Wednesday, February 10, 2010

So... what are *you* reading these days?

Many folks have, in the past, asked me what I like to read. I've hemmed and hawwed, and generally danced neatly around the subject -- until now.You're about to see why. Finally.

When I was a child, I had serious sight deficiencies. (Still do, really. Got to have my 'specs' on.) No one noticed it or understood it for many years, despite a running total of bloody knees and hands, constant awkwardness with things like shooting rifles or throwing darts. I was starting into the third grade when the schools tested all of us for sight and hearing: I could hear things that were both above and below the normal human range, but I couldn't see the eye-test on the wall at all. My math skills still suffer for the lost instruction of second grade, I think. I was so afflicted with nearsightedness and astigmatism that I was already near legal blindness. As a result, I didn't run and play with the other kids (when around them, which was relatively rare). I was bored stiff, almost all the time.

When I was not yet five years old, I conned my teenage siblings to teach me the ABCs: shapes, sounds, alternate ways to write each one. They did it to keep me occupied and out of their hair for the long term, which was fine with me. By the time I was five years old, I was reading the regional newspapers on a regular basis. (That newspaper is now called the Lexington Herald-Leader, and is a Knight-Ridder possession.) Big words were merely little words strung together, for me, and so simple to decipher with minimal help. In the third grade, when I was tested, I finally got eyeglasses -- and 20/20 vision amazed me. I read faster and faster, understood more and applied it to the wild world outside, all by myself.

Eventually, I got past what my Dad could help me with (Mom said I'd 'end up just another educated fool' and refused to worry with me), he, in vague desperation, suggested that I read his large, comprehensive dictionary every night before bed every night. Hmm, says I. After a bit of thought, I decided it was interesting. So I did.

I found it educational on several levels.

There were things in there that I'd never heard of, and I began to follow those leads down, gradually thinning the ranks of the County's library shelves down to a narrow list of unread items. Magazines, comic books -- nothing was safe from me. I even -- still yet -- read the labels on food, signs along the road, and just about everything else I come across. It's a habit, now, one I don't think I could stop if I wanted to, and I don't really want to stop.

My brother, fourteen years older than I, paperback westerns lying around here and there. I started picking them up to read, and I discovered a world I'd never seen: places I'd never been, but in seeing on television, wanted to experience further. First Zane Grey, then writers like Luke Short and Max Brand... and then, the real treasure: Louis L' Amour. He'd really been there and seen (autobiography: "Education of a Wandering Man") -- and many times, done -- what he wrote about. He may never be celebrated as a classic author, but he was real. He was the grit between my bare toes and the dirt on my palms. I lay on piles of deep moss in the woods, listening to these words take me far away while a scraggly pony cropped maple leaves close by. It was my escape and my joy.

In much later years, I'd find the books of Larry McMurtry ("Lonesome Dove" and others) and Tony Hillerman (the Jim Chee series and more) with that same virtual flavor of cactus, dirt, and horse sweat. I'd never seen a barrel cactus or an ocatillo in my life, but I knew what they were, and more, because I'd gone looking to find out.

The local librarians must have been worn to a frazzle by my constant requests for help and research.

I was nearly grown before I ever saw a Dr. Seuss book, and they still delight me with humor and wit. Rudyard Kipling came along late for me, as well, and stayed to smile.

Bram Stoker. Alexandre Dumas. Jonathan Swift. Mark Twain/Samuel Clemmons. Then later, Mary Stewart, Morgan Llewellyn, Sir Anthony Conan Doyle, Fannie Flagg. John Steinbeck. I traveled, swung swords, trained jumping frogs, and deciphered mysteries with them all.

Ernest Hemingway took me into battle, a thing I'd only barely begun to think about after reading a book called "The Red Badge of Courage" -- years before my classmates in school read it as a requirement.

I found, in my digging, the poetry of Robert Frost, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and many, many more. While the other kids my age were avoid reading as a punishment of homework, I found a path to other worlds, worlds created in print on paper and transferred to me almost by osmosis.

"A Stranger in a Strange Land" taught me that our perceptions aren't always recognized, that we have to think to find the real truth in humor, reality, and life in general."The Portrait of Dorian Grey" made me wonder if obtaining immortality was worth the fear of losing it.

"20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" showed me that dreamers make the world's innovations, and only then with the hands-on of someone who, glimpsing that dream, can take it into their hands and make it real for the rest of us: telephones, airplanes, automobiles, radios and television, and so much more have come from that. Doc Savage was one charactor who did both, a 'McGuiver' with mystical and athletic super-hero properties. I loved the idea. Still do.

I moved along to Anne McCaffrey, Elizabeth Moon, Jennifer Roberson, Orson Scott Card, C.S. Lewis, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Charles de Lint, J.R.R. Tolkein. Oh, so many more that I can't name them all ... many, many world-builders with something real to say. Don't forget "Buffalo Gals", by Ursula K. LeGuin, when you come across the science fiction and fantasy shelves. It's a keeper.

