Books can take us places we yearn to explore, introduce us to characters we’d love to be, and allow us to live our dreams no matter how impossible. Such books help us escape our own troubles, at least for a while. But books can also take us to dangerous places, introduce us to despicable people, and bring our nightmares to life. For me, these books put my life in perspective and make me very thankful for what I’ve got.
So, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, here are our picks for books that make us feel thankful.
The heroine of this book is Baby, a 12-year-old girl who lives in the slums of Montreal with her heroin-addicted father. It’s a tough subject and a rough world that only gets worse as Baby grows up, turns 13, and attracts the eye of the neighbourhood pimp. But what struck me most about this novel was Baby’s voice. Told in the first person, she never wallows in self-pity or curses the world for her bad luck. This is her life and she takes it in stride. She’s grateful for the little things and has a gift for seeing beauty amidst the ugliness, even when everything gets so bad for her that it was hard for me to keep reading. I made it through this book because of this character. If Baby can live it, I can at least read it.
And though the book is not a memoire, the author did grow up in this inner-city neighbourhood, with the poverty and junkies, and experienced enough of the mean streets to write a very real depiction of what can happen to a child of a drug addict. This book made me so thankful for my own parents, who always provided me with food and shelter, and never abused drugs. If only every child was so lucky.
Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis
The theme this month is books that make us thankful. I didn’t have to think about this for a single second. I read this at 16, as a student enrolled in biology, having completed earth science the prior year. Concepts like The Big Bang Theory (not the TV show) and Evolution changed my life. Originally published in 1925, it tells the story of Martin Arrowsmith, an ordinary, small-town boy, who gets his first taste of medicine as an assistant to the drunken physician in his home town. He attends medical school, sets up a private practice, and evolves into a scientist and researcher. This leads to a discovery that ends an epidemic, giving him immense satisfaction and validation of his work. Unfortunately, a tragic turn of events forces him to re-evaluate both his career and his personal life.
Although dated at the time I read it, it still gave me a window into medical school and the mind of a scientist and researcher, and spurred me on to become a pre-med major in college. Along with my nascent science knowledge, it unlocked so many mysteries I’d contemplated, and pulled me from the negativity of religion, especially the anger I felt over “God” taking the life of my four-year-old brother when I was just five. Suddenly, there were rational and factual explanations for why certain things happen, or exist, while random chance is the simple reason for other occurrences. A burden lifted from my heart, and my mind expanded exponentially. Science became my new religion.
What I love most is that Dr. Arrowsmith is a progressive, a visionary, and even something of a rebel. The book contains considerable social commentary on the state and prospects of medicine in the United States in the 1920s. And of course, it won the Pulitzer Prize. However, Mr. Lewis declined to accept.
Tana French is one of my favorite crime writers, whose novels consistently deliver high doses of suspense, always tinged with the page turning pace of the thriller. Broken Harbor is no exception. The reader follows a first person protagonist through a labyrinth of mystery and police procedure as he’s called upon to solve a grisly family murder at a creepy, half finished real estate development. Mick Kennedy is one of the best detectives on the Murder Squad, and he’s optimistic that he and his rookie partner will have no trouble finding the killer. But layers of mystery begin to unfold around the deaths of the two small children and their father, while their mother, the only survivor, lies in intensive care.
Detective Kennedy’s voice is distinctly Irish and beautifully evocative of place. It’s hard to put the book down, and as I read I experienced a growing sense of awe and gratitude. The depth of Ms French’s knowledge, her nimble management of craft made me conscious of how much I can learn from other writers. I admit to a rush of despair, as I don’t know that I could ever manage to pull so many threads together while weaving a complex narrative through bits of flashback, a mind boggling grasp of how police think and work, forensic psychology and science. And that’s not all. The author balances this with deft manipulation of structure, plot, pace, and such astute characterization, that all I can do is come to the conclusion that I have miles to go before I sleep.
Red Land, Black Land by Barbara Mertz
Most people will recognize Mertz only by her fiction pen names Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters. Mertz is a bit of a hero of mine, a woman who earned a Ph.D. in Egyptology from the Oriental Institute when the field didn’t welcome women. I treasure my dog-eared copy of this book, a gift from my hieroglyphics professor when I was a fresh-faced grad student. As one of the most popular Egyptology books of all time, my copy sits proudly on my desk where I can grab it for the odd research questions. Mertz’s vast intellect permeates every page, yet the writing sparkles with the unexpected, and is profoundly witty. Somehow Mertz managed to write a history book that isn’t impersonal. We don’t feel we’re reading about a civilization long vanished, but about people. She gives a face and normal human aspirations back onto the Egyptians, and shows us their lives, during their time. Best of all her writing proves that history books can be fun. The book is packed with fashion tips, how to style your hair, and tie your kilt, and also with vocational information for those looking to become scribes or sorcerers. During her prolific career, Mertz wrote about seventy books, most of them mysteries and romantic suspense novels. To read one of her fiction books is to rekindle that dormant thirst to be Indiana Jones for she excels at fast-paced adventures, fabulous treasures, and exotic settings. However, she was foremost a scholar, a woman dedicated to promoting the field she loved and sharing her profound knowledge of Egyptology with the world. Mertz passing on August 8th of this year, crushing my dreams of someday getting her to sign my battered copy of Red Land, Black Land.