My Word's

a weekly column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 3, #42,
April 20, 1998


This is National Library Week, a good time to take your kids to a story hour and stay and listen yourself, or browse through the new books and CDs, check some information in the reference collection, or just see what's new and different at your library. But it's also a good time to celebrate books--books that take you to Neverwas and Maybeshouldbe, books that tell a rousing good story, books that make you think, books that help you survive. Above all, books people love. You know those collective nouns: a pride of lions, an exaltation of larks, a giggle of schoolgirls? The proper collective noun for books, it seems to me, is a sharing of books. Because when you love a book, the first thing you want to do is tell somebody about it, and pass your copy on to them, so they will have a chance to love it as much as you do. That's why most of this week's column is by you--your sharing of books.

I'll start the festivities with Susan Herbert's book, Medieval Cats. It's an unlikely choice for me, because I am a word person, and this has hardly any words at all, but I love it anyway. Herbert is a brilliant copyist of art. When she paints the Tres Riche Heures, she gets everything exactly right--the textures, the colors, the perspective, the quality of the light. The only difference is that all the human figures have been replaced by cats, even God and the angels lurking on the frames. (Running around on the ground are a few stray mice as well.) And my God, does this woman understand cats! Their expressions and poses are purely feline, as in the cat trying to look humble as it prays, with minimal success. Susan Herbert has done several equally appealing books along this line, including The Cats' History of Western Art and The Catropolitan Opera.

Here's a mysterious communication: "The whole damn saga of the Three Musketeers! There isn't much better escapist literature anywhere! And if you think there is, step outside, sir! Signed, Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D'Artagnan." (From internal evidence, I suspect this is really from my buddy Charlie.)

From Stella, my dear colleague: "I thought quite awhile about how I could choose a 'favourite' book. I like different books at different times, but I eventually came up with Elizabeth Goudge, a mid-20th-century British author, and her trilogy which consists of The Bird in the Tree, Pilgrim's Inn and The Heart of the Family. These books beautifully illustrate the drama and excitement of a life of integrity. They belie Tolstoy's statement that all happy families are alike. A truly happy family consists of an assortment of flawed human beings growing, each in a unique way, to a flowering of character and complex unity within themselves and with those they choose to live amongst. Life abounding within a framework of love, just like the best of sonnets, a paradox. And so, I choose Ms. Goudge above such acclaimed and beloved luminaries as Virginia Woolf, Julio Cortazar, and William Butler Yeats, Mervyn Peake, et al. Hurray for books! All sorts!"

This comes from Nancy, my beloved friend and co-worker of many years: "The Polar Express, by Chris Van Allsburg. A few years ago, I belonged to a book club and ordered several children's books to have at our house for the nieces and nephews who visited us...o.k., let's be truthful...I ordered them for me. I'm a lover of kid's books and the one I keep returning to each and every Christmas is Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express. If you read only one Christmas book this year to the kids in your life, read this one. It is a feast for the eyes as well as the spirit. It's a poignant story about a young boy who steps aboard the Polar Express on Christmas Eve and is taken on a journey to the North Pole. There, Santa gives him the first gift of Christmas...a bell from one of Santa's reindeer--but only the children can hear it ring. Well, of course something happens to the bell, and of course Santa does something about it, and that's what the story is all about. But it is also about love, and traditions, and about the childlike belief that we all should have a bit more of, especially at this time of year. The illustrations are breathtakingly beautiful (the book received the Caldecott Award in 1986) and the story is guaranteed to be one that a special child will love. And if you're the adult doing the reading, remember to keep a box of tissues close will find it hard to keep the tears from your eyes. It's a beautiful experience, and one that you should treat a favorite child to...that includes the child in you!" (More of Nancy's favorites are available at Nancy's Really Good Reads, a fun place to visit.)

Lauren offers this: "The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. This has become my official first book of the summer - it is beautifully written, entertaining, touching, and enlightening. It's one of those books that stays with you once you've read it - it has an afterglow to it. It has fantastic imagery and a wonderful plot - it's deep enough to be interesting to English majors and the like, but not so deep that its beauty and meaning are lost to anyone. Completely memorable and absolutely essential."

Kim, my "adopted brother," says: The best book in MY world could well be Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban. Written way back in the 70s before postmodernism and magical realism released writers from many of their obligations, Kleinzeit refuses to be bound by the laws of genre (or even physics)-- it is a brief psychedelic descent into a man's illness and sort-of-recovery, where puns are real and spoonerisms determine turns of events, and through which runs an undercurrent of Greek mythology. I can't describe its flavour, but it's very funny and sad at the same time, and I don't think I can say better than that."

My artist friend Les came up with three books , but the one I'll share with you is: The Bat Poet--Randall Jarrell with "pictures" by Maurice Sendak (Harper). Jarrell speaks beautifully of the plight of all makers of art by way of a bat who dares to wake in daylight. After his initial confusion, he takes his inspiration from its otherness and translates it into poems about his world. His animal fellows' traits, the practical difficulties of creating, and the struggle of drawing meaning from the translation of experience into words are all lovingly delineated by Jarrell in prose and by the incomparable Maurice Sendak in black and white ink drawings.

Carol's choice is Bury Me Standing, by Isabel Fonseca. "She is an editor at the Times Literary Supplement, and currently lives in London. She travelled in a world few American know about while studying the Roma or modern day gypsies of Europe. In her book she introduces individiuals of this minority group. The reader meets the poet, the politician, the children and the downtrodden. She gives us vivid insights about the language , humor, strife and taboos of the Roma. The author also gives us historical perspective of this group from their exodus out of India 1,000 years ago to their lives in modern day Europe. This group of people is brought to life for us and we are reminded that they want to be buried with dignity that they had not experienced in a life time, consequently one gypsy woman said to the author, "Bury me standing." I have never before read a book such as this one!"

