Category Archives: Literature

My Favorite Books Part 2: Homegrown

n194001820_30787219_4387Many stories are universal. They could happen any time, any place. They speak to the common human condition, the themes are instantly recognized around the globe. Love stories are often like this. Boy meets girl, boy woos girl, obstacle prevents boy from being with girl, boy overcomes obstacle, boy and girl live happily ever after. The same can many times be said of heroic stories that follow the 12 step arc. Setting separates one from the other, but that setting isn’t the crux of the story. It’s more ornamentation. The hero would still be a hero anywhere else. Set Rambo in the wild west or Middle Earth or “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away,” and he’d still be one bad-ass motha sucka.

For other stories, the location is essential. This is true of the exotic locations of my last five favorite novels. Saleem Sinai couldn’t have been one of India’s Children if he hadn’t been born in India. Little Oskar couldn’t have seen WWII if he hadn’t been there.

The next five novels feel distinctively American. The unique American history, geography and character are essential to their telling, and they are firmly rooted in place.

As a disclaimer: I would never suggest American novels have anything on their international counterparts. We can claim some good writers, but we’ve got a lot of work to do to catch up with the Russians, English and French. But I’m a Midwestern son and I do feel a certain connection to these stories.

20) Gilead – Marilynne Robinson: Gilead unfolds as a meditation on life in the form of a letter written from a dying father to his still young son. The letter is an attempt by John Ames, an aging minister in Gilead, Iowa, to impart to his son the stories and wisdom he’ll never have a chance to in life.

The story exists solely in John Ames’s mind. The action takes place in memories of John’s grandfather, a radical abolitionist who joined the guerilla movement of John Brown before the Civil War, his own father, a Christian Pacifist, his brother, a German educated atheist, his wife Lila, his good friend Boughton, a Presbyterian minister, and Boughton’s troubled son. The book is ruminative, reflective. It digs deep into theology and philosophy. It isn’t necessarily difficult, but it isn’t for the faint of heart either (in other words: if The DaVinci Code is your idea of a good read, I’d consider skipping this one).

If you’re willing to dive in, the payoff will be worth your trouble. What Gilead offers is a life lived: years of struggle, loneliness, regret, doubt, failure forgiveness, hope and ultimately beauty.

19) The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen: American dysfunction at it’s finest. The story of Alfred Lambert, the controlling family patriarch weakened by Parkinson’s and trying to hide his dementia, his wife Enid, the delusional, doting mother who would rather believe obvious lies than accept the shame of her family’s failures, and their three grown children: the oldest Gary, who suffers from depression but won’t believe it and grows increasingly paranoid that his wife and kids are conspiring against him, the middle child Chip, who destroyed his professorial career during a drug-filled affair with a student and finds work with a Lithuanian crime lord, and youngest Denise, a promising chef who can’t decide if she’s a lesbian.

You’ll laugh out loud, and you’ll be haunted because you’ll see echoes of your own family, and all families. Mundane suburban life, the effort spent on image and the cost when that image crumbles, the meaning of things left unsaid, the aftermath of those unspoken words: petty resentments stored up over the years. If nothing else, this book provides a valuable lesson: don’t let your family become the Lamberts.

18) Revolutionary Road – Richard Yates: This book is a tragedy for all of us who thought our lives would be better, bigger, who imagined ourselves doing great things, traveling the world, sipping champagne on the Rhine in the morning, playing artist by day, by night dining with our refined friends, discussing aesthetics and love (never politics or religion…how base) before retreating to our airy lofts with our bohemian lovers. But then life got in the way. We found ourselves in debt, married, with children. We found ourselves unable to escape the cages we’d created, forgetting where we’d left the keys. Our roots grew deeper, stronger, and left the prospect of any existence but days spent 9-5 in cubes, commuting to our suburban homes, spending our weekends washing cars and mowing suburban lawns, unimaginable. I know what some of you are thinking: “But Zizzle-Zot, you’re only 25. It’s a little early to give up hope.” Maybe, but I can already see myself and the people around me starting to petrify.

