Lately I’ve binged on “pop” literary novels, which I define as well-written fiction with a tad more plot than is acceptable in “literary fiction.” On my nightstand are Jo-Ann Mapson’s Solomon’s Oak (which I’ve just finished), Elle Newmark’s The Sandalwood Tree (I’ve read 100 pages), and Vernon Vinge’s Marooned in Realtime (55 pages).
I like to mix up genres: literary fiction, pop women’s fiction (Mapson and Newmark) and LOTS of SF(Vinge). I always laugh delightedly when Nick Hornby, book columnist for The Believer and author of the hilarious collections, The Polysyllabic Spree, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, Shakespeare Wrote for Money, and More Baths Less Talking: Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family, and Time Itself, makes fun of literary fiction. He says The Believer has a policy of not lambasting books, so he had to change his way of reading.
” As a consequence, the first thing to be cut from my reading diet was contemporary literary fiction. This seems to me to be the highest-risk category – or the highest risk for me, at any rate, given my tastes.”
Despite denials, it’s obvious that Hornby writes literary fiction, and reviews quite a bit of it, too. But I like his exhortation that reading shouldn’t be punitive and, if you don’t like a book, put it down.
Which, believe me, I do.
I read the pop books on my nightstand.
Jo-Ann Mapson’s moving novels are plot-driven and fast-paced, but it’s the honesty of her strong, unpretentious, quirky heroines that keeps me reading. They often live on farms, love horses, and struggle to make ends meet.
In her latest novel, Solomon’s Oak, the three main characters must deal with formidable amounts of grief. Glory, a 38-year-old widow, struggles to support the farm after her beloved husband’s death; Joseph Vigil, an ex-cop, was wounded in a drug bust and is looking for peace in photography; and Juniper, a 14-year-old girl, lost her sister, who was abducted, and then her parents: one abandons her, the other commits suicide.
Glory is the most complex character, and most of the chapters are narrated in the third person from her point of view. Her passionate determination to keep her rescue dogs and horses off Death Row at the pound keeps her working when she’s very tired: she has a lot of mouths to feed. Her descriptions of the dogs are vivid: I’ll never forget Caddy, the friendly border collie who loves to herd goats, who ran back to the farm twice after being adopted out, and who tried to save a life.
Mapson sees work as one of the defining characteristics of Glory’s karma, and I’m fascinated because work in novels in usually underdescribed. As the novel opens on Thanksgiving, Glory is inaugurating a new wedding planning business: she provides a wedding venue in the chapel on her land and does all the catering. Glory is preparing a pirate-themed wedding, for which she has roasted three turkeys, mashed buckets of potatoes, and brewed gallons of pirate drinks, mead and lemon bubble.
Before the wedding starts, her friend Caroline, a social worker, calls like a bad fairy to ask her to house a traumatized teenage girl for one day before she is put into foster care. Glory reluctantly agrees, because she and Dan raised a couple of foster sons, and she puts a competent but complaining Juniper to work at the wedding. After learning her story, and that Caddy had been Juniper’s sister’s dog before the abduction, Glory knows she must let the girl stay. And so she has a foster child again.
Joseph Vigil also shows up at the wedding. While photographing a huge oak tree on Glory’s land, he mistakes the choreographed pirate fight in front of the chapel for a real fight and pulls a gun. Not the best way to meet a woman.
Does it sound too easy a read? It’s not. Mapson is an experienced writer who seamlessly weaves many fascinating details about the characters’ history with the plot: Glory’s work, Joseph’s photography and past work in a police lab, and their mutual concern for Juniper, who keeps getting suspended from school for fighting.
Again, Mapson is great on work. Here is Glory getting ready for another wedding, and anyone who’s ever struggled to make a living will understand this weariness:
Here I am watching the casserole through the oven door to make sure it doesn’t burn like Dan’s yams because it means the difference between paying the feed bill or calling Target to beg for more hours…. The casserole’s sharing the 1960s-era oven with the roasts did unpredictable things to the temperatures and the food. She didn’t dare leave the room. As she sat on the floor and peeked through the glass door, she prayed the only kind of prayers she ever prayed. Please come out perfect. Red polo shirts do nothing for me. I’m not old enough to wear khaki pants five times a week.”
I couldn’t put this novel down and even cried over it. My only criticism: the plot device of the abduction of Juniper’s sister seemed a dramatic TV-movie “issue” added to make the book sell. Despite Mapson’s intelligent research, and her hint of Juniper’s confused, repressed knowledge that the older high school boys her sister secretly dated may have abducted and murdered her, I didn’t feel the scenario quite fit in with the rest of the book.
But Mapson is a very good writer of women’s novels and this won The American Library Association’s 2011 RUSA Award.
Elle Newmark’s The Sandalwood Tree. Someone sent me an ARC of this over a year ago–a very good reason not to send me ARCs since I don’t get around to them for years if at all. (The publicity materials are long gone.) Set in the Himalayas in India, this entertaining novel tells two stories of women who lived in the same bungalow at different times. In 1947, Evie goes with her husband, Martin, a historian, who has won a Fulbright to o study the end of British rule in a town in the Himalayas . Martin, who has PTSD and nightmares from his experiences in World War II, is obsessed with cleanliness, difficult to live with, perhaps less at ease in India than Evie and their young son. When Evie discovers a packet of letters of two young women who lived in the same house in 1857, she begins to do research, and we learn their story through letters and journals. She persuades Martin to stay when Partition begins earlier than he expected.
I certainly seem to come across a lot of novels that are set in two times like this. Earlier this summer I read Suzanne Joinson’s A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, and that interweaves a narrative set in London in the present with a journal in 1923 in Turkestan. Then I’m thinking of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust, another split narrative: the story of a young woman visiting India in the present is alternated with her grandmother’s story.
Vernor Vinge’s Marooned in Realtime. I’ve been hearing for years that I should read SF writer Vernor Vinge. Fifty-five pages into Marooned in Realtime, I’m finding it predictable after the work of Clifford D. Simak and Pamela Sargent, whom I read earlier this year. The premise? Three hundred human beings are left on Earth, and they’ve been rescued from various Ages by a couple of very brilliant scientists and engineers who “bobbled” forward in time to a future where human beings will thrive, only somebody is murdered…and Will Brierson is the only cop on earth.
Okay, this is okay, but I’m not thrilled with it. Maybe I should have started with another book.