Book Bytesby Marylaine Block
Books Too Good To Put Down--Serious Fiction
note: if you want to get your hands on any of these books, and they're out of print, click here.
O.K., so you say, what do I mean by serious fiction? The works that I'm including here are A) books that invite you to think seriously about life and the human condition, or B) books that evoke profound emotional responses, or C) books that you learn even more from on a second reading.
Edward Abbey. The Monkey Wrench Gang. Four unlikely rebels work together to screw up the machinery that is destroying the mountains and rivers of the west: a doctor, his receptionist and lover, Bonnie Abzugg, Vietnam vet George Hayduke, Seldom Seen Smith. But the destruction of bulldozers and Other expensive earthmoving equipment makes a lot of people real mad, and they go gunning for the gang. Hayduke appears to have done a death dive, and the other three, caught, put on an excellent semblance of penitents doing community service to make up for their offenses. Don't believe it for a minute, though. They return in Hayduke Lives. Here the stakes are higher, as is the damage to be wrought by a fantastically huge piece of equipment that rips everything in its humongous path. But it is mortal. Its mommy never told it not to play near cliffs.
Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid's Tale. Men have taken the world back, by firing women from their jobs and cutting off their bank accounts and credit cards. (If this sounds implausible, keep in mind that something of the sort if happening now in Afghanistan.) Women now have only two roles: wives, or servant babybreeders for wives. This is a scary book.
Joel Barr. Chapters and Verse. A charming book about a bookstore-owner, E. Baker, who selects her a nice enough young man as her successor and retires. This young man, Matthew, spends the rest of the book pondering about people and how they relate to books. He also spends a lot of time trying to solve the mystery of who E. Baker is (and eventually, where E. Baker is). E. Baker is a fascinating character, and Matthew becomes an interesting person in his own right over time. The story is told largely in letters.
Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451. In a future society, books are outlawed, but they live on nonetheless, kept alive by a dedicated band of booklovers who have become living books, having each committed a complete book to memory. You can burn a book, but you can't burn it out of people's minds. A booklover's nightmare, redeemed by booklovers.
David Brin. The Postman. Nuclear war and the disease following it were bad enough, but what was left was nearly destroyed altogether by violent survivalists. Sixteen years after the holocaust, Gordon, who has wandered westward seeking a place where someone will take charge and restore civilization, inadvertently becomes that person. Nearly freezing, he takes the uniform coat from a dead postman and finds he has become a symbol that government continues to exist somewhere, that somewhere responsible people are restoring order. At first he denies that he is indeed a postman, but other people won't accept his denial--their need to believe is too powerful. He takes their mail and delivers it, as he travels, and, acting as if he is a representative of government, hands down edicts guaranteeing civil liberties and personal freedom. But the civilized communities continue to struggle against the evil and power-mad. Gordon finally has to decide whether the preservation of the myth is important enough to defend with people's lives.
Octavia Butler. Parable of the Sower. In 2025, all sense of community has vanished with most of the jobs. The people who have a lot live in well-guarded fortress communities, while the people who have a little are continually on guard against the desperate starving people and druggies who raid, rape, and murder them and set fire to their homes. Lauren Olamina, a young black girl, daughter of a preacher, is a sensitive, who literally feels others' pain in her own body - a hindrance when her own community is raided and she has to kill somebody to escape along with two other survivors. They set out to walk north to Washington, where it's rumored there are jobs that pay money instead of indebtedness to the company stores, and along the way they pick up several traveling companions. Lauren no longer has any use for her father's Christianity, and instead begins to create her own religion of Earthseed; her companions become her converts.
