Coming soon: a movie list and, inevitably, some musical suggestions to accompany social distancing, working from home, reading, relaxing, and staying both healthy and sane.
But first, some easily recommended books.
Disclaimer: these are all works I’ve written about, so the list is subjective; on the other hand, no writer would take the time to wax rhapsodic about a book unless they have skin (and soul) in the game, literally as well as aesthetically.
- Moby Dick
Good music and good literature have always seemed to intimidate, or bewilder otherwise open-minded individuals. This is doubtless at least in part due to teachers and critics seeking to justify their own intellectual enterprise by conferring upon art an ivory halo that renders it unreachable by ostensibly average, simple-minded citizens. Rather than regarding, say, jazz music or a 19th Century novel as sacred relics conceived by sullen saints, perhaps it would be beneficial to acknowledge–even endorse–the actuality that most of these works were produced by individuals whose lives were conventional as their creative minds were exceptional. Or, reduced to more practical terms, if jazz music, that greatest of American inventions, is gumbo, the archetypal American novel, with Moby Dick as its progenitor and arguably its apotheosis, is a chowder.
This classic American text is also pioneering in its puissant, often sardonic assaults on institutions ranging from the patriarchal status quo, to slavery, to the Puritanical thought-police who cast a long, lamentable shadow on early U.S. history. This book celebrates our itinerant American roots and the notion of positive, peaceful diversity not as an apologetic ideology, but as an empowering, imperative axiom. Melville empathized with the underdog and more important, he understood them — he was one — and his real life experiences help inform the poetic prose that allows these otherwise unrenowned heroes to sing the songs of themselves, proceeding Walt Whitman’s masterpiece by a half-decade.
So: a novel that fulfills on almost every conceivable level, a meditation on our individual essence as well as the push and pull of our similitude as human beings adrift in a turbulent universe that not a little resembles the untamed sea.
2. Slaughterhouse Five
Slaughterhouse Five, like virtually all of Vonnegut’s novels, concerns itself with one of the oldest — and most perplexingly commonplace — human dilemmas: man’s inhumanity to man. But how does one discuss war, violence, insanity, and injustice (for starters) without either preaching or unintentionally trivializing? This was Vonnegut’s special gift, and why the concept of Billy Pilgrim coming “unstuck in time” is revelatory: the author was not using science fiction pyrotechnics to mask an inability to express his ideas directly, he had actually hit upon a means by which he could communicate what our increasingly disjointed world was like to live in. In this way, Billy Pilgrim is everyman even as everything he describes is unlike anything the average reader is likely to have experienced (walking in the snow behind enemy lines, living through the Dresden firebombing, being abducted by aliens, and being taught an entirely different theory of relativity by those aliens, the Tralfamadorians). Vonnegut, of course, was really writing about the ways in which the alienated, often lonely person is affected by the pressure and perversity of life. Never before had hilarity and horror danced on the same page in quite this way. Not surprisingly, people (especially younger people) responded. On the other hand, the fact that Kurt Vonnegut was — and remains — much more popular with college students than adults says more about us than it does about his novels.
3. The Lost City of Z
Fawcett was, around the turn of the 20th Century, as close to a rock star as it came in those days. Had he cared about money or the shallow spiritual payoff of established notoriety, he likely would have lived a long life (he may, in fact, have lived forever). But where people all around the world were fascinated with him, he was fascinated by the unknown and unconquered. And by unconquered, it is crucial to point out that he was not interested in human conquest (and even the pirates who would have claimed they were only after treasure could not deny obtaining that bounty necessarily involved eradicating the Indians who possessed it). Fawcett was uninterested in subjugating the “savage” natives, and the practices of complicated Christian conversion or simple slaughter so common at that time repulsed him. Indeed, one of the many secrets of his almost inexplicable success over the years was an instinctive awareness that respect and humility were more powerful weapons than the ones favored (and utilized) by almost every other white man that stepped foot in the jungle.
Certainly, Fawcett knew that if he was able to successfully confirm the existence of “the city of Z”, it would make his fortune and his career. On the other hand, Grann’s reportage makes it abundantly clear that the only magnet pulling him into the dark heart of the Amazon was his insatiable desire to see what others could not find, to know that his intuition was on target. By his own account, he was miserable if unable to continue his work. And if the work was exhilarating and dangerous in equal measure, it was also solitary: Fawcett was blessed withan inhuman constitution, and cursed by having to hire mere mortals to assist him. These unfortunate souls, no matter how ambitious and game, quickly found themselves out of their depth, and the target of Fawcett’s ire when he realized that they could not keep up. In this sense, Fawcett is a truly tragic figure: he was better equipped than anyone else to stalk the improbable; what kept him alive ended up killing him.
4. The Great Gatsby
What Fitzgerald does, with these ostensibly soulless and unpleasant people, is interrogate cause and effect, motive and aftermath, and all aspects of that myth sold to us as the American Dream. He takes this construction and places it on the operating table, dissecting what causes it to breathe, thrive and rot from the inside out. In this single regard, Fitzgerald was more prophetic than his critics can comprehend: he predicted how the roaring ‘20s would end and be remembered before they expired. If the people (like Nick) who wind up on the outside looking in see nothing but emptiness, it’s because all vanity, in the end, returns to the ashes whence it sprang. Fitzgerald is not describing anything Ecclesiastes did not say first, if less poetically.
