Top 10 Books
Top 10 Movies
Hey, I'm not kidding about needing feedback on these lists! Help me out by e-mail:
A lot of modern fiction is really exciting and wonderful, and there are plenty of current authors besides the ones listed above I'd read gladly. But as for Lorrie Moore and Mark Richard, they have to be my absolute favorites of the modern writers, which might seem stupefying to someone who reads more modern fiction than I do. So e-mail me with some great ideas for authors to include! I was wondering where to put J.D. Salinger in all these lists, and he ended up here, which I hope is the appropriate place, considering he is virtually dead as an author. Here I mixed general comments about authors and specific book, because a lot of the books I don't happen to have on hand to refer to, and some authors, like Kurt Vonnegut, have so many books that I like that I want to recommend his works, rather than a single work.
I'm probably the biggest Lorrie Moore fan in the world. I find her voice irresistibly amusing. A lot of her earlier stories were written in this weird modern tense, the technical name which escapes me now (help! E-mail me!), but which is characterized by a stream of consciousness where ("You looked up at the sky. You wondered if it was going to rain." etc) the voice of the story is you and the tense is the present. It's quite a trick to pull off this kind of tense, and of all the writers I've ever seen attempt it, Moore is the queen.
She's aware of the prevalence of both quirky wisecracks and corny little jokes in her work and refers to them occasionally, with a small show of regret. She's a very clever woman, and her smart-aleck whip-smart bravado never fails to charm me, amaze me, or cheer me up. The most confusing thing to me about Moore is why she isn't more universally admired. I think she should get a press agent or something.
It's not exhausting to read the complete works of this young writer: There's the short story collection that introduced me to her, Self Help, her novel Anagrams, and the short story collection Like Life.
Read a profile in Ploughshares magazine on Lorrie Moore.
One year Rust Hills, the fiction editor of Esquire Magazine, published three separate stories by Mark Richard, plus I saw a story called Strays in some literary magazine. This guy is a genius with words. The same old words in shocking new combinations. Coupled with a bleak and impoverished rural outlook.
He has a special empathy for the little kid outlook on life, and his This Is Us, Excellent, is a masterpiece of understanding the strangely detached emotional trauma that barely scratches the surface of little kid energy.
He has a collection of short stories, The Ice At The Bottom of the World, which I highly recommend.
I don't like everything I've read by Kotzwinkle, though the Fan Man is one of my favorite all-time books for pure goofy exuberant comedy. I nearly died laughing a hundred times when I read the Fan Man, and rereading it is almost as good. Horse Badorties, the insane hippie main character, is hippie hyperbole incarnate, a filthy, crazy, forgetful, lovable monstrosity who destroys everything he touches and fucks up everything he tries.
But the beauty and innocence of life's losers is more than evident in Horse Badorties, and the clear moral instruction of the book (live like Horse and your life will be hilarious, but a living hell nonetheless) is somewhat softened by the sweetness of the essential goodness of his intentions.
Nobody who ever reads The Fan Man will ever forget it.
When I was an impressionable young teenager my favorite author was Brautigan, thanks to my friend George Crider. His best books are Trout Fishing in America, The Abortion, A Confederate General From Big Sur, and In Watermelon Sugar. He also wrote a great deal of first rate poetry, very unpretentious and almost oriental in its grasp of the singular moment outside of time and unadorned with literary fripperies.
I saw Kurt Vonnegut speak this year (1997) at Webster University at a performance of a new libretto for a Stravinsky piece; and he told us he's not going to write anymore, because he's too old and he feels comfortable that he managed to say everything he needed to say. He had a wonderful and distinguished speaking voice.
Again, Vonnegut was one of my favorite authors as a teenager, and I've read some of his books more than once, I've enjoyed them so much. I started with Breakfast Of Champions and was immediately hooked on his amazingly clear style. I loved how he explained every little thing I took for granted in such a simple and childlike way. The little diagrams that he crudely marked on the pages made me laugh and long for more authors to integrate artwork, no matter how crude, with their words.
Other books I've read by him include: Cat's Cradle (A book with ideas that so profoundly influenced me that I dare say I think of wampeters and karasses almost every day) God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, Player Piano, Sirens of Titan, and Welcome to the Monkeyhouse.
I have an unfortunate habit of losing or forgetting Barthelme's books; the only I have on hand now is The Brothers, but I've read quite a few of his short stories and admire the intensity of his narrative control.
I love everything I've read by J.D. Salinger, and have fancied myself his ideal reader from time to time (almost). He astonished me in several ways: first I'd always loved Basho before I'd read a line of Salinger, and I read The Cloud of Unknowing by accident before I read Franny and Zooey, where it has a passing mention. A deep respect for religion in any form is natural to my belief in God and my understanding of creation; as my old friend Maris Cirulis, put it, if anyone has a problem believing in a higher being of any kind then they just have to be arrogant beyond all redemption.
Anyone who fancies themselves even slightly intelligent will relate to the Glass family. But it was in Franny and Zooey that Salinger hit his peak of emotional intensity. The long, drawn out discussion between Zooey and his suffering sister Franny never fails to bring tears to my eyes. For many unknown but deep personal reasons, I found this to be one of the most beautiful and affecting stories I've ever read.
But you can't just read one J.D. Salinger book. From Catcher in the Rye to all the rest, you have to read them all.
A marvel of minutiae, The Mezzanine burst into the literary consciousness of the American scene in one triumphant blast. Subsequent books by Baker have moved more and more in the direction of hardcore pornography, which I find at once liberating and puzzling. Why does a man as analytical as Nicholson Baker allow himself to swept up in the most embarrassing excesses of lust without the slightest bit of analysis to allay the visceral shock of his irredeemably pornographic passages?
But The Mezzanine is an amazing deconstruction, a la Vonnegut, of the thousands of tiny little things and thoughts about them that make up the bulk of every person's day. Lacking Vonnegut's ironic detachment, Baker;s cool and precise catalog of the mundane is even more surprising, and the judgments he makes of our typical responses to mundane occurrences are as less political as could be expected from a man as much younger than Vonnegut as Baker.
Somebody's going to email me and complain that all the books I've listed on all my lists start out as "Another book I read as a teenager was ...". I read a lot of my favorite books as a teenager, and I saw a lot of my favorite movies as a teenager also.
So I read Catch-22 first as a teenager and I've graced it with at least one reread, I love it so much. The insanity of the military in Catch-22 is amazing, and since I never experienced War or Military I probably have never sufficiently appreciated the delicate balance; of truth and absurdity in Catch-22. The characters that Heller created are priceless literary creations that never leave you ever again, and the amazing thing about this book is that once you read it, you're qualified to see the best Hollywood version of a book ever made into an eponymous movie.