Kidnapped (movie tie-in) (Penguin Classics)

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A Year in Reading: Kathryn Davis

I was going to write about Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, Robert Louis Stevenson’s account of his journey on foot through the very real Cévennes Mountains of France; instead I found myself in a dark and fabulous Danish forest. Stevenson is one of the writers I thought I’d left behind forever, choosing to overlook the fact that as a girl I’d been madly in love with Alan Breck, hero of Kidnapped. But because the route Stevenson traveled crisscrosses Le Chemin — the French part of the road to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle that I walked on last summer with my friends Steve and Sabrina — they sent me a copy of Travels with a Donkey for my birthday (which also used to be the same as Stevenson’s until he “gave it away” to a little girl whose birthday, to her chagrin, fell on February 29.)

Too circuitous, you say?  But that’s my point.

Stevenson’s book is a pure pleasure to read — a surprise to me though I shouldn’t have been surprised — the light touch of his prose, so vivid, conjuring my own very recent memories of the landscape.  It was only while rereading the book, though, coming upon his description of the landscape of the Velay, that I knew where I’d been headed all along. 

Although there were still a few strands of gold far off to the east on the hills and the black fir-woods, all was cold and gray about our onward path.  An infinity of little country by-roads led hither and thither among the fields.  It was the most pointless labyrinth.  I could see my destination overhead, or rather the peak that dominates it; but choose as I pleased, the roads always ended by turning away from it, and sneaking back towards the valley, or northward along the margin of the hills…

“The roads always ended by turning away from it” — a perfect description of the Alice in Wonderland-like experience of hiking a trail when you don’t know where it’s going to take you.  We’d even been warned that a man or woman would appear as we were about to begin our ascent of a punishingly steep hill, and, in the guise of suggesting a shortcut, give us misdirections — this was part of the culture of Le Chemin, simultaneously perverse and mystical, two qualities I associate with another writer, one whose work I know I’d never dream of leaving behind forever.

When you first enter “The Monkey,” that most delectable of Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, you are given information that appears as reliable as what you’d expect to find on a trail map.  “In a few of the Lutheran countries of northern Europe there are still in existence places which make use of the name convent, and are governed by a prioress or chanoiness, although they are of no religious nature.”  So, perversely, begins a tale that immediately sprouts “an infinity of by-roads:” the disappearance of the prioress’s monkey into the forests surrounding the convent; the almost simultaneous appearance in her salon of her handsome young nephew; the prioress’s plan to marry him to the neighbor’s strapping daughter, Athena Hopballehus, in order to save him from his “Greek” tendencies; the inescapable presence of the forest, its trees with “their roots deep in the earth, their crowns moving in the dark;” the nephew’s memory of a lighted candle in a looking glass on Walpurgis Night revealing the naked bodies of two comely maidens; the Prioress’s “gentle melancholy” as she nibbles the cloves in her pudding that have come — like her monkey — all the way from Zanzibar.

So Isak Dinesen sends you on your way to wherever you are going to end up, though who knows where that might be.  Better yet, once you finally arrive where you’ve been headed all along, you can’t exactly say how you got there.  And when (not if, for there is never any if about the desire to re-enter one of Dinesen’s shrewd and soulful tales) you decide to follow the path one more time, you will find that you are tracking an entirely new course through the story, as if it contains, indeed, so many possible roads through it they are truly beyond measure.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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A Year in Reading: Janice Clark

I’m a sucker for a reading list, so much so that for many years I had an obsessive relationship with a “100 books” list copied from an old edition of Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan. The list, which moved with me from city to city and wall to wall, included nothing post-1978, few women, and only grudgingly departed Britain and the U.S. to tap the odd German and a Russian or two. I ignored the list’s omissions and biases, seduced by the pregnant roundness of “100” and the treasure-map appeal of the list itself, its typing fading, its edges growing ragged as it travelled. I was convinced that if I read those books the fundamental secrets of the world would be laid bare in an alchemical flash and I would be transfigured, but only if I adhered to the magical-thinking rules I had set for myself: I must read from the beginning, chronologically, and read nothing else in between. With each fresh attempt, I would pace happily through the Greeks, stall somewhere in the Middle Ages, skip with guilty pleasure to Melville or Tolstoy, then give up altogether, relieved, to read something new. I never could throw out the list, though. Every few years it surfaces in an odd place, sifting to the top of a drawer or edging out from under a drawing tacked to a wall, and I’m tempted to start again.

My reading list this year was short. When I’m drafting something new and I’m deep into the process, I read less and more warily, hoping to modulate that unwitting, sponge-like process whereby one’s prose becomes infused with whatever one is reading. This year, because I’m working on a sort of children’s book for adults, I revisited childhood favorites including The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.

The novels I most love grant me access to immersive fictional worlds, long, atmospheric, and unafraid of artifice. This year I enjoyed the unabashedly Dickensian flavor of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, packed with coincidence and and melodrama, riding a line between Victorian conceits — an orphan, a ring, a mysterious painting — and contemporary realities. Tartt’s prose has the unfakeable depth and luster of long gestation, reward for the decade-long waits between her books.

Though I’m only halfway through Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, it’s already my other favorite of 2013, for its ingenious structure, blithe disregard for the primacy of character in fiction, and heedless invention.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

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