Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Best Book I've Ever Read? "BEST"? What Exactly does "best" mean?

I saw a posting in a forum this afternoon asking that question--"what's the best book you've ever read?"

As always when presented with questions that are at once subjective and categorical, I became paralyzed by questions and clarifications. It was an interesting question that got me thinking, but it wasn't one I could answer with the name of a book.

The roots of my inability to answer might lie in my internal dichotomy; when I was a teenager and the most important place in my life was a little wooden desk with a blue plastic Smith-Corona typewriter on it, the walls above that desk were adorned with two black and white posters: Rick Springfield and Ernest Hemingway.

But it might be more complicated than that, too. It might simply be that "best" means something different in one moment, in one context, in one shade of light, than it does in another. What is it that makes those books stand out in our minds as "best" and stay there for years to come? I don't know. But as writers, if we can figure it out, it can only help.

The first book I can remember really falling in love with was Willard Motley's Knock on Any Door. I think that I was thirteen or fourteen when I read it, which might explain a lot--teenage girls do seem to have a penchant for good-hearted bad boys. But maybe there was more to it than that: the book was set in Chicago, the hometown of my heart; it highlighted the way the criminal justice system often does more harm than good, a topic near and dear to my heart long before I became a criminal defense attorney; maybe the character development was very strong--Nick Romano certainly seemed a flesh-and-blood person to me then, though I haven't read the book in many years.

But then, if you asked me for my favorite book, I'd probably say The Sun Also Rises without even stopping to think. The stark, unemotional revelation of some of the hard realities of human nature couldn't be more different from the tender-hearted expression of Knock on Any Door. Hemingway made me nod sagely; Motley made me reach out unconsciously and plead with Nick not to take the next step.

Were either of them the best book I ever read? I think, at least at one time, that I'd have awarded that designation to A Severe Mercy. A Severe Mercy is the only book I can recall having sent me on a truly obsessive quest for all of the author's previous works--I even tracked down Sheldon Vanauken's master's thesis! But when someone asks for the best book I've ever read, I think there's a bit of a request for a recommendation in there, a recommendation that isn't entirely subjective, and Vanauken's best-known book is a biographical account of his conversion to Christianity and the death of his young wife, interspersed with correspondence between the author and C.S. Lewis. Not for everyone, I suspect. Which also keeps me from giving the title to The Life You Save May be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. It was a huge hardcover book, but I carried it with me on the train, anyway. I balanced it on the edge of the sink and read it while I brushed my teeth. It seemed endless and ended too quickly. It was the most artful blending of tangentially-related stories I have ever seen anywhere in literature, fiction or non-fiction. But it's a mingled biography of Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Walker Percy. Again, not necessarily targeting a broad market.

So what about some normal books, hm?

I'm in love with Jacquelyn Mitchard. I want to be her when I grow up, but it's a problem, because I'm already 41. Jacquelyn mitchard writes books that fit into the category I'd usually call "throwaway novels"--and I don't mean that in a bad sense. I've been known to write one or two of those myself. They're simply books that we probably aren't going to buy in hardcover and keep forever on the shelf in the den. They're a good read and then you move on. Except Mitchard does something a little bit special in hers, at least for me. Whenever I read one of her books, I find myself nodding at various points and saying, "Yes, that's true. That's exactly right." Sometimes it's something I've observed before, and sometimes it's a bit of a revelation. But in every book, I find myself recognizing larger truths in the actions and reactions of Mitchard's characters. I'm still not enshrining leather-bound copies of her books, but I do keep them, and sometimes I re-read them, because they're quick and easy novels full of not-so-quick-and-easy thoughts, and some of those thoughts bear revisiting.

And I see that I've neglected to mention here that C.S. Lewis is my favorite author.

I think, though, that there is a common thread. For me, it seems that what makes a book memorable is the truth it uncovers, the layer it peels away. Hemingway did that without adjectives, without emotion, with a matter-of-fact depiction. Sheldon Vanauken did it by revealing his own aversion to the truths, and carrying the reader along his own confused and reluctant path. Willard Motley did it by painting rich emotion. Jacquelyn Mitchard does it subtly, with a sentence here and an observation there, woven so tightly in to the story and the dialogue that you're free to gloss right over those truths if you want to. But for me, I think the presence of those truths is what makes a "great book". I still don't know which one is BEST.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Things We Don't Know about the People We Know

I don't have a personal blog, and so every once in a while when I have some random revelation, I write it here...and feel vaguely guilty. This post is not about writing, at least not directly, so if you have no interest whatsoever in my general life observations, stop here.

Wait, wait! Not THERE actually. First let me point out that there is SOME relevance to writing here, both because the things people don't know about themselves is a big theme in my writing, and because the different slices of a person that show in different areas of life is a character development issue as well.

