I Loved This Book When…, Part 14: Anagrams, by Lorrie Moore

[This is the final entry in our “I Loved This Book When…” series. To read past installments of this series or any other, check out our Special Features page. Later in the year we’ll be bringing you a new series, “The Best Books of 2010″.]

The purpose of this series is to describe books loved at a certain point in a reader’s life, but there’s one book I’ve fallen for many, many times.  It’s called Anagrams, by Lorrie Moore, and here’s a sampling of occasions when you’ll want to crack it open.

1. When you’re feeling schizophrenic.

Anagrams concerns the lives of Benna, a nightclub singer, Gerard, a wimpy and admiring neighbor, and Eleanor, a witty friend.  Except for when Gerard is a noncommittal stud.  Or when Eleanor is trashy and selling crates of halter tops.  Or when Benna is actually an aerobics instructor for old people.  Or a first grade teacher.  Or cracking a bottle of ketchup over her best friend’s skull.

Across five short stories Moore plays with three characters’ lives, switching their tastes and personalities like somebody trying on shirts.  They are anagrams of one another. What happens, the book seems to ask, When a character goes from brassy to meek?  What happens when Benna gets angry, or even angrier than that?  Are these really different characters we’re talking about, or don’t we all contain many lives and longings?

2. When you’re planning a yard sale.

Some items you can buy at Benna and Gerard and Eleanor’s: foam rubber curlers with hairs stuck in them, two bags of fiberglass insulation, three seamed and greasy juice glasses, and an opened box of Frost ‘N Tip for Brunettes Only with two coffee cup rings on the front.

3. When you’re drinking beer for breakfast.

Benna does it, as does Gerard.  You’ll have company.
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I Loved This Book When…, Part 13: The Pushcart War, by Jean Merrill

[To keep up with this series or any other, check out our Special Features page.]

I moved back to New York City in 2007 after an absence of five years. Shortly after my arrival, during one particularly bad insomniac fugue, I noticed The Pushcart War sitting forgotten on a distant shelf in my room, a relic of my elementary school reading days. I devoured it anew in about two hours. A few months ago, I read it again. I loved this book when I first read it in fourth grade, I loved it in 2007 and I love it now.

Its enduring appeal has much to do with what it means to me as a New Yorker. The Pushcart War is one of the quintessential New York books in children’s literature, on a par with Stuart Little and The Cricket in Times Square, doing for my hometown what Madeline does for Paris and Make Way for Ducklings does for Boston. It meant a lot to a 9-year-old just beginning to make sense of the city’s stew of sights and experiences and also to a 22-year-old finding that his city had changed a lot during an extended absence.

The New York that Jean Merrill presents is one easily familiar to its inhabitants, both in 1964 when it was originally published and even now. It is a polyglot, multicultural city, a bustling conurbation filled with colorful characters and encounters, many based at real locations around Manhattan, from the Upper West Side to Little Italy. It’s a place filled with cranks and raconteurs and folks with names like Morris the Florist, Harry the Hot Dog, Moe Mammoth, General Anna, Papa Peretz, Harry the Hot Dog and Mr. Jerusalem.
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I Loved This Book When…, Part 12: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

[A new entry in our “I Loved This Book When…” series will appear every Monday through September. To keep up with this series or any other, check out our Special Features page.]

I loved To Kill a Mockingbird when I was twelve years old. I read it for the same reason most twelve-year-olds do: it’s standard fare in middle-school literature classes. A compelling look at the south pre-Civil-Rights, it focused enough on outsiderness to trick my nerdy twelve-year-old self into believing it was just as interesting as the X-Men comics filling my bookshelves. Because, you know, they were the bar for judgment, not that silly Pulitzer Prize nonsense.

I just plain skipped school for most of seventh grade, feigning migraines to get out of going to the mid-sized North Georgian junior high that I despised. As a result, I was “homeschooled” for eighth, which generally meant my parents left me alone in the house with an Algebra 2 textbook and a mail-order encyclopedia on world history. My father would suggest books for me to read, ranging from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to The Stranger. We didn’t really have a system in place for judging my reading comprehension; instead, my parents, both math types, liked to regale me with stories of their own high school English classes, where they read the first and last chapters of books and nothing else. (Note that I believe these tactics are generally frowned upon by serious homeschoolers.)
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I Loved This Book When…, Part 11: Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny

[A new entry in our “I Loved This Book When…” series will appear every Monday this summer. To keep up with this series or any other, check out our Special Features page.]

