February is GIVE A SHOUT OUT TO GOOD BOOKS MONTH. Here are 7 of my favorite titles to write home about. A few of them are sprinkled with nostalgia, but that’s just fine with me. There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia. Thirty years from now we might look back on today with fondness.
Once a Runner by John L. Parker, Jr. (1978)
There are lots of books about running. Once a Runner is one of the best. Quenton Cassidy, the protagonist, shows us that you can be a rebel and still win races. Incidentally, Parker wrote a sequel in 2007 called Again to Carthage. It, too, was good. Though I wish he had named it “Always a Runner” (as in Once a Runner, Always a Runner). But I admit that would be corny.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson (2006)
This memoir about growing up in 1950s Des Moines, Iowa reads like Mark Twain with a dash of Dave Barry. It’s the age of TV dinners and Cold War stare-downs between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Young Bill Bryson adjusts to growing up by turning himself into the Thunderbolt Kid and “vaporizing” people (and things) when he wants to hide from them, or get back at them. Of course, it’s all fun and games and no one gets hurt. You soon realize that his childhood was probably like most any middle-class childhood of the time. Just a little more imaginative!
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
I read somewhere that Salinger stormed Normandy with the first 6 chapters of The Catcher in the Rye on his back. The world might have been a different place had Salinger never published this book. There are at least three lunatics who would have had to blame another book for making them commit their crimes. And from 1961-1982, schools would have had one less book to censor. Thankfully, Salinger survived. We like to think that the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is a friend of ours. But I bet if you ask him, he’d probably say we are all a bunch of phonies. He thinks everyone is a phony, except for maybe his sister Phoebe.
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury (1957)
What would you say if I told you that there is a place out there where you can bottle up a summer’s worth of fun and make it last a lifetime? This is the story of 12-year old Douglas Spaulding (aka 12-year old Ray Bradbury) during the summer of 1928 in Green Town, Illinois (aka Waukegan, Illinois). Even though the book is filled with Happiness Machines and Time Machines and sneakers that make a boy run faster than anything else, it is a departure from what made Bradbury famous – namely science fiction novels. Dandelion Wine is a collection of coming-of-age stories where the protagonist uses his imagination and time with his family to convince himself that it feels really good to be truly alive.
Crooked River Burning by Mark Winegardner (2001)
This work of fiction is certainly not a textbook. But after you read it, you will have the answers to everything you ever wanted to know about Cleveland during the years 1948-1978 but were too afraid to go on the Internet and look up. It’s a love story set in Cleveland (no joke) amid the backdrop of the city’s peak (the 1948 World Series) and its decline throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s. It’s east side versus west side and both sides think they’re better than the other side. There are corrupt unions, gangsters like Danny Green and some less than stellar politicians all tucked neatly inside this book. Through it all, the man and the woman live their fictional lives while the events that helped shape Cleveland during the middle of the 20th century take place around them. Special effects include the river catching fire – twice!
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt (1996)
Ireland has given birth to a nursery of great writers like James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and Roddy Doyle. I like these guys, but I like Frank McCourt better. He was an “old man” when he was first published – 65. I guess I like his story as much as his books. He was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1930 to Irish American parents. Things were so bad for him and his family (it was the Great Depression) that they went back to Ireland where they sank deeper into poverty. With determination he made his way back to America, stayed a short while before serving in Korea, then came back and taught English in the public schools for nearly 30 years. When he retired he started writing. Needless to say, he didn’t have a shortage of things to write about.
A Martyr for Suzy Kosasovich by Patrick Michael Finn (2008)
I came across this book at Cleveland State University during an alumni event. I was immediately drawn to the cover. On it are 7 of the seediest looking teenage boys from the 1970s you’d ever want to meet. They are leaning against a car. One is shirtless, a cigarette dangling from his lips. A couple more have their sleeves rolled up past their shoulders. They look mean and well-versed in the art of delinquency. I remember being 8 years old in 1975 and seeing older boys that looked like this in the neighborhood. If I came upon them I would quickly cross the street, preferring to keep my lunch box, arms and legs intact.
The story in the book is not a happy one. It’s drenched with underage drinking, squandered innocence, and life in down and out Joliet, Illinois. But this is some of the best writing I have ever read in my life. Picture this! You’re in a packed gym watching two great basketball teams duke it out by trading leads all the way down to the final shot. You’re on the edge of your seat, heart pounding, cheering like you’ve never cheered before. This is what it feels like in the middle of the book.
Well, I have to go now. I just started reading Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell (1993). Something tells me this book will be joining this list pretty soon.