Randi Kreiss

Flying away on a literary magic carpet

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I’m writing about books because my mother is dying and I can’t write about that. I know that my sense of myself, my personal latitude and longitude, are about to change in the coming weeks. But that place feels too tender to probe, so I turn to a great source of comfort in my life: books. And I offer my syllabus of escape to you as well, for today or the day that you need it.

The key is to find books that are reasonably esoteric, demanding and challenging enough to transport the reader to another time and place.

I recently discovered a terrific suspense/mystery writer, Margaret Millar, who did her best work in the 1950s. She won the Edgar Award for mystery more than once. This year I lectured on her prize-winning “Beast in View,” a creepy bit of a thriller that will spin you right out of your world and into a mid-20th century time of silk stockings and pompadours, sexual secrecy, stalkers and surprise endings. Once you leap in, you really can’t think about anything else until you turn the last page. And of course, that’s the point.

Another book I picked up recently and couldn’t put down is “The Vegetarian,” by Han Kang, the South Korean writer who won the Man-Booker Prize for this novel. It’s a weird and compelling story about an ordinary Japanese woman who decides not to eat meat anymore. In that time and place, among these people, her decision horrifies and shocks her immediate family. I confess, I didn’t completely understand the book, but I couldn’t stop reading it. Han has crafted a very strange tale of madness and weaponized family dynamics.

Another exotic distraction was “An Artist of the Floating World,” by Kazuo Ishiguro. He walks us through the winding back lanes of post-war Japan where serious artists lived and recovered after the war. We witness their struggle as they contemplate the role their work may have played in the push to war before 1945. Ishiguro prompts the reader to consider the power of art in a politically charged world.

And if you need a getaway, by all means consider Mischa Berlinski’s “Fieldwork,” a family saga about several generations of American missionaries in the wild border territory of northern Thailand. This novel conflates several genres in an unusual mystery about the remote tribal people ordinary travelers never encounter.

I put down one book and pick up the next. A friend suggested I read Roz Chast’s brutally honest memoir about her parents’ decline and death, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” The truth is, I read it some time ago, and it is brilliant, but this isn’t the moment to stare at the painful truth. The same goes for Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal.” It’s a must-read, and I did, but not for this delicate time.

Rather, I picked up an old friend, “Moby-Dick,” and set sail with the Captain, Ishmael and Queequeg for a week.

If you’re going through a tough time, I also recommend food books. The other night I leafed through my ragged copy of “The Joy of Cooking.” It made me think more about my mother’s matzo balls and her recipe for pea soup than her illness. And that led me to think about how she made her unicorn apple cake, dumping the flour on the kitchen table and stirring in all the other ingredients, until the dough was a sweet-sticky mound to be spread in a pan and covered with fruit. There’s no recipe, and that particular apple cake will pass with my mother.

Trying to distract myself from the sadness of the moment, I find that my old friends, my books, are a singular comfort. The noise of TV and the internet, even the telephone, are distressing. Politics has become a cacophony of misery and despair.

But sitting and reading in a quiet room, my mother’s breathing setting the steady rhythm of the moment, is a real blessing.

Copyright 2018 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.