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I have a lot of books. No surprise to those who know me, but for those who don’t and they enter my house, it can elicit a reaction. Such as when a city inspector stopped by to do a final check on the new furnace and air conditioner I recently installed. He did a bit of a rubber-neck glance at the books on the landing near the front door before walking to the basement. After his inspection downstairs, I asked if he would do a quick check of the gas fireplace in the living room. He was there with the testing equipment, so I figured why not, and it would only take a few seconds. His eyes spanned the room, taking in the books piled on tables and between bookends on the mantle, as well as books in and on top of the bookcases on either side of the fireplace. Visible from the living room, the dining room table held a few stacks of books to be considered for reading and review. The inspector didn’t say a word, but I could see his eyes lingering on the books, as if looking for something.

Outside on the front steps, in the small talk of me saying “thank you” and him asking “got any weekend plans?,” I said I was going to hang out with my dogs and books. That was intentional, to see if it would draw him out about the books, and it did. He said he didn’t pay attention to books when he was young but had recently started reading and wanted to continue. He had just finished John Steinback’s The Grapes of Wrath and said he didn’t know where to get ideas for what to read next. I explained why I have so many books in the house and then said, if he wanted, I could send him some suggestions. He handed me his business card and mentioned that he liked books about “older times.”

Below are five titles I emailed to him. I only sent the titles/authors, suggesting he look them up to decide which one(s) might be of interest. I kept in mind his desire to read about “older times.” Here I offer a bit more information about each novel.

All the King's Men by Robert Penn WarrenAll the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1947 Pulitzer Prize winner)
This classic novel is considered to be among the best of the best published in the 20th century. It’s about the political career of the fictional Willie Stark, who rises from an idealist lawyer to become a shady governor of Louisiana. The story is said to be based on the real-life political career of Louisiana’s Huey Long. Narrated by Stark’s press agent, Jack Burden, the story takes us into a world of political corruption during the 1930s. In The New York Times review, published August 19, 1946, critic Orville Prescott wrote: “Here, my lords and ladies, is no book to curl up with in a hammock, but a book to read until 3 o’clock in the morning, a book to read on trains and subways, while waiting for street cars and appointments, while riding elevators or elephants.”

The Caine Mutiny by Herman WoukThe Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk
(1952 Pulitzer Prize winner)
Like Warren’s great novel, this also is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a best-seller during the mid-20th century. Instead of politics, it delves into the world of a U.S. Navy mine sweeper in the Pacific during World War II. Officers of The Caine feel increasing disrespect for their Captain Queeq and lose trust in his ability to safely commandeer the vessel. They mutiny and are court-martialed. The novel grew out of Wouk’s personal experiences aboard a Pacific World War II destroyer-minesweeper. The Atlantic describes the “back then” era of Wouk’s Caine novel and also his best-selling The Winds of War and War and Remembrance saying they: “…pulse with the everyday details of 1940’s America: what it felt like to wait for a letter in the post, the passage of time on a transcontinental railway trip, the crinkle of the carbon paper between two copies of an army report, the uncertainty of knowing who would win the war, and when, and how.”

Appointment in Samarra by John O'HaraAppointment in Samarra by John O’Hara
Getting away from politics and war, this classic delves into upper-middle-class snobbery, alcoholism, infidelity and more during the 1930s. John O’Hara is one of literature’s masters in portraying small-town life, specifically in his signature fictional locale of Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. Appointment in Samarra is his first novel and what many consider to be his masterpiece. It takes place during three days at Christmastime, with all the glitter and festivities being embraced by the social elite. Among them, Julian English does something outrageous in a rash, liquored-up moment that launches him into a downward spiral of self-destruction. The book’s description for the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition (2013) says: “Brimming with wealth and privilege, jealousy and infidelity, O’Hara’s iconic first novel is an unflinching look at the dark side of the American Dream – and a lasting testament to the keen social intelligence of a major American writer.”

