With a nod to Matthew MacNish’s Facebook post on his most influential books from at least 10 years ago. Piece of cake for the first five but not so easy from there-after. They’re in order of how they came to me. First five today – the rest later in the week.
1. The Gods of Mars/The Warlord of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. These are the second and third books of the John Carter of Mars series. I found a beat up hard cover copy of these in a two-book special issue on a dusty, lonely shelf in my seventh period study hall in 8th grade. It was the only study hall I ever took. I loved these books so much I took the hardcover with the Frazetta art on the front home with me. When my friend Joe died at the end of that year in a terrible train accident a small part of me thought he died because I took the book. I could come up with no other reason for losing my best friend. It has haunted me. Over the years I collected each of the Frazetta covered hardbacks in the series combing through used bookstores everywhere I went for those special editions with the line drawings illustrating the text. Frazetta did the covers for all Burroughs’ books in the 70s so I read everything he wrote, even if he wrote them all during the early 1900s.
2. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. They are all one to me emotionally. The year before Joe died we read these one after the other. I still remember reading the Bridge at Khazadoom chapter in the car with Joe and my brother on the way to the community pool. We didn’t want to leave the car until we finished that first book.
3. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Nobody has ever captured the thrill of getting a new pair of sneakers on the first day of summer the way he did. I love lots of Bradbury books but this one was just about growing up, nothing more and nothing less and it was magnificent. His voice is so distinctive and poetic. I don’t write like him but I aspire to have a voice as singularly unique and an imagination as full of wonder. I got a lot tied up in him.
4. His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman. This was the most powerful fantasy novel (and it is one long epic novel told in three parts) I’d read in a long, long time and I read it just before my son was born and before Harry Potter turned up. And it’s YA. And I cried at the end and stared at the ceiling afterwards examining the cracks and wondering about the world. Damn.
5. A Deadly Shade of Gold by John D. MacDonald. I started reading the Travis McGee series when I was in Honduras as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The PC library was four shelves of worn paperbacks sitting in the shade by the nurses office in Tegucigalpa. I don’t remember which number book this was for me but it’s the fifth in the series and I’d read a few before this one came along. As a writer this book blew me away because the mystery was cleared up half-way into the book. I was young and naively thought genre books like mysteries always followed a pattern. I had at that moment a blinding realization – that I didn’t care that the book had stopped following the pattern and that was because I enjoyed the main character Travis McGee so much I was willing to go anywhere plot-wise with him. He tore the genre formulae apart. Genre didn’t have to follow formulae. With a good character in hand you could do just about anything in any genre. I always tell writers to read Macdonald’s Travis McGee series. He was a master of genre fiction. You also watch him grow as a writer as the books were written over a twenty-year spread. Check out McGee, the dames who come to him looking for help and his houseboat The Busted Flush somewhere down the coast of Florida. Don’t forget the rum.
I’ve been reading A.S. King and learning how to write. Every one of her books is a meditation on the art and craft of the novel. She is wonderful. I just finished her first book, Dust of 100 Dogs, and her latest, Reality Boy – back to back. I’ve read all of her books inbetween also.
Dust is part pirate tale (female protagonist), part coming of age story, part love story, part dog story, part modern and part historical. How would you take being born aware that you were a pirate and then, because of a curse, forced to the live the lives of 100 dogs, before you were again born into present day remembering each of your previous iterations fully?
The pirate story and the modern story are told in parallel as are a number of dog stories. You know the ending at the beginning but it doesn’t matter because you still don’t know how exactly King will get you there. This is a great technique and very hard to pull off yet she did this with her first novel and in such an engaging way. I was so caught up in the story I kept thinking to myself, maybe it won’t end the way she said. I knew the way the story ended. She’s cursed and lives the lives of 100 dogs. But still… I knew how it ended in general, guessed the specifics, and still felt a lump in my throat when I got to the last page.
Reality Boy is so different and so visceral. You can read the synopsis on Goodreads. I’m not going to give it to you. It’s still too fresh for me. A good book will do that to me. It has to settle. I found tears on my cheeks a few times reading Reality Boy, and not because I felt manipulated but because the authenticity of Gerald’s (the protagonist) situation made me – feel. King is expert at capturing what it’s like to be in late adolescence (17). As an example. Gerald has a developmental insight at one point (he sees the world from someone elses point of view). I know this sounds mundane, but it’s hard to explain this kind of world view to adults and for me, King really puts us inside Gerald’s head and shows us his realization in such a painful and amazing way. And it is amazing, in a story telling world accustomed to cartloads of over-the-top action, explosions, and gun-play, how powerful a single moment of genuine insight from a character we care about can be.
What will she write about next?
It is summer.
We’re at my in-laws home in Rockaway recovering from yesterdays annual block party. My son is playing wizards 101 on his aunt’s PC. We only have Macs at home.
My son goes away to sleep-away camp in 7 days. He’ll be gone for two weeks. Can you hear my silent scream? It’s in Connecticut so only a couple of hours away. We’ve never been away from him for more than a day. Well, my wife hasn’t. I travel for work so I’ve been away, but I’ve always known he was with her. I’m having a hard time with it. I can’t imagine what it will be like when he goes to college. Thankfully he’s only 10.
Recently my wife asked my son if he wanted me to run a small writing workshop for him and two of his friends who also like to read and write. My son said no. It works that way sometimes. There are some things he doesn’t want me to teach him. He lets me read his work. That will have to be enough for now.
Sometimes, when we cross streets together and are talking (about a book he’s reading or a book he wants to write one day) we reach for each other’s hand and hold as we cross. Sometimes he doesn’t pull away and we walk that way for a block or so before our hands part ways again.
Now he’s going to sleep-away camp for two weeks. 7 days and counting.
I’ve got a guest post up on Gotteenfiction today on facing the blank page – a feelings perspective.
Once I was conducting a training of trainers in Dallas on a Cultural Proficiency Course for court and treatment practitioners and a judge got fed up with me asking the process questions, “How did that exercise make you feel?” and “What did you notice about yourself during the exercise?” When I asked, yet again, after another experiential exercise that needed processing these same two questions, he stood up, slapped his hand onto his table, and said, “I don’t care how I feel. I don’t care how you feel. And I’m sick and tired of you asking us that question. And… I noticed that I’m getting more and more irritated when you ask.”
Now he was a judge.
And I was in Dallas.
And let’s remember, I’m a New York, non-practicing Jew.
“So,” I said. “You’ve got some feelings about that.”