Day 13 - Favorite childhood book OR current favorite YA book (or both!)
The first book I ever read was a battered red hardback edition of L. Leslie Brooke's Johnny Crow's New Garden, first published in 1935. Mom and Dad had read it to me aloud scores of times, and I knew it pretty well. We were in Beaufort, SC, visiting Mom's parents when, the story goes, I began flipping through the pages and reading aloud. I was, apparently, able to link the words on the page to the way they sounded, so I guess that counts as reading. If pressed, I will admit that I hope the first lines I ever read were:
"And the rhinoceros
Said 'Puffickly preposserous.'"
From there I graduated to more contemporary picture books, and by far my favorite was The Snowy Day
by Ezra Jack Keats. There is something remarkable about Keats' collage work, though I couldn't tell you just what. I suspect the real reason I became so fascinated by the book is the fact that the main character is named Peter. As I've mentioned here before, one reason I find the idea of minority representation in media so important is that I have always been powerfully drawn to stories about people with my name or my coloration; as a brunette, I have always considered Ultra Boy and Timber Wolf my favorite members of the Legion of Super-Heroes, as opposed to blue-haired heroes like Superboy. Perhaps for similar reasons, I always considered the brown-haired Peter Parker way cooler than that crowd of identical blonde guys in the Avengers. I mean, honestly, who could tell Hank Pym from Steve Rogers from Clint Barton from Don Blake? The fact that Keats' character shared my name helped me identify with him; how frustrating must it be to have no one on the page or on the screen who shares something with you?
But as my tastes grew more sophisticated, I started picking up new favorites: Donald Sobol's Encyclopedia Brown
books were a highly enjoyable way for a kid whose head was full of trivia to imagine himself a hero. I was also fond of Beverly Cleary's tales of Henry Huggins and the Quimby sisters, Beezus and Ramona. In fact, Cleary's Beezus and Ramona
was perhaps the first book with a female protagonist that I really identified with, primarily because of Beezus' frustrations and eventual fulfillment in her art class. I too took an out-of-school art class and found it enormously important to my creativity and my confidence. And like every kid my age, I delighted in the works of Roald Dahl. The improbable events of James and the Giant Peach
made it my favorite of his books, but it was only a hair ahead of Fantastic Mr. Fox
; there was something about the way Dahl described the foods the starving animals stole--particularly the plenty looted from the Bunce farm--that made me salivate. I was also disturbed by the ironic body horror of The Magic Finger
and deeply, deeply creeped out by the Vermicious Knids (mentioned in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
but not actually seen until Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
Late in my elementary school career I started pick up biographies of various figures from American history, particularly the Bobbs-Merrill series Childhood of Famous Americans
, originally written by Augusta Stevenson, but continued by others. These reddish-orange hardbacks were, I now know, kind of sneaky, as they ostensibly told of these figures' childhoods with only a relatively short discussion of their adult accomplishments. And since those childhoods were not always well-documented, I suspect a good deal of what I read was either apocryphal or purely fictitious. Still, books like Abraham Lincoln: Frontier Boy
, Sitting Bull: Dakota Boy
, and George (Washington) Carver: Boy Scientist
helped instill a lifelong love of history in me.
But if I had to point to one book--okay, two--that fired my imagination and influence me to this day, I would have to point to a pair of creators who first came to my awareness as the illustrators of a completely different Lincoln biography, called simply Abraham Lincoln
: Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire. The lithographs created for the book are remarkable, particularly the striking image of the rangy Lincoln standing up in a carriage and blocking out the sun in order to gain right of way. The tales of Abe's youth were certainly memorable, but they pale compared to the artwork.
At some point in my elementary school days--I don't know when, I don't know where, though Glenwood School's library is a pretty likely candidate--I stumbled across another book by them. I suspect I was drawn in by the beautiful lithographic illustrations, but there's no question that the subject matter would appeal to me as well. It was D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths
, my introduction to the underpinnings of much of our culture, and I devoured it. Repeatedly. To this day, when I hear of a figure from Greek mythology, the image I have is the version from the d'Aulaires' book. I soon stumbled across a second volume of theirs, this one illustrating the mythology of Ingri's birthplace, Norway. The book was then called Norse Gods and Giants
, and I dove into it with gusto. Having first come across mention of Thor and the other Asgardians in Marvel Comics, I didn't find the images of the Norsemen's tales burning themselves into my skull quite as firmly as those of the Greeks, but I still loved the book, and like its predecessor it came home with me as often as I could check it out.
When my own kids were born, I was surprised and delighted to stumble across a big paperback edition of the Greek myths. I immediately purchased it and was quite satisfied to see how well-worn and foxed the pages became. I was frustrated, though, to learn that Norse Gods and Giants
was out of print. Thankfully, Kelly was not as easily defeated as I, and she kept digging until finally, on Valentine's Day, 2010, this happened:
The book had been republished in 2005 under the title D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths
, with a new preface by Michael Chabon, and I happily dove right back into it. Recapturing a piece of your childhood is enormously satisfying however it occurs, but it's especially sweet to have it laid in your hands by someone you love in your adulthood.
Day 12 - A book or series of books you've read more than five times
I am an unapologetic re-reader. Sure, I love discovering new and startling and exciting books, but I also believe--firmly--that revisiting a book can offer much that is new and startling and exciting. Instead of being propelled along by the narrative, you can take your time, less concerned with what happens next and able to appreciate the way the author is making it happen. Nuances of style and structure that escaped you the first time can reveal themselves. And since you are older and possessed of a different perspective when you pick up a book again, you may find it speaking to you in different ways than it did before. I unquestionably read a very different novel when I cracked open The Great Gatsby in my thirties--not at all the one I'd read in high school.
