Monday, February 25, 2008

Recommended Reading: Books you need to read, and the reasons you need to read them

Back in high school, the best teacher I ever had; the inimitable Mr. Hamish Guthrie; spent the entirety of our very first OAC English class standing before us for an hour and a half with a pile of books scattered across his desk, randomly selecting weathered paperbacks from the heap and getting increasingly more animated and enthusiastic with each title he picked out. First it was The Catcher in the Rye; then it was On The Road. He would describe them as if he had lived the lives of those characters himself, and the stories he revealed were so vivid and exciting that you’d have to be a fool not to want to read them yourself. Then he'd catch a glimpse of a David Gilmour book or something by Brian Moore and be hardly able to contain himself, expressing a kind of heretofore-unheard-of reverence about how this or that novel might just be the best book ever written… That is, until he’d pick up the next great work; Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, or Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; and suddenly that particular work was the finest achievement in all of the English language…

On and on it went, and we found ourselves wondering how it would be possible to ever read so many books, let alone chronicle the details of each and be able to endlessly wax poetic on their virtues. It was almost unbelievable how meaningful these books were to this man. And yet at the same time, his enthusiasm was entirely believable because he couldn’t have been more genuine if he tried.

I oftentimes look back on that particular class as the most important hour and a half I ever spent in school. Not because I learned any specific lesson or because something scholastic finally clicked in my head; but because, for the first time in my life, I was actually excited about reading.

Not-so surprisingly, very little has changed for me in the past ten years with regards to my love for books. And because of this affection for literature, I have continued to read as much as possible, which in turn has lead to my periodically being asked by people near and dear whether or not I might be able to recommend a good book for them to read. I guess we’ll go ahead and consider this my response.

I should probably preface this list with the caveat that by no means am I the most well-read person on the planet; in fact, I’m not even close to being the most well-read person I know. Failing that, I can always go with the excuse that, in the words of Jay McInerney, “taste is simply a matter of... taste”.

In no particular order, here are the books you might want to read before you die, along with some of the reasons you might wish to.

The Tender Bar, by J.R. Moehringer

This was far and away the best book I read in 2007. This is the memoir written by the Pulitzer Prize winning L.A. Times journalist J.R. Moehringer, about his growing up in a bar... literally. As a boy growing up in Manhasset, Long Island (the real life East Egg from Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby) J.R. had neither a real first name, nor a father. Feeling the need for that fatherly influence, as a young boy J.R. is compulsively drawn to the local watering hole where he learns everything there is to know about life and love. Imagine spending your entire childhood at The Oar House circa 1998, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what your narrator gets up to… And the story about J.R. losing his virginity is one of the best I've ever heard.

San Francisco Chronicle Review

Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney

I'm a sucker for Zeitgeist literature, particularly that which takes place in NYC, and there is perhaps no finer work capturing what it meant to live in the rollicking mid-80's Manhattan than this classic by Jay McInerney. I could recommend almost everything pre-21st century McInerney (his most recent work is downright unreadable), but this is a great jumping off point. It's the story of a young guy living in NYC, working at a big-time NY magazine (presumably the New Yorker) in the Department of Factual Verification. He has everything going for him, including the supermodel wife, and then in a matter of days, it all seems to unravel. Plenty of late night partying, plenty of substance abuse, and plenty of fun. Just a great read, and I love the fact that it's written in the second person (the story is about "you"; as in: "You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning", one of the most seductive opening lines I’ve ever encountered). They turned it into a movie starring Michael J. Fox, but as always, the book is infinitely better.

A McInerney piece taken from The Guardian in September of 2001, detailing the week that changed his city forever.

Brightness Falls, by Jay McInerney

To me, this is McInerney’s crowning achievement. The story of Russell and Corrine’s crumbling marriage amidst the stock market’s crash and Russell’s attempted hostile takeover of the publishing house he works for is beautifully written and describes New York City in the way that only McInerney can. His insight into the inner workings of the publishing world is enough to make you want to quit your current job and accept a position for a fraction of your current pay, if for nothing else than to refute the notion that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. It is the story of a guy who wants to be a big-shot, spending money he doesn’t have to impress people he shouldn’t need. It also has one of the best intentionally botched Robert Johnson lines in all of literature. If you liked Bright Lights, you’ll love Brightness Falls.

