Five For Friday: Novel Ideas

Books are good.  FR like books.  Herein lie some personal favorites.

Tyler: High Fidelity, Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby, efficient and dialogue-gifted, hasn’t published a good novel since his wonderful About A Boy.  Boy‘s preceding volume, High Fidelity, is a book whose themes I left behind long ago, in my early twenties, perhaps even my late teens, realizing that I’d never want to be so immature as Rob Fleming even then, let alone at thirty-five.  But Fidelity will forever be a personal favorite, so funny, so observational, so accurate in its depiction of the lowliest, lamest male insecurities.  It was adapted into a wonderful movie, directed by Stephen Frears, starring John Cusack (as Rob “Gordon,” for some reason), transplanted to my former home, Chicago, but the book itself should always be regarded, not as gospel, but rather cautionary tale to sensitive guys, romantics, who want more than anything to find a girl, and love her, hard, forever.  He’s no role model, but Rob learns some lessons throughout his adventures in Fidelity.  Perhaps the most important?

“Everybody’s faith needs testing from time to time…I have to confess (but only to myself, obviously) that maybe, given the right set of peculiar, freakish, probably unrepeatable circumstance, it’s not what you like but what you’re like that’s important.”

Nathan: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

No novel better captures the capricious spirit of America. If there is any classic work of literature that should be kept away from academia and out of the mandatory high school reading curriculum, this is this one. Overthinking Twain’s book saps it of all its joy, and no one, especially a teenager, wants to be forced to read something.

It’s a classic road (river) novel; a hilarious send up of class, culture, and, so long as you’re not afraid of the N-word, race; and, if that weren’t enough, it’s appropriate for all ages.

Travis: The Deep Blue Good-by, John D. MacDonald  

As an English major, I can say that I’ve read many of the world’s classic novels, and now that I’m no longer in college I, for the most part, never want to read any of them again, and further beyond that, I don’t want to read any new “literary” fiction, the MFA culture-bred style focused either on upper-middle-class navel-gazing or quirky postmodern word games. No thanks. Genre fiction is where it’s at for me, most of the time, and with the first entry in his Travis McGee series (full disclosure, my parents named me after the main character, so I’m predisposed to enjoy this shit) is tip-top in the detective novel crowd. The story of “salvage expert” McGee, a beach bum who makes his money getting back what has been stolen from others (and taking half for himself), Good-by features one of detective fiction’s most vicious villains, a cold-blooded, abusive man named Junior Allen. Oliver Stone has the rights to this book, and I hope he never gets to ruin it by bringing it to the silver screen and stripping away any of the many clever and subtle observations it uses its genre shield as cover to make about humanity.

Tyler: The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri is perhaps the most exquisite writer of her time.  Her prose, more than anybody’s, encouraged and inspired me to get back after and develop my own.  Her lone novel to date, The Namesake, does not reach the heights of her wondrous short-story collections, Interpreter Of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth.  But Lahiri’s writing in any form is irresistible and immaculate.  Her observations upon human nature, male or female, emotional and sexual, astound the mind.  The Namesake does not rank among her finest work.  But her work is so good that even her spares qualify as strikes.  “As days passed, Ashoke began to envison another sort of future.  He imagined not only walking, but walking away, as far as he could from the place in which he was born and in which he had nearly died.”

Nathan: Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut 

If you’ve read one Vonnegut novel, you’ve read them all. And either you like what he does or you hate it. As a novelist, he never seemed to progress much beyond what he was doing in Cat’s Cradle. But I enjoy the hell out of him.

His best attributes–breeziness and humor–are at the peak of their powers in Breakfast of Champions. 

Travis: Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

Ender’s Game is another piece of genre fiction taking a keen eye to the human condition and masking its messages in a fast-moving, entertaining story. The story of a young boy of above-average intelligence being trained to command fleets of warships against an alien invasion, it is a vivid tale not only of the awkwardness of adolescence and the dark and light sides of personality, but a political allegory as well, with a twist ending that actually works (this coming from someone generally averse to twists). I first read this one in fourth or fifth grade, it’s hard to remember, but it’s one that I’ve read over and over again, a book that hit me hard as a kid, an adolescent, and as an adult. Sort of like my Catcher in the Rye, but with wondering how to stop the alien hordes instead of wondering where the ducks go in wintertime. Sadly, Card couldn’t leave his perfect creation well enough alone, tarnishing it with an increasingly ridiculous series of sequels. He should have pulled a Harper Lee on this one.