All that said, my re-reading is often based on another important thing a book can offer the next time around: comfort. It's odd to me that people will feel free to criticize you for reading a book more than once, but no one gets irritated if you want to listen to OK Computer or My Aim Is True or Innervisions again. I mean, I already have a pretty good idea what my friends are like, but having gotten to know them, I can still enjoy spending time with them again.
Naturally, any English teacher is called upon to re-read books constantly. I will confess that I didn't completely re-read the books I taught every year--but I always re-read them the first time I taught them, and I always re-read important sequences before teaching them. I figured I might well notice something I'd missed the last time, and often I did. But for this prompt, it seems unfair to count Gatsby, or Huck Finn, or Douglass's Narrative, or A Streetcar Named Desire, because I re-read them as part of my job.
I can easily point to books I've read five times or more. In fact, since I started keeping track of what I read back on March 1, 1996, I can see what I've re-read in black and white. Since that day I've read The Lord of the Rings three times, not counting when I read it to the kids in 2001. (In advance of the movie, I wanted them to have their own mental images of Middle-Earth, not ones that were dependent on what the film version showed.) Since I had already read it at least five times before that, it would certainly qualify. (Heck, I read it for a college class, too.) Despite its length, it is arguably the work I've re-read most often.
Like LOTR, the books I've re-read five times or more tend to be those I first read when I was pretty young: the Chonicles of Narnia, the Earthsea Cycle, Watership Down, The Wind in the Willows, and so on. If I consider books for children, there are even more titles to consider: both the Greek and Norse mythology books by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire have been in my hands probably dozens of times, as have books like The Snowy Day and Maurice Sendak's four-volume Nutshell Library. And once I had kids of my own, I can assure you that five is a laughably low figure for all the times I had to read Hop on Pop or Ride a Purple Pelican to the boys.
By contrast, I haven't voluntarily revisited that many of the books I discovered after college, even the ones I've loved, and I certainly haven't revisited them five times or more. Terry Pratchett's Small Gods, for example, is one I first read in 1999; I re-read it in 2001 and again in 2004. As much as I love it, I just haven't had the opportunities to revisit it that I had with Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin et al.
I also tend to re-read nonfiction less than I re-read novels. Vincent Bugliosi's Helter Skelter
(which I first read in my teens) is probably the one I've re-read the most, but other than that, David Quammen's brilliant The Song of the Dodo
, Stephen Jay Gould's astonishing Wonderful Life
, and Tom Standage's breezy History of the World in Six Glasses
may be the only nonfiction books I've chosen to read more than once. Okay, my own books, sure.
But there's one category I haven't mentioned yet: graphic novels. Because they're relatively quick reads, and because the artwork gives you a whole new set of nuances to re-examine, graphic novels (or comics collections) can be extremely rewarding options for re-reading. Unfortunately, I often tend to forget to log them on my readign list, so a lot of my re-readings have gone unrecorded. I am quite sure, however, that I've read Neil Gaiman's Sandman
series at least four times, Transmetropolitan
by Warren Ellis & Darick Robertson at least three times, and Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon's Preacher
at least twice.
But if I had to pick one book to point to as a constant in my adult life, it's got to be Watchmen
. I've taken long dives into Alan Moore's oeuvre, particularly Swamp Thing
, V for Vendetta
, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
, and I've reread his America's Best Comics titles (Promethea, Tom Strong, Tomorrow Stories
, and Top 10
) on a number of occasions. But with Watchmen
, we're talking about a series I read when it came out in serial form, re-read multiple times in the original trade paperback collection (with the cover below), and after we had to replace our collection with the new one (with the more familiar smiley-face cover), re-read multiple times as well. Watchmen
is a particularly rich trove for re-reading, not just because of the incredible detail Dave Gibbons gives to the artwork, but because of Moore's script. He's a a writer who revels in the idea of correlations, so almost every bit of dialogue is intended to refer to something else; often it's a comment on what we're seeing in the panel (literally or ironically), but it can be a direct reference to an outside source (lines from Dylan or Shelley, historical references to Oppenheimer or Kitty Genovese) or an oblique play on superhero archetypes. There are appendices full of material to give context to the main narrative, and there's the extraordinary level of self-reference that makes every re-read something of a treasure hunt. (For example, if you try to find all the references to the Doomsday Clock, you'll quickly discover that nearly every circular shape shown in the book imitates the near-midnight hands in some way.) Finally, there is the remarkable structure of the work, one whose intricacies reveal themselves in new ways with every re-reading. Sure, you might notice from the first that Chapter 5, "Fearful Symmetry," is itself symmetrical, but you're a lot more likely to notice it after additional examination. And that might help you notice the symmetry of the series: a chapter of plot, a chapter of background, a chapter of background, all the way through Chapter 6. At that point it reverse to run background-plot, background-plot all the way to the end.
It's a remarkable work of imagination and craft. I thought so the first time I read it, and every time since.
Day 11 - A book that disappointed you
Some books pleasantly surprise you (as seen on Day 10) but some, inevitably, will disappoint you. The situations in which you experience disappointment are often much like those that create the pleasant surprise. You may be assigned such a book, or agree to read it for a club, or accept a recommendation.
There is, however, one category of book that is much more likely to result in disappointment than delight: the sequel. If you disliked a book, you are unlikely to pick up the next volume, even if the second is an improvement on the first. By contrast, if you really liked a book, there's a good chance you'll want to read another in the series, and that may very well end up disappointing you.
I can point to Larry Niven's Ringworld as a favorite SF novel, and when I read its follow-up, The Ringworld Engineers, I was still fairly happy, though it wasn't quite up to the original. Nonetheless, when The Ringworld Throne appeared a few years later, I found it a real chore to read. The basic ideas Niven had brought up in the first volumes--variously evolved hominids, stepping disks for teleporting, and six-syllable names like Halrloprillalar and Kawaresksenjajok, to name a few--were explored in excruciating detail, rather than incorporated into an exciting narrative.
