By the Book: Their ‘nonsense’ is well worth reading

We are fortunate in having two female writers, Margaret Atwood and Barbara Kingsolver, who, with great regularity, turn out complex and beautifully written books.

Atwood has written more than 70 books. I have read several, and while there’s always excitement about starting another, there’s also trepidation. I’m leery about missing something, something subtle that goes right over my head, or even something basic that eludes me. She’s forever laying groundwork for a plot twist or a character flaw, some thread that I’m supposed to catch. She demands concentration as I cruise along admiring the wonderful flow of language.

The effort is worth it, though, when a passage like this appears, from ‘Moral Disorder,’ about a mid-20s girl questioning her life: “But what if I missed a turn somewhere — missed my own future? … I’d make one hesitation or one departure too many and then I’d have run out of choices; I’d be standing all alone, like the cheese in the children’s song about the farmer taking a wife. Hi-ho the derry-o, the cheese stands alone, they used to sing about this cheese, and everyone would … make fun of it.” Simple and poignant, the paralyzing self-doubt is vivid.

My wife and I were vacationing. I had brought a too-quickly finished murder book, she a paperback of Atwood’s ‘Cat’s Eye.’ Halfway through Wednesday my book ended. Now what? My wife promptly ripped off the first 100 pages of her book, handed them to me and continued reading. When I’d finished those she ripped off more. And so it went. We enjoyed the book so much we rubber-banded the pieces together and mailed it to her sister in Georgia.

In 1998 Kingsolver’s ‘The Poisonwood Bible’ made my 10 Best List. In this story of a fanatical American missionary, who hauls his wife and three daughters off to Africa, the author creates three entirely different young women and follows them through situations good, bad and worse, their strong personalities in play and often clashing. The story line is excellent, but the daughters’ intensity really carries the tale. I totally believed that I knew them, understood their points of view. I became involved with them, worrying, smiling, cringing, as though they were real people. I’ll never understand how authors pull this off, but here’s Ursula Le Guin on the subject: “In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it.”

These two authors create wonderful nonsense.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected].