Saturday, December 19, 2009


This list represents my ten favorite of the books I read all through the 2000s. Throughout the decade, and most of the 90s too for that matter, I’ve maintained lists of every book I read during each year. To make the selection of my favorite ten of these, I reviewed every year’s list and selected as finalists the ones that have stayed with me in some way over all the intervening time. Thus, my list is based on the lingering influence of the book: each of these titles for me has had a staying power, some quality that made it impossible for me to get the book out of my mind. Each of these has become a milestone book for me in terms of my own literary education. The write-ups that accompany the titles is my attempt to define what it is that made the book stay with me and eventually make its way to this list.

As a logistical note, I only included books that I had read for the first time on this list during this decade. That is why some of the books that have always been my all-time favorites – titles such as
The Grapes of Wrath, Mariette in Ecstasy, Winter’s Tale or Mystery and Manners – did not make the list, even though they would surely be on my all-time list. In several cases I read these books for the second or even third times in the 2000s, but the first time I read them was before the millennial year.

And now, here are my ten favorite books from the 2000s, listed alphabetically by title.

AKENFIELD, Ronald Blythe.
This is the only nonfiction title to appear on this list, and its inclusion is a surprise even to me. This book, which John Updike once called “exquisite”, is not even available in print in this country today, as far as I know. Published in 1969, Akenfield is a kind of oral history of life in a rural village in Suffolk, England, as told by the local schoolteacher, nurse, farmers, doctor, magistrate, and others. Blythe interviewed all these people for their stories and recollections about their lives in the quiet village, and the result is a fascinating portrait of a way of life that seems to be forgotten by time. For me, England is a major source of fascination, both for literary and general reasons. I began to develop an interest in England on my first trip in 2000, deepened it on my honeymoon there in 2002 (where we visited many country villages), and ever since it has remained a common love between my wife and I, and the source of a lot of our favorite things. This book for me captures the stories behind indelible images I discovered on our 2002 journey, things that burned themselves into my mind and seemed to have a million untold stories behind them. The stoic realism of the English people interviewed here - their humility, their wonderfully simple tastes, their strength in the face of changing times and harsh economic realities – has lingered in my mind for years. This book is a treasure that is unfortunately difficult to find – if you see it anywhere used, and have even the slightest interest in English life or history, I recommend you pick it up.

What can I say about the brilliant, incisive writing of Flannery O’Connor that hasn’t already been said?? Including by myself, as O’Connor was the subject of my first published essay!? She has fascinated me since the early 90s, and stands in my mind as perhaps the most towering figure in fiction writing from the United States in the 20th century, even up against people like Faulkner and Steinbeck and Whitman. If my list includes only one woman, the woman I have chosen can easily stand toe-to-toe with anyone on it. She wrote some of the most penetrating, bizarre, hilarious and spiritually potent short stories in the history of the English language. Her vision of the world, summarized in her humorous and fascinating self-description as a “hillbilly Thomist”, was utterly unique among American religious OR literary figures. It gave rise to classic works of short fiction like “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, “Parker’s Back”, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost”, and “Good Country People”, among numerous others. Flannery O’Connor knew something about physical and spiritual struggle; she suffered with agonizing pain in her joints for most of her adult life yet wrote so brilliantly in spite of these afflictions. She died at the tragically young age of 39, which is my exact age now. These stories are endless sources of wisdom, comedy and spiritual instruction. They are extraordinary.

I owe my brother John a debt for introducing me to this novel and the great Icelandic writer and Nobel Prize winner, Halldor Laxness. This novel, which many consider Laxness’ masterwork, is about a simple, earnest farmer and his lifelong quest for financial independence and dignity in the face of bitter economic realities and the harshness of the conditions in which he lives. It features one of the most dynamic and strong-willed characters in literature, a man who will simply stop at nothing to maintain his own place in the uncaring world. An epic in length and scope, this novel belongs with the great classics of world literature, books like One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Tin Drum, Midnight’s Children, and others. It weaves in colorful and potent elements of Icelandic lore, violence, punishing climate conditions, poverty and the undying spirit of the human heart.