If you can relate, Frank and April Wheeler will break your heart. If you can’t…you can go to hell. Once you get there, read Revolutionary Road. You’ll get a sense of the slow death most of the world experiences daily, and realize this suffering is the living equivalent of eternal damnation.

17) The Confessions of Nat Turner – William Styron: Presented as a first-person narrative told by Nat Turner, the slave who in 1831 led a rebellion in Virginia that resulted in 55 deaths, The Confessions is a painful look at slavery in America. The book is based on a “confession” Nat Turner made after he was captured, in which he claimed to have been divinely inspired. The veracity of the original confession has been questioned, as it’s believed the lawyer who recorded it, Thomas Gray, let prejudice sway his objectivity, and Styron’s goal with this book was to portray the character of Nat Turner, not necessarily describe authoritatively the historical events of the uprising, but this is a powerful novel nonetheless.

When The Confessions came out in 1967 it was met with a fair amount of controversy. Several African American critics disliked the idea of a white author writing about a black historical figure and felt the novel reinforced certain stereotypes (I won’t get into it here). Other notable African American authors, such as Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, defended the work as a sympathetic look at the cruel circumstances that drove some desperate men to extreme measures.

From my perspective, the book offers a view of Nat Turner, an important but little known man in American history, as a passionate, intelligent, sensitive leader with a strong conviction that the state of the world was rotten and the impetus to do something. It doesn’t judge the actions of Turner or his followers. It presents a story: here is a man, this was his life. He was beaten, humiliated, degraded. He was treated as an animal. His mother was raped. The people he loved were bought and sold, sometimes killed. This is a man, this was his life, here’s what he did about it. It’ll have you asking yourself the question: “what would I do?”

16) Ragtime – E.L. Doctorow (Paragon of Storytelling): Ragtime, set mostly in New York in the early 1900’s (1902 to the United States’ entry into WWI) blends fictional characters with real historical figures, including Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Emma Goldman, to tell a story that is imaginative, challenging and fascinating in every way. Doctorow explores race relations, class disparity, work conditions, early feminism, extremism, and international relations during a tumultuous time in American history. Not only is he fearless in setting seemingly normal people in dire straights to see how they will respond, he dares to delve into the psyches and driving forces of some of the most influential people our country has ever seen. 

 Submitted by: Zizzle-Zot

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My Favorite Books

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Ask anyone who knows me well, and they’ll tell you that literature is extremely important to me. I’d go even further. After family and friends, the written word is the most important thing in my life. To be honest, even the preeminence of family and friends is, at times, debatable. Some people might find this sad. Hell, I think it’s pathetic. But it is what it is (I know the phrase doesn’t actually mean anything. I’m okay with that).

So, to share something that’s important to me with anyone who’s interested to know, I offer 25 books that I think kick ass. I’ve limited this list to novels, eliminating poetry collections and memoirs, just because they’d make the list unwieldy (but for poetry check out Good Poems, compiled by Garrison Keillor, and for memoirs read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington or Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard). I’ve also removed from consideration books on writing, because I couldn’t be certain they’d interest anyone but me (if they do, check out Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Writer’s Life by Annie Dillard, On Writing by Steven King (judge all you want, the guy is brilliant and knows his shit, and this book shows it) or Aspects of a Novel by E.M. Forster).

I’m not one of those literati blowhards that expect everyone to read and admire the same canon of literature. Let me throw my credentials out the window right now: Dickens wrote flat characters and Jane Austen was a bore.  I’m not going to stuff my list of books down your throats as books you need to read to gain the respect of English majors, or books that you’ll even like.

But these are books I love. Some changed my worldview in significant ways.  Some made me reconsider what a book could do, or inspired me to aspire to be a better writer, or just a better person. Some you might consider blasphemous when placed next to traditional lists of accepted “great literature.” I’m fine with that. For me they were extremely poignant in a time and place and that fact won’t change in deference to respectability.

Some of these books made me cry and others just made me laugh. In these last two characteristics you might find a pattern. Books that make you cry are important. Books that make you laugh, more so. Books that do both are holy. They deserve our reverence.

