Though I’m certain Los Angeles is waiting to exact all manner of tolls from my person (sales tax anyone?), my move to that fair city has forced me to economize well before I even reach its sprawling borders.
The drum set has had to go; the gloves, hats, and thermal socks are relegated to storage. I feel like I’m dealing pretty well with the loss. Drumming was more of a hobby than a passion, and I’ve never looked good in hats anyways. What has really stung is having to trim my book collection down to a manageable single box. The remainder of my books will have to stay in Oregon for the time being, sadly enough.
So, when you have to trim a couple hundred titles down to a slender dozen, what do you take? My list, and my rationales:
“The Complete Stories”, Flannery O’Connor—Brilliant short fiction writer and mysterious, quasi-mystic. This is something I’ve touched on before. I’ve spent the past month going back and outlining some of her stories and I’m struck in each case by her skill as a narrator and her pervasive, dark sense of humor. She takes these sort of rural characters and turns their lives into the fodder of apocalypse, into struggles for salvation on a grand scale. In short, her fiction does exactly what fiction should do. When an author rewards repeated readings as extensively as O’Connor, then you have really struck pay dirt, in my opinion.
“The Concept of Anxiety”, Soren Kierkegaard—The first time I read Kierkegaard I had a very sour reaction. I found him impenetrably oblique. His books are just riddled with bizarre/infuriating one-liners like, “Boredom is demonic pantheism,” and “You can tell women are more sensual by the shape of their bodies.” He began “agnostic” arguments by talking about the Book of Genesis. It turned me off, thoroughly. However, since that time I have had a couple people who I admire talk about Kierkegaard in the most fascinating terms. There are still moments in his work that leave me exasperated, but there are also some instances that I’m really starting to like. Plus, it’s so dense it should be able to keep me busy for the next millennium or so, should I need the distraction.
“The Short Stories”, Ernest Hemmingway—Again, one of the best. During one of the first writing workshops I was ever involved with I took part in a discussion of “Hills Like White Elephants” that changed my view of literature. That was the first time I actually saw the complexities behind an ostensibly simple story. “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” still makes me tear up towards the end; “The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber” has got to be one of the best stories ever written.
“Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, James Joyce—I actually have not read as much Joyce as I should, though I did reread “Dubliners” earlier in the summer, and enjoyed the nuances of it. Though I haven’t read “Portrait of the Artist” I’m curious to see more of Joyce’s later works. Again, it’s one I hear you can become lost in for an eternity.
“How to Write a Screenplay”, Christopher Keane—Another recent purchase; seems good, though lacking in ambition as far as the title is concerned. I’ve heard from a friend that it’s a nice guide to the trade. It’s my thought that I’d better know the “common sense” side of the craft both inside and out, and Keane seems like a good source for such info. In skimming the book I came across an anecdote in which the author recounts how he got an agent by just calling up the William Morris Agency and asking for one. How cool is that?
“2666”, Roberto Bolano—This massive novel (over 1.000 pages in most additions) addresses everything from World War II to Robert Rodrieguez. It’s an amazing piece of fiction—funny, epic, and, in large stretches, morally terrifying. Its massive structure stretches across five “books,” more than one hundred characters (yes, I’ve counted), and a century of intellectual exile. Bolano wrote this book as he was dying, and the sheer force of will that it represents is both heartbreaking and inspiring. I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. I could spend a large part of my life reading Bolano and count the time as far from wasted.
“Equus”, Peter Shaffer—Brilliant play by a brilliant playwright. I’m front-loading this list with dramas, as I figure it will be a better reference in the coming months. The first play of Shaffer’s that I saw was “Amadeus”, and it’s a drama that I still find myself wondering about in the down moments when I’m at bus stops or stuck in traffic. “Equus” tells the story of a boy who blinds a corral of horses. The patient brilliance and casual innovation that Shaffer applies to the story is so seamless as to almost go unnoticed. It’s like he can create revolutions in form without even trying.