Orson Scott Card. Lost Boys. A computer genius has moved his family and taken a new job, which turns out to be boring. Furthermore, his employers are trying to steal the game he has written. Meanwhile, his son is being terrorized by a teacher who not only bullies him but invites the other kids to bully him also; the child finds comfort and companionship among imaginary friends--who seem to be the young boys who have been murdered recently. Eventually the father realizes that his son is in serious danger. Throughout, we see the actions of a man who tries sincerely to live and practice his Mormon faith. Also see Card's wonderful Ender's Game. A government takes its talented children and trains them by way of video games to be warriors against interplanetary enemies--but some of the war games aren't games at all. The government uses the children and discards them if they fail. Ender succeeds, in ways nobody anticipated. This isn't just fantasy, it's literature. This is the first book in a series that includes Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide. Also, The Treasure Box, about a remarkable man who falls in love with a woman and learns too late she is a deadly succubus.
David Carkeet. The Greatest Slump of All Time. A fine novel about a team that stands a chance to win the world series in spite of the fact that their team includes a bunch of players suffering from depression, the world's most boring human being, a manager who gives the worst peptalks in history, a sneaky outfielder who plays some splendid game-winning tricks on his opponents, and a player who has just realized that he hates his wife.
Robert Coover. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.. A brilliant book about a man who creates his own world, and then vanishes into it entirely. Waugh has created an entire baseball league, inventing the players and their histories and statistics, as well as the teams and their historica rivalries. He then plays out their games with dice and a complicated set of rules, and keeps the statistics and writes up each addition to the history of the league. Day by day, the real Waugh becomes grayer and less substantial, as the Manager takes over his life.
Douglas Coupland. Microserfs. Daniel@microsoft.com is part of a house full of computer geeks, who follow Michael in his new OOP! computer venture startup to Silicon Valley, where ever so slowly, they begin to have actual lives. An interesting feature--characters are introduced by the seven categories they would choose in Jeopardy. (Our staff went around asking each other what our 7 Jeopardy categories are. Very revealing.)
Don DeLillo. White Noise. What a strange book it continued to be right up to the end. It seems almost structureless, like there's no particular reason why it should have started when it started, and ended when it ended, a real slice of life sort of thing, though it does take us through a crisis in the life of a marriage, and at the same time takes the skewer to academic life--the hero is a professor and scholar of Hitler, who is desperately struggling to learn German.
Peter DeVries. The Vale of Laughter. The story of a man with an irresistible urge to impersonate Groucho Marx. This has its up-side, in that the man is genuinely funny. The downside, of course, is that he uses his wit as a barrier against the world, and as a way of avoiding recognizing and dealing with his problems and relationships. It's a genuinely funny, witty book, and a profoundly sad one too. Also recommended, DeVries' Reuben, Reuben, which asks the question, "are men and women actually members of the same species?" And answers it in the negative.
Ron Faust. Fugitive Moon. A manic-depressive pitcher is suspected as a serial killer. He thinks he's innocent, but can't be sure because he doesn't remember everything he's done in his manic phase. The pitcher thinks and talks throughout about ideas. Lacking any sense of the emotive power of the ideas and words, he continually hurts and angers people. He despises the babble people use to conceal their absence of thought, and he lapses continually into parody of televangelist-babble, Ginsu-knife-babble, politician-babble, sportscaster-babble, etc. It is really a book about the power of language, told in brilliant language.
Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. One of the two funniest books ever written about the end of the world. (Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide is the other.) Armageddon is scheduled to occur, but the 11-year-old anti-Christ was switched in his crib with the wrong baby, and the demons have been carefully training the wrong child, who is ordinary, and totally lacking in the required powers. When the demons track down the correct anti-Christ, he is unwilling to play his part--he likes the world just fine and wants to see a lot more of it. The motorcyclists of the apocalypse, who are seriously annoyed that all the good scourges were taken by the four horsemen, are not to be missed.
Dorothy Gilman. The Maze in the Heart of the Castle. A kind of Pilgrim's Progress for a golden boy, suddenly deprived of both parents, and trying to understand why and how this has happened, and what meaning there could be in a world that allows that to happen. He meets many people who, in one way or another, shrink from life, and tempt him toward an easier path; he also meets and loves those who will betray him. But he survives and learns. Beautifully written, well suited for reading aloud, this book can be as meaningful to ten year olds and adults alike.
