Readers Exchange

Travel essentials: cheese, diamonds, someone to watch your back

At the Reference Desk, fear of disappointing our customers should we not possess (or can’t for some reason retrieve) the information they seek is ever present.  But last Friday a library patron was let down when I did know something.

Appreciating the wonderfully illustrated article received via email, the customer printed an extra copy for me.  One glance at the image of sun rays glinting off jeweled fragments strewn on the beach prompted me to exclaim, “Ooooh, sea glass!”  The existence of wave-worn discards beautified over the years was meant to be the revelation–but I’d read about it in Anita Shreve’s novel concerning a young married couple titled (you guessed it) Sea Glass.

That setting was on the East Coast, so I hastened to own my ignorance of Glass Beach in MacKerricher State Park, information which is valuable since (a) any fact in a librarian’s repertoire can be handily applied at some point and (b) next time I’m in California, I want to go there.

Set in the 1920s, Sea Glass is classified “historical fiction”, the genre to which I would devote 100% of my reading if book group, reviewing, and collection development responsibilities didn’t (beneficially) intervene.  Not only does historical background supply plots of the sort that “truth is stranger than”, period settings enable the reader to effortlessly assimilate flavor and relevance of times past.  This is a multitasking genre, enlightening as it entertains.

From Amy Brill’s The Movement of Stars, based on Maria Mitchell, America’s first professional female astronomer, I learned about the King of Denmark’s medal–Frederick VI’s prize to the claimant of the first discovery of a new telescopic comet.  Paul Robertson’s An Elegant Solution, inspired by a notable family of 18th-century mathematicians, considers the prestige of academic chairs within Basel’s university community–positions so esteemed as to instigate Machiavellian strategies to attain them.  In The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara depicts the insidious downward career spiral of a Nobel Prize winner whose character was loosely modeled after an actual Nobel Laureate.

Visiting Asheville, North Carolina, recently, I was startled into recalling another based-on-fact fictional gem (Lee Smith’s Guests on Earth) as the “historical trolley tour” driver’s practiced spiel referenced Highland Hospital, scene of Zelda Fitzgerald’s death in a fire.

My latest read (848 pages, one weekend) unabashedly overlays historical fiction with time travels and fantasy.  Eighth in Diana Gabaldon’s addictive Outlander series, Written in My Own Heart’s Blood (Gabaldon calls it MOBY) furthers the century-hopping saga of Claire and Jamie Fraser–devoted, great-looking, and endlessly adaptable–along with their expanding, marvelously diverse extended family.  I never tire of Claire’s resourcefulness in reconciling 20th-century knowledge with present circumstances (in the 1700s, she applies a Roquefort cheese mixture to her own serious wound, thereby administering penicillin).

Not usually fond of fantasy novels, I am captivated by Gabaldon’s (I’m oversimplifying) formula: circled standing stones + faceted gems = time travel–for predisposed individuals.  Watching my little Scottish terrier obsessively inspect the cluster of boulders adorning our backyard, I note her utilitarian ID collar: no sparkles, no rhinestones whatsoever–which is fortunate. The Frasers have enough worries already.

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