Books: Challenge Yourself

IMG_0209I’m not a fan of reading books for “bragging rights”. Making your way through “Infinite Jest” or “Finnegans Wake” just to say you did is silly. They don’t give out reading awards to people over the age of ten. You should be reading long or challenging books for the pleasure of reading them, not to seem cool. And reading DFW does the opposite of making you look cool.

So why read challenging books at all? Why not just read Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, YA, and John Grisham? They have easy words, easy plots, and are quick and easy to digest. But… that doesn’t sound fun to me. Or stimulating. Reading only easy books will make your mind complacent and lazy. The more “candy” you take in, the harder it will be to digest “real” material. So why not challenge yourself with a book which has difficult vocabulary or themes? How about picking a book with an uncomfortable or difficult subject matter? Maybe challenge yourself by reading a book where the author plays with form and style? If you have never asked these questions of yourself, then I’d bet you are not challenging yourself as a reader. If you don’t consider form and style when you choose a book, or you don’t think about complex themes… ask yourself why not? Reading isn’t always comfortable, nor should it be. Growth hurts. It can be painful. But challenging yourself is the only way to grow.

The following books demand something from the reader. Nothing will be spoon-fed. No silly plot twists just for the sake of it. What you will find are rich and complicated storylines, beautiful, strange, or ugly language, uncomfortable themes and characters. And hopefully some new favorite books!

*As always, my lists are made up of ONLY first-hand knowledge. That means, no books appear on this list which I haven’t read. Sorry!

  1. A Bloodsmoor Romance, by Joyce Carol Oates – This is the book the prompted this entire post. I have read MANY books by JCO. I adore her. I could put any of her books on this list because she is an incredible writer. But this book is different. Almost like she is showing off. JCO writes the entire book in a Gothic style, and Victorian language! At 700+ pages, it is taking me forever to read, but it is SO GOOD! It’s like… Stephen King writes Little Women. Kind of. It defies categorization (yay!) and tackles racism, feminism, the golden age of invention, cross-dressing, spiritualism and… hell… just read it. If you dare. It isn’t easy, but it sure is fun. I really want Guillermo Del Toro to read it and make a movie of it, if that helps. 
  2. Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill – Tough girls. Tough streets. Drugs. Sex. Violence. The short story which inspired the lovely film, Secretary can be found in this slim volume of stories. Gaitskill is a master of gritty and uncomfortable, and her writing is subtle and dotted with humor. A character in the story “Connection” has this to say about careers. “I want to work at Dunkin’ Donuts when I get out of school. I want to get fat. Or be addicted to heroin. I want to be a disaster.” How can you not want to read that?
  3. Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron – This book wrecked me. For weeks after I couldn’t pick up another book. So painfully vivid and raw, I dare you to read it without crying.
  4. Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox – 81lrmJgwuKLThis novel, written in 1970, took me completely by surprise. The novel follows Sophie and Otto, early Gentrifiers of New York in the late 1960’s, long before the word was a word. They are a childless couple caught up in a changing world: Too old for the rebellion, and too young not to feel tormented by it. Otto dwells on images of filth and disease, seems to hate the young and is on the verge of rage. But it is really Sophie who pushes the novel forward in an uncomfortable progression of bad choices. A simple cat bite makes for a compelling story. Sophie and Otto would be amazed to see the world today! The prose is economical, short and worthy of Faulkner or Tolstoy. “He wasn’t a seducer. He was remote. He was like a man preceded into a room by acrobats.”
  5. Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad – The horror! The horror! Dense, and layered with symbolism, challenging vocabulary and extensive literary devices, this slim little book is not as easy as it looks. An unsettling look at imperialism and the horrific human consequences of such savagery. 
  6. The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber – Mr. Faber doesn’t write the same book over and over again.He doesn’t even come close. All of his books are challenging, but The Book of Strange New Things is masterfully done. It’s a scifi book, but it is also very literary. Times reviewer Marcel Theroux calls it, “an imaginative visit to speculative realms that returns the reader more forcibly to the sad and beautiful facts of human existence.” There.
  7. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess – This book has a glossary in the back even though it is written in “english”. The nasty lads in this novel have their own slang, and it takes a while to get used to it. It’s a rough and exhausting little novel, but well worth the read. I showered like.. twice after.
  8. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke – This awesome book is a challenge on every level. The paperback weighs in at 1006 pages, and I’d say a hefty amount of those pages is dedicated to footnotes. This book is so much fun, but you have to put the work in. Magic has returned to London… or has it? The two magicians of the title are entwined in a battle for power (magical power!) and fairies and other magical beings are afoot.Clarke seamlessly blends fiction and reality to the point where you aren’t really sure if magic isn’t real.
  9. Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison – I like to be in a locksongofsolomoned room with cushioned walls, and no distractions when I read Toni Morrison. She takes for granted that her readers are educated enough to understand the way she uses unconventional approaches to both plot and style. She mixes past and present in the form of different… persons. The narrator is present and an observer, but also able to see inside the characters. And, a cool bit of trivia about this book: The protagonist, Macon “Milkman” Dead III, was the inspiration for the band “The Dead Milkmen” to take their name. Toni Morrison thusly (partially) responsible for one of the greatest punk rock bands of all time.
  10. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy  by Jon Le Carre – I still have no idea what happened in this book. I even watched the film and it just made me more confused. The book is about spies, right? And all spies have code names, right? Right. And each agency has it’s own code-names. And double agents have double, code-names. Even places have code-names. Anyway, I read it and it was really hard. Really hard. Like, don’t read it on a bus, hard. I’ve read a few of his other books and found them very enjoyable, so I gave this one a second chance. It’s well worth the read if you like intrigue, but keep a cheat sheet of code names handy. Seriously. 

