Wednesday, February 26, 2014

You've GOT to Read This

by Daddy X

Momma X and I vacationed in Hawaii in 2010—Kaui to be more precise. One of the books we found in the rental house was a thick volume titled as above. ( Edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard © 1994 Harper Perennial). Since titles can’t be copyrighted, I figured it’d be cool to use it for my blog post. As was the decision to pick up the book and haul it to the beach. 

After all, who could resist?

The premise: Thirty-four contemporary authors each choose and introduce a short story that they find most compelling. The stories vary from tried and true tales by Tolstoy and Dickens to newer entries by Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike and Tim O’Brien. They’re introduced by the likes of Amy Tan, Joyce Carol Oates, John Irving, Jane Smiley, Francine Prose and T. Coraghessen Boyle. Some authors are represented by a story as well as their recommendation. No matter if you like (or not) the authors who make the choices, the variety and depth of the anthology seems never-ending. You are sure to be awed by at least a few entries.

The first story is my favorite: “A Mother’s Tale” by James Agee. Suffice to say it’s told from the POV of a mother cow, a teacher. She’s telling her son and his young calf friends why all the older cows are leaving in such a big group, seemingly enthralled with what they imagine the journey ahead to be. The youngsters are jealous because they can’t join the passing herd until next year’s trip. Mother Cow tells the story of The One Who Came Back. It's far more than what it seems, not just a surface treatment intended to draw tears and bolster vegetarianism. Deeply philosophical conundrums are explored.

I would recommend reading each story first, before the presenters’ synopsis, which tend to reveal too much of what one should expect from the read. I prefer my own conclusions, gleaned by experiencing a work cold, without any particular expectations.

But I did go over the intros afterward to see what I’d missed. Duhhh… :>)

Of course, we had to leave the book behind; it wouldn’t really do to gleep it. Imagine my surprise to find the paperback edition last week for $2 in a Hospice thrift shop. If anybody out there owns a new hardbound copy of this, it’s priced near four figures on line, and the used paperback edition in decent condition commands a $30 price tag.  

As usual, over the last few months, I’ve probably quit more books than I’ve finished. For example, Stephen King’s “Dr. Sleep” came well recommended, and after enjoying his “Under The Dome” a couple of years back,  I was looking forward to another well-told King tale. Before ‘Dome’, I’d become disillusioned by a lot of his work and was pleased he’d gone back to the great storytelling style of his earlier career. Sorry to say, ‘Sleep’ just isn’t up to par. I put it down after 35 pages or so; then, after admonishment by a good friend, I read on to page 85. Still no grab, so I quit wasting time.

One that did hold my attention (in spades) was “A Civil Action” by Jonathan Harr (First Vintage Books ed. 1996). They did a high profile movie of this in 1998 with an all-star cast starring Robert Duvall, Kathleen Quinlan, John Travolta, Tony Shaloub, William. H. Macy and John Lithgow.

Besides the victims, you won’t find many characters to like in this the true-life saga of the American justice system (or what passes for it) gone awry:

A cancer ‘cluster’ is discovered in a Massachusetts town after several neighborhood children come down with childhood leukemia. Someone figures out that it’s the water, and the polluters who are responsible turn out to be subsidiaries of multi-billion dollar conglomerates. There’s lots of illness and sad times in the beginning of the book, which I would have put down had the misery continued. But the story evolved into an obsessive legal tome, rendered in a literary style. One of those where you resent any time not invested in the book.  

BTW- I know Momma and I saw the movie. I know this because she remembers. I kinda recall the film a bit, but it sure didn’t make the impression on me that the book has. A singular read in the factual novel tradition.

This one also cost $2 at the local thrift shop. 


  1. What a find! Glad you have it.
    I used to work on the local League of Women Voters book sale, long ago, mostly with the pricing-and-sorting team si I could get a look at the donated books. Once I came across a set of what appeared to be the subscription edition (therefore first edition) of T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It was in beautiful condition, complete with box, or sleeve, or whatever it's called. We were supposed to set books of possible higher value aside for someone with more expertise to inspect, so I did, hoping that I might be able to afford it myself once a price was set. And as far as I could ever tell no one in the League ever saw it again. Not at the sale, not at the auction where the more valuable things were sold, and none of the League officers (I was secretary at that point) knew anything about it. I couldn't swear that it wasn't a reproduction, if such a thing existed, but not too long afterward I saw an article about a resurgence of interest in Lawrence, and the set was supposedly then selling for $30,000. I wish I'd kept it. Well, no, but I wish I'd taken it briefly for safekeeping.

  2. Out of curiosity I just looked up editions of Seven Pillars of Wisdom on Abebooks, and apparently there were several limited-edition sets printed more recently, at least one claiming to be "parallel printing" the original privately published edition, so it might have had the "subscription" wording. Illustrations were added, too, and I think there were illustrations. So probably not the original, but still worth a good deal.

  3. I've enjoyed Stephen King on and off over the years, but the one story of his I really, really liked was Rose Madder, one of his lesser known books I think. A Civil Action, yes - excellent. Are movies ever as good as the book?

  4. Yeah, Sacchi- First editions are quite a science. Not every 'first edition' is a true 'first' edition. All the particular quirks of the actual first edition must be fulfilled before the designation is considered genuine for a book.

    JP- It's a wonder how the reactions range for King. And yep, the Civil Action movie is just a whisper of a memory.

  5. I've seen the book you mentioned first, "You've got to read this." It seems like the sort of thing that would be up my alley. I love short stories and I love writers on writers. As far as your recommendation to read the stories before the intros, I often wonder why things don't get printed more often as afterwords. I love reading afterwords, but too often it feels as if an introduction is telling me how to feel about things I'm about to encounter. I am a bit too susceptible to others' opinions, so I prefer to meet content freshly and hear later what others thought.

  6. There's something about getting a bargain on a book that makes my heart sing... Yes, I know that as an author I should want everyone to pay full price for everything, and for all used books to be pulped so that readers are forced to buy new copies... but I honestly don't feel that way.

    "You GOT to Read This" sounds like a bit of a roller coaster ride. Must be interesting for an author pulled in as a recommender to see his or her own work recommended by somebody else, though.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.