Angle of Repose by Wallace StegnerAngle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
(1972 Pulitzer Prize winner)
While talking with the inspector on the porch, I had suggested he get a list of 20th century Pulitzer Prize winning novels as a resource. When thinking of suggestions, I didn’t intend to recommend prize winners, and yet it turns out that’s what happened. This one, set in America’s western frontier, deeply captivated me many years ago with its engrossing family saga, narrated by the retired and disabled historian, Lyman Ward. Lyman’s son thinks he needs to enter a retirement home, but Lyman resists. He is researching/writing the biography of his grandmother Susan Burling Ward and living in the house where she lived the last years of her life. The story is Ward’s 19th century adventure into the unsettled American West, about a cultured New York woman who speculates whether or not she should’ve followed her husband into the frontier. From the publisher’s website: “…as an historian [Lyman] looks to the past, and as a disillusioned husband and father, he finds solace in it. But, as he discovers in the course of researching his grandmother’s biography, even he cannot escape the present and some measure of self-examination.”

Humboldt's Gift by Saul BellowHumboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
(1976 Pulitzer Prize winner)
I’ve recommended this novel a few times with feedback from some who couldn’t get through it. I need to reread it to figure out why. That said, I did receive vindication when I recommended Humboldt’s Gift on the air, and the show’s producer, delivering a message to the studio while I spoke, gave me thumbs up. Clearly, Bellow’s classic is not for everyone; however, for me, it’s a long-time favorite, the story about Charlie Citrine whose life is in shambles and the gift that comes to him from friend Von Humboldt Fleisher. We’re immersed in Charlie’s struggles with career failure, bitter divorce demands, love affair anxieties and mafia trouble — and then comes the gift. Anatole Broyard panned the book in a 1975 New York Times review. And yet, Humboldt’s Gift won a Pulitzer Prize.

Postscript: Several years ago, a window cleaner working at the house noticed my books. He also saw a framed newspaper article about my WOSU radio work on Ohioana Authors, so he knew what the books were all about. There was again that look of lingering interest, as if to capture some of the titles, and then small talk about reading, so I gave him a list of books, handwritten on a piece of paper before he left. When he returned another year to help with the windows, he reminded me of the exchange and said he and his wife had enjoyed the books.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

American Paperback

Near the end of Sebastian Faulks’ World War I novel Birdsong, the stoic, lonely protagonist Stephen Wraysford comes face to face with a German soldier who has pulled him from the depths of a collapsed tunnel, saving his life. At the sight of the German uniform, Stephen instinctively reaches for his revolver, which isn’t there. He then aggressively raises fighting fists. And then: “Far beyond thought, the resolution came to him and he found his arms, still raised, begin to spread open.”  The German soldier in turn sees “this wild-eyed figure, half-demented” and without knowing why “found that he had opened his own arms in turn, and the two men fell upon each other’s shoulders, weeping at the bitter strangeness of their human lives.”

It’s a stunning event on page 483 out of a total of 503 pages in my paperback edition. For three years in this fictional masterpiece, Stephen has fought on the front lines in France with the German enemy, and I had long been with him in all the pages before through the Battle of the Somme and the Battle at Messines Ridge. Thinking surely they would shoot one another, their reaction caught my breath.

Birdsong is Faulks’ fourth novel that became hugely popular in the UK, when it was published in 1993, and thereafter in the US. In other words, it’s not a new book but among past-published books offering a gold mine of good reading. Sometimes a good book for a beach bag is an old book. This one certainly is a top candidate.

Birdsong_Sebastian Faulks

British Paperback

While the compelling central drama of this epic story is the horrific trench warfare in Northern France, the book begins in 1910, when Stephen arrives in a small French town to observe the manufacturing practices of a textile factory. He falls in love with the owner’s wife, Isabelle, and what follows is a torrid love affair, with erotic scenes perfectly tuned to the characters’ passion. Six years later, Stephen is a lieutenant in the British infantry, boldly leading men into enemy fire and watching them die in the inhuman devastation of the crushing battles. He’s a survivor, and his men see him as a lucky charm. His cold yet not dispassionate eye to the carnage allows him to live with the ongoing senseless killing and keep moving through his days without burden of despair.

His affair with Isabelle is long over, and yet 1978 to 1979, in parts three, five and seven of the story, Stephen’s 38-year-old grand-daughter, Elizabeth Benson, born of Isabelle, reads Stephen’s diaries found in her mother’s attic. She also visits the battlefields in Northern France. While some of Elizabeth’s queries about her grandfather feel a bit over-excited, this part of the narrative gives a meaningful look-back from a generation that’s clueless about their World War I ancestors. To be so involved in reading about Stephen’s war and then catapulted ahead to a time when people can’t possibly understand it creates an eerie feeling in the narrative flow.