Review from Entertainment Weekly

The Tropic of Hockey, by Dave Bidini

Bidini plays guitar in the Rheostatics, and he just happens to be one hell of a writer as well. This is the true story of his traveling around the world with little more than his writer’s wit and his hockey bag, playing pick-up with random pseudo-hosers everywhere he can find a game, from China to Transylvania to Dubai. It is one of the most quintessentially Canadian stories I've ever read, and if you’re a hockey player, you can't help but relate to all of those universal truths of the guys, the dressing room, and the game itself. I’m of the belief that this book should be required reading in high school when you have to focus on Canadian literature, as there is no other book which more accurately describes what it means to be Canadian.

I defy anyone to read the prologue and not want to read this book.

The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner

I won’t lie to you. This is a book that requires at least two readings and probably 3 advanced-level university classes of intense review in order to begin to appreciate it. The first time I read the first section, I had absolutely no idea what the hell was going on. As the title alludes, the first section is a tale told by an idiot (and a castrated one, at that; although, in today’s terms, we would probably refer to him as mentally challenged) in a stream of consciousness that flip-flops inexplicably between events taking place anywhere within a thirty year time frame… Again, almost impossible to decipher at first, but when you begin to understand what’s going on, this becomes one of the most fascinating and hysterical books about life in the south.

The scene where Jason is masochistically chasing Miss Quentin and the man with the red tie, practically reveling in his own misfortune (“I had gotten beggar lice and twigs and stuff all over me, inside my clothes and shoes and all, and then I happened to look around and I had my hand right on a bunch of poison oak. The only thing I couldn’t understand was why it was just poison oak and not a snake or something. So I didn’t even bother to move it. I just stood there until the dog went away”) is one of the funniest sections in all of American literature. You’d be hard pressed to find a more bitter character anywhere.

This is the ultimate dysfunctional family, and following their history through four distinct points of view and in a circulatory, non-linear chronology; although entirely bewildering at times; is one of the finest literary treats you'll ever come across.

The Sound and the Fury’s plot overview, along with links to the list of characters, and detailed descriptions of each section. If you plan on undertaking this masterpiece, you will probably need these notes.

The Body, by Stephen King

When I was fifteen years old, I was absolutely infatuated with the movie Stand By Me. My friends and I based an inordinate amount of what we did around what transpired in that movie, whether it be camping out down in the creek, yearning to play mailbox baseball, or just being off-limits inside a junkyard and fudging on our folks. Without exaggerating, I’d probably seen that movie 40 times by the time I reached the 10th grade, so when given the opportunity to choose our own book to read for one of those infamous ISU projects, I naturally chose the book on which that incredible movie was based.

Up until that point, I’d never really enjoyed reading. I mean, I read because I was supposed to, but I’d never really gotten into a book the way you do when you’re with it every page and can’t seem to be able to put it down. But The Body changed that forever. It was the first time I’d ever laughed out loud while reading a book. It was the first time I’d ever come across honest to goodness swearing in a book. And it was the first time I was ever able to relate to the characters in a book; the first time I saw some of myself in these people that existed on paper, in a story. And of course, it was the first time I ever realized that a book could actually be better than a movie… And we’re talking about a book being better than my all-time favourite movie, so this awakening was nothing short of historic.

More than anything else, The Body was the book that made me want to be a writer. I understood the world that this particular book had opened up for me, and I felt like being able to impart that experience on others was something I’d give anything to do; and what’s more, I felt like it was something I could do. For the first time, I realized that books didn’t have to be highbrow and excruciatingly boring in order to be considered good. And I finally understood that you could get more out of a book that you genuinely enjoyed reading than from some dull piece of “literature” that you were only reading because your teacher said that you had to.

In any event, The Body is a novella; a 120 page shortish novel found in the compilation entitled Different Seasons (which also includes Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and Apt Pupil, both of which were also adapted for the screen). I often have English teachers ask me if there is anything I would recommend for their students in order to get them interested in reading, and without fail, I say The Body every time. I’m not sure if any of them have ever actually gone ahead with the experiment (there might be some issues with the language and subject matter), but to me, this is the kind of coming of age novel that a kid needs to read.

Strangely enough, other than those short novellas, I’ve never really read any other works by Stephen King.

The complete script of Stand By Me, including bullet points you can click on for fantastic stills from the movie. One of the best things I’ve ever come across on the internet.

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

If you haven't already read Hemingway's story about the lost generation expatriate Americans carousing in Pamplona, then it's time you did. The main character, Jake, was wounded in the first world war, and as a result he is unable to, how shall we say... perform as a man? Despite this inadequacy, he finds himself in love with this girl who loves nothing more than to be with men who are able to perform, if you catch my drift. A man less sensitive than myself to the plight of the 1920’s woman might refer to her as a slut, but I would never sink so low as to impart such a smear.

