BY ESTHER J. CEPEDA, Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO -- A great story can transport you to places you’ve never been and leave you feeling as though you had lived, breathed and enjoyed their delights.
The novelist Ann Patchett -- who this year took me into the magic clubs of Los Angeles, a home for unwed mothers in rural Kentucky and a hostage standoff at the palace of a South American vice president -- put it best:
“Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings.”
Equally important is literature that binds us together not by placing us in others’ shoes but by bathing us in familiar emotions in our roles as children, parents and lovers. What could be more universal than our petty jealousies, worst fears and deepest belly laughs?
That’s why every gift-giving season, I celebrate books in a category I’ve dubbed “Great Books That Are Diverse But Not About Diversity.”
This year I’ve already given some love to a book about the will to succeed against all odds -- “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina” by Misty Copeland, which was about the challenges of a black dance star. And I’ve gushed about “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which is really about the insanity of a family whose generations watched the world evolve at breathtaking speed even though it’s usually pitched as an example of Latin American magical realism.
But here are three more titles that go beyond giving us a glimpse into a culture -- they challenge us to consider what we share as human beings.
First, “At Night We Walk in Circles” by Daniel Alarcon. This book, set somewhere near the equator in the mid-1980s, is basically indescribable -- in the best possible way.
It’s not about journalism, young love, jail time, politics or falling down the kinds of rabbit holes that young people find themselves in at crucial turning points in their early adult years, either. But it touches on all of those in such beautiful and heartbreaking prose that you’re sorry to find yourself in the final pages of its entrancing account.
Next, I recommend “Please Look After Mom” by Kyung-sook Shin, a book that made me feel so full of shame and sadness for not honoring my own mother more that I became misty-eyed.
Set in South Korea, the story recounts the loutish family of Park So-nyo, a mom and wife who gets lost in the churn of a crowded train station in Seoul and proceeds to loom far larger over her clan in absence than she ever did in her presence.
Isn’t that always the way? Mom has to practically fall off the face of the earth to get her due from the ones who are supposed to cherish her the most. Even a “Son or Daughter of the Year” will feel like a heel who doesn’t call home enough after reading this fascinating look across several generations of an evolving Korea.
Last is a book I particularly liked because though it was written by Hispanic named Daniel Suarez, it has nothing to do with Hispanic culture.
Suarez writes straight-up science fiction. I mean hard-core, super-geek, legit sci-fi rooted in the author’s information technology consultant bona fides. If your imagination is not aroused by the term “Federal Bureau of Technology Control,” don’t even bother.
“Influx,” Suarez’s fourth techno-thriller novel, is, according to The Wall Street Journal, the kind of literature that senior people in the military, members of the intelligence community, and White House cybersecurity wonks read for fun -- and then use to consider “appropriate dialogue about relevant issues.”
Tracking the escape story of a scientist who has engineered a miraculous “gravity mirror” only to see the shadowy Bureau of Technology Control appropriate it for misdeeds, Suarez gives his readers both chilling techno-torture scenes and empathy for a beautiful, not-quite-human female.
Ultimately, Suarez uses chiral superconductors, microscopic quantum processors and positron guns to help us come to terms with our fears about what truly separates us mortals from the all-knowingness of our machines.
Hint: It isn’t nationality, race, gender, religion or culture. It’s so much more.
Esther J. Cepeda is a Nationally Syndicated Columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group and President of The EJC Agency: creative content & marketing/communications http://www.eejayceeinc.com