Another quickie today, folks. I found another “chain letter” meme from my Facebook archives, this one asking us to list fifteen books that “stayed with us.” I’ll drop in later to add some color commentary on each title from the current day, 2020, but for now, check it out. I still adore all the books on this list, even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
This can be a quick one. Don’t take too long to think about it: fifteen books you’ve read that will always stick with you. Make sure it’s the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. Tag fifteen friends, including me, because I’m interested in seeing what books my friends choose… By the way: Nice meme, Facebook. Here we go, in no particular order …
1. A Prayer For Owen Meany, by John Irving
The first Irving novel I read remains my favorite novel of his and still my favorite novel ever. I re-read it every couple of years just to remind myself why I want to be a novelist (or “noveler,” as Mr. Show would say). Irving once described himself as a craftsman – not an artist – drawing a comparison between himself and a carpenter, and when it comes to my own writing, I aspire for the same kind of craftsmanship. I was not a young prodigy. My early fiction sucks. But I’ve worked for years to improve. As for Owen Meany, I love its rambunctious tone, laugh-your-ass off humor and unforgettable characters. John Irving is a weird, weird dude, and his writing gives me the courage to be weird.
2. Blue Movie, by Terry Southern
A perennial second-favorite novel of all time for me, Southern’s ode to porn is pretty much his full-length love letter to Stanley Kubrick, whom Southern idolizes in this insane novel about a world-class director who decides to make a high-end porn flick. (As I understand, Kubrick’s early development work on what would become Eyes Wide Shut inspired his colleague Southern to write this novel.) To be sure, this book is dated as hell, but I dare you to read the first 10 pages and not laugh your ass off when Teeny Marie takes the microphone – you’ll know what I’m talking about when you read it. I still quote this one a lot, mostly with a good friend of mine. On the downside, the novel’s ending still perplexes me, because it is to transparently tacked on. Southern set up an awesome climax early in the novel and then shat on it with an ending that would get rejected by lowest-level Benny Hill intern.
3. The Whisper of The River, by Ferrol Sams
I’ve championed the novels of Ferrol Sams for years. He’s a southern doctor who wrote only three novels – a trilogy about the life of the preternaturally perfect Porter Osborne Jr. I choose the middle chapter of his trilogy because, well, it’s the Empire Strikes Back of his work. Whisper follows Osborne during his college years, during which he kicks ass, takes names and gets a whole, whole lot of tail. A corker. Sams has many tools at his disposal, but no one can introduce a character like this guy. He’s the master of the “Get a load of this guy” intro.
4. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis
Yes, yes, yes – I know. I’m a grumpy atheist, and Lewis is one of the all-time kings of Christian apologetics. Whatever. I’ll consider his writing in Mere Christianity and The Great Divorce another time, but for now, let me say that this novel – and all of the Narnia books – have held sway over my imagination since I first locked myself in a small office in my childhood home and read ’em all in a couple days. I also had an in-depth experience adapting and directing LWW for the stage in college, where I had the pleasure of working with Paul Edwards of the Northwestern University Performance Studies Department, Rives Collins of the Theater Department, as well as my good friend Corey Finkle.
5. Father and Son, by Larry Brown
Another southern master, Brown is a gritty, grimy, hard-boiled descendant of Faulkner who specializes in the “scary rednecks doing scary redneck stuff” genre. This one follows a scary redneck, fresh out of prison, who returns to his hometown and stirs up trouble. I like to think of my own novels as combinations of John Irving and Larry Brown. We’ll see if I can deliver on that. Brown died of a heart attack in 2004, a shitty event in an all-around shitty year for me.
6. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
Two of my best friends introduced me to Stephenson, who writes so well that it simultaneously freaks me out and convinces me that he’s a visitor from a planet where the inhabitants can write unrelentingly fun 900-page novels in the present tense. At its heart, this two-timeline barnburner is a treasure hunt. One storyline happens in WWII and tracks the burying of the treasure, while the modern-day narrative reveals how the treasure is found. But needless to say, that sparse summary merely grazes the pan-thematic behemoth that is Cryptonomicon, a book whose language I’ve ripped off to no end and whose unforgettable characters I still quote incessantly with my friends and aspire to be like in my private life.
7. Blue Belle, by Andrew Vachss
My relationship with mystery writer Andrew Vachss has evolved over the years. In the daily life, he’s a lawyer who only represents abused children, and he populates his novels with bad guys who exploit kids. His books are brutal reading, capable of turning even the most iron-clad stomachs and stunning even the most jaded minds. But over the years, my beliefs have diverged from Vachss’ “lock ’em up and throw away the key” philosophy. That’s a longer story, but let’s talk Belle. This is the third entry in Vachss’ classic Burke series, which follows a ghostly mercenary who patrols the streets of New York with deadliest posse in town. Belle is your typical Vachss love interest: bosomy, submissive and damaged. Oh, and inbred. I swear to Crom I don’t advocate incest. This one also features a classic Vachss villain. Vachss recently ended the Burke series. I’m sorry I won’t get to enjoy any more adventures with Burke, Max, Mole, Michelle, Terry, Wolfe, Prof and the rest … but it was time. His books had been deteriorating in quality with great speed over the last few years – but nonetheless, Vachss still managed to give Burke a remarkable absolution in the final pages of Another Life, the final Burke book. Stay strong.
