JC: You wouldn’t know it from the cover, but Jenny Shank‘s debut novel The Ringer is a balanced drama of race and class. It’s a convincing baseball novel and a community mediation all in one. It’s a good book, morally complex and empathetic to its characters. For the latest contribution in our When We Fell In Love series, here’s Jenny’s take on the books that made her a lifelong reader.
When We Fell In Love by Jenny Shank
Growing up, the boys set the tone in my house. My dad and brothers and I fought over first dibs at Sports Illustrated when it arrived in the mail. We learned to switch hit, worked on our baseline jumpers, and earned our black belts in Tae Kwon Do. We were all readers and I started out on boy books: boy detectives, sports heroes, Orcs.
The writer we most admired was Mark Twain. Dad read all of Twain’s books when he was a kid, and so my brothers and I did too. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is the Twain gateway drug. Reading it leads to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and beyond that to weirder places, such as the sacrilegious Diaries of Adam and Eve and The Mysterious Stranger, about Satan’s exploits in medieval Austria.
But when I was a kid, Huck Finn was everything. One page in, I was smitten for his voice:
“When you got to the table you couldn’t go right to eating, but had to wait for the widow to tuck down her head and grumble a little over the victuals, though there warn’t really anything the matter with them,–that is, nothing only everything was cooked by itself. In a barrel of odds and ends it is different; things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around, and the things go better.”
Exactly. When the juice swaps around, things go better. I developed a raging crush on Huck Finn that I hid from everyone as though I were pining for a real boy. Maybe that was why I was so hypersensitive in college when we read an essay on some guy’s theory that Huck and Jim were gay.
When I was nine and had run out of library books, my dad took down another volume from his childhood, a thick hardback version of The Complete Sherlock Holmes, the biggest book I’d ever held in my hands. I gradually worked my way through all the stories.
I haven’t read the first of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes adventures in years, but I remember it clearly. Watson, recuperating from his stint as a soldier in Afghanistan, looks for a roommate and finds it in Sherlock Holmes. Watson’s acquaintance introduces them, cautioning, “He is a little queer in his ideas—an enthusiast in some branches of science.” (I keep meaning to use that line when a friend asks my opinion about someone shady: “Well, he’s okay, but he’s an enthusiast in some branches of science.”) When they meet and Sherlock tells Watson, “You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,” I was as flabbergasted as Watson. How did he do that? I read that entire book to find out, to watch Sherlock do it again and again.
I read my way through all the boy books and then started to read the girl ones, stuff that my dad and brothers would never touch. The book collection stashed in my room radiated a man-repelling force field. My mom introduced me to Little House on the Prairie, and I discovered Little Women, The Secret Garden, Beverly Cleary, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Diana Wynne Jones, Jane Eyre, Jane Austen, Willa, Flannery, Zora, Eudora. Later, I loved Toni Morrison, Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sandra Cisneros, Louise Erdrich, Antonya Nelson, Jennifer Egan, ZZ Packer, Lydia Davis.
When I first read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, I was about the same age as Janie Starks when her grandmother married her off to Logan Killicks. My love of that book hit like a giddy crush. I still have my first copy, all underlined in purple pen with stars and arrow-shot hearts and WOW!!! written in the margins. Here is Janie at sixteen, feeling like every sixteen-year-old girl everywhere, waiting for her life to begin:
“Oh to be a pear tree—any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world! She was sixteen. She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her. Where were the singing bees for her? Nothing on the place nor in her grandma’s house answered her. She searched as much of the world as she could from the top of the front steps and then went on down to the front gate and leaned over to gaze up and down the road. Looking, waiting, breathing short with impatience. Waiting for the world to be made.”
Hurston invented her own language, joked around, had Janie fall in love with a boy named, gloriously, Tea Cake, and took me to juke joints down south, filled with the sound of “blues made and used right on the spot.” That book drew me outside, where I could listen to the birds and smell the blossoms and spin around, drunk on this novel.
As I grew up, I stopped talking with my dad about books as much. I read mostly fiction and although he read fiction when he was younger, now he reads nonfiction about war, finance, and history. With books, he and my brothers were in control of their habits, like Sherlock Holmes, who somehow managed only to dabble in morphine and cocaine. They became accountants. I was a junkie, an English major who grew up to be a book reviewer and writer.
Sometimes I miss the camaraderie I felt with my dad and brothers when we’d all read the same book. This Christmas I gave my dad Eric Jay Dolin’s Fur, Fortune, and Empire: The Epic History of the Fur Trade in America, which might be the dad-est book ever written: packed with mountain men, beaver, buffalo, hunting, and folly. Grown men tramping around the wilderness like they were Huck Finn. Dad opened it and said, “Do you know who loves the history of fur trappers more than anyone?”
I had read the book too, so we talked about John Colter escaping a tribe of Blackfeet Indians who were chasing him in a naked race to the death, and it was like old times when we used to talk about Sherlock Holmes and Tom Sawyer. But I have to say, if you’re only reading boy books, you only know half the story. I try to maintain a balanced reading diet of books written by men and women. I enjoy both perspectives. Like Huck said, when the juice swaps around, things go better. And I married a man who loves Jane Eyre.