Book Notes: What Book Matters Most?
by Valerie Oakley
When Ann Hood appeared at the Hermitage on Manasota Key, I persuaded a friend to drive down with me to hear Hood talk about book clubs and her newest book, The Book That Matters Most. The Gulf provided a soothing background as Hood talked about the magical power of reading and the profound effect books have on readers at different ages and stages of life. According to the brochure, she “has been challenged to meet with 60 book clubs during her book tour.” Ms. Hood, a very likable person, described her book as dealing with sex, drugs and rock and roll, and a book group where the question is posed: “What is the book that matters most to you?” The plot is wrapped around that question and involves Ava, her daughter Maggie, a book, death of close family members, lots of guys, Paris, Providence and cops. It is not a book for everyone; the title may be the best thing about it. But it has made me question: Is there one book above all others that matters to me?
One of the aspects of a book club that appeals to me is learning about the author whose book is to be discussed. James McBride, who wrote the memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, published in 1996, also wrote Kill ‘em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul, published in 2016, and The Good Lord Bird, 2013. Further searching reveals he is a saxophonist and composer as well as the author of two additional books, Miracle at St. Anna, (2002) and Song Yet Sung, (2008).
McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, described as “a comic novel recounting the life of notorious abolitionist, John Brown,”won the National Book Award in 2013. The “Good Lord Bird” refers to the ivory billed woodpecker, 20 inches long with a 30 inch wing-span, and so pretty that, when spotted in the woods, it elicits that exclamation. The novel opens in preCivil War Kansas Territory and is told from the point of view of a young boy, Henry Shackleford, who assumes the disguise of a young girl and travels with the legendary John Brown, ending up in Harper’s Ferry, on the night of the famous raid on the armory that is considered “one of the great catalysts” of the Civil War.”
The tale is well told; but notwithstanding the publisher’s admiration for the author’s “meticulous” care for detail and character, contains a minor error that calls into question, for me, the veracity of the rest of the work. I know this is a work of fiction but the mention of the distance between Harper’s Ferry, WV, and Chambersburg, PA, is an easily verifiable fact and is not the 15 to 20 miles cited in the text. Having lived in that part of West Virginia, I know the distance to be at least 50 miles, even as the crow flies. I realize this has no impact on the plot/story, but it is a fact a copy editor could easily have checked. It’s like a pimple on an otherwise unblemished face. Nonetheless, it does live up to the praise of reviewers who compare it to Huckleberry Finn.
“There are secrets you share and secrets you hide” summarizes Laura Dave’s Eight Hundred Grapes, about a family of vintners in the Sonoma Valley in California. Many secrets come into the open, like the family recipe’s secret ingredient of chocolate; others become obvious in life-changing ways. One of the best revelations is that it takes 800 grapes to make a bottle of wine. This light read portrays the complications of life for a family dedicated to their vineyard and each other: good and bad years for the vineyard, parents revealing themselves as individuals in ways their (grown) children didn’t see or know or expect, grown children leading their own lives, and the unexpected resolutions of the final revelations of many of the secrets.
The Alchemist, by Paolo Coelho, was originally published in 1988; and as of December. 2016, it has been translated into 69 languages, has sold more than 150 million copies world-wide, making it one of the bestselling books in history and setting the Guinness World Record for the most translated book by a living author.
It is an allegorical novel in which a young Andalusian shepherd, Santiago, travels to Egypt where his recurring dream has been to find treasure. He comes to realize “playing it safe is often more threatening than taking a risk.
”The main theme of the book is finding one’s destiny, with the New York Times noting the book is “more self-help than literature.” However, I found it quite readable as a story of a young boy’s search for himself, which, I suppose, could be interpreted as Everyman’s search for self. The theme, however does not interfere with a good, moving tale of travel and discovery. An aside: In a Barnes and Noble interview Coelho was asked what book most influenced his life. His answer was the Bible, “which contains all the stories and all the guidance humankind needs.”