8. After Hannibal, by Barry Unsworth
The eminent Unsworth specializes in no genre and no style. He’s the only author I’ve encountered whose every book reads like a different author wrote it. I still have plenty to read by this guy, including his Booker-prize-winning novel about Middle Passage, which, frankly, I’m terrified to read. But I mention this one just because it was so pleasant. This yarn about a small town in Tuscany and its kooky cast of expatriate characters rumbles along like a harmless little Rube Goldberg. It’s a great introduction to Unsworth’s work, which has had a huge influence on my writing without my even knowing it.
9. My Dark Places, by James Ellroy
I mentioned earlier that John Irving gives me the courage to be weird. Well, so does James Ellroy. Of his work, I’ve only read this and The Black Dahlia, and I recommend reading them close together, as the memoir My Dark Places is Dahlia’s companion piece. In one part of the book, Ellroy recounts his own investigation into the death of his mother, while the rest of the book is a jittery, full-tilt, headlong confessional that is so fucking insane, so fucking honest, that it helped give me the balls to exorcise a lot of my own personal demons in my writing.
10. Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe, by J. Richard Gott
Since college, I’ve become an avid reader of popular science books and an advocate for rational thought, even though I’ve never worked in a lab or participated in a real experiment. Gott’s rollicking book is one of my first and favorite reads in this arena. Its thesis is essentially, “Time-travel is possible, and here’s how to do it.” He opens his powerful argument with looks at the time-travel science laid down in Back to the Future (the many-worlds model), Somewhere in Time (the existence of jinns) and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (self-consistency). He also slips in a cosmological model that excludes the big G, and he doesn’t apologize for it. If your head hasn’t exploded in awhile, I highly recommend this book.
11. Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Having only read this Austen novel, I’ll refrain from trying to place it in the larger world literary pantheon, but I will say that if you want to be novelist, you better sit down and read this perfect book from one of the masters. P&P is a romance novel in the same way The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy novel – both works simultaneously define and transcend their genres, and they’re the bottled lightning that every writer in those genres has been trying to capture since. There’s a lot to praise here, but I’ll say this: I found myself reading a large party scene in this book that was packed with all of the novel’s lead characters, and I realized that Austen was writing line after line without speech attribution. She didn’t need to. Her characters’ voices were that distinct.
12. The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller
Fuck you, I’m including a comic book. I’ve read most of the candidates for “greatest comic book” ever, and I still keep Miller’s epic ‘n’ intimate reimagining of Batman at the top of my list. In Miller’s driving narrative you will find characterizations of Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon, Two-Face, the Joker and Clark Kent that are unlike anything seen in any movie or comic book – and yet they’re still spot-on. You’ll see Superman pressed into duty as an unlikely antagonist, and you’ll find yourself quoting its spectacular fight scenes. You’ll also find a first and a last line executed with incredible care and attention to, ya know, how the lead character changes over the course of the story. I’ll take Miller over Alan Moore any day of the week and twice on Sundays. (Side note: We had to wait until 2008 for the perfect Superman-related companion piece for TDKR in Grant Morrison’s soaring and elegiac <I>All-Star Superman. If you think Superman’s lame, I dare you to read it.)
13. 1984, by George Orwell
I still remember this as one of the first “real” novels I read in one sitting. Like Pride & Prejudice defined the romance genre, 1984 left its mark on dystopic, post-apocalyptic stories for all time. And speaking of great “first line/last line” combos, this one’s hard to beat. Its influence on me has been a lingering rage at the world Orwell created. “Mission accomplished,” says Orwell from his grave.
14. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
To all arrogant Americans who would tout the false doctrine of American exceptionalism, I would remind you that the great nation of Russia invented almost fucking everything I love about art. They invented acting. They double-teamed the invention of modern drama with my homeboys, the Norwegians. And they invented the novel, as far as I’m concerned. I undertook the reading of Tolstoy’s familial epic while reading through all of my best friends’ favorite novels. Corey Finkle recommended this one, and I’m glad he did. It took me a damn long time to read it, but when I got to the end, I realized that Tolstoy had taken me on an epic journey across his great land with a host of unreliable perspectives (not narrators, as it’s a third-person novel). I also found myself bonding with the brawny, good-hearted completely befuddled Konstantin Levin, a literary figure I’ve aspired to mimic in my personal life ever since with mixed results and unflagging persistence.
15. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
This meme calls on us to lay down 15 books that stuck with us, and therefore I must mention Rowling’s cheek-flapping fart of a novel. I remember reading the first book with trembling joy while backstage of some damn play, and over the course of this century’s first decade, I joined the rest of the literate world in anticipating her subsequent releases like they were fresh boxes of Wonka bars. I also leapt to Rowling’s defense on numerous occasions, offering up apology after apology for her rambling series, which continued to entertain and challenge through its third, fourth and fifth volumes. The sixth book in the Potter series hinted at the trouble to come, but it was in Rowling’s seventh book where we had to deal with 200 pages of empty space and half-ass conflict before moving on to a climax that copped out on killing her lead character – her one chance at literary redemption – and offered us a solution for how Harry kills his arch-nemesis that Rowling introduced in blathering, hurried exposition and presented with all the charm of a drunkle yelling “Gotcha!” after you pulled his finger. Yeah, I’m bitter.