Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Books I Can't Forget

By Sandra Parshall

The latest Facebook meme has people listing books that have made the greatest and most lasting impression on them throughout their lives. Because I tend to hang out mostly with avid readers (many of them also writers), I’ve seen a lot of these personal lists and found them all interesting.

But one vital element is missing: the explanation, the answer to why particular books had such a profound impact.
I haven’t posted a list on Facebook because I would feel compelled to include the why and that isn’t part of the meme. But here I can explain what these books mean to me.

Considering the amount of reading I’ve done in my lifetime, the list is surprisingly short. I’ve finished a lot of books with the feeling that they would stay with me, only to realize a year or two later that I barely remember them. These are the books I’m sure I will never forget – the books I’ve read more than once and will probably read again in the future.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

For all the reasons that have made it the most memorable American novel of all time for many readers: unforgettable characters who touch us to the core, a nostalgic setting, and a story of human relationships and social injustice that is as relevant today as it was the year it was published. Lee’s only published novel, Mockingbird is still in print, still selling steadily all over the world, and has become a staple in U.S. classrooms. The movie is wonderful, but if you’ve never read the book, I urge you to find a copy and experience the full power of the writing.

Out of Africa
and Shadows on the Grass by Isak Dinesen

These stories of Karen Blixen’s life in British East Africa, written under a pseudonym after her return to Denmark in 1931, have an unbreakable hold on my imagination. Most younger people today know Out of Africa only as romantic movie, but the book is a loving and profoundly elegiac memoir of a time and a place that none of us will ever experience. The very thought of colonialism and the subjugation of native tribes is abhorrent, and Dinesen’s tales are certainly colored by the European views of the time and a sad longing for a perfect life that couldn’t be sustained under the pressure of change. But each word she wrote displays her deep love of the land and its wildlife, and her respect for the native people who were in every sense her friends. Dinesen introduced to me an idealized East Africa, and every time I reread the opening lines of Out of Africa I feel homesick for a place I’ve never been:

I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. The Equator runs across these highlands, a hundred miles to the North, and the farm lay at an altitude of over six thousand feet. In the day-time you felt that you had got high up, near to the sun, but the early mornings and evenings were limpid and restful, and the nights were cold.

Everything ever published by Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers

These two Georgians were the writers who most influenced me when I was young because, unlike the classic authors I was reading for English class, O’Connor and McCullers wrote about people I recognized from my own life. O’Connor’s style was sharper, utterly lacking in sentimentality, but both wrote about the essential solitude of the human soul that separates us from each other. Although McCullers traveled and had an international set of friends while O’Connor lived on a small Georgia farm with her mother, their lives had much in common. Both showed their genius early; McCullers published her stunning first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, at 23, and O’Connor published the classic morality tale Wise Blood at 27. O’Connor died of lupus at 39, leaving behind two published novels and 32 short stories, some published in her lifetime and the rest collected after her death. McCullers suffered a series of strokes in her twenties that paralyzed her left side by the time she was 31, but she produced eight novels before a final brain hemorrhage killed her at age 50.

A Dark-Adapted Eye
by Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell)

This is the book that made me understand how much it’s possible to do with a mystery. Although I never miss a Rendell novel, I still consider this densely layered story of lies, love, and cruelty within a seemingly ordinary family to be her masterpiece. I still have my1987 paperback copy, but it’s so fragile from handling that when my book group discussed it a few years ago I bought a later edition that I could mark up and dog-ear without regret. A British TV adaptation totally failed to capture the novel’s complexity and the insight gained through time shifts and memories. You have to read the novel to full appreciate Rendell’s achievement.

Mortal Memory by Thomas H. Cook

Cook’s haunting story, narrated by the sole survivor of a family massacre, has drawn me back many times to reread passages, chapters, the whole book. Cook’s prose is beautiful, a pleasure to read, and he uses it to create an atmosphere of quiet terror that is far more powerful than a graphic picture painted with hard-edged language and ugly words. Like A Dark-Adapted Eye, this is a many-layered story of family life gone desperately wrong.

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

Lehane’s great novel about a neighborhood torn apart – and brought together – by crimes both distant and recent encompasses such a broad range of emotions and relationships that it’s difficult to describe in a few words. With equal skill and insight, he zooms out to portray a community in turmoil and zooms in to explore a single man or woman’s inner torment or a couple’s marriage. Murder and detection are part of the story, but this is far more than a simple crime novel. Mystic River is great fiction on every level – and again, if you’ve only seen the film, you need to read the book.


Sheila Connolly said...

Like so many others, I have a list of books I can't forget--and finding Little Women in my stocking at dawn on Christmas morning was one of them. My mother wouldn't permit my sister and me to come pester her before the sun came up, so I just started reading. I still have that copy.

But I'm also mystified by the books I remember clearly for no apparent reason. I recently saw Robin Cook at a conference, and that spurred me to remember reading the opening pages of Coma, even where I was sitting at the time. But I can't tell you why--I didn't even like the book that much.

I'd read all of Lehane's prior books, but Mystic River was a revelation, a quantum leap forward. Not only was it an intense and moving story, but it showed so clearly how a writer can grow.

Sue Frey said...

One of my favorites that you didn't mention, Snow Falling on Cedars, for basically the same reason I, too, loved To Kill a Mockingbird. Plus,it touches on a part of American history many know nothing about in an extraordinary part of the world but deals with feelings and human failings we all know of only too well. Sue Frey (who has Parshall ancestors)

Kristopher said...

I would put The Secret History by Donna Tartt on this list as well. No matter how many times I read that book, every time I look at the shelves and see it, I think "I really should read that again."

Great list of books here!

Anonymous said...

I've also read a lot of books over the years. But one particular book has stayed with me because of the subject - total color blindness. Its a mystery, but the main character is totally color blind. Its not so much that but how she lives her life. In total solitude. Could'nt grasp the idea that she didn't have any family and friends around. Her apartment was totally blacked out because of her problem. No tv, but has a radio. Also, she has a huge telescope that she watched the city and people at night with. The author is David Hunt and the title of the book is The Magician's Tale. I think the book stayed with me because of her color blindness and the special glasses she has to wear when she's out in the daylight and at night. I also looked up total color blindness and its real, people who have it only see shades of black and grey.

Terry P.

Terry Shames said...

To your list, which is excellent, I would add everything Eudora Welty ever wrote. She's known for a couple of short stories, but her stories and books are so much grander.

Steve Oerkfitz said...

The Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll, Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn, The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, are all books I reread every couple years.

Sandra Parshall said...

Oddly enough, I didn't read anything of Eudora Welty's until I was well into adulthood. I love her writing, but I didn't connect with it the way I connected emotionally with the work of McCullers and O'Connor.