Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Book Notes — Ten Books That Served As Courses in Life And Writing

Aside from cat videos, a relatively current Facebook trend is to get folks to list their ten top books.  The point here is to list those books that have stayed with them in some way, a special place in their hearts and or minds.  Because I’m a suspicious sort, I worry that some of these lists wander into the top-ten-books-of-all-time kind of thinking.  

I first learned of this “tag-a-friend” project on the crime fiction web blog, Rapsheet, which I go to every morning to accompany my first cup of coffee of the day.

I dutifully posted my ten (eleven sort of) in the comment section of that post and have been perusing other lists on the blog and on Facebook and decided I would like to explain my choices.  My first thought was that the premise was the greatest or my favorite 10 books. I would be unqualified to list the 10 greatest books because I don’t have the literary or historical qualifications, and because I really haven’t read enough to do such a list justice. Second, readers and writers may approach reading differently. The following is a list of books, not necessarily my favorites, but books that, in some way, changed my life, or my craft or at least my view of the world.

Young Törless, Robert Musil   Musil wrote this prescient tale about the end of innocence and the onset of adolescence while the Nazis were gathering their evil forces in Europe.  The book foresaw the human capacity to force people to belong to a powerful group and to torture those who don’t or can’t.  Musil also introduced me to his more famous contemporaries— Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John le Carré. Le Carré let me know that crime and espionage novels could offer much more than the solving of a puzzle and introduced me to the concept of the  deeply flawed protagonist. We find ourselves interested in a central character who is no longer interested in the world.
Soul On Ice, Eldridge Cleaver  There’s no way that a middle-class white kid like me could understand racism as it was at the time without exposure to the stories of people who lived it.  I’m sure there are other great books (Baldwin and Wright) that could have provided me with that kind of education — perhaps a better one.  But at the time, this was what I found and what I needed and when I needed it. Cleaver went off into the ozone later. This, however, was a powerful and meaningful story.
Armies of the Night/Miami And The Siege of Chicago, Norman Mailer   I’m not sure this is history as fiction or fiction as history, but Mailer’s journalistic style strikes me as a valuable writer’s resource. These two books, observations of our government’s bad behavior, were part of a new kind of writing that many well-known authors claimed to invent, including Truman Capote with his celebrated, In Cold Blood.
Tesseract, Alex Garland  Again, this is something for writers especially.  How much energy can anyone put into the written word? The words move. The reader must chase them. This was a book that shook me up.
The Teachings of Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda  Fact or fiction?  I’m definitely voting for fiction and from what we’ve learned later that’s a safe vote.  This first volume of books on “the Yaqui way of knowledge,” however reads as well-written magical realism that snagged my young mind.  It opened up possibilities.
Brat Farrar, Josephine Tey  However desperate some writers are to leave the traditional behind, it’s great to be grounded by a master mystery writer now and then. This was an assignment for a mystery conference.  Otherwise, I might have have missed this tightly-plotted classic.
Diva, Daniel Odier (a.k.a. Delacorta) What fun!  Not every book has to cause a furrowed brow. In the end, what this book (and the series) did for me was to say:  “This would be fun to write and “You could do this”— an inspiration I couldn’t resist. It was this series that caused me to write the now out-of-print, Eclipse of the Heart.
Clarence Darrow for the Defense, Irving Stone I was a strange little kid.  I didn’t have any real heroes until this book came along and I got to know something about Clarence Darrow.  A little later I discovered a second hero – Cassius Marcellus Clay (not the boxer, the abolitionist).  Both gained a significant amount of power and stature.  Both were deeply flawed, but both were willing to risk everything to pursue causes they believed in.
Gorky Park, Martin Cruz Smith  Much like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, we have an author who can create memorable characters and weave them into suspenseful tales relevant to our times. It’s education made compelling.  One learns or tries to learn from the masters. 

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