By the Book: American Vagabond

AA131The writer, painter, bookseller, and perpetually underpaid artist opens up and answers the NY Times “By the Book questionnaire”. Because by the times she’s finally published, it might be too late. 

What books are currently on your nightstand?

My night stand is a stack of books. On top of that, precariously, are stacked more books. I just finished “The Sacrifice” by Joyce Carol Oates, and it was outstanding. Currently I am reading Ron Koertge’s “Sex World”-  a quick, clever book of flash fiction, and a new book called “Mort(e)” about a house cat turned warrior. 

Who is your favorite novelist of all time?

Haha. Nice try. Here are a few: Joyce Carol Oates, because of the breadth of her work. John Irving, because I never expect to read anything I love quite as much as “A Prayer for Owen Meany”. Tom Robbins because he is the absolute best at what he does. Also, Emily Bronte, Roald Dahl, Ray Bradbury… Is that enough?

Who are your favorite writers working today?

Didn’t I just answer that? Stephen King, Haruki Murakami, Michael Paterniti and Zadie Smith. Ron Rash is also amazing and I love Tom Perrotta. Nobody gets suburbia like Tom Perrotta.

What’s the best short fiction you’ve read recently?

Julia Elliott’s “The Wilds” was fantastic.  

What kinds of stories are you drawn to? And what do you tend to steer clear of?

I’ll read any type of story, as long as it is well written. I love ghost stories with all my heart. I also enjoy a good detective mystery from time to time. Aside from that, I’m drawn to stories about adventure, whether they are true or fiction. I’m drawn to writers who obviously take joy in what they do. I enjoy reading of fantastical places, talking cats, robots learning to love, families breaking apart, food and cooking, humor and of course style. I skip books like “Gone Girl” or “The Girl on the Train”. There is nothing new there for me, and I figure out the twist early on. I also shy away from heavily hyped books because I really like to form my own opinions and that is nearly impossible when “everyone” is talking about a book. I don’t care what a celebrity thinks of a book, or how much buzz it is generating. That’s the kind of nonsense I find dull and boring. 

 Who are your favorite fantasy and horror writers? Which books would you recommend to readers new to those genres?

Any new genre reader should begin with the master: Stephen King, of course. For as prolific as he is, he is underrated. “Salem’s Lot” is one of my favorite books ever. Joyce Carol Oates is another of my favorite horror writers, but she somehow avoided the “genre” designation. Tony Burgess “Pontypool Changes Everything” was a revelation. A zombie novel written in prose! Yes! John Connolly’s “The Book of Lost Things” was a lot of fun as far as fantasy goes, and Michel Faber’s “The Book of Strange New Things” is part scifi, part horror and just unputdownable. 

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?

