Good fiction creates empathy. A novel takes you somewhere and asks you to look through the eyes of another person, to live another life. ~~ Barbara Kingsolver, novelist, essayist, and poet
As I continue on my reading journey, I find myself wanting to make up for lost time, for the years I spent reading nothing but non-fiction in my former career, the performing arts. Make no mistake, I needed those books. A college education only shows you where the key is hidden; as an artist, you have to grasp that key, fit it into the lock, walk through the door, and arrange the furniture. You have to put in the effort to own the space. I achieved that by reading every performing arts book I could get my hands on, experimenting with new ideas on myself first, then on my long-suffering students.
But the arts don’t – can’t – exist in a vacuum. If all you know is your limited life, you can bring nothing but your limited point of view to your singing, acting, teaching, what-have-you. This is where fiction comes in.
Through the world of fiction, we learn empathy for characters unlike ourselves. We get a glimpse into their lives, loves, and hardships. We see the workings of their minds, observe their decision-making, and witness their choices, good or bad. We begin to understand that not everyone thinks or feels as we do – and this understanding is the pathway not only to great art, but to a full and compassionate life. Good fiction lets us safely travel in another person’s shoes, but the best fiction renders us less quick to condemn the actions and choices of others, and more capable of embracing our differences.
With that in mind, I present #4 and #5 of My Favorite Reads of 2016:
The Whiskey Sea (2016; Ann Howard Creel)
Full disclosure: Ann edited my novel. When she asked if I would accept a free copy in exchange for an honest review, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. So, I admit I was predisposed to like the book, but I often begin a book with high hopes and end up being turned off by any number of things, so I knew I could deliver a fair review. Also, I would have read the book anyway as the era and the story intrigued me (and, let’s face it, the cover is great). That it turned out to be a fantastic read was icing on the cake.
In this book, Creel plunges the reader into the era of 1920s Prohibition. But this is no Gatsby-esque narrative. By focusing on the lives of a group of poor fishermen turned rum runners – the have-nots risking their lives to secure a better life for their families, just so the wealthy can have their nightly cocktails – Creel shows us the darker side of the free-wheeling Roaring Twenties.
The protagonist, Frieda Hope, is a scrappy, independent young woman who has had responsibilities shoved onto her narrow shoulders at too young an age, and she feels this responsibility deeply. Virtually alone in the world, but with her younger sister to care for, we watch Frieda grow as she navigates this tough, hard-scrabble world and ultimately learns, through the grace of forgiveness, to cast off her hard shell and let love in.
All the characters spring to life on the page, and I found myself thinking about them, wondering what they would do next – that is, when I was able to put the book down. By turns thrilling and inspiring, The Whiskey Sea is a beautifully written, well-told story. Highly recommended.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003; Mark Haddon)
This book, which I picked up at a discount book store, started my mind whirring. How does one navigate and make sense of the world when you see and experience everything differently from the people around you? This the crux of Haddon’s story. On the surface it’s a who-done-it-style mystery, but Haddon also weaves into it a gripping story of the mystery of personal relations, and the problem of finding one’s place in the world.
Haddon nails the experience of autism/sensory processing disorder. There is much of this in my family; my husband and I each have a touch of it ourselves. While reading, I had many “how did he know that?” moments of recognition. I also found it a delightful read and nearly impossible to put down. That it is a short and charming story does nothing to diminish the book’s importance.
I understand that a stage play is being made from the book; I can only hope it conveys Christopher’s story as sympathetically as the book. No one who reads it will see life in quite the same way afterward.
See you next time!