Entry #4 in my “Most Vivid Reads” list (“most vivid” being a very similar but slightly different list than just a straight “My Favorites” — the books highlighted here are the ones that have been the most memorable reading experiences, the most vividly injected into my brain (and therefore life), whether or not I re-read them to death). Previous posts in this series can be found here.
The Road — Cormac McCarthy
If you’ve read it, you knew it was coming on this list. The Road is not just engrossing, it’s enveloping. It’s spare writing (I swear 90% of the book is white-space) but each sentence paints such a vivid picture in your head you’ll feel you watched it on screen (they did make a movie of it, but it feels like there’s really no need to see it (I didn’t, even though it starred Viggo Mortensen!) because the novel is so visual, so vivid). It follows a father and son traversing a post-apocalyptic landscape (the exact cause of the devastation is never detailed) — you’ll never look at ash quite the same way. I read it in its entirety in one sitting, through the night. (I did get up to go to the bathroom, but took the book with me.) It’s devastating, of course (not a book I will be re-reading soon), but excellent.
p.s. My boss at the time, David Poulshock, lent me The Road after he had the same couldn’t-put-it-down experience.
The Dark is Rising sequence — Susan Cooper
Grails, swords, legends, and fantastic storytelling at its best. These young adult books feel timeless in their good vs. evil -ness, and their honest portrayal of children’s hearts and minds. They don’t flinch from the scary sides of epic battles either. The books are: Over Sea, Under Stone, The Dark is Rising, Greenwitch, The Grey King, and Silver on the Tree. I read them multiple times as a kid, and have a couple times again as an adult. They’re the best kind of timeless and ageless, and very few things in them feel dated even though they were written in the 1970s.
p.s. Pretty sure my older sister Lisa read them first.
The Sot-Weed Factor — John Barth
Historical satire, riotous tale of an innocent encountering every kind of corruption there is, Great American Novel, hilarious masterpiece, epic adventure with all the knaves and rogues and hooligans you could ever want — however you choose to describe The Sot-Weed Factor it’s a great read, especially if you happen to like sentences like this first one, which I dearly do,
In the last years of the seventeenth century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling glitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping point.
I also dearly love chapter titles like “Ebenezer Returns to His Companions, Finds Them Fewer By One, Leaves Them Fewer By Another, and Reflects a Reflection” and “Having Agreed That Naught Is in Men Save Perfidy, Though Not Necessarily That Jus ed id quod cliens fecit, the Laureate at Last Lays Eyes on His Estate” and “The Travelers Having Proceeded Northward to Church Creek, McEvoy Out-Nobles a Nobleman, and the Poet Finds Himself Knighted Willy-Nilly.”
Barth published this in 1960 and it’s certainly “of its time” in all sorts of authority-rebellion etcetera ways, but unlike, say, Barth’s Giles Goat-Boy, it remains eminently readable today. (I tried to get into Giles Goat-Boy and just couldn’t do it — it’s a real you-had-to-be-there-and-read-it-at-that-moment allegory, too of its time. Even my dad, who had always said Giles Goat-Boy was one of his all-time favorites, tried to re-read it recently and couldn’t get into it either.) But The Sot-Weed Factor remains a pip.
p.s Read this just after college on my father’s strong recommendation.
Maida’s Little Shop — Inez Haynes Irwin
I put this book right up there with The Little Princess and The Secret Garden. Published in 1909, it’s the story of a poor little rich girl, Maida Westabrook, who is listless and limping after an illness and operation. Her very rich father, in hopes that occupation will enliven her, buys her a sweets shop in a small town. Maida goes through the trials of becoming friends with the locals and running her own shop, and winds up becoming great friends with town ruffians and interesting folks, and learns all about how the regular people live, and all they all learn life lessons, and it’s all so clever and wonderful and curious and droll you can hardly stand it, and by hardly stand it I mean hardly stand to read it only once. There’s a whole series following the same characters, though it’s hard to find them all. I have read the first several (I’ve heard that they peter out in magic as the series goes on, but I can say for sure that Maida’s Little Shop is just wonderful.)
p.s. This was one of my mother’s absolute favorite books (still is), and I too read it over and over when I was a child.
Honey in the Horn — H. L. Davis
Honey in the Horn, which won the 1936 Pulitzer for Fiction, is an epic of the Oregon frontier full of uncouth coots and unfortunate young men and ill-advised settlers and peculiar adventurers and every other kind of distinctive character one finds on the ever-changing frontier. The story ranges all over the Northwest, from the mountains to Portland to the coast. I’m something of a sucker for frontier adventures, and have a big soft spot for Westerns and The Old West, so it’s not too surprising that I loved this novel. But it’s the level of detail in the descriptions that really got me hooked. Here’s a taste:
They went out. The moon was high and frost-white, and the cold had set the snow so it crunched underfoot like an old horse wading into a big feed of dry oats. It was necessary to get to high ground because that was where the deer fed at night, but all the high ground was across the road and they didn’t dare cross it for fear of leaving tracks in the snow. In fresh snow they could have crossed and raked their tracks over with a bundle of brush, but this was old snow, too frost-hardened to rake. They trudged through the dark brush parallel to the road, hoping to find a watercourse where the snow hadn’t stuck. None turned up, so they followed the road high up the mountain where the trees still held their loads of snow, and that did as well. They picked a limber tree with a good deal of snow in it, walked across under it, and jiggled it so the snow shed down in a soft rushing smack and buried their tracks four feet deep. Clay remarked, mostly to see if the cold had done anything permanent to his voice, that it had been a smart fetch, and the Indian boy whispered back that he would have to shut up. Deer would run if they heard people talking. Being able to see pretty well in the moonlight, they were liable to scare all too easily, anyhow. They could have meat or they could have conversation, but they couldn’t have both.
p.s. I read about Honey in the Horn in On Sacred Ground: The Spirit of Place in Northwest Literature, a very nice exploration of Northwest literature my mom gave me years ago.