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In which I tell you about some of the books I've been glad to read in the past months.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O'Toole. This book is consistently hilarious, sometimes crude, and delightfully original. A New Orleans mama's boy loses himself in medieval philosophy and decides to adhere as closely as possible to its ideals of "theology and geometry": he rails against modernity in the middle of the movie theatre, solemnly loans his copy of Boethius to a hapless policeman, and carries on a furious correspondence with a lascivious beatnik determined to bring him into the twentieth century. (She fails.)
I laughed a lot. Ignatius Reilly is ridiculous, but I still admired his refusal to approve of the banal and immoral modern life, even when it made him stick out like a sore and very tactless thumb, and his determination to see everything through a different worldview, even when it made no sense to the people around him.
"You must begin a reading program immediately so that you may understand the crises of our age," Ignatius said solemnly. "Begin with the late Romans, including Boethius, of course. Then you should dip rather extensively into early Medieval. You may skip the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. That is mostly dangerous propaganda. Now that I think of it, you had better skip the Romantics and the Victorians, too."2)
The Ditchdigger's Daughters by Yvonne S. Thornton. This was for book club, and I enjoyed it very much. (Alas, I missed the discussion due to an inconveniently timed cold.) Thornton's father was an uneducated laborer determined to see all five of his daughters earn medical degrees. Only one became a doctor-- Yvonne herself is a well-respected perinatologist and obstretrician-- but two others work in dental medicine, another has a doctorate in psychology, and another enjoys a comfortable life as a court stenographer. THeir father's work ethic and instinctive wisdom won me over almost immediately. They had quite a few adventures growing up, playing in a band together, earning the money and respectability their parents never had.
Thornton discusses the obstacles they faced as black women, but never in a self-pitying way. Those prejudices just never set the girls back; their daddy wouldn't let them. I was truly inspired by how they have doggedly overcome so many roadblocks. I think that their story shows the power of ability combined with confidence.
All Over But the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg. The recollections of this Pulitzer-prize winning journalist on a hard-fought "white trash" childhood and the people who made him who he is today. Bragg's an incredible writer, but what really made this one stand out, to me, was how unapologetically Bragg chronicled his own flaws. He didn't try to make himself the hero, as most memoir writers do. This was just the story of his family, and when he stood in a good light, he wrote that. When he stood in a bad light, he wrote that. And when he didn't figure much in the story at all, he stepped back from the stage and let others-- his remarkable momma, his unbreakable brother Sam-- take first place.
The one I wanted to be just like for the longest time was the one who beat me up every other Thursday, who chased me around and around the house with a slingshot loaded with chinaberries, who lied and told me that a sunk-in septic tank outside the house was really an unmarked grave, who rigged up a trapeze in the barn and let me go first, to test the ropes, and who hid with me under that bed in that big, hateful house, and, as tears rolled down my face, put his arm around my shoulder.4)
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy. I have already expressed my love for Cormac McCarthy, so I will spare you the paean and just say that while dark (as he usually is), this book's darkness feels true. It's not the woe-is-us absurdity of postmodernism. It comes from a place of conviction, of stubborn morality. This was the first time I realized how conservative McCarthy must be. I think he is extraordinarily sober in his analysis of mankind's potential for evil, uncompromising in how he values truth and courage, and determined in his desire for liberty.
People anymore you talk about right and wrong they're liable to smile at you. But I never had a lot of doubts about things like that . . . I hope I never do.5)
Memoir from Antproof Case by Mark Helprin. Did I already express my love for Helprin too? Oh yes, I did. After reading four or five of his books in relatively close succession, I would say that he has two main themes: the losing but noble fight to preserve Judeo-Christian values in the West, and the supremacy of love. Much more artistically expressed of course, but that's pretty much what it all boils down to.
Memoir is presented as a collection of one man's memories, written for someone precious to read after he dies. This man is never named, which is quite amazing when you think about it. Anyway, I think you would call his life "cinematic": Helprin excels in creating unique characters and this guy doesn't disappoint. He has been a bank robber, a mental patient, a crusader against coffee. He grew up in poverty, witnessed murder, fought in World War II, and has lived on at least four continents. Just . . . read it.
Everything starts so far back that to explain it you must begin with the beginning of the world.Now what? I've been tackling Gods and Generals, and I already have a forever-long list of books to read, but do you have suggestions for me? Books that you just couldn't put down, or that rang in your mind long after finishing?