THE KNOWN WORLD, Edward P. Jones.
A powerful, moving, and beautifully executed novel about black slave owners in Civil War-era Virginia, written by a man who had never published a novel before and for years was an unemployed tax laborer eking out a living in Washington, D.C. Edward P. Jones had been laid off from his job and was living in a small apartment when he wrote this novel. He had only had one other book to his credit, an acclaimed but little-known short story collection called Lost in the City. Yet somehow he managed, without doing any serious research, to produce a compelling and totally believable novel based on a factoid he had picked up along the way that some black people in the south had owned slaves themselves in the 19th century. He used only the power of his extraordinary imagination to concoct the world in which he placed his characters and readers, and you will never read a more convincing historical novel. Jones is a gifted writer who learned to believe in those gifts, and he employed them to extraordinary effect in this powerful story. It won all kinds of awards and acclaim and bagged him a $500,000 MacArthur “Genius” grant, so hopefully this writer will not have to struggle to produce more quality literature.

I cannot think of any other contemporary short story collection I have read in the last decade or even in the last 20 years that matches up with Jim Shepard’s amazing 2007 release, in my estimation. Jim Shepard has to be the most unjustly under-lauded great American writer of his generation. He has produced numerous novels and story collections, but is little known. However, he is widely respected among writers. Almost the opposite of Edward Jones above, he does an extraordinary amount of research and reading as investigative work on a subject before writing his stories, which tends to give almost all of them the feel of a novel, rich with detail, and astonishing in their range. In this collection alone, there is a story about high school football, an adolescent summer camp story, a story of two Russian brothers during the Chernobyl disaster in the 1980s, a story set in ancient Rome, a story about people searching for the yeti in the Arctic Circle, and other far-reaching tales. This is a guy who has written a story told by the bass player from The Who (“Won’t Get Fooled Again”) and another from the perspective of former attorney general John Ashcroft!! Each of the stories in this book was gripping; I could not put the book down. An amazing collection, one of my all-time favorites. One final shot though: this must be the worst titled book of all time. The publishing moguls who made this call suck. Unless the decision was Shepard’s himself, in which case I really don’t get it!

MADAME BOVARY, Gustave Flaubert.
As with Flannery O’Connor, how do I add my own sentiments to all the ink that has already been spilled about this writer and this novel? I can only say that even though I had heard about it over and over before reading it myself in 2007, this book surprised and inspired me afresh. It is a depressing story, but it is one of the most beautifully executed novels in history, wonderfully structured and effortlessly written. Flaubert was responsible for some of the most gorgeous prose in literary history. It could be said that this is the ultimate cautionary tale on the subject of adultery; anyone reading the fate of Emma Bovary would have to think twice about cheating on a spouse. (Note to Tiger Woods, Governor Mark Sandford and so many others: you guys should have read this novel.) Not all of Flaubert’s work rose to this level of achievement. He has a few classic short stories like “A Simple Heart”, but his other novels are kind of all over the place. A Sentimental Education is also a classic, but other books like The Temptation of Saint Anthony are bizarre, enigmatic works. For fans of literature, however, Madame Bovary is a beautiful and nearly flawless work, built like the finest piece of furniture, crafted with care and great skill and attention. It’s like a fiction workshop between two covers. It’s essential.

MOBY-DICK, Herman Melville.
Another novel that doesn’t need much commentary from me, but it certainly belongs on this list. If I was listing these books by order of merit, this one could very well own the top spot. I have only read it once, and that was at the very beginning of the decade. It’s time to read it again, and I plan to in 2010 as a part of my ambitious year-long study of Herman Melville’s canon of American literature. Also of note, this is writer Cormac McCarthy’s (see down on this list) favorite novel of all. Everyone knows the basic premise of this novel, about an obsessed captain of a whaling vessel on a lifelong quest to locate and kill a huge white whale whose name give the novel its title. Captain Ahab is one of the most recognizable characters in literature, and his name has become part of our lexicon as a term to apply to someone obsessed with anything. This novel also features probably one of the most widely known first lines in the history of literature; everyone has heard the sentence “Call me Ishmael”. Furthermore it is probably the most effective metaphor for mankind’s search for God ever put down in a work of fiction. For all of these reasons Moby-Dick deserves its status as one of the greatest novels ever written, and as what many people find to be the closest representation of “the Great American Novel”. The fact that it was not appreciated in the author’s lifetime, reviled by most critics and a commercial failure only adds to the potency of the novel’s historical journey and to Melville’s overall reputation. The fact that he produced anything else after expending so much on such a great work, only to have it be entirely unappreciated while he lived on this earth, is remarkable, but he did, and his late novella Billy Budd is also a classic. Finally, on a personal note, for me this novel has one of the greatest and most satisfying conclusions of any I have read. Finding out how the great struggle between Ahab and Moby-Dick resolves itself is one of the most powerful reading experiences I have ever had. I can’t wait to live through it again.

