Tuesday, August 04, 2009
[This is long. Way long. "Oh my God, when will it end?" long. The good thing is I won’t be mad if you skim it. I do that when I come upon something like this, so why shouldn't you? I usually find the things I like, see what the person has to say about them, and then comment accordingly. You can do the same. Or you can read every word. I’ll be amazed if it’s the latter, but will hold no ill will towards you if it’s the former.]
Librarian On The Run (love her photo) got an idea for a post from Rhea at The Boomer Chronicles (who got the idea from someplace else, Teh Interwebs being the incestuous place that it is. Whoever originated it, a big ‘thumbs up’ from me. I greatly admire original thoughts, not having had one myself since 1982 or thereabouts.)
Here is the idea: List 15 books that had a dramatic impact on your life, or that make you happy in your pants, or that you took out of the library and never returned, or something like that. Anyway, list 15 books. Folks who are looking for a good read will find some worthy choices, while folks who like lists will be gratified.
(I love lists. In this case, of course, I list loves.)
I’ll put my choices more-or-less in order according to when I first enjoyed them.
The Golden Book Encyclopedia by Bertha Morris Parker
If I wanted to be done with this list quickly, I could stop right now. This is a collection of sixteen volumes, so it fulfills the requirements all by itself. I’m counting it as one selection, though, and too bad for you because that means there’s another 3,000 words ahead. If you never want to read ANY books, just keep coming here and I’ll do my best to keep you occupied.
The Golden Book Encyclopedia, more than any other thing in my life – with the possible exception of Mister Ed reruns – has been my go-to source for information. If I spout off about something, chances are good I picked up my information from those books.
I spent countless hours reading these things as a kid. I still consult them occasionally when sources that are more ‘adult’ aren’t readily available. Published in 1959, thus slightly outdated in some regards and slightly racist/sexist in others, they have provided me with more pleasure than anything on earth outside of naked women and guitars.
I can’t end without noting that the entire thing is credited to one writer. There’s a list of some 25 or 30 ‘consultants’ on the frontispiece, but Ms. Parker (either ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’ Parker, in those days) is given the byline. Marvelous! I’d probably be willing to give up my left nut in order to be credited as the sole author of an entire encyclopedia. As a matter of fact, since it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever have to consider such a deal, let’s make it both nuts.
Also - Thanks, Grandpa! He gave me these. They were his, but I liked to read them so often when I was visiting, he made me a gift of them. He also made me a gift of never worrying about what 'normal' people might think about an adult enjoying things supposedly meant solely for children. As I say, these books were his. He also liked to come home from his job as senior claims attorney for the MBTA and watch The Electric Company. I wish he were still around.
Winnie-The-Pooh by A. A. Milne
And, of course, its sequel, The House At Pooh Corner.
If you didn’t read them as a child, then your childhood was incomplete. Do so now. And don’t think that having seen the Disney versions will suffice. Disney did a creditable job, but the original illustrations, by Ernest Sheppard, are as integral to my enjoyment as are Milne’s words. Quite simply, the best children’s books ever written (although I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane, comes close.)
The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
Twain’s best book.
The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Twain’s second-best book.
I give Tom primacy, always. While Huck is full of great moral dilemmas, and receives much of its acclaim for the way the main character resolves those, Tom is the more realistic book. I also consider it the funnier book, overall, although certain passages of Huck are more explosively hilarious. In addition, Huck’s ending, as has been pointed out by many others before me, is somewhat contrived and veers dangerously close to minstrelsy, which is truly unfortunate given Twain’s well-meaning and loving heart concerning the Negro in America.
Tom is often relegated to a second-class status by virtue of its being a children’s book, but I think that’s an unfortunate misrepresentation. It can be read by children, but it is much more valuable to adults. It is, in my estimation, the most useful book ever written for the purpose of recapturing, in the reader, the inescapable pains and ineffable joys of childhood. It will not resonate with all, but it should. The fault is in the reader if it doesn’t.
Ball Four by Jim Bouton
If you love baseball, but haven’t read this book, then you are willfully ignorant. There is no good reason for a baseball fan to have not read this book. The historical implications alone make it a must.