I was similarly hopeful when I found a paperback of a book called Tales from Watership Down, in which Richard Adams offered stories about the rabbits who had so captivated me in the original Watership Down (not to mention a couple of tales of El-Ahrairah). I'd consider WD just about perfect, a book whose details still seem fresh in my mind forty-odd years later, but Tales was an utter disappointment. I read it only twenty years ago, and nothing about it has stuck with me except a vague wish that I hadn't read it.
When a writer sets the bar high with the first book, it's much easier to come up short on the next. That's one reason why I find Terry Pratchett's Discworld books so remarkable: they actually got better as he went along. Small Gods and Feet of Clay (the 13th and 19th novels in the series, respectively) are far superior to The Colour of Magic (the first).
The "high bar" idea also works for writers even when no sequel is involved. After you've read a few books and come to trust a writer, you're going to expect everything that writer puts out to be at least as good as the last one. And it may well fall short. After Jim Crace's Quarantine was fired across my bow by my wife, who made me read the first paragraph and hooked me, I dove into everything Crace had published and gorged myself. Being Dead was simply brilliant, Arcadia fascinating, The Gift of Stones startling and original, etc. When I picked up Genesis, his tale of a man who impregnates any woman he sleeps with, I had high hopes. But I couldn't finish the book. Ordinarily I would feel no guilt about that at all, but this was Jim Crace, dammit. He's a good writer--a trustworthy writer. He wouldn't leave me unfulfilled this way!
But he had.
This is why I am almost certainly never going to read Joseph Heller's Closing Time.
I can't really consider most of required reading I disliked to be disappointing. For one thing, though I trusted my teachers to assign us worthwhile reading, I never expected to like any assignment intensely; it was schoolwork, after all. (This may be due to the old "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do" principle.) As I mentioned before, I've only belonged to one book club, and I had no expectations attached to any of Ms. Rashkis's selections for it, so nothing could fall short. I suppose I could point to my days contributing to Readerville.com, where I read a few books that didn't excite me as much as I'd hoped based on others' opinions. 7:30 AM
Oddly, though, the only one that bothered me was A Dead Man in Deptford by Anthony Burgess, his novel of Christopher Marlowe, and even that wasn't because it was a bad book. I had been in a lengthy argument with an anti-Stratfordian on the site, and she had offered Burgess's book as one I should read if I wanted to understand why she thought Marlowe had written Shakespeare's works. Being open to evidence and favoring reasoned debate, I read it--and discovered it to be a perfectly serviceable novelization of Marlowe's life that makes no mention of writing under Shakespeare's name. It doesn't even theorize that Marlowe survived the 1693 tavern brawl that killed him and kept writing for another two decades. When I confronted my Marlovian acquaintance about the book, she simply said that it had somehow been instrumental in her coming around on the authorship issue and offered no further evidence. In that regard, I was disappointed by the novel, and I remain a Stratfordian.
But recommendations by random strangers on the internet are very different from recommendations by people you know and trust, and a number of those over the years pointed me toward a particular book. They included Bland Simpson, author, playwright, performer, and longtime director of UNC's Creative Writing Program. Back when I was taking his English 35 class in 1983 or so, Bland had suggested that I really ought to read a novel by Walker Percy called The Moviegoer. I'd heard of it, as pretty much anyone on a college campus in the South had heard of it, but I was tied up with other schoolwork and did not track down a copy. It took me some years to find the time and the proper mood to give the book a try, but in early 2006, with a few days of Christmas break still left, I decided it was time to read Percy. And I did. And nothing. Happened.
The tale of Binx Bolling is one I should relate to. I, too, have been an educated young Southern man without a clear direction in life, one searching for meaning and a way to connect with the greater universe. But for whatever reason, I could find nothing in Binx's tale but an increasingly strong desire to smack him. A passive protagonist can make for compelling reading--Stevens in The Remains of the Day comes to mind--but there was nothing compelling here. I had come to the book expecting a transformative experience, and what I got was a pleasantly well-written account of traveling aimlessly around the Gulf Coast. I was, in the words of Otto, from A Fish Called Wanda, "Okay... okay... disapPOINTed!"
Day 10 - A book you thought you wouldn't like but ended up loving
There are books one reads from a sense of obligation. Sometimes the obligation is literal--you have signed up for a class, or perhaps joined a book club. Most often, however, the duty is self-imposed, placed on you by you because you respect someone else's taste, or perhaps you just want to get them off your back.
Of the many, many things I've been assigned to read for class, I can point to quite a few that I enjoyed: The Odyssey, To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Scarlet Letter (except for the opening "Custom House" section), Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, The Return of the Native, Hamlet, Waiting for Godot, L'Etranger, The Iliad, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Marat/Sade, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Dr. Faustus, Henry IV (both parts), Beowulf, Cane, Invisible Man, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gulliver's Travels... dozens of titles. Ad that's not even considering the poetry, the short stories, or the books I'd already read before they were assigned (like The Lord of the Rings, which I gleefully re-read for Ken Reckford's course on the Heroic Journey.)
I've really belonged to a book club only once: after my ninth-grade English teacher, Zora Rashkis, had been told by the administration of Grey Culbreth Junior High that she could no longer teach the popular Great Books elective she had taught for years, she chose to recast the course as a book club. My mom had heard about the course and very much wanted me in it, so she dutifully drove me to the Rashkis residence on Sunday afternoons to sit with Ms. R and a half-dozen other students (all girls) to sit and discuss books. The titles chosen were mostly 20th-century American works, but they exposed us to a variety of writers and ideas I'd not encountered before, and some I recall liking very much. I don't remember much about Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, but I definitely liked When the Legends Die and The Ox-Bow Incident. I never completed A Death in the Family, but I have never forgotten the gorgeous section of the book where Agee paints a vivid word picture of a child's summer evenings in Knoxville. I sometimes worry that if I ever pick up the book and re-read it, I will find that part less beautiful than I recall. But perhaps it will be worth it.
