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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.

What books do you reread?

October 8, 2013

When I’m asked that question, I don’t have an answer because I don’t reread books. I never have, other than for classes where a book was assigned that I’d already read/studied, such as Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. As a teenager, I read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind a second time, but that was to prove I could read a fat book twice. These instances don’t count as an answer to that question, which is about revisiting a book you love, that is, about spending time again with familiar characters and plot as one would spend time with familiar friends.

Would I like to reread some books? Absolutely, and I’ve got a list, but it’s not for the guaranteed good read or joy of familiar friends. I want to reread them for the same reason I reread John Gardner’s Grendel last year — they are books I read scads of years ago and feel like I was too young to fully appreciate and understand them. Now, I’m curious about what I missed.

Below are the top five, waiting for a space of time to open up in the ever-present tsunami of new books being published.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
Frequently referred to as the best comic novel of the 20th century, Lucky Jim tells the story of Jim Dixon, a medieval history lecturer at a nameless British university. NYRB Classics reissued the book last year, along with other Amis novels.
Why reread: I don’t remember laughing.

The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary
Another comedy, published in 1944, featuring hero/artist Gulley Jimson with a focus on the necessity of individual freedom and choice. I read this book in a 1976 college class where we also read Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange — the lit course focused on existentialism.
Why reread:  Most my college texts have lots of underlining on the pages. This one has virtually none. I feel like I missed the boat.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
This is McCullers’ first novel published in 1940 when she was 23 years old, featuring Mick Kelly, an adolescent modeled after herself. The dust jacket on the Modern Library edition says, “Mick’s spiritual kinship with John Singer, a deaf mute, and with other social misfits, provides a haunting look into the abyss encountered by human beings in their attempts at love.”  The book was made into a movie in 1968 starring Alan Arkin as John Singer.
Why reread: I remember the movie more than the book.

Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
This Pulitzer Prize winner grabbed me in 1980, five years after its publication year, while I lived in Chicago, where the story is set. It earned a place on my 54 years, 54 books list of favorites, a story about Charlie Citrine whose life is in shambles and the gift that comes to him from friend Von Humboldt Fleisher.
Why reread: This one is closest to wanting to reread for the pleasure of re-experiencing the original immersion and joy that came from it. The real reason, though, is I’ve gifted this book a few times and the receivers didn’t like it. Anatole Broyard panned the book in a 1975 New York Times review. I can’t understand why. My critical mind wants to know.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
Pynchon’s work is known for its complexity, including this one, published in 1966, a conspiracy story featuring protagonist Oedipa Maas, a California woman with a mysterious inheritance.
Why reread: This feels like I’m venturing into self-torture. The Oxford Companion to American Literature says Pynchon’s “novels present the reader a huge array of clues but not clear direction in their purposeful ambiguity.” Nevertheless, on a second time through, I want to see if I get it.

Several years ago, after Christmas Eve church services, in the car just before driving home,  I surprised each of my friends with a gift-wrapped book. These friends aren’t constant readers of literature, rather occasional readers of a variety of book types, which required careful thinking on my part, guided by gut instinct, when making the selections. The gift for me was their joy, as I saw their excitement over a new book chosen just for them.

I’ve kept the tradition since that first time, and this year the books were given at a dinner held at my house before the Christmas Eve service. Place cards indicated where each person was to sit. A gift-wrapped book, selected for that person, sat on the place mat.  The challenge this year included two guests visiting from Texas, the mother and sister of one of my friends.

So here’s how I went about my selections this year for each friend and the visitors, Christmas 2012.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The first year I gave this friend Water for Elephants. Last year, I gave her The Hunger Games. She’s one of those readers who reads a book obsessively, unable to put it down. Indeed, the house could be burning, and she would move her chair to the lawn and keep reading. I’ve known a few readers like this — they have to schedule when they read because once they start, they’ll ignore responsibilities, including the need to sleep, which is why I wrote on her card, “Something to keep you up all night.” Erin Morgenstern’s magical novel about Le Cirque des Rêves and the competition between magicians who fall in love seemed the perfect story for all-night reading.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor
I gave this classic collection of short stories to my friend who’s in seminary school. Several months ago, she asked me about Flannery O’Connor because she’d heard references in class to this mid-20th century southern author. O’Connor is famous for her Gothic style, Catholicism and religious themes. This collection, published in 1955, came after O’Connor’s first novel Wise Blood (1952) and confirmed her place in classic literature. Caroline Gordon wrote in her 1955 New York Times review:  “In these stories the rural South is, for the first time, viewed by a writer whose orthodoxy matches her talent. The results are revolutionary.” I thought my friend would want to be “in the know” for when O’Connor is mentioned again in her presence.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candace Millard
The friend who received this book is typically a non-fiction reader. I recall her once telling me she enjoyed Katharine Graham’s Personal History, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for biography. This friend’s interests include politics (she’s a great conversationalist on this topic) and the health industry, particularly in regard to managing one’s good health.  So this best-seller seemed like something that would captivate her and, indeed, she seemed very excited about it. The book is Candace Millard’s account of James Garfield’s rise to the American presidency, the assassination attempt he survived and the botched medical attention that followed, which he didn’t survive. Destiny of the Republic won the 2012 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime.

House Rules by Jodi Picoult
I gave this book to my friend’s mother visiting from Texas. Not knowing mom’s interests, let alone whether or not she read novels, I thought there’d be a good chance she’d be absorbed by Jodi Picoult’s page-turning storytelling — in particular, this story about a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome. My friend’s mother interacts with kids, volunteering at a local school, so I thought the central character might win her interest. In this best-selling novel, that central character is Jacob Hunt, who struggles to interact socially and is suspected in the murder of his tutor.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
I wrote in the card for this gift that I was giving something to remind my friend to follow her heart. She is one who does follow her heart, and in 2011 her heart was broken by an unexpected tragedy. It was gut instinct that told me to give this book to her, perhaps in hopes that she continues to follow her heart, no matter what. Coelho’s story is about a shepherd boy who, in his search for worldly treasure, along the way, finds wisdom and the most meaningful treasure found within oneself. When this gift was opened, one person at the dinner table said enthusiastically that she’d been meaning to read The Alchemist; another said she had tried it but couldn’t get into it. So, we’ll see how this turns out. I’ve bombed before with this friend, giving her Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift, which is now code for “bad choice” between us. (It’s the second time I’ve given Bellow’s Pulitzer award-winner to someone as a gift, and it wasn’t liked–  let alone finished — that time, either. And yet, Humboldt’s Gift is one of my favorite books.)

One Day by David Nicholls
This is the novel I selected for my friend’s sister, visiting from Texas. I didn’t know if she read novels but figured, even if she didn’t, this one would win her attention. It’s a great beach read or a by-the-fire read for its absorbing story about a romantic relationship that spans 20 years, which we experience in snapshots on July 15 — the one day — every year. The story about Emma and Dexter is engaging, romantic, funny, heartbreaking and heartwarming. It’s neither too light nor too complicated, hence a good choice, I thought, for someone I didn’t know.

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