It’s a wonderful day when a book surprises us with its wit, story, style, and wisdom.
Recently I was talking with an old friend when who mentioned having read years ago Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods. My friend had then felt no attraction to Bryson and had wondered what all the fuss was about, yet in the last few months he has become a Bryson fan, intent on reading all his books. What set off his new-found respect for Bryson’s novels, travel books, and essays I don’t know, but hearing the thrill of enthusiasm in his voice reminded me once again of the importance of books and why we read and love them.
Most of us like lists: “The 100 Greatest Novels of the Twentieth Century,” “The Ten Best Movies of All Time,” “The Top Five Barbeque Eateries in North Carolina,” and so on. We peruse such lists, mentally congratulating the choices we approve, shaking our heads over those we don’t, and bemoaning certain personal favorites that never even made the cut.
Last year a storm of controversy erupted over the destruction of writer Ray Bradbury’s home in Los Angeles. Architect Thom Mayne purchased the property, obtained a demolition order, and razed the 2,400-square-foot house.
In her novel Under The Influence (William Morrow, 2016, 321 pages, $25.99), Joyce Maynard makes her title do double duty in its import and meaning. After being arrested and convicted for DWI, Helen losses custody of her eight-year-old son, Ollie, to her ex-husband. Determined to regain rights to her son, Helen attends AA and stays sober, but the rest of her life lies in ruins.
For reasons unfathomable to me, I have spent the last two weeks on a fiction-reading jag. Until I was about 40, fiction was my favorite literary genre, probably because I wanted to write novels and reading fiction is the best way, other than actually writing, to learn how to put together such a beast.
In March, Jim Harrison, age 78, died of a heart attack.
Harrison was among the most prolific of American writers, pounding out poems, essays, short stories, novels, a memoir, and cookbooks. In the memoir, Off To The Side, he addresses what he calls his “seven obsessions”: alcohol, food, stripping, hunting and fishing, religion, the road, and the place of the human being in the natural world. He might have included an eighth — cigarettes — as he was a lifelong smoker.
On the wall by the closet behind my desk is this quotation from Ernest Hemingway: “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they really happened and after you finished reading one you will feel that it all happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and the sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people then you are a writer.”
Novels that make me laugh aloud are rare. Two novels, Confederacy of Dunces and Freddy and Fredericka, brought laughter, and in several of his books, Anthony Burgess had me going. Some essayists have the same effect — here I’m thinking of Chicago columnist Mike Royko, who died almost 20 years ago, but whose columns, depending on the subject, are still funny, mostly because of Royko’s acute sense of the ridiculous in politics and culture.
In recent years, we have seen a stream of books and authors promoting atheism. Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; comedic columnist Dave Barry; J.G. Ballard author of numerous works of science fiction; the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci; John Fowles, author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman; Christopher Hitchens, renowned columnist and author of God Is Not Great: these are only a few of the late 20th century writers who have spoken or written of their disbelief in a god. These writers, and many millions of others, including your reviewer, assumed that societies around the globe were becoming more secular and less religious.
Near the end of The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups, Dr. Leonard Sax visits Shore, a private school in Sydney, Australia. In a conversation with the headmaster, Dr. Timothy Wright, Sax asks, “What is the purpose of school?”