At the time of Ball Four’s publication, in 1970, there had never been a book like it. It was the first of the ‘tell-all’ variety of sports books. Whereas before, sporting literature consisted mostly of ghostwritten tales of heroism, Bouton’s book was raw, and had more failure between its covers than glory. It was the distillation of his season-long diary kept during the only year of the Seattle Pilots existence. It chronicled, with great honesty and depth of feeling, his attempt to refashion his major league baseball existence as a knuckleballer, having fallen from the heights of his success as a New York Yankee flamethrower some five years previous.
The story of the struggle, in the midst of the mediocrity that was the Pilots, would have been enough to make it a worthwhile read. However, what puts it over the top, and makes it a must, is Bouton’s telling of clubhouse tales, full of ribald humor (and unvarnished grossness in some instances.) He gave the public its first inkling that baseball players were actually human beings, subject to the foibles and shortcomings of us all, and not the demigods they had been made out to be, for so many decades, in the popular press. For this, Bouton was vilified and ostracized by both the baseball establishment and his fellow players. He was booed by the purists, cheered by the counterculture. He was out of baseball soon after publication (although the case can be made that this was not a blacklisting but just a natural result of his diminished skills, and Bouton always acknowledges that possibility. My feeling is that he still had something good to offer a team, but I base that only on his stats and not from having seen him play during that time period. He made a brief comeback, some eight years after publication, in a short stint with the Atlanta Braves. Later editions of the book – usually labeled Ball Four, Plus Ball Five - contain additional material concerning this, and are definitely worth reading if you became a fan of Bouton’s via the original.)
Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes
The book on which the movie Charly was based.
Tremendously heartfelt and moving. Anyone who doesn’t find himself sniffling a bit by the final pages is insufficiently supplied with empathy. Grandly executed original idea for a story; a tour de force for Keyes, who had to write it in several differing voices. If you’ve read it, you know what I mean. If not, you don’t, but I can’t tell you much else without giving away the plot and I wouldn’t do that, denying you the pleasure of the read, to save my own soul.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey
Jack Nicholson was entirely miscast in the movie. McMurphy, in the book, is a robust and muscular redhead.
The book is excellent, of course. The story is told by Chief Bromden, another thing you wouldn't get from the movie (although that's a forgivable offense, I suppose.) Terrifying in spots, poignant in others, funny as hell intermittently, it can be read as allegory or just as a plain old good tale.
(I get really pissed about Nicholson in the movie. I mean, yeah, he gave a really good performance, but McMurphy is my all-time favorite fictional character and it took me half the film just to get used to the fact that he didn't look anything at all like how he was described in the book.)
Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
If you’re familiar with Vonnegut, then you know that, in many ways, he wrote the same book over and over. After his successful start as a short story writer for magazines, and the publication of his first (rather conventional) novel, Player Piano, he began simplifying his work. He returned to the same themes – depersonalization, loneliness, the overall sense that nothing made sense in the long run – with an increasingly minimalist style. He relied rather heavily upon the reader being able to infer the small details.
And so on.
Breakfast Of Champions achieves a perfect balance between craft and sloth. It is a funny book, but extremely dark. It is profuse with the author’s charmingly immature line drawings. The central character, Kilgore Trout, had appeared (and would appear) in other of Vonnegut’s novels, but always as a supporting player. Here he takes the main stage and, to our delight, is spectacularly uncomfortable in doing so. Vonnegut himself becomes a character in his own work of fiction, a conceit so spectacular that it deserves a standing ovation simply for the audacity.
He considered other of his work better, and the general opinion of critics would probably be that Slaughterhouse Five is his most important work, but I consider this his masterpiece.
(I can’t leave Breakfast Of Champions without commenting upon Venus On The Half Shell. It is a hilarious science fiction novel, published after Breakfast, purportedly written by Kilgore Trout, the main character in Breakfast. It’s a real book, a cult classic, and many people believe Vonnegut wrote it. I only recently found out that this was NOT the case, and that, in fact, it was written by Philip Jose Farmer. Vonnegut supposedly was not pleased by it. If so, this lowers my estimation of Vonnegut considerably. Venus is brilliant, a superb parody of both Vonnegut’s style and of the supposed style of Trout, as given via many examples in Breakfast and other of Vonnegut's work. If you can find a copy, read it after you’ve finished Breakfast. You won’t be disappointed.)
