Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Book Report: Past and Present

This will be my “chicken with its head cut off” day of travel preparation. Actually, though, I’m mostly ready. This is more my day to clean my house so if I die in a plane crash, I won’t be embarrassed in the afterlife by people seeing it when they come to clean it out. Also, it’s nice after spending several days in pristine hotel conditions to come home to a reasonably clean house. I like not cringing upon opening the front door.

Otherwise, I have the laundry done, my wardrobe planned, I’m mostly packed, I have my presentations ready, I’ve made sure all the relevant accounts are logged in on my travel devices, and my lists for everything else I need to do and pack are made. The goal is to have all the heavy lifting done by mid-afternoon so I can rest and relax this evening, and in the morning I can get up, eat breakfast, get dressed, throw the last-minute things into the bag, and head for the bus stop.

I’m hoping to do a lot of reading on this trip, with a backlog of books on my Kindle app. I’m annoyingly between books now because I just finished a big one and I don’t want to start a new one that I won’t be taking with me (between all the stuff on the tablet and the giant bag-o-books I’ll be getting at the conference, there’s no reason to bring a paper book with me). This might be a good time to read short stories.

The big book I just finished was The Shadow Land, the latest by Elizabeth Kostova. Like her earlier books, there’s a present storyline and a past storyline. In the present, a young American coming to Bulgaria to teach English helps a family get into a cab outside a hotel, only to discover once she’s in her own cab that one of their bags got mixed up with hers, and that bag contains a crematory urn. With the help of her cab driver, she sets out to track down and find this family so she can return it. This quest turns out to be more complicated than she expected, and it reveals some secrets that go back to the early days of Bulgaria’s Soviet occupation — secrets that someone is willing to kill to keep hidden. Meanwhile, we get the parallel story of what happened during that time.

I’m a total sucker for flashbacks woven into a story, with activities in the present uncovering events in the past, and this is a particularly interesting and painful chapter of history. The characters come to vivid life, and the descriptions of the places they visit make me want to visit Bulgaria. However, I don’t think this one lives up to the promise of her first book, The Historian, but that may just be because I keep expecting that book’s magical realism/fantasy elements. There’s one little possible bit of “woo-woo,” but otherwise it’s a straightforward novel. It might be different if you come to this book without that expectation or if you were someone who didn’t read The Historian as fantasy.

One of the story ideas I’m hoping to play with this summer is a past/present book, and I imagine it’s a lot harder to pull off than it would seem from reading it.

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