THE ROAD, Cormac McCarthy.
Cormac McCarthy is one of my literary heroes and, for my money, the greatest living American novelist. He has produced only a handful of novels since his first in 1964, and yet during that time at least two of his novels can be considered modern classics, Suttree and Blood Meridian, the latter of which is also essential reading for anyone interested in a truthful look at the American historical experience – and has a stomach for extreme violence. McCarthy’s novels take man’s quest for meaning and truth to harrowing extremes, but they also take the central tenets of our existence very seriously and unpack them by means of some of the greatest prose in American writing. His Border Trilogy, set in the latter half of the 20th century between New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico itself, is also canonical reading. After completing the trilogy in 1998 with Cities of the Plain, many thought he had exhausted his resources, and for some this was confirmed with his thriller-esque novel No Country for Old Men in 2005. But then The Road appeared the following year, and changed the landscape of his writing and his legacy. Before this extraordinary novel about a man and his son traveling by foot through a devastated, post-apocalypse America arrived, McCarthy’s novels, though critically acclaimed, had never sold more than 5,000 copies in hardcover. But The Road was embraced by critics and readers. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2007. All this for a novel that really did deserve its great success. The Road is a very moving story, powerful, frightening, and beautiful. It contains one of my all-time favorite final paragraphs, a single grouping of sentences so fraught with beauty and power that it has stayed in my head ever since. A masterwork from a great American writer who is still very much in command of his powers – and, even better, his career is not yet over.

A TALE OF TWO CITIES, Charles Dickens.
It would be impossible to write this list and not to include a novel by Charles Dickens. His work has unquestionably marked my entire reading decade, from my first trip to London to my most recent reading of Hard Times. As I make my way through his vast canon of work and learn more and more about his life and his craft, I am continually amazed by his prodigious output, prophetic vision, and compassion for humanity. For this list I must choose A Tale of Two Cities because for me it was the doorway through which I entered this extraordinary literary universe. I received it as a gift for my 30th birthday from my partner in crime, Duke Altum. I had been assigned Charles Dickens novels in high school but had always blown them off; by age 30 I was ready to correct that mistake. I enjoyed the book so much that it inspired me to create my annual “Dickensfest” adventure, in which I have vowed to read one of his books a year, every year, for the rest of my life. A Tale of Two Cities is the only Dickens novel partially set in another city, specifically in Paris. It contains all the elements of great fiction: drama, romance, suspense, sacrifice, and redemption. It is also one of the great artist’s more mature and succinct works; it has a precision and wisdom that is not found in his earlier, larger, more bombastic novels. Its opening is one of the most famous passages in the history of literature in English (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….”) and its conclusion is a moving portrayal of the ultimate sacrifice as described in Jesus’ famous words “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” This novel was a scales-from-the-eyes moment in my reading life, a wonderful introduction to a vein of literature that will sustain and enlighten me for the rest of my days, a true milestone in my educational journey as an artist and a writer in my own right.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Without ado, since it has taken me forever to get this list up... here is the list of the ten best books I read this year, meaning, the ten that have had the most impact and I think are most likely to be read, valued and savored by your scribe for a long time to come... (remember, unlike Mutt's lists, mine come in no particular order!)


Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner – In my opinion, this is the capstone of Faulkner’s entire body of work - not only his finest achievement as a novel, but the most representative of his concerns and themes as a whole. As the main character examines his tangled, conflicted family history, one can practically feel Faulkner wrestling the angel of his own ancestral heritage – and the family mansion going up in flames on the plantation at the end is as apt an image as any for his feelings about the Old South and its cultural legacy.

