When I’m in Saskatoon, I reserve library books. As a result, they’re fairly predictable – books by authors I’ve read in the past, books that I’ve seen reviewed or looked at in the bookstore. When I’m away from home, it switches to potluck – whatever books are available in the house or library where I’m staying. And it can be really refreshing as I discover books I would never otherwise have read. Here are three that I would recommend.
Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, Natasha Solomons
Mr. and Mrs. Rosenblum flee Germany at the start of World War II to start a new life in London. Mr. Rosenblum is determined to become a proper Englishman. He wears Saville Row suits, drives a Jaguar, and listens to the BBC. But one aspect of becoming a true Englishman eludes him – no golf course will accept a Jew as a member. Undeterred, Mr. Rosenblum buys a large piece of land in the country and decides to build his own golf course. The local residents initially refuse to accept the idea but later come on board.
Mrs. Rosenblum, on the other hand, struggles to hold on to her memories of Germany, baking traditional German cakes. But she gradually falls in love with the countryside, spending hours creating a garden.
The characters and the plot are complex, unexpected, and totally delightful.
Jana Bibi’s Excellent Fortunes, Betsy Woodman
Janet Laird was born and lived all her life in India, but her grown-up son is determined that his mother, who is now a senior, should move to Scotland so that he can look after her. Instead, Janet Laird, known as Jana Bibi to the locals, moves to a house she inherited from her grandfather in a remote Indian hill station.
The book describes her encounters with a wide variety of colourful local residents – the corrupt chief of police whose son refuses/can’t talk, the bagpipe-playing Gurkha who keeps the wild monkeys at bay, and local philosopher merchants. Together Jana Bibi and the locals confront and successfully overthrow a government scheme that would have destroyed their community.
Campari for Breakfast, Sara Crowe
Sue Bowl’s mother dies, her father links up with another woman, and 17-year-old Sue flees to live with her aunt in a large English country house. Her goal is to write a book and fall in love, and she’s helped and hindered by the various tenants of the house – from the admirals who rent rooms to a tramp who takes up residence in a disused part of the house.
Sue loves big words but doesn’t always know what they mean or how they are spelt. And the book intentionally uses her unexpected and usually incorrect language. We follow the writing exercises of the Hirsute Egham writing group and successive instalments of Sue’s gothic romance. The house is infested with dry rot, but Sue is determined to save it, so they rent rooms, keeping one tenant happy by faking ghostly episodes and auctioning off the aunt’s shoe and purse collection to pay for urgent repairs.
There you have it – three books with quirky characters and decrepit old houses. It’s escapism of the very best kind and reminded me that it’s more than okay to be eccentric. In fact, it’s preferred.