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Wednesday, 02 June 2010 20:17

Juggling through books

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In Spite of Myself: A Memoir by Christopher Plummer. Knopf, 2008. 656 pages.

Like most readers, I usually have a stack of books going beside my bed and in the living room. In addition, the books in my permanent collection frequently snag my attention, sticking out their thumbs and demanding to be plucked from the shelves for yet another ride. With my instructional duties at an end, even more books — the ones assigned for fall seminars — crash and bang against one another, clamoring for attention. Reading is surely one of the great joys offered by life, yet this mob of books, replete with hitchhikers and rioters, sometimes leads to a confused mess of stories and texts, making me feel as if life has granted me half-a-dozen lives rather than one.

Here, in no particular order, are three books that chance and obligation have dropped into my lap these last two weeks.

•••

A friend recommended Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It as a fine book for teenagers. She was right: this tautly written novel about an asteroid striking the moon and shifting its orbit, thereby causing multiple catastrophes on earth, will appeal to teens and even to adults.

The heroine, Miranda, lives in rural Pennsylvania and tells us of the enormous devastation by storms, tsunamis, and volcanoes caused by the moon’s shift. Tensions with her family and friends are recorded by Miranda as well as the simple struggle to survive. Pfeffer gives us a gripping account of the catastrophe, and most readers will declare Life As We Knew It a winner.

Pfeffer’s account does contain some flaws. Both the east and west coasts of the United States are destroyed, as is much of the coastline in the rest of the world. For months, no food supplies are available. Miranda’s mother had the foresight to go to the grocery stores the day after the disaster and stock her pantry with canned goods, yet in the middle of winter, when their situation becomes desperate and people around the country are going hungry, no one tries to break into the family home, and no one in the home ever thinks that self-defense, whether by firearm or some other weapon, might be necessary.

Pfeffer several times has the mother of the family, and Miranda as well, comment negatively about Fox News and the “president from Texas,” which would lead readers to believe that this family might have once favored gun control. Surely anyone in such a situation gifted with the foresight of this family would devise a plan for protecting themselves against marauders. Pfeffer also feels obliged to attack Christianity — Megan, Miranda’s friend, is presented as religious fanatic, and her pastor is greedy, surviving on food taken from his congregation.

•••

In Spite of Myself: A Memoir is Christopher Plummer’s look back at his long life on stage and in the movies.

Plummer — his most famous role was as the Captain in “The Sound of Music” — has written a book several cuts above the typical Hollywood autobiography. Plummer is a fine writer — his book includes dozens of biographical sketches ranging from Peter O’Toole to Judi Dench — who has an eye for detail and discernment in regard to human nature. Plummer has been a public figure in show business for more than 60 years, and offers those readers interested in actors and directors a compendium of wonderful tales. He also gives us short sketches of the less than famous. Here, for example, he and the woman whom he calls his “one true strength,” and whom he has nicknamed Fuff, are watching a bullfight in Spain:

“One breezy Madrid afternoon, a young novilleros in his teens had been given the chance of a lifetime. What he didn’t have in technique he made up for in reckless courage. From the start, the crowd was aware that the boy was dealing with one oversized angry beast who had a nasty habit of hooking with his left horn very much like the famous bull who once took the life of the immortal Manolete. Nevertheless, the boy insisted on working so perilously close to the bull, our hearts were in out mouths. The crowd fell in love — they went wild.”

The young matador, as Plummer goes on to say, performs magnificently, but in the end is gored by the bull and nearly killed on the spot. “To this day,” Plummer says, “I do not know if the lad lived, but I have strong doubts.”

Every page of In Spite of Myself has a story to tell. Even for those readers who dislike reading about movie and stage stars, Plummer offers a buffet of literary delights.

 

••

A book which I am rereading in preparation for my tutoring duties next year, and which I haven’t read in two decades, is Annie Dillard’s magnificent Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It is a wonder how we sometimes forget books from our past, but forget this one I did. Having revisited Dillard’s prose — the book which lifted her to national fame — I am amazed now that this account of her year at Tinker Creek near Grundy, Va., did not cause me to re-evaluate my life, kick over the traces, and become a biologist. On every page of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard gives us both poetic musings and hard facts about the natural world surrounding her sojourn at Tinker’s Creek. Her book is more than a celebration of nature; it is, at bottom, an exploration of life itself. In Chapter 6, for example, titled “The Present,” Dillard writes

“I am really here, alive on the intricate earth under trees. But under me, directly under the weight of my body on the grass, are other creatures, just as real for whom also this moment, this tree, is ‘it.’ Take just the top inch of soil, the world squirming right under my palms. In the top inch of forest soil, biologists found ‘an average of 1,356 living creatures present in each square foot, including 865 mites, 265 spring tails, 22 millipedes, 19 adult beetles and various members of 12 other forms.”

Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek was published when Dillard was 29 years old. To have written such a book of poetry, philosophy, and science in her late-20s was a remarkable achievement. It is a great book about life, faith, literature, and the mountains in which we live.

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