Faulks writes with focused, realistic detail. For some, the war scenes might be too much. The Battle of the Somme is described in history books as one of the bloodiest military battles ever fought. Indeed, the Brits and French charged toward the Germans across No Man’s Land falsely believing their enemy had been successfully shelled into vulnerability. But this war story comes across neither as too violent nor gruesome. It’s more forthright and sincere.

One hundred or so pages before the scene of Stephen’s rescue from the tunnel, Stephen takes a short leave home to England. When he’s alone outside in the fields of a countryside untouched by war — where there are standing trees and a silent sky — he’s overwhelmed with a presence of love and forgiveness that he senses in the created world: “…nothing was immoral or beyond redemption, all could be brought together, understood in the long perspective of forgiveness.” This spiritual connection deeply changes him. It is a small but mighty thread that’s tightly woven with many other threads in the tapestry of his daily life that lead to Stephen letting go of his fists and opening his arms, as the war comes to an end in this profound epic.

 

Title Page_The FixerI purchased this 2004 edition of Bernard Malamud’s 1966 novel The Fixer for no other reason than my gently mad, inner book collector wanted it – and I wanted it for its introduction, in which Jonathan Safran Foer talks about the difference between a good book and a great book, as well as for Foer’s signature on the title page. I could’ve read the introduction online. Also, I don’t collect Foer. (Book collectors will understand this. Herein is the madness.)

The Fixer tells the story of a Jewish handyman named Yakov Bok, who leaves his small village after his divorce, hoping for a new life in Kiev. It is 1911, and Tsar Nicholas II rules the Russian Empire in a climate of fear and uncertainty. This non-practicing Jew gets caught up in a horrific, mind-bending nightmare when accused of murdering a Christian boy with ritualistic blood-letting. He’s thrown into jail, refuses to confess to a crime he didn’t commit and suffers daily beatings. After a long time, he finally is granted a trial, which is more for show than justice. In the book’s introduction, Foer writes: “Regardless of Yakov’s ultimate fate, a few good people have expressed their solidarity with him, and hence their humanity and his.” Foer tells us some of these few good people include those watching Yakov go to trial. They are waving and shouting their support. “It’s the most they can do, and it’s a lot,” Foer explains.

Great books are necessary (while good books are involving, entertaining, critically acclaimed but not necessary), according to Foer. And they are necessary when they show us the importance of our sympathy, mercy and open-mindedness in the midst of injustice and bad times: “Good books often remind us of our troubled world. Great books go a step further: they remind us of our humanity. And it’s only our humanity that can fix the world.”

I’ve learned over the years that memorable words and thoughts need to be on the bookshelf, so I can read them in the form of which they were originally created, instead of on a page printed off the internet. It’s just not the same without the book. Especially when it comes to universal concepts that resonate with as much power today as they did in the past — and as they will in the future.

“Our world – our desperate, broken world – needs existential novels, novels that give us something more valuable than hope: a call to action. The real fixer isn’t Yakov Bok. (He’s a character in that world.) And it isn’t Bernard Malamud. (He’s the bridge between that world and this one.) The real fixer is each of us. We must do something. That’s what this novel, like all great novels, reminds us.”

The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

Photo credit: Work In Progress. Farrar, Straus and Giroux for the Bernard Malamud Centenary. Click on the image to access Jonathan Safran Foer’s introduction.

in-the-heat-of-the-nightIn 1965, Harper & Row published John Ball’s In the Heat of the Night, and in 1967 the movie adaptation was released. Sydney Poitier played Virgil Tibbs, the book’s black police detective, and Rod Steiger played Bill Gillespie, the bigoted southern police chief who needs Tibbs’ help to solve a case. (Steiger won an Oscar for Best Actor in the role.) I never saw the film and also never read the book, until now. I picked up the 2015 Penguin Classics 50th anniversary paperback, motivated not only to read this time-honored story but also curious about its depiction of racism.

While the movie takes place in a fictionalized Sparta, Mississippi, in the book the setting is Wells, South Carolina. In the late hours of night, a murder is committed, and Virgil Tibbs becomes the prime suspect. He’s found in the segregated waiting area of the train station by Officer Sam Woods, who assumes Tibbs committed the crime and is making his getaway. In reality, Tibbs is passing through the town, changing trains on his way home to California, after visiting his mother in the South. It’s obvious the arrest happens because Tibbs is black.