Anna Sewell ("Black Beauty") and Jim Kjelgaard showed me that not everyone, as those practical, hard-bitten Kentuckians around me, thought of animals as mere livestock, unlucky belongings with no feelings at all. I learned kindness and compassion for animals then and there.

Tarzan showed me that there is a way to cooperate with the world around us, and to be a part of it was possible. The possibility that animals can communicate with humans extended into such charactors as The Black Stallion, Fury, Rin Tin Tin, and Lassie. All in books; I didn't like the television for its limitations and blind spots, even then.

Trips to the local drug store as an adolescent found me coming back with a stack of comic books, not of the predictable girly-kid stuff like Archie, Snoopy, or Charlie Brown, though I know them well. I came back with things that made my mother's eyebrows raise to a worried level. "Rawhide", "Ghost Rider", "Real West". I wanted blood, gore, mystique and hard core story, not piddling peer pressure tales.

I began to ask questions about spiritual things somewhere along the line. And I read the Bible (my parents argued over Christian Church vs. Church of Christ, a thing I never thought made any sense), The Book of the Dead, Edgar Cayce's works (he was a Kentuckian too), and so many more that most have blurred into the past.

I even read Carlos Castenada's books, and they somehow yet left me unable to conceive of jumping off a sheer cliff in the name of spiritual control -- there are so many cliffs here in the land I grew up that I 'saw' it literally, and found it ... comical, to say the least. He was over-dramatic and largely unreal in his symbolic tales. Further, they got him very dead in the mere telling. Not my thing, I assure you.

Later I found Mercea Eliade and many others whose research into the roots of religion finally set me free of the urge to take part in it, yet the need for spiritual gratification -- to keep The Mystery in my heart. Finally, I found a Way and have followed it as best I can since then, decades and counting.

It's interesting that I came to admire Agatha Christie, not just because she wrote bang-up-good mysteries, but because she saved her community with her art. What was a dying fishing village soon became a tourist center, affluent and thriving, because in her books, fans saw the place as she did. And visited it.

Dick Francis's mysteries took me, by comparison, to the UK and into the different from our Kentucky Thoroughbred scene. I have had a giggle or two over things he wrote without doing complete research. (We don't feed 'horse nuts' to the horses in the US, we take those away when we geld a male animal. Here, we feed molasses-rich 'sweet feed' to our horses.) Yet his mysteries tend to ring true as far as horses in general go. So many other authors' horse-based works don't. Nicholas Evan's "The Horse Whisperer", while entertaining, let loose a flood of mostly fake trainers on the world, and I found both real and unreal (to me) aspects in that one. Also in his novel dealing with wolves and human acceptance or rejection, "The Loop".

John Grisham lost me in a world of papers and briefs and cut-throat head games. Politics was never one of my strong interests; people are like wolves, always looking for a way to go alpha in a pack too large to really care.

James Patterson, who writes the "Alex Cross" series, is good at his job. I've read several, and only felt let down on a couple of occasions. That's rare for me.

Books of other ethnic origin are vastly interesting. Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club". "Roots"... I could go on for hours along this vein -- all cultures and different views fascinate me. That's a large part of why I devour books on an often uncanny rate.

Annie Proulx -- "Brokeback Mountain". A view into a situation alien to me and to the majority of the world's people. But nonetheless a real one. Research following that verified what I thought was true: same-sex unions were accepted as normal in most historic cultures. Not in any dominated by the Christian or Islamic faiths, however. Since I know that such instinct appear normally in nature, I have to wonder what the issue really is... and thank Ms. Proulx for making me ask questions.

Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" shredded my soul for the lost and mutilated of an unarmed, innocent group of native people attacked by U.S. soldiers. Custer and his men paid for that at the Little Big Horn; they paid dearly, with their lives. History came alive for me, and prehistory as well. Empathy erupted.

Which led me to W. Michael and Kathleen O'Neal Gear. Their Anasazi Mysteries series and the other, much larger series, 'People', have me waiting constantly for a new one to come out. Three of my loves come together with them: anthropology, reading, and the pre-Americans.

For clarifications, I went to Bierhorst, who took me through "Native America and the Environment" and went on to John Ehle's "The Trail of Tears" -- where I learned more about my Cherokee/Tsalagi heritage than my parents knew to tell (the culture was deliberately let disappear to preserve The People in their native lands). From there to many more... it's a continuing quest.

In search of self once again, I found Appalachian literature, something that only began to be really rich when people weren't just content with managing basic living here in the hills and mountains. John Fox, Jr. ... Jesse Stuart... James Still (poet extraordinaire, novelist, and short story writer) ... Frank X. Walker (wow! a fine poet)... Crystal Wilkinson (poet and novelist, plus teacher). Barbara Kingsolver, who has abdicated (apparently) to Arizona. And never forget contemporary novelist Silas House: "A Parchment of Leaves", "Clay's Quilt", and "The Coal Tattoo". Voices from my homeland, rich and dark, shadowed like the hollers between the steep hills, all variances and contrasts, beauty when you least expect it. Those are the writers of the Appalachians and foothills thereof. My people. Poets and thinkers who see it all, light and dark, and revel in it.

