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Connections: Great Books Tie Us Together

By Jeff Martin

I have a rule that I follow each year.

When the leaves begin to turn and I start wearing my black hooded sweatshirt, I head to the library. Well, I always go to the library, but my visits during the spring and summer are more cursory and obligatory than business.

Facing the winter cruelty (especially here in Western New York), I realize Iím going to need something to keep the mind active, keep the imagination vivid so that I can defeat the doldrums gray, the slapping winds, the gargantuan snows.

So every so often Iím going to write my column about books Iím reading or books that I would like to read. I would very much appreciate any input on this topic. Send me a note about books youíre reading or would like to read.

Great books are the threads that tie us together. Great books are the pulse of humanity. Great books somehow tell a distinct story about the whole world and its human themes. Great books are wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, children. Best friends. Yeah, best friends ó you cherish them your entire life.

As I do every year, I dip into the Pulitzer Prize-winning works. In the 20 years Iíve been reading the Pulitzer winners, Iíve been disappointed only twice. Most of the works have turned out to be my favorites. Theyíve become my best friends, works that I return to time and again for inspiration and understanding.

1. I just finished this yearís fiction winner, ìThe Orphan Masterís Son.î Set in modern North Korea, the novel is part historical fact and part fiction. Following the life of an orphan, Pak Jun Do, the story examines the nature of identity, love and freedom. Jun Do is forced into becoming a professional kidnapper for the state; forced to become a radioman aboard a North Korean fishing vessel; and, in a twist of fate, becomes a high general to Kim Jong ll before setting out to free a famous actress, Sun Moon, from the crushing North Korean empire. The work is dense and complex, and the best fiction weaves drama and humor in equal portions. This work has it all.

2. To this day, I still cannot forget ìThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.î I read this book during a difficult time in my life ó and three months before I visited New York City for the first time, where most of the novel takes place. Following the lives of two Jewish cousins, one of whom is smuggled out of Europe, the story traces the popular and culture-changing rise of American comic books. Again, it has drama, love and humor ó all important ingredients in a novel.

3. Iíve been revisiting some short story writers Iíve loved in the past, including Sam Shepard. Check out ìDay out of Daysî and ìGreat Dream of Heavenî if you want to understand masculinity in the modern age, not to mention the weirdness of the modern age and the human blunders that comprise it.

4. When I lived in Kansas City, I stumbled on the book ìPrairyErth.î Compared to Henry David Thoreauís ìWaldenî for its close examination of ìplace,î the book changed how I looked at the prairie, or that giant swath of geography and ecosystem that cuts the center of the United States in half, from Canada into Texas.

With that, I would love it if readers of this column could send me fiction and/or non- fiction works that focus on the Buffalo and/or Western New York area specifically. Iíve dipped into a few, but none so far have changed the way I look at life.

Thatís what the best books do.

(Email Jeff Martin at jwmartin38@gmail.com with your feedback.)

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