Bob Greene. All Summer Long. High school buddies meet again at a high school reunion, and resolve to spend a summer bumming around the country together, reliving their youth and getting to know one another again. The summer adventure changes them all and deepens their friendship, and gives two of them the courage to make radical and necessary changes in their lives. A really beautiful story of male bonding that you have to be over 40 (but not necessarily male) to appreciate.
William Hallberg. The Rub of the Green. A fine novel about a professional golfer who puts everything he's got into his game, because golf is a lot easier to deal with than people or emotions. When he does allow himself to care about somebody, he assaults the man who is attacking her, and ends up in prison; his chosen prison labor is creating a two-hole golf course. The thought that goes into playing a good game, or creating a course is well-depicted. And the hero comes to terms with himself over the course of the novel.
Donald Harington. The Choiring of the Trees. Some authors are good at telling stories, some are good at painting pictures with their perfectly chosen words, and some are good at creating living,breathing characters. Harington is one of the great writers who does all three. This is a story of a man framed and wrongfully convicted of rape and sentenced to death in Arkansas in the early 1900's, and of the woman who is convinced of his innocence and determined to save him.
John Hersey. The Child Buyer. About a brilliant young boy, a misfit spurned and humiliated by his peers, and the company that would like to buy him and use him. Told in the form of Congressional hearings, which makes it read a lot like a play, it is also a brilliant parody of politicians and their rhetoric.
Russell Hoban. Riddley Walker. At some time in the future, centuries after nuclear holocaust, society has somewhat reconstructed itself, and people are beginning to attempt to reconstruct written language based on the sounds of existing language. This makes the book a challenge to read--it almost has to be read aloud to be understood, because of course, spoken language has shifted, and the spelling is almost totally phonetic. Society has come to distrust profoundly anything smacking of science and technology, because of the disaster it led to, and society reinforces this distrust by constantly reiterating a parable of the temptation of science and knowledge, told in puppet shows.
Shirley Jackson. We Have Always Lived in the Castle. There are those who will argue that Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is her best work, but I like this one, a story about a girl, who survived the massacre of her family, becoming, in the eyes of the townspeople, the primary suspect. The novel is moody, atmospheric, and the heroine is fascinating.
Barbara Kingsolver. The Poisonwood Bible. Minister Nathan price takes his wife and four daughters to the Congo where he plans to convert the heathen, but he is blind and arrogant. He doesn't even attempt to understand the ways of the natives before he tries to convert them, and his efforts at learning the tonal language are ludicrous. His daughters all make their own efforts to come to terms with the Congo. Rachel, the vacuous pretty eldest daughter eventually flees with an adventurer intimately involved with the murder of Lamumba. Leah, the whole-bodied twin, marries a Congolese man considered a revolutionary by Mobutu, the man the CIA chose to rule in place of Lamumba. Adah, believed from birth to be hemiplegic, eventually has the weak half of her body and brain retrained to wholeness (losing the ease with which her damaged mind had read things backwards as well as forwards) and becomes a researcher of tropical viruses. The youngest daughter dies. And their father remains impervious, as wife and children leave him, continuing to preach the gospel of baptism (feeding African infants to crocodiles, as the natives believe). It's a book about language, and arrogance, and failure to understand that you are not just an actor but acted upon. Also, Pigs in Heaven. A wonderful, beautifully written book. Taylor is the inadvertent mother of an Indian child, abandoned in her car when she was 3 after having been abused physically and sexually, which was described in the earlier book, The Bean Trees. She now clings so desperately to Taylor that Taylor has named her Turtle. When Turtle becomes briefly famous by saving the life of a man who falls over Hoover Dam, Annawake Fourkiller, an Indian attorney, decides her adoption was illegal and she should be returned to the Cherokees, which drives Taylor and Turtle into hiding. Meanwhile, Taylor's mother Alice, fed up with her marriage, goes to Talequah to meet Annawake and put in a word for Taylor's continued custody of the child who needs her. Once there, though, she becomes involved with a half-Indian man who turns out to be Turtle's grandfather. And Annawake makes a compelling case for her tribe not being deprived of yet another of its children.