"Cold Mountain", now a movie based on the (better) novel by a writer out of the Carolinas, made the aftermath of the Civil War come home to many of us. That same writer has since taken us to the time when the Cherokee managed to salvage a small portion of their eastern lands through hook and crook politics even as many of The People were forcefully removed (that was the Trail of Tears, which passed through Hopkinsville, Kentucky, along the way) to Oklahoma, an exodus of strange nations cast together in a land none knew. Death and misery, lost families, and ordinary day to day struggles came alive in those words. All of this is brought together in "thirteen moons". I look forward to the next story by the same author, Charles Frazier.

Another book, an anthology of action put together by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth made my flesh and soul alike ache. It's called "Missing Mountains" and it tells the real tale of King Coal. How the companies that own the big coal rights are tearing down the Appalachian Mountains at the incredible but real rate of about one per month. For profit, of course. Little of which the state --especially the coal regions -- sees. They're not using local labor as they claim -- just one man at a time on a gigantic machine made to destroy. Worse, they're upsetting the balance of the ecosystems one after another, in a land where it cannot be replaced. Reclamation is a joke (I've seen it personally, so I can say this is absolutely real). People in Pikeville and other communities have had their water supplies compromised by chemicals, both naturally and unnaturally occurring. Some are afraid to leave a child in the bath, for fear it will drink the poisoned water -- a very real danger. I could go on for hours about this. People have died, their homes and even gardens destroyed, in the name of mineral rights sold off for a pittance generations back. Just read the book, if you would please. Act on it as you see fit. I only want you to know that the writers who contributed to it did so as volunteers: they're all Kentuckians.

An online friend I've since lost contact with recommended a book that I have come to love: A Sand County Almanac. It spoke so clearly to me of things I had not the words to say for myself.

In future, I will miss new peeks into the humor and knowledge of Stephen Jay Gould (he died a few years ago), whose series of natural science books showed me parts of the natural world that I'd have never understood fully without his sharing of view and fact. Darwin's "The Origin of Species" led up to the Gould books. Necessary reading, if only for the point of exploration for information.

Novels like "Willow" and "Wolf and Iron" are packed away with all the rest. I have thousands of books in every description. Content matters -- not the cover -- to me. Also there are collections of Stephen King (including a well-worn paperback copy of "On Writing"... I can only laugh at his fiction work now excepting sales figures, and so rarely read it anymore --for some odd reason it strikes me as comical.), Anne Rice, Peter Straub,. J.A. Jance -- all of whom showed me the dark side of the human soul, the depths to which we can sink, and the heights we can aspire to -- and how art and writing, not merely something as ceremonial as religion, can lift us higher than we'd ever dare dream. And that we should dream; nightmares make daydreams all the sweeter.

William Zinsser and many others have been recently teaching me what it means to write for a life. Yes, I've been dabbling in how-tos... and how-whys and how-whens. And writing some myself, with an eye toward getting "it" (my 'voice'?) beyond this simple blog page.

Favorite magazines (no particular order of preference):

  • * Smithsonian
  • * National Geographic
  • * Western Horseman
  • * Equus
  • * Mother Earth News
  • * Outdoor Photography
  • * American Photographer
  • * Wildlife Art
  • * Southwest Art
  • * Arts Kentucky
  • * American Scientific ... including MIND
  • *Mother Jones
  • *Archeology
  • *Poets & Writers
  • *Writer's Digest
  • * (... and countless more)

I am an avid reader and an eclectic one, sure as you were born. Deciphering my reading habits would take an experienced psychologist years! At 43 years old, that's some 38 years of reading, by the way. And counting.

Yes, I still read the newspaper, though I don't often get any except the Sunday issue each week. Now, I mostly read daily news online. One can go to for the Lexington Herald Leader's digital version, updated around the clock.

No, before you ask. Most of you know that I don't have much formal higher education, and probably won't have. No degrees for me. I've dropped full time classes twice due to chronic health problems and lack of health care. It is seriously unlikely that I'll ever go back to add to my nine hours of college (pre-veterinary studies, low items on the list) from the University of Kentucky, Lexington. I can't afford piecemeal education and can't get financial aid for it.

That all said... does anyone have a favorite author or book they'd like to share with me? I seem to be out of reading material at the moment. Now how did that happen, I wonder ...?


Becky Mushko said...

Wow! So many of my favorites are on your list, too. But your list is way longer than mine. (Now I'll have to read more. . . .)

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The Fireside Reader said...

Aw, Becky... that's a lifetime's worth of reading. :) I merely condensed it all. Rest easy!