'Til Your Eyes Bleed & Your Ears Explode: 61 Books You Really Should Read & Have Read To You
More books you'll love than you can swing a cat while shaking a stick at.
In my last exciting column of Canon Fodder, I catalogued my personal notes on recent movies I'd watched on DVD. Well, it created a sensation with my fans. I know because they both told me.
Now they've been running up to me in the street and saying, "What the heck are you doing in the middle of the street? There's a sidewalk over there!" When we get under a convenient awning, they press me to similarly reveal my thoughts about the library books I've been reading, or half-reading, or hearing on CD as I drive around from the grocery store to the library to the Post Office to the library to the mall to the gas station to the library.
"We know you waste a lot of time in a fruitless effort to keep abreast of all that literary nonsense," they asseverate perfervidly, "so you might as well let us have that between the eyes as well. Faith and begorrah, we need an injection of guilt about all the stuff we haven't been reading combined with mild envy at your messily obsessive-compulsive delusions. Or relief that we have so much more of a life."
They may have a point, and I am a slave to my public. True, I think about being accosted by people who drone on about what books they've been reading as my eyes glaze over, but heck, that's what reviewers are good for. More significantly, I wish to stress that these aren't even reviews or "professional" thoughts in any way, since nobody paid or rewarded me for reading these items. They were entirely self-inflicted in my impersonal quest for hedonistic pleasures, and my thoughts about them owe nothing to anyone, being coined originally for private correspondences that function as a kind of diary. I discovered long ago, to my horror, that many things I read are soon forgotten unless I scribble notes about them. In other words, I'm now perverting the original function of these notes. That makes these "reviews" curiously freeing, in my reckoning.
I prefer not to read for review anyway. That makes it homework, and that's no healthy mindset to read a book (or see a movie, for that matter). I already fear secretly that my motivations for reading involve a desperate desire for some illusory bulwark against failure, mortality, and out-of-the-loopness, while being directed by sheer whimsicality and what looks good on the New Books shelf at the library. I judge books by their covers, especially their blurbs by prominent authors who all seem to know each other.
I leave things unfinished, sometimes by choice and sometimes by my neurotic checkout patterns. I check out what looks interesting, renew them twice, then turn them in, then wait for them to be reshelved and check 'em out again and start the whole cycle anew. When something is absolutely due for the final time in a week, I frantically try to read it, so I end up with lots of half-redd things that eventually get rechecked. And yet, in my own house are plenty of unredd things that I own outright. Acquiring a personal copy of something is dooming it to remain unredd on the theory that I can always get to it later. I'm sure it's some kind of sickness, some literary equivalent of a passive-aggressive attitude to literary addiction.
So here are pretty much my last two years' worth of literay jottings. What you'll do with this information is something only you can know, Dear Reader. The only other fact you should need is that I coined the past tense verb "redd" in the late '80s or early '90s and have been using it consistently in my letters and notes since those years before email. That's why you'll find it dotted throughout. If anyone else coined it earlier, I don't want to know.
Books on CD
1. I love listening while driving, but the voices make all the difference. Some stories, especially when written in the first person, benefit tremendously from the right voice. My hands-down favorite reader-aloud is the brilliant George Guidall, one of the most expressive and versatile of voice-actors. Thanks to him, I've listened to Frankenstein, Elie Wiesel, William Faulkner, and what strikes me as his great virtuoso performance, Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, which requires him to sing in Hebrew and juggle many voices in a jaggedly experimental climax (which he achieves brilliantly).
In the last couple of years, however, the only thing I've heard from him is Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, a "concept album" of stories about people who all know each other, more or less anchored on an autobiographical young man. Astoundingly, the opening story of this 1919 book is about a man who's suspected of molesting boys, although we're assured he's misunderstood (perhaps even by himself).
Child abuse of one stripe or another is the reliable key to the universe in today's fiction, such that it's become a grating cliché, but it's rare to find it alluded to in anything more than a few decades old. The other stories are about the flounderings of equally lonely or desperate misfits, no matter how well integrated into town life they are. It was a pleasure to discover how good this book is, but that's often the way with classics. There's a reason why they're classic.
2. Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan perfectly demonstrates the advantage of listening to a book. The various readers are perfect with the dialects, which are Creole mixtures of English, French and African languages, and all are delivered with authentic accents it would be hard to "hear" on the page. The book consists of three short stories and two longer ones, pretty much all masterpieces, that follow the viewpoints of children who experience horrific atrocities in various African countries.
