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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.

A little over a week ago, during a post-presentation Q&A, a woman from the back row said she loved the current Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and then she asked if I could recommend another good book for her. The request silenced me. It always does, that ask by a stranger for the title of a good book. And yet, I expect myself to be able to casually toss out answers.

When independent bookstores flourished, the bookseller, over time, got to know a patron’s reading tastes and could provide personalized recommendations for good books. Today, Amazon and Barnes & Noble’s automatic “matches” of what you might like to read, based on past online book searches and purchases, is the impersonal opposite — their technology lacks the ability to capture nuance in reading desire and taste.

For me, making recommendations for strangers is a shot in the dark. Without knowing the person’s reading patterns and history, I don’t have a feel for what works for them in a novel. Is it the drama and romance? The captivating, complex characters whose fictional stories are unforgettable? The tension of the World War II European setting? Is it violence and intrigue or moving relationships? I’ve had many successes but also many failures in trying to take that shot in the dark.

I came out of my temporary stupor with an answer for the woman in the back row, sharing with her two novels that came to mind and are personal favorites. I qualified the answer, explaining Stoner by John Williams could lack the level of drama she might want (although it’s an international best-seller) and Mapuche by Carl Férey might be too violent (its plot draws from Argentina’s violent time of the “disappeared” between 1976 and 1983). Ever since that brief exchange, however, I’ve felt as if I didn’t provide a thoughtful enough response — because she mentioned Doerr’s novel, and I could’ve used it as my starting point. I could’ve tried for an “automatic match” à la online book-selling. And so…

Dear Woman in the Back Row,

I’ve pondered your request, considering what I could have otherwise suggested for you to read. Here are three novels I’m thinking you might enjoy. They have a World War II connection, which might appeal to you, since you enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See. They’re not new books, but ones from the past known to have captivated many readers.  Maybe you haven’t read them.

Winds of War by Herman Wouk is the first volume of Wouk’s popular World War II epic. It mentally kidnapped me during a long-ago summer, and I think back to that time fondly, reading Wouk’s novel on a commuter train, during lunch hours and by the pool, lost in the story.  From the book’s description: “Wouk’s spellbinding narrative captures the tide of global events — and all the drama, romance, heroism, and tragedy of World War II — as it immerses us in the lives of a single American family drawn into the very center of the war’s maelstrom.” The second novel in the epic drama is War and Remembrance.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively, winner of the 1987 Booker Prize, focuses on protagonist Claudia Hampton as she lies dying in a London hospital bed,remembering kaleidoscopic fragments from her past that recall her life as a newspaper correspondent, historical novelist and mother. At the center is her memory of a brief love affair in Cairo, Egypt, during World War II, with a British tank officer on leave. While not on the level of “spellbinding,” as is Wouk’s epic, it’s nevertheless a moving, memorable story that also captivated me.

Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada is based on the true story of a working class 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 German front lines during the war, they became resisters. From the book’s description: “With nothing but their grief and each other against the awesome power of the Reich, they launch a simple, clandestine resistance campaign that soon has enraged Gestapo on their trail, and a world of terrified neighbors and cynical snitches ready to turn them in.” Acclaimed WWII espionage novelist Alan Furst blurbs the dust jacket on my copy of the book: “One of the most extraordinary and compelling novels ever written about World War II. Ever….Please, do not miss this.”

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