Sunday, July 5, 2009

In Which I Talk About Writing That's Frighteningly Good

In this post I want to highlight FOUR of my favorite books of the last few years (and maybe a few more). I have NO doubt that I will add to this post in the future (or post another list with some of my favorites in specific genres), but for today, I will highlight only four.

About three years ago I went through an immensely inspiring time in my life when I dove headfirst into a whole shelf of books that blew my mind, one leading me to the next, all in the space of a couple years. This time inspired me to write more and reignited the literary passion I had in college when I studied whole shelves of fiction and poetry.

One of those books was Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. This tour de force of voice, language and downright pen-to-paper ambition blew my mind.

Mitchell is a British born writer who has traveled the world, lived in Japan and written about it, and is fast becoming on the most recognizable voices of his generation. In Cloud Atlas he creates a band of massively diverse characters, hopskotching centuries and cultures with skilled precision and nailing their worlds. He leaps from a voyage across the sea to a new world to a composer in Europe to a modern day investigator to a near future Japan and somehow, acrobatically manages to connect these stories. Since I read and was astounded by Cloud Atlas, I tore through Mitchell's other novels Ghostwritten, Numer9Dream and Black Swan Green, and have thoroughly enjoyed myself each time through. Mitchell has been compared to Salinger and Dickens and others, and I think we'll continue to see amazing works from him in the future.

Perhaps one of the first books I read that opened my mind to the power of the memoir was A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers. The ironic style of Eggers voice is charming and fun, but the writing in this memoir propelled the reader through the book, each page peppered with wit and humor even in the midst of such bewildering tragedy. Since taking this journey, I have very much enjoyed Eggers' What is the What, You Shall Know Our Velocity and his book of short stores as well, How We Are Hungry. I am looking forward to his new novel, Zeitoun and The Wild Things, inspired by his screenplay for the upcoming film Where the Wild Things Are.

And a little aside: Eggers' wife Vendela Vida made we wish a plane ride would never end (which rarely happens as I'm 6'3'' and I hate the small seats) with her novel Let the North Northern Lights Erase Your Name, a riveting work that kept me glued to the page until they forced me out. AND ONE MORE ASIDE: I just saw Away We Go, a film written by Eggers and Vida together, and LOVED it. I highly recommend this film for married couples, parents and anyone thinking about a life change of any sort. Or for anyone who can appreciate good movies.

Sometime later I plunked down in my chair and read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. Chabon had recently been nominated for a Pulitizer Prize when I picked up this book, and I could see why after reading this sweeping comic-book related psuedo-epic. The story concerns a pair who create a comic book character from scratch in the age when comic books were beginning, and Chabon charts the course of their lives from huge successes, to terrible tragedies. Chabon's use of metaphor, his phrasing and the way he combined words rocked me on every other page, and he continued to deploy this skill in The Yiddish Policeman's Union and Gentleman of the Road. I also went back and read his now classic The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and The Final Solution. I think there a few more of his that I still need to pick up.

Finally, I read this book in college: The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey. For some reason this book got to me when I read it years ago, relating to the plight of the last cowboy wrestling with the onset of the modern world. I bought a copy of the old movie version starring Kirk Douglas and have often dreamed of seeing this film remade now. The ironic, seemingly inevitable and partially satirical final scene broke my heart and made me sad for a lost profession. I have since started to collect Abbey's other books as well.

I think I know a good book when I put it down and then decide, then and there, to go out and read everything else by that particular author. Anyway, so here are four, and I managed to sneak a few others in there, but my list of favorites could go on.

Do you ever have that experience? What books would make your list?


Robert Treskillard said...


I'll share one that affected the life of my daughter, Adele, in a major way.

The book is non-fiction, "J.R.R. Tolkien, Author of the Century" by (Dr.) Thomas Shippey.

This book brought out an interest in etymology and languages that has led her to read Gaelic, Welsh, Manx, Anglo Saxon, Old Scots, and Old English.

This has opened up an incredible amount of ancient literature to her, and has enriched the life of our entire family.

You just never know what will happen when you crack open a book!


Alexander Field said...

Robert, that's fantastic to hear about...books have an amazing power. Thanks for sharing!

Solvang Sherrie said...

I loved the Eggers and Chabon books. I didn't realize Away we Go was by Eggers and Vida. I'll have to see that.

I think the first memoir that blew my mind was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. It read like a novel and it sent me on quite the memoir binge. The most recent memoir I've read is Eat, Pray, Love which, of course, I loved :)

Brandon said...

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy blew me away with its gritty landscape and beautiful prose. The subtlety with which McCarthy moves his readers to conclusions is inspiring. On a whole, the story made me consider the depth of man's depravity...that we don't see the real us until all the stilts propping us up have been destroyed.

Also, George Bryan Polivka's Firefish trilogy has given me hope that quality Christian speculative fiction is possible.
Blaggard's Moon, by Polivka, was an absolute delight! Dark, fun, adventurous, thought provoking all at once.

Aly said...

I'm pleased as punch to have foisted two of these four upon you—we sorely need to have coffee soon and do a book exchange!

I'm re-reading "The Ground Beneath Her Feet" by Salman Rushdie. I raced through it maybe seven years ago, but this time I'm plodding along (on purpose), savoring Rushdie's effortless command of language and metaphor. This is a pattern with me: The first time through, the story rockets me along and I miss the delicious subtleties of the writing because I have to find out what happens next. The second or third time through, I can slow down enough to enjoy the word feast.

Alexander Field said...

Brandon, I LOVED The Road too. That book was amazing, especially reading it as a father. Sherrie, I still need to read Midnight...supposed to be amazing though!

Yes Aly, partly your fault. We do need to connect and I think I may have to read Rushdie's 'The Ground Beneath Her Feet' too. I'm ready for another head spinning ride. : )

kate keeley said...

I don't think I'll ever catch up...

I liked "The Strange Incident of the Dog in the Night" and "Life of Pi."

"The Road" was strangely compelling, very disturbing.

Paul Michael Murphy said...

Loved THE ROAD and just finished A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS, which I found highly entertaining (the writing style, mostly), but a little too self-indulgent, which is probably a risk with any memoir.

Alexander Field said...

Kate, LIFE OF PI, ooh I forgot about that one too! One of my favorites.

Paul, I totally agree with you. Eggers style and self-deprecating humor was what I took away from Heartbreaking Work...but yes, I couldn't see writing a memoir because it would be hard to write about oneself for so long.

Pink Ink said...

There are some books on the shelf that make me go, "How brilliant!" It amazes me that despite all the books out there already, some writers rise to the top with their uniqueness. My goal someday!!