I’m sending this off to a friend–I think it matches his description of a childhood favorite he’s been looking for for his eldest son–so of course I had to re-read it first. Books that I loved as a child fit into 3 categories: A) great literature, I love them even more as an adult and find more in them than I saw then (eg The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell); B) still a good read, “comfort food” that I revisit half for the book itself and half for nostalgia (most of my childhood favorites); C) I can’t recapture what was so good about it, all the magic has vanished (no good example springs to mind right now). This is sort of B-; it’s not bad, but has some major drawbacks (condescension, a little cutesiness, plot problems, unsettling mix of SF and fairy tale–important events seem to be either dreams, hypnotism, or pre-determined somehow). It’s better in my memories than on the page, but I do love the sturdy little rocket, the nifty varnish that protects it in space, the oxygen urn that goes Phee-eep! This book must have formed some of my ideas about inventions. I used to fantasize about creating a kind of solid light that would have the texture of those cubical light-brown erasers that crumble; it would be a cool light like a firefly’s, and you’d have to actually cover it to create darkness. Mr. Bass, the mysterious child-like man who turns out to be the descendent of Mushroom folk, is more cook than scientist, and his inventions (which he can’t re-create) have a hand-made, organic quality to them.
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, 2003.
Very enjoyable–an unusual blend of science fiction and general-fiction-bordering-on-romance. The time traveler is Henry, punk-rock-loving librarian (how could I not read this book?), who has Chrono-Displacement Disorder; when he’s stressed, he vanishes from the present and re-appears, naked, in another time (often one that’s meaningful to him, seldom more than a few decades away). His wife is Clare, who first meets Henry when she is 6 and he is 36; he first meets her in real time when he is 28 and she is 20. Niffenegger ( I love that name!) brings out both the strangeness and the normalcy of this tangled, predestined?, deeply loving relationship. It’s not particularly good SF qua SF (although much better written than most), but as straight fiction it’s terrific. One of the things Henry does when back in the past, aside from hanging out with his younger self, is going to rock concerts he missed the first time around. I can’t think of a concert I particularly regret off the top of my head, but I would go see Ursula LeGuin speak in 1983–can’t believe I was foolish enough to pass that up the first time around.
The Austere Academy by Lemony Snicket, 2000. (Book the Fifth in A Series of Unfortunate Events)
I started Book 1 when it came out and it was just too dreary and Roald Dahl-ishly sadistic for me. (Harry Potter started that way too, but thank goodness that aspect has been shrinking from book to book.) But my little sister loves them, and my stepmother recommended Book 6 specifically (The Ersatz Elevator) for its humor. I enjoyed #6 quite a bit and asked Elisabeth (my sister, who’s not really little anymore–she’s 12!) to tell me which was the next-funniest. AA has good moments (I love the school’s motto being Memento mori), but not great ones. The gimmicks get beaten into the ground. Baby Sunny’s single-word sentences (” ‘Ivoser,” Sunny said, which meant something like ‘I bet I can use my four sharp teeth to scrape the paint away and make the walls a bit less ugly’ “) were mildly funny once, but they recur dozens of times in each book. On the other hand, the satire is good (esepcially the crazy adults, like egotistic violin nut Vice Principal Nero who mimicks everything the children say), the language inventive (“cake-sniffers” is a great epithet), and poor Sunny working as an administrative assistant who has to make her own staples is very funny. The Baudelaire orphans are decent, brave, and resilient. What will happen in the end, I wonder? (Will there ever be an end? Aha, I see 13 are planned.) Will we find out the full story of Beatrice? Elisabeth pointed out the pattern of the dedications, which I hadn’t noticed before. This one is “For Beatrice–You will always be in my heart, in my mind, and in your grave.” Thanks, Elisabeth!
The Story of My Father by Sue Miller, 2003.
Wonderful memoir of Miller’s dad and his descent into Alzheimer’s. It brought back the year I spend caring for a woman with that horrible disease when I worked as a home health aide. The strange forms the memory loss takes (it’s NOT just losing your keys–I wince whenever someone jokingly attributes normal memory problems to incipient Alzheimer’s), the ways that personality stays and shifts, the frustration and denial pattern of the family–it’s all heart-wrenchingly portrayed. There’s also the wild story of the “cat house” that they renovated together–a beautiful old house that had been trashed by a recluse and his countless cats.
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace, 1999.
Wallace’s book of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, is one of my favorites. His writing skill blows me away, and he can also be incredibly funny. It’s very hard to pull off the kinds of stylistic quirks that are his trademarks (abrupt diction switches between polysyllabic/formal and slangy, long-than-what-they-comment-on footnotes, arch Nicknames That Are Capitalized, etc.), but he makes it seem effortless and right. My friend Rani highly recommends his novel, Infinite Jest, but it’s so long that I hesitate to get it through ILL. I’m waiting for a cheap used copy to come along. But this short story collection caught my eye at the Scranton library. I had read one of them, “The Depressed Person,” in the Atlantic or Harper’s, and remember not enjoying it but being mesmerised by it.
