Lez get literary: What I read

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I was tagged on Facebook to list the first 10 books that come to mind, ones that stayed with me through the years.  Here is that list, off the top of my head while watching TV.

  1. “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
  2. “Desert of the Heart” by  Jane Rule
  3. “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott
  4. “Memory Board” by Jane Rule
  5.  “Curious Wine” by Katherine V Forrest
  6. “Amateur City” by Katherine V Forrest
  7. “Murder by Tradition” by Katherine V Forrest
  8. “This Hallowed Ground” by Bruce Catton
  9. “The White Album” by Joan Didion
  10. “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice” by Laurie R King

There are so many that formed and informed me over the years. “Choices” by Nancy Toder, “Shoulders” by Georgia Cottrell, a novella called “O Captain, My Captain,” by Katherine Forrest, a certain amount of Truman Capote’s writing (a little goes a long way), “The Front Runner” by Patricia Nell Warren, “Pentimento,” “An Unfinished Woman” and “Scoundrel Time” by Lillian Hellman. I have also read many biographies of some of the writers whose work I love.  I don’t recommend it, unless you need to be disabused of their favor in your heart.

There are so many more than 10. I felt cheated, and I left out some really good books and writers who moved and influenced me.  I read and appreciate everything that Jane Rule wrote, all her novels, including her short stories and books of collected essays. “Hood” by Emma Donoghue, also “Room” by the same author. “Mirrors and Love in the Balance” by Marianne K Martin (and its excellent sequel, “The Indelible Heart”). “The Yearling” by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Everything written by Bruce Catton, all history books, but I love the way he writes. The same is true of Dan T. Carter, who wrote “The Politics of Rage” and “Scottsboro.” I read William Faulkner, but his writing did not stay with me. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories did. I read Steinbeck and loved the symbolism.

If I like an author, I tend to read all of that writer’s works. As a writer, I love reading crime and murder mysteries. I have read all of Val McDermid, Patricia Cornwell, Dorothy L. Sayers, Elizabeth George, James Lee Burke, JM Redmann, the great Sara Paretsky and the wonderful Laurie R. King. Katherine V. Forrest should be included in this list because of her great police procedural series with Kate Delafield, one of the most human and flawed of all the world-weary detectives who star in their own series, from Sam Spade to Travis McGhee. Ellen Hart wrote an excellent homage to “The Maltese Falcon” called “The Cruel Ever After.”  I like the way Rick Bragg writes, and I have read all of his work: “All Over But the Shoutin’,” “Ava’s Man,” “The Prince of Frogtown” and “The Best They Ever Had.” The man has the heart of a poet.

Why do I enjoy mysteries so much? For one thing, the structure of a mystery novel is the very definition of what is structurally sound for any genre. It has to be a page-turner. There have to be clues. There has to be a great tragedy, that is, a murder or crime, and there has to be conflict and tension, between good vs. evil, the eternal struggle to do good, to be good, while harboring desires that are not good.

In a writing seminar, the impressive-but-not-intimidating Ellen Hart talked about writing and revising. She said, “All writing is a mystery. Romances, science fiction, all of it, every book ever printed is a mystery you want the reader to become fascinated with and try to solve.”

Maybe this is why I read mysteries so much, along with history.  The conflicted hero is what interests me. That’s why Taylor Branch’s three-volume work on Dr. Martin Luther King sits on my shelf. That’s why I read and loved Lillian Hellman’s self-described memoirs. (The writing is exquisite, though the truth may be hard to find.)

I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” again and again, every few years. As I re-read several books from writers who have stayed with me, such as the first Kay Scarpetta novel, “Postmortem” by Patricia Cornwell, because of its attention to detail, both in the forensics, and in establishing characters. I also highly recommend the first Tony Hill and Carol Jordan novel by Val McDermid, “The Mermaids Singing,” for the same reasons. I read them to study character development, not for the salacious, gory, frightening scenes, the first of their kind, and both award-winning entries for Cornwell and McDermid.

The point is this: I read and love books. Books are my best friends: faithful, intriguing, always there when I need them, full of useful information, entertainment and also providing lessons I could not live without. Like best friends or one’s own children, I cannot pick a favorite, because each gives me something I need. Is this good for me, or not good?

I submit that it is good. Though I might learn how to commit murder from reading great writers, I also learn how to write about that which may be unapproachable in real life. I learn about style and form and conflict and tension, and satisfactory resolution. I learn how to motivate the reader to keep turning pages, to find out what happens, and also why it happens.

So I can’t pick just one book of Jane Rule’s that stayed with me, because they all do. I can’t pick just one of Joan Didion’s works or only one of Katherine Forrest’s, because they all taught me something, gave me something, and the writing itself, that is the thing.

I think everyone should read “Member of the Wedding” and “The Scarlet Letter,” and “Moby Dick,” and Dostoevsky, and “The Wind in the Willows,” and “The Lord of the Rings,” (another series I re-read), and you should read Shakespeare and the King James Bible too. I read the Trixie Belden series when I was a child, and “The Boxcar Children,” and I also read all of Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour’s western novels, because my father had them in the house.

You may wax nostalgic over Nancy Drew or the Bobbsey Twins, “National Velvet” or “Black Beauty,” (I preferred Walter Farley’s “Black Stallion” series) and other childhood books, but remember as we are adults, and must put away childish things, that books are now just as they were then, great and wonderful adventures to be had, they provide a safe haven for our dreams, fantasies, and an outlet for those souls too timid to look beyond their own back yard.

Books (especially those bought at local, independent book stores) make great gifts! Can’t find what you’re looking for at your local shop? Ask for it!

 Bett Norris is the author of “Miss McGhee,” and “What’s Best for Jane.”

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