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May 13, 2008

CAAF: 5 x 5 Books Beloved Books I Fear Re-reading by Mark Sarvas

5 x 5 Books ... is a recommendation of five books that appears regularly in this space. Today's installment comes from my friend Mark Sarvas, proprietor of The Elegant Variation and author of the new novel Harry, Revised. New York magazine gave Harry a thumbs up, praising the author's "sure hand for vivisecting 21st-century absurdities." New York readers can catch Mark when he reads tomorrow night -- that's Wednesday! -- at the Barnes & Noble in Tribeca (more info).

Here Mark shares five beloved books he's afraid to re-read for fear they won't hold up.

1. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. John Steinbeck's legacy hasn't held up particularly well. Robert Gottlieb just took several thousand words in the New York Review of Books to bury him, not to praise him. "The extraordinary thing about John Steinbeck," he began, "is how good he can be when so much of the time he's so bad." I have fond memories of Of Mice and Men, one of the first "serious" literary works I read at a young age. Besides being proud of myself for my leaps in reading comprehension, I was completely drawn in by Lenny, George and those damned rabbits. I cried for hours when I finished the book but felt I had glimpsed something about friendship that was rare and true. But I've had my own love/hate with Steinbeck since -- I think he's better than Gottlieb allows but he can frequently be astonishingly ham-fisted. So I think I'm going to leave this one untouched in the well of memory.

2. The Princess Bride by William Goldman. I've read this one well over a dozen times but not in the last ten years or so. Rob Reiner famously did a fine job, but, for me as for many others, he simply could not compete with the Inigo and Fezzik of my own memory. Of course, in my first youthful reading, I didn't realize Goldman was funning with us with all that Florin/Guilder stuff -- until I went to Holland and handled actual florins and guilders. My fear here is all the stuff I thought was cool before -- the breaking of the fourth wall, the book within the book stuff -- is likely to just read like bits of business now and, knowing Goldman, the emotion I found back then would probably come off as mawkishness today. It's another one I daren't touch, though the hard-cover reissue sits proudly on the shelf.

3. The Tanglewood Murder by Lucille Kallen. Although I seem to have a reputation as an anti-genre snob, I retain very fond memories of this whodunit written by a former "Your Show of Shows" writer, who died in 1999. I actually enjoyed the whole C.B. Greenfield series so much that I had her sign first editions of all her books years ago at Murder Ink, the now-defunct New York mystery bookstore. But this one was always my favorite, and I'd picked up a paperback copy on my way up to Tanglewood one summer with my family. The mystery includes a Stradivarius, Ravel and Shakespeare and is forever associated in my mind with those summer evenings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra -- and I tend to be suspicious of reading experiences too steeped in nostalgia. But I do remember it as a witty and surprising mystery.

4. White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Like most of the free world, I was completely blown away when I read White Teeth, and the initial first flurry of pages I wrote of my own novel came out in a sort of Zadie Smith-soaked haze. (Those pages, thankfully, no longer exist.) What I admired most was her sheer fearlessness -- no turn of phrase seemed to outrageous, no outré scenario off limits, and yet she had the chops to pull them all off -- or so it seemed at the time. Those are precisely the bits I fear might not read as well today. Smith herself has disavowed the book, characterizing it as "the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired tap-dancing 10-year-old," and though I think she goes overboard there, her prose has matured and quieted down in a way that fulfills the promise of her debut without making me eager to revisit it.

5. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. I mentioned this "5 x 5" idea last week to a novelist friend, who immediately piped up with The English Patient, a book which wasn't in my original list but one she had recently re-read. But she was so convincing in her case, suggesting that what I fondly remember as the book's lush lyricism read to her as overripe, and that the absence of the plot that I swear I remember being there adds up to a book that's a lovely slog. I trust and respect her enough that I'm suddenly terrified to crack this one open.

Posted May 13, 2008 12:02 AM

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