That earlier experience typified the way I feel about most of these pieces. The writing is so good I can’t put it down, but when I’m done I don’t feel any kind of transcendence or redemption, let alone pleasure. Minutely examining the ways humans can be horrible & lost in their own neuroses–I feel like screaming “WHAT’S THE POINT???” and yet it is done so skillfully that I wonder what I’m missing. In “On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, the Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon” a father who loathes his son compellingly describes the details of parenthood through the darkest possible lens–it’s awful to read and yet I am drawn to speculate about what’s going on, the clues Wallace leaves, etc. Some of the stories are so avant-garde/meta-fiction/playing with the boundaries of narrative that they leave me cold. “Datum Centurio,” a sort of SF piece which consists of dictionary definitions from 2096, is just stupid.
BIWHM exactly fits my impression of “contemporary fiction”–it may be skilled but it’s not what I’m looking for in reading. Give me contemporary non-fiction, but I’ll stick to old-fashioned fiction.
The Young Visiters by Daisy Ashford, 1919.
Another book of my dad’s which turned up in my collection, which I re-read before returning. The gimmick is that Daisy was 9 years old when she wrote it. Classic first line: “Mr. Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking peaple to stay with him. ” It’s quite readable and very funny, with some perceptive satire, inadvertently or not. The amazing thing to me is that she actually wrote it all the way through to the end in a more-or-less coherent way–and yet didn’t grow up to write anything further. I wonder if there was some adult aid or interference, but I haven’t found anything to confirm that.
Books by young prodigies–like She Was Nice to Mice, which came out in 1975 when I was 10 and the author was 12 (my gosh, it was Ally Sheedy, the actress!)–always made me feel that I was not measuring up. I’m not sure where that ridiculous sense of competition came from, but I distinctly remember being around 8 or 9 and learning that John Stuart Mill could read and write ancient Greek at the age of 4. I mentally threw up my hands at that one.
Arthur Hamilton and His Dog, anonymous, 1851.
My first post-processing project for Distributed Proofreaders. What a terrible book, typical of the saintly-doomed-child books later parodied by Edward Gorey. Arthur’s sent away from home because his widowed mother can’t afford to keep him. He’s miserable. His older brother dies. Then he dies. The end. The dog, Rover, barely appears at all; he is described as a Newfoundland but in the sole illustration he looks more like a lumpy border collie.
The Future of Life by Edward O. Wilson, 2002.
Like many/most environmental books, an inventory of the sorry shape of the planet and the horrifying rate of extinction we’re causing. Particularly fascinating depictions of rare and unusual threatened animals. But–unusual and refreshing–the last section of the book is guardedly optimistic about the possibility of reversing these trends and actually proposes useful, workable solutions. The very best thing is a dispassionate look at the two sides of the environmental debate, how they see /stereotype each other, and what can be done about it.
My other favorite thing is the photo on the jacket of Wilson with an anteater. Wilson’s holding out something in one hand, but the anteater is nosing his shirt instead, its powerful claws resting on his other hand. It looks remarkably dim and confused, yet sweet, with its tiny eyes, small head and humongous forearms. I saw some giant anteaters at the Tucson zoo and was struck by how narrow their skulls are–it didn’t seem that an actual brain could fit inside that tube-like compartment.
Great Hollywood Wit, compiled and edited by Gene Shalit, 2002.
Some of these lines are funny, but the only thing new to me was: “Show business is a mine of humor. Example: ‘Hey, that joke is mine!'” And yet I read it cover to cover (not that it took very long). Why? Why do I have this fear that I’ll miss some gem if I don’t slog all the way through? I wouldn’t even have checked it out of the library if it hadn’t been part of a leased collection we’re returning because of the state budget cuts. As long as I felt I could get to it some day if I really wanted to, there was little motivation to take it home. Now that it’s going back, I want to make sure I didn’t miss anything. This is why it’s so hard for me to get rid of books. Easy come (free or dollar a bag), hard to go.
I never understood Gene Shalit’s appeal, and this book didn’t shed any light on it. Our friend Geoff used to talk about his very high Q rating. Didn’t they control for facial hair?
Red Sky in Mourning: A True Story of Love, Loss, and Survival at Sea by Tami Oldham Ashcraft, 2002.
Doesn’t hold a candle to Steve Callahan’s Adrift, but an engrossing read. I’m drawn to stories of courage and strength of mind in adversity, that will to keep going, to beat down wishful thinking and tackle things as they are–skills it’s taken me a long time to begin to learn. Thankfully I probably won’t have to live through a shipwreck or similar disaster, but knowing that humans can and do survive the most awful circumstances helps me feel more prepared to deal with the minor equivalents.