This is the first in what I intend to be a serial post detailing my list of what I spent forever trying to decide whether to call My Favorite Reads, or My Best Reads, or just what. I have settled on My Most Vivid Reads.
These are the books I think of when I think of books. The books I think of most often when just going about my daily life. The books the mention of which prompt me to speak in all-caps & exclamation points (“YOU HAVEN’T READ _________?! OH IT’S SO GOOD!”) Those books that live with me long after the last page is turned. (Discussed in no particular order.)
A note about what this list won’t be: it won’t be a list of books you should read. This list won’t include Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, or Raymond Carver’s short stories, to name just two others I think are great and that you definitely should read. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter I just didn’t love-love-love reading the way I do, say, My Ántonia. (Personal preference, since the difference isn’t in the quality of writing.) And Raymond Carver I just don’t go back to re-read with nearly the same enjoyment as I do, say, Flannery O’Connor.
I hope this list will make you blame me, the way friends do when you turn them on to a great book and they get so engrossed they spend all their time reading it instead of doing whatever else it is they’re supposed to be doing. So satisfying, that kind of blame!
MY MOST VIVID READS – post #1
Two books which together are a brilliant portrait of a middle-aged, Midwest, upper-middle-class white couple and their children around WWII, with all their conventions and what those conventions conceal, with all their pitiable, blunted human doings and motivations, with all their unsaid dreams and unacknowledged stasis elegantly painted in half- to two-page vignettes. The short scenes about Mr. Bridge’s thoughts on Roosevelt, or the time their son soiled the guest hand towels, or one of the daughters’ racy school nicknames, or when Mrs. Bridge decided to, and then never quite did, learn Spanish from a phonograph record, are deftly and beautifully (and enviably well-) written.
Many of the chapters move in the way that sonnets move, if you take the limitations of propriety as meter and line-length, and realization (sometimes more the reader’s than Mr. or Mrs. Bridge’s) as the sonnet’s turn. The sort of realization, mind, that is like a nail in the coffin rather than a setting free.
Take the chapter titled “Leda” in Mrs. Bridge, which begins, “During one of the luncheons she got to talking with Grace Barron about art, the result being that the two of them left the clubhouse and drove to the William Rockhill Nelson art gallery and stayed there till it closed. Mrs. Bridge felt excited and guilty about the way they had gone off by themselves, but it was how Grace did everything.” Inspired by the artist’s names, “at once so familiar and so meaningless to Mrs. Bridge,” she decides to enroll in a painting class for adults. “She attended regularly for almost a month, skipped one night, got to several more, skipped three, attended spasmodically for another month, and finally dropped out altogether. But when she did paint she painted with a certain gusto and feeling, and with not a bad eye.” After more about the class and the instructor, the chapter ends on a moment in one of the classes when the instructor suggests a subject from mythology, painted from the imagination. Mrs. Bridge proceeds to
paint a small, zinc-white swan and a Leda standing stiffly erect, with hands behind her back and ankle-deep in water because hands and feet always gave her trouble, and she clothed Leda in a flowered dressmaker bathing suit not unlike her own.
Mr. Gadbury, making his rounds, stood for a while looking over her shoulder at this Leda and at last said he thought the lake was too blue.
Start with Mrs. Bridge, it was written first (1959).
p.s. I know for sure I first read chapters of Mrs. Bridge in a fiction workshop handout. What I can’t remember is whether it was Joe Puggelli’s creative writing class in high school or Dan Chaon’s fiction workshop at Oberlin. But they were both wonderful teachers who told me to read all kinds of great stuff, so I’ll just give them both credit.
p.p.s. Don’t see the movie; Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward are brilliant, of course, but they changed the ending, which ruins it entirely as far as I’m concerned.
The Things They Carried — Tim O’Brien
It’s a total cliche for anyone who’s hung around a Creative Writing program to rave about this book. But there’s also a reason everyone does. Like all great writing, it’s not about what it’s about, but it’s about a group of soldiers during the Vietnam War. These really are some of the absolute best short stories (or a novel made up of short stories, take your pick) you’ll ever read. It’s stunningly well-written, which you might be able to focus on the second time through, once you’ve gotten over the initial immersive and almost-exhaustingly great experience of reading it. The people in this book feel so very, very human. Since these humans are trying to survive a war it can also therefore be, of course, brutal, but it’s also about what happens in between the worst moments. “The bad stuff never stops happening: it lives in its own dimension, replaying itself over and over” the narrator says in one story, “But the war wasn’t all that way.”
Some of the stories tell a single narrative, set during the war or after. Some are portraits of individuals. Here’s one paragraph from “Spin,” a story told in fragments, vignettes.
I remember Mitchell Sanders sitting quietly in the shade of an old banyan tree. He was using a thumbnail to pry off the body lice, working slowly, carefully depositing the lice in a blue USO envelope. His eyes were tired. It had been a long two weeks in the bush. After an hour or so he sealed up the envelope, wrote FREE in the upper right-hand corner, and addressed it to his draft board in Ohio.
On occasions the war was like a Ping-Pong ball. You could put fancy spin on it, you could make it dance.
Doomsday Book is one of the most three-dimensional set-in-the-past novels I’ve ever read, followed closely by Blackout and All Clear. Connie Willis has won a galaxy’s worth of sci-fi writing awards but I’ve always felt her books are more historical novels which use the science fiction element mostly just as a way to get characters with an outsider’s view back in time. (Or at least, that’s true of the ones I’ve read, which are Doomsday Book, Blackout and All Clear, and To Say Nothing of the Dog which is a hilarious lark).
Connie Willis is a great writer, not just a great storyteller. You know how, for instance, the Harry Potter books are fantastic stories but only sorta good writing? Well, Willis’ books are very well-written, in addition to being fantastically devourable stories. And in Blackout and All Clear she keeps the narrative threads of an extraordinary number of characters, going about their business in multiple different years of the war, completely clear to the reader. It’s quite something.
All three books begin at Oxford somewhere around 2050 or so. Time travel has been invented but is primarily only useful for historians who want to study what life was really like during some era of the past, because the space/time continuum prevents alteration of history (no going back to kill Hitler or make a fortune investing in Microsoft). Doomsday Book takes its characters back to the mid-1400s, and Blackout and All Clear, which together are one novel and feature some of the same characters as Doomsday, to the Blitz in WWII London. Willis did an extraordinary amount of research on the era — the world of the books feels complete, without ever, ever feeling textbooky or clunky in its handling of period information.
p.s. I owe my dad thanks for introducing me to Connie Willis years ago, and for loaning me Blackout. (In return I introduced him to “Battlestar Galactica.“)
p.p.s. Make sure you have All Clear on hand before you start Blackout because Blackout ends on a cliffhanger which might well make you seriously consider committing a felony of some kind in order to get All Clear right away if you happen to finish it late at night.