My only real criteria for an enjoyable read is that a book must take me somewhere interesting—another country, another reality, another heart—and hold me there. Possibly even against my will.
Such was the case when I read In a Dark Wood Wandering, by Hella S. Haasse, which arrived unannounced in my mailbox one day, sent by a friend with no note or explanation. The story is set during the Hundred Years War, the main character is Charles, Duke of Orleans, and the story is history, so there are no real surprises. All the uncharted territory lies within the characters and the Dark Woods of life through which they stumble. And the story of how it came to be translated into English is hardly less compelling.
Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace—different setting, different time—held me in the same kind of thrall. Brilliantly illuminated characters surrounded by encroaching clouds of motive and meaning, the story’s movement amazingly swift for all its bulk, like a line of advancing thunderheads.
At Play in the Fields of the Lord, by Peter Matthiessen—part adventure, part psychological study, part polemic. The story of missionaries, mercenaries, and Indians takes place in a South American rainforest, but the sheer humanity of the characters makes it universal. Also a wonderful movie with a stellar cast that includes John Lithgow, Kathy Bates and TomWaits among others.
The Manticore, by Robertson Davies. I was struggling through a class in Jungian theory, when a therapist suggested this book. I can’t say I aced the final because of it, but I learned more about Jungian analysis from Davies than I did from the class. And Davies is a consummate storyteller, dissecting his world of privilege and dysfunction in the spellbinding prose of mythology.
These days, I read mostly fiction, but when I take the time to search for a good non-fiction book, I’m often rewarded with a find like Kabloona, by Gontran de Poncins. De Poncins was a wealthy Frenchman who, in 1938, was possessed by a restlessness so profound that he was driven to spend fifteen months living among Esquimaux in the far north, pondering their “invincible serenity in the face of the hardest physical existence known to man.”
Another non-fiction favorite of mine is Disappearance: A Map, by Sheila Nickerson, formerly poet laureate of Alaska. A strange and intriguing little book, its subject—at least on the surface—is disappearances, mostly in Alaska and the far north. But it becomes a lyrical exploration of death and love, maps and mysteries. Nickerson weaves together her own experiences and stories of vanished travelers with a haunting and melancholy wisdom.
With some books, one read just isn’t enough. That’s how I’ve always felt about Slow Days, Fast Company, by Eve Babitz, which I discovered in (I think) 1975. Every year or so I pull this slim volume off my shelf and read it again–sometimes cover-to-cover, sometimes just chapters that I’m especially in the mood for. First, it’s a beautiful book. The cover is an amusing and arresting drawing of an Afghan Hound in a turtleneck sweater, sitting in a café. The thick, cream colored paper is deckle edged and the author’s initials are stamped on the front cover. The stories inside are enthralling. Yes, I know it’s not PC to love L.A., but having gone to high school in the Valley (before the invention of Valley Girls) I can’t help it. L.A. is and always will be a part of me. And Eve Babitz is L.A. The book consists of ten jewel-like memoirs/stories. She is a fabulous writer and a fascinating woman. Read it. I can say no more.
If the spirit moves you, post a comment here about some your favorite books.