Archive for the Imaginary Book Club Category

Ten Books that Changed My Life

Posted in Imaginary Book Club with tags , , , , , , , , on October 4, 2008 by tigereye

My friend Anners Scribonia had a great, great idea: list ten of your favorite, or most influential, books and tell the world why you love them or why they had the effect they had on you. Well, this idea has Tigereye written all over it. As many of you know, I could, and often do, yap on about books for a day and a half without getting tired or noticing that my audience has either run away or dozed off. So here goes. These are ten of my favorites, picked in no particular order, with this common theme: I’ve read them over and over throughout my life, and with good reason.

1. Dance the Eagle to Sleep by Marge Piercy. It’s a crying shame and a loss to the world that this book is out of print. I was 15 when I first discovered it, on the bottom shelf at my favorite local bookstore, and I’ve read it every year or few years since then: it continues to speak to me as much as it did when I was a teenager who felt utterly cast out of society. It was written in the early ’70s, and is a futuristic story of a United States gone ultra-militarized and regimented, and a hippie-ish resistance movement called the Indians, led by a visionary named Corey, a rebel named Joanna, and a musician named Shawn. Oh, hell, that makes it sound silly and simplistic, and it’s anything but: it’s one of the most feminist novels I’ve ever read, beautifully imagined, tragic, with fascinating, flawed characters. It’ll give you a chill to think of this book being written in the Nixon era and still ringing true in the Bush years. You’ll never look at the late sixties the same again after reading this. I never looked at anything quite the same.

2. Watership Down by Richard Adams. This is another one I’ve reread so often I can quote large passages from it, not to mention many of the quotations preceding each chapter. I first read it when I was eleven, and I think it was the second great book I discovered in my life, right behind The Call of the Wild. To say this is an adventure story about rabbits is like saying The Great Gatsby is about a rich man: it’s an epic, every bit as compelling as either of Homer’s works and sometimes as violent. Again, the characters are key here. You become totally absorbed in the interplay of one pers– uh, one rabbit with another, you worry with them and laugh at them and, toward the end, page frantically along hoping all will end well with them. There are a lot of books published with the hopeful tagline, “In the tradition of Watership Down…” It’s never true. Accept no substitute.

3. Fool on the Hill by Matt Ruff. I feel the need to lighten things up a bit, and among other selling points, this book makes me laugh out loud and convulsively, almost 20 years after I first unpacked it at work. I was a college sophomore, now employed by the same bookstore where I’d been a regular customer since childhood (and where I’d bought Dance the Eagle to Sleep), and I read it in two days, then immediately started rereading it a few hours after I’d finished it the first time. It’s a love story, a fairy tale, and a fantasy, set mostly at Cornell University in a world that keeps sliding back and forth between reality and either imagination or great drugs or both. The players are a writer named S.T. George, a group of funky nonconformists called the Bohemians, a talking cat and dog, and a world of sprites inhabiting the campus. I laughed, I cried, I read it for about the 16th time last year and plan to do it again this year. I’ve always wanted a sequel.

4. The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. Like other nerdy kids my age, I saw the animated movie version of this in, I think, sixth grade, and was so utterly enchanted my parents got me the book for Christmas. I think it’s the first fantasy I ever read. I still have that original copy, cover yellowed and tattered, the unicorn resembling a deer, the terrifying harpy above her head. I don’t think it had occurred to me that fantasy could be funny, or could reference the modern world, and this did both and more, shattering the boundaries between the story’s world and mine, and wrecking every fantasy I’d try to read for the next 10 years by comparison. It’s the story of a unicorn who hasn’t seen others in what seems a long time, even to an immortal beast; she sets out to find them, and along the way finds a hapless magician, a fierce friend, an evil king, and an entirely unexpected kind of love. The last chapter makes me weep unabashedly, all these years later; this is one of the best presents anyone in my family ever gave me. It’s just beautiful.

5. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. I’d read Irving since high school, and enjoyed him mostly because he was funny and macabre and made all things sexual utterly hilarious, but this one changed the game. I bought it while working at the aforementioned bookstore in college, and quickly learned I couldn’t read it during my down time at work because I laughed so hard and so uncontrollably, I disturbed the customers and embarrassed myself. It’s the story of a boy who lost his mother and his weird messianic friend, but again, that can’t do it justice. The Christmas pageant! The Volkswagen! The armadillo! The war… As much as I’d howled with laughter all the way through, I sobbed at the end. Just thinking of the last sentence, and nothing more, always brings tears to my eyes. In a perfect world, everyone would read this book.

6. Dance With the Devil/The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones by Stanley Booth. Okay, I can feel you reaching for the keyboard to click away, disappointed with me, but I’m not kidding. I found this in a remainder bookstore at fifteen or sixteen, and until then, all the biographies I’d ever read — of anyone — were dry, plodding things, so-and-so was born/went to school/met/had a few adventures… Blah blah blah. This read like a novel, like the story of a writer who got the interview of his life with a gang of crazy people and almost became one of them by the end. The writer told the Stones’ backstory, but interspersed it with the story of his travels with the band on the 1969 tour that ultimately led to Altamont, and it was like reading story and backstory, so enthralling you forgot you knew how it ended, sort of. The band ceased being mythical figures and became weird interesting people with weird horrifying habits. Every summer, while I’m driving along blasting the Stones in my car and remembering the wild freaky elation of seeing them in concert, I want to reread this book. It changed the way I saw nonfiction.

7. The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. Don’t let me ever catch anyone saying a bad thing about Pat Conroy. When I was 15, and he was signing copies of this book at — you guessed it — the bookstore that overshadowed my entire youth in one way or another, the owner of the store introduced me as “one of our best customers (which was almost praise enough, considering I was a teenager with little disposable money — she meant quality, not quantity, she told me later when she hired me) and a writer herself.” Now, for most signing authors, especially those surrounded by fans at a bookstore reception, this would’ve meant a kind greeting and a handshake, but you’d be underestimating Conroy. He stopped signing books, stopped talking with friends, and took the time to talk to a homely, skinny, awkward kid for over half an hour about becoming a writer. Hell, none of my writing teachers had ever singled me out like that. We had a picture taken together and he wrote a lovely personal note in my book. I’ve been in love with him ever since. Not only that, The Prince of Tides lived up to the high expectations its author set. The book just vibrated with a love of language, a scope of tragedy, and an understanding of character I’d seen only a few times before at that age. It’s about a wrecked Southern family, a terrible secret, the survival and damage of a family after tragedy — I don’t know if you have to be Southern to fully appreciate Conroy’s grasp of what life down here is like, but I bet it helps. For the first and only time in my life, I made myself a vocabulary list as I read a book, which read and rolled with a beauty and poetry not unlike the Bible. I can almost smell the ocean when I reread it. Oh, and the movie is one of the worst abominations ever recorded to film, and I will never forgive Barbra Streisand for it, no matter how much I like her politics. Screw the movie, and savor the book.

8. Joe Jones by Anne Lamott. Sometimes you luck upon a book that shows you something you never realized was missing in the fiction you’d read before it, and this is a perfect example: until I was curious enough to blow five bucks of Christmas money (a not insignificant amount, in the late ’80s in my family) on a book because a couple of lines made you smile when you browsed through it, I’d hardly seen characters humanized. In this novel, about a motley group of friends and acquaintances in and around a California diner, I found people who actually talked like real people. Their patterns of speech, the way their thoughts rolled by inside their heads, their weird tics and rituals, their inside stories… These were some of the most utterly real characters I’d ever glimpsed before. This one book has probably had as much impact on the way I write as any other five or six books put together: Anne Lamott, whom I’d never heard of before that day in late 1987, showed me how it was done. It’s also funny and tragic and fascinating in the way a new friend is all of those things, by the way. Her other novels are good, but for me, this is the top of the mountain.