Unfortunately, none of these works quite fit the category established above, because these were not books I expected to hate. Some were certainly far more enjoyable than I'd expected--The Return of the Native comes to mind--but in every case, some authority or other had viewed the book as worthwhile. And me? I was a doe-eyed innocent who had no idea whether it would be any good or not. I didn't have the kind of wide experience with literature that would lead me to make presumptions about a work in advance of reading it. Generally, then, I gave every book a good-faith effort, and on occasion I was horribly, horribly disappointed.
Outside the classroom and the club, however, I was a lot more willing to presume, and my presumptions were usually based on what I knew about the person recommending the book. When my friend Kenney told me about Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber, I trusted him; he'd already introduced me to everything from Asterix comics to Spike Jones records to the hilarious 1066 and All That (which taught me a startlingly large amount of what I know about British history.) I was thus completely unsurprised to find Zelazny very much my cup of tea. But there was one source of recommendations I felt extremely conflicted about: my mother.
I hasten to note that this is not an issue of trusting my mother. My mother is ridiculously trustworthy--abnormally so. She is so completely lacking in guile that she felt guilty about setting up a private email account for herself in order to plan my father's surprise 70th birthday party.
But Mom is particular about her tastes. Very particular. There are singers she does not like because they don't breathe right. There are actors she hates so much she will not watch their work--Steve Martin being prominent among them, for some reason. And she has no patience--none--with the trappings of science fiction or fantasy. She has never even attempted Tolkien, and she has spent over 40 years refusing to watch Star Wars. For years, when Kelly and the kids and I would visit my folks over Christmas break, we would make a special trip to the theater so that my father could watch a Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or Star Trek movie, knowing he wouldn't get to do so without us. (I did get Mom to come with me to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which she claimed to enjoy, but that is literally the last SF-related movie she has voluntarily seen.)
Our tastes, in short, do not always overlap. And knowing this, I have often dawdled a bit when it comes to taking Mom's recommendations about books. For example, one of her very favorite authors is Australian novelist Nevil Shute. Growing up, I had seen dozens of his books around the house, but it wasn't until I hit my teen years that I opted to crack open On the Beach. I found it quite wonderful, not least because it was clearly science fiction, and Mom was delighted by the fact that I'd read and enjoyed it. She immediately recommended that I read her favorite Shute novel, A Town Like Alice... and I didn't. From what she told me, the book had no SF tropes, and with my tastes at the time leaning firmly toward the fantastic, I dragged my feet until she'd forgotten about it. (When I did finally read it in my forties, I found it enjoyable in many ways, but I had definite issues with it in others.) 7:35 AM
She did not, however, forget to point me toward another of her favorites, a guy named John McPhee. Sometimes she would launch into praise of a McPhee book called A Sense of Where You Are, which discussed the college basketball career of Bill Bradley. Both she and I were hoops fans, so she probably thought it was a topic I'd be likely to enjoy, but she was also highly vocal about another book: one called simply Oranges.
This was, I must admit, a little off-putting. I have never been especially interested in botany, or horticulture, or even in oranges. Over the years I've come to appreciate them more as a foodstuff, but in my youth I would consume only their juice. The idea that this guy would write an entire book about a topic as dull as a citrus fruit actually made his basketball book sound less appealing. So I didn't read either one. But Mom never stopped recommending them, either.
Eventually I was out of school, wandering some used bookstore, looking for something short and punchy to read, and I stumbled across a paperback copy of Oranges. I'd gotten more into creative nonfiction over the years, and this thing clocked in at under 180 pages, and after all, it had been recommended by my mother, and it would get her to stop recommending it to me, and she did give birth to me and all... so I spent a couple of bucks on it, took it home, and cracked it open.
It's the purest example I know of this dictum: "There are no dull subjects. There are only dull writers." (The remark is usually attributed to H.L. Mencken, but it appears to have originated with British author Richard Le Gallienne.) Without sacrificing an iota of clarity--perhaps because he insists on clarity--McPhee manages to make the struggle to grow the proper orange (and to get a satisfying juice from it) into one that any reader can appreciate. He does the same with Bill Bradley's story, as I was soon to learn. He can make shad fishing or levee construction engaging to those who don't fish or move earth. He can turn a stop at a highway cutting in the Rockies into an adventure in geology. The man made a single tennis match worth reading about for 150 pages, for crying out loud. And I know all of this because my mom insisted I would like him.
In this, as in so many other instances, mother really does know best.
Day 09 - Best scene ever
Before I reveal my choice, I'm gonna throw a bone to the Dan Simmons fans out there who are annoyed by my running down Darwin's Blade
the other day. That bone comes from The Terror
, a genuinely thrilling and horrifying historical novel with a nasty supernatural twist. In it there is a sequence where a man is pursued by a horrible thing all over the deck and rigging of a ship. (The ship, the titular Terror
, is frozen in the polar ice, so drowning is at least removed from the list of awful things that could happen.) I read it in a state of nervous excitement, feverishly turning pages from the first moment of the pursuit to the last, and when I got to the end, I thought, "Damn! That's how you write a sustained action sequence!" Curious as to just how long Simmons had sustained it, I flipped back six pages, looking for the start. Then two more. Then two more...
Eventually I realized that what I thought had lasted six pages had lasted twenty-five.
That really is how you write a sustained action sequence.