One first-person story tells of a boy and his sister preparing to be sold by their uncle into sex slavery in Gabon. "Luxurious Hearses", a social microcosm set on a bus, centers on a one-handed Muslim teen pretending to be a Christian. Surely this is one of the greatest collections of the century, its mix of noble intentions and successful storytelling (plot, character, style) a rare achievment this side of Tolstoy. Oprah Winfrey is to be congratulated on turning this one into a bestseller, but I really think listening is the way to go.
3. Listening also turns out to be great for Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, for the actor's carefully delivered in-character reading makes the whole thing simple to follow in context, and it goes by more quickly than reading the page would. The narrator, Alex, speaks in a lingo with many invented words that would cause the reader to pause and consider, whereas hearing them spoken in a carefully modulated manner makes the listener grasp them quickly and get used to them.
A foreward by Burgess explains how the 21st chapter wasn't part of the US edition for decades. He declares that the Americans wanted a Nixonian ending instead of a Kennedy-esque one, and he further states that a character's ability to change is what separates a novel from a fable. That's nice, except that the whole book is about the narrator's change, not just the last chapter, and is Burgess saying that Tom Jones or Pamela or Tristram Shandy change substantially by the end of their novels? Shandy's not even born yet!
Anyway, the last chapter is important because it implicitly draws out an interesting theory when our humble narrator (as he often calls himself) summarizes all his proclivities and legal troubles as "being young". He seems to mean, without dilating on the topic, that when cavemen didn't last beyond 20, evolution rewarded the violent youth who killed animals or rivals and quickly had kids, and that as civilization grew into larger tribes and nations, it was still the case that teens went off to wars as soon as they were old enough to breed. Those who outlasted the others were made chiefs, and even the foundation of farming required hard work amid wars.
Since the industrial revolution and the creation of the middle class and the increasing of life spans, there have still been wars to channel and reward the violent impulses of youth, but gradually it's become society's problem to extend marriage and responsibility and employment beyond a lengthening adolescence, and teens are punished for what once would have gotten them medals and advancement. All that in a sentence or two in one chapter.
4. The Dinner by Herman Koch recounts the events of a night out (with extended flashbacks) in which the narrator's violent mental issues are gradually revealed through his son's behavior, and amid many digressions on the fine annoyances of life out of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Thus his comfortable Dutch smugness, at which he makes a point of sneering, is exposed as both hypocrisy and pathology. Alas, the narrative has major problems with credibility. Near the end, our protagonist recalls a violent attack in public that should get him brought up on charges, especially in the context of his medical/professional history, so why hasn't that happened, and more to the point, why hasn't it become an issue in his brother's campaign for Prime Minister? That sort of thing would be impossible to keep quiet.
Also, under what circumstances is he writing this and what readers is he addressing and why? He makes a point of not mentioning certain things, like the name of the restaurant (although by the end, we know it's across the bridge from a cafe where a famous incident occurs), but he gives his family's names and discusses his famous politician brother. Are we supposed to interpret everything as a fantasy? Is this yet another "unreliable narrator", pushed beyond cliché into convenience? There's a difference between unreliable and untenable. As a study in the pathology of violence from a possibly unreliable narrator who affects sophistication, this recent effort pales in comparison to the Burgess novel above.
5. Axeman... something or other. Listened through the first three of the six discs of a Swedish small-town police procedural just to confirm what I already knew on Disc 2, that I didn't give a damn who was the axe-murderer or why. This one plays coy by having a few passages from the murderer's point of view inserted into the general low-key recountings of the police investigation. That kind of narrative shell-shuffling makes my teeth grind.
6. The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje, delivered by the author. Putatively autobiographical reminiscence of when the narrator traveled by ship from Sri Lanka to England at age 11 in the '50s, the various passengers he met and their little dramas (some sensational) and how these resonated through later life. Absorbing and pleasant.
7. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami runs a whopping 30-something discs, but the huge tree-killing doorstop of a physical volume with small print (originally published as a trilogy in Japan) is a perfect argument for listening to CDs. Most of the book alternates two narratives, which are read aloud by different voices--one male, one female. In the hopelessly literary and postmodern half, a writer is tasked with rewriting a weird fantasy story submitted for a prize.
