Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Top Ten: Reading

This post was inspired by the recent purchase of a gloriously silly compilation: The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, edited by J. Peder Zane. Mr. Zane's first line in the introduction is: "This book began with a dream." The book is as harebrained as this opening suggests, and both as enjoyable and as infuriating as any good list of lists should be. Mr. Zane suggests the purpose of the lists is to guide bewildered modern bibliophiles through the maze of the chainstores to find rewarding reads. How much guiding does the average book-lover need to dig up The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Despite the subtitle, Mr. Zane has only asked the 125 "leading British and American authors" to submit a list of the ten greatest works of fiction, and so you get all the usual syllabus suspects: Homer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Eliot, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Melville, Proust, Fitzgerald, etc. Two of my own very favourite short fiction writers, George Saunders and Lorrie Moore, both masters of black humour, pick quite staid and serious lists. (Okay, Saunders, you get points for Slaughterhouse-Five, which is funny, at least, and was written within the last forty years.) It's disappointing how few surprises there are.

The truth is, though, that Aristotle was wrong: Man is the list-making animal. There's nothing more fun than agreeing with or fuming over a list - except making one yourself. This fact is entirely ignored by a number of the more self-important authors, who whine and sweat as if composing a list of books that give them pleasure is the equivalent of delivering triplets. The worst offender is E. Annie Proulx, whose rude and pompous preface is as humourless as anything else she has written. "Just so you'll give it a rest," she writes, "here is a list." Well, don't worry, Annie, we won't be bothering you for the next edition: your fifteen minutes have got to be up soon.*

When I wasn't mentally berating famous authors, I was cheering on writers who share my good taste. Way to go with The Loser, Claire Messud! (And you're damn good yourself, by the way...) Ethan Canin, why haven't I read your books? You love Mr. Bridge and Sacred Hunger and I believe you taught my good buddy Craig at Iowa. (Mrs. Bridge makes two other lists, too.) Lydia Millet, why have I stubbornly refused to read your Oh Pure and Radiant Heart? Just because the blurbs on the back reference unreadable po-mo? But you worship William Gaddis' JR! Admittedly, that book is nearly unreadable po-mo, too - but it's brilliant! Judy Budnitz, that short story of yours about a transferred cancer and disappearing hallucinated carp completely freaked me out. But I love that you picked All the King's Men, Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, Jesus' Son and the best collection of Donald Barthelme (who also freaks me out, sure, but I do love "Me and Miss Mandible" and "Critique de la vie quotidienne".)

So, of course, this is all leading to me inflicting my top ten on you. Now I love King Lear, Gulliver's Travels, Madame Bovary and Heart of Darkness as much as the next girl - indeed, probably more than the next girl, those four especially - but I have disqualified them on the completely random basis that they were written before 1900. I have tried to pick the books that mean the most to me personally, and only two "real" classics managed to sneak onto my list. I included short story collections, but no drama, poetry, personal or sociological essays or non-fiction. It should be obvious that I'm a fan of the "tragicomic". Please feel free to abuse me for my choices and post your own. A totally unrelated post on my top ten scents this summer should follow soon.

  1. Mating by Norman Rush: Okay, so some of you may have heard me ranting about this one before. I sometimes feel like I'm in the wilderness with a loincloth and a copy of this book; I talked my bookclub into reading it next January and my husband thinks they're going to flog me with copies of the Shopaholic novels or something once they try to read it. It's dense and long, with words like "gynecomastia" or puns in Latin on every page. But it's incredibly smart, funny and full, a true epic of the personal as well as the global, narrated by one of the most intelligent and believable female characters ever.

  2. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton: If there's one character who earns as much affection from me as the narrator of Mating, it's Lily Bart. Brave, bright, graceful, honest and utterly doomed, she is the American creation who best fits Ivan Morris' description of that particular type of tragic hero, the one "whose single-minded sincerity will not allow him to make the manoeuvres and compromises that are so often needed for mundane success". Her story is devastating, but Lily is bewitching.

  3. Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard: Probably my favourite book about war, even though it gets stiff competition from The Things They Carried (Tim O'Brien). I already wrote about it here.