This is the story of the group of them drinking and watching the bullfights and trying to forget about their problems and who they are for awhile. The writing is beautifully sparse in its style (an economic use of language that was unheard of at the time), and the dialogue amongst the characters is some of the best in all of literature. You will learn more about the Fiesta and bullfighting than you ever thought imaginable, and for my money, the book ends on the greatest kiss-off closing line of all-time. It also happens to be Hemingway’s crowning literary achievement.

The Sun Also Rises’ commentary in Time’s 100 All-Time novels.

The Human Stain, by Philip Roth

Philip Roth’s powers as a writer are almost scary. This was my first exposure to his writing, and to say that I was blown away would be a vast understatement. The Human Stain is the final act in the American Trilogy (also comprising American Pastoral and I Married a Communist), and it is the story of Coleman Silk, a former golden gloves boxer from Newark, now in his 70’s, who has been forced to resign from his position as a professor of classics at Athena college for making what some interpreted to be a racist remark aimed at two students who, to that point, he had never even met (when the two students fail to show up for the first number of classes, Silk asks rhetorically: “Do they exist, or are they spooks?”). When it turns out that the two absent students are African American, an ultra-PC revolt (“the ecstasy of sanctimony”) leads to his eventual resignation. What we learn later on is that Silk has been living a lie for most of his adult life, passing for a Jew when he is in actual fact a black man, making the charges of racism even more ludicrous than they already are (this book is a reflection of the times, as it takes place in 1998 in the midst of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, revealing just how absurd the entire proceedings actually were).

After Silk’s wife dies, he enters into a relationship with a 34-year old woman who makes him feel more alive than he can ever remember. The only problem with this relationship is that the woman’s ex-husband is a terrifyingly disturbed Vietnam Vet who has major issues with his ex-wife dating Silky-Silk.

I was so deeply involved in this story that I actually found myself shaking at the end of it, so afraid was I about what might befall the narrator. This is the only time this has ever happened to me, and for that reason alone, it has to be considered one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. Charles Taylor may have put it best when he wrote: “As a novel, Philip Roth's The Human Stain, and the two books that preceded it in a loose trilogy, is perhaps the greatest achievement by our greatest living writer, a penetrating epic vision of American life and politics unequaled in American art since the first two "Godfather" films.”

Enough said.

Review from Salon: “At the top of his form, Philip Roth delivers an astounding novel about three issues that make Americans crazy: Race, sex, and Monica.

The Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem

This book has almost everything you could ever want in a novel: innumerable references to 70’s soul music, growing up in Brooklyn as the only white kid in school, everything you need to know about graffiti, stickball, Spaldeens, and gentrification… It’s the story of two kids growing up together: one is black, and the other white. One has a former soul singer for a father and can’t help but be the coolest kid in the world, while the other has a reclusive avant-garde artist for a dad and is simply trying to survive.

If you love music and you love New York City, this is one of the best books you’ll ever come across.

View From a Headlock. An excerpt from The Fortress of Solitude, in the form of a short story, taken from The New Yorker.

You Shall Know Our Velocity, by Dave Eggers

Everybody always sites A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius as Eggers best book, but I always found YSKOV to be so much more affecting and memorable. It's the story of Will, a guy who has come across a bunch of money ($80,000) but feels a certain amount of Western guilt associated with it, so he and his buddy, Hand, decide to buy one of those one-way-around-the-world plane tickets so they can travel to various continents, dispersing the money to those who could find a better use for it, all within a span of 7 days. Sounds like fun to me, but the pair of them find that getting around the world and giving away money isn’t exactly as easy as it sounds, particularly given the fact that they are some of the least world-weary travelers imaginable. It also doesn’t help that they’re trying to deal with the fact that their childhood friend has recently died in a car accident, and the notion that Will can’t seem to deal with the memories that want to work their way back into his head…

Eggers has one of the most addictive writing styles I've ever come across, and this is one of those books that you won't find yourself able to put down. It kind of has the feel of a modern-day On The Road.

Maybe more importantly, there is a scene in the book where the guys try to tape some money to a cow, and they put the money inside a pouch with the words: “HERE I AM / ROCK YOU LIKE A HURRICANE” inscribed on it with lightning bolts flanking the message… Believe me when I say that this makes for the world’s greatest message when written with nothing else on postcards sent back home…

YSKOV review from Flak Magazine.

