Reading for Pleasure: Paulette Jiles’s “News of the World” & Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander”

Sometimes, when the gloomy news is too much for us, we take a break from our lives and escape into historical fiction.

Two enjoyable historical novels recently filled the bill for me:  Paulette Jiles’s News of the World, a finalist for the National Book Award in 2016, and Diana Gabaldon’s time-travel historical novel, Outlander.  Although these rip-roaring  reads have little in common plot-wise, there is a sweetness to the main characters that we don’t often see in real life.

Paulette Jiles

Last year Janet Maslin of The New York Times listed  News of the World, a literary Western, as one of her Best Books of the Year.  It is the story of a white girl captured by the Indians who does not want to return to her white family. I am familiar with this issue through two of the award-winning Conrad Richter’s novels:  in  junior high we read Conrad Richter’s The Light in the Forest, the story of a white boy returned unwillingly to his white family and determined to return to the Indians. And this year I discovered Richter’s less well-known. but much better novel, A Country of Strangers, about a young white woman, Stone Girl, taken unwillingly from her Indian family with her  son –and then, tragically, they are not accepted by her white family.

Jiles has a unique take on the situation: the novel is set in Texas in 1870, after the Civil War, and told from the point-of-view of 71-year-old Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of the War of 1812 and Taft’s war in Mexico, and a witness of the dissension caused by the Civil War.  Captain Kidd, a former printer, now makes his living traveling around northern Texas giving readings from newspapers.  On the frontier, people are starved for news, and he crafts the readings carefully, starting with hard news and ending up with exotic stories about foreign places they’ll never visit.

But his life has recently “seemed to him thin and sour, a bit spoiled,” and he is weary of people’s emotions.  And then Britt Johnson, a free black man, whose wife and children were captured by Indians and then rescued by him, asks a favor.  He offers Kidd $50 to escort a 10-year-old white captive girl, who was recovered by the U.S. Army after four years among the Kiowa,  back to her aunt and uncle in a small town near San Antonio.  The Captain is reluctant.  He knows these things don’t turn out well.  He says,

Maybe she should go back to the Indians….

Britt said, The Kiowa don’t want her.  They finally woke up to the fact that having a white captive girl gets you run down by the cav.  The agent said Bring all the captives in or he was cutting off their rations and sending the Twelfth and Ninth after them.  They brought her in and sold her for fifteen Hudson Bay four-stripe blankets and a set of silver dinnerware.  They’ll beat it up into bracelets.  It was Aperian Crow’s band brought her in.  Her mother cut her arms to pieces and you could hear her crying for a mile.

And so the Captain agrees to make the journey.  Joanna, whose Kiowa name is Cicada, is at first contemptuous of the old man. When she tries to escape and signals to  Kiowa across the river, they shoot at her, obviously unaware this white girl is one of their tribe.  The Captain saves Joanna, from this and other dangerous situations.   But, surprisingly,  Joanna saves the Captain just as often as he saves her.  When three men corner them and he runs out of ammunition, Joanna finds a substitute!

The dialogue is enchanting, conducted partly through signs, partly through the English he slowly teaches her.  She calls him Kontah, Indian for Grandfather.   And her study of English is charming and touching.  Cho-henna clepp hants.  (Joanna clap hands.)  Cho-henna laff-a.  (Joanna laugh.)  Soon she can count to 100.

Will they ever reach heir destination?

All I can tell you is the ending is unexpected.

Claire (Catriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan), the most endearing TV couple ever.

Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.   Is Outlander  the Game of Thrones for women?

You’ve probably read  Outlander, the first in Gabaldon’s series of time-travel historical novels, or at least seen the TV series.  I recently watched the first season on DVD and fell in love with the gorgeous scenery and the strong, intelligent heroine, Claire, and the hero, Jamie.   Aren’t  Claire (Catriona Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) the most endearing TV couple ever?

