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Prodigal Pages Celebrate Many Awkward Returns

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Prodigal Pages Celebrate Many Awkward Returns

Prodigal Pages Celebrate Many Awkward Returns

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And Im Melissa Block.

Now, our series Three Books. Coming home is a common and ancient theme in literature. Think back to Odysseus. And it is our theme today. Our occasional commentator Emily Wylie recommends three books in which the return home is not an easy journey.

EMILY WYLIE: Homecoming is one of those funny, smash-up sounding words. English is full of them - weird Saxon two-parters people made up because they needed to describe something ineffable but important to the human experience. And this is an old human experience. The Greeks had a tidier word for homecoming: nostos. Its where we get nostalgia. Of course, for many, coming home isnt nostalgic. Its more like combat than like sinking into a warm bath. Whatever the experience, homecoming is always loaded with emotion, and authors cant get enough of talking about prodigal sons and daughters returning to the fold. Here are some of my favorite homecoming stories.

Barbara Kingsolvers Animal Dreams is a classic of the genre, with a reluctant heroine returning to her hometown to care for a father she'd never felt close to. Her return there is part rescue, part retreat. Intrusions on her solitude come from all sides: a posse of salty abuelitas in housedresses who seem to know a lot about Codi. A local heartthrob Navajo train driver who doesnt seem to give up, and the teenagers Codi starts teaching in the local high school that Kingsolver actually gets quite right. With this company, Animal Dreams makes uncomfortable homecoming quite a pleasure.

Eudora Welty is a writer who once trained as a photographer, and her portrait of a womans homecoming in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Optimist's Daughter gets right to the hidden selves good photographs reveal.

Laurel, widowed some time ago, comes to nurse her father, who seems to be dying after a simple cataract surgery. When he succumbs, astonishingly to her, Laurel must negotiate the memories that crowd around her in her childhood home, and the awful second wife who's intruded into that home with bad taste and small understanding. Past and present collide there and eventually knock Laurel into a new understanding of how to go on. The optimists daughter starts to figure out how to look for her light in the future, not in the past.

If Weltys work is photographic, Michael Ondaatjes is musical. Its easy to get a little drunk on his words, but a memoir he wrote called Running in the Family - which is, in part, about his perpetually drunken ancestors - laid me to giddy waste when I read it. In this case, homecoming means going to Sri Lanka in order to revisit the scene of a childhood hed ignored and not understood.

In transcribed raucous family dinner conversations and in dialogues and poems, as well as travel reporting, Ondaatjes strokes open the pages of his familys history. His willingness to celebrate the odd and uncomfortable gives us all a lesson in how to approach coming home, no matter how weird those crazy people who greet us there are.

These three books can help even the most reluctant prodigals sink into their familys too-tight embrace.

BLOCK: Emily Wylie is a public school teacher in East Harlem. She recommended Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver, The Optimists Daughter by Eudora Welty, and Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje.

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