Ever the one to look for silver linings or life lessons, I’m convinced there’s a reason I fell and fractured my ankle a few weeks ago and have compounded my misery with a seemingly endless “superbug” cold. Certainly one possible benefit is that I’ve been able to resist the temptation to succumb to my usual January/February “running away” fantasies…who wants to wander the world in a cast, coughing up a lung? So here I am, doing the next best thing, which is reading about running away.
My mom (per my sister’s suggestion) gave me at Christmas The Master of the Prado (El maestro del Prado), by Spanish author Javier Sierra (Simon & Schuster, 2015). I hadn’t even known of the book, and was quite excited by the juxtaposition of one of my favorite art museums in the world with an author I have enjoyed in the past. Now, I much prefer to read Spanish authors in Spanish, but that wasn’t going to work out with this book for a variety of reasons, so I delved into the English…
Javier Sierra is sort of Spain’s Dan Brown, and I have enjoyed previous novels like La cena secreta (The Secret Supper) and La dama azul (The Lady in Blue) quite a bit. I don’t know why The Master of the Prado fell somewhat short for me, but I suspect a part of it is the translation, which feels stilted and unnatural. The characters never really seem developed, and the plot is forced and sparse. Structured as a sort of “fictionalized memoir”, the story involves the author meeting a mysterious Doctor Fovel one day at the Prado, who starts him on a journey of discovery about the secrets hidden in some of the museum’s most famous works. There is a half-hearted attempt at a romance, and a vague hint of danger. I did enjoy the immersion in Madrid and El Escorial, and Sierra does an excellent job of explaining the paintings. His hints at secrets they may be hiding was interesting and sent me off on research tangents. (See Historia oculta de los Reyes, by Óscar Harradón Ameal, for example.) I’m not sure how much of Sierra’s conjecture about the true nature of John the Baptist, or artist Hieronymus Bosch’s membership in a quasi-heretical cult I can believe, but the ideas themselves were fascinating, and they certainly led me to look at paintings like “The Garden of Earthly Delights” in a new way. If you have an interest in art history, a curiosity about the esoteric, and a love of Spain, this will be a pleasant enough read.
More to the point of running away is The Grown-Up’s Guide to Running Away From Home: Making a New Life Abroad, by Rosanne Knorr (Ten Speed Press, 2008). I saw this book mentioned in some magazine I was perusing, and the title caught my eye. I can’t really say there is much here that I didn’t already know, but reading it gave some clarity to the nebulous visions I have of perhaps moving abroad at some point. This is a very practical, down-to-earth analysis of the pros and cons of making this type of move, with step-by-step lists of pretty much anything you might need to think of if taking this step. And who knows…if we do end up with a President Trump or Cruz, then maybe it will be a sign to me?
About as different from the previous two volumes as it might be possible to be is Lawrence Osborne’s Hunters in the Dark (Crown Publishing Group, 2015). Although Osborne is a prolific writer, I had never read anything by him before. I picked the novel because the premise, that of a listless young English school teacher wandering into Cambodia, struck me as the ultimate in “running away” scenarios. I wasn’t too sure for the first few pages, but the precise prose, exquisite setting descriptions, and careful characterizations drew me inexorably in, so that by the end I could scarcely put the book down! There are some interesting twists and turns in this novel, and to divulge any of them would be to derive the reader of the pleasure of experiencing them. But I want to share one paragraph that to me sums up the “running away” conundrum:
He often thought…how un-English he really was, because breaking away from home was not proving to be as difficult as he might have once anticipated. On the contrary. It was proving easy and harmless, at least to himself. Because his own motive was becoming clearer to him, he assumed that it would become clearer to everyone in his life as well. It was not the case, and he realized that. But he hoped it would be soon. If he could walk out of the door and not come back, others would eventually understand why. There was no point, then, explaining himself to a chorus of puzzled resentment. If they couldn’t understand, nothing could make them understand. Most people appreciated where they were born and grew up. They grumbled, but they liked it, could not live without it. He was not like that, he now understood.
Hunters in the Dark ended up being one of the best novels I’ve read in a while. It immerses the reader in a different culture without ever passing judgment, allowing karma instead to follow its course to a strangely satisfying ending.
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.