At the Mountains of Madness, H. P. Lovecraft – It’s an incredible shame that Lovecraft seems to be remembered only in genre circles, because as a work of sheer imaginative vision and power, it would be hard to top this bizarre, nightmarish account of a lost culture re-discovered near the South Pole. Lovecraft describes the alien architecture and history in such vivid detail that the reader is almost forced to draw comparisons to Tolkien – though on a smaller scale. Also included in my version of the book was Lovecraft’s helpful and fascinating essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” a must-read for anyone interested in the topic.

Like You’d Understand, Anyway, Jim Shepard – Each year (in my own head, if nowhere else) I choose the finest book of short stories I read, the one that has lingered in my consciousness the longest and is most likely to be read again. Shepard’s breathtakingly diverse and fascinating collection edges out Mark Helprin’s poetic, ethereal Ellis Island to grab the 2009 prize (which last year went to Denis Johnson’s superb Jesus’ Son). Shepard’s work deserves the widest possible audience, and his penetrating and heartbreaking insights into the emotional and spiritual terrain of fraternity can be quite profound and beautiful. The first entry of this collection, "The Zero Meter Diving Team," would be my choice for the best single story I read all year long, it's fascinating and deeply moving.

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright – Probably the most important book I read this year, Wright’s exhaustively researched and riveting account of the evolution of Al Qaeda is required reading for any American who wants to understand, 9 years on, why we’re still at war in places like Afghanistan. His book also describes in fascinating detail how heartbreakingly close we came to exposing the plot before the Day of Terror occurred. No one has worked harder to help us understand the mindset and motivations of the men that attacked us than Wright – and he’s still doing so today with recent pieces in the New Yorker and elsewhere.

The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene – Quick: can anyone come up with a writer that combines the sharp dialogue and brisk pace of the best genre fiction with the spiritual insight of someone like Pascal, more effortlessly and powerfully than Graham Greene? Don’t even try. Greene cornered the market, and no one combines cinematic sensibilities and moral seriousness better. There is something incredibly refreshing and challenging, in this day and age, about a novel whose protagonist takes the mystery of the Eucharist seriously enough that he risks damnation (in his own mind) rather than partake of it hypocritically! The Heart of the Matter delivers as both a fascinating portrait of Britain’s failed colonial experiment in Africa and a searing study of a man’s moral weakness.

Moravagine, Blaise Cendrars – Seems like every year I tend to have a novel on this list that defies categorization… last year it was Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, and this year it’s poet/novelist Blaise Cendrars’ bat-crazy portrait of a psychopathic monster run amok in the 20th century – not coincidentally, by far the bloodiest and most bellicose so far in recorded history. We first meet the title character in an insane asylum, and then follow (in flashback) the adventures all over the world that got him there, from revolutionary Russia to London to the Orinoco in the Amazon – culminating in Europe during WWI “when the entire world was doing a Moravagine.” Murdering and pillaging everywhere he goes, Moravagine seems the perfect nutcase to embody the insanity of modern man.

Shadow Country, Peter Mathiessen – Over 30 years in the writing, Mathiessen’s epic tale of crime and pioneer living in southwest Florida is a fascinating and wide-ranging survey of the history, culture, social life, and even the flora and fauna of the Everglades region. Focusing on the life story of a real historical figure, Ed Watson, the book is divided into three sections (originally published as three separate novels) that tell his tale from different perspectives: first that of his neighbors and community (multiple points of view and voices), second his son trying separate the fact from the fiction of his life, and third, his own (first person narrative). The result is an unusually rich and nuanced portrayal of a life and region that makes you think about our history (especially the treatment of minority races such as Native and African Americans – the “shadow” that looms over our “country”) in a different way.

The Confidence Man, Herman Melville – An even more fascinating portrayal of American history and culture than the one I just described, Melville’s multilayered and oddly comic story of the interactions and conversations between passengers traveling down the Mississippi in the height of the steamboat era is a forgotten masterpiece. Playing with the different meanings of the word “confidence,” Melville presents an America where everyone – businessmen, preachers, soldiers, entertainers, even the disabled! – is trying to pull the wool over everyone else’s eyes, and yet no one seems to know where this “craft” is really heading. Proving once again how far ahead of his time he really was, Melville even turns his own narrative on itself, inviting readers to speculate whether the whole thing is saying anything substantial about its subjects or is simply part of the great big, well, con.

