Monthly Archives: October 2006

Domino, by Maura Hanrahan


You might want to refer to my recent review of Jonathan Harr’s The Lost Painting for a refresher on my relationship with non-fiction. While I always prefer a novel, I am getting better at reading non-fiction that is both informative and engaging. Domino definitely falls into this category, as Maura Hanrahan does her usual deft job of bringing Newfoundland history to life.

The scene this time is the Labrador summer fishery in the year 1885, when deadly storms crippled much of the Newfoundland fishing fleet and resulted in the loss of many lives. Hanrahan does a beautiful job of recreating this place and time, including many vivid characters. We meet Labrador “liveyers” and Newfoundland fishermen and their families, as well as the merchants and shipping captains who profited from the fishery.

Unlike many non-fiction writers, Maura Hanrahan understands that people like to read about people, so she focuses her story around a few vividly realized characters through whose eyes we experience the tragedies of 1885. Domino kept me turning pages and, as with The Lost Painting, I was left with the feeling that I had been both entertained and educated: taken into a world I didn’t know much about and made to feel at home there.

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High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby

Man, I love Nick Hornby. I have this little problem I’ve mentioned before about novels written by men. I don’t try to be sexist in my reading, but when it comes to contemporary and historical fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, all nonfiction excepted — there are some great male writers in those areas) I find it hard to get into books by guys, as a sweeping general rule.

Nick Hornby is the glowing exception. He writes so well, he ought to be a woman — but he doesn’t write at all like a woman. Or rather, he does. He writes about being a man, the way so many (most?) women writers write about being women. I find Hornby’s characters, and his novels, funny, sad, real and insightful.

Amazing then, that the one Hornby novel I hadn’t read was his first bestseller, High Fidelity. I’d seen the movie with John Cusack years ago (I won’t sidetrack here into how much I love John Cusack, but you should know I’m tempted to digress!) I have finally remedied this shortcoming and am here to report on the results.

If you, like me until recently, are one of the few people who haven’t read High Fidelity, it’s a completely believable (to me, anyway) journey into the mind of a thirty-something man who suffers from the classic “inability to commit” in relationships. The main character, Rob, isn’t happy about anything in his life, and his discontent with himself leads him to do some pretty unpleasant things in his love life. (Not horribly unpleasant. Just jerk-like). It’s hard to feel anything but contempt for Rob, yet by the end you do feel some kind of sympathy, too — and a bit of hope.

Great book — lots of laughs, lots to think about. Now I think I’ve read all Nick Hornby’s novels and I need a new one. Get busy there Nick!

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The Lost Painting, by Jonathan Harr

I was confused about this book. Everything from the cover blurbs to the introduction made me assume this was a novel — one of those “Adventures in Research” stories I like so much, but about art instead of literature. Then I got a couple of chapters in and realized … this was non-fiction.

Those who know my reading habits well know that I’m primarily a fiction reader. When I pick up non-fiction, it’s often a memoir, so there’s still a strong narrative line to carry me through. A book like The Lost Painting reminds me of all the reasons why reading nonfiction can be great.

The book tells about the art historians involved in the quest for a lost Caravaggio painting called The Taking of Christ. Harr’s descriptions and characterizations are so vivid that the story is as engrossing as a novel, while delivering a huge amount of information about art history and the process of restoring old paintings. He takes a subject about which I knew nothing and educates while entertaining. The Lost Painting was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I highly recommend it, even to those, like me, who know little about art.

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