Friday, December 21, 2007

Editorial Ass's Top 3 Books about Friendship

I have a particular obsession with friendship. I think I think about friendship more than other people do or admit, but in the end I don't believe I'm wrong to do that. We're all taught to seek out romance--in a lot of ways, there's PRESSURE to find a "mate"--and we're all told to love our families. Friendship is the one life situation that we choose entirely for ourselves, and for which there are no rules--no textbook of when you owe whom what, what's fair or unfair, how much or how little you can attach or invest, how brightly colored your world becomes when you find someone who thinks like you or how much it hurts when it turns out someone doesn't think like you. It's a rich and provocative subject and I think some of the best literature in the world is written about it. Actually, what amazes me the most is that some of the best literature is about other things BESIDES friendship.

Some of these books are happy, some are sad. All are a reminder, though, of how much we have the capacity to love, and that we should be vigilant about exercising that capacity.

1) THE CHOSEN, by Chaim Potok
Reuven and Danny, two Jewish boys who grow up next door to each other in 1940s New York, never become friends until they are 15--Reuven, who is a an Orthodox Jew and the son of a bookish, open-hearted, intellectual Zionist, never has occasion to cross paths with Danny, the son and heir of a Hassidic Reb. But when they do finally get to know each other, they develop a bond that changes the way they each see the world.

I love this book because there is no embarrassment about the boys' love for each other. There's no confusion (neither tries to steal the other's woman or anything--girls are only alluded to but don't ever interfere). I feel like it's one of the few literary treatments of friendship that shows unabashedly how life-changing it can be.

2. MORE DIE OF HEARTBREAK, by Saul Bellow
Kenneth is good friends with his Uncle Benn. They're both classical chatty Bellowsians, but they are very good about coming back to each other. Get the edition with the introduction by Martin Amis--he says some things that spoke to me as much as the book did, including: This book is about two men who love women but who also love each other.

Also check out RAVELSTEIN. A failure of a novel, in that good old Saul prattles on in his way with zero narrative structure, and a "little" self-indulgent, but a really moving fictionalization of his friendship with Allan Bloom (or so I've heard). I got through the first 300 pages wondering if I should bother to finish, but then Saul drops a one-line bomb on the second to last page that made me cry for a week.

3. KISS OF THE SPIDERWOMAN, by Manuel Puig
Molina and Valentin meet in an Argentinian jail. Valentin is a revolutionary who has been locked up for illegal political activity; Molina is an effeminate gay man who was jailed for soliciting a man. Despite everything they don't have in common, Molina hypnotizes Valentin with his verbal depictions of Hollywood love stories, and they each come to an understanding of what it means to care about someone.

I've never seen the movie or the play. But the book has some really awesome elements (mainly in the footnotes) that I can't imagine translating perfectly to either of those media. So do read the book.

I know what I have above are three books by boys about boys. It makes me sad that (in my reading experience) women seem to have less to celebrate--friendships are more ambivalent. I hope you'll have recommendations about precious and inspiring female friendships that you'll be able to guide me towards. But friendship is also deeply complicated and a wealth of literature is written about its more ambivalent facets, so we'll have some Runners Up.

Runner Up 1:

THE FRIEND WHO GOT AWAY, by Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell
Twenty essays by rising talents--all young female writers who have had a "break-up" with a former best friend. I wouldn't call this a heart-warming read; after all, you'll get to the end and have just read about 20 heartbreaks. But I do think most women go through a break-up at some point in their lives, and they are all left bereft in a way it is hard to explain or talk about with other friends. A thoughtful book, and resonant particularly if you're going through a "break-up" yourself.

Runner Up 2:

THE GIRLS, by Lori Lansens
This only gets second runner up because the "friends" in question are actually Siamese twin sisters joined at the head. I love my sister very much and she's my very good friend but I feel like sister-friends (or "fristers" as we call them) are kind of cheating, since (in most cases) sisters grew up with the same spastic mother, dorky dad, and/or crazy Italian great aunt, and as a result speak a strange secret language that seems weird to everyone else. Sisters, when it works out between them, are awesome friends. But anyway. THE GIRLS. Good book.