“My Struggle: Book 1”. I found it in a sharing library so I guess I’ll have to read it now. I’m just not that interested in a seven part saga about a guy trying to write a book. I’ve lived that. But people I respect say it’s good, so I’ll give it a shot. Some day.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Your favorite book? Most beloved character?

I had parents who took me to the library once a week, and it was always an adventure. I still love wandering around in a nice library. Heck, it doesn’t have to be nice. I’ll wander around a crappy library. Anyway, I loved books of all kinds. I would often curl up on the couch and read for hours on end. I adored any type of mystery, and books with secret worlds. And I was obsessed with the Sunfire Romance series for young girls. My favorite books were “The Phantom Tollbooth”, “A Wrinkle in Time”, “The BFG”, “Watership Down” “Choose Your Own Adventure” books – which are sadly out of print, and “The Boxcar Children” series. I still have fantasies of living in a converted traincar. My favorite characters were Milo from “The Phantom Tollbooth”, Laura Ingalls, Scout, and Sophie from “The BFG”.

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

“Still Life With Woodpecker” by Tom Robbins.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

Oh man, that’s tough. That feels like a lot of pressure. I get asked for recommendations every day, but choosing a book for the President is a tall order. The first book that springs to mind is Erik Larsen’s “In the Garden of Beasts”. It’s about the US Ambassador to Germany at the time of Hitler’s rise to power. I think the man in power should read a book showing how not to react when a lunatic is about to take control.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?

Tom Robbins, for sure. He’s hilarious. I had the opportunity to hear him speak last year, and he’s still sharp as ever. Mark Twain, and Dorothy Parker. I think that would be rad.

You could bring three books to a desert island. Which do you choose?

“Anna Karenina”, for sure. I’ve never read it and a desert island seems like the perfect place to do it. It would eat up a ton of my time, but in a good way. Next I’d toy with bringing a book about raft building but ultimately choose “A Prayer for Owen Meany” because I watch a lot of survival shows and I’m confident I could build a solid raft. After I finish Anna Karenina, of course. The third book would have to be “Still Life with Woodpecker” because I can’t imagine a life without that book.

What’s the funniest book you’ve ever read?

Oh man. I don’t know. I just read Nora Ephron’s “I Feel Bad About My Neck” and I laughed the entire way through it. Also everything David Sedaris has written. Oh! Can he crash my dinner party?

Any book you regretted reading?

I don’t know that I really “regret” anything I’ve read. I feel I’ve wasted my time and been totally annoyed with myself for reading “The Catcher in the Rye” and “The Fountainhead”.

Any book you couldn’t finish?

I put down “The Girl on the Train”. It was too gimmicky for me. Predictable. A far better new thriller is “Descent” by Tim Johnston. But I am pretty good at selecting books for myself, so I try to finish what I start.

What book do you think everyone should read before they die?

“To Kill a Mockingbird”, by Harper Lee.

Whom would you want to write your life story?

Me. Or David Sedaris.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

I don’t know. I think you read the right book at the right time. Or at least, I do. I feel like this is the year for me to tackle “Anna Karenina”, but we’ll see. I’ve never read Moby Dick, but I just don’t want to. There are so many books that I DO want to read, and I guess … I’m fairly well read and I don’t embarrass easily.

What do you plan to read next?

I’ll have to see how I feel at the end of the book I’m reading now. But, On deck is “Werner Herzog: A guide for the perplexed”, or “Some Luck” by Jane Smiley. Or Walter Kirn’s “Blood Will Out”

10 Best Summer Reads

Just about every blog out there has a Summer Reading list – the best books of the year to companion you through the dog days of summer. While it’s a good idea, it’s not really feasible for me to do. Why? Well, out here in the land that time forgot (The Czech Republic) it isn’t really easy to get your hands on the newest literature in english. I used to work at a little independent bookstore here in Prague that has since closed, and that was the best bet. Sure you can find books in english here, but usually just best sellers and crap lit like “The Twilight Saga”. You would be shocked and amazed at the amount of crappy female detective novels (V.I Warshawski, Alexander McCall Smith) females consume thinking they are reading good “literature”. Anyway, when I see all of these enticing lists full of books that I can’t get my hands on immediately, I get upset. And sad. I wanna read new books too!

