[NOTE: this is being posted only hours after the announcement that Elmore Leonard had died. It’s a dark day for writers everywhere. God bless him, his family, and his legions of fans.]
A reminder of the rules: like any other “best of” or “my favorite whatever” list, this one is subject to change every time I encounter a new text. Also, there is no specific order to this list, even though it’s numbered. #1 is not necessarily better or more important than #25. I only number them to give the columns a sense of structure. In terms of content, I have limited myself to one text per author, though on a few, I’ve cheated a bit.
#15. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I have a confession to make: this is the only book on my list that I haven’t actually read. I’ve read the rest of them several times, but I have never even opened this one. So why is it here?
Put simply, I love David Foster Wallace’s work. When he killed himself a few years back, one of American literature’s lights went out. He had a real command of the language, a knack for making dull-on-the-surface subjects interesting, a vivid imagination. He was a writer’s writer.
Some people call Infinite Jest his masterpiece. Others call it a doorstop, inaccessible, too postmodern for its (or your) own good. Based on the rest of his work, I know I’ve got to read it someday, but things keep getting in the way—work, obligations, life in general, other works whose very page counts aren’t as daunting. Keeping it on my bookshelf, always and forever, is the only way I’ll have a chance.
If you have tackled Infinite Jest, please feel free to comment here.
Other texts that would work well: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again; Brief Interviews with Hideous Men; The Pale King; Consider the Lobster.
#14. The Stand by Stephen King.
King is often dismissed as a hack who churns out genre dreck with the regularity of good bowel movements. I won’t argue that every book or story in his oeuvre meets the standards of great literature; a few are poor (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, a fun story undone by a deus ex machina ending), some are too self-derivative (From a Buick 8, too close to the stronger Christine), and some are done well up to a certain point before going off the rails (Black House comes to mind).
But most of his works are, at worst, excellent page-turners, and many transcend the pop-culture, genre-fiction ghetto (not that I believe in those things anyway). There’s a reason some critics have crowned him the 20th century’s Edgar Allen Poe. The Stand, another doorstop tome, is his masterwork. It’s also one of the best apocalypse texts you’ll ever experience.
For those who don’t know the basics: thanks to a government experiment gone awry and lax security at a military base, the United States—and, soon enough, the world—is caught in the grip of a modern-day plague, a superflu colloquially known as Captain Trips. The disease is airborne and easily spread through contact with another infected person. Soon, almost everyone in the world is dead, and the global population’s suffering is shown in horrific detail through the eyes of characters who will survive. Once the dying stops, those who remain must determine how to live in a new, mostly empty world where, as one realizes, all the old toys (cars, camping gear, nuclear missiles) are lying around, just waiting to be picked up.
The survivors converge on two locations. Through visions of an old woman, the good, noble people seem drawn to Denver by way of Kansas. Those with a greater sense of self-interest and the plain old assholes gather in Las Vegas, where a supernatural being of increasing power plots the destruction of the Denver society.
Who goes where? How will the two factions re-create society? What happens when the two groups become aware of each other? And how will each individual choose to meet his or her fate?
A novel as grounded in human free will and individual strife as in cosmic questions of fate and good vs. evil, The Stand is King at his best. Above, I’ve linked to the “uncut” version, which should include all the sections that King originally had to cut due to his publisher’s financial concerns (when art finds itself at the mercy of the bean-counters, we’re all in trouble). Feel free to read the abridged version if you wish, but the longer one is richer, denser, more gripping.
Even if you’re a literary snob, make your own stand and buy this book.
Other texts that would work well: pretty much anything from the mid-1990s or earlier. The Shining comes to mind, as does Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, It, or the various short story collections, though if you like horror fiction, start with pretty much anything he’s done. For good latter-day works, Desperation comes to mind, but you should also read the Dark Tower series at some point. Under the Dome is worth your time, too.
Of all the American Modernist poets, Stevens is the one I keep coming back to. His cool clinician’s voice often belies the passionate intensity of his imagery. The dense, fecund ideas in his work never cease to engage my intellect and my imagination.
