20 essential authors

A few weeks ago, when Windy and Mike were visiting, and Tracy was staying at our house, the women were lingering in our apartment, talking about books. Windy and Tracy asked me for my recommendations of the essential authors who need to be read in the Western canon. Quite a question. I didn’t have a good answer–I mumbled something about Joyce and Woolf and Shakespeare–but I’m going to try to prepare one now.

For Windy and Tracy:

My List of 20 Essential Authors in the Western Canon

20. Toni Morrison

Morrison’s novels have always completely enchanted me. I feel she is channeling something similar to Virginia Woolf, an intimation confirmed when I found out she wrote her master’s thesis on Woolf and Faulkner. Nothing escapes her notice. Her characters are raw. Her characters’ experiences are so far removed from my own, and yet Morrison’s undeniable talent lies in the fact that she makes all of her people extremely close. You care for them like family. My favorites: Beloved and Sula. To read: A Mercy, Tar Baby, The Bluest Eye.

19. Emily Brontë/Charlotte Brontë

Maybe it’s not fair to include both of them under one point, but they both wrote one important novel each, and they’re sisters, so, sorry, Ellis and Currer Bell. The Brontës are still so shocking to me. They prove the power of the imagination and the ascension of the artist’s soul above demeaning material and cultural circumstances. How did two sheltered women in the mid-19th century write such dark, powerful novels? Wuthering Heights is one of the most upsetting novels I’ve ever read and yet I cannot deny that it is a masterpiece. Jane Eyre is beautiful and moving. Both need to be read.

18. John Steinbeck

This man can write a NOVEL. If you’ve ever been through an American high school, I’m sure you know that by now. If you didn’t like Steinbeck when you were 15, try him again. He doesn’t write for children. My favorites: East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath.

17. Ernest Hemingway

I like to say that Hemingway is the only “macho” writer I’ve ever liked. He writes about drunken brawls, war, hunting, and bullfighting. His writing style is be the polar opposite of Virginia Woolf’s. And yet. I like him. I even love some of his novels. This is because Hemingway doesn’t succumb to the common path of many male writers strung up with their machismo. He doesn’t write women who are tired, sexy stereotypes and he lets his tough guys cry. Hemingway writes like a real man–not one who is trying to prove that he is. My favorites: A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, his short stories.

16. Eudora Welty

In basic description, she may be difficult to distinguish from Flannery O’Connor: Both native Southern women who wrote collections of compelling short stories. I was first introduced to Welty when I was quite young. Our family friend, Dave, who is a writer, gave me a collection of her complete short stories. I started reading them when I was about 12 or 13 and have been enchanted by her and her world ever since. Another writer I’ll always return to.

15. William Faulkner

By all accounts, I should be in love with William Faulkner. He’s a modernist and he’s Southern. I love both of those genres. But I confess that I’ve never loved one of his novels. This could be because I’ve only read two (The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!). But he’s consistently called one of the greatest writers ever to have lived (or THE greatest writer ever to have lived, if you’re this lit blog). This to say, I think Faulkner is important because everyone says he is important. Lame, I know. But I’m not giving up on him yet. Next up: Light in August, which should be arriving by post any day now.

14. Emily Dickinson

Who has ever written such short and such profoundly beautiful lines? No one can match Dickinson in this regard. One of my most prized books on my shelf is my giant anthology of her complete works. You can read just about any page and leave with your mind inspired and your heart illuminated.

13. Homer

Obligatory inclusion for the Father of Western Literature. Blah blah blah. I can never really make it through “The Odyssey,” but he has to be on this list somewhere.

12. Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard has a ravenously curious mind. I also think she’s read almost every book that was ever written. The amount of information that this woman KNOWS is simply astounding–and yet she writes with simple, direct humility. I have never read one of her novels, but her most famous books have made a sizable impression on my heart. One of the worthiest living American writers today. My favorites: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, For the Time Being. To read: Teaching a Stone to Talk, The Writing Life, her novels.