“Arcadia”, Tom Stoppard—Another fine drama by a fine British dramatist. Stoppard becomes maligned sometimes for pandering in his plays, but even when he’s just making entertainments, his entertainments are still of a masterful quality. This play moves back and forth between an 1805 scandal involving Lord Byron, and the 1980s historian who is working to uncover the chicanery. Like all of Stoppard’s work, it’s entertaining and intellectually playful.
“The Great Gatsby”, F. Scott Fitzgerald—I tend to agree with some critics that Fitzgerald’s style was heavily influenced by the time he spent in Hollywood. Aside from being generally brilliant, I think “The Great Gatsby” is also a prime study of flawless narrative form.
“The Child in Time”, Ian McEwan—I have not started in on this one yet, but I have been on a major McEwan kick recently, and he has yet to disappoint. Ever since reading “Atonement” I’ve just been smitten with his style; it’s patient, thoughtful, and filled with quiet ambition.
“Adventures in the Screen Trade”, William Goldman—This is the definitive bible on screenwriting, both the craft and the business. Goldman is responsible for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, “All the President’s Men”, and “The Princess Bride”. He talks about the life of screenwriting with humor, kindness, and an obviously wealth of knowledge. His “chapter” on directors is hilarious. In regards to subtext he writes: “If the only thing that’s going on in a scene is what’s going on in a scene, then you’ve got a problem.”
“Blood Meridian”, Cormac McCarthy—Maybe the greatest novel of the past fifty years. McCarthy’s commitment to his style, to the minutia of his narrative world, is still shocking to me, even though I must have read this thing at least two and a half times. Despite the obvious pleasures of reading this book, McCarthy also serves as a good reminder that any piece of fiction you write should create its own world. What you’re really asking a reader to do is step out of his or her immediate space of comfort, into something that you made up. McCarthy creates worlds of such shocking sophistication that it’s almost impossible to avoid becoming lost in them. Plus, there are dead bodies. Lots and lots and lots of dead bodies.
“The Three Theban Plays”, Sophocles—Sophocles’ work is a good reminder that a) it’s all been done, b) it’s all been done well, and c) there are reasons why these things do or do not work, and they’re reasons that date back a very long ways. The reasons are all there, you’ve just got to look close enough to find them.
“Collected Plays”, William Shakespeare—Everyone putting words on a page owes something to this guy, and I think that everyone with a love of story has some unique affection for Shakespeare. Personally, I’ve admired his plots, his characters, his jokes, and his poetry. I’m sure there is plenty more left to investigate in his plays, plenty more to learn. There’s a Romantic Shakespeare, a Structuralist Shakespeare, a Classicist Shakespeare, a Marxist Shakespeare, a Postmodernist Shakespeare, and, most essentially, a Shakespeare of those who simply enjoy viewing plays. Personally, I believe Shakespeare does that absolute best of literary tricks, which is to create something of beauty and sophistication, while providing entertainment in the process.
“In Bruges”, Martin McDonaugh—McDonaugh is an Irish playwright and “In Bruges” is a feature film that he wrote and directed. I still count the movie as one of my favorites. It’s fun, heartbreaking, and exceedingly smart.
“Ask the Dust”, John Fante—A friend of mine recently turned me on to this and it’s an amazing read. Fante was a screenwriter for many years who somehow managed to work equally hard on his literary pursuits. He sort of resembles Bukowski (and Bukowski in fact wrote the introduction to my edition of “Ask the Dust”), but I get the feeling that Fante has a good deal more compassion and warmth than that aforementioned barroom laureate. They both write about being general pieces of shit, but Fante is much more vulnerable in his storytelling, falling only rarely to Bukowski’s macho posturing. This novel follows the struggles of a terminally broke young writer in the 1930s as he bums around in Los Angeles and falls violently in love with a Mexican waitress. I’m excited to read more of this guy’s books, and check out some of his films as well. He has a sort of free-flowing style that makes it seem like he’s writing you a very long, personal letter.