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Literary Passages

Freefalling from One Book to Another

What does Louise Erdrich have in common with Jack London?

What does Louise Erdrich have in common with Jack London?

What does this book have in common with The Round House?

What does this book have in common with The Round House?

How do you choose which book to read next? I’ve noticed some fine threads that take me from one book to another, and lately the choices haven’t been determined by my book group’s selection.

Well, that’s not true. A couple months ago I read Louise Erdrich’s The Round House because my book club was reading it. What struck me most about the book was its 13-year old narrator, a boy. Apart from relating the crime story arc, Joe is the unlikely but effective voice for the impact of rape on his mother and the family.

Erdrich won the National Book Award for this title, so I was grabbed by the Man Booker Prize winning title, The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes when I saw it in an airport shop.  Here the narrator is an aging man, looking back and inward rather than out at the mad world.

That’s not much of a connection, going from one prize-winner to another.  But next I started The Valley of the Moon by Jack London. I’d just visited London’s home and property north of Sonoma in Moon Valley and added his short stories to my Kindle. Valley of the Moon interested me because it’s London’s only book with a female protagonist. I’m only midway through, but like Erdrich’s character, London’s protagonist, Saxon, is an innocent witness to men’s violence and self-destruction, as well as to the dark effects of the industrial and labor revolutions in Oakland, California, at the beginning of the last century.

(Also on my Kindle is Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth, apparently only his second title to be narrated by a woman, the other being Atonement.)

A sense of place has inspired much of my reading over the past couple years: The Mapmaker’s Wife by Robert Whitaker, In Tasmania by Nicholas Shakespeare. I picked up the Spanish author Javier Cercas’ The Speed of Light because of a review and my interest in Spain. I enjoyed it so much that I turned to his earlier work, Soldiers of Salamis.

It’s not often I’ll read two books by the same author back to back. Maybe the first time was after reading Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. The story wouldn’t leave me, so I immediately started Fadiman’s delightful book about books and reading, Ex Libris.

The other instance of reading two works by the same author was Lucky and Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. While reading the latter, a neighbor friend heard I’d been assaulted during a morning run, and she recommended Lucky. Only later did I learn that Sebold suspended writing Lovely Bones to write the story of her own assault.

Local authors (from Minnesota) are always of interest, especially if the books coincide with current affairs. Besides Erdrich, I’ve recently read Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, with some hilarious passages about Americans living abroad. My summer reading has included Judith Guest’s mystery novel, The Tarnished Eye, and The Forever Marriage by Ann Bauer. On the proverbial bedside table, The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang promises to provoke more thoughts about immigration, family, and living in other cultures. Even the business book Roar, by hometown friend Chris LaVictoire Mahai, appeals to my latent interest in business psychology.

As we travel we are continually drawn to ancient cultures and historic sites, whether it’s World War II or pre-historic art. Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken took me across the Pacific; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell took me back through time and to Indonesia during Dutch and Japanese battles for control over Jakarta. I’m just as likely to check out, at the slightest prompting, some ‘classics,’ like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (Carson McCullers), or the lesser-known A Gay and Melancholy Sound (Merle Miller).

I mention all of these threads because I can get so wrapped up in a book and its people that it’s hard for me to shift to a new text. Now it’s a bit of a game to see how one book leads to the next, and one writer reminds me of another. The subtext running through this game is always the thought: what book in which box in which corner of storage in Minneapolis would I like to draw off my imaginary shelf?

Today I’m thinking of Madeleine Albright’s new book, Prague Winter, ­and her autobiography that’s in some box somewhere in storage, yet unread. I’m sure it will surface just at the right time.



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