Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Contest Tip-Off; Reviews #51 and 52 (of 2006); Bonus: The Book That Changed My Life

Heads up: the Litblog Co-Op not only has a great interview with Valerie Trueblood, author of SEVEN LOVES, but we've got a little contest going on as well, with copies of the book as swag. Two inquiries: know a novel where a minor relationship is the key to the plot? and a novel with an unconventional structure? You describe yours, and best comments win a book. Come on! You know you've got some! (As a member I can't enter, and I've got the book, but... Cloud Atlas, anyone?)

As for the reviews: I know I'm pushing it with fitting these books into my last year's total but reviewing them this late in January, and it doesn't necessarily speak well for this year's total. Truth be told, I'm not resolving a book total this year. I'm getting married, darnit, and planning a bookstore to boot, and if I find myself reading under 50 titles, you'll know the reason why. I'll still talk about those I do read (and hear about) here -- no worries.

Review #51
Edited by Roxanne Coady and Joy Johanneson
(Gotham, October 2006)
Roxanne Coady is another one of my bookselling heroines. The force behind R.J. Julia Booksellers in Connecticut, she's met her share of literary luminaries. But the impetus for this collection of their writings didn't happen until she heard the stats on literacy in her home state. The numbers so appalled her that she figured she'd better do something. Coady founded Read to Grow, a non-profit that puts books in the hands of new mothers in every hospital in the state. All this to say, a chunk of the proceeds from THE BOOK THAT CHANGED MY LIFE go straight to Read to Grow -- thus giving this book the potential to actually change some lives.

But it wouldn't work if the book wasn't worth reading, and buying. Fortunately, it's both. (At an event we had at our store with Coady, I was a bit worried because the crowd was only about 10 people or so... but when I looked at the inventory the next morning we'd sold over 20 books! Part of this has to do with Coady's skills as a bookseller, and an inspiring philanthropist, but the book's worth buying, too.) The pieces, by 71 authors (from political nonfiction to thrillers to lit crit to tearjerkers), range in length from half a page to three pages or so, and of course some were more interesting to me than others. But every one was a fascinating look into someone else's reading history, the books that made them who they are. And of course I developed my own must-read list while reading it. The one I keep thinking of is Harold Bloom's pitch for -- no, not Shakespeare -- the American fantasy novel LITTLE, BIG. Gotta read that one.

To be honest, Coady's book has disappeared into the wilds of my overloaded bookshelves and I can't find it at the moment to review which pieces I found particularly interesting. But you know, that's not necessarily important for a book to change your life. I've talked to my fellow booksellers about books they continue to recommend year after year, though at this point that can't remember the names of most of the characters, or even exactly what happens. But they remember the impression the book left on them, the world that opened through those words. It's obviously something I believe in pretty strongly. I'm grateful to Coady for offering the chance for authors to reflect on their own reading journey, and for all of us to contribute to her efforts on behalf of literacy.

Review #52
by Mark Helprin
(Pocket Fiction, 1984)
I've been told for years that I would love this book, by the ALP and others who know my prediliction for literate fantasy and my love for my adopted city. Somehow I never got to it, until I came across an ancient mass market copy at Adam's Books, one of the best new additions to my neighborhood. I was about to leave for Christmas in California, and the pocket-sized book seemed meant for a winter's plane trip away from home.

For once, I didn't buy a trashy magazine for the plane, and I never cracked the American Way magazine. I was absorbed in the wild story of machinist and thief and time traveler Peter Lake, a huge white horse, a "Gangs of New York" style group of miscreants called the Short Tails, a wealthy family with a daughter dying of consumption and obsessed with the stars, a wall of cloud that cuts through the present into the future, a glowing newspaper building that runs like a well-oiled machine, couples who come together despite the odds, magical conspiring circumstances, a mystical bridge-builder, an utterly perfect winter-bound upstate New York town, and always, always, the wintry landscape of New York City, from the 19th century to the end of the 20th, where the uncontrollable chaos of contradictions might lead, in the end, to justice.

Forgive the headlong run-on sentence, but that's what my experience of the book was like, and naming it's details is the only way I can think to describe it. It seems to me that Helprin had a hugely ambitious philosophy behind this work of fiction that I still don't entirely understand, and when I came to the end I was a little baffled by what, exactly, had happened, and almost disappointed that events weren't more clearly resolved. But as I get a little distance from it, I realize the journey was one of the most memorable I've ever taken. I underlined dozens of lines and paragraphs, for their language or their imagery or their ideas. I'm going to be thinking about this book for a long time. Now that winter has finally hit New York, the book reminds me how loveable the city truly is, its great potential, as well as its great capacity for suffering. Read it now, while the weather is cold enough to make you sit up and take notice. It's going on my all-time favorites list.

Bonus: Roxanne Coady's question, What's the book that changed your life?, is an irresistable one. Here's my answer. I'd dearly love to hear yours.

The book(s) that changed my life were L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series. Despite my argument to the contrary with my 10th grade English teacher, I don't think now I'd call it great literature. The perspective is too conventionally Edwardian, and the insights are the kind that are useful in everyday life and behavior, rather than searing and merciless. But it made me the person I am. The story of the awkward girl with the "imagination" and how she grew up, fell in love, studied and worked and had children and friends, was a great comfort to me in my own awkward adolescent days. I often felt that Anne had more to work with on Prince Edward Island than I did in Bakersfield, California, as far as food for the imagination, but she made me start trying. And she was an inspiration not only to poetic flights and good reading, but to that most nerdy of attributes, virtue. Looking for the best, in people and situations, became not a Pollyanna-ish delusion, but an act of both artistic creation and moral good faith. And with practice, it got easier, for her and for me.

I'm sure my obsession with Anne and her world (I read the entire series every summer of my teen years) had some negative effects too. Her long-suppressed but ultimately consummated romance with her best friend Gilbert certainly colored many of my relationships with guy friends, and gave me some weird expectations that the whole "why, I've loved you all this time!" thing was the only way to find true love. And since many of the stories of side characters in that series had an O. Henry-ish inevitable happy ending, reading them probably did nothing to help my often unrealistic romantic expectations. But in the end I did manage to find myself with a man who, as Anne preferred "could be wicked, but wouldn't." (Too much virtue is boring, obviously, and Anne understood the attraction to the bad boy, and its limitations.) So it can't have been too bad for me.

One of my favorite lines in the series is Montgomery's description of "long strings of days where nothing happens, like pearls slipping off a string." Anne of Green Gables taught me that fantasy and good faith can actually lead to great contentment in the midst of ordinary life. And she started me off on a lifetime of loving books with as great a passion as she did. Not bad for a red-haired orphan kid.

So: What's the book that changed your life?