Start with his oft-anthologized works—“Anecdote of the Jar”; “The Snow Man”; “Peter Quince at the Clavier”; “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and more. You’ll find rich ground for exploring and understanding how poetry works, what literary Modernism means, and how the two intersect with very human, often mundane concerns. In fact, his work often takes the mundane and makes it seem strange, as in “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock.”
Move on to his Modernist smackdowns of institutions like religion in “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” and “Sunday Morning.” He delivers a pretty good manifesto in “Of Modern Poetry.” And he produces what I have often described as my favorite poem in the language, “The Idea of Order at Key West.”
I’ve touched only on some of his most famous works, but his collected poems will take you wider and deeper than this. If you’re looking for light verse or easily found meanings, stay the hell away from Stevens. If you’re in the mood to be challenged and intrigued, pick up his collected works today.
Other texts that would work well: rather than send you to Stevens’ individual books, I’d suggest you broaden your reading of the Modernist era. Pick up a collection or three from T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound if you’re in an elitist mood. Read William Carlos Williams or Robert Frost if you want seemingly simple but deceptively deep text. Try Marianne Moore if you are in a mood somewhere in between. You could also try H.D. if you’re of a mind.
#12. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie.
One of the best contemporary writers, Sherman Alexie is a treat for readers of all ages. His YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a hoot for adults, too. His novels and short story collections are consistently high-quality. He deals with very serious postcolonial issues, but don’t think his works are all doom and gloom. While some of his work is deadly serious, he often uses humor as a way of dealing with trauma—his people’s, his own, his characters’.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven follows that pattern. Some stories are bleak, even apocalyptic. Others are side-splittingly funny. Some of the best ones are a mixture of both, as in the hilarious and heart-breaking “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” The stories in this book are interlinked. You’ll meet characters who struggle with reservation life—their love of community, their hatred of the poverty and alcoholism, their struggle to reconcile their conflicting emotions. You’ll be thrust facedown into that poverty, into those shattered lives, into the Res itself, a kind of refuge from the white world that is also a very effective, soul-deadening prison. You’ll see yourself reflected in the characters, both Native and white Americans, and you’ll feel both empathy and shame.
If you are only open to very traditional forms of storytelling, writers like
Alexie might freak you out (as any postmodernist might, for that matter). But if you are interested in the strivings, the triumphs, and the failures of humanity and our nation, you need to seek this man out. Come with an open mind. Leave with a better soul.
Other texts that would work well: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; Reservation Blues; The Business of Fancy-Dancing; Ten Little Indians; and pretty much anything else he’s written, including the film Smoke Signals, the adaptation of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
#11. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich.
Another collection of linked stories (or a novel-in-stories) by another Native American author, Love Medicine is only one of several excellent works by Louise Erdrich. Less humorous than Alexie’s but just as insightful and devastating, this work follows the intersecting lives of two Native American families over the course of several decades. As the families fight, intermingle, intermarry, and fight some more, the reader is treated to the burgeoning of a great American voice.
Here, as in Alexie’s work, you will meet Native American characters at war with mainstream society, with their families, with themselves. You will find alcoholism, domestic abuse, jailbreaks, and one honest-to-God tribal battle in a factory that makes cheap plastic replicas of Native American artifacts like spears, bows and arrows, and headdresses. You will also find the sheer strength and beauty of the human spirit as it refuses to be shattered in the crucible of modernity.
What happens when you attempt an ancient love ritual but substitute mass-produced ingredients for the real thing? What happens to a love triangle when all three people are old? What happens when the love is so hot it burns down a house?
Husbands and wives struggle to understand their children, and vice versa. Old loves are rekindled in the unlikeliest of places. The white world constantly threatens to intrude, even though we seldom see it on the page. And always, always, always the families plod onward, eking out an existence on land they do not always even own. The shimmering power of their endurance is a joy to behold. Read this book today.
Other texts that would work well: A Plague of Doves; Tracks; The Round House; The Painted Dove; The Bingo Palace.
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