Peter offers this: "As an avid (some would say rabid) science-fiction fan, I read a large amount of Isaac Asimov. As I read, I discovered that science-fiction was only a small part of what he wrote, which led me to his autobiographies. Currently, I am reading the third and final one, titled I. Asimov. While it is an autobiography, it covers it in an unusual fashion - subject by subject. Because of this, it reads more as a collection of short essays than a seventy-year biography. Also, it reminds me of a certain librarian..."

And this from my buddy Dan: "I suppose I can keep myself to one suggestion. Well, three, but since the original publication they've been put in a single volume--The Deptford Trilogy, by Robertson Davies. On the sugar beet plains of Canada in the early part of this century, the richest kid in town throws a snowball with a rock in it, another child dodges it, and it hits the preacher's wife, causing her to give birth prematurely. Each story, "Fifth Business", "Manticore", "World of Wonders", follows the lives of these children over the next half a century as their stories intertwine, and we get to see each of them reflected in the shadows of the others. Wonderful epic storytelling by an old curmudgeon, larger than life characters who still manage to be quite believable. Like all of Davies' work the symbols are layered deeply, but if you're just interested in a good murder mystery it works on that level as well. I have yet to tire of it and I've reread it several times over the past decade."

My dear friend Mark, the retired English prof, came up with this delightfully non-literary selection: "They’re so formulaic that it’s hard to remember which book is which, their plots are often far-fetched . . . and it would be easy to find other faults with Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels. But for the addict, none of that matters. The tales are a joy to read and re-read because Nero and his household are so elegantly crafted, so weirdly believable. Stout’s formulas are just wacky enough: A gourmet, orchid fancier and bibliophile should be someone who demands the finest wines; yet Nero is (God knows!) a beer man. Hard-fisted, cynical Archie should slug down straight shots in grungy bars, like some Raymond Chandler creation; yet Archie prefers milk and dotes almost as much as Wolfe himself on Fritz’s gourmet creations. Stout’s repetition of quirks, foibles and details gives them wonderful authority: We SEE Wolfe’s quarter acre of yellow pajamas, the red leather chair, the elevator that hauls his tonnage up to the orchid rooms. When Wolfe finally starts puffing his lips in and out, in and out, we KNOW the killer is doomed. Like children who insist that bedtime stories be repeated exactly, we demand Inspector Cramer’s snarls and chewed, unlit cigars; Fritz’s perfect meals and his old-womanly fussiness; Nero’s pomposity and Archie’s sarcastic attempts to deflate him. We could no more tolerate having a detail changed than Wolfe can tolerate losing his two hours, twice a day, amid his orchids. Behind the locked door of that bachelor citadel on West 35th Street, countless thousands of us have found a home."

Sarah's choice: "I want everyone to read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. It is a compelling story of first contact with an alien civilization. When radio messages from a planet in the Alpha Centauri system are received, the Jesuits don't waste time discussing the matter; they make plans to go there, just as they have gone to newly discovered lands throughout their history. It is a story of adventure and love and friendship; it is also a story of faith, and lack of faith, and loss of faith. It is a story about what happens when cultures meet, and how we understand and fail to understand one another, even with the best of intentions. 'They meant no harm.' "

My geologist friend Martha offers this intriguing choice, though grumbling a bit: "How can you expect us to limit ourselves to one book? Well, here's one from my reference shelf: Modern English Usage, by H.W. Fowler. I have the second edition, revised and edited by Sir Ernest Gowers. I have used this book for many years as a guide through the quagmire of colloquial English to the firm ground of "prescriptive" grammar. The alluring quotations on the back of my paperback copy are from William F. Buckley, Jr., Jessica Mitford, and James Dickey. I was going to quote from them until I read Fowler's entry on quotation. Now I shall quote him, but not on 'quotation.' Opening the volume at random to the middle of the 'H' section, here is the entry for 'hermetically.'
HERMETICALLY: This word is now so constant a partner of sealed that one would almost suppose sealing that was not hermetic to be a botched job, just as a part seems no longer to be a part unless it is integral or a danger a danger unless it is real. The word is not derived from the Greek god Hermes. He had remarkable talents--before he was a day old he had invented a musical instrument and done some cattle-rustling--but it was his Egyptian counterpart Thoth, or Hermes Trismegisto, that was the specialist in magic and alchemy whose skill in fusing metals enabled him to make airtight containers.
This is the book that taught me the difference between 'that' and ' which' and their proper usage, as well as the proper use of 'usage.' "

My new friend Wels offers a book that I too love: Bird by Bird: Some instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott, "a book appealing to those of us who are aspiring, inspiring or wannabe writers and other readers who desire to know more about life in general. In short, most of us could get something out of the writings of Anne Lamott. If the criterion for a good book is the pleasure gained while reading it, then this one is a great book because I continue to return to its pages for those little kernels of wisdom contained within. It has a near mystical quality that supplies you with a germ of an idea whenever you open it at random and scan the page. To illustrate my point, I have the book in front of me and I opened it at random. Page 148 in my edition. That wire thing on the top of champagne bottles, what do they call it? In Lamott's quest to answer that question, she found out more about wineries, the people who work them and the land they are planted on than she ever would in a quick look-up in the Encyclopedia Britannica. And I have realized by reading the passage that serendipity is the lode stone of writers. Anne Lamott writes about life and writing in much the same way as the comedian George Carlin describes the minutiae of human nature, from a different perspective, but only because you never thought of it that way. Recommended for those who have a humanitarian view on life and especially those who should have."

An interesting, not to say weirdly assorted collection, no? And checking out one of these books might be as good a way as any to celebrate National Library Week.

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