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Good Books

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Just before the flood of enforced holiday downtime swamped my boat, a friend sent me a review by B.R. Myers, titled "Smaller Than Life." Myers's point is that a good deal of award-winning contemporary fiction gives us small characters in small lives doing no-account things, delivered in a language that conjures an overheard subway chat, as if it were fiction's job to reflect back to us in a sort of funhouse way the most tedious moments of our days.

Plenty of the writers producing the subway-chat fiction are smart, thoughtful, and talented. I have heard and read what they have to say about their work, and they clearly have in mind an esthetic that reflects, to them, essential realities of our 21st century world. My own response to their work is grounded in the simple fact that I experience the world differently. I don't find daily life thin and bloodless. I find it rich and weird, deserving of a broad vocabulary, a varied syntax, and a willingness to go way out on a limb to capture the dazzling array of events. To me, these are the necessary elements of a good book.

After I read the Myers essay, I posted it on Facebook and immediately got responses from others who feel frustrated and lost when it comes to the world of contemporary fiction. A couple of people asked if I would suggest some good books, and that seems like an ideal task for the new year. So, my criteria are these: rich language, varied syntax, and a willingness to go out on a limb to capture the dazzling array of events. What follows is a hodge-podge of old books, new books, mysteries, and thrillers, since I find some of the best novel writing is being done by authors in the so-called "genre" categories. I haven't even addressed non-fiction, poetry or drama here, but maybe I will do that somewhere down the road. Also, I've stuck to English-speaking writers (with a couple of exceptions, like Tolstoy). In many cases, I only mention one book by each author, because that happens to be the one that stuck with me, but for most of these writers, all their books are finely-crafted and thoroughly worth the read. Finally, this will work best if readers send in your own favorites, so that we end up with a juicy list of good books that will last us all a good long time.

Old Books: A LEGACY by Sybille Bedford is often my favorite novel, though surely HOWARD'S END, by E.M. Forster, is a more wonderful book. Both the authors concern themselves with the sweep of history and class politics as they play out in the characters' lives. And the characters are stunning.

Other Old Favorites: THE YEARS, by Virginia Woolf, Eliot's MIDDLEMARCH, Wharton's HOUSE OF MIRTH, James's THE AMBASSADORS, and, of course, SWANN'S WAY. My daughter just reminded me about WAR AND PEACE, which is our favorite Tolstoy. If you want to see why and how point of view matters in a novel, reread THE GOOD SOLDIER, by Ford Maddox Ford. I'm a huge Dickens fan; no one more shamelessly puts his characters through the wringer, so that they can come out alchemized into gold or meet their deserved disastrous ends. BLEAK HOUSE is the best, and it leads nicely into another category--mysteries.

Reading, Writing, and Plans for the Future

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Below is a short piece I wrote for a great website, The Laughing Yeti, sponsored by writer Shome Dasgupta. He's asked a variety of writers to contribute their thoughts on books and reading, which reminds me that we do not have to choose either screens OR books. Instead, we will have screens AND books.

If the subject of writers and what they read interests you, there are some good books out there with terrific lists and glosses. My favorite is THE TOP TEN, edited by J. Peder Zane. Also, over the coming weeks, I'm going to flatter Mr. Dasgupta by imitating him and asking writers and readers for reflections on reading.


I am a lover of books, books as objects, books as solace, books as a mean of escape and empathy and education. I need to have, on my bedside table, at least two books I have not yet started reading. Otherwise, I feel a little panicky, afraid that I will reach out one night into a bookless void.

At the moment, I am doing something I haven't done in a while--rereading, very slowly, a novel I already know well, Coetzee's DISGRACE. I am doing this so that I can begin to understand how he accomplished what he did in that book--how he moved his character from monster to saint without one moment of sentimentality, and all within the context of one of the greatest power shifts in the 20th century, the dismantling of apartheid. The author never flinches or backs away from brutality. This is one of my weaknesses as a writer, the desire to smooth things over, and I hope to gain from this book an iota of the courage Coetzee has always seemed to exercise so effortlessly, but never before with such astonishing scope and generosity.

One more thought about escape, empathy, and education: It occurs to me that we think of escape as a cheap and easy thing. But with a novel like DISGRACE, while I do get to leave my own irritating life behind, I do not move into an easier world. I move into an infinitely more complex world, if only because the complexities (which I for one tend to overlook on my own, because of deadlines and droughts and the impositions of the daily routine) are illuminated. And, so, I become more educated.

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