Tyler: A Confederacy Of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

Borrowed from a now-ex and plowed through in days, Confederacy is so brilliant that even my psuedo-feministic sensitive-guy ass laughed hysterically at Ignatius J. Reilly’s overblown, frustrated, television-inspired-and-directed demand “RAPE HER!!”  So wrong.  But so good.

Nathan: The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco

The idea of a monastery murder mystery in 1327 sounds like something only a hack Christian writer would conjure up. But Umberto Eco does not write books like Left Behind. He is a semiotics specialist, a writer of essays, and a master of all-around academic insanity. A better way to describe The Name of the Rose can be found on Wikipedia: “…an intellectual mystery combining semiotics in fiction, Biblical analysis, medieval studies and literary theory.” In the end, Rose is a breathtaking mystery novel, a compelling meditation on the ways in which information and ideas pass (or don’t pass) through the centuries, and a damn lot of fun!

For my money, The Name of the Rose is the greatest debut novel ever written.

Travis: The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain

The definitive noir novel takes simple, hard-boiled language down to its essence. If Raymond Chandler was about florid description, Cain was all for negative space, and letting the terrible deeds of his characters speak for themselves. This book says in barely more than a hundred pages in paperback more than most authors can in careers of overblown prose. Of the five (!) film adaptations, only the 1946 version, with Lana Turner and John Garfleld, really holds up. This novel was also the inspiration for Camus’s The Stranger, which is, of course, also awesome.

Tyler:  The Maltese Falcon/The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammett

Said now-ex borrowed and somehow got the book cover torn from my copy of this slight cheat, a fucking fantastic pairing of two of the best pulp noir novels of all time.  Said now-ex did eventually replace my copy, after I made it clear that, Jesus Christ, I couldn’t stand to have one of my favorite books disrespected in such a way.  Then, of course, we broke up and I left all but six of my books behind (in the trash area behind our apartment.  God damn, was that hard to do.), and this combo is perhaps the tome I miss most.  Not only are the tales contained phenomenal, but the cover gave Travis, back when I had a smartphone and could MMS photos, a “book boner.”  Nothing wrong with that, nothing at all.

(P.S. – Said book cover was so glorious and vintage that I can’t even find it via Google image search or Amazon.  She was a good lady, said now-ex, and rather smarter than me, as, as noted, she actually managed to find and buy me another copy.  I loved her, y’know, but I had to go.  Not unlike–in fact, just as might ol’ Sam Spade.  Though I’d rather be Nick, and find myself a Nora.  “How do you feel?”, asks the latter.  Responds the former: “Terrible.  I must’ve gone to bed sober.”)

Nathan: The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

While reading The Grapes of Wrath in high school, my girlfriend at the time told me that Tom Joad killed himself at the end. Despite being incensed at her for “giving away” the ending, I found myself being pulled in by Steinbeck’s prose, breathlessly reading through a book that captured my imagination without any dragons, knights, or spirits. Tom Joad never did himself in. The book moved on, continuing to show me things that I had never really imagined before. I’ve never gone back to read The Grapes of Wrath again. I want the experience of discovering it to linger with me for a long time.

When it was over, Joad not a suicide victim, I forgave my girlfriend. The joke was amusing and it left me completely defenseless when I finally did get to the most shockingly beautiful ending I’ve ever read.

Travis: American Tabloid, James Ellroy

The heir to James M. Cain’s whittled-down prose, used to describe the darker impulses in American life, reached his pinnacle in this follow-up to his fantastic LA Quartet (which brought us LA Confidential), taking the author’s obsessions (sex, violence, betrayal, pornography, gossip, murder, the mob, America’s general fucked-up-ness, celebrity, and panty-sniffing, not necessarily in that order) out of their usual Los Angeles home and making them global, taking on the Bay of Pigs disaster and Kennedy’s assassination in conspiratorial, fictionalized, brutal noir style. This is a dark, cynical book but every word is as entertaining as it can be repulsive, and like his idol Cain, every three-page chapter packs more plot than a dozen soap operas. If Dickens had written this book in his paid-by-the-page days, it’d be longer than the complete works of Proust.

