SIX PLUS ONE
I’m talking about six books. These are not the six greatest books ever written. These are not even my favorite six books. These are simply six books that do what books are supposed to do: linger in the heart and soul. Long after I read these books, their phrases, ideas and themes remain stuck to the ribs of my memory. These books are old friends that I return to again and again, books that disturb my thinking, and books that I wish I had written.
Because I write non-fiction books, five of the six are non-fiction. I’ll begin with the outlier, the sole novel in the bunch:
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes.
In the forty years since the end of the Vietnam War, no book has fully captured the complex nuances and conflicting tides of that confused and bitter time in America’s history. There has been no book that was the book about Vietnam. That is, until Matterhorn. This book is like the Mekong in full flood: it rises out of its banks, spreads across the countryside, and sweeps away all before it. Gritty. Visceral. Aching. And filled with the sweet sadness of young men going through the white-hot defining moments of their lives; knowing that if they live, everything else they ever experience will be anti-climactic; knowing that they are fighting and dying among the best men America has to offer, and that when – or if – they return home, they will be criticized and ridiculed by the worst men America has to offer.
The Bohemians by Ben Tarnoff.
If I had my choice of what other age I would have liked to live in, it would have been the middle of the 19th century. And if I had my choice of where in America I would have liked to live, it would have been in California. While much of America east of the Mississippi was involved in varying degrees with the Civil War, California used the time to emerge from the intellectual snooty English influence so prevalent in much of the east. This is when a few California writers changed American writing. This is when California, and the west, burst into their full glory and independence. This is when America became one country and from sea to shining sea we were Americans for the first time. What a rollicking book this is.
The Forest Unseen by David George Haskell.
This fellow Haskell has the nerve of a cat burglar. Here is what he did: he went into an old-growth forest, measured out a square meter of forest floor, and then came back on an almost daily basis to study the flora and fauna within that square meter. This book tells what he saw, what he found, what he came to understand about the natural world. Studying a square meter of dirt for a year sounds terribly boring. But this soft-spoken and gentle book is infused with a deep spirit. The reader is mesmerized by the progress of life in this tiny patch of dirt and, by extension, the progress of life throughout the natural world. Here is the small made universal. Here is heaven in a wild flower.
Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman by Robert O’Connell.
I grew up thinking William Tecumseh Sherman was a heartless sonofabitch who marched from Atlanta to Savannah, burning and pillaging and plundering every step of the way. He was the man who made Georgia howl, the man whose name was invoked to scare small children, the man I thought was the devil incarnate. But this book taught me that Sherman was one of the Great Captains in American history; a brilliant strategist, an inspired tactician, and a master of the operational arts. When Sherman burned Atlanta, he insured Lincoln’s re-election. And Lincoln’s re-election preserved the union and made America strong at the broken place. I say God bless Cump Sherman.
Born Fighting by James Webb.
Jim Webb is a petulant, thin-skinned, and hot-tempered man who wants to fight just about everyone he meets. But here he has written a classic about the Scots-Irish who are the heart and soul of the American south and of the Celtic bond that ties many southerners together. The best part of the book is toward the end when Webb writes of country music, the Confederate flag, and how soldiering is central to the southern heritage. History is alive in the south; and in the rural south, pride is about all that people have. Today there are those who want to take down the statues of Confederate soldiers found all across the south. Destroying monuments and symbols is the way of the Taliban. Let those who would destroy southern history read Jim Webb’s book. They might not agree with him. But they will understand. Maybe.
The Undertaking: Life Studies From the Dismal Trade by Thomas Lynch.
I did not know the funeral business could be so funny until I read this book written by one whose family has been in the business for generations. That the author is a funeral director makes for great stories about the human condition. That the author remains close to his Irish roots makes this a darkly humorous book. That the author is a poet who can squeeze the world into a phrase makes this a book to read again and again.
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr.
Mary Karr’s first memoir The Liars' Club is the best memoir of modern times. In her latest book, Karr tells how to write a memoir. In the telling she opens more locked doors than any writer I have read in a long time; she gets closer to the truth than most writers can manage. Mary Karr has been through the fire and came out smoking. Defiant. Brassy. And with an east Texas sense of humor that redeems the terrible bleakness of her experience. You can take it or leave it. She doesn’t give a rat’s ass. But everything you need to know about writing a memoir is in this book.