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I’m not really one for surprises, but occasionally it’s nice to be surprised by a book that you’re pretty sure you won’t like. This usually happens to me when the characters, writing style and story transcend the elements of the book that don’t appeal to me. A few examples:
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
I hate the circus—always have, always will. I detest clowns (they’re totally creepy and never funny) and I don’t think animals should be dressed up in costumes, carted around the country, and forced to perform for humans. Thus, I picked up this book, set in a circus during the Depression, with trepidation. My book club had selected it, so I had to read it. I loved it! The setting was vivid and nostalgic, evoking the hardships of the Depression with aching realism; the characters were authentic and heartbreakingly vulnerable; and the story was unforgettable. Plus the mistreated elephant got justified revenge in the end!
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
I am not a fan of graphic novels, and while I did enjoy Archie comics as a kid, the history of comics was not high on my list of topics to explore. However, this book remains one of my favorite reads. It’s one of those rare books that hits the trifecta; a cinematic setting (New York in the 1930s through the 50s), a riveting plot, and characters that I continue to think about long after turning the last page. This book about two Jewish cousins who create a super hero during the golden age of comics is written with great imagination and passion and one that I would recommend to almost anyone.
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
I am not a big sports enthusiast. Other than sometimes watching OSU football or basketball (usually while simultaneously looking at a fashion magazine) I could give a flip. This book has a lot (and I mean a lot) of details about the game of cricket. However, it is also one of the most beautifully written, mesmerizing and atmospheric books I’ve ever read. It’s about a London banker living in New York with his wife and son when 9/11 strikes. Although that event is rarely mentioned in the book, its aftereffects permeate the air. Left alone, living in the Chelsea Hotel after his family returns to Europe, Hans attempts to find himself, find meaning in the world, and find his way back to his family. The game of cricket becomes a metaphor for human civility, as Hans struggles to reconnect with his shattered world. O’Neill is a master of subtlety and emotional restraint, while at the same time eliciting a deep, aching empathy for his characters in a world that at times seems almost surreal. I still have a strong visual sense of this book, even though I read it several years ago.
So, what’s the point of all this? I suppose it’s that talented authors can make anything interesting, and that it pays to keep an open mind when selecting books. The three novels listed above provided me with rich, transcendent reading experiences that I am truly grateful I didn’t miss.