Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Fiction That Reads Like Nonfiction, and Vice-Versa

This week I got through several books that seemed to be one thing but were in fact another.  Every so often I'm fortunate enough to find a nonfiction book that is so well-written and interesting that it reads like fiction.  Chasing Aphrodite is one such book.  This book focuses on the Getty Museum's acquisitions of art and antiquities looted and sold by back-door methods all over Europe, and it reads like a thriller.  Forgery, vendettas, packing ancient statues in car trunks in the dead of night -- this book has it all.

On the other hand, I also came across a couple of novels that, sadly, read like nonfiction.  That's not to say that they were boring -- on the contrary, they were both interesting.  But when one is expecting a novel, it's disconcerting to read through what is essentially a memoir/history with a few made-up characters.

Farishta, by Patricia McArdle, is the story of Angela Morgan, a diplomat who finds herself in Afghanistan.  The plot is pretty bare bones; most of the story paints a compelling picture of a service life in a war zone and the particulars of life in Afghanistan.  By the time one is done reading, what happens to Angela seems parenthetical and the reader is left with a sense of wonder at the mysterious country that is the graveyard of empires.

The Girl in the Blue Beret is a complete waste of time as a novel -- it's the story of a retired pilot who returns to France to retrace his steps in World War II.  A downed aviator, he was aided by the French Resistance all the way over the Pyrenees to Spain, and he is returning to find the brave men and women who saved him and his crew.  Most of the book consists of narratives from each resistant as he meets them along his journey.  While these narratives are fascinating, the book's plot is barely necessary and is almost nonexistent.  It's worth reading simply to get an idea of the courage and determination of those French who would not stand by and tolerate the German Occupation.

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