I love the fight scene in Nine Princes in Amber where Zelazny sets Random and the amnesiac Corwin against the bad guys invading Flora's library, but not all the scenes I love are thrillers. The scene where Gatsby's final fate is revealed is a gorgeous and melancholy few pages, and the revelation of Snowden's secret in Catch-22 has haunted me for decades. And as a writer of nonfiction, I must acknowledge that nonfiction scenes can also be wonderful, whether they're gripping (Jon Krakauer's recounting of Joseph Smith's murder in Under the Banner of Heaven), inspiring (Frederick Douglass's knockdown battle with his overseer in the Narrative) or heartbreaking (David Quammen's account of the last dodo meeting extinction in The Song of the Dodo.)
One of my favorite contemporary novelists, James Hynes, includes not one but two fantastic scenes in his academic satire The Lecturer's Tale. In one, the candidate for a professorship is giving a lecture on Elvis, and the protagonist uses his magical power to control others, preventing the lecturer from leaving the podium for a bathroom break. The lecture turns increasingly to metaphors involving water, and the inevitable climax of the sequence is just as hilarious as you might expect. The second is a brilliantly conceived fight scene between a post-modernist professor and his rival, one where the fight actually spills over into the book's footnotes in a flurry of Joycean language. It's a book I highly recommend, and not just for those two scenes, but those two scenes are amazing.
For my all-time favorite scene, though, I have to go to one that grabbed me so thoroughly that I have on several occasions read it (or parts of it) aloud to my wife and friends: the opening section of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. In the opening chapters, we meet pizza delivery driver Hiro Protagonist, who is sent on a life-or-death delivery run. The life (or death) is his own, as the Mafia has taken over pizza delivery in Los Angeles, and when they say 30 minutes or less, they really mean it. Unfortunately, a technical error results in Hiro taking on a delivery for a pie made 20 minutes ago. Stephenson's account of Hiro's desperate crosstown dash is a terrific six-page sequence, combining long complex sentences and short explosive bursts of prose, and it succeeds in launching you into the book like a harpoon:
If there was trouble on this road, they'd be babbling about it in Taxilinga, give him some warning, let him take an alternate route so he wouldn't get
he grips the wheel
stuck in traffic
his eyes get big, he can feel the pressure driving
into his skull
or caught behind a mobile home
his bladder is very full
and deliver the pizza
Oh, God oh, God
22:06 hangs on the windshield; all he can see, all he can think about is 30:01.
Like many of Stephenson's books, Snow Crash has an opening that's stronger than its conclusion, but no matter what I think of the rest of the book, I will point to this scene as pure brilliance. And let's face it, I look for every possible opportunity to say "life-or-death pizza delivery."
Day 08 - A book everyone should read at least once
I know, I know, it seems like the first thing I do in every one of these entries is take issue with the prompt, but today there's no way around it. I have a few incontrovertible beliefs about literature, and one of them is this: there is no Canon. No divine force has decreed that any book (or any list of books) is required reading. Indeed, the whole idea of "required reading" is one that immediately leads me to ask the question "Required by whom, exactly?" As a teacher I have certainly required my students to read certain books, and the same thing occurred to me when I was a student. That said, outside of a classroom or similar setting, any book will be chosen on a voluntary basis--and consequently, any book may be refused. 9:28 AM
This is kind of like my usual grousing about Best Of lists, or lists that Everyone Must Follow Before They Die, which offend me because they're so ridiculously presumptive. Who made YOU the arbiter of what is Best, oh internet listicle creator? I didn't vote for you. And I didn't vote for Harold Bloom, either. When the urge to list your favorite books strikes, accept that as an opportunity to list YOUR favorite books. No more, no less. If you're widely read and thoroughly trained in the assessment of literature, there's a chance that many people will find your list useful, but that's no guarantee. The high list positions commonly granted to the works of Herman Melville and Henry James haven't made one bit of difference in my ability to enjoy either.
In short, when I recommend a book to you--and I am going to get around to that, I promise--I want you to understand that there is no obligation to read it, nor any obligation to agree with me after you've read it. De gustibus non est disputandum and all that.
But there's still more to unpack here. Why should everyone read this book? Am I looking for a book that will improve the world? A book that will give everyone a few hours of pleasure in a world that's often harsh? A book that will teach an important lesson? A book that's just so beautiful I want everyone to marvel at it like the Grand Canyon? A book that will benefit me in some way?
If the latter, great: I recommend both The Verb 'To Bird' and Along Those Lines, available online and at better bookstores everywhere.
But let's assume it's some other reason--one I'm choosing rather arbitrarily. There are many books I've finished with a feeling of pure satisfaction, but there are only a few that have left me with the powerful desire to begin reading again as soon as I've finished. It wasn't exactly an "I didn't want it to end" feeling--more that I wanted it to begin again, and continue again, and end again, over and over and over.
I remember this feeling most powerfully with A.S. Byatt's Possession, which was a rich garden of literary delights, and anyone with any love of poetry (and the poetry of love in particular) is likely to find it a worthwhile experience.
The complex fairy-tale designs of John Crowley's Little, Big left me in a similar state, almost unable to believe that what I'd read was a single story composed by a single individual; I wanted to go back over it and trace through all the intricacies.
The prose of Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale almost pulses with light and heat in places, and its fantastical cityscapes and countrysides are worth exploring in depth; I frequently found myself compelled to stop and read passages aloud to Kelly.
I've been a comics fan longer than I can remember, but I was still absolutely astonished by Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, which balanced interiority and interpersonal relationships more beautifully than I could have imagined. It also made for a truly wonderful and inspiring evening of theater in its musical incarnation. Read it, see it.
And most recently, G.B. Edwards' The Book of Ebenezer Le Page wrapped me up and hauled me away to Guernsey; I could not have imagined that a book set entirely on a small island could contain so much of the world--a true microcosm.
