Saturday, April 19, 2014

What Are You Reading?

Alexa King, a Facebook friend and a very good artist (we have the work by her (Hackney Horse), pictured above, in our home) has asked me to post, on my wall profile, the books I’ve read.
by Charlie Leck
Wow! I certainly can’t list all the books I’ve read. My goodness, I’m 73 years old now! Maybe if I just hit the highlights.
I have a hard time figuring out which are the best books I’ve ever read, but I don’t mind reporting on “the most important books” I’ve read – in so much as they’ve had a major impact on my life and who I am, and they sort of took me in various directions. This might sound strange, but books do that.
And I don’t mind talking about the books that just brought me enormous satisfaction and enjoyment.
That way I don’t get drawn into literary arguments about “the best books” and questions about how I can list this one ahead of that one. It’s not what I do! I’ll tell you about books that moved me and books that pleased me and books that impacted me and the way I live.
For example, when I read Hemingway’s book, A Moveable Feast, it really stuck with me and I had to see Paris and understand that city the way Hemingway did. I got to see and understand Paris when I stayed there for a few months (though not the way Hemingway did). Hemingway’s novel and short stories intrigued me and I enjoyed his very direct writing style: The Sun Also Rises; For Whom the Bell Tolls; and Old Man and the Sea are three of the best books I’ve ever read.
After reading Vonnegut’s remarkable novel, Slaughterhouse Five, I began rethinking patriotism, war and human justice. I could say that The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, impacted me the same way!
King’s Letters from a Birmingham Jail, published eventually as a book, made me more alert to racism and racial injustice and set me on a path I might not have otherwise taken. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, from his time of incarceration by the Nazis, Letters & Papers from Prison, were remarkable and deeply impactful on me and my life. There was something about the moral necessity and vital importance about peaceful protest that became central in my life. His earlier work, The Cost of Discipleship, burned its way into my mind and soul. How could one not protest an evil war – an unjust war?
So then, in that vein also, I have at hand right now a first edition of The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. I’ve read it a half-dozen times. I cannot tell you how important the book was when it first came out. The nation had still not healed from the wounds of the Viet Nam War and the protests that surrounded it. The book helped me heal.
Thomas Hardy is one of my favorite writers. I hope everyone has read Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I returned to it a few times, to reread it and make sure it was really as good as I imagined. It’s even better each new time I read it. And the same is true for The Mayor of Casterbridge. Oh, my! What wonderful books! They both taught me something remarkable about the English language: It could be beautiful.
Love in the Time of Cholera, a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is a brilliant work and I count it among the greatest books I’ve ever read (even in translation).
Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano introduced me to tintinnabulation and to PopocatepĂ©tel. The book burrowed itself inside me and compelled me to read it again and again until I figured I understood it as well as I ever would.
Below, in this list of special books I’ve read, I’ll list the authors only where I think it might be necessary…
Moby Dick
The Brothers Karamazov
To Kill a Mockingbird
(Harper Lee)
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
Even Cowgirls get the Blues
(Tom Robbins)
(Marilynne Robinson)
Humboldt’s Gift
The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
(Robert Persig)
The Catcher in the Rye
(James Dickey)
My Antonia (Willa Cather)
Goodbye Columbus
(Philip Roth)
The Great Gatsby
Reverence for Life
(Albert Schweitzer)
Lord Jim
Catch 22
(Joseph Heller)
The Sound and the Fury (William Falkner)
The Diary of Ann Frank
Far from the Madding Crowd
A Separate Peace
(John Knowles)
The Grapes of Wrath
Of Mice and Men
Rabbit Run
Les Miserables
Five Years Before the Mast
(Richard Henry Dana)
Fathers and Sons
Red Badge of Courage
(Steven Crane)
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
Breakfast of Champions
The Scarlet Letter
(Nathaniel Hawthorne)
(E.L. Doctorow)
The Art of Fielding
(Chad Harbach)
Doctor Zhivago
God With Us
(Joseph Harotunian)
