Torches: literary lights for dark times
Ever had one of those times when every day brought bad news?
In addition to our boatload of national catastrophes these last two months, the last two weeks brought me one report after the other of the struggles of friends and family members.
Cancer, mental illness, a COVID-19 death (there were other causes as well), a retired man whose stocks were taking a major hit: on and on marched this procession of doom and gloom.
In addition, the last two years have left many people I know down in the dumps in general, no matter what their politics. Sometimes a bit of sunshine breaks through the dark clouds of current events, but more often the headlines bring nothing but rain and overcast skies.
Never fear. Help is here. And no — I’m not giving away free bottles of New Amsterdam Gin.
Here are several books that can bring some light into darkness or at least allow a temporary escape from hard times.
First up is “I Capture the Castle.” In this 1948 classic by Dodie Smith, author of “101 Dalmatians,” we meet 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, one of the brightest and wittiest narrators of a novel you’ll ever encounter. We follow her as she tries to hone her writing skills, assist her impoverished family, deal with her sister Rose’s romantic flings, and deal with falling in love.
Though some have labeled “I Capture the Castle” “a young adult book,” they’re wrong. It’s for anyone age 14 and up — Smith herself intended it as an adult novel — and will delight anyone who loves sparkling prose. “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” — who can resist a novel that opens with that line?
Or maybe you’d prefer a blend of philosophy and humor for your entertainment. If so, pick up a copy of “Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates: Using Philosophy (And Jokes) To Explore Life, Death, The Afterlife, And Everything In Between” by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. (Whew! Saying that title can leave you breathless.) Both men majored in philosophy at Harvard, and both are as funny as all get-out. I’ve read the book cover-to-cover twice and still open it from time to time, mostly for the humor. Here’s a brief sampling:
Women in supermarket: “The turkeys in your frozen food section seem so small. Do they get any bigger?”
“No, ma’am. They’re dead.”
Three elderly men visit a doctor for a memory test. The doctor asks the first one, “What’s three times three?”
“285!” the man replies.
“Worried, the doctor turns to the second man. “How about you? What’s three times three?”
“Uh, Monday!” the second man shouts.
Even more concerned, the doctor motions to the third man.
“Well, what do you say? What’s three times three?”
“Nine!” the third man replies.
“Excellent!” the doctor exclaims. “How did you get that?”
“Oh, easy,” the man says. “You just subtract the 285 from Monday.”
Sign in a pub Cathcart and Klein both visit: “Reality is a hallucination brought on by a lack of alcohol.”
In “Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book,” Walker Percy seeks to make us more aware of reality, without the alcohol, of course. He pokes gentle fun at the self-help movement, cracks wise with the jokes and observations, and explores human nature and the self. Percy asks questions like this one: “Why is it possible to learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula, which is six thousand light-years away, than you presently know about yourself, even though you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life?”
Percy examines the self like a jeweler peering through his loupes and then provides “Thought Experiments” in which he creates various scenarios to help us look in different ways at the self. In his chapter on why so many people have trouble with public speaking and giving speeches, for instance, he offers this point to ponder:
“Thought Experiment (II): Explain why Moses was tongue-tied and stagestruck before his fellow Jews but had no trouble talking to God.”
John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” is a masterwork of comedy, still one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read, though that was over 40 years ago when it was first published. Medievalist Ignatius J. Reilly of New Orleans rides against a myriad of enemies, especially modernism, like some bloated, opinionated twentieth-century Don Quixote. Toole has the accents of New Orleans down pat, and the dialogue will often make you laugh aloud.
Mark Helprin’s “Freddy and Fredericka” brings us the Prince of Wales, Freddy, an overeducated buffoon whose antics heap shame on the royal family and bring mirth to the press and its readership. His bubble-headed wife, Fredericka, is equally a disaster. To force them to mature, the queen and a strange man who may be Merlin dispatch them to America, where they must try to return our country to British rule.
Again, this book brought me laughter many times, but I also love following the couple’s trials in America, the rekindling of their love for each other, and the affection they come to feel toward the United States. Near the end of “Freddy and Fredericka,” Freddy gives a wonderful speech at a political convention where he reminds his audience — and us — of the reasons to cherish this country.
So if you’re seeking some sunshine or an escape from the headlines, give one of these books a shot.