11. Jane Austen

I don’t tell people that I like Jane Austen now, because her reputation has been ruined by Hollywood. Thanks to silly films, most people write Austen off as a writer of fluffy, feel-good “chick lit.” Yes, there’s always a marriage at the end, but this is a classic trope of comedy she borrowed from Shakespeare; give the woman a break. She’s supremely intelligent, witty, and funny. Her characters evade stereotype. Her novels endure. I wish Austen could be seen for what she really was: A gifted artist who permanently affected the trajectory of the English novel–and got her reputation ruined by Hollywood. My favorites: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility.

10. George Eliot

I like to think of her as the female, British version of Tolstoy, if that makes any sense. Like Tolstoy, she created full-fledged universes in her novels and never wrote on a small scale. Virginia Woolf once said of Middlemarch, “It is one of the few novels written for grown-up people.” I think it is a wonderful description and one that fittingly applies. It’s still one of my all-time favorites.

9. T.S. Eliot

Clearly, I have a thing for the modernists. “The Waste Land” will probably have a similar effect as Ulysses; so dense it’s barely comprehensible without a guide. While that will stand as his great contribution, I think his truly wonderful work lies in The Four Quartets. And “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” will always have my heart.

8. James Joyce

I say that I read Ulysses last year, but I don’t know if I can say that. I looked at all of the words in Ulysses–and there are a LOT of them–but I’m not sure how much of it I really understood. I was using Allusions in Ulysses (UNC Press) as a guide the whole time, and that was a huge help, but it was still an arduous task. If you’re not a native Dubliner, Roman Catholic, and fluent in Latin and classic mythology–basically if you’re not Joyce–a lot of Ulysses will be incomprehensible without the help of a guide. Still. Most people say it’s the greatest novel ever written. It certainly changed the face of modern literature in a way that no other book did. My favorite: Dubliners (collection of short stories), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. To read: Ulysses, again.

7. Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy is probably the best at creating an entire world within the pages of his (usually long) books. He won’t let you escape the figurative boundaries he has created for you. But, as it is in my case, one is usually more than content to stay, to learn about these rich, realistic characters and their challenges. Essentially, he’s famous for a reason. He should be read. My favorites: Anna Karenina, Resurrection, and The Kreutzer Sonata. To read: His letters and essays.

6. Flannery O’Connor

O’Connor is second in my book for master of the short story form, close on the heels of Anton Chekhov. She writes with conviction and wry humor. She always tells it like she sees it. My favorites: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” stands out, as does her other most famous one, “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” But all of them are good. To read: Brad Gooch’s recent biography of her, Flannery

5. Vladimir Nabokov

“Genius” is a word too liberally rendered to authors, but it has never been misapplied in Vladimir Nabokov’s case. He wrote one of (if not THE) greatest novels, Lolita–and he wrote it in English, his fourth language. His mind is enchanted by language. He makes up words. He creates characters so externally appalling and so internally sympathetic that one’s moral compass is thrown entirely off kilter. He’ll make your skin crawl, but you’ll keep returning to him. Because he’s the best. My favorites: Lolita and Pale Fire. To read: Most of his other novels; Speak, Memory, and Lectures on Russian Literature.

4. Anton Chekhov

I believe Chekhov is the greatest short story writer who ever lived, and I’d pick a fight with anyone who disagreed. Just read four or five of his stories and you’ll fall under his spell. His plays are equally incredible, and probably more famous. Chekhov was a noble-hearted country doctor who started writing later in his career. His glimpses into the souls of people are inspiring and chilling. My favorites: The Cherry Orchard (play), The Duel (novella), Grief (short story). To read: His memoir and his letters.

3. Marcel Proust

I’m currently reading Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, although his thesis is not something that I need to be convinced of; I already believe it’s true. For the past four summers now, I have read a volume of his epic novel, In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past). It’s an arduous task. I only read a volume a year, because I think it takes me a full year to recover from it. Nothing escapes Proust’s notice. The whole world is infinitely fascinating to him; all people worth describing; all memories worth mining. Proust captures the beauty and complexity of humanity in a dazzling, astonishing way. How can it be? He writes about rich people orbiting around each other at parties. And yet he writes about all of humankind. My favorite volumes, so far: Swann’s Way and Sodom and Gomorrah. To read: The final three volumes!

