I like odd. I like Danish modern chairs set around my antique American Renaissance table, red shoes worn with a staid blue outfit, tempura appetizers served with lasagna. I like reading odd stories as well, the unexpected plot twist when I thought I’d figured it all out, a tale played out somewhere in the world that is just out of this world, but still here on earth. Even though I love vanilla ice cream because of all the syrups and toppings I can dollop on top a few scoops, I don’t enjoy reading vanilla.
My own writing research plumbs dusty scrapbooks and newspaper stories below the fold line on the last page of the newspaper. (Yes, we still subscribe.) Human interest columns, Supreme Court decisions, follow ups on last year’s headlines. The weird stuff, the news barely fit to print, local color masquerading as important items to know, and occasional gossip about people who should have known better. I like bringing disparate pieces to a new life in my fiction.
I just finished reading a book by a well established author who wrote one of my all time most favorite stories twenty years ago. I’ve read the book three times and will read it again to celebrate its endurance as an amazing story told by a gifted writer. The story is unusual because the heroine is someone many know about in the most minimal way but no one knew in depth. Her story had been left on the back step of a strange and magical time in history until the author grabbed a quill, examined the era closely, and began to write. I cried and cringed and choked and was charmed chapter after chapter at the life imposed on the young heroine, and listened spellbound to a theatrical reading of the most gripping chapter in the book – the one about the – oh, wait, I can’t say, as I don’t want to reveal the title. Then I did what I always do when I fall in love, in lust, in cahoots with a book. I read other books the author has penned.
And fell to the floor in abject disappointment. The others are weak, with one-dimensional characters, little insight about their dilemmas, a cursory glance at history, and not a single paragraph or sentence worth committing to memory. I can’t determine if it was a lack of research, an arid relationship with the characters, or dwindling interest in his/her own subjects, but the other books in the author’s library neither grip nor compel nor reveal anything not found in high school English assignments. Quirky in an unsatisfactory way.
Fortunately, other authors maintain excellence in all their books. Joanne Harris has been a favorite for years, not just with her famous Chocolat, made into the movie with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, but consistently wonderful stories, book after book. The most unusual is Gentleman & Players, a story I nearly bypassed because it sounded like a card game. The story is told from a double POV, with one narrator who’s a teacher at the school where the trouble takes place, the other a mystery narrator whose identity is kept secret until about the last page. The book won me over with lyrical writing, brooding darkness, and quirky characters, the most important one changing shape faster than ping pong balls bounce. I could never predict the next surprise yet always found it believable if shocking, right to the end of the tale. It’s a psychologically twisted story of false identity, betrayal, and revenge. To tell more would be to reveal too much, but prepare to be enchanted – and horrified.
Prolific author Alice Hoffman dealt with the real issue of the loss of crucial habitat of monarch butterflies in Flight Behavior. She transplanted millions of butterflies to Appalachia, a place where they don’t actually roost, and constructed a novel about a failing marriage that follows a year of precarious environmental consequence. Dellarobia, a woman in search of herself, finds she’s the center of a suspected miracle while her family is destroyed by deceit, eventually to be rebuilt in a new configuration. Dellarobia discovers that the truth she thought she knew was a lie she’d told herself. Hoffman’s other books are equally as compelling.
Garth Stein wrote The Art of Racing in the Rain, a deceptively simple story about a man who loves to race cars, and whose loyal dog helps bring him back from miserably unjust circumstances after his divorce. Denny struggles to make his living doing what he loves and does best, car racing, as seen through the perspective of his loyal dog, Enzo. The book is rich with metaphor and humor as Enzo describes the world sometimes with more sophistication and insight than the humans around him, sometimes with the wild impatience of his natural instincts. All of Stein’s books enchant no matter the subject.
Identity, miracles, and justice, three themes I treasure when told with wisdom, insight, and affection, and presented in unusual locations, with peculiar characters, or under bizarre circumstances. I quest for quirks because I like odd. I also like a wonderful story well told.
Northern Lights, image courtesy Pixabay.com public images