A couple of days ago I reviewed one of Maggie Kast's novels (A Free Unsullied Land). Now this wonderful author has written a guest post about reading outside her comfort zone. I know a bit about that myself! But truthfully many of those books have turned out to be marvelous. You really should try reading outside your comfort zone once in a while--you may be pleasantly surprised! And now for the guest post. Please note I tried to get all the book covers in the correct places--I may have messed up a little!!!
Reading Outside My Comfort Zone
My favorite books are novels, especially the kind called “literary,” and stories are mainly what I write. In order to do that, I have to read a lot of non-fiction: history for fiction set in the past, biology for plants and animals of a distant place; music for the sounds of other lands and cookbooks for their foods. All these kinds of writing are within my comfort zone, while science fiction, thrillers and horror stories have always been outside.
So what happens when a book without a genre comes to me as gift? Its marvelously reflexive title tempts: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. The first few pages draw me deeply into the pain of a couple saying good-bye, as Peter prepares to leave for a distant mission, eyes on the goal, while Beatrice, his wife, asks to make love one last time, even as they drive to the airport. I experience their emotions before I even begin to learn the story’s skeleton: the man is a Christian pastor recruited
by an organization called USIC (never further identified). They will deploy Peter to a distant planet where he will minister to Christian natives in need of spiritual sustenance.
Space travel? Aliens? I wonder what I am reading but refuse the urge to see how others have classified it, wanting to let the book work its unique magic. In Faber’s imagined universe USIC and its colony are rather cold, but the planet’s warm air swirls,
flows and tickles, with a “churn and hiss like ocean waves,” and the natives, while distinctly strange, are gentle and loving. A hooded face looks disturbingly like “a massive whitish-pink walnut kernel.” or “a placenta with two fetuses. . .nestled head to head, knee to knee.” The Book of Strange New Things is their name for the Bible. For readers to whom the Bible is familiar, what a gift to find it strange and new!
Peter’s life unfolds as he explores his new mission, struggling to maintain communication with Beatrice, while life on earth collapses in a series of floods, droughts, and wars. This cannot end well, I think, but the beautiful rendering of both realms and the pain of the couple’s dwindling connection keep me turning pages.
Several versions of the book cover are riffs on the story. Two hands drift apart against a night sky, one reaching down from the top, the other up from the bottom, in what seems like a vertical transposition of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, separation
Another cover images the swirling, wet air.
Recently I did check out reviews and an interview, and learned that Faber’s wife of many years grew sick and died while he was writing this book. In a conversation reported in The Independent, Faber says, “When your partner is dying of a disease that
you don’t have and you know that you are going to outlive her, they are on a different planet. . .The book ended up embodying that, even though it wasn’t planned.” This connection to reality only makes the book more poignant to me, for I have felt that
separation from parents, husband, and children, as described in my memoir, The Crack between the Worlds: a dancer’s memoir of loss, faith and family.
Reading outside my comfort zone took me to another planet and a new level of artistry. What about you? What old or new, dull and disappointing or wonderfully strange places have you found by reading outside your comfort zone?
Maggie Kast is the author of The Crack between the Worlds: a dancer's memoir of loss, faith and family, published by Wipf and Stock. She received an M.F.A. in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and has published fiction in The Sun, Nimrod, Carve, Paper Street and others.
A chapter of her memoir, published in ACM/Another Chicago Magazine, won a Literary Award from the Illinois Arts Council and a Pushcart nomination. A story published in Rosebud and judged by Ursula Leguin won an Honorable
Mention in their fantasy fiction contest.
Kast’s essays have appeared in America, Image, Writer's Chronicle and elsewhere. Her first novel, A Free, Unsullied Land, is forthcoming from Fomite Press in November 2015. An excerpted story, “The Hate that Chills,” won 3rd prize in the Hackney Literary Contests and is forthcoming in the Birmingham Arts Journal.
Website URL: maggiekast.com
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