The author is an affectless 17-year-old girl who claims the events really happened--something about little people from the other world who pass into this one through the corpse of a goat. The other storyline is about a beautiful hit-woman. We've seen that many times of course (especially in movies, where sexy hitwomen are all the rage), but this hitwoman apparently slips into an alternate reality after a mysterious cabbie advises her to take a stairway down from a highway while she's hearing Janacek's Sinfonietta.
This is a serenely slow and detailed book that partly comments on itself by having our hitwoman slowly read her way through Proust and observe that maybe she doesn't need to read a book of forward momentum, just a minutely detailed report from another planet like this. And that's kind of like the book she's in too, although it also reminds me of the German 19th Century writer I found a couple of years ago, Adalbert Stifter, whose novel Indian Summer is a long, slow, ponderously detailed bildungsroman.
Meanwhile, over in the other braided narrative, the male protagonist is slowly reading Chekhov's nonfiction account of his visit to Sakhalin Island, and he also reads a horror story about cats that I've discovered is indeed a real story, not Murakami's invention. So much of this endless novel is about reading.
The last third of the novel throws in a third alternating POV, a grotesque private detective, and there are moments when the authorial voice deigns magisterially to stray from a given character's view in order, as things come to a head and his characters begin to circle each other, to tell us point blank about things they don't know. This is pronounced at the ironic moment when the three of them just miss meeting each other and the author speculates on whether this is good or bad.
This strange book not only answers few of the questions raised but continues to raise more at the end! The reason the novel is satisfying despite unanswered questions is that since the beginning, it's set up a question of how the two alternating heroes relate to each other, and by the halfway mark we finally begin to grasp their connection, and by the end we're in suspense for them to cross paths (complete with false hopes) so that, by the time they reach a consummation we've been anticipating so long, it meets our overwhelming desire to marry these narratives in this book about a book about an alternate world. In other words, it brokers an emotional satisfaction out of the void of background uncertainties. What audacity.
8. The Little Book by Selden Edwards is a very well-done time-travel fantasy in which each chapter jumps to a different point in the hero's life. It begins with his emerging in fin-de-siècle Vienna, where he becomes a patient of Freud, which makes this the second fantasy I've heard in Freud's Vienna (after Joseph Skibell's A Curable Romantic, whose hero is haunted by a dybbuk). Other chapters shift to his "later" (earlier) life in California as baseball prodigy, then Eastern schools, then rock stardom.
Still other chapters cover other characters: mom, dad, grandma. The book is also essentially a hopeless romance with his grandmother! Very complicated, and with many star cameos and well-placed twists. Turns out the author's been working on this for 40 years, though not continuously. I'd rank it with Jack Finney's time books, and that's praise. It's about influence, culture, fate, history, the pursuit of excellence, and writing. It's good to read in conjunction with watching David Cronenberg's beautiful movie A Dangerous Method about Freud and Jung. (Edwards has now published a sequel that apparently retells the story from the grandmother's POV.)
9. The Night Visitors by Chris Bohjalian is a horror book recalling Peter Straub's tendency to be elegantly descriptive, although the plot is kind of "The Shining goes to Harvest Home". A pilot recovers from the trauma of crashing his plane and losing most of the passengers, retreats to sinister New England home with wife and twin girls where the community is dominated by middle-aged female "herbalists" who take an unnatural interest in the twins. Shifts among several third-person perspectives, but the pilot's sections are always second-person present tense. I find this annoying in general, but even more so when the things "you" are doing are things you couldn't justify except as psychotic ghost-possession trauma. This author wrote a previous tragedy about twin daughters; I won't ask what's up with the twin obsession.
10. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a more interesting "night" book that alternates between a young woman and man who have been trained to participate in a mystifying contest of magic in an endlessly inventive circus during the late 19th Century. Clearly the duelling protagonists will fall in love, and that element is convincingly romantic and restrained. This narrative shifts around too, and seems almost to lose its thread in favor of chapters that present one imaginative setpiece after another, like circus acts. Highly imaginative and well-balanced escapism.
11. The Night Swimmer by Matt Bondurant is my third "night" book. Narrated by American woman who went to Ireland to run a pub with her husband after he won a contest. She has a condition that allows her to swim naturally in very cold water, and this seems to symbolize her insularity and insecurities, which put a strain on a previously comfortable marriage. Things are odd on a nearby island, and she's brooding about the tragedy she has to tell us, after which she's recalling these events in a pained and weary tone. There's an opening scene with a rich father-in-law that doesn't appear to have much to do with anything. Many bizarre happenings are eventually served up and I'm not sure what for. The best I can say is that it's unusual and avoids the obvious generic pegs.
