good friend and bestselling mystery writer John Connolly wrote a blog post about a discussion the two of us had the other day about a book he’d recommended. John, per usual, turned out to be completely wrong, but, in terms of Backup And Tell It Right, it got me thinking about the ways we use culture to reveal pieces of ourselves to each other.
What John Says
“Read this book!”
Back Up And Tell It Right
Mmm hmm. See the thing John failed to do – and which I sweetly pointed out to him in a subsequent email – was articulate WHY he was recommending the book. That articulation, that translation of an internal state into an external statement, is connection, is the way we use culture as a means of expressing who we are, c.f. the reason we all keep using Facebook despite the fact that it epitomizes the worst of coporate money-grubbing abusive nastiness. So despite his completely wrong opinion, I’m delighted that John ultimately decided to share a piece of himself, no matter how boneheaded, as that piece of himself has ultimately served to bond us closer together.
A few years ago, I sent John some book recommendations. Not that I’m saying mine are better than his or that I’m practicing what I’m preaching (insert throat clearing sound here), but I thought I’d demonstrate by doing and use culture, translated through my own personal filters, to connect with you:
The Bone People – Keri Hulme
I found this book really hard to get into – the first 22 pages were literally incomprehensible to me as in I had no idea what was going on. What I ultimately realized is that you’re thrown right into the main character’s head and you kind of have to learn her thought process. Once you do, this book is incredible – unbelieveably moving.
The Quincunx – Charles Palliser
Genius. Out-Dickens Dickens (and I hate Dickens). To quote people magazine, “the best Victorian novel of 1989.” A big, fat complicated story. Really great.
Going After Cacciato – Tim O’Brien
This book is awesome and I had absolutely no interest in it when I picked it up – the Vietnam war? Come on! Boooring. I was totally wrong. It’s hilarious and really moving.
The Spectator Bird – Wallace Stegner
Wallace Stegner is a great writer. This book contains one of my favorite quotes of all time. The main character is a 70-ish year old guy looking back to the one time, 20 years ago, when he felt truly alive. He says his current, day-to-day existence makes him feel like “I’ve walked through the great kitchen of life and arrived at the back door hungry.” If you like the quote, you’ll like the book.
Foreign Affairs – Alison Lurie
I love Alison Lurie. I loved everything about this book. It’s really funny but really moving too. If you like this book you’ll probably end up reading everything by her.
White Man’s Grave – Richard Dooling
Wow. Brilliant. Unfortunately, it’s his only good book – the other ones he wrote aren’t bad, but nothing measured up to this.
Green River Rising – Tim Willocks
This is a prison break novel that’s phenomenal. If you start it, don’t plan on leaving your home until you’re done. It was one of this author’s other books that spurred the whole thing with John! That aside, Tim Willocks is pretty amazing.
The Custom Of The Country – Edith Wharton
Edith Wharton always seemed like medicine to me. I was wrong. This book is basically about a turn-of-the-century female scarface named Undine Spragg and how she claws her way to the top of the New York social ladder. It’s vicious and great.
Fingersmith – Sarah Waters
I LOVED FINGERSMITH!!! It’s set in Victorian England and is about a con within a con within a con – think George Eliot meets HOUSE OF GAMES. There are genius twists in it plus the writing is great plus you get to tell yourself that reading something classier than just a big juicy mystery novel.
Marjorie Morningstar – Herman Wouk
OMFG. A big fat potboiler set in NYC and a theater camp in the 30s. First recommended to me by my friends Moira and Sheila (culture as connective gesture!). Their totally accurate description of Herman Wouk’s writing is that it’s like gabbing on the phone with your BFF a la “What’d you wear to the party last night. Uh uh. How was it? Ohmigod. Who else was there? What were they wearing?” Seriously great book.
Geek Love – Katherine Dunn
It starts out with a hardboiled crime fiction radio show told from the point of view of a pit mite caught in the pubic hair of Los Angeles police detective, all of which is narrated by an albino dwarf. Need I say anything more? Great and moving.
BTW, mercifully John doesn’t write the kind of books he recommends; he writes the ultimate Trojan Horse crime novels – literate writing and complex characters and story all wrapped up in the guise of a driving thriller: John Connolly’s Amazon Page.
So John, I eagerly await your next revelation-of-self aka your next book recommendation…
Matthew, you are one of the most literate humans on the planet and, excepting your inexplicable interest in futuristic sci fi, I tend to be in 100% agreement with you about most books. (Other than MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR I agree with every selection on your list above.)
HOWEVER: Mr. Connolly is empirically correct in this instance. THE RELIGION is a butt-kicking novel of the first order. I read it in 48 hours and have been stalking Willock’s Amazon page for years now awaiting the sequel. How can you of all people, not like RELIGION???? Great characters, huge battles, suspense, fine writing–everything we want in a book. In fact, quite Dickensian in its conceit and intention. If I die before reading the sequel, I will also feel diminished and cheated.
I think books are totally a matter of taste, but I suspect there’s almost something about hitting the right book at the right moment in time; it’s like people–sometimes you’re more (or less) inclined to ‘love the one you’re with.”
That said, I also agree with Mr. Connolly that as a reader, there’s something really distressing about pointing someone towards a book that bored them. (If they hated it, that’s okay, since it made them feel something strongly.) I feel for him. I’d feel for your boredom too, but you’re just simply dead wrong about THE RELIGION. I know what I’m sending you for your birthday, and it’s gonna be the hardback…
Strangely, I’ve only read a handful of the books on that list. How I’ve never gotten to CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY, I have no idea. It will not be as good as THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, but nothing is. And I’d pick Herman Wouk’s YOUNGBLOOD HAWKE over MARJORIE MORNINGSTAR, but that has more to do with the timing of when I read those books.
We don’t always know why a particular book resonates with us, and sometimes it’s counterproductive to examine that too closely. I tend to read books because they are about something other than my own place, time or worldview, and it’s that “not-me” I value. The only exceptions to this rule I can think of off the top of my head are Alice McDermott’s CHARMING BILLY, which gave me a whole new frame for looking at my own family, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A LITTLE PRINCESS, which might have given me my earliest fictional role model.
And just saying that, I feel I’ve given far too much away…
Custom is my absolute favorite Wharton; it’s the female Scarface…
EC how could you not love Marjorie? Not a Herman Wouk fan in general or just not that particular book?