W.P. Kinsella. Shoeless Joe. Also The Thrill of the Grass and The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt. Shoeless Joe, of course, is the book which became the movie Field of Dreams, a fine movie--but a better book. But I think Kinsella is at his best in his short stories, and these two short story collections contain some of the finest in all of American literature (although Kinsella is, in fact, Canadian, he lived and wrote in Iowa for a long time, so I'm extending dual citizenship). Especially notable are "K-Mart," a story of the end of childhood, and the end of innocence; "The Valley of the Schmoon," about a man who messes up every relationship he has ever had and is too unaware of himself to understand how this happened; and "The Thrill of the Grass"--a fantasy about the fans taking back possession of the game and the way it is played.
R.M. Koster. Carmichael's Dog. Carmichael is a great writer and an outrageous human being. His body over the years has become home to hundreds of demons representing the seven deadly sins. The story is told by his original demon, Odvart, demon of sloth. These demons have been responsible for Carmichael's best writing, but, dried up, without a story to tell, Carmichael is now being driven insane by them. His salvation lies in an adoring dog who teaches him how to love. This unfamiliar emotion makes Carmichael a far less congenial place for his demons to dwell, and they set out to kill the dog who has been their unwitting exorcist. The wit and verbal creativity with which the story is told add to the pleasure--Koster has a Shakespearean insouciance about making up words as he needs them. This is a compelling story about the workings of a gifted but tormented mind--and probably as good an explanation for insanity as any other,.
Jeremy Leven. Satan: His Psychotherapy and Cure by the Unfortunate Dr. Dr. Kassler, J.S.P.S. Satan is feeling pretty down about the horrible reputation he's been stuck with, and he goes to a shrink and tries to justify himself. You see, God really is in charge--not just of the record-keeping, though it stands to reason that the guy who writes the history determines what we think about the players in it. But God needed Satan to do evil things, in order to demonstrate His own power and goodness, in order to teach moral lessons about temptation and resistance and obedience. Dr. Kassler does his best to make Satan well-adjusted, but ends with the sinking suspicion that he has converted the only sane person he has ever known to the common irrationality we accept as reason.
Burt Levy. The Last Open Road. What grabs you about this first novel, is the voice of the narrator, Buddy Palumbo, a working class kid from Passaic who falls in love with cars and the boss's niece, in that order. He is a living, breathing reality from the first paragraph, with a style that is tough, funny, down to earth. He becomes a sports car mechanic in the early days of the sport, the early 50's, and the novel lovingly dwells on Jaguars and Ferraris and MGs, and on the races that were run on the open roads and small towns. He knows he could work the racing circuit forever, and would kind of enjoy doing it. But he also knows he, like his patron, a rich Jewish guy, would never really be part of the rich WASPs the sport belonged to. Structurally, this is a lot like opera-- his growing up is the recitative between the races that are the arias.
Bernard Malamud. The Natural. One of the great novels about baseball, although of course it's really about something else altogether.
Michael Malone. Handling Sin. Serious fiction can, as it happens, be hysterically funny, as Malone demonstrates in this wonderful picaresque adventure centering around one of the most determinedly boring people God ever made. The hero is given a mission by his father, which finds him trailing across the country, picking up a number of eccentric people along the way. In the process, he learns that there's more to life than being conscientious and responsible. Also check out Malone's Foolscap, a wonderful send-up of academia, as well as the intellectual pretentions of the theatrical community. The hero is a professor of drama who writes a play about Sir Walter Raleigh, which a friend steals and then stages as a work by Raleigh.
