Favorite Books

Just now I had the great pleasure of staring at my bookshelf for a couple minutes, deciding what to write to you about. I’ve had these shelves since Mary and I moved into this room when I was about five, and they sag a little with an assortment of classic literature, children’s books, and a growing number of writings on educational theory and policy. I skipped over ones I know you will have heard of. You know Laura Ingalls Wilder, C.S. Lewis, and Harper Lee, and if I have not already told you about I Like You and The Cozy Book, I’m sure I will someday, whether you want me to or not. Also, though I’m appreciative of all the ed books, I am not destined to crack any of those bindings with overuse. What I chose, perhaps unsurprisingly, was almost exclusively kid’s books.

There is something in childhood flights of adventure that is binding. It is the dyscatastrophe and the eucatastrophe, the moral imaginings of battle and redemption and grace. Not that most of these are adventure stories in the traditional sense, but they are written for people who are still small enough to see how grand this Story really is, who have not yet believed the falsehood of everlasting meaninglessness. Thus, when you read these stories, you have to read them like a child, like they matter, else you’re reading blind.

All of the below books fall into one of two categories. Either when I first read them I wouldn’t shut up about them, like I won’t shut up about the ASC in Staunton, VA, or, more simply, I cannot remember a time when their stories were not a part of my bones. They are listed roughly in the order that I first loved them.

The Melendy Books by Elizabeth Enright: (The Saturdays, The Four-Story Mistake, Then There Were Five, Spiderweb for Two) Mary and I sometimes reminisce about these as if Mona and Randy and Rush and Oliver and Mark were real live people we actually knew, as if we too used citronella to ward off mosquitoes, and had a Cuffy to boss us about. Their childhood was my childhood. Last fall, I read The Saturdays to Liesel, and was delighted to discover that it was the same wonderful book I remembered, only better.

The Story of the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit: She dedicates it “in memory of childhoods identical, but for the accidents of time and space.” I do sincerely hope that everyone’s childhood contained moments like this, when you went on some complex quest for honor (and adventure,) and anyone who told you it couldn’t be done was only “Albert-next-door,” and not to be heeded. Also, Oswald Bastable is my favorite narrator of all time.

Pinky Pye by Eleanor Estes: The bits of this book that I remember coming back to time and time again are the chapters that Pinky, the cat, supposedly writes herself on Mr. Pye’s typewriter while he naps. The entire story is also good for learning about how to properly enjoy a summer vacation, pygmy owls, and watching.

The Witches by Roald Dahl: You may know this one, but still, isn’t it marvelous? There’s an underground network of evil out to get you and only you, and you and only you can fight it. Grandmothers are wise; pretty women with candy are not to be trusted; one may sustain awkward battle wounds; Quentin Blake’s illustrations are quite perfect—good lessons all. (Also see The BFG.)

The Mennyms by Sylvia Waugh: (followed by Mennyms in the Wilderness, Mennyms Under Seige, and Mennyms Alone) Often when I describe this series to someone who hasn’t heard of it, (which is, it seems, everyone but myself) they get a look on their face as if I’ve smilingly advised them to eat raw meat. It’s about a family of life-sized rag dolls who live unobtrusively at 5 Brocklehurst Grove. The story’s solemn weirdness is just mundane and unselfconscious enough that the entire thing is utterly enchanting. Trust me on this one: Soobie alone is worth the read.

The Penderwicks by Jean Birdsall: When I first got this book for Christmas in 2005, I read it three times in row to myself, then aloud to my family who was stuck in the car with me. I couldn’t stop. It’s subtitled “A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy.” All books should have subtitles like that. All of them.

The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman: I’ve never read The Golden Compass, and have no opinion to offer. This, however, is a marvelous little mystery about orphans and cursed jewels and opium dens. He writes chase scenes that actually interest me, and that’s quite a feat. (I am not, strictly speaking, a fast-paced action kind of girl. I like talk.) I have a specific memory of outlining the whole plot for Sarah Moon on Mrs. Liebmann’s board one day, when we should have been doing classwork.

The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke: I like this book because of Venice, and I like this book because of Scipio, the thief lord himself. It starts as a story about friendship and growing up, then two-thirds of the way through, just when you’re quite comfortable, it begins to spit magic, forcing you to put in some effort and suspend disbelief you didn’t think needed suspending. But really, how could you be a child in Venice without a touch of the fantastic?

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume I, The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson: You saw the title—what else can I say? “Historical fiction about the Revolutionary War” doesn’t begin to cover it. Somewhere between fact and fable, it wasn’t written, but lovingly created.

Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre: This one is different. It’s not a children’s book. It’s not even a novel. A family friend and former teacher gave it to me as a graduation present two years ago, and though during its first reading I accidentally dropped it in the slimy spillway at my grandparents’ house, that doesn’t reflect how I feel about it in the slightest. I think everyone should read this book, particularly people who use words on a daily basis. It is about being good stewards of language, perpetually handing it with care and wisdom. In her chapter called “Read Well” she writes about why it matters “Our lives are lived in relationship to words, written and spoken, sacred and mundane. They are manna for the journey.” Golly, I love words…but that’s for another day.

Story

It is nine-thirty on Monday evening, I have just finished reading the first two chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird to my cousin Charity, and I am wide awake, while she is fast asleep. I guess my southern drawl is soporific. Obviously she wasn’t very engaged in Harper Lee, but I’m so glad to have picked it up.

You see, I really want to write this summer—a real story—something with a climax, plot complications, and the sort of happy ending a reader can curl up and fall asleep in. The books I had been trying to make myself read, while worth my time, weren’t doing much for the creative juices. Bleak House, anyone? I cannot possibly write with Dickens on the brain. I can read with animation, I can hate Mrs. Jellyby with a holy passion, I can weep when Jenny’s baby dies, but when I sit down afterwards, I cannot think of a blasted thing to write. I do not have that scope. Instead, over the last couple of weeks I have drawn up the entire imaginary family tree of a clan called the Hardisons—sixty-one members and six generations worth. There are a good number of extra-marital affairs and shady business dealings involved, and I have the bad habit of marrying off third cousins to one another, but it has been great fun. I have worked out everyone’s birth and death date, and maiden name, all of which are neatly outlined in the 150 year timeline taped above my bed. And yet, there is no story screaming to be written. I have simply been joined by sixty-one vaguely interesting little writing companions. And we all lie there in bed late at night with little to say for ourselves.

In any case, while I could never be Dickens, there is a smidgen of hope for Alice as Harper Lee. I do not mean either that I grew up in place like Maycomb, Alabama in the thirties, which I didn’t, or that I could write something as wonderful and successful as To Kill a Mockingbird, which I couldn’t. I simply mean that Atticus Finch? I know him. I could reach out and shake his dry, warm hand, and honestly declare that I was pleased to meet him. The trick of writing characters, at least for me, is that I cannot write the people I actually know, but I must actually know the people I write. (If that makes any sense.)I must know them, at times, better than I know myself.  Yet, before I really know someone, I must see them doing—I must see them performing the action of being themselves. I know Atticus because I have seen him remove his glasses to shoot a mad dog, and remove his jacket to defend an innocent man. Which brings me back to where I begun. I must have happenings and doings; I must have story. I must have eucatastrophe and dyscatastrophe. I must have that which makes the ladies reach for their smelling salts and the gentlemen for their guns.

My little battalion of sixty-one, or perhaps soldiers from an entirely different quarter, must rise, sail onto the page, stake their claim and defend their territory. Go West, young man into the distant regions of the memory and the subconscious, drag the rivers, mine the gold, rake the muck, but return not empty handed! (Please. I really want to write a story.)