Tuesday, February 17, 2009
1. The Road. Cormac McCarthy. One of the most paradoxical things I've read. As sacred as it is profane, as horrifying as it is beautiful, a story of profound love wrapped in an apocalyptic vision.
2. All the Kings Men. Robert Penn Warren. Reckoned by many to be one of the greatest men of letters this country has ever produced, if you pick up this book you will quickly see why. Warren's prose is tight but at the same time it manages to capture the Byzantine world of American politics and gracefully articulate a uniquely southern perspective. There are worlds within worlds here and somehow the author manages to tie it all together so that the reader is left feeling that he's stepped outside himself and lived in another time, another place. The experience will certainly haunt you and it may even cause you to reevaluate some of your deepest convictions.
3. Winter's Tale. Mark Helprin. Like biting into the literary equivalent of Chocolate Cake. Winter's Tale is a beautiful love letter to the city of New York, a portrait not of the city as it is, but rather, how we imagine it to be in our most romantic dreams. The author manages to do this without ever slipping down the slope of sentimentality.
4. A Confederacy of Dunces. John Kennedy Toole. One of the most laugh out loud funny things you will ever read. The book follows the exploits of Ignatius Reilly as he attempts to foist his anachronistic vision upon an indifferent modern world. Imagine a mix of Thomas Aquinas, Don Quixote and Oliver Hardy... A lovable, gifted, train wreck of a man who's convinced that he's St. George out to slay the dragons of pop culture with nothing more than his rapier wit, gelatinous ass and the "Consolations of Philosophy". It's one of the great tragedies of contemporary literature that this book was published and won the Pulitzer prize several years after the author took his life.
5. Burr. Gore Vidal. Few people can breathe life into history like the writer/historian Gore Vidal. I suspect one of the many reasons his work will always endure is Vidal's willingness to go after sacred cows. Vidal gives the unvarnished truth about our founding fathers and doesn't shy away from describing the human motivations driving those seeking power. In the wake of such candor we are left with enthralling portraits of the people who cobbled together the world of today. Many will site Lincoln as Vidal's best historical novel and it is without question a fantastic read, but the story of Aaron Burr appealed to me in a way that Lincoln did not. Perhaps it's because I tend to see Burr as an honest and charming rogue while Lincoln is perceived by me as something far worse.
6. The Razor's Edge. W. Somerset Maugham. Often a book will come along at just the right point in your life. It will offer help with some of the most troubling questions about how one should choose to live. I read this at the age of eighteen and it really put it's hooks in me. The protagonist is a veteran of the First World War and after surviving that nightmare he sets out to discover the meaning of life. The book is a young idealists dream and I often wonder if this isn't the Granddaddy of the 1960's counter culture movement. The characters seem to wrestle with all the things the youth of the sixties were so concerned about, the rejection of materialism, the fears shared by people living in world hell bent on war, but most of all, the stumbling around in the dark that takes place in the absence of God. It sometimes seems that people never change only the fashion and geography do. Young American ex-patriots living in Paris in the 1920's are just dressed differently than the flower children of Berkley forty years later. In my late teens as I was trying to figure out what I wanted (and what I wanted to be) I found this book helpful in a way that few others were, for here the writer chose not to give me answers, instead he armed me with all the right questions.
7. The Stand. Stephen King. I've read a good many Stephen King novels and this one is surely his Magnum Opus, it's also the one I would vote most likely to endure. It seems to me that many stories by King can be boiled down to this simple outline. There is evil in the world and there are places in the world that are inherently evil. Evil forces are drawn to these places like moths to a flame. Good must face down this evil and vanquish it and the place where evil once flourished must be purified by fire. Think about the town in Salem's Lot with the old house on the hill attracting the vampire and the great fire that burns it all away, same sort of drill in Tommyknockers, Christine, etc. With the Stand, King weaves his grandest version of this motif and peoples it with some of the most memorable and likable characters in contemporary fiction. Because of this, the books length isn't in any way daunting, in fact, by the time you complete it you find it hard to let go...
8. Lonesome Dove. Larry McMurtry. A sprawling, brawling look at an amazing time in U.S. history seen through the eyes of two aging Texas Rangers who come up with a scheme to steal a herd of Mexican cattle, drive them north to Montana, and secure their fortunes by selling them at the approaching rail head. This is the ultimate road trip story that comes to us from a time when roads were called trails and the people you met on them often proved to be your undoing. Even if the western genre doesn't appeal to you this book will still capture your imagination. The relationship between the two protagonists Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae may well be one of the most moving portraits of friendship ever committed to paper.
9. House of Stairs. William Sleator. This book is generally marketed at young readers but I think it has much to offer anyone who picks it up. Five teenagers are placed inside what seems to be an M. C. Escher drawing on crack, flights of stars trail off in every direction with none of them leading anywhere but back to the starting point. As the story progresses we are witness to the degenerative effects of operant conditioning and machine control on social groups. The book is a cautionary tale and with chilling objectivity it describes the costs of both rebellion and submission in the face of injustice. It is a book I look forward to sharing with my son when he comes of age.
10. The Queen's Gambit. Walter Tevis. One of the most gifted and overlooked writers of the twentieth century. Walter Tevis writes with great clarity on some of the most complicated subjects imaginable. Risk, addiction, gambling, sportsmanship, genius, loss and alienation are all rolled together into this powerful story outlining the life of a chess prodigy. For those who may peruse the cover of this book and wonder how anything written about the game of chess could be interesting, I would say to give it a chance... The focus of the book has more to do with a gifted young woman coming of age and finding her place in the world. Chess simply fills out the background and it's complexity serves as a metaphor for life. Tevis does a remarkable job here getting inside the head of an adolescent girl. From her humble beginnings as an orphan in central Kentucky to Grand Master Champoinship matches on the other side of the world we see for ourselves just what is risked in the pursuit of perfection.