In an interview for the television show “The Human Parade”, author Mark Helprin is asked about the choice to list Winter’s Tale and A Soldier of the Great War on the dust jacket of one of his books. Most readers would recognize Helprin by those novels — they sold millions of copies — but are they the books among his life work he believes are the stand-outs? Helprin comments that the publisher likely made the selection. Then he goes on to say, “If I had to choose what book to put on my tombstone, I would say The Pacific.”
Journalist Jay Nordlinger identifies The Pacific as a collection of short stories, and then he says, “By the way, I think The Pacific is maybe my most given book, the book I’ve most given. It’s my go-to gift book and has been for some years now.” That remark made me want to hurry up and get the collection to read, but it also got me thinking about my own most given books.
They came to mind quickly – there are five – and when I wondered why those, out of so many books I’ve read, I recognized in each not only a good story but also something timeless that could resonate with a general reader. Here’s the list.
The Paper Garden: An Artist Begins Her Life’s Work at 72
by Molly Peacock
This is the biography of Britain’s Mary Granville Pendarves Delany (1700 – 1788). What I love about this book is Delany’s ordinary 18th century life, although she moved in aristocratic circles. “She wasn’t an expert at anything except observing,” author Molly Peacock writes. “And then she did something no one had ever done before.” At the age of 72, Delany created flower mosaics, creations she considered to be nothing more than crafty projects, but they now reside in the British Museum — 985 intricate and botanically accurate paper flowers. Peacock marvels at Delany’s life and, in writing about it, puts a microscope on her own. More than a great biography, The Paper Garden is a meditation on late-bloomers and the impact of choices made throughout one’s life.
My Family and Other Animals
by Gerald Durrell
This memoir by British naturalist Gerald Durrell, brother of Lawrence Durrell (The Alexandria Quartet), is a hilarious, heart-warming story that takes place on the sunny Greek island of Corfu. Durrell’s widowed mother moves her brood of four to the island to escape the cold, damp British weather. Here, the young Gerald immerses himself in the world of animals (puppies, toads, geckos, octopuses and bats, to name a few), many finding their way into the family house. Much of the reading joy derives not only from the confusion that often ensues but also from interactions between the eccentric Durrells. Originally published in 1956, there is a BBC/PBS TV adaptation of this enduring family story.
by Jonathan Lethem
This intelligent, comedic detective novel is less about solving its murder mystery and more about Lionel Essrog, burdened by the involuntary tics of his Tourette’s syndrome while pursing the investigation. He’s looking for the killer of his mob boss, Frank Minna. I gave the book to one person, who kept asking me for more books like Motherless Brooklyn, and yet another person didn’t like the book and instead picked up Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. He may have been expecting a traditional detective story, but Lethem doesn’t travel that literary road. Instead, he pokes fun at it, while poignantly taking us into Essrog’s self-described freak show. Motherless Brooklyn won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1999.
Every Man Dies Alone
by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann
Holocaust survivor and author Primo Levi described this historical novel as “the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis.” It’s based on the true story of a working class German couple who lived a low-profile, non-political life in Berlin during Hitler’s years in power. When their only son was killed on the front lines during World War II, they launched a dangerous anti-Hitler campaign via postcards circulated throughout Berlin. German author Fallada wrote his fictionalized version of the couple’s story in less than a month. It was his last novel, finishing a prolific literary career and a tough life of psychological struggle and addiction. Fallada died shortly before the book was published in 1947.
by Saul Bellow
Nobody seems to enjoy this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel when I gift it, so last year I decided to stop (and this year I’ve decided to reread it). I’ve mentioned it several times here on The Longest Chapter, so those who follow the blog will be familiar with my lament over the unenthusiastic responses. Bellow’s classic features the once successful Charlie Citrine, whose life now is in shambles. His friend Von Humboldt Fleisher has died, while Charlie finds himself struggling with career failure, a bitter divorce, love affair anxieties and mafia trouble. He’s bequeathed the rights to a screenplay via Fleisher’s will, which might be the hope Citrine needs. Richard Rayner in the Los Angeles Times calls Humboldt’s Gift “gorgeous, funny and sad” in his 2009 review of a new paperback release.
by John Williams
Given I’ve retired Humboldt’s Gift, I’m moving in Stoner as it’s replacement. Many have joined me in singing the praises of this wonderful novel. I think what’s kept me from giving it as a gift is a comment by a university professor who said she couldn’t finish it because it was too depressing. I could see that – for a professor – but I don’t think it’s a depressing story, not when you consider the ultimate message. The protagonist John Stoner is a farmer’s son, who surprisingly falls in love with English literature, abandons farm life and gets his PhD. He works hard but goes nowhere in his academic career. The university is Stoner’s life until his death. It may seem like a simple story, and it is, but it’s also an undeniably riveting story about heroic humility, of the kind the Trappist monk Thomas Merton writes about in his book Seeds of Contemplation, when he says it takes heroic humility to be oneself.