Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Books that made a difference to me, Part 2

Continuing my list of books that mattered to me.....

4. The World According to Garp by John Irving

When I was in college in the late 70s, John Irving was HUGE, and none of his books was more loved than "Garp." His literary star has fallen a long way since then (IMHO, he hasn't written a good book since "The Cider House Rules", but I still love this book, and I still pull it down from the shelf and re-read it periodically. The opening sentence always grabs me - "Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theatre." - and every character is amazing and original. I've flippantly summed up Irving's work as being about "hot sex and freak accidents" - there are plenty of both in "Garp," but there is also evidence of Irving's power as a storyteller. (The movie version is cute enough, but it doesn't hold a candle to the book.)

5. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

As a senior in high school, I was given a list of "100 Books You Should Read Before You Go to College." "Madame Bovary" was on that list, but I didn't manage to read till several years later. I now wish I could regain the hours I spent trying to stay interested in "The Mayor of Casterbridge" or "Moby Dick" to spend them on Flaubert's masterwork. I'm endlessly intrigued by stories of women whose appetites for drama,passion and beauty far exceed what their ordinary lives can provide them. And Emma Bovary - trapped in a marriage to a dull, provincial doctor; spending money and chasing lovers with foolish and reckless abandon - is the prototype of all such doomed seekers. Many 19th century novelists are a tough read for me these days. Even Jane Austen, who I adore, takes powers of concentration that my hopelessly Googled/Tivoed/21st century brain can't always summon. But Flaubert's prose remains sharp,engrossing and modern. (Skip the movie version with Isabelle Huppert - it's even duller than Emma's husband.)

6. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the writer I want to be when I grow up - wickedly funny, painfully honest, smart-assed and heartbreaking all at once. She's about the only Christian writer I know who can write about Jesus without being all prissy, drippy and Sunday-schoolish. But "Bird by Bird" precedes her writing on faith - it is, in fact, a book about how to write. And Lamott doesn't pull any punches about how hard it is to write - at all, let alone to write anything good. Or how pointless it is to focus on getting published at the expense of doing the work well. But when you put her book down, I guarantee you'll be motivated to get to work on your own prose. (I'll bet you think there is no movie version of this one. WRONG! There is a video called "Bird by Bird with Annie." If you're an Anne fan, it's compulsory viewing.)

7. "Saturday" by Ian McEwan

This was a tough call. For the sake of space and brevity, I had decided to limit myself to seven books. And choosing McEwan's latest novel meant I had to forgo some other favorites like "A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler, "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt or "Any Human Heart" by William Boyd.

BUT having said that - I now praise this fine novel by one of my most recently discovered favorite authors. "Saturday" chronicles one day in the life of a London neurosurgeon - a day when the streets are filled with anti-war demonstrations and a day on which his own family members will face a serious threat to their own safety. It's a cliche to say "I couldn't put this book down" - but, really, I couldn't. McEwan evokes a growing sense of unease and foreboding as the story unfolds, while masterfully engaging us in the daily details of affluent Perowne family's lives. I can only hope the movie that is inevitably made from this book will be half as good as its source material.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Books that made a difference to me, Part 1

One of my recurring fantasies is that someday I'll become famous and Oprah will ask me to contribute to her magazine's "Books that Made a Difference to..." column. Since this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, I've decided not to wait for Oprah's invitation, but to go right ahead and share my list (or at least the first part of it, for now):

1. "Harriet the Spy" by Louise Fitzhugh
This was absolutely my favorite book as a child. (If you've seen the dreadful 1997 film version with the badly miscast Rosie O'Donnell, please banish it from your mind immediately. The source material is SOOO much better.) Harriet is an aspiring writer who carries a notebook everywhere to record her observations about friends, family, and the assorted, colorful strangers she scopes out on her after-school "spy route." When her classmates find her notebook - and read her painfully honest assessments of them - Harriet becomes the sixth-grade pariah and the target of a "Spy Catchers" club. In her quest to regain the trust of her friends, she learns a little about life, writing, loyalty and tact (and eats a lot of tomato sandwiches), but the story never devolves into anything preachy or "after school special"-ish. Ms. Fitzhugh is far too canny for that. Even as a adult, I find this book charming and wise, and Harriet remains one of my favorite heroines of fiction.

2. "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" by Betty Smith
I discovered this book in the school library when I was in 8th grade. At the time, I identified strongly with Francie Nolan, a young girl who lives in a Brooklyn slum with a hard-working mother, a loving, alcoholic father and dreams of becoming a writer. (That aspiring writer theme again....) The circumstances of Francie's life were, in fact, pretty different from mine, but something about her writing aspirations and the dynamics of her family situation really reasonated with me. Re-reading this book as an adult was a revelation - there is so much loving detail in Francie's story - she's too beautifully and carefully drawn a character for a 12-year-old reader to fully appreciate. And, unlike "Harriet the Spy," this book was made into a beautiful and heartbreaking film by Elia Kazan in 1945.

3. "Nine Stories" by J. D. Salinger
I was obsessed with J. D. Salinger as a teenager, and still have the four battered, paperbacks that I bought for $1.95 each in the late'70s that comprise his entire ouevre. Their pages are now fragile and brown-edged, betraying a lot of reading and handling. Either "Catcher in the Rye" or "Franny and Zooey" would have been the more obvious choice here, but every third contributor to "Books that made a difference to..." picks one of those. "Nine Stories" fed my fascination with Salinger's oft-recurring characters: the Glass Family - Les, Bessie and their seven offspring,all of whom are precocious and most of whom are far too sensitive for their own good. This is particularly true of the eldest son, Seymour, who commits suicide on his honeymoon in the keenly observed opening story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." (The other stories have equally whimsical titles - "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut," "Just Before the War with the Eskimos" and so on.) I don't read Salinger anymore, but I have lots of intense, happy memories of being curled up with these paperbacks as a teenager and feeling terribly sophisticated and thrilled by lives and viewpoints that were far outside my own experience. (RE: film versions - "Uncle Wiggly" from this book was turned into a mediocre Hollywood tearjerker with Susan Hayward called "My Foolish Heart" - Salinger hated it and vowed never to let another of his works be filmed. This is why we have never had a film version of "Catcher in the Rye." Probably a good thing, too.)

In Part 2 of this blog entry, I shall express my appreciation for Anne Tyler, Alan Bennett, Anne Lamott, and - possibly - others. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Reason for the "Season"

At Christmastime, many Christians are fond of reminding us that "Jesus is the reason for the season."

In the midst of the cookouts, parades and fireworks today, pause for a moment to remember the reason for this "season" (OK, this holiday - although four days of fesitivities might qualify as a 'mini-season'.) Click on the link below to read the magnificient, eloquent document drafted by our founding fathers and remember how this glorious nation came to be. And let's keep the spirit of our founding fathers alive.

Happy Independence Day to all!!!!