Writing from Warm Places

by Barbara Woshinsky
Originally published in the March 2017 issue of the 1666 Coffman Newsletter

…books she had read to him [are] landscapes they have already walked through. (93) —Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

At this time of year, even the hardiest of Minnesotans may long for balmier climes. If you can’t take a Caribbean cruise and don’t own a second home in Madeira, the next best thing is to wrap yourself in a warm book. Here are some compelling suggestions from the 1666 library collection.

The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje, is a spellbinding story of love and betrayal that won its author the Booker Prize in 1992. A film based on the novel starring Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas earned nine Academy Awards. Though the novel begins in postwar Italy, its heart lies in Cairo and the Libyan desert. A plane crashes in the sand; a badly burned man, later known only as the English patient, floats down to earth and is rescued by Bedouin tribesmen. From the outset, the book’s language appeals to all the senses: “He could smell the oasis before he saw it. The liquid in the air. The rustle of things.” (6) “He saw the moving veins of flamingos cross his sight in the halfdarkness of the covered sun.” (9) As the story moves back and forward in time, we slowly learn the truth about the mysterious “English” patient and the others surrounding him.

If you are in the mood for lighter reading, you can travel several time zones to the east to make the acquaintance of Dr. Paboun Siri, the reluctant official coroner of Laos. The library has just acquired the first of Colin Cotterill’s engaging mystery series, The Coroner’s Lunch, which won the Crime Writers’ Association Dagger in 2009. Dr. Siri, a curmudgeonly old veteran of the Pathet Lao campaign, is afraid of no one—except the spirit of a Hmong shaman ancestor. Battling incompetent bureaucrats, Siri consults the dead to solve the murder of an important official’s wife. The novel combines evocative descriptions of Laotian culture, with its blend of French baguettes and larb na, beauty and decay, while taking satirical aim at the less-than-paradisiacal socialist world Siri fought so long to achieve.

Those of you who know we spend the winter in Miami may wonder at the absence of Floridian authors from this article. Of course, South Florida offers a fertile climate for crime writers such as Carl Hiaasen and Edna Buchanan. Others, like Diana Abu-Jaber, depart from the CSI model of Miami to show what it’s really like to live in this vibrant and fascinating place. That may be the topic of a future article!

Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1992; reprint, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996).

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