I always know when I’m reading a good book because it makes me stop and think. Often I’ll find ideas coming to me, and images appear in my mind’s eye. As an aspiring writer there’ll be words to, inspired seemingly by the craft and artistry of what I’m reading. Often I’ll have to lay the book aside and jot some notes down towards the piece I’ve been writing. Reading a good book is a fertile experience. Not only does it deeply absorb you, but it also spins out creativity.
I read a book like that last week. The Coldest Night is by a novelist I’d never heard of before, Robert Olmstead. The story-line is unoriginal, but it’s done so well that it seems fresh. Boy from wrong side of the tracks falls in love with girl from the right side. They run off together, get caught, and he goes off to war. In this case it’s the Korean war, and there are great scenes of brutal battle in this book, as good as I’ve ever read. He returns home, scarred physically and otherwise, and finally meets up again with the girl he left behind. It ends indeterminately, re-united, but with him committed to returning to the war.
It’s a spare and dreamy book, beautifully evocative and with the gift of seeming authentic – truly felt. It’s a lovely read. Some of the reviewers compared him to McCarthy and Hemingway, and I can understand the reference, though his prose is all his own. It’s story-telling that hooks you with a desolate lyricism mixed with tender feeling. I enjoyed it, and recommend it to anyone.
One of the other books I picked up at the book sale was a collection of stories by Barry Lopez. I happened across it by accident, a slender paperback squeezed in among heftier tomes and easy to miss. I read a lot of Lopez it must be 15-20 years ago and found his stories drew me in into the particular world, and atmosphere, he created.
Many of his stories are set out in the plains, and often feature animals in their habitat – Lopez is a naturalist as well. They are simple things full of description and a quiet sense of wonder, even mystery. No-one else could write these stories. Their impact is diffuse. There are no smoking guns, no great plot twists, and the action is never more than gentle. They are deeply considered though. They are a part of the environment, and not separate, or above it. The world seen is more than just background – it is meaning.
When I read him the first time I responded to his stories from the inside. I could feel them in my stomach. I had then spent a week or two every year out the Australian bush close to nature and witness to its raw reality. Those trips were transcendent to me. They didn’t change me, but they opened up something that would otherwise have remained closed. Afterwards I could come at the world with another perspective. There’s nothing as true as nature in the raw.
This is what Lopez stories evoke, and why I fell into them so readily. Fifteen years on I come at his stories nostalgically, and in reading recall something of what I felt before. These simple things are true.