Sunday, September 26, 2010

Paul Auster is, in my humble opinion, a smeghead.

I like to read
I know, right? I make these promises like "in the next post we will hear more about bicycles", and then totally don't follow up. I may not know exactly what kind of shopper I am, but I know what kind of blogger I am: erratic, that's what. So, instead of telling you whatever I promised to do, I'm instead gonna write to you about books I consider classics.
Hippie nerds read Nathaniel Bellows
Now, I'm quite the iconoclast when it comes to revered pieces of literature, and profess an intense dislike for some books considered classics in the Western Canon (you know what I'm talking about Paul Auster, Don Delillo and oh yeah, Mr. Fitzgerald, I am not a big fan of The Great Gatsby), but there are still places where my own personal canon intersects with the with literati approved lists of works.
The Literary Life
This list is by no means exhaustive.
1. The Definitive 1800s American: Henry David Thoreau. Walking, Civil Disobedience, and Walden scarcely need my approval.
(Bubbling under: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson.) (More in the mainstream: Herman Melville)

2. The Early 1900s visionary:
Jack London. From The Call Of The Wild, to Burning Daylight, his short stories and The Iron Heel, London has a place in my heart that could not be occupied by any other author (the place being Alaska). His observations of West's rugged individuals, his early science fiction dystopia, his prolific output, more than make up for the occasional unevenness of London's prose, and the breadth of his story-telling talent is unrivaled in American fiction of the era.
(Bubbling under: B. Traven, a shockingly similar author in many respects from prospecting tales, to the socialism.)

The iconoclast of the 20s and 30s:
Virginia Woolf. Though Woolf has been enjoying the limelight in the past decade, mostly thanks to exposure from the re-imagining author Michael Cunningham (a contemporary someone who's works leave me stone-cold) in form of the book and its adaptation The Hours,many Woolf neophytes have scarcely poured over Woolf's fiction beyond Mrs Dalloway, the book who's content Cunningham merges with his own. While in someways seeming almost like a product of the earlier era than the roaring 20s, Woolf was a truly modern writer, who experimented with form, narrative, and even the sexual politics of the far more rigid moral code of the time.
(A more mainstream alternative: F. Scott Fizgerald.)
3.The golden era of American literature, 1930s-through 1950s and even the 1960s before the counter-cultural revolution in the world of..well everything, but also books.
Where do I begin? This is an unlikely mix, that will be highly unsatisfying for the purists, as it contains many a contradiction and odd turn.

Truman Capote. Never lived a finer short story writer than Mr. Capote. While many a novelist could claim to be more serious, intellectual, sophisticated, none could combine the beautiful wording, eloquence, emotional understanding and originality, not to mention flair, of our Truman.

Though he may now be remembered now for his flamboyance, his socialite behavior, the later works that did not quite add up (oh Answered Prayers why are you so awful?!) and his collaboration with a certain Andrew Warhola, I have faith that history will vindicate Truman Capote as the genius he was.

Let us not forget the talented Ms. McCullers, a frenemy of Truman's and a woman of extraordinary narrative powers and also a master of the short fiction as well as long. Carson McCullers' novels and tales from the South resonate with heart-wrenching authenticity and dare I say...balls. She is a literary friend worth making.

But that's not all, folks. Now I shall spin 180' degrees and declare a certain beat, a treasure of this era and far beyond. His finest works may have lain ahead of him still, but by 1960 young Gary Snyder had already written the poems that set his life's course. He remains one of the finest writers of our time, and so spans the decades from mid-20th century to this day.

The beats may have single-handedly began the counter culture we now identify as just plain culture, but they did so within the confines of their time. They were the predecessors of our modern consciousness.

(More in the mainstream: oddly and sadly Jack Kerouac.)

This choice conveniently carries us over to our next stop; the revolutionary years.
4. The 60s and 70s. Instead some of the usual suspects, I shall present you with Richard Brautigan, a deprived, beautiful mind. I only truly wish the The Abortion: A Historical Romance 1966 had been published in Finnish when I was in high school. Especially, since around that time I wrote my first film, about a magical bookstore.

(Also check out the original book covers. They rock, roll and tumble!)

Ms. Joan Didion may not need an introduction and may already be part of the mainstream canon, but she is so mesmerizing that we shall not hold this against her. If you have not read Slouching Towards Bethlehem yet, get away from your computer now and head to the public library. Please.
Poem Of The Day
Now we enter the modern era, this end of times, our time, this moment.
5. 1979-right now (consequently the author's era of existence on Spaceship Earth).
So much is difficult to see without the 20-20 vision of hindsight. Will Jonathan Saffran Foier become a great American Novelist, or just a guy with a bit of a fetish for accents? Can anyone really tell Paul Auster's novels apart? Does David Mitchell actually have a singular voice as an author? And is Haruki Murakami going to stop giving me a headache?