2. Virginia Woolf

It’s no secret that this woman is my hero. I spent a year and a half re-reading all of her novels and essays and then I wrote a sprawling, 130-page love letter to her, in the form of a mismanaged and somewhat poorly executed undergraduate thesis. I could talk about her all day long; consider that your warning. Woolf does something to me that no other writer does. I think all readers have a writer who affects them in this way. When I read her novels, I feel perfectly understood, completely reached–and yet constantly drawn in and mystified. She refashioned the novel in a way that no one else did or has done since. I will return to her for the rest of my life and I’d encourage all readers to do the same. My favorites: To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves, A Room of One’s Own. To read: Her extensive letters and the rest of her diaries.

1. William Shakespeare

The man invented most of our commonly used phrases and puns. That alone should get him some quality read-time. Aside from that, he just has to be read, thoroughly, for his influence on English literature extends beyond what anyone else accomplished. Yes, the language can be dense sometimes, but with a good annotated copy and a Shakespeare dictionary–and the willingness to read aloud to yourself–he’s a guaranteed great time. He’s merry and bawdy and the greatest wit you’ll ever meet. My favorites: King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and Richard III. Still to be read: Julius Caesar and about five or six other plays.

Who would be on your list? Who do you think I’m missing?

The 10 worst books I’ve read this year

I make a top 10 list of the best books I read each year, but right now, all I can think about are all of the truly terrible books I have read this year. Even though it’s only the end of July, here’s my six-month glimpse at the worst books I read in 2011.

The Worst Books I’ve Read (So Far) in 2011

1. Night Fall, by Nelson DeMille

I don’t even have to tell you how completely terrible this book was, because I already did–in a totally absurd family e-mail chain. Really. The worst book I have read in so many years. I can’t think of a single nice thing to say about it.

2. The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

Despite having a really cool name, Dashiell Hammett writes some of the cheesiest fiction I’ve ever read. No matter that he’s credited with having invented the American detective novel. The man can’t write worthwhile, complex fiction to save his life. Having to read–and finish–this novel for the church book club was painful. I wasn’t shy about how much I disliked it, either.

The Hidden Life of Dogs, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

3. The Hidden Life of Dogs, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

I was generally appalled by Thomas throughout this entire book. Even though a lot of people somehow love this book, I couldn’t stand it. She strikes me as one of the most irresponsible dog owners ever.

Dogged Pursuit, by Robert Rodi

4. Dogged Pursuit, by Robert Rodi

The most arrogant writer I’ve ever read, bar none. I wrote a fairly scathing review about his miserable attempt to force his anxiety-ridden sheltie to compete in agility here.

A Summons to Memphis, by Peter Taylor

5. A Summons to Memphis, by Peter Taylor

I really wanted to like this book. I love Southern literature, after all, and Francine Prose included this book on her list of Books to Be Read Immediately. Plus, Taylor was the writer in residence at UVA for many years. By all accounts, I should have liked it. But I really didn’t. The story is painfully dull and recounts the ambling lives of a stuffy, rich Tennessee family with a mania for preventing each other from marrying people. I’m astonished that it was awarded the Pulitzer. Books should never be this boring.

The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck

6. The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck

This novel is largely regarded as Steinbeck’s weakest work and I’d have to say I’d agree on that count. I’ve always enjoyed Steinbeck (East of Eden is one of my all-time favorite novels), but this book fell flat for me. I can’t even tell you what it’s about. I think it’s about a discontent family man who is trapped in a small town and keeps failing to make money, but even that’s a hazy memory. Overall, not worth picking up.

Why We Love the Dogs We Do, by Stanley Coren

7. Why We Love the Dogs We Do, by Stanley Coren

I’ve read a lot of Coren’s books about dogs and I generally enjoy them, but this one strikes me as a lot of sentimental hogwash about personality types and breeds. Coren is prone to generalization and peppering his prose with irrelevant anecdotes. I think some of it could be counted as true, but I found most of his fluffy theories of personality stereotyping to be suspect.

