On my nightstand: (PIC above)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy – The book beat out J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey for the National Book Award in fiction in 1962. That’s more of an FYI than the reason to read it, but it really is that good. It tells the story of Binx Bolling – think Southern Don Draper – coming of age in New Orleans around Mardi Gras. Dysfunctional, irresponsible, immature – that’s Bolling. The kind of guy Percy would write the line “Toward her I keep a Gregory Peckish sort of distance” for. However, it is his aunt Emily and depressed cousin Kate who are the standouts to me. I paused when Kate says to Bolling “Have you noticed that only in time of illness or disaster or death are people real?”
March by Geraldine Brooks – a novel that retells Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women from the point of view of the absent father, Mr. March, who has gone off to the Civil War. The chapter “A Wooden Nutmeg” is devastating – recalling March’s days as a peddler and the time he spent with the Clement family. All is fine and well until it is not – the grievous times of slavery in the US. This New York Times review nails it…
(PIC – copy of Dracula on my bed in hotel in Rwanda)
Dracula by Bram Stoker – A surprisingly fitting read while I was in Africa, considering not long after I arrived I was told the politicians are sucking the blood out of the people. Yes, like vampires. No, not really, but they are killing them. It made me realize Dracula could fit anyone’s mold of what is most wrong in this world from anti-semitism (Nosferatu) to AIDS (Francis Ford Coppola’s film version).
Filmmakers have interpreted Stoker’s 19th-century gothic novel in their own way, but none have told the story as I believe Stoker intended it – as he wrote and to some extent lived it.
Stoker spent the bulk of his life as an assistant to the actor Henry Irving, the leading actor of his era who owned the Lyceum Theatre in London. Stoker’s life, it has been pointed out to me, was spent observing the marginalized and memorizing words. At the time he wrote the book, Ireland was primarily rural, there was widespread poverty, and Catholicism reigned. Secret organizations had begun using violent tactics to get the British out. Through this, Stoker was an Irishman living in England where the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Surely Stoker was aware of the heinous living conditions of those living in the tenements (slums) and the population of street children. The lawlessness and filth of the streets, the grandeur of the rich, the drama in the theatre – when you take into account the history of the day and what he saw WOW now look at his story.
Count Dracula may be based on Irving, but I want to know who Dr. Van Helsing was based on (he has always been my favorite character). Is there any chance his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle influence him? Imagine Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Van Helsing sitting down for a cup of tea!
*I’ve assumed to this point you are familiar with the novel – the story. If not, here are the basics….
The story of Count Dracula’s attempt to relocate from Transylvania to England is told in an epistolary format, as a series of journal entries, telegrams, newspaper reports, ship entries, and letters. These items interestingly enough are not always in the correct chronological order – as if Stoker wanted the reader to participate more fully in the telling of the story.
My favorite portion of the book are young Jonathan Harker’s journal entries detailing his voyage from Munich to Dracula’s ruined castle in Transylvania. His notes about the meals he eats, which recipes to get for his bride Mina Murray, the passengers he meets, the green hills he passes by, the wolves of the night, Dracula’s study…
The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty – This one has been on my list for a while. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972. Welty knew the south as well as or better than anyone, and of course she is a masterful writer. I am more familiar with her short stories, treasures each one.
The story is told by Laurel Land, a Mississippian living in Chicago, who travels home to comfort her father “the Judge” in the hospital. His second wife, Fay, a clueless wit, is there helpless. That Welty is as fair with her pen as she is to Fay is a testament to her talent as a writer to hold just enough back and to be honest her knowledge of those women in the south unworthy to be southern women. The Judge dies, Fay falls apart, and Laurel – a widow herself – must take accord of everything happening and find it within herself to survive the next few days and move healthily on.
Deliverance by James Dickey – Where to begin. I live two houses down from a home/place/neighbor I refer to simply as “Deliverance” – a crazy (truly), loudmouthed, foul-mouthed, man who lives in a shack sans utilities with a selection of homemade birdhouses worthy of the kind of those disfigured cannibalistic mountain men in horror movies. Did I mention he lets of fireworks during the day randomly and cuts wood at dawn? I don’t hate him, but I wouldn’t be sad if he were evicted either – who pays his taxes?? His existence inspired a friend to challenge me to a one-month book club reading Deliverance. Well, I had seen the film (so good, so disturbing), so I read the book. However, I read the article on the making of the film in my favorite magazine Garden & Gun first. It made reading the book that much more of an experience. Don’t think I need to read it again and certainly not seeing the film again. They are both good, but …
Wondering about the book – well, just think what could go wrong with four city slickers heading down a river through unchartered territory in redneck country.
Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne – A science fiction novel published in 1864 about a German geology professor, his son, and an Icelandic J.J. Watt follow a cryptic message miles across the globe and down, down, down into an underground world.
I grew up on Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, watching the film every year at the Smithsonian with my dad. Glad I finally made time for this book.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed – I had zero interest for absolutely no reason in seeing the film or reading the book, then I watched the film on TV three times. Well, only once all the way through. It happened to be on and as is the norm aside from when football is on, there was nothing else on and I just felt like some TV. Anyhow, I obviously enjoyed the film enough to keep watching it over and over and then read the book. Actually, I saw the film, began reading Tiny Beautiful Things, and then read Wild. I read Wild in one day. I loved it. Not because it is incredibly well written or a truly great original story with exceptional characters, but it is real and was exactly right for me at the time and her story as told by the imperfect her is about reaching farther and harder than you ever thought you could or would.
Essentially, a 26-year-old orphan (her mother has passed away four years earlier) straps on some too small boots and then some sandals and duct tape and walks a bulk of the Pacific Crest Trail. About as unprepared as one could be (though less so than as indicated in the film) to take on something that huge (her backpack nicknamed “Monster” symbolic of the actual emotional weight she is carrying). I marvel at her bravery and arrogance, but more at the former. The miles humbled her. The blood and bruises becoming her badges of honor.
“If your nerve, deny you – go above your nerve” – that’s so Strayed and why I adore her. That and because she carried with her copies of As I Lay Dying by Faulkner and Dubliners by James Joyce with her.
Hop, skip, spin, done. Those four words and the questions Who would I be if I did and who would I be if I didn’t got her through the miles. I want to see what they can do for my life as I continue to reach as inspired by Strayed.
(PIC – left my copy of Wild on the shared bookshelf in hotel in Rwanda)
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed – Select letters and responses from the then-anonymous online columnist while at the online literary magazine The Rumpus. Her message – reach hard in the direction of the lives we want. Real, blunt advice – the kind you never find.