When Books Breed Compassion

DetailsWhile stopped at a traffic light yesterday, I noticed a puttering station wagon next to me with a little old lady in a floppy gardening hat behind the wheel. I could just make out her profile as she peered out her windshield patiently waiting for the light to change.

My obstructed view was not due to her petite stature or an advanced stage of osteoporosis, mind you,  but rather from the climbing stacks of old newspapers, rotting stuffed animals, cardboard boxes, blankets, and foils in differing states of decomposition; overall, a stockpile that threatened to bust out the windows and swallow her whole.

Fiction often intersects with my reality, and it was at this moment of observation that I was tossed back into the Fifth Avenue home of the Collyer brothers.  Homer & Langley, E.L. Doctorow’s jaw-dropping tale, was my first real insight into the pathos of hoarding and the uncontrollable obsession with accumulation.

Based on this fiction, my mind soared with the endless possibilities of what might await on the residential end of this little lady’s drive. However, instead of being horrified by this mobile compost and thoughts of her potentially toxic home, Doctorow’s Homer & Langley offered me the possibility to translate this scenario into one of knowledge, creativity, compassion, and empathy.

And isn’t that, after all, the true gift of a book?

*Support your local bookstores, libraries, and universities. It matters.

-Post by Megan Shaffer

Related Links

Non-fiction: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things

Mark Athitakis Beneath the (Expanding) Surface

Homer, Langley, and a Half-Broke Horse


There are a couple of books that I’ve recently finished which are listed below with my brief review attached.  They are all newer titles that currently sit on or very near the latest best seller lists. Friends will often ask me if I have read a particular title, or for the suggestion of a solid personal or book club read. Because it takes a lot of time and thought to do a detailed review of each book, I am posting these “quickies” for your reference and perusal.

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

As I’ve mentioned before, I rarely buy books. A hardcover purchase takes much plotting and thought before I’ll take the plunge. With one of my criterion being “passability”, imagine my pleasure in the pay off of Homer & Langley. I don’t know who to give it to first. How can a book about pathological hoarding hold such beauty within its pages?

Doctorow’s prose is breathtaking as he evokes the pathos of brothers Homer and Langley Collyer. Lending dialogue as voice to the reclusive brothers, Doctorow allows you to take up literary residence in Collyer’s Fifth Avenue mansion to witness the bizarre decline of a once prominent family. This freakish, true story of the brothers is told with  a compassion and grace that allows the reader to perhaps comprehend the incomprehensible.

*A beautiful book. I feel this is one of those books that raises the bar for a reader. The vocabulary and language is wonderful and will probably throw a few “unknowns” onto your list (I hit the dictionary a number of times). As a book club choice, you will have plenty to discuss even after you get past the clutter. Instead of getting too caught up in the physical story, focus on the sensuous writing instead.

Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel by Jeannette Walls

*Enjoy my full review on Bookbrowse.

Following her bestseller The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls brings us more eccentric family lore. Calling it a “true-life novel”, Walls admits that even with her considerable research and cross-referencing, the dialogue left her uncomfortable claiming it as a memoir. Taking small liberties with the voice of grandmother Lily Casey Smith, Walls spins the true-life tale of her grandmother, and her incredible ranching days of the Old West. Though I had my doubts that Walls could pull off a second bestseller, I suspect she might have another one on her hands with Half Broke Horses. I absolutely loved this book for its laugh-out-loud common sense and personality.

*This book is really fun. From a literary standpoint it won’t change your life, however, the western voice is tough and engaging. This is an entertaining read for yourself or as a book club, and reading The Glass Castle isn’t necessary for its enjoyment or understanding.

The Doctorow Is In

E.L. Doctorow’s new novel Homer & Langley is making a lot of noise. Interest piqued, I promptly put it on my list after reading about it in a smattering of upstanding literary publications. I would love to reflect on all of Doctorow’s prior titles and intelligently discuss his style, but I am afraid it would all be a ruse. The truth is that I have never read this prolific PEN/Faulkner Award winning author, and though I should probably be embarrassed about this fact, at least give me credit for my honesty.

While I currently stand at number seven in the library queue for Homer & Langley, and figure on about two months before I have it in my hands, my anticipation builds as its title continues to cross my path. My latest H&L sighting is an article in The New Yorker by none other than Joyce Carol Oates; the maven of noir literature. This certainly can’t be a coincidence considering Ms. Oates is well acquainted with topics of seductive disgust.

Though Joyce Carol Oates has not yet covered the disquieting topic of the “recluse-hoarder”, she valiantly and professionally praises her peer on his fictional account of the true life story of the Collyer brothers. Her article Love and Squalor praises E.L. Doctorow calling him “…a writer of dazzling gifts and boundless imaginitive energy…” and continues by asserting that Doctorow “…has emerged as our great chronicler of American mythology.”

Rarely do I buy a book, more specifically, a new release hardcover. However, after Ms. Oates states that “Doctorow’s Langley is corrosively eloquent, a modern-day Diogenes, or a prophet out of the Hebrew Bible; his cynicism suggests the later, embittered years of America’s most popular and beloved writer, Mark Twain,” I’m not entirely sure I can hold out. Something that packs this much literary punch might just be worth the price.

-By Megan Shaffer