Happy Thanksgiving! To state the no-doubt-obvious, one of the many things I’m thankful for is great books. This is the second installment of my serial post detailing my list of Most Vivid Reads (those books that stick out the most in my mind when I think about books).
Post #1, which covered Mr. Bridge & Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell, Doomsday Book, Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis, and The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, can be found here.
To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee
Two paragraphs into this novel, which is the end of the first page in the edition I have, you are IN this book. You are IN Scout’s head, you are IN this town and this world, and you are in it for the duration. And it is in you forever after reading it. The header on the blurb page says “Unequaled praise from everywhere for a unique bestseller.” Yep.
One of the things I adore about this book is the tone of voice. Very spoken, very like a real person with real opinions about real people veiled, thinly, in proper speech. Early in the book, when Scout is talking about Atticus, she says,
Atticus’s office in the courthouse contained little more than a hat rack, a spittoon, a checkerboard and an unsullied Code of Alabama. His first two clients were the last two persons hanged in the Maycomb County jail. Atticus had urged them to accept the state’s generosity in allowing them to plead Guilty to second-degree murder and escape with their lives, but they were Haverfords, in Maycomb County a name synonymous with jackass. The Haverfords had dispatched Maycomb’s leading blacksmith in a misunderstanding arising from the alleged wrongful detention of a mare, were imprudent enough to do it in the presence of three witnesses, and insisted that the-son-of-a-bitch-had-it-coming-to-him was a good enough defense for anybody. They persisted in pleading Not Guilty to first-degree murder, so there was nothing much Atticus could do for his clients except be present at their departure, an occasion that was probably the beginning of my father’s profound distaste for the practice of criminal law.
p.s. I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, I know from the writing that’s all over the book (I still have my original copy), in E-803 4th Period English 1990, which I believe would have been 8th grade, which I believe would have been Mr. Long’s class.
p.p.s. Feel free to see the movie. It’s as deservedly a classic as the book. Or at least I thought so when last I saw it, which was probably about 20 years ago.
The First Books — M. B. Goffstein
M. B. Goffstein’s beautiful children’s books appear to be entirely out of print, which is a wretched shame and a detriment to the world’s future understanding of how utterly wonderful little stories and black-and-white line drawings can be (maybe your library has one?).
Goffstein’s books, both when I read them when I was a kid and now, seem wholly authentic in their magic. They inhabit the sort of world where things are, without being chipper and without being obnoxiously sunny, just old-fashioned good (“She had a bite of pear with a bite of cheese, a bite of pear with a bite of cheese, and when they were gone Sophie took another long swallow of water, then lay down, smiling at the sun.”) They create the worlds children’s books should, where little creatures walk around in groups and wear cravats and climb trees with a vat to make soup. Where sleepy people drink cocoa from warm cups. Where little squirrels go walking with new hats on and say to little girls, who say it in turn to their fathers, who say it in turn to the trees, “I love you.”
p.s. My mother read me M.B. Goffstein books when I was growing up.
My Ántonia — Willa Cather
Like To Kill a Mockingbird, by the end of the first page of My Ántonia, you’re THERE. Cather’s sense of, and ability to communicate, place, both geographic place and emotional/mental place, is keen. This novel has some of the best descriptions of happiness, and unhappiness, that I can think of, all in a spare and simple (as a prairie is spare and simple, which is to say actually the opposite) style:
Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.
I know intellectually that nothing’s perfect, but I can’t think of anything about My Antonia that isn’t perfect…
p.s. I read this for the first time in Ms. Kreger’s 11th grade English class.
The Master & Commander series — Patrick O’Brian
The Master & Commander series (which runs 20 volumes, and that’s not nearly enough) are set in the Royal navy during the Napoleonic wars, on and around a man-of-war captained by Jack Aubrey who sails with his friend, ship’s surgeon, and spy Stephen Maturin.
Now, I don’t care about historical battles. I don’t care about ships. I don’t care about cannons, or rigging, or knots, or maneuvers, or historical minutiae. Not a whit. These books are full of all that. But they are some of the most entertaining reading around — the deep and complicated friendship between the two highly intriguing (and highly flawed) main characters, is as deftly depicted as you could ask for. Sherlock/Watson, Kirk/Spock, Riggs/Murtaugh (kidding) — Aubrey/Maturin are all the fun those excellent friends are, against a backdrop of war and intrigue (domestic and global) so well-written that I, while I’m reading them, DO care about cannons and battles and knots. Because Aubrey and Maturin do (or at least Aubrey cares about knots. Maturin pretends to listen to Aubrey’s explanations, long-suffering good friend that he is). I’ve read the whole series twice, and am sure I’ll return to them again more than once in my lifetime.
p.s. A family friend talked me into giving Patrick O’Brian a try, after a discussion about The Lord of the Rings. I dismissed the idea for a number of years because of the sailing thing, but eventually picked one up in a bookstore one day, and was hooked.
The City in Which I Love You — Li-Young Lee
One of my friends summed it up well on Facebook recently — anyone who’s ever been in love, or ever wanted to be in love, must read this collection.These poems are achingly lovely, and you will discover after reading them just how much paler and weaker your world was until you picked up The City in Which I Love You. Exaggeration? Kinda not.
I got into an argument a few months ago with someone who’d read this collection but didn’t like the poems at all. I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t get it, why he kept insisting, in the face of Lee’s language, that they weren’t any good. (Rest assured I gave no quarter in my arguing back; I’m afraid I do even take a little pride in people like that thinking I’m a bitch.)
And then I realized that he wasn’t listening to these poems speak. I don’t mean they’re they kind of poetry you have to learn how to read, in the sense that they’re difficult; they’re not. But Lee’s poems speak about what they speak about, and go where they go, and they quietly refuse to fulfill any rigid expectations.
From “This Hour and What Is Dead,”
Tonight my brother, in heavy boots, is walking
through bare rooms over my head,
opening and closing doors.
What could he be looking for in an empty house?
What could he possibly need there in heaven?
Does he remember his earth, his birthplace set to torches?
His love for me feels like spilled water
running back to its vessel.
From the title poem,
A bruise, blue
in the muscle, you
impinge upon me.
As bone hugs the ache home, so
I’m vexed to love you, your body
the shape of returns, your hair a torso
of light, your heat
I must have, your opening
I’d eat, each moment
of that soft-finned fruit,
inverted fountain in which I don’t see me.
I saw Li-Young Lee in person in Portland in 2008; he’s one of those rumply intellectual men of faith you fall in love with because of how he talks about his wife.
p.s. This is one of those books everyone who’s read it (except that one guy) tells everyone to read; alas I don’t remember who was the first to tell me.