In addition, he depicted the way Americans would react to every calamity of the 20th Century: after each debacle, the architects of said crisis waltz away, licking their wounds and counting their cash. No amount of dour intuition could have prepared Fitzgerald to imagine that, in the 21st century, they also get paid to scold the complicit masses (receiving book deals, going into politics or appearing on TV –the lucky ones doing all three). Think about the cowards in Congress today, who lustily passed legislation (and deregulation) that hastened the latest crash, now pushing austerity (but not higher taxes!). It isn’t that their methods or strategies are predictable (they are), it’s the narrative they employ that is so quintessentially American: cynicism covered in money, preaching solidarity.
5. Stephen King: 1975-1979
Stephen King has been a bit more defiant in recent years, and he’s earned the right to be a tad truculent about his influence. Selling more than 350 million books and making multiple generations of readers into fanatics is undoubtedly gratifying and something a fraction of writers will ever experience. And he can boast penning at least three novels that anticipated colossal cultural trends: he made vampires cool again (a few decades ahead of schedule), he conjured up a delusional sociopath jump-starting a nuclear apocalypse before Reagan took office, and envisioned a devastating pandemic before AIDS became front-page news (‘Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, and The Stand, respectively). This trifecta alone earns him street cred that should extend beyond literary circles. Yet clearly, the critical backlash accumulated over the years sticks in King’s craw. As an éminence grise who, it might also be pointed out, paid his dues for many years before his “overnight” success, he is aware he’ll always be a tough sell for the lit-crit crowd.
King correctly connects the dots between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jim Thompson; he rightly invokes Twain and delivers some welcome insights on the ways we are conditioned to receive and respond to different mediums. And his commentary begs necessary—or at least worthwhile—questions regarding labels and poles, high-brow and third-rate, and whether the twain shall meet (they always do, of course, as Mark Twain himself proves).
6. The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (especially the short stories, particularly these ten).
Arguably, no American figure has influenced as many brilliant — and imitated — writers as Poe. The entire genres of horror, science fiction and detective story might be quite different, and not for the better, without Poe’s example. More, his insights into psychology, both as narrative device and metaphysical exercise, are considerable; he was describing behavior and phenomena that would become the stuff of textbooks several decades after his death.
He also happened to be a first rate critic, and his insights are as astute and insightful as anything being offered in the mid-19th Century (his essay “The Poetic Principle” comes as close to a “how to” manual for aspiring writers as Orwell’s justly celebrated “Politics and the English Language”). Oh, and he was a pretty good poet, too.
When assessing Poe, 150-plus years after he died, it’s imperative to interrogate and untangle that fact that not all clichés are created equally. Or, put another way, we must remember that before certain things became clichés, they were unarticulated concerns and compulsions. The reason Poe remains so convincing and unsettling is because he doesn’t rely on goblins or scenarios that oblige the suspension of belief; he is himself the madman, the stalker, the outcast, the detective and, above all, the artist who made his life’s work a deeper than healthy dive into the messy engine of human foibles, obsessions and misdeeds. He stands alone, still, at the top of a darkened lighthouse, unable to promise a happy ending and half-insane from what he’s seen.
7. Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed
The fact of the matter was, these four rapscallions were (cliché alert!) men of the people, and by word – — and more significantly, by deed – — they were both entirely at ease and happiest when they were surrounded by the so-called common folk. Even though each of them was extraordinary in his own way(s), all of them came from difficult or at least potentially unpromising origins: they knew how little separated them from the coalminers they grew up with, and how fortunate they were for getting paid to pretend as opposed to breaking their backs in mine, or a factory.
Furthermoe, (cliché alert!) talk about keeping it real: These chaps threw back pints and threw around their fists because they wanted to and, to a certain extent, they had to.
Here’s an instructive anecdote: On a visit to Rome, Harris persuaded one of the film executives to join him in order to witness first hand that it wasn’t always the actor who started all the brawling. On their first night they went to a bar and listened as a drunken American tourist spelled out, in a loud voice, how he was going to ‘do in’ Harris. The executive advised his client to take no notice. “Do you want me to wait until I get a bottle across the face,” reasoned Harris, “or go in and get it over with?” The executive could see only logic in this statement and Harris took the insulting Yank outside and flattened him.
Here’s the thing. That’s not old school; that is a one room and no electricity school. While I’m not endorsing or advocating a top tier artist (or any average citizen) employing violence to settle their disputes, there is something almost refreshing (not quite quaint, but close) in this mano a mano arithmetic. Consider that, and compare it to our contemporary film, rock, and especially rap superstars with their posses, guns and melodramatic beefs.