Fantasy. After three years of grinding out an MFA, and reading all the literature that entails, a fantasy book reinvigorated my passion for books. The concept behind “I Loved This Book When…” must have already been knocking around in my head when I came down with pneumonia this spring.

Pneumonia. An old man’s disease. Lying in a hospital bed, an asthmatic just trying to breathe, I found the situation almost laughable. Like when my wife broke her hip two summers ago. An old woman’s debilitation. What are the odds? I thought. But that’s just the kind of lucky couple we are.

In the hospital there wasn’t much to do except read. I could have turned to any number of books. Or I could have re-read the last book I finished prior to attending graduate school: Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. It would’ve been a kind of book-end to the experience for a middle-aged man now three years older.

Instead of Joyce, I chose Roger Zelazny’s Great Book of Amber: a 1,200 plus paged behemoth of a book that contains all ten novels of a series. Heavy and cumbersome, the base of the spine dug through my Johnny and into my gut as I settled in to read the first novel: Nine Princes In Amber.
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I Loved This Book When…, Part 10: Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes

[A new entry in our “I Loved This Book When…” series will appear every Monday this summer. To keep up with this series or any other, check out our Special Features page.]

What follows is a sentence that nobody has written before, ever*:

Every time I hear Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting,” I think of Johnny Tremain.

When first presented with the phrase “I loved this book when,” my mind went straight to childhood. (As it usually does, being a not-ready-for-primetime adult.) I read a ton as a kid—the complete Hardy Boys, about 40% of Matt Christopher’s (100+) sports novels, the occasional Sweet Valley High, when I became curious about girls. But when I think of childhood books, Johnny Tremain marches straight to the front.

I reread it last week, and from the very first line—“On rocky islands gulls woke”—I knew this post would be based on a false premise: that I loved this book only at a specific time in my life. It’s just not true. I loved it as a child, I love it now, and I will always love it. In fact, if I hadn’t read Johnny Tremain, my life would probably look a lot different than it does now.
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I Loved this Book When…, Part 9: Danny the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl

[A new entry in our “I Loved This Book When…” series will appear every Monday this summer. To keep up with this series or any other, check out our Special Features page.]

The first years of my life that I can remember were spent in a sunny apartment on the edge of campus in a small New Hampshire college town.  There was a big front porch we shared with the other families in our building, and a willow tree out back where the neighborhood kids gathered to start games of freeze tag.

Then, just before I started school, my family moved into a house farther out from the center of town.  You couldn’t see our closest neighbors through the trees, and they wouldn’t have heard you if you shouted.  The land behind us was part of a nature preserve, 163 acres of woods and wildlife.  It was quiet at night and dark.  There weren’t even any streetlights.

These are all things I love about the house I grew up in now, but I remember being scared of everything then, scared of the silence, scared when I heard a sound, scared of the dark woods at night, scared of the shadows beneath the trees in the day.  My parents didn’t have much experience in the outdoors, and neither was much help dispelling whatever terror I saw when I stared out our kitchen windows.  My mother worried about bears, and her worries only confirmed my belief that there was something out there.
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I Loved This Book When…, Part 8: The Novels of Christopher Pike

[A new entry in our “I Loved This Book When…” series will appear every Monday this summer. To keep up with this series or any other, check out our Special Features page.]

I loved all Christopher Pike novels when I was upping my bra sizes. From the ages of 10 to 14, I read every book he wrote or had written: a total of 29 young adult and 3 adult novels—though I am appalled to discover that I missed a Tatyana Ali / Jonathan Brandis TV movie based on Fall into Darkness, which is inexplicably billed as “A True Story.” (I admit I had JB on my wall during his SeaQuest 2032 days, right next to 21 Jump Street’s Johnny Depp. I liked boys with pretty faces, which, later in life, will make perfect sense.)