But all that (valid) rationalization aside, this post is about my father's retirement. My father retired at the end of June after 24 years with the same company and nearly 50 in the construction industry. At 69, he was still installing custom stairs and rails, the kind you find in upscale new houses where the staircases alone cost tens of thousands of dollars. After his 65th birthday party the company newsletter featured his picture with the caption "the world's oldest living installer", but his more common nickname was The Legend.

Today, his company had a gathering, and one of the events on the agenda was recognition of his 24 years of service. The men put on ties over their t-shirts in honor of the occasion. One of his co-workers pulled out a guitar and performed a song he'd written to commemorate the event--complete with slideshow--and then he presented my father with an oddly shaped block of wood, painted gold. The block of wood, he explained, was something my father had invented, something they all used now. It was named after him. I'd never known it existed until that moment, but one of his much younger co-workers said later that my father had given him one the day he'd started, and that was several years ago.

Now, it might not seem so surprising that I'd missed a detail like that. I am, after all, 41 years old. But I live less than a mile from my parents, and they babysit for my daughter a couple of days a week. We usually have dinner with them one night a week, and I talk to my mother virtually every day. I know several of my father's co-workers and some of their wives. And I knew the reputation he had at work--both for the ability to work out almost any construction problem and for his tendency to ask the new guys he was training, "You ever think about quitting?" But I didn't know about this funny little piece of wood that several of his friends stepped up to have autographed.

There were a few other surprises in the stories as well, but the details probably aren't significant. What seemed significant was the fact that there's a big difference between what we know and what we see, between what we know and what we can really understand. I think that on some level we all know that the people in our lives are "different" in other places and with other people than they are with us. I think that's true of virtually everyone, not because we're insincere or hiding things but simply because different circumstances and different people draw different things to the foreground.

We may even have descriptions of those differences in our minds. A husband may know that his gentle and feminine wife is a high-powered decision maker at work, but knowing is often different from seeing. The mother of a soldier may know that he is of necessity harder and colder and more calculated on the job than she's ever seen him in her kitchen, but knowing the fact is often different from knowing the person that someone becomes under those other circumstances.

What if we did have to write them as characters? If you had to create a character based on your husband in his office or your grandmother with her bridge club or your son teaching Sunday school or your daughter when she's jumping out of an airplane, could you do it? Do you really know who those people around you are in those moments, or would you only, without ever realizing it, take the "character" you know at home and drop him or her into that place or activity? Are we doing that now, in our minds, without ever realizing it?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

It's All in the Telling

Not long ago, I decided to read a book. That in itself may not come as much of a surprise, but the book was Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, a book that promises to be filled with oddly spelled names and cities and more that its share of kings and sorcerers--in short, all of the things that characterize one of the only two genres that I absolutely never read.

So why did I decide to read Rothfuss's book? It's simple. I read his blog. In fact, I so enjoyed his blog that I began the patchy-and-definitely-not-daily custom of Quote of the Day posts on my What's Wrong Around Us? blog. And it occurred to me that if the man could spin the saga of spending time in a bookstore when he should have been writing into interesting reading, I was pretty confident that he could hold my interest in a novel, even if his main character did have to begin his narrative by explaining how to pronounce his name.

A similar thought came to me recently when I read C.S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces. The story is a classic myth (that of Cupid and Psyche) retold, somewhat altered, but not so much so that there's much question about what's going to "happen". It doesn't matter, because Lewis has that way of creating prose that slips through your brain like sand through your fingers, requiring almost no effort, feeling warm and pleasant as it passes through, and leaving tiny traces that you'll be finding long after you've moved on.

This reminded me of how often I've heard novelists and would-be novelists debate the value (and even necessity) of outlines. You already know that my answer to the outline question is "write in the way that works best for you", but suddenly the outline question seems to me to run deeper than just whether or not they're necessary. The outline question raises the issue of whether we might be focusing on the wrong thing altogether. I've heard and read at various times that there are only 7 plots and that there are only 5. Undoubtedly, readers and writers could quibble all day about whether certain plots were subplots of other plots already described or each was unique, but the point is that there aren't a thousand plots. There aren't ten thousand. And there certainly aren't new plots created every day.

In fact, in some genres (romance springs to mind, but it seems unlikely that it's the only one), the plot is nearly identical for nearly every book in the genre. But some are better than others. Some make their authors wealthy while others are on the shelves only for a few weeks. Some keep us up late turning pages while others are returned to the library unfinished. Why? It's not the's the telling.

You'll be the very rare writer indeed if you come up with a totally unique plot, and you won't necessarily be a successful one. But come up with the right turns of phrase, the authenticity of expression, the writing that carries the reader from one line to the next like she was floating along on a gentle wave barely noticing the forward motion, and you will make a compelling story of whatever tale you tell.