You may not like any or all of the above, but I honestly feel they're extraordinary, showing something about humanity and the world we inhabit in a unique way. And if everyone had read at least one of them, I feel as though the world would be a better place. I definitely think the reader would be a better person.
Day 07 - Least favorite plot device employed by way too many books you
actually enjoyed otherwise
Analyzing plot can be a tricky thing, because some devices work pretty well in the hands of one writer and not in those of another. Basically, any given plot device is like an accordion; some people know how to play it well enough to get away with using it, but some people don't really play it very well, and some people aren't unskilled players, but they use it without any regard to what else is going on. John Linnell of They Might Be Giants knows exactly when the song calls for it, but you shouldn't really use an accordion to play a heavy metal song unless you're Weird Al Yankovic.
One irritating cliche is the Hero Is Motivated By Losing His Wife/ Child/ Dog. Cultural critic Ian Shoales used to call this one "That Dog's Gonna Die," positing that the only reason to give a hero a dog was to spur him to action by killing it. It's a quick and simple way to provide motive, and it has the added advantage of quickly establishing who the bad guys are (e.g. Whoever Killed That Dog.) Problem is, because it's so easy to use, it gets used A LOT. Comics critic Heidi McDonald once dryly observed that "Those evilbadguys killed my wife!" is to the modern comic book what "Zeus has a yen for a mortal maid" was to Greek mythology. Batman and Spider-Man get away with their motivations because they were young people who lost parental figures (and Spidey's associated feelings of guilt), but man, the number of heroes motivated by the loss of their loved ones is astonishing. In comics you've got the Punisher, the Saint of Killers, and Jon Sable. In movies you've got Gladiator, Kill Bill (where it's at least gender-flipped), and the original Mad Max. And in books, dead loved ones serve to motivate everyone from Victor Frankenstein to seemingly the entire cast of A Song of Ice and Fire.
Mind you, it is possible to use this trope well, if you give time to establish the hero's bond with said wife/child/dog. This is handled well in John Wick, since the character is established as having been devastated by the death of his wife, and then receives a posthumous gift from her, only to lose it through the motivating incident. I'd also have to say that, as much as I hated this trope in the Punisher comics, a combination of good writing and acting makes it effective in the Netflix TV version of the character. I know, I'm as surprised as you.
There are plenty of cliches out there, but there are even tropes that are not especially cliched that do rub me the wrong way. I recently read a Mira Grant novel where the Big Reveal made itself clear to me in the opening pages, but it was another 500 pages before that Reveal was revealed, and because it was set up as the big shocking cliffhanger moment, I felt unsatisfied. (Honestly, it wasn't OMG IT'S THE SLED! or OMG HE'S LUKE'S FATHER! so much as it was OMG THE ICEBERG SANK IT!) At the same time, I have to admit that this twist was not a cliche, or at least not one that I recognized from other sources, so I give Grant credit for that, at least.
My top irritation, however, is one I've mentioned in part already: when an author stacks the deck in favor of his characters. Sometimes this is done to make a political or philosophical point, as in Piers Anthony's Xanth and Apprentice Adept series, where every character who hews closely to the rules is always rewarded for it. Maybe not immediately, but consistently. If you obey the law and stick by your word, Anthony will make sure things turn out well for you, even if you're a clueless misogynist.
Robert A. Heinlein sometimes stacks the deck in a similar way. If one of his heroes is faced with opposition from a bureaucrat or minor official who cannot see that the hero's pure heroism demands cooperation, that hero will immediately rise up indignantly and fire back at said official with threats, blackmail, or pure, sweet reason. And that official will, without exception, cave. Every one of them is a complete invertebrate when faced with the Randian fury of a Lazarus Long or a Joan Eunice Smith, because RAH will have it no other way.
The most egregious deck-stacking I've come across, however, comes from a writer whose work I ordinarily love. I've enjoyed almost every Dan Simmons novel I've picked up, with my highest praise going to The Terror
, but with Drood
, The Abominable
, Black Hills
, and his Hyperion
series all providing thorough satisfaction. With all that said, the deck-stacking in his 2000 novel Darwin's Blade
(which I'd bet was written long before) is enough to alarm a Las Vegas blackjack dealer from across the state line. The titular Darwin is an accident reconstructor, called upon to investigate various wrecks which Simmons obviously swiped from the urban legend emails that were spread all over the nascent internet in the 1990s, starting with this classic of a car with a JATO attachment. That's pretty lazy, but it's not the most irritating card placement. No, that has to be the fact that all Darwin's peculiar skills are established early in the book so that they can save his life later. He's an accomplished sailplane pilot... and guess what skills he must rely on to escape the bad guys? He's an expert in constructing Ghillie suits
... and guess what he has to make in order to protect himself from the bad guys? He's a guy who likes strong women... and guess what kind of woman becomes his love interest? (I should emphasize that this woman is not actually a strong female character, but she's presented as the kind of woman Darwin likes.)
A lot of people apparently enjoyed Darwin's Blade
(its rating at Goodreads is 3.32 stars out of 5), but I note that a lot of other folks disliked it strongly. Unique among the Simmons books I've read, it has more 1- and 2-star reviews than 5-star reviews. And I'm afraid I'd have to include myself in the latter group of reviewers. I'm a Simmons fan, but I know when a writer's cheating, or at the very least when he doesn't mind creating the appearance that he's cheating. All in all, I recommend giving "Particle Man
" a listen, re-reading The Terror
and pretending this never happened.
Day 06 - Favorite book of your favorite series OR your favorite book of
The latter option here is territory we've already wandered through, so let's head into the former: my favorite book in my favorite series, eh?