  4. Birds of America by Lorrie Moore: In very many ways, I owe Moore the number one spot. This collection of short stories is the one I most wish I had written, a work of relentless, angry and shaking brilliance. It is so desperately funny and heartbreaking that I found myself laughing and crying over each story. She deserved every award going in 1998, but I think she only won top spot in the O. Henry Prize and Best American Short Stories for "People Like That Are the Only People Here", the very fictionalized account of her son's cancer. The National Book Awards didn't even nominate her, the nutters.

  5. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren: E.L. Doctrow wrote that Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man is a "monumental, hammered-out novel of perfected technical mistakes." That excellent phrase always reminds me of Warren's great classic. Everyone always treats All the King's Men as if it were a very wise and realistic summation of political life, when really it is a kooky, bilgy novel, written by a poet, full of borrowed mythic imagery, memorable psychological insight and hilarious run-on sentences. Very simply wonderful.

  6. The Collected Stories of Richard Yates: Along with Moore's stories, these are my favourites. Furiously ironic and real, they are full of the kind of detached sympathy for characters last possessed by Thomas Hardy. I think the whole collection is genius, but "A Glutton for Punishment", "Builders", "A Natural Girl", "Oh Joseph, I'm so Tired" and "A Convalescent Ego" stand out particularly for me.

  7. The World As I Found It by Bruce Duffy: Overshadowed by the controversy surronding the use of a real person's life for fiction and then the publication of Ray Monk's fabulous biography, this novel based on the life of Wittgenstein is currently out of print. What people have forgotten is that it is a terrific book that is truthful in every way that counts. It is easy to get caught up in the story and not notice how carefully the main characters are linked. Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore all have transforming moments while swimming, for example, with each man's experience reflecting his temperment and philosophical path: Moore floating away from a beach without loosing sight of shore, an elderely Russell swimming doggedly and miraculously to save himself after an airplane crash, and Wittgenstein having an emptying, estatic and mystical experience on an isolated lake.

  8. Selected Stories by Nadine Gordimer: Since there has been no collection of short works by the Nobel Laureate since 1975, this one will have to do. I would take it to a desert island for "The Life of the Imagination" alone.

  9. JR by William Gaddis: Not light reading, this one. I think it took me a year to finish this 726-page novel with no dialog tags ("he said", "she said"). It was worth every second, though.

  10. The Risk Pool by Richard Russo: This one's a little more fun than some in the top ten. I love Nobody's Fool too, and always have a hard time choosing which Russo to lend first to a friend. (I began with Straight Man, which is a great start for anybody who has seen the "workings" of an English department up close.) All Russo books are about fathers and sons, but this one, beginning and ending with the birth of a boy, ties up the neatest.

Of course, I have been forced (by myself) to leave off Rabbit at Rest, Helen DeWitt's hauntingly bizaare The Last Samurai, everything by Flannery O'Connor, George Saunder's CivilWarLand in Bad Decline or Pastoralia, the Bridge novels by Evan S. Connell, The Bookshop, "Miranda Over the Valley" and "The Fat Girl" by Andre Dubus, Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House, Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children, Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban, Sacred Hunger, The Great Gatsby, The Barrytown trilogy, The Power and the Glory, etc., etc., etc.

* Why didn't B.R. Myer's "A Reader's Manifesto" ruin the careers of Proulx and Cormac McCarthy, as it should have? I suspect Proulx was saved by Ang Lee's film adaptation of "Brokeback Mountain". Lee also did a great version of The Ice Storm, a novel by Rick Moody, another of Myer's victims. The Tawainese director seems to be great at cutting the story and best images out of heaps of rambling sentences and mixed metaphors. If I ever overwrite a book, I'm calling him.


At 7:06 a.m., Blogger marchlion said...

What a great list! And, yeah, if you get lists of 10 and everyone lists your high school English reading list, what's the point? I think they should have made it 10 non-classics.

You know I share your love for Mating. Always trying to get folks to read Mating.

You are reminding me I need to read more collections of short stories, starting with your Lorrie Moore collection.