Elizabeth Moon. The Speed of Dark. Told by Lou Arrendale, a high-functioning autistic man in his early 40s at a tie in the future where autistics are identified at birth and cured. The last generation of autistics is protected by law, and he and a cadre of other autistics are providing valuable service to a pharmaceutical company with their skills at pattern recognition. But an ambitious new boss can't tolerate the special adaptations the company has provided for the autistics, and threatens them with dismissal unless they agree to be guinea pigs for an experimental treatment to cure their autism. Lou struggles with the question of what he will lose of himself if he is cured. Beautifully told, by an interesting and likable character (despite his social deficits) who understands both less and more than the reader about these events.
Christopher Moore. Practical Demon-Keeping. Travis O'Hearne, much against his will, is the constant traveling companion of a demon named Catch, and has spent 70 years trying to unload him. At last he runs into a djinn who has been assigned to capture Catch, who doesn't much want to be caught. Unwitting townsfolk are caught up in the battle. Billed as a "comedy of horrors," this is a lot of fun.
Edwin O'Connor. The Edge of Sadness. One of the most memorably characters in fiction is the irascible old man, head of a rich and powerful Boston Irish Catholic clan, who suddenly takes an interest in the aging priest who tells this story. The priest, a recovering alcoholic, who is not very attentive to the needs of his parish, is fascinated by the old man, even knowing that the man has made life hell for his unfortunate sons and daughters, who are the priest's good friends. Also, O'Connor's All in the Family is a brilliant novel about a political family (with startling resemblances to the Kennedy clan). The hero is the idealistic younger son who finds that his idealism gets in the way of family ambition; what they do to him is unforgivable.
Marge Piercy. Gone To Soldiers. This is what World War II was like for the people who stayed home--the women in the factories, the codebreakers, the women pilots, the government propaganda officers and others.
Anna Quindlen. One True Thing. Ellen Gulden only comes to understand and value her mother's life when it is ending. They talk while Ellen is nursing her mother through the painful final stages of cancer, and like so many of us, Ellen comes to understand that much that she had believed all her life about her family was wrong.
Marjorie Reynolds. The Starlite Drive-In. The adult heroine looks back on events that happened when she was 12, and manages to see them with both an understanding of what really happened and with her 12 year-old's misunderstanding and sense of grievance. Her father ran a drive-in in the 1950's, barely making ends meet. Her mother, Rain, suffered from agorophobia, and her terror of the outside world effectively prevented him from ever pulling up stakes and looking for a better job. He takes her frustrations out on Rain, always belittling her, slowly destroying her, until the new hired man falls in love with her, and wants to take her away. The story is told with remarkable empathy for all the characters, even the embittered father driven to violence. Beautifully told.
Mary Doria Russell. The Sparrow. My God, what a powerful book. Only after I'd finished reading it did I look at the book jacket and learn that the author has a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology-- to a large extent, the book is about language and the clash of cultures. She does know whereof she speaks. Wonderful characters, with a nice bantering relationship and powerfully complex emotions underneath. The hero is a doubting Jesuit, sent by the church to many different countries to learn the language, so when life is discovered on another planet, (radio waves from the planet turn out to be music) the Jesuits send the priest and a team of other specialists to go to the planet and establish communication with them. But their intervention leads to tragedy, for the gentle race they befriend, and for themselves.
Richard Russo. Nobody's Fool. North Bath is a town that has been dying for years, a resort town long passed over for greater attractions nearby, though some people have not given up hope of reviving the resort, including the bank president. His mother doesn't think much of him--she likes Sully better, the man who is nobody's fool in the sense that he is a fool, and he doesn't belong to anybody. Sully has a quick wit and a sharp tongue and no empathy for the people cut by both, so he has all his life sabotaged his friendships and family relationships with his snarkiness, and his constant failure to understand that other people are real. Now he has a serious crippling injury, and no money, and needs a place to live. He has to find work, and at the same time ttake on some responsibility for his son and grandson. Finally, he is forced to start making amends to all the people he has driven away over the years. Russo's new novel, Straight Man, deals with an academic in a backwater college, an English department chairperson by default, because nobody believed he'd ever actually DO anything in the job and upset the delicate balance of departmental politics. They were wrong, so he is now under attack in his department, a situation made worse by the knowledge that the state legislature is going to cut the college's budget, and faculty members are going to have to go. All the faculty are deeply suspicious that he has made a list of who is to be fired. He becomes a more public figure when he jokingly grabs a duck and threatens to strangle it if the legislature does not give the college its funding--soon the campus is urrounded by satellite trucks and bubble-headed TV reporters. More farcical than the first book, but both are wonderfully written. Russo is a stylist, and you'll want to spend time savoring his carefully chosen words. There is much here to amuse and make you think.
