It’s hard to explain why something grabs us – a song lyric, an overheard phrase, a line from a movie – and harder yet to explain why a particular set of words, placed together just so, works its way into our brains and remains there, lodged like a bullet.
As you already know, I’ve got horribly low standards for retaining song lyrics; they don’t have to be even marginally meaningful to lodge in my head. I’m anxiously awaiting the day when science shows us how to engage the DELETE function in our brains, so I can move on to useful things like Sanskrit, astrophysics, and what I actually drove to the grocery store to get.
Not so with books. There’s got to be something really noteworthy — a creatively crafted image, a turn of phrase, or a feeling the text invokes — to make a book stick.
My all-time favorite book, which I carry around like a security blanket, is actually two books published under one cover: Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. The titles make these novels sound like saccharine romances, and you could be forgiven for expecting heaving bosoms and ripping bodices, but they’re not that at all.
Mitford’s books are not romances, although they are about love. Rather, they’re brilliant satires about upper class English society in the interwar and WWII era. Mitford’s piercing humor skewers her parents and siblings with abandon (and what siblings they were! Check out The Sisters by Mary Lovell to get the backstory on the radical Mitfords), and rightfully, they were none too pleased about it, but in doing so, Mitford created characters whose idiosyncrasies have stuck with me for decades.
Another book that sticks, more for the overall atmosphere it invokes than for any one particular scene, is Michael Herr’s Dispatches. I first read this as an undergrad, and was completely floored by how artfully Herr, a reporter for Esquire, conveyed the chaos of the war: the youth and inexperience of the soldiers, the disconnect between the officers and the enlisted men, the confusion about the mission, the prevalence of drugs, the mirroring of the civic unrest back home in the music the soldiers listened to, the omnipresent danger lurking around every corner. More than any other book I’ve read about that conflict, this one stuck, and I’ve re-read it many times, including while I was in VietNam.
Another beloved book is Mark Shand’s Travels on my Elephant. I’ve always had a thing for pachyderms, and my fondness for them was intensified in Thailand when I fell head over heels in love with an Asian elephant named Udan. (She never writes or calls, but I trust that she thinks of me — and the way I lovingly scratched her ears — on occasion…*sigh*) I followed Travels with every other book of Shand’s that I could get my hands (and I wholeheartedly recommend them all), and became a tiny bit obsessed with Shand himself. (On an Obsession Scale of One to Robert Duvall, I’d say Mark Shand landed at the halfway point, if that helps clarify things for you). Shand was from an aristocratic British family -one of his sisters is Camilla, Prince Charles’ wife – and he had an easy confidence that I found very appealing; his love for adventure, and his ability to tolerate major discomfort in pursuit of the same, was in the tradition of the great British explorers. Sadly, Mark Shand died in 2014 after hosting a fundraiser for his elephant sanctuary; he stepped off a Manhattan sidewalk, fell, and sustained a fatal head injury, which was a tragically mundane end to a life that was anything but.
More recently, I read Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More for an Independent Study examining theological themes in modern literature. Quatro’s connected short stories are so stripped down, so brutally raw and laid bare, that there were times I had to look away from the page and shake my head in wonder: did she just write that? A phenomenal book, although I won’t pretend to have understood one or two of the stories, it left a lasting impression, not just about the scenarios and images Quatro created and the ongoing struggle to make sense of God and life, but also about the ability of the written word to move, inspire, confound, and change us.
With apologies to everyone whose feathers will be ruffled by this statement, I’m not a big fan of poetry. * shrieks of horror are heard from the English Department * One of my sons does a hilarious rendition of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” which I appreciate very much, but beyond that, poetry pretty much eludes me, which I chalk up to, once again, song lyrics having taken up the brain space allotted for poem-appreciation.
That is, except for this poem: Alan Dugan’s Love Song: I and Thou. Here is the poem in its entirety:
Nothing is plumb, level, or square:
the studs are bowed, the joists
are shaky by nature, no piece fits
any other piece without a gap
or pinch, and bent nails
dance all over the surfacing
like maggots. By Christ
I am no carpenter. I built
the roof for myself, the walls
for myself, the floors
for myself, and got
hung up in it myself. I
danced with a purple thumb
at this house-warming, drunk
with my prime whiskey: rage.
Oh I spat rage’s nails
into the frame-up of my work:
it held. It settled plumb,
level, solid, square and true
for that great moment. Then
it screamed and went on through,
skewing as wrong the other way.
God damned it. This is hell,
but I planned it. I sawed it,
I nailed it, and I
will live in it until it kills me.
I can nail my left palm
to the left-hand crosspiece but
I can’t do everything myself.
I need a hand to nail the right,
a help, a love, a you, a wife.
In my enthusiasm for this poem, and my desire to make you love it, as well, I searched online for a reading of it, and found this gem: A short NPR clip featuring Alan Dugan himself reading this work. (Alan Dugan who, God rest his soul, sounds like Frankenstein by way of the Bronx). Enjoy!