Something a little different this week, as we have been dealing with some pretty heavy topics. And, while the weight of a good book is indeed inestimable, a discussion of our favorite works should be less taxing on both reader and writer than another volley of self-growth vignettes. On the other hand, reading any of the things listed will certainly be an exercise in personal improvement.
A word of warning: this list is aimed towards a male readers. First because I am male and prefer masculine writers (a shocking crime I realize). Secondly, I can hardly find any reading lists these days that speak to me as a man, or at least without any artificially inserted femininity. While I mean this not to disparage female writers (you will find several on my own list), I detest the way the modern literati insist on poisoning things with compulsory gender parity, meaning that shitty books often end up on a list for the sole purpose of ensuring that no list is too masculine, too white, too incendiary etc. Don’t let political correctness alter your taste in literature. If you want a female oriented list, well you are in luck. Just about any google search result for “reading list” will fulfill your wish with gusto. Happy reading.
The list is also slanted towards writers, and if not writers specifically, at least people who are a bit more interested in literature than in pop-corn. I do enjoy popcorn, but tonight we are making steak dinner. You might not find many relaxing beach reads.
In no particular order:
Bukowski: why is he so compelling? What is so mysterious and profound about his writing, when you can nearly hear the slurred speech and smell the reek of an unwashed trench coat in his prose? Anti-academic, boozy, so laden with wisdom that sounds like it might be blue collar but is purely mental in its punch. This is a book about the kind of work that the average person spends their whole life doing, written from the point of view of someone who practices in averageness and yet can’t quite handle it, is always on edge with the banality. Most of its rather mundane story is told through dialogue, but the sharpness of its truth and the disgusting reality of it all makes it something clear, warm, and human to the core.
“In the morning it was morning and I was still alive.
Maybe I’ll write a novel, I thought.
And then I did.”
-Bukowski, Post Office
All the Light we Cannot See
Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer prize and deservedly so, this is by far the most recently published book on my list. I place it here purely for its prose. There is something about the specificity of the sentences, the preciseness of the detail, the pinpoint homing in on certain feelings, the simple loveliness of the detail that sets this commonplace story about a girl in wartime and a lost diamond well above the station such stories otherwise occupy. I was riveted and still reread paragraphs from time to time in order to get inspired about writing.
“The children watch engineers use pulleys to lift a fossilized dinosaur femur. They see a stuffed giraffe in a closet, patches of hide wearing off its back. They peer into taxidermists’ drawers full of feathers and talons and glass eyeballs; they flip through two-hundred-year-old herbarium sheets bedecked with orchids and daisies and herbs.”
–Anthony Doerr, All the Light we Cannot See
A Light in August
My all-time favorite novel. No one can pull off flowery, exuberant prose like Faulkner. With all the confederate ghosts wafting through your mother’s corset closet, he can be a bit of a handful, but at his core Faulkner is eloquent like no other, divinely understanding of humanity, possessed of such a poetic mind that it is pretty much impossible to find his modern equivalent (Sorry Cormac). This rather heavy work might be said to encompass everything it means to be southern – from the rending influence of racism to the helplessness of the human mind enticed by defeat, bitterness and finally revenge. He manages to capture a time and place so perfectly that it is frightening. Don’t be intimidated by the stream of consciousness, just float on it.
“Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders. Knows remembers believes a corridor in a big long garbled cold echoing building of dark red brick sootbleakened by more chimneys than its own, set in a grassless cinderstrewnpacked compound surrounded by smoking factory purlieus and enclosed by ten food steel-and-wire fence like a penitentiary or a zoo, where in random erratic surges, with sparrowlike childtrebling, orphans in identical and uniform blue denim in and out of remembering but in knowing constant in the bleak walls, the bleak windows where in rain soot from the yearly adjacenting chimneys streaked like black tears.”
-William Faulkner, A Light in August
A collection of short stories by Denis Johnson. One of the few books to every actually make me angry because of how well written it is. As a writer, the effortless weightiness of Johnson’s prose feels almost unfair, like he has somehow hacked a code or is privy to inside information on how to put words together. There isn’t a single bit of over writing in this short work, and although it deals mostly with the drug addled, the demented, and the low-down, the somewhat jumbled narrative is a master’s course in how to write something sincerely, something ugly in a way that is sweet without a drop of saccharine, like pure honey from some deep forest.
“Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into someone like that.”
– Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son
An intimate exploration of the absurdity of the human animal, Madam Bovary is an excellent starting place for someone who wants to work their way through the top ten novels ever written in any language (Flaubert wrote in French, but the novel has been brilliantly translated). The book takes high concepts like love and honor and sort of smears them with shit with one hand while flourishing their gravity with the other. Famously polished prose and the great wisdom of a master make it one of those books that no lifetime is complete without.
“Deep down, all the while, she was waiting for something to happen. Like a sailor in distress, she kept casting desperate glances over the solitary waster of her life, seeking some white sail in the distant mists of the horizon. She had no idea by what wind it would reach her, toward what shore it would bear her, or what kind of craft it would be – tiny boat or towering vessel, laden with heartbreaks or filled to the gunwhales with rapture. But every morning when she awoke she hoped that today would be the day; she listened for every sound, gave sudden starts, was surprised when nothing happened; and then, sadder with each succeeding sunset, she longed for tomorrow.”
Gustav Flaubert, Madame Bovary
The Collected works of Eudora Welty
It is clear after some time reading any particular author whether or not he or she likes people, or merely accepts them for the broken and dangerous things they are. Most of my favorite authors might be a bit cynical and misanthropic, but not Eudora. It is clear that every character she paints, even the evil ones, have been weighed and understood by a surplus of humanity and love.
Here is an excerpt from “Where is the Voice Coming From?” in which she paints a portrait of the assassin of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
“Something darker than him, like the wings of a bird, spread on his back and pulled him down. He climbed once, like a man under bad claws, and like just blood could weigh a ton he walked with it on his back to a better light. Didn’t get no further than his door. And fell to stay.
He was down. He was down, and a ton load of bricks on his back wouldn’t have laid any heavier. There on his paved driveway, yes sir
“I was on top of the world myself. For once.
I stepped to the edge of his light there, where he’s laying flat. I says, “Roland? There was just one way left, for me to be ahead of you and stay ahead of you, by Dad, and I just taken it. Now I’m alive and you ain’t. We ain’t never now, never going to be equals and you know why? One of us is dead.”
Eudora Welty – “Where is the Voice Coming From?”
I’m going to end this segment with Mrs. Welty and continue with part two next week. Feel free to leave a comment about your own favorite novels.