Saturday, May 21, 2011

Reading by Numbers

I recently received an e-mail from the ABE book website highlighting books with numbers in their titles. They had one book each from one to eight. I thought I would start with the number one. Here are some of my favorite books with one in the title. They range from essays to memoir and fiction (both long and short).

One Man's Meat by E. B. White

The essays of E. B. White in his delightful collection, One Man's Meat, represent a style of writing that is very welcoming to the reader. I found myself laughing out loud at his subtle humor and found a connection that suggested deeper thoughts. Written in the late 30's and early 40s during the approach of and beginning of World War II, White's essays comment on the world around him and chronicle his life on a farm in Maine as he gradually comes to grips with country living. In many instances they seem very contemporary in spite of having been written more than fifty years ago. A long time contributor to The New Yorker, one recognizes the "New Yorker style" in White's writing. One of our group found a resemblance to Joseph Mitchell's Up in the Old Hotel which we had read several years ago. Certainly this was a great read with my enjoyment augmented by both the down to earth meditations and wonderful style.

Adam Biro's memoir, One Must Also Be Hungarian, displaying his family and ancestors, and more poetically titled Les Ancetres d'Ulysse in the original French, is a memorable collection of portraits of his family. Each portrait within it is like a snapshot capturing features of personality and character, illuminated by memories and episodes from family history and the author's own experience. His use of family photographs enhances the personal nature of the story by providing images to set beside his elegant but simple prose. While the elan and humor of his family is clearly delineated there remains an overarching melancholy tinged with sadness for those relatives whose lives were ended suddenly, sometimes due to the violence and hatred that swept Europe in the twentieth century. He shares the glories of Hungarians both within and outside of his family that permeate the zeitgeist of their existence. The stories of success as with Uncle Eugene Perlmuth and the tragic life of the artist, Uncle Jozsi, are just two of the portraits that moved me the most. Both the glories and the sadness are conflated to create an overall image that I found -- the humanity of the whole. 

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay

I found this novel a spellbinding bildungsroman. Set in South Africa during the 1930s and 1940s, it tells the story of an Anglo-African boy who, through the course of the story, acquires the nickname of Peekay. Courtenay's style reminded me of Dickens and as such he is a grand storyteller. His characterization and use of details are outstanding and bring both the country of South Africa and its people alive. The effect is to draw the reader into the story, again much like Dickens, and the result of that is to find yourself unable to set the book aside. This was an inspirational book to read.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

A simple yet profound story of a day in the life of a man in a Soviet labor camp. Ivan Denisovich Shukov is trying to survive a day and the reader is presented with the visceral experience that he undergoes. Thinking back on this book reminds me of similarities with other stories I have subsequently read about men living in similar conditions. Solzhenitsyn's story rings true in retrospect and for me was an auspicious introduction to a great writer. With his rough prose the reader feels the difficult life that he seems just able to bear, a day at a time. A memorable read and one worth rereading.

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