9. The Stand by Stephen King. I don’t know why I’d never picked this one up before, since I’d been reading King ever since fourth grade, when my mom handed me her copy of The Dead Zone and said, “You’ll like this.” (I took it to school and was reading it during a rainy recess period when my harridan of a fourth-grade teacher saw me and screeched, before the whole class, “TIGEREYE! Where did you get a book like that!? Do your parents know you’re reading that book?” Whereupon I burst into tears and said, “My mother gave it to me!” I still wish I’d been a fly on the wall in THAT parent-teacher meeting that followed.) But I got hold of The Stand, the original six-inch-sub-sandwich version, my senior year in high school, and while it didn’t make me miss class, it sure stood between me and my trig homework like The Walkin Dude himself. Wow. This is the first novel of really epic proportions I remember falling into, utterly engrossed in the characters and the way they fought against the darkness, hampered by their own humanity all the way. If you haven’t read it, well, it’s the story of the end of the world as we know it and the battle for good and evil that follows. If you have read it, you may understand the way it overshadowed the rest of my world while I was reading it, why Flagg and his grin haunted my dreams and I held my hands to my face every time Tom or Larry met the smallest obstacles… I love the unabridged version, too, most of all the coda at the end. Whenever a politician proposes some chilling initiative to this day, I mutter “I have come to civilize you!” and sometimes forget to fork the evil eye when I say it.

10. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. There are classics you choose from a reading list and classics that are thrust upon you, and then there are classics you find on your own when you’re thirteen or so that you never expected to fall in love with. Guess which category this one fits into? I didn’t even know what this book was about, only that I’d seen it around forever, and once I started reading it, I was immersed. I grew up in a town not terribly unlike Maycomb, Alabama, and this was the first book (Pat Conroy was a couple years later) I’d ever read that got it right about the south, from the rule of old people to the everpresent gossip to the rigid class system no one acknowledges to the casual and killing racism some people never think to question. I was openmouthed and weeping by the end of the book, thinking no matter how hard I tried, I’d never write anything this good. I still believe that, although I think I might catch up with Pat Conroy and Anne Lamott sufficiently to speak to them without bowing first one day. If you can write something this good, I understand why Harper Lee never wrote another novel; and if everyone on earth had to read one book in their lives, this one might be The One.

So that’s it. I left out a lot, like The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye or Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy on the classics side (yeah, bite me, I like some classics — I’m rereading Moby-Dick, take that!) to newbies on my list I haven’t had the chance to read more than once or twice, like, well, lots of Cormac McCarthy, or Ann Patchett’s The Magician’s Assistant or Bel Canto, or Gillian Bradshaw’s beautiful Arthurian trilogy or early, well-researched historical fiction. I read a lot. Thank God for online friends who do too, and if anyone is curious about any of these books, let me know if I can tell you more. I’d love to have someone else to discuss some of the more obscure ones with. Oh, who am I kidding? I’d love to talk about books for ages, with anyone. How much more time do you have?…

The Best Books of 2007, as Chosen by a Lazy Bibliomaniac

Posted in Imaginary Book Club with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2007 by tigereye

When I look back on this year, I can’t help but think of all the nothing I’ve accomplished. I haven’t found a job yet, I haven’t quite finished the damn novel, I haven’t rearranged the house into some form of order… What exactly did I do?

Well, I had a great beach vacation, I took care of my mom while she was very sick, I helped out my dad after his bypass surgery, and I read and read and read. That’s one thing to be said about reading: you can do it anywhere. At the beach, in a waiting room, in the car during traffic jams, late at night just before bed. And I managed to read some really terrific books of all sorts, in between doing the dishes and feeding the cat.

So these are my top ten books of the past year. They’re not in any order, because I had enough trouble just picking out ten, let alone rating them. The only rule I stuck to here was the books had to be 2007 releases — otherwise this would be ten pages. Anyway, here are my favorites.

Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin — hands down, one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. Steve Martin writes as beautifully as he acts, and he plays the banjo and the guitar, too: is there nothing this man can’t do? The book is about his life in comedy and how he got there, from childhood magic shows through the end of his stand-up career. It’s funny, poignant without being a tell-all — the description of his difficult relationship with his father is heartbreaking, but never maudlin — and even instructive to those of us who try to be funny in any medium.  I actually wished this book had been longer, I enjoyed it so much.

The Abortionist’s Daughter, by Elisabeth Hyde — This was the year’s first knockout book for me, which is always like finding the Golden Ticket to the Wonka factory inside your first candy bar. It’s a literary murder mystery, with so many possibilities among the troubled cast of characters that I never suspected the killer was… well, you’ll see. It’s also beautifully written, while at the same time chillingly familiar, easy to imagine as a story on “Inside Edition,” complete with parental angst and failing marriages and… well, find out for yourself.

Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman — this first novel was as much fun as an armful of comic books. In alternating chapters, it’s the tale of a supervillain’s plot to take over the world and a fledgling superheroine’s efforts with a team of heroes to stop him. Everything you learned from comic books as a kid is done here with a light, funny touch and a sense of the sometimes silly “truths” of having superpowers. If you’ve ever enjoyed a comic book, you’ll love this novel. I’m already hoping there will be a sequel.

The God of Animals, by Aryn Kyle — this first novel is the story of a young girl growing up on a family ranch, tending to the horses against the backdrop of her ill mother, runaway-bride sister, and flawed father. The horses, her troubled family, and the riders who train on the ranch are seen through the eyes of a lonely adolescent in a way that you may remember from your own early teens, with moments of clarity that make you hurt for the narrator the way you might for your own remembered self.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J. K. Rowling — I wish this series had no end. If I can’t have that, this book will do.

Grace (Eventually), by Anne Lamott — I admit that I’ll read anything Anne Lamott writes. I love her novels, her book on writing, her memoir of her son’s birth — and all three of her books on faith. She writes about the difficulty of being Christian in the face of everyday problems, with an eye to the real-life limitations we all have when we try to practice faith. She never makes me feel lectured or proselytized; reading her essays is like finding a friend who understands how the good in your heart can get irremediably tangled with the neurosis and the anger and the stubbornness, and helps you start to untangle the whole mess.

It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium, by John Ed Bradley — OK, this entry sounds like the old Sesame Street song that says “one of these things is not like the others,” but I assure you I’m not kidding. Bradley has been around as an unevenly good novelist for nearly twenty years, but this memoir of his college days playing football for LSU, and his coming to terms with the loss of this singular experience for, practically, the rest of his life, is one of the most moving memoirs I’ve ever read. I’ve never played football, but if you’ve ever given up something that you felt defined you, this book will ring as true and as heartbreaking to you as it did to me. His teammates, his father, his coach — all these relationships are recounted with wrenching honesty that reminds me of Pat Conroy’s best work. The writing is beautiful and the emotion is as real as blood on the page. I’m glad I read this book.

The Rest of Her Life, by Laura Moriarty — my biggest problem with Moriarty is that this is only her second novel. She’s a terrific writer, and I wish she had a bigger body of work (she has one other novel, The Center of Everything, that’s also excellent). This is the story of a family coping after their teenage daughter causes a tragic accident, and the skewed family history that makes them prone to — although I hate the word — dysfunction. These are very real characters whose pain is palpable in every chapter. You’ll read this in two days, max, because you can’t put it down.

A Dangerous Man, by Charlie Huston — Where have you been all my life, Charlie Huston? Eventually Elmore Leonard will have to retire, and finally there’s someone who can take up his mantle when it happens. Huston is one of the best crime writers I’ve ever found, funny and spare and hard to stop reading. A Dangerous Man is the final volume in his Henry Thompson trilogy (Caught Stealing, Six Bad Things), the tale of a guy who blundered into serious trouble when he told a neighbor he’d watch his cat for him and then never managed to get his life back, rocketing from one disaster to another over the course of the three books. Huston is also the author of two crime/noir/vampire novels, Already Dead and No Dominion, which I promise are completely unlike any vampire fiction you ever thought you’d see, and one stand-alone novel, The Shotgun Rule, also good but a little less so than his trilogy or series. More fun than a posse of drug-addled hit men in a Tarantino movie, if you like that sort of thing.

Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff — I was in college when I read Matt Ruff’s first novel, Fool on the Hill, and when I finished it I wanted to drive straight to New York to marry him. He’s had a couple of uneven novels since then, but Bad Monkeys is a return to his knock-it-out-of-the-park days. It’s about a young woman indoctrinated into a secret society to kill off the truly evil people in the world — the “bad monkeys.” Or is she? Is she lying or delusional or absolutely right? You be the judge. This was a twisting, turning, double-back-on-itself mindfuck of a novel that I read in one long sitting. Don’t read it under the influence of anything stronger than caffeine. I had just taken some Advil Cold & Sinus when I started it, and I fell right down the rabbit hole. It was a truly trippy bit of fun, though.

A Few Honorable Mentions

The Used World, by Haven Kimmel

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O’Farrell

Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from Up South, by Roy Blount, Jr.

In the Woods, by Tana French

The Air We Breathe, by Andrea Barrett

Meet an Author You’ve Never Heard Of: Gillian Bradshaw

Posted in Imaginary Book Club with tags , , , , , , on December 19, 2007 by tigereye

I’ll read just about anything. In a spinner rack in my living room — which is the on-deck circle for books I plan to read next or soon — hard noir sits next to romantic comedy, sports nonfiction rests beside historical fiction, and a story of Iranian childhood backs up against a novel I bought three years ago and just found, about an epileptic rock star. I can be indiscriminate.

However, sometimes I realize that an author I’ve glommed onto like a barnacle is completely unknown outside my bookshelves. At my old bookstore, I’d try to coax customers into reading them, and their eyes would glaze over and drift toward Clive Cussler or James Patterson, away from the book I was practically waving in front of their faces. You can lead a customer to a book, but he might pick up a copy of Maxim instead. I mean, what’re you gonna do?

Write something about these authors, that’s what. I’m going to wave some books under your nose here. Don’t get distracted by the TV, or the cat, or the funny sound the washing machine is making. You might love these books. Or anyway, one of them might make somebody very happy, which is the best you can ask of a book.

Gillian Bradshaw

I first discovered Bradshaw by accident. I’m a sucker for everything written about or based on the Arthurian legends, and I was paging through a discount catalog that my bookstore received when I read a blurb about one of her books, Kingdom of Summer. It was a love story, it was at least partly about Arthur, and most importantly, it was two bucks for a hardcover first edition. (Man, do I miss that discount catalog.)

When my copy of Kingdom of Summer arrived, I learned it was actually the second book in a trilogy. I don’t know about you, but I can’t deal with a series that’s already underway. Maybe it’s the OCD. I don’t know. But this meant I couldn’t read my fascinating-looking two-dollar bargain book until I got my hands on the first and last of the trilogy.

They were out of print. I had an out-of-print search company track them down for me, at only moderately exorbitant prices, and the rest of the trilogy arrived on my doorstep in November, months after I’d ordered the first one, which was really the second one. Oh, well, you know what I meant.

They were wonderful.

This trilogy was so good that I read it in a week and then reread it immediately, which I almost never do. Very few individual books have bowled me over like this, let alone three in a series. The stories centered on the character of Gwalchmai — Sir Gawain to those of us who hadn’t researched the legend thoroughly — and were narrated by Gwalchmai himself in the first book, a servant in the second, and Guinevere in the final volume. The characters were more real to me in those books than in any other Arthurian-based story I’d ever read: Mary Stewart, Marion Zimmer Bradley, anyone else who had tried to tell this story. And the history was amazingly correct. This was the first Arthurian tale that felt as if it might have actually happened, and to real, fallible, flawed and interesting people.