The Rape Of The A*P*E* (American Puritan Ethic) by Allan Sherman
If all you know of Allan Sherman is his work as a song parodist ('Hello, Muddah! Hello, Faddah!') then you’ve been deprived of a great joy. This is, for my money, the funniest book ever written. As a bonus, it is also one of the filthiest.
Unfortunately, it is out of print, and has been for many years. Existing copies go for outrageous amounts from used booksellers. I lost two copies via loaning them out, was lucky enough to find a reasonably priced used hardcover, and will never let anyone borrow it again, so don’t ask unless you’re on your deathbed.
The book is a history of sex, from Adam & Eve up to the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, told in Sherman’s unabashed, utterly frank, and entirely hilarious style. I don’t believe I can do it justice without quoting extensively from it. On the off chance that you’ll be able to latch onto a copy, I wouldn’t want to ruin too much of the good stuff, so I won’t do the quoting. Just take my word for it. It’s laugh-out-loud funny AND titillating, mostly at the same time.
A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
The funniest book ever written.
(I know. I just now said that about The Rape Of The A*P*E. I vacillate, usually just before masturbating. And if this doesn’t count as that, I don’t know what does. Hell, for some people – and I use the term loosely - Mein Kampf is the funniest book ever written. Just be thankful I’m not one of those and quit complaining about the hobgoblins of my little mind.)
Rollicking farce. Let’s call it the funniest novel ever, and give Sherman’s book the award for funniest non-fiction. Anyway, the main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, is unmatched. There has never been a more pompous, vile, ill-behaved, utterly reprehensible - and deeply funny - protagonist. The supporting cast is superbly detailed, and most are near to being as flawed as Ignatius is (although they go to great lengths to conceal their hideousness, whereas Ignatius more-or-less flaunts his own grotesquery.) The magical thing about Toole’s writing is that he has you rooting for, rather than against, most of them.
Toole takes all of his bizarre, yet realistic, characters, and interweaves their stories, bringing them together at the climax in a comic explosion. Masterful work, and the only example of Toole’s comic genius extant, unfortunately.
Toole was unable to sell the book. He committed suicide. I don’t blame him. If I had written such a magnificent piece of work and couldn’t sell it? I would have offed myself, too.
After his death, his mother kept shopping the manuscript, finally getting a university press to go for it. And it then went on to become a #1 New York Times bestseller, winning a Pulitzer and making everybody who reads it wonder just what in hell the editors who didn’t buy it were smoking. I don’t know if the title of the book was chosen by Toole prior to his suicide, or tacked on by his mother afterward, but it describes those editors perfectly.
Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
Written as a satire of American middle-class values, that’s how I took it on my first reading. As I’ve grown older, however, each re-reading has found me yearning more for Babbitt’s lifestyle than being derisive concerning it. I’m pretty sure that says more about me than it does the book, and probably not to my benefit.
As you may have noticed to this point, my taste runs to the funny. I find most serious novels boring in the extreme, full of unnecessary exposition and other Victorian bric-a-brac crowding the landscape. While a satire, there are few laughs here. There are one or two snickers if you bring a certain snarky mindset to it. Overall, though, it is dark, somber, and unrelenting in painting a tedious existence, although Babbitt himself only comes to the realization fleetingly. The point is that I don’t recommend too much serious stuff, so I hope my doing so in this instance will give the choice added weight.
The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole, Aged 13-And-3/4 by Sue Townsend
More funny stuff, this time via the diary of a pubescent English boy. The genius comes from the boy not realizing half of the hideous shit going on around him.
Townsend followed this masterpiece with five or six others, all in the same general format of a diary kept by Adrian. Each succeeding entry in the series was less funny, less poignant, less original, and less worth reading. The immediate sequel was good, and I’d recommend it if you like the first and find yourself jonesing for more, but it’s quite a bit more depressing than the original. Do yourself a favor and stop after that one, by all means.
