Somewhere in my many-chambered past I learned the words to "Song of Peace," aka the hymn version of "Finlandia" by Jean Sibelius, the opening line of which is, "This is my song, O God of all the nations. A song of peace for lands afar and mine."
Recent reading has carried me to those lands, across oceans or down highways I've followed since childhood. We all know the phrase, "armchair traveler," yet a perfectly told story does transport us. There is no season unsuited to reading - finding cool stillness on a summer afternoon or the cocooning of a rain-drenched winter night. Fond as I am of the occasional nap, weary as I may be at the end of the day, I fight to stay awake to see what happens next.
My recent fictional adventures began with "The Ginger Tree" by Oswald Wynd which was also adapted as a Mobile Masterpiece Theatre presentation. It is a favorite of a friend who volunteers in her local library and finds treats for me in the gift shop where they sell donated volumes. It is written as journal entries of a (as our story opens) young Scotswoman sailing to China in 1903 to meet her betrothed. Not all the seas she encounters are calm.
The names of faraway places conjure notions of lives whose distance from anything I know first-hand would have to be measured in more than miles. Mary MacKenzie made her way in Far Eastern cultures, both in China and Japan, for more than 40 years and in telling her story, Wynd carried me beyond any sense of fiction. I won't spoil plot points but will just say that, first, the character's reference to Lafcadio Hearn's books on Japan gave me an avenue to follow to learn more about Japanese customs and traditions, and second, that this heroine reminded me of another young woman whose travails had me devoted to Masterpiece Theatre. It is perhaps my favorite of their series, "A Town Like Alice," and I only knew the work from television, had never read Nevil Shute's novel, published in 1950.
What I remembered of the program was impossible hardships endured by a young Englishwoman working in Maylaya when the country was invaded by the Japanese army early in World War II. I am not quite 3/4 finished reading the story and can't recall clearly all that transpires (a very good thing, so the tale is familiar and, at the same time, new) but it shares much common ground with "The Ginger Tree" in Asian settings, women who transcend loss and deprivation, glimpses into alternate ways of life - choices made by intention and circumstance - and characters who are real and still larger-than-life for their courage and clarity. Jean Paget's wartime ordeals are only part of her tale, only one of the situations in which her wisdom and kindness are revealed. As her odyssey takes her to the Australian Outback, she continues to enrich the lives of those she encounters. To use a word I've heard a lot lately, she is wonderfully authentic, knows herself and her mind and is a friend I will miss when I reach the last page.
Leaving the lands afar brings me to "Round Rock," the first novel by Michelle Huneven, which is set in a Southern California agricultural valley and is populated by recovering alcoholics. That is a feeble oversimplification of a novel with enormous warmth, vivid and enviable descriptive writing and characters that you wish would go on and on in sequels. As we are both from nearly the same town and both still live close to where we were born, I wanted to read how Ms. Huneven interpreted familiar places. As I have mentioned before, I like to read about Los Angeles - just as I like to read about places that aren't Los Angeles - and love details such as the dry hills resembling lions (they made me think of the scratchy upholstery in my grandfather's car). In a thumbnail biography, it states that she studied at the Iowa Writers' Workshop which generally indicates someone with, you might say, above average skills. Her work was suggested by another native who knew I would find her writing instructive and appealing. She has three novels in print - going by Amazon.com and other on-line sources - and I look forward to the other two and hope for many more.
Reading makes me wish for the maps we had in elementary school in which we'd place a pin for the location of every story we completed during the summer. There is nothing to keep me from reaching for the atlas and reviving the tradition, nothing except the fact that I can become as lost in an atlas as any work of fiction, following borders and rivers and trying to remember what some of the countries used to be called. February, over too soon, was a very good month for books, but then I can't remember a bad one. The bedside stack awaits.