So after rereading the trilogy (which I now do every other year or so), I set out to find anything else I could by Bradshaw. I’d learned, via author blurb on the back cover, that she’d been a student at the University of Michigan (classics, of course, which explained the depth of her research) and won a prize there for the first book in the trilogy, Hawk of May (the final volume was titled In Winter’s Shadow). Then I learned of the first barrier between me and anything else she’d written. Everything was out of print.

I chanced across one novel a year later, in a closeout book warehouse, of all places. I was juggling a stack of dusty mysteries when I saw Beacon of Alexandria, a story about a woman of the Roman Empire who disguises herself as a eunuch to study medicine.  I think I dropped everything else in my hands to get at this book. Again, not only was the research remarkable (several ancient cures and texts were cited during the story, which I found fascinating), the characters seemed utterly real, caught up in religious battles of the times as well as suffering the Huns’ and Goths’ invasion of the empire. So the trilogy wasn’t a fluke, I thought — this woman really is that good.

It’s difficult even now to get hold of Bradshaw’s books. She lives in England, so you can find some of them on www.amazon.co.uk, but I’ll warn you, the shipping right now amounts to just doubling the price of the hardback book. Most of her titles take a year or more to arrive in the U.S.; I’ve given up on many of them and asked a friend who does book searches to track them down for me. Bradshaw writes mostly historical fiction, like the books I listed, but she also writes very hard, cutting-edge science fiction that I find more difficult to read.

If you can scare up a Bradshaw book, in the library or at a book warehouse or online, give it a try. Her writing is magnificent, her stories and characters ring true, and you’ll be fascinated by the depth of her research into ancient cultures.

Below are some of her titles. If I’ve read them, I’ve included a brief description. There are also a few I’ve not read yet; I’m saving them like the last few Godiva candies in the box, to enjoy later.

Hawk of May — story of Gwalchmai, otherwise known as Sir Gawain, growing up and becoming one of Arthur’s knights. That’s the story, just as “girl and dog have adventure” is technically the story of The Wizard of Oz. There’s great evil to overcome in this book, and a very light touch of Christianity to the story. Bradshaw is a master at never preaching, although faith is a common theme in her novels.

Kingdom of Summer — Gwalchmai later on, as a knight, in a doomed love story.

In Winter’s Shadow — Guinevere tells the story of the fall of Arthur. It’s another doomed love story, beautiful in its sadness.

The Beacon at Alexandria — a young girl disguises herself to study medicine in Alexandria, near the end of the Roman empire. The history of medicine never interested me before this book, but the narrator describes cures and herbal remedies that I found fascinating. The empire’s social and governmental troubles play out in a way your Western Civ 101 classes never described so clearly.

Horses of Heaven — in one of my favorite love stories, a young woman sent to be queen of a culture she doesn’t understand must marry a barbaric king in a political arrangement. How and with whom she finally falls in love is epic. Set in ancient Persia.

Island of Ghosts — the leader of the Sarmatian people, defeated by Romans, guards against intrigue in his new culture. The research in this novel is probably her most impressive, as the Sarmatians really existed but their culture had no written history. Plots and roadblocks abound in this story. It’s another favorite.

Wolf Hunt — legend of a French knight who could turn himself into a wolf, told at more length and with more fascinating characters. The end is a nail-biter.

Cleopatra’s Heir — if the Queen had had a son, he was a sickly young man who would be at the mercy of all Rome, and in this novel, he is.

Render Unto Caesar — a young Greek man has to challenge the prejudices of Roman-born citizens of the empire to receive justice when his father is murdered. One of my favorite characters here is a former gladiator who befriends and helps the narrator on his quest.

The Sand-Reckoner — novelization of the life and genius of Archimedes, with some love and some intrigue. Like any genius, Archimedes fascinates.

The following are more historical novels by Bradshaw that I’ve not yet read: The Bearkeeper’s Daughter, Alchemy of Fire, Imperial Purple, and Dark North, her latest.

Science fiction by Bradshaw: Bloodwood, The Somers Treatment, Elixir of Youth, and The Wrong Reflection.