Well, here it is the week of Thanksgiving, which has been my favorite of the big American holidays at least since I outgrew Santa Claus. Even so, as a writer, I’ve never been much inclined to count my blessings in public, though I’ll admit to having succumbed to the blandishments of the occasional editor or others who have professed to be interested in knowing — even if only to fill space — the things for which I am thankful. Not often, mind you, but I figure I might as well own up to it.
With that in mind, and yet still in the spirit of the holiday, I will tell you that one of the things for which I am most thankful, year in and year out, is books. I’ve considered myself a writer for a long time now, but long before I even conceived of being a writer, I was a reader. Family legend has me reading from the funny papers at the age of three, the Bible and grown-up books by four. I don’t know whether those memories of my mother’s and other family members are strictly accurate, but I can say that I do not recall a time in my life when I was unable to read, nor one when tucking myself someplace cozy and reading a book did not bring me great joy.
As for what all of that means to this week’s column…well, it means that in lieu of recounting, seriously or facetiously, a laundry list of my thankfulness, I’m taking the ready opportunity — or excuse, as the case may be — to make brief mention of some of the books I’ve enjoyed most since this time last year. Whether you want to take this as a set of recommendations, or just a quasi-clever way of lashing together a column on a short week in which I also wrote an extensive piece on Interstate 20/59, I am pleased to offer for your consideration the following:
The Sea, by John Banville. An Irishman who has been recognized with numerous major awards — and is generally considered to be on the short list of future Nobel laureates — Banville is the epitome of the “literary novelist.” He often is mentioned as an heir to the likes of Proust and Nabokov, neither of whom, I confess, I have read much of. What I know is that he writes great sentences (“The past beats inside me like a second heart.”), and that those great sentences flower into passages that are breathtaking in the meticulousness of their construction. Here’s a favorite from The Sea, a novel narrated by a recently widowed man who returns to a seaside town where he spent holidays as a child and encounters more memories — and more truth — than he bargained for:
That was all there was in the dream. The journey did not end, I arrived nowhere, and nothing happened. I was just walking there, bereft and stalwart. … But I woke into the murk of dawn not as I usually do these days, with the sense of having been flayed of yet another layer of protective skin during the night, but with the conviction that something had been achieved, or at least initiated.
Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, by Nancy Isenberg. The author, a professor of American history, writes like a professor of history — which is to say that the prose style of Fallen Founder is not going to bowl you over. What is amazing here is the subject, and the depth of detail and insight Isenberg provides in this fresh look into the life of a man she clearly views as misunderstood even in his own time, and mistreated by history. Remembered chiefly as the Vice President of the United States who killed his political rival, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel, Burr in Isenberg’s telling is a patriot, a hero of the American Revolution, an early feminist, and a political leader who devoted himself to opposing the factionalism — fomented by Hamilton, among others — that threatened the stability of the new nation. I’ve always had a sneaking admiration for Burr; after taking in Isenberg’s forthright portrait of a complicated and fascinating figure, now I know exactly why.
Euclid’s Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace, by Leonard Mlodinow. The author himself is an interesting story, a Caltech physicist who became a successful television screenwriter before turning his attention back to educational and writing pursuits. All of his skills are reflected in Euclid’s Window, including a gift for comedy — not something you might expect to find in a book that traces the development of geometry through the story of five “revolutions” and the geniuses behind them: Euclid, Descartes, Gauss, Einstein and Witten. A sample of the highly readable, written-for-the-layman approach that drew this reader in:
One day in 1618, soldier Descartes was in the small town of Breda in Holland when he saw a crowd gathered around a notice posted on the street. … There are many things such a notice might be today — an advertisement, a No Parking sign, a wanted poster. One kind of notice you will not find on streets today is what this actually was: a mathematical challenge to the public.
Cloudsplitter, by Russell Banks. Hands down one of the most remarkable novels I have ever read. This was my first foray into the work of Banks, who has had at least two books — The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction — made into successful films. Cloudsplitter is a 750-page page-turner that delves into the dark ground of familial relationships and religious fanaticism through its narrator, the aged Owen Brown, the only surviving son of the anti-slavery terrorist and martyr, John Brown. Through Owen’s eyes, Banks spins a tale that is absolutely riveting and ultimately heartbreaking. I learned more about both the life and the psychology of John Brown from this work of fiction than from a couple of biographies I’ve read over the years.
Father believed that the universe was a gigantic clockworks, brilliantly lit, Banks has Owen tell us near the end of the book. But it’s not. It’s an endless sea of darkness moving beneath a dark sky, between which, isolate bits of light, we constantly rise and fall.