Tyler: City Of Thieves, David Benioff

I discovered Benioff, husband of Amanda Peet (me-ow!), via his adaptation of his debut novel–25th Hour–into a screenplay that informed one of the best Spike Lee films of the last ten years, or of the last any years.  I haven’t read 25th; I have read DB’s collection of short fiction, When The Nines Roll Over.  Nines is lovely, but Thieves is beyond reproach.  It’s fucking brilliant.  Holocaust/WWII dramatization forever treads the finest of lines between true emotion and mawkish manipulation.  City Of Thieves ranks among the most glorious of the latter, rich with real humanity, tense progression, and earned devastation.

Also, it contains this.  One of my most beloved passages of literature–of just plain writing–of all time.

“I’ve always envied people who sleep easily. Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of the skull well swept, all the little monsters closed up in a steamer trunk at the foot of the bed.”

Nathan: Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides 

I am not a hermaphrodite. I am not of Greek ancestry. I did not grow up in Detroit during the ’50s only to move to the suburbs with my parents when the race riots came. In short, I am almost nothing like Cal/Calliope, the central character of Jeffrey Eugenides’ sprawling epic of deeply confused sexuality.

Middlesex is The Great American Novel. It traces us back to the Europe that we could no longer abide by. It catalogues our most triumphant successes and stares headlong into our darkest moments. It looks sympathetically at sex, that thing that we Americans obsess over and yet are not entirely comfortable with. To read it is to ponder what it means to be both American and human.

Travis: Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow

Following up American Tabloid on my list is another sprawling tapestry about America, another broadly reaching tale told with quick prose and hundreds of perfect moments alternating between comedy and tragedy. Ragtime is one of the few books I’ve read with absolutely no expectation going in—it was assigned for a class and the copy of the book I purchased had no description of the contents whatsoever. Going purely from the title, I expected dry historical fiction, centered around the musical style of the same name. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised. Name another epic about the beginnings of the Twentieth Century in America compelling enough to read in one sitting.


6 thoughts on “Five For Friday: Novel Ideas

  1. I normally have some at least playful objection to someone’s choice in the Five, but damn we have good taste in novels. Of these, I have only not read The Namesake, City of Thieves, and the Maltese Falcon half of the Falcon/Thin Man combo, and The Grapes of Wrath and Vonnegut both competed in my thoughts for places on my list (though I would have gone with Slapstick, just because it made me laugh more often).

    So many people in my English class in high school hated The Grapes of Wrath and Huck Finn. Fartnoise on them.

    And everyone knows an Ignatius J. Reilly. I’m sure, sadly, I am that person for some.

  2. Other titles I had in consideration: Ragtime, Death Comes for the Archbishop (Willa Cather), The Children at the Gate (Edward Lewis Wallant), Silence (Shusaku Endo), and The Sheltering Sky (Paul Bowles).

    Strangely, I’ve never read any other E.L. Doctorow books. Do you have any recommendations, Travis?

  3. Not having my library anymore made this Five a bit harder than most to compile. I’ve been on a non-fiction kick for…well, basically years now, but many of these selections are likely to be checked out right soon from the Ann Arbor District Library. Most notably, American Tabloid, what with my unceasing cleavage to Kennedy-assassination work of any kind. (Hey, apparently there’s new evidence breaking that LHO acted alone! Which I actually kinda believe at this point. Plus, Stephen King’s new book sounds awesome.)

    Nathan, I’ve read Doctorow’s The March. It’s damn good, but something about it irked me, the “historical fiction” aspect. Then again, I read it on the heels of burning through and adoring James Swanson’s non-fiction Manhunt (about which we may or may not hear more next week…), so I was a bit biased.

  4. I have attempted to read other Doctorow books, namely World’s Fair and the Book of Daniel, and finished neither. They are nothing like Ragtime, and much more like what I had mistakenly gone in expecting to be: dry historical fiction with no movement. I’ve heard good things about Billy Bathgate, but haven’t read it.

    I think you’ll enjoy American Tabloid, Tyler.

  5. Pingback: Five For Friday: Al-aNon-Fiction « Fully Reconditioned

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