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Sunday, June 15, 2014

How many truly favorite books can you list?

by Judy Alter

I have a friend, longtime English professor,who maintains the measure of a book is whether or not generations to come will be reading it a hundred years from now. His nomination is the late Benjamin Capps’ The Road to Ogallala.
Albert Payson Terhune &
one of his famous Collies
As a child, I had many favorite books as I moved from age to age. As with many of my generation, my reading began with The Bobbsey Twins and The Little Colonel Stories. Then came the collies of Albert Payson Terhune, which made me spend years of my life wanting collies—I did have three—and the horses of Walter Farley, which somehow didn’t inspire me to want horses. I moved on to Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames, the nurse, and then suddenly I was enamored of Frances Parkinson Keyes and her thick books, romances really, about life on the Mississippi steamboats and in New Orleans.
Today I find I’m much more selective about favorite books, those that I think will survive the hundred-year test. I can point with certainty to three titles.
Mary Hallock Foote

The book I’ve claimed as my favorite for years is Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose, a novel loosely based on the life of Mary Hallock Foote. She was an illustrator, the darling of New York salons and socialites, when she suddenly left to marry a rough-and-ready California miner and raise her children in a variety of miner’s shacks from California to Idaho. Stegner was criticized for taking liberties with Foote’s life, but it makes a compelling novel, narrated by a male descendant with what sounds like the Parkinson’s that makes a person stiff-I’m still puzzling on the symbolism of that. I’ve reread this one, taught it, and found something new every time. And Foote herself was not an insignificant figure in the western movement. She was one of a handful of women who wrote fiction about the West in the early day. Her best-known novel is The Led-Horse Claim.
Scene from the movie version of
To Kill a Mockingbird
I realized one day that in claiming that as my favorite, I was leaving out a book that has made a lasting impression on generations of Americans—Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s another book in which you find new layers every time you read it. A couple of years ago I was asked to be on a multi-racial panel discussing the impact of the book. I re-read it, naturally, and was blown away by its strength and insight, by the characters of Atticus and Scout and Jeb. Then I watched the original film version and was astounded that it still managed to give depth and meaning to the book in spite of what we would now consider fairly elementary cinematography. About that time I found a copy of the book on my 14-year-old granddaughter’s bedside table. I asked how she liked it, and she said she thought it was boring. I thought I’d fall on the floor. It’s a book that I think a hundred years from now will tell people so much about culture in the American South and Americans in the fifties and sixties—and about the character of a few really good men.
Elmer Kelton
And recently, talking with people about the drought that the Southwest and California are experiencing, I hit myself in the head and wondered how I could forget Elmer Kelton’s masterful The Time It Never Rained, about the Texas drought of the 1950s. In Kelton’s rich Texas-heavy prose, we follow rancher Charlie Flagg as he goes from raising cattle to sheep to goats as the land dries up. Woven in are threads of the dangers of government help, the changing socio-economic situation in South Texas, relationships between men and women, sons and fathers, Mexicans and Anglos, and one man’s love for the land. Charlie Flagg is another of the rare really good men. I had the privilege of knowing Elmer Kelton and working with him on many projects. He used to say that many men came up to him and said, “That Charlie Flagg…he was based on me, wasn’t he?” Elmer always said he as an amalgamation of many men, including Elmer’s father, but I think there is a lot of Elmer in that timeless character.
I read voraciously, and I’ve read many books that I’d rate with five stars but these three stand out. There are other authors and titles I’m tempted to mention, but that would start me on the slipper y slope and I’d end writing a book about my favorite books. I’ll quit with my highly selective list.

Other posts by Judy Alter on Writers & Other Animals ~

Before turning her attention to mystery, Judy Alter wrote fiction and nonfiction, mostly about women of the American West, for adults and young-adult readers. Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame at the Fort Worth Public Library.

Murder at Tremont House is the second Blue Plate Mystery from award-winning novelist Judy Alter, following the successful Murder at the Blue Plate CafĂ©. Judy is also the author of four books in the Kelly O’Connell Mysteries series: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, Trouble in a Big Box, and Danger Comes Home. With the Blue Plate Murder series, she moves from inner city Fort Worth to small-town East Texas to create a new set of characters in a setting modeled after a restaurant that was for years one of her family’s favorites.
Follow Judy at http://www.judyalter.com or her two blogs at http://www.judys-stew.blogspot.com or http://potluckwithjudy.blogspot.com. Or look for on Facebook or on Twitter where she is @judyalter.

1 comment:

  1. My post got lost, so I'll try again. This time I'll copy it before publishing.

    You have so much knowledge, Judy, I always learn something from your blog posts. Though unfamiliar with two of the books you mentioned, I agree with To Kill a Mockingbird. So much strength in that book. I always wonder if Harper Lee doesn't have more books stashed away and is afraid to publish them because they'd never reach the height of her first book. Charlie Flagg intrigues me. So many books, so little time.