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

I have read more books by John Steinbeck than I have by any other author, and this is far and away my favourite work of his. In fact, if I had to pick one book as my all-time favourite, East of Eden would probably be my choice. It is a story about the Salinas Valley; the sights, sounds, smells, and colours of that place that Steinbeck had for so long called his home; and it is a story about two families inhabiting that valley: the Hamiltons and the Trasks. It is an epic tale, spanning generations, and at the same time it is a tale as old as civilization itself. The truths depicted in this work are as relevant today as they were upon the book’s publishing more than fifty years ago, and they were as relevant then as they have been since the beginning of time.

With many of its themes based on Chapter 4 of Genesis (the story of Cain and Abel), much of the novel concerns itself with man’s universal struggle to do good in the face of evil. The stories of Charles and Adam, and of Cal and Aron are far too profound to delve into here, but theirs; as is every person’s; is about the ability to triumph over the sins we inherit and the sins we commit. As the some-times servant and all-time philosopher Lee puts it:

“The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’ – it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’”

I should probably point out that this is the only book I have ever stolen. I checked it out of my high school library when I was in OAC, and after I finished reading it, I knew there was no way I could ever give it back. I realize now that I should probably make a point of donating a brand new copy of East of Eden to the White Oaks Public Library. Really, for all that book has meant to me over the years, it’s the least I can do.

A laudatory summary of themes from

Star of the Sea, by Joseph O’Connor

I was introduced to Joseph O’Connor’s writing as a teenager when an uncle of mine lent me a copy of the wildly hilarious The Secret World of the Irish Male (the tales of the drunken Irish in the U.S. for the World Cup in 1994 – an event which I also attended – are nothing short of hysterical, and I’ve been searching for a copy of it ever since). So when the same uncle recommended Star of the Sea, there was no way I could have ever imagined the kind of book I ended up falling in love with, because it simply could not be more different from The Secret World….

Star of the Sea is the dark and at times terrifying story of the “coffin ship” of the same name, and its 27-day journey from Ireland to America in the winter of 1847 (in the midst of the Irish famine). The accounts of the inhumane conditions in steerage are almost impossible to fathom as the story weaves its way through the eyes of four different characters on board, the histories of each and what ultimately brought them to this particular crossroads being every last bit appalling as the quart of water and half pound of hardtack that the poverty stricken passengers are afforded each day.

This is a story that will give you an unforgettable idea of what life was like for the immigrant poor of the mid-19th century, and the historical significance of what O’Connor details is quite frankly the stuff they don’t teach you in history class. The depiction of life in a pre-famine Connemara is some of the most evocative writing I’ve ever come across, and the image of a brooding Pius Mulvey pacing the ship at night with the slow thud of his clubbed foot is the kind of haunting vision that gives kids nightmares.

Star of the Sea holds a special place in my heart because it was one of my Grandfather's favourite books, and because he too came to North America from Ireland; mind you in slightly more favourable conditions; but it can’t be denied that O’Connor is a ferociously talented writer, being able go from the light-hearted snapshots of modern Irish life in The Secret World… to the dark and haunting suspense of Star of the Sea. I guess that degree of talent shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, seeing as it seems to run in the family; Joseph O'Connor is brother to the supremely talented Sinead.

Review from Mostly Fiction.

The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand

Everything I know about architecture (which is to say: not very much), I know because I read The Fountainhead when I was eighteen. The story revolves around two young architects: Howard Roark (the character is based upon Frank Lloyd Wright) and Peter Keating. Roark refuses to compromise his ideals for the sake of pleasing his clients, even to the point of financial ruin; while Keating is all too willing to sell out in order to climb the social ladder.

The expression of ideals through architecture is a thing of beauty, and I love the line where Roark explains: “I don’t intend to build in order to have clients; I intend to have clients in order to build.” More than anything else, this is a book about being an individual. It’s a book about believing in yourself, and having the courage of your convictions in the face of all that try to beat you down.

Perhaps best exemplifying Roark’s indifference to the opinions of others is the line he gives in response to Ellsworth Toohey who, after essentially single-handedly annihilating Roark’s business and reputation, implores Roark to say exactly what he thinks of him. Roark responds: “I don’t think of you.”

There is also a vicious love story replete with more back-stabbing and underhandedness than one would care to admit exists in society, but there it is nonetheless.

A voraciously philosophical work, you really would be hard pressed to find a book more dedicated to the triumph of the human spirit.

Ayn Rand explains Objectivism in less than a page.