The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright

8. The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright

I didn’t hate this book, and I think I learned a lot from it, but I wasn’t hugely impressed by Wright’s scholarship. I think he makes some unfair generalizations, which is perhaps only expected, since he’s writing about God.

Le Divorce, by Diane Johnson

9. Le Divorce, by Diane Johnson

The cover (from the B-list movie adaptation starring Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts) should have been enough of a hint. But I trusted Francine Prose and I got let down again. (This book also appeared on her list, Books to Be Read Immediately.) I think Johnson is a skillful writer and I did enjoy parts of this book, but on the whole, I wasn’t sure what the point of the novel was. I don’t always think novels should have plots, but they should at least have points.

Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather

10. Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather

I hate to put this book on the list, because I truly love Willa Cather. However. Both of the book clubs that I’m in picked this book to read this year and I confess that I was dismayed. I’m a huge Cather fan, but I think that this is her least impressive novel. I’ve now read it 3.5 times and I still don’t like it any more than I did when I first picked it up. The priests, they are unrealistic; the whole narrative, it is dull. Willa Cather writes best about strong women making their way on the Great Plains, and this novel has no strong women and no Great Plains. Cather, I love you, but I think you should have stuck with what you did best.

How about you? What are the worst books you’ve read this year?

The Maltese Falcon and hyper-masculine novels

For the church classics book club, we’re reading Dashiell Hammett’s classic detective novel, The Maltese Falcon. I’m not a big fan. I actually roll my eyes at just about everything the protagonists do. For example, take this exchange:

She suddenly moved close to him on the settee and cried angrily: “Can I buy you with my body?”

Their faces were a few inches apart. Spade took her face between his hands and he kissed her mouth roughly and contemptuously. Then he sat back and said: “I’ll think it over.” His face was hard and furious.

Or this one:

Spade’s arms went around her, holding her to him, muscles bulging his blue sleeves, a hand cradling her head, its fingers half lost among red hair, a hand moving groping fingers over her slim back. His eyes burned yellowly.

Um, barf. Most of the book sounds just like this, like it was written by an 11th-grade boy who is trying his hand at noir short stories.

Here we have the detective Sam Spade, 110% American male, fighting the dark forces with his cool masculinity. The dark forces, so far, happen to be embodied by a highly stereotyped man named Joel Cairo, who is usually just called “the Levantine” (had to look it up; old-fashioned term for someone from Israel, Lebanon, or Syria) and is just a prototypical image of the “Arab enemy.” It’s gross. And then we have Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the dame in the quotation above. You can pretty much guess that she’s always sexy and impulsive and pulling wads of cash out of her bra.

Some people like these kinds of novels. My dad, for instance, likes Ayn Rand and Clive Cussler. He’d probably like Dan Brown, too, if he had read him. It’s easy to see why Hollywood also likes these kinds of novels and is always adapting them into film; they read like run-of-the-mill screenplays. Authors like Rand, Cussler, Brown, and yes, Hammett, play into a formula in which one can simply plug in a number of variables–and then, poof! Bestselling novel. Add some grossly overused and stereotypical characters (uber-macho, dangerous man + voluptuous woman in need of rescue) and lots of guns, explosions, sex, and cliff-hanger moments and you’re golden.

Personally, I fundamentally reject the notion that literature can be crafted from such an easy set of variables. There’s a reason why Dashiell Hammett is remembered for basically inventing the detective novel genre, but there’s also a reason why no one remembers him as a great writer. The same goes for Ayn Rand, Clive Cussler, and Dan Brown. They write dramatic page-turners, but they don’t write great literature.

I kind of want someone to prove me wrong, though. Do you know of a novel that fits this general hyper-macho mold that is generally regarded as part of the literary canon? If so, why can it be included and not these others? Hemingway and Steinbeck come to mind as writers of hyper-masculine novels who are considered critical to the American canon. I think the differentiation between them and the crowd of thinly disguised screenwriters is that Hemingway and Steinbeck knew when to avoid a crippling stereotype and craft a deep, meaningful character. Any thoughts? Am I totally off-base in my utter disregard for this novel and those like it?