And then I turned to the entertaining, plot-heavy novel, Outlander, a kind of  Perils of Pauline for intelligent women.  The charming, beautiful Claire,  a nurse during World War II, is on vacation in Scotland with her husband, Frank Randall, a historian.  While gathering plants next to a ring of standing stones in Scotland, she is somehow transported to 18th-century Scotland, where she wakes up to see a man who looks exactly like Frank. Alas, he is not her husband, but his vicious ancestor, Black Jack Randall, a sadistic British officer. When Jamie, a young red-haired Scot with a price on his head, rescues Claire from Randall, it is  the beginning of a friendship that leads to a marriage of convenience. Claire proves herself as a healer, and makes friends among the Scots.  She and Jamie rescue one another from Black Jack Randall repeatedly.  Claire is tried as a witch!   And in one thrilling chapter, Claire actually wrestles and kills a wolf in her attempt to rescue Jamie from prison.

Claire and Jamie are in love, and they have frequent sex.   It’s charming the first time, then you get a little jaded.  But the actors’ angelically happy faces bear witness to the role of great sex in a happy marriage.

Well, it’s great fun.  I’m happy to have finally joined the Outlander fans.

Six Series to Lose Yourself in Over the Holidays: Balzac, Durrell, Ferrante, Burgess, Gabaldon, & Le Guin

"Marley's Ghost"

           “Marley’s Ghost”

I do not like Christmas books.

One year at a posh friend’s, we listened to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol on public radio. Luv ya, public radio, but the reader’s enunciation was excessive!  Everybody looked glazed and drank a lot of wine. I don’t drink.  And I have never cared for A Christmas Carol.

So what do I do to escape the holiday madness?  I dive into trilogies, quartets, quintets, long series…and come up for air next spring.

Here are Six Series You Can Lose Yourself in over the Holidays.

1 Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy), a series of approximately 90 novels, short stories, and novellas in which Balzac portrays French society during the 19th century period of Restoration and July Monarchy. The plots are racy and the characters memorable.   Several are available from Penguin and Modern Library, and  most are available free in nineteenth-century translations at Project Gutenberg.  Personally, I prefer the newer translations, but Lost Illusions  and Cousin Pons are good in any form.   And here is a link to an excellent Balzac blog.

Lost Illusions Modern Library2 Lawrence Durrell’s The Avignon Quintet.   This year I devoured Durrell’s modernist masterpiece,  The Alexandria Quartet, and Prospero’s Cell, a  travel memoir.  And now I’m reading his odd metafictional  Avignot Quintet, consisting of Monsieur, Livia, Constance, Sebastion, and Quinx.   This labyrinthine series questions the nature of reality and love, authors and their characters. Not until the end of the first novel,  Monsieur,  do we discover the characters are characters in a novel written by  the bitter character Blanford.  And then in the next books Blanford weaves together his stories with those of his  fictional characters.  He even has telephone conversations with Rob Sutcliffe, the novelist in his own novel.  Intriguing but weird.

durrell avignon quintet 51GoOSphbOL._AC_UL320_SR204,320_3 Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series: My Brilliant Friend,The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child.   These pop literary pageturners are about two difficult women who are friends from childhood to old ag,.  They are entertaining, beautifully-written, and  I swear  as popular as Gone with the Wind.   I have read the first two, and they are very good indeed, though, honestly?   The hype about them is too much.

ferrante neapolitan series quartet lctpnk325gzcumijtsdc4 Anthony Burgess’s The Complete EnderbyInside Mr. Enderby, Enderby Outside, The Clockwork Testament, and Enderby’s End.  The hero, Enderby,  is a Kingsley Amis-ish character who writes poetry while sitting on the toilet, farts a lot, and is shocked to receive a literary award.  Winning the award is his downfall, though he is up and down throughout the books.  Inside Enderby  is hilarious, but there are actually some startling serious bits that I didn’t remember.   An excellent reread of the first book, and hope to get to the others.

the complete enderby anthony burgess 51Y8C7CHQNL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_5 Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.  I hope to lose myself in this popular series of time travel romances someday, because friends love them and assure me that they are entertaining and erotic.  There is also an Outlander coloring book, DVDS of the Outlander TV series (which I’ve heard is good), and totebags.  Do you think Outlander is Game of Thrones for women?

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6 Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, The Other WindNow that I’ve read David Mitchell’s the introduction to the new Folio Society edition of A Wizard of Earthsea in The Guardian, I would like to go back and reread the series.  Plus there were only  four books when I read it:  it has grown!

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Off to read one of my series books!