A Lifetime of Books

A love of books was instilled in me by my parents. As a youngster, I have fond memories of both my mother and father, usually reclined in bed, with their noses buried in their respective books.

My mother’s taste was non-fiction, but not strictly. When I’d become old enough to appreciate “literature,” she suggested a reading list, important books she had loved as a girl and thought I would, too.

Although I don’t recall every entry on that list, a few are still embedded in my soul: An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (one of the best books I’ve ever read, about the mounting consequences of untruths and the despair of self-deception); The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham (influenced my dreams of becoming an artist); Jane Eyre (the importance of women speaking up for themselves) by Charlotte Bronte; Seventeen (the trials of adolescence, as depicted through humor and satire) by Booth Tarkington; and, most important,  Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl:

Anne Frank

I read this earnest, wise and tender work of art at about the same age as Anne was when she wrote it. It helped shape much about how I would view the world. I took so much away from this book. The need to sustain hope in spite of impossible ignorance and cruelty, the value of relationships and the beauty in growing up and accepting (and honoring) the changes that go along with it. Not too long ago, I purchased a hardcover edition of this book, which I will someday reread.

This spate of serious reading came on the heels of an earlier obsession with Nancy Drew, girl detective. I’d read 42 of these mysteries novels by Carolyn Keene. Make fun if you like. But Nancy demonstrated to me the importance of being independent (yes, she had Ned, her boyfriend, but equally valued her two close girlfriends, Bess (girly-girl) and George (the un-girly-girl) — and Carson, her lawyer-father, who encouraged her along these lines.

I attribute my lifelong love of clutch purses to Nancy. She always carried a pencil and pad inside, with which to record any “clues” she might uncover that would help unravel a mystery.

I am also never without a pad and pencil — in my clutch bag.

My father leaned more toward reading fiction, and also poetry. Hemingway was a favorite. He wrote a brilliant thesis paper in college about the Nick Adams stories. My parents shared a mutual love of Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner and would frequently recite stanzas from it at the dinner table.

On many a night, my father would lull my sister and me to sleep reading Longfellow’s tragic The Wreck of the Hesperus (a father ties his daughter to the mast during a fierce storm at sea so she won’t blow overboard, but she freezes to death in the process – the lesson being: it’s the thought that counts) or, more inspiringly, Henley’s Invictus:

…It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Those last two lines still give me chills.

The thought of writing this post came to me because, since my last post, I’ve read four books and all of them were unforgettable and superbly written:

Nemesis by Philip Roth (his latest, about the polio epidemic in the 1940s, set, as usual, in his hometown of Newark, NJ) – If you want to learn how to “structure” your novel, read Roth. He’s inventive, clever and seamless – a masterful writer. One of the best. And, boy, does he know how to end a book.

Everyman by Philip Roth (because one book by Roth is never enough, I needed another). No other writer I can think of can write a novel about aging and death and leave you feeling transcendent at the end. My love for his writing knows no bounds.

Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life by Michael Greenberg – The subject matter is just what it sounds like – strung together in short, anecdotal chapters of about 5-6 pages, all set in New York City. A perfect book for the commute, too. Greenberg has a very well-reviewed novel that I’m planning to check out. An excellent writer.

Legend of a Suicide: Stories by David Vann. Set in Alaska, a kind of blend of Krakauer’s Into the Wild and the John Sayles film, Limbo. Structured in linked chapters, a fictionalized “novel” of the events and emotions surrounding his father’s suicide when Vann was a young boy. What he has done with the structure is a marvel. As I pored over it, its eloquence and inventiveness reminded me of Mozart’s “Variations on a French Folk Song” (Ah, Vous Dirai-je, Maman…). His writing style is unique, existential, empathetic, wondrous, suspenseful and not to be overlooked. Please don’t allow the subject matter to deter you. It’s so much more than what it seems. An essential book.

And since I began this post with a photo my sister took in London last year (I’d asked her if she would please go to “84 Charing Cross Road” and snap one and she happily obliged!), I must recommend the the book of the same name by Helene Hannf, particularly if you’re a writer — as well as the lovely film of the same name, starring Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft (available as an instant download on Netflix!)

Once again, happy reading!

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