IT by Stephen King
I don’t usually like horror, so fans of the genre may have a different opinion, but for me this is the best horror novel ever written. It is long – some 1100 pages, as I remember – but gripping throughout.
If you’ve only seen the made-for-TV movie, you’ve been recipient of a pale, weak rendering of this story. The power, in the book, comes from the very nebulousness of the creature, of IT, whereas the TV movie presented a more-or-less concrete form. And the climax of the book is absolutely impossible to put on film. If you’ve read it, you know what I mean; if not, you’ll find out the truth of the statement if and when you DO read it. While getting to that, King perfectly captures some childhood experiences of American Boomer youth.
Well worth the investment of time needed to get through such a lengthy read (unlike what you're slogging through right now.)
Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do by Peter McWilliams
Speaking of lengthy reads...
McWilliams was a victim of AIDS and cancer. The United States government killed him. That’s one hell of a statement, but I believe it to be true.
While fighting his ailments, McWilliams became nauseous when he took the necessary drugs. He couldn’t keep his medications down. They did him no good when he vomited them back up, which he often did. In order to alleviate the nausea, he smoked marijuana. The marijuana relieved the nausea and allowed him to get the benefit of the vicious drugs he was taking to combat the cancer and AIDS.
Marijuana was legal for medicinal use under California law, but still illegal under federal law. McWilliams was busted by the feds, and went to trial. While in confinement, he could not smoke marijuana and often puked up his drugs. At trial, he was not allowed to mention California’s marijuana laws. Upon conviction, he was ordered to not use marijuana. He was compliant. He followed the court’s orders.
He died from inhalation of his own vomit.
I met him briefly. He had joined the Libertarian Party, the only political party in the United States that fully supported his right to ingest whatever he felt like ingesting or needed to ingest. I was a member, too, and he spoke at a national convention in Washington, DC, which I attended. After his speech, he had a meet and greet where he autographed the free copies of his book that he had given to EVERY PERSON WHO ATTENDED THE CONVENTION. He was sweet, generous, funny, highly intelligent, and committed 100% to individual freedom.
He’s dead because the United States government decided that his smoking of a weed was somehow detrimental to society and had to be stopped even at peril of his life.
This book, his last published work, was his argument for absolute individual freedom to eat what you want, drink what you want, have sex with whom you want, and engage in all other manner of what we generally refer to as victimless crimes. Peter preferred the term 'consensual crimes,' and that may give a better picture of them, as it keeps in mind the fact that all of the activities he refers to come about because the people involved choose to engage in them. The only people who want to see these things remain crimes have no real stake in the matter other than their own puritanical mores. None of these activities harm anyone other than the participants, if they harm anyone at all.
(I feel compelled to point out that he made one or two mistakes in his reading of biblical texts – at one point, for instance, he refers to Peter as Jesus’ brother – but those errors don't make a difference concerning the principles he is espousing.)
The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson
MY WIFE, bless her, tried for years to get me to write this book. It’s too late now. Bill Bryson wrote my book. I will probably never write a book now. Bryson wrote my book better than I ever could have.
The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid is THE definitive book about growing up as a middle-class white male baby boomer. If you were one, as I was, this book will speak to every part of your soul. I would go so far as to call it an essential read for anyone from my generation and basic social strata. And, funny? It will leave you gasping for air.
Buy it. Make him as rich as I should have been...
Finally, I’ll give you one bonus book, a sixteenth.
The Bible by God, et al
You’re probably familiar with it, or at least you think you are. Nothing I have to say about it will probably change your opinion of it. You either get it or you don’t. I’d prefer that you did, but that’s entirely up to you. A lifetime of experience, however, has taught me to always give at least a cursory glance to instruction manuals, and this is the one for life. As with most instruction manuals, you needn’t read every warning, or raft of legal mumbo-jumbo, but it is always a good idea to make sure you know the important stuff before operating heavy machinery. If you don’t, the likelihood of death is much higher.
Soon, with more better stuff.