PS Since you like House of Mirth, have you read her collection of stories, Roman Fever? Even if you don't read the book, please just read that one story, first one in the book. Brilliant. Everything I want from Wharton in, like, 7 pages. But the other stories are great, too.

At 9:57 a.m., Anonymous AngelaS said...

What a smart list! I think my favorite Wharton novel is Age of Innocence, although House of Mirth is terrific, too, of course. On my top ten of the moment, I'd have to include Calvino's Baron in the Trees (so hilarious), Paley's Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion, Nabokov's Lolita and Pnin, Austen's Persuasion (pure comfort food), and Fisher's Gastronomical Me. Hazan's Italian Cooking is beautifully written, I think, for a cook book. When life is tough I like P.G. Wodehouse.

Also, word on the street is that Proulx is not very nice.

At 11:38 a.m., Blogger Erin said...

March: Thanks and personally meaningful non-classics, I completely agree. The book was cheap, luckily, and there are some interesting stats and "one-hit wonders" (books mentioned in only one list, and often in the top spot). Even Zane acknowledges that this is the most interesting part of the book. Ever heard of The Woman in the Dunes? (Written by Kobo Abe, chosen by Kathryn Harrison, who is the only author to name "The House of Mirth). I've got to get some of these soon. Also, will take out "Roman Fever" from the library today...

You're the only person I ever "met" who is fond of both Mating and The World As I Found It, so my undying affection just for that.

Please read Moore, especially "People Like That...", "Terrific Mother", "Which is More than I Can Say About Some People" and "Agnes of Iowa" from Birds of America. "You're Ugly, Too" and "The Jewish Hunter" from the collection "Like Life" are genius, too. I love her short novel "Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?" also. What am I saying, I love it all. The other one to check out for sure is DeWitt's "The Last Saumrai" (NOT the Tom Cruise movie). I don't think it sold well, and I read a little while ago that DeWitt went missing briefly, and everyone was worried she had gone to committ suicide. They found her in Niagara Falls, perfectly fine, and funny as ever, but I think they committed her for a spell. It makes me want to check up on Bruce Duffy.

At 11:50 a.m., Blogger Erin said...

Angela: Your list is great and includes so many that I love or want to tackle. I've read "The Custom of the Country" and "Ethan Frome", but never TAOI, though I saw the movie because I love Daniel Day Lewis. I adore Paley's "A Conversation with My Father" but think I read Enormous Changes too early in my life to appreciate it. Baron in the Trees I've been meaning to read for forever. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is one I clean forgot to add to my own list; I own Sometimes A Great Notion, but I've never gotten around to it. And, of course, we share a love of MFK Fisher. Have you read AJ Leibling's "Between Meals"? I love that book, but its a memoir, so I left it off the list.

I'm not surprised about Proulx. Her interviews make me embarrassed I ever enjoyed "The Shipping News"...

At 2:57 p.m., Blogger Erin said...

Ack - Angela, it's just been announced that Grace Paley died yesterday of breast cancer. How sad!

At 1:02 p.m., Anonymous Existentialist said...

What a great list, thanks for putting it together. Habitual list-making is supposed to be a trait specifically of only children, according to Adler. Seems like so few people even know who Edith Wharton is, much less actually read her, so it is nice to stumble upon a whole gang of Wharton fans. It is hard to pick a favorite, although The Custom of the Country is probably the one I like best.

At 3:08 p.m., Blogger Erin said...

E, well I have a number of chld-like traits I've hung on to over the years. I love dioramas and little mechanical toys, too. I wonder what Adler would make of that! I'm also glad to see a little clutch of Wharton fans here. Such clever people, perfume folk :)

At 5:36 a.m., Anonymous Bobby said...

This has been written more than a year already but still I'm thankfull for the given list.

I hope you could write again some other time


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At 6:13 a.m., Anonymous j powers said...

Puh-leeze tell me you've read Kate Wilhelm, and at least have her in your radar ! !

At 10:29 p.m., Anonymous Scentuality mens perfume said...

I think that the Empire of the Sun is really a nice book to read, the movie is also a very good one. Thanks for sharing.


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