Mark Terry

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What Books Strike You?

July 30, 2008
Over on Spyscribbler's blog she has a post about quotes about reading and books and wonders what books are particularly important to people and why?

I think this is a really interesting question and I noted that books that can practically change one person's life can mean almost nothing else to other people. I also find that some books that meant a lot to me at one time or another sort of fade in their importance over time.

So I'll mention the two books I mentioned on her blog, but tell you a little bit about the books.

To The Hilt by Dick Francis.
I haven't read this book since my father died and I suspect at least part of that is because of an earlier part of the plot. The main character is a painter in Scotland, born more or less into some royal blood--his uncle is an earl, I believe. Alexander lives out in a bothy--basically a rustic cabin--out in the Scottish countryside with no electricity, painting things. His step-father has a heart attack and he returns to help his mother deal with his step-father's recuperation. (The medical at-home things bring back a lot of memories). His step-father, who owns a brewery, asks him two favors, convinced he's dying. One, there's a huge sum of money missing from the brewery and he asks Alexander if he can try to find it. Two, he has a racehorse that the creditors are going to take if he can't find the money and he wants him to hide the racehorse, because he's been told by Alexander's uncle that Alexander is good at hiding things. Indeed he is, because his uncle had asked him also to hide a priceless sword hilt given to some distant relative by Bonnie Prince Charles (I think) hundreds of years earlier. And a fair number of people find out Alexander is hiding things of great value and will pretty much do anything to get him to cough up the secrets.

So there's all sorts of plots about family and step-family and familial responsibility, but there's a lot about mortality and the artistic lifestyle (everybody in the large family thinks Alexander's a nut, living out in the middle of nowhere painting pictures about golf, not realizing he likes his solitude and he makes a lot of money about golf. And of course, one critic had looked at a painting of his and suggested that Alexander didn't paint pictures about golf, but painted pictures about human tenacity and will). So it's a mystery, several in fact, with some historical tie-ins, but really this book is about an artist somewhat isolated from his family who is brought into the fold, so to speak.

Anyway, it touches me a lot.

Bag of Bones by Stephen King
Michael Noonan is a bestselling romantic suspense novelist in his 30s when his wife dies of an aneurysm. He completes his work in progress, then suffers a form of writer's block that can only be described as pathological--he literally will suffer severe panic attacks if he attempts to write. This goes on for four years, when he returns to a vacation home he and his wife had owned in rural Maine. The home, a log cabin dubbed Sara Laughs, appears to be haunted. By his late-wife? Or someone else? While in the area, he comes upon a 4-year-old girl walking down the road and her very young mother. Suddenly Mike is thrust into a custody battle between Mattie DeVore (the mother) and her crazy 85-year-old computer mogul late-husband's father, who will do anything to take custody of her daughter.

Bag of Bones is a ghost story, but like To The Hilt it's also about creativity and the creative life. It's all mixed up with child custody, an early generation's sins coming to roost, and love and marriage. Describing the two books this way I can sort of see similarities, which is interesting. I'd never realized the extent to which their themes overlaps.

And in case you haven't read Bag of Bones, I'm going to give a spoiler here and tell you about the end (part of it) of the book. So if you don't want to know, don't read it.


Although for a time Mike's writer's block goes away--actually, it goes away for good, because it was being created by either the ghost of his late-wife or the ghost of Sara--but Mike never returns to writing. He writes on the last 2 pages of the book:

"...the machine which ran so sweet for so long has stopped. It isn't broken--this memoir came out with nary a gasp or missed heartbeat--but the machine has stopped, just the same. There's gas in the tank, the sparkplugs spark and the battery bats, but the wordygurdy stands there quiet in the middle of my head. I've put a tarp over it. It's served me well, you see, and I don't like to think of it getting dusty."

Then he writes:

"Thomas Hardy, who supposedly said that the most brilliantly drawn character in a novel is but a bag of bones, stopped writing novels himself after finishing Jude the Obscure and while he was at the height of his narrative genius. He went on writing poetry for another twenty years, and when someone asked him why he'd quit fiction he said he couldn't understand why he had trucked with it so long in the first place. It retrospect it seemed silly to him, he said. Pointless. I know exactly what he meant. In the time between now and whenever the Outsider remembers me and decides to come back, there must be other things to do, things that mean more than those shadows. I think I could go back to clanking chains behind the Ghost House wall, but I have no interest in doing so. I've lost my taste for spooks. I like to imagine Mattie would think of Bartleby in Melville's story.

"I've put down my scrivener's pen. These days I prefer not to."

Well, it's an ending and a line of thought that is significant to me and haunts me with its truth. And that's a hell of a thing for a piece of popular fiction to do.

How about you? What books hit you like a lightning bolt and why?

Mark Terry


Anonymous Amy Nathan said...

Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

I read it in 9th grade, a horrible year for me. I think about this book almost every day of my life because it chronicles a woman's look back at her teenage years when she was teased viciously by best friends. I don't remember anything specific about the story, characters or plot (I went to amazon to make sure my memories were correct) but when I read it I realized I was not the only one who'd gone through this if there was a book about it. I also knew then that one day I would write a book that would, in my dream, touch someone by showing them that they are not alone.

I think I'm going to read it again.

9:09 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

If I were to go back that far, I would have to say:

The Young Unicorns by Madeleine L'Engle

The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L'Engle

9:51 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Wow, I have to read those two books! They sound just a little scary, but in a good way.

Jude the Obscure is one that really touched me that I completely forgot about. I just completely forget books I've loved. Why is that? I need to read them all over again!

Jane Eyre is a huge one, along with Les Miserables, although I forgot about that one for a long time, too. I know it's corny, but I loved Oliver Twist, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer.

Pretty much anyone without a family or a little downtrodden.

11:23 AM  
Blogger kitty said...

1) I consider myself the world's slowest reader, so when I can slog through a 616-page book, not once but TWICE, it must be a good read. Anya, by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, is the story of a young Jewish woman who trained to be a doctor in Poland and lived through Hitler's wrath. I was, and still am, fascinated by how people survive perilous times, especially people with children.

2) In keeping with the Holocaust theme -- Most of us have read The Diary of Ann Frank, and here's a similar book (fiction). When my daughter was in grade school, I bought her a book called When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, about a 9-year-old Jewish girl living in 1933 Germany. I glanced at the first page and couldn't put it down. I didn't give it to her until I had finished. Even though it was written for a young girl, the story will hold an adult's attention.

3) Angela's Ashes is another book which affected me a great deal. I cried my way through Frank McCourt's memoir, Angela's Ashes. The Irish wit, which had charmed millions, had eluded me. Although my ancestors were primarily English -- "the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years" -- I am not unfamiliar with America's recently discovered phenomenon, that being The Irish Sense of Humor. Thanks to Joey Freeman, the saint who pulled me through algebra, I grew up knowing it as The Jewish Sense of Humor, which Joey defined as the ability to find some levity in anything but most of all adversity. For all I know it was once The Portuguese Sense of Humor or maybe even The Mesopotamian Sense of Humor. I do know it was never The German Sense of Humor, as the Germans, according to Joey, have no sense of humor. However, he did acknowledge that they had that adversity part down pat. "They were carriers."


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