11 April 2013

Whose Birthday Is It? Three Masters of Observation

This month I'm celebrating the birthdays of three authors who are masters of observation. Because their styles and genres are very different, you're sure to find at least one that suits your taste. (Note that this series was started as a regular column for the SheKnows Book Lounge, but will now be posted here.)

Paul Theroux, who turned 72 on April 10, is as well known for his travel writing as he is for his fiction. In fact, The Great Railway Bazaar, about crossing the Eastern Hemisphere by train from England to Japan and back, remains a favorite in the travel genre. About 30 years later, Theroux retraced his journey, recording his experiences in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. His fiction often has a darker side to it, either psychologically (The Mosquito Coast) or physically (The Lower River) and is frequently set in non-Western locales (such as Africa, South America, and India). His protagonists are commonly writers (Hotel Honolulu), and he has even been known to put himself in his fiction (A Dead Hand). Wondering where to start if you've never read Theroux? I suggest The Mosquito Coast, which follows the unraveling of inventor Allie Fox, who relocates his family from a comfortable life in the United States to the wilds of Honduras.

Ngaio Marsh, known as the New Zealand queen of crime fiction, would have been 114 on April 23. Although she wrote some short stories and an autobiography, she is famous for her Roderick Alleyn series, which is set mostly in England. Born into the gentry, Alleyn is a hardworking chief inspector (later promoted) in Scotland Yard's criminal investigation department. The series spans quite a few years, and Alleyn's personal life progresses in each new entry in the 32-book series. Nash's own loves of theater and painting figure prominently in the novels, and in fact several of the mysteries specifically revolve around actors. You can, of course, jump into the series anywhere, but I suggest you start at the beginning with A Man Lay Dead and get to know Roderick Alleyn over the course of each mystery up to the final novel, Light Thickens. By the way, if you're an audiobook lover, you might consider listening instead of reading.

If you're a baby boomer, then you already know Annie Dillard, who will turn 68 on April 30. In the mid-1970s, it seemed that everyone was reading her Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, about her observations of nature in the Virgina countryside, where she lived. The Writing Life, a collection of short pieces in which Dillard talks about her experiences as a writer, is almost required reading for budding authors of every type. She has also written about "found poetry" (Mornings Like This) and two novels, including The Maytrees, which I reviewed in 2010. If you're new to Annie Dillard, then you must start with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. If you want to read more, try Teaching a Stone to Talk, a compilation of short nonfiction. I have yet to read An American Childhood, her autobiography, which details her awakening to the world around her and the development of her observational skills, which have informed all her work.


Peggy Ann 4/11/13, 7:10 AM  

Beth, I have Pilgrim at Tinker Creek on my shelf! My old pastor quoted her on occasion. I keep one stuck on my fridge: 'on the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing with chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews...for the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.' Annie Dillard

rhapsodyinbooks 4/11/13, 8:20 AM  

Interesting - my husband loves all three of them, and I have not read any of them! :--)

Beth Hoffman 4/11/13, 9:40 AM  

Terrific post! I can't believe I've not read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but now I will.

Zibilee 4/11/13, 11:43 AM  

Mosquito Coast and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek sound excellent, and like things that would suck me in, so I am off to find them right away. I love this birthday post, especially because it brings new authors who I haven't yet experienced into the spotlight for me. Thanks!

Sandy Nawrot 4/11/13, 12:45 PM  

I've not read any of them, and I'm not sure what that says about me! That smart, observant literature intimidates me? Or that I just don't know better than to pick them up. I'm always so enticed by the new shiny books that publish each week.

Barbara 4/11/13, 2:58 PM  

Years ago I read one of Theroux' travel books about India and loved it. Now I wonder why I never got back to him. Haven't tried the other two, but I must sample all three.

Daryl 4/12/13, 8:49 AM  

excellent 'amuse bouches'

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