Remarkable Reads

Remarkable Reads, edited by J. Peder Zane
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004

Remarkable Reads collects a series of 34 essays, first published in the Raleigh News and Observer, in which writers describe encounters with books from a wide variety of angles. Editor J. Peder Zane recalls the challenge he set himself when first proposing the idea to News and Observer editors Melanie Sill and Felicia Gressette:

We began with a rough notion of where we wanted these adventures in reading to go–and the places to avoid. Have writers discuss their favorite books, but don’t produce another series where writers … discuss their favorite books. Push them to describe the ineffable powers of literature … without resorting to highfalutin’ platitudes about the ineffable powers of literature.

In the end, they solved the problem by finding a “signpost that would lead these essays in the right direction: adjectives. We’d ask writers from around the country to pick a single book and a single adjective to describe their encounter with it.”

As a result, we have the chance to learn about everything from “The Most Daunting Book I Read” (The Education of Henry Adam) and “The Classiest Book I Read” (Howards End) to “The Hippest Book I Read,” (Civilization and Its Discontents) “The Most Double-D-Daring Book I Read” (The Robber Bridegroom by Eudora Welty), and “The Most Unpleasant Book I Read” (American Psycho).

The majority of the titles–Doctor Zhivago, The Catcher in the Rye, The Cat in the Hat–are well known and readily available. A few, though, qualify as lesser-known or neglected.

South of the Big Four, Don Kurtz

from “The Most Familiar Book I Read,” by Haven Kimmel:
“The beauty and bleakness of the novel are the perfect objective correlative for the Indiana landscape I knew. I still haven’t figured out much about the New South, as long as I’ve been here, but I know the land South of the Big Four Railroad, and I can say one thing with certainty: Even without a gorgeous Italian housewife, every word of Don Kurtz’s heartbreaking book is true.”

The Easter Parade, Richard Yates

from “The Most Devastating Book I Read,” by Ben Marcus:
“Books like The Easter Parade make us exist anew inside their world, where we flourish inside the skins of the characters. We experience the same colossal emotional devastation that they do, even though the whole enterprise is make-believe. We are wearing them and thus will drown when they do….

“As awful as this might sound as a literary experience, reading The Easter Parade might allow us to breathe and eat and live anew, to shake off complacency and appreciate the world around us, since Yates has demonstrated how potentially precarious our happiness truly is.”

The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

from “The Most Apocalyptic Book I Read,” by Lydia Millet:
“The genius of The War with the Newts lies less in its plot or its wry political wisdom than in its exceptional new portraiture. The talking salamanders are at least half-human, since Andrias Scheuchzeri walks and talks more or less like Homo sapiens. Their antropomorphic charm makes them unforgettable: As exaggerations of pragmatic economic modern man, they’re as devoid of passion as they are devoid of morality. The newts are a kind of soulles and adorable child, horrifyingly mechanical but at the same time guileless. And then there’s the sense of hujor of their creator, which imbues them with the power to convey to us, without preaching or tear jerking, the plausibility–even the overwhelming mundanity–of apocalyptic endings.”

[A free e-text of David Wyllie’s English translation is available online at — ed.]

The Tarahumara, by Antonin Artaud (published in English translation as The Peyote Dance)

from “The Most Tempting Book I Read,” by Charles Frazier:
The Tarahumara is an astonishing, mad, obsessive book, a fierce attempt by a man whose life is in a desparate place to make himself right, to fix himself after a life of breakage. It is based on a trip Artaud took in the mid-1930s, and he worked on the book for the rest of his life, which perhaps accounts for the odd relations among its parts. Some chapters were written fresh in Mexico, others later in the Rodez sanitarium where Artaud underwent a long series of electroshock treatments; the final chapter was completed in Paris only a few weeks before his death in 1948.”

Sunset Song, by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

from “The Most Scottish Book I Read,” by Margot Livesey:
“Let me say, if I can, what makes the novel so intensely Scottish…. Partly is its the exquisite detail with which Gibbon describes the land and the many tasks of the small holder. He knows intimately the bone-breaking, relentless, unrewarding nature of farming and yet he also captures those rare mornings when the sun shines and the breeze blows softly and everything is green and fecund. It seems almost a commonplace to say of certain stories and novels that they capture the relationship between person and place, but Sunset Song actually does do this and does it so keenly that wherever you come from, whatever the landscape dear to your eyes, you will find, after you read the novel, that you know have another place in your imagination that you may visit when you choose.”

[Sunset Song is the first novel in the trilogy, The Scots Quair, which concludes with Cloud Howe and Grey Granite–ed.]

Stick and Rudder: An Explanation of the Art of Flying, by Wolfgang Langewiesche

from “The Most Technically Elegant Book I Read,” by Clyde Edgerton:
“Langewiesche’s re-creation of sensation through clarity, simplicity, and sensible use of language had helped me get into my bones, while reading, what had been in my head about the extreme danger of low, slow flying. I haven’t flown an airplane since the crash. But I plan to. In the meantime, Stick and Rudder: An Explanation of the Art of Flying remains close at hand. And when I get lonesome for some flying, I start reading. On any page. It puts me in the air.”

The Scapegoat, by Jocelyn Brooke

from “The Queerest Book I Read,” by Peter Cameron:
“I can think of few books that are as erotically and dramatically charged as The Scapegoat, or that depict so convincingly the degenerative effects of sexual repression. Gerald and Duncan are doomed by both the suppression and the expression of their urges, and that is the real tragedy of The Scapegoat.”

The Worm Ouroboros, by E.R. Eddison

from “The Most Exotic Book I Read,” by Fred Chappell:
“E.R. Eddison was enthralled by the jeweler’s art and I have wndered if The Worm Ouroboros might not have been designed as an immense, highly wrought, wonderfully precious setting for this single diamond of inestimable worth, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. Perhaps not, but for me the notion that it might have been adds to the splendor.”

The Little Locksmith, by Katharine Butler Hathaway

from “The Most Luminous Book I Read,” by Lee Smith:
“Indeed this is a fearless book, as well as an entirely original one. It is not at all like anything else I have ever read. Though she was very frail, Katharine was tough. She was also precise. Her book is like an exquisitely cut jewel–a topaz, I think, rather than a diamond (maybe I think this because it’s my own birthstone, but everybody who reads this book wants to claim it as her own). Each fact reveals a new insight or an indelible image. Hold it up to the window, turn it this way and that, and it will cast off rays of light in every direction, piercing even the oddest, most secret depths of the reader’s psyche.”

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