Regardless, there are some author's who's future greatness obscurity I am certain of (obscurity often, sadly implies a special beauty).
I've already clued you into Melanie Rae Thon, as a kind soft spoken, hard-hitting Annie Proulx, who's off-beat worlds are hard to leave once you've entered them.

Speaking of Annie Proulx and off-topic, while I am certain that Ms. Proulx will be canonized very shortly, I would like to add her to my own personal selection, as she is the author of multiple heart-breaking works of a staggering genius. The Shipping News is a modern classic. And don't even get me started on how I loved Brokeback Mountain long before ANYONE had ever heard of it. And had to put up with people raising their eyebrows when I ranted about it. It's so pathetically self-absorbed.

In the same breath I will add that while I, uncharacteristically, am not a huge fan of Housekeeping, I would fight to death for her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, and thus firmly place Marylynne Robinson in my selection.

I have a whole post somewhere about John Sayles, not just the filmmaker who changed my life the way Oprah changed James Frey's (i.e. making me see the harsh light of day), but the author of many works so accomplished they make most modern American authors look like navel-gazing masturbators.

Tove Jansson. Enough said.

While she has only written two novels, I am going to venture into the world with the wild hope that she will continue in the stellar path of her second and name Nicole Krauss as a great author of our era. History may prove me wrong, but my heart remains pure and strong.

In the same thought pattern, I'd like to salute a future Nobel Laureate, and someone amazing who will not sink to obscurity: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. An author who's greatness I have come to admit only grudgingly (I read a very unpleasant essay by her in Bust magazine about five years ago, and held that against her for a long time.) she won me over with her no-holds-barred narrative style, that combines a flowing plot with beautiful internalization of characters. She is a joy to read.

(A slightly more mainstream choice: Siri Hustvedt)

These are my personal selections and just a fraction of those. They are mostly American, but so is increasingly our culture, and since I like to read authors in the original, English-speaking authors comprise much of my reading material. I will take recommendations for great authors all over the world. Just don't say Gabriel Garcia Marquez, please.

Actually I'd love just any old recommendations, arguments, rants and other ideas from ya'll.

Okay, after all this high-brow mumbojumbo I gots to go and watch Red Dwarf. I am a nerd and a dweeb.

(Ps. Maybe some of these great authors could teach me how not to write an increasingly convoluted sentence.)

Edit: Way to remember a name of a favorite book wrong. Thanks Keeper Of The Ash Trees.


  1. Never being a fan of Paul Aster, either, this post made me laugh over my coffee from start to finish.

    I have to agree about Truman Capote. He's beyond words for me, just simple and pure. Takes me and my breath away when I read him, really.
    I have to say, though, that Harper Lee is my all time favorite classic author. I couldn't ask for a greater feeling than I get when I read her, really.

    Once again, you have lit my entire little heart on fire with how clever, beautiful and real you are. Thank you for being such a fantastic blogger and inspiring me to no end each time I read you. It's wonderful. You're wonderful.
    Enjoy your Monday!

    Norah of "lets run away"


  2. This was an ambitious undertaking and your insights never fail to pique my pitter-pattering heart. Book talk really gets me going!
    Only thing is, I'm a terrible critic because I just love most books (except for obvious trash) for one reason or another. I don't even hate Hemingway. Darin gets on rants and I just get all clouded by beauty.

    I'm reading Sweet Hearts right now and I see what you mean.

    Your list makes me want to try my own but I don't even think I can begin. Like I said, I get clouded. It has to come to me slowly, and it goes out of me slowly as it just kind of lives inside me. Half the time when I'm in the critical moment, I can't even think of a book to recommend to people. And it breaks my heart how many people, seriously SOOOOOO many people, ask for Lee Child or Martha Grimes or Janet Evanovich. And I work in a bookstore so I have to be nice! I want a bookstore where we only sell the shattering kind, the heart-rending kind, the massive, the depraved, the stunted, the heavenly.

    Have you read solzhenitsyn? i had a lovely scholarly customer recommend his works highly. said he is up on the spiritual level of gandhi. so now he's on my list, as are so many others!

    i do indeed love marquez, and kerouac, and fitzgerald, as well as of course and eternally snyder, and dickinson and thoreau. i'm really glad you mentioned carson mccullers. she is an oldtime favorite for both darin and me and i make everyone i love read the heart is a lonely hunter. also glad that brautigan made it. he is darin's hero...well sort of.

    you, your books, your skirts, your feathers, your chickens, your leathers, your fruits, your my dear are the apple of my eye.

