The Pleasures of a Good Book
Here’s to one more summer of reading
Call me anything but late to the table — unless I’m reading a good book. So I’ve often carried book to table.
“I’ve spent my life looking over the breakfast table at a book,” my grandmother Florence Martin lamented. “Your grandfather. Your father and his brother. And now you.”
Or as Florence’s daughter-in-law my mother Elsa would say, “Take your nose out of that book!”
Both Elsa and Florence were good storytellers, but I couldn’t turn them on as easily as I could open a book. Nor did their stories sweep me away in the flood of sensory details — the color of the light, the rise of the hill, the degree of warmth or chill, the pattern of the dress, the darkness of the well, the despair of the loss. Books drowned me in the flood, tumbling me with thrilling metaphors that made my imagination swim like a fish.
(I should have prodded more. Now mother and grandmother’s times of life are lost, and to write their books I would have to do a lot of imagining.)
Out from behind a book, newspaper or racing form, my father told a story as thick with detail as humidity in St. Louis summers. Photographic memories have fallen into the category of improbabilities we’d like to believe. But when Gene Martin’s truculent objections were overcome — “How do you expect me to remember that? It happened 50 years ago,” he’d complain — his eyes looked back into time to report the past as if it were present.
I’ve always loved the kinds of stories I coaxed from my family and their extended family of friends: How people lived their lives. So the writers I love best immerse me in the unfolding of ordinary lives. Circumstances ordinary or extraordinary; action consequential or trivial — I don’t care, as long as action moves the plot, characters live and sentences sing.
I’m just as happy to peep in on the domestic dramas wrought by Alexander McCall Smith at 44 Scotland Street as travel exotically with Ann Patchett to the unnamed Latin nation of Bel Canto or the jungles of State of Wonder. I don’t need bombings, murders and the art theft of The Goldfinch to keep me in a book, though I certainly don’t mind page-turning action.
But I do hate it — don’t you? — when I’m about to close the pages on characters I’ve loved. It’s as if I were closing their coffin, though I know the lives of literary characters last as long readers read.
So I’m blissed to be spending this summer with the prolific Julia Glass. I discovered her in the New York Times’ Mother’s Day paper, for which she’d written a reflection on how far off her real-life raising of her sons was from her imaginings. She shaped a nice sentence and seemed a nice kind of woman, one who rooted for heart-expanding resolutions while acknowledging the downs, all the way to tragedy. I started with her first, Three Junes, the symmetrical 2002 National Book Award Winner. Then, to my delight, I discovered that some of Junes’ characters lived on in this year’s And the Dark and Sacred Night. Better still, some of these have history I’m now learning in 2006’s The Whole World. And that’s not all …
This summer, when my husband’s cooking, he announces dinner in an old familiar way: “Are you going to put down that book and come to the table?”
Breaking News: Blue-Eyed Boy
Julia Glass may have to cool her heels, for breaking news is that Annapolitan Robert Timberg, Naval Academy graduate and former journalist at The Capital and the Baltimore Sun, has just published his long-awaited memoir, Blue-Eyed Boy, about the hard years back to normal life after his grievous wounding as a Marine officer in Vietnam. Bookpage.com calls it “a fascinating look at how a tragedy that would make most men crumble instead drove the author to survive, and on many levels, succeed.”
I know Timberg slightly, enough to know a bit of his extraordinary story. Now I’ll read more and report back to you — if you haven’t read Blue-Eyed Boy before me.