Determining my favorite series is the real challenge here. In terms of re-reading, The Lord of the Rings
is far ahead of any competitor. I haven't re-read it annually or anything--in fact, my records indicate that I've re-read it only twice in the 21st century, in 2006 and 2016--but I've been re-reading regularly it since I turned 12. In terms of my personal and literary development, it's had by far the greatest influence of any series I've read. Toss in its impact on all the other
fantasy series I've read, not to mention the movie adaptation, and you're looking at a series that simply can't be ignored.If
you count it as a series.
The Wikipedia article on LOTR lays out the case pretty clearly: "The Lord of the Rings
is an epic high fantasy novel..." Novel, singular. It's one book. Tolkien wrote it as one book. Dividing it into three volumes was the publisher's idea. In other words, it's not really a series, unless you count it as the third element of the series that begins with The Silmarillion
(an enormous compendium of mythology that reads like the Old Testament, and one published after Tolkien's 1973 death), then goes through The Hobbit
(his first publishing success, a children's story from 1937) before concluding at the end of The Return of the King
(published in 1955.) If that's a series, it involves retconning of a sort that even George Lucas would consider questionable.
Moreover, no individual LOTR book stands on its own. Both The Fellowship of the Ring
and The Two Towers
end with enormous cliffhangers, and the overall narratives of both TT and ROTK begin in the middle of the action (Boromir's departure and Pippin's ride to Minas Tirith, respectively.) In short, this is not a series any more than releasing Huckleberry Finn
as three separate books (The Fellowship of the River
, The Two Rogues
, and The Return of Tom Sawyer
) would make Twain's opus a series, though admittedly Twain and his publishers might enjoy the idea, especially since it would make them more money.
All this means we'll need another series, meaning a sequence of self-contained books published one by one, each with its own narrative arc, even as the setting, characters and history are shared. The Chronicles of Narnia
("a series of seven fantasy novels by C.S. Lewis," says Wikipedia) would qualify as a series, and one I've read repeatedly, but it's so problematic in so many ways that I can't really call it my favorite. (Within its seven books, I'd call The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
my favorite. And I ride for reading the books in publication order, so don't be trying to call The Magician's Nephew
"Book One" or anything.) I've enjoyed series as various as Kenneth Robeson's Doc Savage
adventures, Larry Niven's Known Space
books and stories, John Varley's Eight Worlds
tales, and Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle
, but the best of the lot, top to bottom, start to finish, has got to be Discworld
In forty-plus books, not to mention short stories, appendices, and various addenda, Terry Pratchett's saucer-shaped playground has delighted me almost completely. Characters like Sam Vimes, Granny Weatherwax, Carrot Ironfoundersson, Tiffany Aching, the Librarian, Nobby, and of course Death give the book a rich set of viewpoints, complications, and interactions for readers. I have enjoyed pretty much every Discworld tale I have read, and I've read almost all of them, from The Colour of Magic
to The Shepherd's Crown
My favorite Discworld book, however, and the only one I've ever taught in class, does not really involve any of the characters above (with the exception of Death, who is, after all, even in Arcadia). It's the tale of a simple, melon-loving novice in the Temple of Om, and how his sincere belief, good heart, and excellent memory help upend the entire power structure of his church and his state. It's hilarious, like all Discworld books, but it's also the book that gives Pratchett the greatest room to expand on his ideas about how the universe works, or at least how it ought to work. It opens with a fanciful musing on Darwin and ends with a moment of quiet and unlikely heroism. In its way, it's the most fanciful volume of the series, even as it's the most closely connected to our own world. And it's also the most free-standing of the series, a book you can recommend to friends who haven't visited Discworld so that they can gauge their appreciation for it without getting entangled in the continuity. It's Small Gods
, and it's one of my very favorite books.
My apologies for taking a day off, but frankly, after spending the last month prepping to move, moving to the new house, and cleaning/organizing the new house, all with a self-imposed deadline of Saturday night, when we hosted some friends for dinner... let's just say I needed a day off. But here it is, Monday, with the house still clean and a good deal more unpacked, so let's get back to the meme, shall we?
Day 05 - A book or series you hate
The interesting aspects to this prompt are numerous. For one, there's the important question of whether you can truly hate a book you haven't finished. If you absolutely couldn't make yourself read the whole thing, that's certainly a sign that you hate the writing and/or the author, but you can't really say you've engaged with every aspect of the book. An example from my own experience would be Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady
. I spent something close to six weeks, including my spring break, trying to read this novel for my Victorian Literature class at the University of Manchester in early 1984. Over and over again I would crack it open, and over and over I would put it down, unable to continue. I never got past page 50.
Some might suggest that I was just too young to appreciate the density of James, or the depth of his thinking, or the advanced techniques of his fiction, but I have doubts about these theories. For one thing, by that time in my life, I had already read and enjoyed works by Hardy, Camus, Beckett, and Donne, among others. For another, when I had call to read James again, in grad school, after having completed works by Garcia Marquez, Toomer, and Swift, I found "The Beast in the Jungle" to be every bit as objectionable as those first parts of James's novel. Oh, I finished the story, make no mistake. I even earned honors for the scathing criticism I wrote about it. But though I felt certain about my dislike for James's writing, I can't say that I truly hated The Portrait of a Lady
Another issue about hating books is that tastes change. It's certainly true of music. For a good deal of my high-school career and part of my college days, I really hated the Ramones. Their three-chord/all-rhythm approach to rock and roll rubbed me the wrong way, enamored as I was of complex musical and lyrical ideas like those found on Close to the Edge or Quadrophenia. There just didn't seem to be a lot of talent on display.