12. The Future of Us is a Young Adult novel by Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler, who I assume handled the alternating chapters of the boy and girl narrators. In 1995, the girl gets the internet and when she puts in the free AOL disc from the mail, an unexplained writerly trick allows her to access her Facebook page 15 years in the future. Written unobtrusively and thoughtfully, with momentum, it explores this idea as she toys with changing her future and trying to figure out why she never seems happy. Meanwhile the boy carries a torch for her, natch.
13. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is only five discs, but I gave up at the start of Disc 4 after wanting to give up at three (and really at two). A Gulf War novel by a veteran, it's organized around a buddy's death, for which the narrator feels guilt as the defining thing of his life, and the structure jumps around in time between looking back at age 30 to what happened at 20, to coming home afterwards, and to building up toward that incident through boot camp and patrols in Iraq, without yet getting to the main event.
It's best when it sticks to telling what happens, but the prose spends too much effort reaching or rather straining ("reaching" defines the book), both for Updikean descriptions of light falling on dirt and, worse, at the drop of a chapter trying to leap into nebulous abstractions of Life and Humanity and Existence spun around some nugget of wisdom like "you never know", and without which it would have been even shorter. If only it had passed through the hands of Gordon Lish (Raymond Carver's famous editor), he would have slashed its ass by half.
14. As soon as I cut that off and popped in the first CD of Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue, I knew I'd done the right thing, like stepping into the literary equivalent of a warm shower. His spellbinding sentences are a voluptuous pleasure. He's like "What if Flaubert was a smartass?" He's a Dionysian anti-Hemingway, albeit one overdosed on pop culture (count the Star Trek references) and lobbing syncopated F-bombs. (That's a Chabonian sentence, not really.)
First three or four discs remain in the same 24 hours, about no particular plot but a bunch of black folks and one white Jewish couple around a used record store in Oakland, California. A later chapter is a run-on sentence literally from a bird's eye-view, a parrot in fact. Yeah, it's a stunt, but it works. Well performed by a guy who sounds like a sleepy soul DJ seducing your eardrum like Barry White.
15. This Is How You Lose Her is a series of overlapping alternate histories of ruined love by the same narrator, a Jersey Dominican academic from a previous novel, performed by author Junot Diaz. I thought they weren't quite in the same reality because some details change from one story to the next. For example, in one story, his older brother quits his job at a carpet company when he gets cancer, but in another story, it claims he never had any job besides dealing drugs to white kids.
This is another book with many Star Trek references; it's our cultural equivalent of the Bible or Virgil. We need to get our myths from somewhere. Anyway, these stories are vernacular monologues in a minor mode, so it's appropriate for the author to read them aloud and he does it well, surely the best way to experience these.
16. The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan is told by a woman who's recounting the last few weeks, when her ship sank just at the start of the Great War in Europe and she was stuck in an overcrowded lifeboat. She's writing this lucidly at the request of her attorneys, for she's on trial for murder. This makes her unreliable though credible, detailed, and thoughtful. A few turns of psycho-babble seemed a bit "today", but otherwise this story is vivid and absorbing as adventure, metaphor, and microcosm. It ends with some questions unanswered because our heroine doesn't know the answers, and that's fair.
17. The Cocktail Waitress by James M. Cain--Wow. My first Cain is his unfinished final novel, written in the mid-'70s and set in the '50s, edited from various manuscripts, and it's a doozy. It's got everything. This carefully paced construction works as social milieu and class, as details of working as a waitress, as a woman's POV, as character study in first person from unreliable narrator, as mildly sleazy titillation, and finally as understated suspenseful crime story, with a truly shocking final page.
18. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker. Narrator in her 20s recalls her 12th/13th year of ten years earlier, when she found out her father was having an affair and when she got her first crush and boyfriend, and became alienated from a best friend and all that stuff, and oh yeah, they found out the Earth's rotation was slowing and the days and nights became longer and longer.
That's a rather extreme metaphor for losing one's gravitational balance (is it even a metaphor?), written lucidly and interestingly, although she allows herself to skip over lots of scientific and historical data because she knows she's writing for an audience that's living on the same planet and already knows all this stuff from the news. Convenient.