I distinctly remember my first Pike experience. I was home sick from school, sitting on the couch as my mom left for work. She’d made sure I had all of the necessities in reach: a can of Pepsi, the remote control, and two books she’d brought home for me (which I greeted with the customary aloofness of a preteen). The cover—by which I judge a book—of Remember Me pictured a girl’s body sprawled on the flagstones below a balcony railing where an ominous hand rests. Whisper of Death’s cover had the black-robed, skeletal figure of Death hitchhiking near a few scared teenagers on a deserted highway.

I chose to start with Remember Me because I thought that Whisper of Death would be scarier (even though now I think the cover is cheesy); I wasn’t sure I wanted to be home alone and petrified. After all, just a couple of years earlier I’d made my mother return a book about a rogue, school-project volcano that she had suggested might be too scary for me.* If I couldn’t sleep with The (unread) Volcano Disaster in my bedroom, how could I read a book that I (wrongly) assumed was about the character Death stalking and killing teenagers?
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I Loved This Book When…, Part 7: Weirdos from Another Planet (Calvin and Hobbes)

[A new entry in our “I Loved This Book When…” series will appear every Monday this summer. To keep up with this series or any other, check out our Special Features page.]

I loved Weirdos From Another Planet when summers were timeless. Really, I loved (and still love) all Calvin and Hobbes, but Weirdos From Another Planet was the first I ever read, and it got me hooked. It was given to me and my little brother by a family friend when I was eight. I read it over and over that summer and in the summers to come. Soon I added the other great collections (with other great names like Scientific Progress Goes “Boink”).

I grew up at a summer camp, so my vacations were unique from those of most of my friends as a child. I didn’t do summer sports leagues, or participate in local swim clubs. I said goodbye to my school friends in June, and didn’t see them again until September. The second half of my summers I formally attended the camp my parents run, but the first half was a bit different. I lived at the camp as a sort of ghost–an eight-year-old staying at a summer camp, but not actually participating. I spent a lot of time occupying myself–mostly reading or playing Nintendo.

Reading has always been my number one escape from the world, the closest I will ever come to meditation. I know I’m not unique in this–otherwise I don’t suspect this site would have many readers. I was a geeky bookworm by first grade, but Weirdos From Another Planet is the first book that ever hit me like a drug. It was different from anything I’d ever read.
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I Loved This Book When… – Follow-Up

While doing a little background research for my “I Loved This Book When…” essay about The Martian Chronicles I discovered, through a Google Image search, a wealth of covers from various editions of the book. Hardly a surprising finding, considering the book was first published in 1950 and has been widely read ever since. But sixty years  is a pretty long time when it comes to trends in illustration, advertising, and publishing; in fact, the sheer variety of Martian Chronicles covers suggests some of the changes in style that took place in the second half of the 20th century. Because those changes are worth considering, but more because laughing at old sci-fi covers is a lot of fun, I’m going to look at some choice cuts.

The “Post-War Optimism” Edition – 1950

The first edition cover is easily the classiest. I like the abstract cosmic elements: the unspecific galactic clouds, planets, and the twirling rocket paths. To me it feels very Eisenhower-era space-race chic, right down to the serious, official-looking font. Even though this cover doesn’t quite convey the tone of the book, which is far more somber compared to the whimsical rocket adventure promised above, I like the simplicity of the concept. I’d read this book.

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I Loved This Book When…, Part 6: The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

[A new entry in our “I Loved This Book When…” series will appear every Monday this summer. To keep up with this series or any other, check out our Special Features page.]

I loved The Martian Chronicles when I was a 7th grade dork. The title alone was like chum dropped in dork-infested waters. The word “chronicles” promises epic adventures, swords and bloody battles, maybe some monsters, and definitely some beautiful women. Then take that and set it on Mars, the most exciting and alien-laden of all planets? I was sold.

The title is probably also the reason why, when given a choice between Chronicles and Peter Dickinson’s young adult novel Eva, nearly all of my 7th grade Reading classmates chose the latter, the story of a teenage girl whose brain is transplanted into a chimp’s body following a car crash. No extra-planetary adventures, no dense passages detailing the fictional history of a fictional people—just a girl’s name. Also, the plot summary promised a relatable young protagonist dealing with real—real-ish—problems. But I didn’t want relatable, or real. I wanted dense histories and strange faces and giant lasers.

Of course, I didn’t get any of that.
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