And please don’t tell me to just get an e-reader. I think e-readers suck. I don’t care how “easy” it is, or how fast I can download it. Honestly, how fucking hard is it to open a real book? How much easier does a thing need to be? I digress. It’s simple: I like books. I like the smell. I like flipping pages. I like to feel the print on the page. I like finding used books with writing in it. Why would I want to replace all of those tactile joys with a fucking computer? Oh, right. that would mean that I like ads every time I open my um, flap jacket that thinks it’s a book cover. That would mean I like “people” tracking what I read, how fast I read, and if I finish my books. Lame sauce. That’s right, lame sauce. And if I see you with one I reserve the right to call you that.

ANYHOO… That’s why this particular summer reading list is a little different. This list contains books that take place in summer months or just feel summery. I don’t know. They are good books that you can buy and read and I suggest you check them out. I tried to put some different books in here. And please note – for the first time ever there is no Murakami on the list. You should have already read him by now. The end.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – Duh. A classic any way you slice it. Read it again.

2.  A Prayer For Owen Meany by John Irving – I know, I have put this book on so many lists! But it is that great. This book contains an armadillo, a live changing summer baseball game, a boy who believes he is an instrument of god, and just about the best Christmas pageant scene ever put on paper.

3.  Under the Dome by Stephen KingI am smack dab in the middle of this mammoth of a book. If “summer reading” for you means a big, huge adventure involving a mystery and a murder or two, then this is the book for you. Stephen King is pretty awesome and so far this book doesn’t disappoint.

4. Devil in the White City by Erik Larson – Maybe fiction and sci-fi aren’t your thing. Maybe you like real life drama. If that is the case look no further than Erik Larson. I have read all of his books and they are all wonderful. He makes non-fiction feel like a story. It’s awesome. I picked my favorite of his books. The tag line for the book is “Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America”How could you NOT want to read it? And the serial killer? Well, you couldn’t make this kind of crazy up.

5. The Beach by Alex Garland – Backpackers, beaches, hostels… what more do you need in a summer read? Don’t judge this book by the movie because the book is much better. It’s a quick fun read.

6. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan – Don’t worry. I am not trying to force you to become a vegetarian. That’s not really what this book is about. This book is one mans journey to discover where his food actually comes from. He tackles the issue from four different angles: Industrial, Organic, and food we forage or kill ourselves. It is a really interesting book that will make you think the next time you want to buy food at a big chain store or a Burger King.

7. Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann – Sex. Drugs. Hollywood. It’s all in there and it’s all pretty damned good. You want a beach read? Then grab a copy of this classic. The book is full of helpful life hints like, “A man must feel he runs things, but as long as you control yourself, you control him.” Hmm. Good to know! or how about this one, “When you’re climbing Mount Everest, nothing is easy. You just take one step at a time, never look back and always keep your eyes glued to the top.” See? This book helps you climb mountains.

8. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell – This book isn’t really a “summer” book, but I read it a few summers ago and loved it, so it makes the list. The book is composed of thirteen chapters, each one month in the protagonists life. He is a 13-year old boy named Jason Taylor and he deals with life and loss, and peer pressure and coming into his own. The book takes place in 1982 and manages to stay fresh. Each chapter almost reads like its own short story.

9. The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz – This is another book I just couldn’t stop talking about after I read it. What a treat! The story is about Oscar – a fat kid from the Dominican Republic who dreams of growing up to be the next Tolkien and falling in love. You can’t help but love Oscar. He lives in New Jersey with his old school mom and his kind of mean sister. This is a good one!

10. The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates – I don’t think a summer has gone by without me reaching for a Joyce Carol Oates book. Her books are epic, heartbreaking and thought-provoking. And the woman is prolific, I haven’t even come close to reading everything of hers and I have read a lot! So, I went with “The Falls”. I don’t know if it is my favorite, or even the best but it is awesome.  She is amazing at telling stories that span decades, like this one. It starts off on an ill-fated Honeymoon that leaves our heroine a widow. The rest of the story involves her life, loves, the Love Canal case and environmental issues that nobody really thought about in the 50’s and 60’s.

*****BONUS BOOK!****  

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber – This one is for all you sheep ladies out there who think 50 Shades of Grey is something new and awesome, or even well written. It ain’t. Try THIS one is you like smut, sex, romance, forbidden love and all that stuff that comes with it. This book is HOT, gritty, well-written and lot’s of fun to read.