I just finished reading "Gone With the Wind" by Margaret Mitchell. My Dad was about six years old when that book was published, and here I am all these years later, wishing there was more. I wanted Rhett and Scarlett to work it out, come clean, reveal their true feelings at last and have a happily ever after. As much as I enjoyed the movie, the dozen times I've seen it, the book was ever so much more. Rhett Butler is a far more complicated and endearing man in the book. The Scarlett in the book is more than the flirty little trollop that I saw in the movie. I wanted them to find their way back to each other.
Now I've started reading "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville. It's a much greater challenge. For one thing, it was written before the Civil War. Our language has changed some since then, so the pace and feel of the story is quite different from anything I've read before. High School required reading not withstanding.
I promised myself I would NOT re-read any of my favorite old books this year. The only thing I'm going to read is something that is new to me. This will be easy because it will probably take me the rest of the year to wade through Moby Dick.
When I think about the books I have read and re-read, I have to consider what made these stories so engrossing to me. They are set in places from China to Texas, but their characters are all wonderful, complex and familiar. They are familiar in the sense that I recognize true human behaviors in them; things I do, or driving forces that I have seen at work in others, mannerisms I know, or desires which speak to all of us. Since I've promised myself I wouldn't read any of these this year, I'm going to cheat a little and talk about them. Here are a few of my favorites, and why (in no particular order):
To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Who doesn't love this book? Written from the viewpoint of Miss Jean Louise Finch, "Scout", you can't help falling in love with the characters. Atticus Finch is the kind of Dad every kid wants, and who doesn't have someone like Calpurnia in their lives? The town of Maycomb is opened up for us to see, with all its citizens, and we live the struggles of the Finch family as they face the defining period of their lives.
Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel. If you haven't read this one, you must. I mean it now. Stop what you're doing and read this. And all its sequels. OK, to be fair, I love Ms. Auel, but I think she over-describes a bit. If you can get past that (which I do by skipping over paragraphs...shame on me!) she has a fabulous story here. It makes you stop and look at the world through completely different eyes. This is a very sweeping story and covers so many important points: love, loss, conflict, prejudice, assumptions, faith and self-reliance. Ayla is endearing, Iza is inspiring and Creb reminds us that we are all SO much more than meets the eye. Don't bother with the movie, though. It isn't anything like the book at all.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. What can I say? This is a story as big as the whole West and the characters are some of the most well-developed I've ever read. I truly felt that if Gus McCrae knocked on my door, I would recognize him from the story. Woodrow Call is that perfectionist, hard-on-himself-and-on-everyone-else guy we all have in our circle somewhere. Lorena is all that is beautiful, hopeful, lost and found, all wrapped in one young woman. And Clara? I just love Clara Allen. Her strength and her good sense are tempered with her love of life. She's a treasure. The TV miniseries is as close to the book as can be and I love it, too, even though it omits some very important characters. I loved all four books of the series: Dead Man's Walk, Comanche Moon and Streets of Laredo are the other three.
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. The story of a poor farmer in China, Wang Lung. We go along for the ride as Wang Lung cares for his aged father, gets married, gets poorer, starves, gets rich, and like all human beings are apt to do, gets stupid. The bride he buys, O-Lan is another strong, loving and capable woman, and ever so much wiser than her dear Wang Lung. This story is not only a peek into daily life in a country long ago and far away, it's one of those tales that reminds us of the value of all things. The movie, made many years ago, was very disappointing to me. Paul Muni as a Chinese peasant? Really?
Hawaii by James Michener. I love well-researched historical novels and this one is a must. You come away with a newfound respect for the achievements of those ancient Polynesian mariners. You get a view of the life of a missionary. You are there with the immigrants, the plantation owners, the lepers, the children of privilege and the native islanders fighting for their home and their culture. Like Auel, Michener also takes descriptive writing to the next level. If you like that sort of thing, then read those first chapters about volcanoes and sharks. Me, I skipped right to the people. I enjoy many of Michener's other titles, too: Centennial, Alaska, Chesapeake, Texas....and I seem to skip the first chapters in most of them. Sorry, Mr. Michener.
Shogun by James Clavell. Another historical novel, this time set in Japan. Pilot-major John Blackthorne intends to go China and Japan to trade. Instead, he winds up with his ship dashed on the rocks and a prisoner of the Japanese. Jesuit missionaries are already present in Japan, and of course they regard Blackthorne, a Protestant, as a heretic. This is one that I saw the TV miniseries first and later read the book. The miniseries was a good treatment of the book, but of course, there is so much more in the pages than on the screen. I loved how ably Clavell shows us the struggle Blackthorne has in putting away his own culture enough to really learn anything about his captors. Clavell does a terrific job in showing us both viewpoints and the struggles for each side. The book is full of intrigue, drama, political turmoil and even some steamy stuff. The part where Blackthorne's host is trying to offer him help in getting ... um ....well, laid is hysterical. HYSTERICAL. Clavell did a wondeful job giving us enough detail to set Japan firmly in our minds for the story, without describing just exactly how the bath house lay in relation to the tree.
A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith. This one is a coming of age story, set in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. Francie Nolan and her family are the central figures, with her little brother Cornelius (Neeley), hard-working, sensible mother and her alcoholic, singing, dreamer of a father. Francie's young hopes and fears play against the grit of the real world of a poor first-generation family. Her Granma Rommely is a saint, and Aunt Evie is the aunt every child needs to know. Watching Francie figure it all out, like how people can say Aunt Evie is a "bad girl", when Francie knows how good and loving and sweet she is... you just have to fall in love with her whole family. Francie's parents, Katie and Johnny Nolan give a wonderful look at love that surpasses weakness and struggles. The contrast of their richly developed relationships with the poverty in which they live is instructive, I think. And the daily tidbits such as the endless meals Katie Nolan invents out of day-old bread...that is inspiring, too.
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