My opinion began to change around the time I found a Ramones single in the playbox at WXYC. The A-side was a political screed called "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," which castigated Reagan for visiting a cemetery full of SS troops on a 1985 trip to Germany. It didn't do that much for me, though I did approve of the political sentiment. What caught my ear was the B-side, "Daytime Dilemma
." Not only did it feature a good half-dozen chords, it had a varied and syncopated chorus, background harmonies, and the kind of melodic qualities that I find irresistible, especially when those sweet elements are combined with the raw, salty power of punk. That was the camel's nose for me, and soon I began admitting other Ramones songs into my tent. I knew "I Wanna Be Sedated," of course, but now when I listened to it I could hear the creative pop song under the posturing; there was even a key change, for god's sake. And soon I began to appreciate the band's humor and snarky aesthetic in a way I hadn't before. Eventually I gave up the pretense that I hated the Ramones and bought my own copy of Rocket to Russia.
But there is one book where my tastes haven't changed. It's also a book that I completed. Twice. I had to, as it was assigned to me in 11th grade English with Ms. St. John and again in grad school with Dr. Emerson. I've also seen the stage adaptation. In short, I know it pretty well. And it is not good. It is Billy Budd
, Herman Melville's allegorical tale of the beautiful innocent boy whom fate leads to an inevitable bad ending after he is impressed to serve aboard a British warship and runs afoul of the laws of the sea. It is, as you might expect, Not Subtle. (Billy is impressed from a ship called The Rights of Man
by a ship called the Bellipotent
, for crying out loud.) I loathed it in high school, finding it the only objectionable book we read all year (and yes, that year I read and enjoyed The Scarlet Letter
and Huckleberry Finn
and The Catcher in the Rye
, if you were wondering.) Still, when I picked Billy Budd
up the second time, I reasoned that nearly a decade had passed since my first go-round, and that my skills as a reader and interpreter of literature had been considerably enhanced by that stretch of high-intensity study. I had a bachelor's degree now. Perhaps this time I would find something in Billy's story that I had missed as a callow youth.
I did not. The story still struck me as clumsy and obvious, the prose offered me no delight, and the best thing I could say about the book as a whole was that it was at least short.
Since then I have read and been delighted by Edith Wharton's work, which some have suggested is a sign that I might appreciate James now. I have also had a number of colleagues try to turn me around on Melville, offering me shorter works to try and hook me. But so far, nothing has worked. As I get older, I have to weigh the possibility that my tastes have changed against the certainty that there are only so many books left for me to read. Given that limited selection, I am reluctant to take up a book by a writer whose work has proven to be distasteful to me when there are so many out there whose work I haven't had a chance to examine yet.
And also, I remember the handout Dr. Emerson gave to us as we were reading Billy Budd. It was a guide to Melville's more famous novel, Moby-Dick, listing which chapters the reader might want to skip while working through the novel. If a tenured professor feels a work of fiction should be traversed with the care one usually takes when crossing a mine field, I think I can afford to give it a miss. I don't need another book to hate. 9:15 AM
The problem with using writing prompts is that every so often you get one that can't be answered:
Day 04 - Your favorite book or series ever
I'm sorry, anonymous meme maker, but this prompt is not merely unanswerable, but in my opinion actively stupid.
I've been reading for a little over half a century now, and even with all the re-reading I do, the number of books I've completed is somewhere in the thousands. Each book I complete is one more straw in an enormous, teetering haystack, and here I am, being asked to look through that haystack and find not a needle, but the Very Bestest Straw of All.
"Mr. McCartney, you've been a musician for more than fifty years. Of all the notes you've played and sung, which would you say is your favorite?"
It's not happening. Why not? Because I AM AN ENGLISH MAJOR, dammit, and my job is to celebrate the book. I analyze what I read, sure, trying to find what worked well and what didn't, but that's not so I can weigh each book against every one of the individual books I've read before and see which comes out on top. I analyze what I read so that I can understand more about myself, and about what writers do, and about the world they examine. Each book is a complicated and discrete thing, yes, but what is important to me is my interaction with that thing.
And let's face it, my interactions with a thing will not be constant, any more than a sailor's interactions with the sea will be constant. Some days the weather is rough, some days it's fine; sometimes you want to get quickly over the water in order to reach a destination, sometimes you want to take a slow cruise; maybe you want to fish, maybe you don't. The sea is permanent, but the waves are not, and I for one cannot pick a favorite wave.
But to satisfy the demands of this prompt, here: it's a list of 26 books I love, arranged alphabetically by author. Please note that I love these books, but that I am not in any way suggesting that they are my favorites, or even that any given book is my favorite written by an author whose last name begins with that letter. Just read them and enjoy them; don't worry about ranking them.
Adams, Richard/ Watership Down
Bechdel, Alison/ Fun Home
Coates, Ta-Nehisi/ Between the World and Me
Darwin, Charles/ The Origin of Species
Edwards, G.B./ The Book of Ebenezer Le Page
Fitzgerald, F. Scott/ The Great Gatsby
Gould, Stephen Jay/ Wonderful Life
Helprin, Mark/ Winter's Tale
Ishiguro, Kazuo/ The Remains of the Day
Juster, Norton/ The Phantom Tollbooth
Keats, Ezra Jack/ The Snowy Day
Le Guin, Ursula K./ Very Far Away from Anywhere Else
Moore, Alan, with David Lloyd/ V for Vendetta
Nabokov, Vladimir/ Pale Fire
Okorafor, Nnedi/ Lagoon
Pratchett, Terry/ Nation
Quammen, David/ The Song of the Dodo
Rushdie, Salman/ Midnight's Children
Stoppard, Tom/ Arcadia
Tolkien, J.R.R./ The Lord of the Rings
Ursu, Anne/ Breadcrumbs
Varley, John/ The Gaea Trilogy
Wharton, Edith/ The Age of Innocence
X, Malcolm, with Alex Haley/ The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Yeats, W.B./ Collected Poems
Zelazny, Roger/ Lord of Light 8:29 AM