Renzetti, Elizabeth. Based on a True Story. Toronto: Anansi, 2014.
Rowling, J. K. All the Harry Potter books. London: Bloomsbury. Vancouver: Raincoast. Various dates.
I have recently endured some not very entertaining periodontal surgery: nothing life-threatening, but for a while afterwards somewhat life-reducing, certainly enervating. Books, of course, offer a certain kind of solace. But what to read when the brain is not exactly at its peak? It was possibly easier in childhood. Despite the indignities of hepatitis A, I have strangely happy memories of that time because every day after my boring tea of dry toast—no butter or fats allowed—my mother read to me, introducing me to Ratty, Mole, and Badger as illustrated by Wyndham Payne. A lifetime on and required to be self-sufficient, what did I read? The temptation, for me now, when under the weather, is always to return to something familiar: familiar either because it is something already read or because it is by a known and previously enjoyed author. In this case, I reread all of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. I also read Alan Bradley’s latest As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust and Elizabeth Renzetti’s Based on a True Story. A somewhat eclectic selection, no doubt.
I’ll begin with the last. I enjoy Elizabeth Renzetti’s columns in The Globe and Mail. I don’t always agree with her, but I enjoy her forthright style. Based on a True Story follows the travails and travels of Augusta Price, mother of a son to whom she’s not spoken in seven years and disgraced, alcoholic star of an English soap opera who discovers her former lover has written a book. Desperate to ensure that what he reveals about her does not conflict with what she has written about herself, she sets off from London to Los Angeles to confront him, accompanied by ex-patriot Californian Frances Bleeker who has just lost her London job as a tabloid journalist.
The novel is a lively story of deception and discovery, manipulation, love and forgiveness, truth and lies. Renzetti deftly weaves the stories of Augusta and Frances together and reaches a not unsatisfactory conclusion. She knows what she is doing.
Alan Bradley’s latest episode in the corpse strewn life of Flavia de Luce I found a little disappointing. Flavia is her enquiring, precocious self, but I was disappointed that this book set in Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Toronto did not actually make more use of the Toronto setting than it does. I also found my ability willingly to suspend my disbelief stretched more by this novel than by its predecessors. Nevertheless, Bradley successfully takes us on another light-hearted romp through murder and mayhem in the fifties.
Both novels successfully distracted me from physical discomforts and made me laugh as much as it is possible to laugh with a mouth full of stitches. I’m not sure, however, whether I will return to either of them. I know I’ll return to the boy wizard just as I return to Mole and Ratty. Even though the plot lines may be relatively simple, even though both writers demand that we somehow accept cricket playing bachelor Badger and car wrecking Toad, or the possibility that our next door neighbour may actually be a witch or wizard, Graham’s and Rowling’s books ultimately offer more than just escape into fantasy. Just as do the best of the traditional fairy tales, both Rowling and Graham celebrate how it is through the lens of imagination that we learn how to choose a moral life. It is through escape from and return to our everyday lives that we learn to make sense of them. And it is at this point, I realise, that in the back of my mind as I’ve been writing this post are Tolkien’s ideas about “recovery” (J. R. R. Tolkien. “On Fairy-Stories.” 1938. 1947. Rpt. The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantyne, 1966. 3-84). For Tolkien, “recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view” being able to see “things as we are (or were) meant to see them”(57). One of the positive aspects of convalescence, which can be a rather dreary time, is that it does afford us a period of enforced lack of busy-ness, a time when we can not only allow ourselves a little mental relaxation but also take time for recalibration, and re-discovery of what grounds us.
So what to read when convalescing? I would suggest we aim for books that indeed let us escape for a while, that entertain us for a while, but that we also consider those books that make the return from that escape more fruitful.