  3. I'm trying to take care of my children's lit. homework at the moment, but your post has proved quite the distraction.

    I would attempt my own list, but I go more by individual books and have a rather difficult time articulating why I like a particular work. I just base it off my gut feeling on the book. Here, however, are two books that I go back to time and time again:

    Shadow Mountain by Renee Askins; the prose is heartbreakingly beautiful. I felt so privileged to read a book this beautiful about the author's quest to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone. She articulates some incredible ideas on humans' connection to the wild.

    Empire Falls by Richard Russo; I was clued in by the Chris Thile song (same title) about this book. He has such an amazing knack for creating believable places and people that it's hard to imagine that the characters aren't real.

    Here's a 'beware:' Orhan Pamuk isn't as great as he's reputed to be. What does it mean for me to dislike the work of an author from my own country, one that won the Nobel Prize? Of one who's a professor at Columbia University? Anyway, I suppose it's because I love when prose is smooth and eloquent, and I was reading English translations. Turkish-English translations aren't usually all that well done. His sentences were very short and halting and made for an awkward reading experience.

    By the way, I'm taking a class on the poetry of Whitman and Dickinson at the moment. The former definitely has a place in my heart. I'm still waiting for Dickinson to make some kind of impression on me... I'm also glad Murakami gives someone else a headache.

    I admire your ability to compose such assured, clever, and insightful posts. Keep on writing, girlie.

    1. Forestlass, It just so happens that authors are wandering readers and find themselves on new and evocative blogs from time to time. It's always cathartic and humbly pleasing to stumble across a comment (made five years ago) so kind and generous as the one you offered above about my work. I'm so pleased that Shadow Mountain resonated with you. As I wrote in the preface C.S. Lewis said we "read to know we are not alone." We also write to know we are not alone. I suddenly feel quite pleasantly "not alone." Thank you so much for your kind support . I hope this finds it's way to you. Well Wishes, Renée Askins

  4. Great post! I love Virginia Woolf too. Speaking of F. Scott Fitzgerald have you read Zelda Fitzgerald's novel Save Me the Waltz? It's amazing and underrated. I like it better than F. Scott's Tender is the Night, despite the patronising preface that said oh, it could never be as good as her husband's work.

    My favourite writer is probably Katherine Mansfield. I probably do identify with her work since she's a fellow New Zealander, but ther stories are amazing.

    Of course there's lots more modern stuff, but I won't bore you with an extra long list :)

  5. love this list! i work at a library and read voraciously, after having had a post-collegiate (i was a lit major...), much needed break. no matter how much i read there are always some major players i have yet to check out, like brautigan.

    i love all the beats and beat related folk. a friend of mine used to do yardwork for gary snyder. he lives in the sierra foothills, and you can (or could, at least?) take classes taught by him at uc davis.

  6. I love Brautigan's The Abortion: A Historical Romance 1966 as well!

    I offer up (too many choices): Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives, Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, Christine Schutt's Florida, Eleanor Catton's The Rehearsal, Jeanette Winterson's Written on the Body, Ali Smith's The Accidental, Hugh Nissenson's Tree of Life, Scarlett Thomas's Pop Co, and if you haven't read these already--Zadie Smith's White Teeth and Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. (Angela Carter may appeal to you as well.)

  7. have you read any of janet frame's bios?
    or jean rhys & her books (everything other than wide saragossa sea) my favorite is voyage in the dark? i really feel she was also a writer before her time.
    ps love richard brautigan & woolf too!

  8. I have to confess to being a fan of Paul Auster, although I tend to prefer his more mainstream books such as Moon Palace and The Book of Illusions (both of which I think are brilliant books), rather than the ones he is perhaps better known for such as The New York trilogy.

    I can see why people might not like him though and am always wary of being too enthusiastic about him as I can't quite identify what I like about him.

    I was interested that you mentioned Suri Hustevedt, who is married to Paul Auster.

    Tove Jansson is a recent discovery and an author I am so pleased to have found, as her books are such a discovery. I most recently read The True Deceiver and that was such a great read.

  9. I always run straight from your book posts to my library account to add requests to my segue! I don't think I make enough time for reading, and can't imagine there's something I have read that you haven't. So thanks once again to you (and other comment-ers!) for the recommendations.

    And the series of photos... precious!

  10. Thanks for those recommendations. Really thoughtful. Though I must say I also love the series of reading pictures that go with it, especially the plush panda (squee).