Without further ado (in no particular order…except for the last five, which will be my top five favorites (parentheses within parentheses: side note: I’ve grouped them into fives for your convenience. Thank me later (if you want to tangibly thank me, I like whiskey and bourbon (officially blowing your mind: Knob Creek, Eagle Rare, Basil Hayden, Jack Daniels, or Jameson (I’m not picky (actually I am (enough, enough already))))))) (trust me, it’s enough parentheses to close (I counted)) (I’m naughty, I know)…

 

International Flair: I’ve never traveled outside of the country (Canada doesn’t count). I’m ashamed. The travesty will be rectified in time. Until then, I rely on books to transport me to other places. These are all books that offer insights into cultures outside of America.

25) The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass: The Tin Drum is narrated by Oskar Matzerath, the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, as he writes his autobiography from a sanatorium several years after the end of WWII. Born in Poland in the years leading up to the war, Oskar decides at the age of three that adults are dimwits and liars and refuses to become one. He stops growing, and retains the stature of a child through the Nazi invasion of Poland, the Holocaust, the invasion of Normandy, and the postwar years.

24) The Good Earth – Pearl S. Buck: I know what you’re thinking: “Buck…that doesn’t sound very international. In fact, it sounds like the name of a woman born in West Virginia.” You’re absolutely right. Pearl Buck was born in 1857 to a Southern Presbyterian missionary and moved with her family to Zhenjiang, China when she was three months old. She was educated by a Confucian scholar, learned Chinese and English, lived through the Boxer Uprising, and eventually became the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

The Good Earth follows Wang Lung as he lifts his family out of poverty thanks to hard work and his strong-willed, wise wife, O-lan, sees his fortunes wane due to drought and famine, returns to his roots and rises once again only to become corrupted by wealth, sex and drugs. More than anything else, this book made me realize that simple pleasures are often the most profound.

23) Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie: Midnight’s Children is proof of Rushdie’s genius. There are a few books on this list that weave multiple threads into spellbinding tales so effortlessly that I’m filled with envy by the storyteller’s prowess. Midnight’s Children is one of those. So is the next book on this list, One Hundred Years of Solitude. There will be a few others later on, but I don’t want to divulge them just yet (it would spoil the fun). Instead, I’ll make a deal with you: when I come to a book that I feel is a paragon of storytelling, I’ll identify it as such. See the example in One Hundred Years…

Midnight’s Children weaves together the past, present and future of India’s independence and partition in 1947. The story is told through the eyes of Saleem Sinai, a child bestowed with special gifts because of his unique birth at the stroke of midnight on India’s Independence Day.

22) One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez: (Paragon of Storytelling) Everyone thinks they have a crazy family. Most of us probably do. But you haven’t seen anything until you’ve met the Buendias. From patriarch Jose Arcadio Buendia, who founds the town of Macondo (the setting of most of the story), but goes insane searching for the Philosopher’s Stone to matriarch Ursula Iguaran, convinced her family is cursed to be born with tails because she’s a cousin of Jose Arcadio’s. From revolutionary Colonel Aureliano Buendia, who loses 32 consecutive civil wars to Remedios the Beauty, who is too beautiful for the world and ascends into the sky one morning while folding laundry. From Aureliano Segundo, who goes insane searching for buried treasure to Aureliano Babilonia, who discovers the key to the family’s destiny to Aureliano (III), who is born with a pig’s tail to realize Ursula’s fears. Yeah, these people are nuts. And fascinating.

21) The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera: The Unbearable Lightness of Being asks the question: is life a circle or a line? Do events keep repeating themselves, so every action, every decision, comes back to us ad infinitum (eternal return)? Don’t these events add up and become unbearably heavy?

Or, conversely, do events occur by random chance? Do our actions one moment have no effect on events in the next? Is life just a series of circumstances that never happened before and will never happen again? If this is the case, aren’t our lives futile, pointless, unbearably light?

Set in Prague in 1968, in the wake of the Prague Spring and the invasion by the USSR, TULOF tells the story of successful, philandering surgeon Tomas, his photographer wife Tereza, his mistress Sabina, and Sabina’s lover Franz. It’s a must read (it just missed my top five).

That’s all for today. Stay tuned for the next five.

Thanks for reading.

Submitted by: Zizzle-Zot