdown of oil-based economies, James Howard Kunstler’s 2008 A World Made by Hand reveals the breakdown of our nation’s systems after catastrophe, and suggests through characters and their actions, a number of different forces that could come into play. Will thugs and bullies win? Will people be brought under the sway of religious charlatans? How will wealth be found and leveraged? Former tech executive Robert Earle finds himself mayor of Union Grove, New York, and must find a way to lead an intensely local but ravaged community.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this book for me was the ways in which individuals in the community found themselves relying on their own skills to forge new identities and roles for the sake of survival. There were the storytellers, the teachers, the growers, the healers, the mechanically inclined. But there were also the manipulators, the liars, and all those whose skills came from the darker side of humanity. Since reading this book and One Second After, I obsessively ask acquaintances, “What are your skills for the post-Apocalypse? What can you bring to the table? Who will you be?” I think they all wish I’d stop asking. Forstchen's books are vivid and immediate enough to nag at you well after you finish reading. And maybe you'll read them again?

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