Last night The Bookshelf with Peter Biello on New Hampshire Public Radio (http://nhpr.org/post/bookshelf-north-country-free-writing-retreat-veterans) aired a segment on the Tiny White Box, Sam and me. Peter did a yeoman’s job in helping me sound sane and safe and sober, which I am. The last two adjectives at least. Usually, Peer asks his guests for five book recommendations, but in this case he used five of my writing prompts, evidence the first adjective above may not apply.
Because I am fascinated by me, I thought it would be good to offer five books I’ve got in the Tiny White Box. Remember, the bookshelf over my bed holds 10 books at most and space is at a premium in the rest of my home. These books are not necessarily my favorites, nor the most important in my life. They are, however, the ones that are accompanying me through the first steps of this new path.
In a perfect world—or at least the world of Peter Biello’s other guests, each title would be followed by a sentence or two describing the book or explaining why the author was recommending it. As my friend, Tonio K., says, this ain’t no perfect world, so I offer no guarantee of what you’ll actually get. Caveat lexor. (When I’ve lived in places where the internet—and its accumulated knowledge—was a fingertip away, I could pretend my memory of Latin was instantaneous rather than looking up infinitive “to read”—which seems like a word I should have available in my memory. Now, sans knowledge, I’m guessing caveat emptor can be repurposed into “caveat lexor”—let the reader beware. If you are a native Latin speaker, or have visited Latin America, please let me know if I’m even in the right stadium.)
- Drunkard’s Progress: Narratives of Addiction, Despair and Recovery by John W. Crowley (ed.)
The 1840s have always fascinated me. Fans of the Civil War are legion, knowledgeable and strong-willed. Because of their adamancy, they’ve leaid claim to the 1850s as well, seeing it as an antebellum antechamber—the entire decade, to their way of thinking, was a staging area for Fort Sumter. By enjoying the 1840s, I’ve been able to paddle around post-Revolutionary America without having to predict where the outlet stream leads to. The decade brought us the beginnings of the westward expansion, with wagon trains heading out from Missouri, the founding of that peculiar American religion, Mormonism, and the transition of manifest destiny into Manifest Destiny when President Polk, I think it was, told Congress the Monroe Doctrine should be strictly interpreted and the nation should aggressively populate the west. For personal and obvious reasons, a group called the Washingtonians is my real touchstone for the decade. Begun in a Baltimore tavern in 1840, the Washingtonians were, at first, a group of six drunks who decided on a lark to get sober. They did so, and somehow by mid-decade they had helped a reported hundred thousand drunks get and stay sober. By decades end, they had lost their way, become fragmented and most had returned to drink. Still, like JFK’s Camelot, there had been that brief, shining moment when sobriety was at hand and drink was in the past. This collection of narratives from the Washingtonians, primarily written during their heyday, views life through optimistic lenses and gives first-hand accounts of drinking during the decade.
- The Gospel in Solentiname by Ernesto Cardenal.
I first read this book in 1984 when I was newly married and a first-year student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Given the three strikes against it (It was written by a 1) proponent of Liberation Theology who was 2) Minister of Culture in Sandinista Nicaragua and who was 3) a Roman Catholic priest), this collection of reflections by Nicaraguan campesinos on the Gospel message of Jesus was theological pornography, which is to say it was to be read in private and kept from right-thinking fellow students. Cardenal, is also a GREAT poet—read “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe,” the last lines of which still linger years later:
whoever it is she was going to call
and didn’t call (and maybe it was no one at all
or Someone whose number is not in the Los Angeles Directory)
You answer that call.
In Solentiname, Cardenal, who spent 10 years living with peasants on Lake Solentiname, is a wee bit too Marxist-Leninist for my taste—class struggle, I think, was not utmost in Jesus’ mind—but it still helps me look at Jesus’ message through different eyes.
- Good Times/Bad Times by James Kirkwood.
This book (along with Old Glory and the Real-Time Freaks by Ralph Blum, long out of print) is a magic carpet to my adolescence. Although I’m not gay (and neither is Peter, the narrator, or Jordan, his older friend—a fact Peter repeats so often it’s hilarious), this story of prep-school love and murder—and Good and Plenty—struck me so much I used its framing device (accused man in jail cell writing to explain things to his lawyer) to launch my first novel, a roman a clef in which people who’d wronged me ended up dead and served up on a bed of jokes and philosophy. I’m thankful I’m sober today, but I couldn’t have written What Trouble Looks Like without alcohol and this book.
- Alcoholics Anonymous
This book is horribly written (“if we are painstaking about this phase of our development . . .”). This book is hopelessly out of date. This book, after the first 164 pages, is padded beyond belief—perhaps so it can be known as the Big Book? Who, after all, would be drawn to the Midsized Pamphlet? This book has saved more lives than any book I know of, other than, perhaps, the American Red Cross Emergency First Aid Guide. If you have questions about your drinking—or the drinking of someone you care about—read the 164 pages that make up the Longish Brochure of Alcoholics Anonymous.
- The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer Language Is, and What One has to do with the Other by Walker Percy
A collection of essays on linguistics and semiotics. While reading each one, I feel close to important insights that will change my thinking forever. Then I walk away and return to being the same pompous clown I’ve always been. Still, I love leaving the solemn circus and going back to Percy’s well.