Welcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.
Today’s guest is Canadian author Lauren B. Davis.
Lauren was born in Montreal, spent a decade living in France, and is now based in Princeton, USA, where she divides her time writing novels and running a writers workshop.
She has two short story collections — Rat Medicine and Other Unlikely Curatives (2000) and An Unrehearsed Desire (2008) — and three novels to her name, including The Stubborn Season (2002), The Radiant City (2005), and Our Daily Bread (2011), which I read, reviewed and loved earlier this year. Her next novel, The Empty Room, will be published by Harper Collins Canada in May 2013.
When Lauren submitted her answers to Triple Choice Tuesday she included this little note: “I’d just like to begin by saying this is a bloody awful thing to ask an avid reader such as myself. How to choose only THREE books? An impossible task, so I’m going to try to sneak in a few others here by saying I wanted very much to include, in one or more of the categories: No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod, Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, and certainly The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy. And there are more. Really, the books on my shelves are throwing themselves at my head at the injustice of it all!”
On that note, let’s see what Lauren actually chose!
This is one of those books that make me proud to be a writer. Not only is his writing nearly perfect in its precision (not an extra word, not a single imperfect metaphor, every detail exactly chosen), Haruf’s compassion, his simplicity, his understanding of the human soul are inspiring. Unlike so many contemporary writers, who expend vast quantities of energy being oh-so-clever, Haruf eschews wit for heart.
His characters are glorious — messy, broken, complicated, kind and cruel, funny, bitter, despairing, rejoicing and utterly complete. These are not people who sit around in cafes discussing the problems of the world; they are people striving, quietly and with enormous dignity, to do the right thing, to be kind, to overcome cruelty. Haruf’s portrayal has turned them into my heroes. I can’t recommend a better book to to anyone who yearns to be a writer, or who yearns to understand more about what goes on in the hearts and minds of our fellow humans.
I was 14 when someone handed me this book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which resulted from an article Agee and photographer Walker Evans were assigned to document the horrific living conditions of white Alabama sharecroppers during the Great Depression. (One can only imagine what it must have been like for their black counterparts.)
The mad rushing mix of poetry, the biblical cadence of the prose; the raw, harrowing subject matter stunned me but, more importantly, it was Agee’s desperation to make the reader understand that made me want to be a writer. Having lived with them and cared for them, not as statistics of the Great Depression but as men and women of supreme value, unique, peerless and beloved of God, Agee wrote as though his very soul depended on bearing proper witness.
In one particular passage (which I will not quote since it’s just too long to include here), Agee describes the Gudgers and the world they live in. Part way through Agee seems afraid he’s failing the people about whom he’s writing. The prose here begins quietly and slowly builds, moving psychically from the land and the town to the minds, dreams, hopes of the people sleeping in the shack wherein Agee writes. The sentences become shorter, the phrasing blunter, the structure less organised as Agee grows more frantic and finally breaks into a series of punctuation marks. Before the era of text-speak, these symbols indicated frustration and Agee’s rage against his own perceived inadequacy.
He ends by reciting the beatitudes. To this day, I cannot read that passage without weeping.
Agee rips open my eyes and my heart so I see the world afresh, saturated with empathy. I cannot live as a sharecropper in the 1930s, but because the work is so well written, I FEEL what these people feel, taste their food, smell the stale sheets, feel the cold, hear the barking dogs, experience the hope and despair. In short, I am made more human through my experience of their lives.
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is messy, meandering, and when I read it now I see the moments when Agee’s drinking (which finally killed him prematurely at the age of 46) gets the better of him and the prose slips into maudlin incoherency. It doesn’t matter. In a recent article in the Harvard Magazine, Adam Kirsch says: “Suddenly, he [Agee:] was no longer writing a magazine article about a socioeconomic problem; he was undergoing something very like a spiritual ordeal, in which he was granted a vision of the infinite value of each individual human being, even or especially the poorest.”
Regardless of Agee’s personal demons, in the end, there is That Book. I knew the moment I read it that here was something I could do for the rest of my life, something big enough, important enough, and I’ve given it my all.
Like Haruf, there are few writers I admire as much as I do David Adams Richards, who hails from New Brunswick, Canada, where his novels are set. His books are deeply morale and compassionate. His prose has echoes and rhythms you rarely see these days — there is something of the King James Version of the Bible in his language. It is not necessarily an easy book, at least not in the way of best-sellers and chick lit. This particular novel is a hard book, in that it is hard subject matter about hard men (with surprisingly vulnerabilities), in a hard world (that of 1950s logging camps), doing unspeakably hard work. It is also a hard book to put down, a hard book to forget, a hard book (I admit it) not to weep over.
I won’t go into the plot of the book, you can read the flap copy for that. But I will say that Richards explores his familiar themes — what makes a person “good” (I am reminded of Iris Murdoch, who was once asked what themes she wrote about; she responded, “I only ever write about one thing: how to be good.”), what brings about someone’s downfall, and how we are all, in one way or another, connected, complicit, responsible for our neighbors, those “friends of Meager Fortune”. These are themes which anyone who has read my own books will recognise. Meager Fortune, by the way, is the BRILLIANT name of one of the characters.
Perhaps Richards himself sums up the theme of this book best in a line Fortune speaks: “. . . men have rid themselves of God, and are famished, and therefore do terrible things to make such famine go away.” And later, “Another scandal started because of our famine. To fill up our souls with the trinkets of life, instead of with life itself.” Has the word “trinket” ever felt so perfect, sounded so tinny and cheap and worthless?
The world Richards creates — as always — that of the Miramachi region of Canada’s New Brunswick Province, this time the world of mid-twentieth century loggers, is perfect — every smell, sound, sight, taste and touch. It is a harsh and heartbreaking and filled with a thousand it-might-have-beens. He’s a brave writer — tackling complex themes, and expecting his reader to be able to rise to the occasion. For all of that, I was completely wrapped up in the story, turning pages fast, and staying up long past my bedtime to find out what happens next.
It is, in short, a book I wish I’d written myself, and certainly one which will inspire me. I hope more people will read it. Although it did win the Commonwealth Prize for Canada & the Caribbean, as well as the Author’s Guild Award, almost no one I’ve spoken to outside of Canada knows about Richards, and that’s a great pity.
Thanks, Lauren, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!
I’ve not read any of these books, but they all sound fabulous and it’s lovely to get a Canadian perspective on literature for a change. I’m particularly interested in the David Adams Richards book, which sounds just like my cup of tea.
What do you think of Lauren’s choices? Have you read any of these books?