8. The Rub of Time
Reading Martin Amis’s non-fiction is like riding in a plane. As you cruise over miniaturized skyscrapers, crop circles, mountains, even oceans, you recognize—and remember—how tiny and insignificant your own piece of turf (wherever you came from; wherever you’re going) actually is. Amis’s works seems all-encompassing, and it’s enough, at times, to fill one with diffidence and awe. But mostly delight.
His non-fiction…brooks no dispute: he easily ranks amongst our most proficient critics, seemingly without peer in terms of his range and scope. Once Amis renders judgment—on a book, an occasion, a politician, whatever—it stays judged, definitive upon arrival. Whatever else one can say about Amis, there’s never doubt that he cares deeply about language. More, he understands, and uses words with the same type of facility that, say, Richard Pryor used voice(s) and Miles Davis used silence. His genius with words is our joy, and Amis is one of those rare writers who can take a topic already beaten to death (Vegas, Trump, pornography) and render it not merely fresh, but imperative. Even if the reader isn’t aware or interested in the subject matter, Amis makes it interesting and enjoyable. As such, The Rub of Time is recommended to anyone for whom old-fashioned deliberation and erudition matter.
Arguably the highest praise we can bestow upon any novelist is that they are a writer’s writer (fame and fashion are fleeting), and for a critic that they are a reader’s writer (tastemakers are seldom the ultimate arbiters of posterity). Martin Amis, at his best, is both, and in our increasingly post-history and two-sentence assessment era, this skill set is exceedingly rare, and indispensable.
9. Seven Plays
From my own experience and what I’ve seen, read and heard, even our best literary practitioners have had a difficult time doing this with success. Most writers are on record, with equal parts regret and impunity, confessing that in order to fully dedicate themselves, it was inexorably at the expense of friends, family, life itself. Conversely, the inimitable Oscar Wilde lamented “I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works.”
The moral? Artists, too, are only human. Even the best of the best can only do so much, and something has to give.
This is one of the many reasons Sam Shepard has long been both idol and inspiration, as a writer and person. Off the top of my head, I’m not certain I can pinpoint anyone from the 20th Century who more fully realized his potential, as individual and artist. Like Wilde, he was blessed with talent and charm (not to mince words, he was a beautiful man), and he somehow managed to incorporate virtually every cliché of Americana, distilling it into his own, unique persona.
Semi-tortured artist, channeling our pathologies via works that were, on arrival, sui generis? Yes. Prototypical rugged individual, who mostly shunned the hackneyed trappings of fame, preserving both his integrity and his soul? Yes. Man’s man comfortable in the outdoors, and adept at working with either animals or his bare hands? (Quick: think of how many playwrights you’d actually be able to hunt with, get shitfaced with, talk books and music with, and with whom you’d hope to have by your side if your car broke down in the middle of nowhere. Unlike most contemporary men of the pen, Shepard could change his own oil, literally and figuratively.) The dude who got to spend quality time with Jessica Lange? Yeah, he did that too.
Oh, he was a pretty good actor, as well. A leading man who, like Neil Young, preferred heading into ditches of his own design. As I said, clichés abound, but Shepard somehow wore them like rented tuxedos, suitable for the occasion. Actually, that’s not accurate; Shepard never rented or borrowed anything. That was the point.
10. The Complete Stories
Flannery O’Connor’s unwavering allegiance to her craft leaves little to the imagination: she wrote, she talked about writing, she thought about writing and she wrote about writing. Allegedly, she ate and slept on occasion. “In my stories is where I live,” she said, a statement applicable on a variety of levels. And so, the people who stand to be fascinated by this distinctly uneventful life are the very people who might be enlightened by reading about it: writers. O’Connor’s monk-like commitment to her vocation could and should be a study guide for all aspiring scribblers. Never mind that dedication like hers is probably impossible to imitate today because of all the noise—electronic and digital—distracting us. There’s also the fact that her work is inimitable: the style; the substance; the entire package is pretty much unparalleled in American letters.
I tend to feel uncomfortable throwing the G word around, but if any American writer of the last century could be called a genius, O’Connor is near the top of the short list. She didn’t manage to write the great American novel (though she may well have, had she been given even a few more years), but her best collected stories go toe-to-toe with any of the great white males (and females for that matter). She also happened to approach perfection on at least three occasions, with “Revelation”, “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”. It’s the last of these three that most people know; like Beethoven’s Fifth and the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, its ubiquity tends to diminish its actual import. As a remarkable point of fact, it’s even better than most people realize (and most people, if for no other reason than that they are told, recognize these things as immortal).
What O’Connor manages to do, in less than twenty pages, with “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” is lay bare the essence of what Dostoyevsky and, to a lesser extent, Tolstoy grappled with in their biggest (and sometimes bloated) novels: the nature of man, the existence of God, the possibility of Grace and the symbiotic tension between violence and love. When The Misfit declares (ironically, truthfully) “It’s no real pleasure in life”, he is (O’Connor is) succinctly expressing our fundamental philosophical and literary dilemma, post-Descartes. Beyond whether God exists (Tolstoy) or why God torments us (Dostoyevsky), and right to the darkened heart of the matter: we may betray God, but God betrayed us first.