When the gracious Tibbs reveals to Woods and Police Chief Gillespie that he’s employed as a homicide detective in Pasadena, California, Gillespie asks him to help them solve the murder. Gillespie knows his police force, including himself, doesn’t have enough experience to investigate the high-profile case. How the investigation unfolds puts this story in the top ranks of great mystery writing – and also in the top ranks of books about racism. Tibbs never allows Woods, Gillespie and the town councilmen to intimidate him or demean his expertise with all their offensive remarks. His overwhelming courtesy, patience and self-confidence shine a large spotlight on their egregious behavior. They come across as limited and foolish, such as when Woods sincerely wonders how a black man could receive high levels of detective training. Tibbs replies:

“…it may be hard for you to believe, but there are places in this country where a colored man, to use your words for it, is simply a human being like everybody else. Not everybody feels that way, but enough do so that at home I can go weeks at a time without anybody reminding me that I’m a Negro. Here I can’t go fifteen minutes. If you went somewhere where people despised you because of your southern accent, and all you were doing was speaking naturally and the best way that you could, you might have a very slight idea of what it is to be constantly cursed for something that isn’t your fault and shouldn’t make any difference anyhow.”

Author John Ball takes another swipe at Officer Woods’ bigotry via the daughter of the slain man, an Italian conductor who came to Wells to establish a music festival. Woods is enamored with the beautiful young woman, but she puts him in his place with a verbal slap of a comment, when he speaks of racial prejudice as a way of life in the southern states . You can just feel Woods’ reaction of being “acutely uncomfortable” after she says:

“Some people don’t like Italians; they think we’re different, you know. Oh, they’ll make an exception for a Toscanini or a Sophia Loren, but the rest of us are supposed to be vegetable peddlers or else gangsters.”

In the Heat of the Night is a suspenseful murder mystery that offers several surprising twists and turns of events on its way toward the conclusion. All along, I kept trying to guess how it would end, but I was never even close. Published in the 1960’s, the story richly reflects race relations in the Jim Crow American south with a story as memorable as Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The book was named one of the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.

A bibliomaniac’s burden

September 1, 2016

Regeneration by Pat Barker_1

The original “stiff” paperback

I’ve always been one to love the feel of a book: the softness of an age-old paperback with a loose cover in my hands, or the heft of an epic novel the size of a microwave on my lap. I’m also a sniffer, with an automatic impulse that pulls a book up to my nose, so I can smell the paper. It never occurred to me that pressing my nose into the middle of a book would be considered odd behavior, until a stranger stared at me with an expression of having observed a weirdo.

Given this, I suppose it’s not odd to admit that I spent precious time on a weekend afternoon in search of a more pleasing edition of a book I had started reading and had to put down because it felt too stiff in my hands.

For a long time I’ve been meaning to read Pat Barker’s acclaimed World War I Regeneration Trilogy. When I found a paperback of Regeneration, the first book in the trilogy, at a Half Price Books Clearance Sale, I took it as a sign that it was time to begin. This trilogy is considered to be among the best in World War I fiction, right up there with Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Of its three books — RegenerationThe Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road — the trilogy’s third book was awarded the 1995 Booker Prize.

I was pretty excited to start reading, until a few pages into Regeneration I felt dissatisfied and whiny about the way the book felt: There was no softness of the pages typical to paperbacks and no flexibility to the spine. The cover felt like rigid cardboard. It was like missing the scruffiness of an old shoe or the comfort of a familiar sweatshirt. Silly as it seemed, I stopped reading and drove to the library and then a Half Price Bookstore and then a used bookstore to find a better book. (This may be a bibliomaniac’s version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.)

I’ve rejected a book to pick up a better translation, but this is the first time I’ve driven around town looking for a better tactile experience in a book. The hard-bound library book could’ve worked but, at this point, I gave in to all my pickiness and put it back because I didn’t like the abstract illustration. At Half Price Books, I found a great copy, but there was handwriting and underlining on the pages. At the used bookstore, in the history section, on the very top shelf, I found a paperback copy that worked — the  softness, the flexibility and enough of a smell were present. I felt victorious.

And then this:  I got to the cash register and told the bookseller that I didn’t like the paperback I already owned. Yes, here I was spending money on yet another copy of the same book. I didn’t offer any details, as I pulled my original copy out of my purse and showed it to him. He reached for it and immediately frowned. He said, “It’s very stiff.” All my feelings of silliness dissolved. I eagerly agreed and then went home to read this great book that felt just right.

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