George Shaffner. In the Land of Second Chances. Ebb, Nebraska is where divorced women return to be around nice people, and there's nothing the network of divorcees don't know about what's happening in their small town. Wilma Porter's boarder, Vernon L. Moore, theoretically a salesman of card games, makes quite a stir when, by asking the right questions, he helps the local department store owner save his store, helps his daughter die peacefully, and helps the local rich guy become less of a schmuck.
David Shields. Heroes. An outstanding novel about a college basketball team (Iowa readers will have no trouble identifying the college as the University of Iowa, and the town as Iowa City; whether the team is the Hawkeyes is another question). A sportswriter sees a point guard on this team who, if he were used properly, would be a great player, the Magic Johnson kind of player who makes everone around him better. But the coach wants him to be a shooter, not a playmaker. And, unfortunately, this player has no business being in college. The sportswriter finds out the truth about the kid's high school and junior college records, which have been doctored, and has to choose which he cares about more--his journalistic ethics, which would compel him to tell this story, and his love of basketball excellence. This man knows and loves basketball, and it shows.
John Steinbeck. Cannery Row. A perfect small gem of a story about a small neighborhood, down at the heels (and none too respectable when it was up at the heels if it ever was), depression-ridden. The men mostly can't get work, the women have regular employment at the brothel, and they all live a sort of hand-to-mouth existence, patching together a life as best they can. Still, there is camaraderie and fellow feeling, though occasionally misdirected, as when some of the ne-er-do-wells decide to throw a party to express their appreciation for Doc, and succeed in nearly destroying his house. If you're up for a longer read, of course, you will want to read The Grapes of Wrath, a great story of the endurance of the human spirit in the face of adversity and greed and inhumanity.
J.R.R. Tolkien. Lord of the Rings. All four volumes, starting with The Hobbit. A marvellous exercise in fairy tale and language. The hobbits have been entrusted with the fate of the world, and worse, with a ring that bestows awesome power and awesome temptation. Little and unassuming, they are desperately unsure they are up to the task, but as they travel through worlds of elf and faerie, threatened by a dragon and other creatures of the forces of darkness, they have the delphic wisdom of Gandolf to aid them.
John Kennedy Toole. A Confederacy of Dunces. A comic tour-de-force about a man who is fat, lazy, and useless. But, brilliant and arrogant, he talks his way into a number of jobs and nearly destroys every organization he touches.
Anne Tyler. The Accidental Tourist. Macon is a colorless, unadventurous, tidy man who writes travel books for people who don't much want to travel, people who want to eat peanut butter and jelly in Rome. He is married to Sarah, a marriage that works well enough until their son Ethan is murdered. Sarah moves out, and Macon gets more reclusive and odder. He is rescued by Muriel, the young woman who trains his dog. She pushes herself into his life, and he doesn't quite know how to resist. When Sarah wants to come back to him, he doesn't quite know how to resist that either. It takes a while for him to realize that he can make choices.
Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut wrote an awful lot of really great stuff, but this, based on Vonnegut's own wartime experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the firebombing, is one of his angriest. His hero, Billy Pilgrim, is also in Dresden during this event, and in many other times and places as well, because he is a character chronically "unstuck in time." (One of the great moments in the novel is watching a war movie backwards with Billy Pilgrim, watching as the bombs are caught back up inside the planes, returned to the factories, and disassembled.) In Player Piano, machines are taught to simulate the way the best workers do things--and then those workers aren't needed anymore. Their brains, their talents, have been sucked up, used up. What's left of them is discarded. They're given hard but useless tasks for poor money and less prestige. They drink a lot, watch TV a lot, commit suicide with ever-increasing frequency, but still they go to work because that's what they exist to do. And when the machines break down, they prove the primacy of human beings--by re-building the damn things. I am getting more convinced all the time that Kurt Vonnegut's vision of our future is accurate. If you like this one, you will also want to read Cat's Cradle, which offers, among other things, an inspired religion, Bokonenism, which explains much about the mysteries of the world, and our purpose within it.
Theodore Weesner. Winning the City. This is a novel that immerses you in the consciousness of a 15 year old boy, a very good basketball player left off his school's basketball team because he plays the position wanted by the son of a rich man who is willing to finance the team. Consumed by the unfairness of it, the boy is determined to find another team to play on, and to win the city championship against his school, despite a system that is stacked against him. Since his intense concentration on basketball is what has helped him to cope with an alcoholic father, the injustice has a double whammy effect on the kid. This is a sad and beautifully told story.
Sarah Willis. The Sound of Us. Middle-aged sign language interpreter Alice Marlowe doesn't have much in her life since her twin brother died. She has one very good friend, and a strained relationship with her parents and her brother's children. But her life changes when a frightened child dials a wrong number in the middle of the night and gets Alice on the phone. When she realizes the child has been alone for a long time and is frightened, she goes to the child's apartment, soothes her, and calls the police and child welfare, who place her with a foster family. The mother is enraged, and the child, frightened by her forced removal from her home, refuses to talk to anyone. Only Alice is able to get through to her, using and teaching her sign language. Alice gets approval to become her foster parent, and eventually helps the mother regain her daughter. Despite the loss of a child she has come to love, Alice is awake again.
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The premise of this column, "books too good to put down," necessarily forces me to leave out some more challenging works I love. Like Joseph Conrad'[s Heart of Darkness, which I despised the first time I read it. Then I read it again and began to get a glimmer of what it was about, and started underlining significant passages in red. Then I read it again and underlined more passages in blue. By the time I taught the book to freshmen, every sentence had been underlined in one color or another, but by then, by God did it make sense. It's a story that begs us to question our own moral character--would we choose to do right if temptations were great and there was no limit whatsoever on our power?
And then there's Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, books which, by depicting intelligent women who are adored by intelligent men, have probably done more to keep bright but plain young girls from killing themselves than any other outside factors put together. Their pace is leisurely, and their action is neither brisk nor even the point of the novels, which can make them inaccessible to people raised on the fast pace and quick edits of television and movies. But their women are memorable. Elizabeth Bennett is a woman who looks with calm amusement on the follies of the world. She is bright enough to understand how foolish her parents are, and loving enough to be loyal to them anyway. She loves her sister, and encourages her romance with the well-off Bingley; when Bingley's friend interferes, she is incensed at him, though she had found him attractive and interesting until he stuck his nose into her sister's business. The working out of this relationship is interspersed with Elizabeth's observations of a leisurely, and often silly, upper-class world of the early 1800's.
Jane Eyre, of course, is a classic story of a child, unloved and treated abusively, who nonetheless retains a passionate sense of her own worth (and this in a pre-feminist era). By becoming governess in the home of a dangerous and attractive man, falling in love with him and forcing him to fall in love with her, Jane started an entire genre of gothic romances with the same general plot line. What separates Jane Eyre from these potboilers, of course, is the depth of characterization--Jane and Rochester are as real to us as people we live with--and the wonderful conversations they have. The love story is founded on this meeting of minds. Rochester is endlessly intrigued by her thoughts, and comes to respect her as an equal (granted, not until he has been damaged and crippled). This was revolutionary fare for the 1800's--and maybe even for now. It's a pity that the Victorian prose style is so difficult for even our good readers to penetrate anymore.
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