You know, I’m leaving a lot of books out. I’m sitting here in my library, just trying to look around and see what’s here and what was important to me. I haven’t mentioned a single one of Richard Russo’s books and I consider him the best of the contemporary novelists. His book of short stories is also wonderful. John Grisham is a current phenomenon and rock star in the mystery writing world. He’s also done a couple of non-mysteries that I found extraordinary. His book, Painted House, was remarkable and held me spell-bound through the entire reading. Another small novel, Skipping Christmas (made into a movie, “The Kranks”) was well done. He also wrote another non-fiction work called The Innocent Man that was captivating and incredibly well researched. Grisham, without question, is a wonder – not of literature but of story-telling. I’ve read all his major mysteries – more than a dozen works.
I shouldn’t leave out a lot of books that captured me; and some called me back to them over and over again… like…
1968: The Year that Rocked the World by Mark Kurlansky
Amazing Grace by Eric Metaxas
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Poems of Dylan Thomas
e.e. cummings Collected Poems
Hard Times by Studs Terkel
Godfather by Mario Puzo
Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy
North and South by John Jakes
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (talk about a book you can’t put down)
All Politics is Local by Tip O’Neill
The Super of the Lamb by Father Robert Farrar Capon
Burr by Gore Vidal
I can’t tell you all the books I’ve read, Alexa, because I just can’t remember them all. The first full book I remember was one about Abe Lincoln and the Log Cabin he built. When I was a teenager, my mother was very ill and she loved it when I sat by her bed and read novels to her – her books that had come in from the book of the month club. I particularly remember one of them called By Love Possessed.
I think I’ve read all the mysteries of the British women, Anne Perry and M.C. Beaton. I’ve read all of Vonnegut and all of John Updike (though it got tedious at times). I’ve also read all of Garrison Keillor’s novels and some of his non-fiction work as well. I’ve read all of Pat Conroy’s work, all of Daniel Silva and all of Saul Bellow. I didn’t care for Clancy after The Hunt for Red October, which was a spectacular novel. I never developed a liking for Vince Flynn (though most of my friends think I’m crazy). I loved Mark Twain. I couldn’t get through any James Joyce. I read all of Hemingway (including his short stories) and all of F. Scott F’s novels. I’ve read a few novels by Evelyn Waugh and all of Eudora Welty’s short stories. I didn’t like Oscar Wilde and gave up on him before finishing any one of his books. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron is sensational. I have a very rare piece of fiction that Styron wrote when he was a student at Princeton. He turned it in as a paper and got an A+. He later published it in a very small number as Christmas gifts to family and friends. I’ve got one and it is signed by the author. I’m very proud of it.
Right now I’m going through an Alice Munro craving and I’m reading all her short stories, though I’ve a long way yet to go. She’s wonderful. There are a lot of good women writing fiction these days. (They are writing wonderful stuff.)
I just finished a mystery by a girl I dated once as a teenager (K.T. Roberts). It’s called The Last Witness. I reviewed it on Amazon and gave it 4-stars (though maybe a half-star came because she let me kiss her sweetly at the end of that date). She has a new work coming out any day called Deadly Obsession. I’ll read it. A couple of New York City detectives are the central figures in this novel and they also were in the one I just read – and they are in love (of course)!
Oh, Lord, here on my right is a copy of The Outpost by Jake Tapper. It’s a must and important read. And what about Steve Coll’s work on the bin Laden family? Or Carol Bly’s stories in My Lord Bag of Rice?
What can I say, Alexa? I can’t go on and on!
The current LBJ biographies by Robert Caro are extraordinary!
I liked Bill Clinton’s autobiography, My Life.
All of David McCullough’s biographies are wonderful (as is Americans in Paris).
Orhan Pamuk’s novel, My Name is Red, is both mysterious and marvelous.
Cheryl Stayed’s novel, Torch, is exceptional!
And then there’s Alan Furst. Daniel Silva wrote brilliantly about him somewhere and that introduced me to him. I think he and le CarrĂ© are the best of the spy novelists, though I have not read Eric Ambler or Graham Greene. Furst has six marvelous novels that I know of and they were each wonderful – Kingdom of Shadows, Dark Star, The Polish Officer, Dark Voyage, The World at Night and Red Gold.
You see what I mean? It never ends and I haven’t even begun to look at the classics section of my library, or my golf section (P. G. Wodehouse wrote amazing short stories about golf) and I’ve read Golf in the Kingdom (Michael Murphy) a half dozen times.
STOP! And that is a command! STOP ALREADY


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