Omeros, Derek Walcott – This one is going to linger in my mind and memory for a long, long time (admittedly, part of the reason for that is that I was reading it while staying at the beach this past summer when I had an accident and broke my leg – and spent many hours with it in the early days afterward when I was cooped up in my bed with very limited movement!). Walcott uses elements of the great Homeric epic poems to create his own epic about his homeland, St. Lucia, and the Caribbean culture in general from the native point of view. But by weaving in strands of British colonial history, Irish culture, the slave trade, African mythology and even Dante (he wrote the poem using the great Florentian’s famous terza rima style), Walcott fashions a magnificent tapestry that goes beyond mere homage to create a work that is visionary, enriching and a joy to read.

Selected Essays, Samuel Johnson – Johnson is of course best known as the subject of perhaps the most famous biography ever written in English (Boswell’s Life of Johnson), but his essays are magnificent pieces of writing - as exceptional for their wonderful language as they are for moral insight. For decades Johnson wrote columns for various English papers, and the resulting 3-4 page musings on topics various and sundry are an incredible wealth of erudition, wit and wisdom. He wrote about life, from the sublime to the ridiculous, but always with a keen eye and incredible turn of phrase. I try to read a few of these a week, just to treat my mind to the mental equivalent of 18-year-old scotch. I’ll finish this entry, and this list, with the final paragraph of a whimsical piece he wrote on (of all things) sleep, which shows how he could take on any subject and make something profound and useful of it:

Sleep has been often mentioned as the image of death[1]; "so like it," says Sir Thomas Brown, "that I dare not trust it without my prayers:" their resemblance is, indeed, apparent and striking; they both, when they seize the body, leave the soul at liberty: and wise is he that remembers of both, that they can be safe and happy only by virtue.

Honorable mentions: The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stephanie Schwam (Ed.); Why I Wake Early (poems), Mary Oliver; Ellis Island and Other Stories, Mark Helprin; Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way, Pope John Paul II; White Teeth, Zadie Smith; Cathedral, Raymond Carver

Thursday, December 03, 2009

On Dickensfest 2009, Best Books and more

Another year, another interesting and successful Dickensfest celebration hosted by Mutt. In case you haven't noticed (and judging by the number of visitors to this page, let alone people who actually read classics anymore, you haven't!!), this is the ninth annual installment in Mutt's ongoing effort to read through and reflect on the collected works of arguably the greatest of all English novelists, and even though I haven't really been playing along at home (much to my shame!), I have enjoyed the "annual non-scholarly essay" he cranks out about it each year. This year's installment, on the novel Hard Times, I thought was particularly interesting and insightful. He draws parallels between the careers of Dickens and Bruce Springsteen, which may sound far-fetched until you read Mutt's convincing arguments. Wasn't Dickens celebrated as the voice for the common man in Britain's industrial age?? Wasn't he always writing about working-class characters who yearn for something more? And what is Bruce primarily known for in terms of the content of his songs and his public persona?

Anyway, it's an interesting comparison, and one that I must say I never thought of. If you missed Mutt's reflections on Hard Times and "the ever-growing behemoth that is Dickensfest," catch it here. Add Hard Times to the growing list of Dickens novels that I hope to catch up with one of these days...

And speaking of Mutt, as usual he's got his list of the Top 10 Books of the Year up before I do... it's right below this post, and it's worth checking out. Mine is, as always, going to be quite a different list, but taken together I think I can say they will represent an eclectic, world-ranging mix of titles. I don't tend to rank mine, but Mutt always does... and his number one choice for this year may come as a surprise, since it comes from a relative newcomer when compared to most of the other writers he selects. It's a book I haven't read but it certainly sounds like an ambitious and original (if not somewhat prophetic!?!) novel.

Finally, this has got to be the literary quote of the week... regarding the auctioning of the great American novelist Cormac McCarthy's legendary 1963 Olivetti typewriter, which he used to type out all of the manuscripts for his books, a book dealer named Glenn Horowitz gushed:

“When I grasped that some of the most complex, almost otherworldly fiction of the postwar era was composed on such a simple, functional, frail-looking machine, it conferred a sort of talismanic quality to Cormac’s typewriter. It’s as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss Army knife.

Now that's some hyperbole ol' "Chuck D" would really appreciate!!

Stay tuned for Duke Altum's Best Books of 2009 list... coming real soon to these pages!