Runner Up 3 (I wanted to end with this so I could end with the quote):

THE SPANISH BOW, by Andromeda Romano-Lax. I know I've posted on it a million times, which is why I forced myself to put it down here as 3rd Runner Up, but whatever other richnesses of this book, what was most provocative for me was the friendship between Feliu and Justo. I already quoted this passage (from page 336-337) but I'll quote it again here:

A shroud of bad luck still seemed to hang over him, but he appeared to be taking the news astonishingly well. "What lasts?" he asked rhetorically, as he had so many times before. Then he laughed. "Good looks, rarely. Money--never."

"And friendship?" I asked cautiously.

He fingered his mustache. "Sometimes. I suppose I'd put it in the same category as love: flawed and messy, and of questionable duration, and yet somehow irresistable."

14 comments:

Conduit said...

My just-started WIP, a dark YA thriller, has friendship as one of its central themes and what happens when it's taken away violently. It's going to be a toughie, and I'm not sure if it'll succeed. Friendship between males is a difficult thing to talk about in real life - we aren't so hot on the expressing feelings thing - but I hope it'll be easier in writing.

I have a small number of friendships that are rock solid and I know they'll be there as long as all concerned live. One or two of them are people I might go years without seeing, but then fall back into the bond immediately on meeting again. Of course there are those more casual, fleeting friendships we all have, but it's the lifers that matter.

Amy said...

I'm a regular lurker on your blog, but I can't remember if you like fantasy. There's a book by Robin McKinley called "Spindle's End" where the deep friendship between two women is crucial to the plot. I wouldn't exactly say it's a story about friendship- you're right, not very many women choose to write about that. But it's a very strong element in Ms. McKinley's book.

Matt said...

heart friendship!

jalexissmith said...

that was me

Josephine Damian said...

"A Prayer for Owen Meaney" by John Irving - obvious choice.

A personal fave "Fifth Business" and the rest of Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies. "Under hte Net" by Iris Murdoch, of course.

And a non-fiction book from my TBR pile that looks promising -
"Truth & Beauty: A Friendship" by Ann Patchett.

ReadDanceBliss said...

1) I loved your first paragraph about friendship in general - it caused me to think about things in ways I never did before... and that's one of my favorite things to do.

2) Someone else already mentioned Truth & Beauty but I had to comment on it - it is an *unbelievably* wonderful book about a friendship; hands down, the best one I've ever read. I quoted from it at my best friend's wedding.

And it's girl-on-girl friendship to boot.

3)As A Driven Leaf, while not really a book about friendship, has this to say on page 204: "No matter what other doubts we may entertain, we cannot question the reality of friendship. And in a world where so little is certain that is a great deal." ...which sounded more profound in my memory, but there it is anyway. Enjoy your trip!

angelle said...

i was a little disappointed by the girls.

and what about kite runner? i'd say that its a great story about friendship... gone awry. onesidedness and devotion and forgiveness.

moonrat said...

KITE RUNNER's a really good point--one of the provocative angles is what happens when friendship goes wrong. that book was really upsetting for me, because it was a failed friendship with no chance of redemption.

Precie said...

So...uh...Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood isn't on your short list? Or, uh, Summer Sisters by Judy Blume?

Totally kidding on both counts!

But it's interesting to consider how much more fiction, especially popular fiction, addresses female friendships than male friendships. Oh, unless you count Stephen King...a few of his novels (like IT) deal with how friendships evolve, especially when those friends are either bonded or torn apart by shared secrets.

Donna Farley said...

don't forget Patrick O'Brian's multi-volume serial novel about Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin! A really complex story of how very unlike friends complement each other...

Melissa said...

Great picks. I have only read one of them. My top pick is coming out this week. I was able to gain a copy of it a few weeks ago. The novel Letters Between Us, by Linda Overman, is a requiem to those meaningful friendships in our lives, especially from childhood, because once gone that missing piece of a heart can never be replaced.

B. Nagel said...

I find that writing and thinking about friends is more difficult and fulfilling than writing and thinking about familial and sexual relationships. Individuals who become friends, at the beginning, don't have shared histories or genes. So why do they become friends?

Check out The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis, specifically the chapter "Friendship": "Eros will have naked bodes; Friendship naked personalities."

Erin said...

Wallace Stegner's "Crossing to Safety" - a truly beautiful book about friendships and how they sustain us through out our lives.

yolochris said...

Mists of Avalon was wonderful and I read it in French.

I am impressed by your #1 ranking of Chaim Potok's The Chosen. I read it in my twenties; now that is is what I call friendship.