The History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, by Julian Barnes

If for no other reason, you should read Julian Barnes’ masterpiece simply for the untitled (Parenthesis) “half” chapter, which is easily the finest essay I’ve ever come across regarding the subject of love. I’ve been trying for years to find a way to adequately quote it for the purposes of wedding speeches and sappy card signings, but have pretty well conceded the fact that the chapter needs to be looked at as a whole in order to be fully appreciated and understood. It is as close to flawless as they come.

The rest of the book is nothing to turn your nose up at either: ten shortish stories loosely intertwined, and when read holistically, come together as… well, as a history of the world, so to speak. From a woodworm sneaking aboard Noah’s Ark to the most thrilling depiction of Heaven I’ve ever come across, the stories comprising this novel reveal how we look at history, and the consequent means by which we interpret life.

The story comparing a hostage taking to a (presumably) fictional psychology experiment involving monkeys and a heated floor; the aim of which is to prove that self-interest will always prevail over altruism; is one of the saddest accounts I’ve ever read.

Review from The New York Times.

Honourable Mention:

Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby

Straight Man, by Richard Russo

Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh

V., by Thomas Pynchon

Mason and Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon

The Comedians, by Graham Greene

Layer Cake, by J.J. Connolly

The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, by W.P. Kinsella

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer

A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey

How Boys See Girls, by David Gilmour


Anonymous said...

Sean, it's so funny that you posted this because I'm in the middle of reading "The Tender Bar". It's amazing.
"So long as you drank publicly, not secretly, you weren't a drunk." I live by these words every day. His imagry and use of diction (yes I'm an English nerd) is crazy. "Of course many bars in Manhasset, like bars everywhere, were nasty places, full of pickled people marinating in regret." Great read.

Anonymous said...

I'd put Atlas Shrugged down as my choice for a Rand book. It was the first book I ever read that truly changed the way I looked at the world. It's also probably one of the main reasons I'm such a capitalist pig now.

I liked Fountainhead as well, however Atlas Shrugged manage to demonstrate Rand's philosophy at both the individual and society levels.

Anonymous said...

An email I recently had forwarded to me:


You must do me a big favor: call your nephew Sean ( the literary one, I think that is Sean ) and tell him for me, that I just finished The Tender Bar my Mr. Moehringer and was absolutely riveted every step of
the way. It is a wonderful, wonderful story which brought , no kidding, tears to my eye and more than one lump to my throat and also much laughter and amusement. Sean told me about this at your party just as I was leaving "It is one of the best reads I have ever had" or something to that effect he said. I see why.

It is first and foremost about love: love of mother, love of uncle, love of place and through and arduous process a final love of sorts of self. He writes of his own real life in a way that takes you immediately to the essence of who he is and who others are in his life.

And what a life it has been for this amazing young journalist.
Pulitzer prize writer for an article he wrote for the L.A. Times, his life is stranger than fiction and he spares no illusions about himself to tell it honesty with great poignancy.

You would love it for so many reasons: it is about people; it is about a bar; it is about the friendships and mentoring and support one often
finds with their local; it is about growing up and about sex and about self doubt and self deprecation. It is about rising above your lot in life despite the odds, it is about never forgetting where you came from. It is about love and it is about finding your voice - and that is the literary allusion and the metaphorical one that permeates the entire memoir. The references to Yeats, Longfellow, Hemingway and
especially to F.Scott Fitzgerald and to Gatsby in particular are
relevant and always relatable.

I am going to give you a paragraph where J.R. meets a priest on a train and they have a few drinks together ( I have never read about so much drinking in my life - I was hung over just reading)

"Can I tell you something ?" the priest asked."Do you know why
God invented writers? Because He loves a good story. And He doesn't
give a damn about words. Words are the curtain we've hung between Him
and our true selves. Try not to think about the words. Don't strain
for the perfect sentence. There's no such thing. Writing is guesswork.

Every sentence is an educated guess, the reader's as much s yours.

Think about that the next time you curl a piece of paper in the

J. R. gets a job as a copyboy at the New York Times and fails ; his
failures are so movingly told and well, I have met a new young living
author whom i shall follow. I googled him and the reviews for this book are pretty amazing.

So, please tell Sean a thank you. It's funny he told me and I wrote it down as soon as i got home; here in Fla. I tried to get it in the library and could not recall the exact title or how to spell his name but a great lady librarian tracked it down via internet. And voila.

An easy read, I could not put it down; nothing historic but so very
human and so very honest.

I feel another lump coming on.