And here we are at week 4 of 10 Things I Love About My Country. While the brilliant and lovely Suzie dukes it out with the also brilliant and lovely Steve over whether England should keep Scotland, we’re all sharing things we love about our respective countries. This was such a fun topic that I made Earl post his list too.
I admit that when I saw that this week’s topic was Writers, I put my head down on the table and said a few swear words. Granted Scotland and England have more than twice as much history as the US to draw from, but how the hell do you choose?! By my subjective measure of quality (Willa Cather, John Irving, Bill Bryson)? General agreement amongst literary types (John Steinbeck, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe)? Sentimentality (Jim Butcher, Piers Anthony, L. Frank Baum)? Innovative style (Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, George Saunders)? Specific works (Jonathan Franzen, Michael Chabon, Jane Smiley) or the entire oeuvre (in which case Hemingway is out because what the fuck was up with To Have and Have Not)?
Ultimately what drove the compilation of this list was a single question: which writers made (or make) me want to read more?
1. George Selden (1929-1989)
George Selden is not all that well-known these days. He wrote a series of children’s books beginning with The Cricket in Times Square about a cricket named Chester who, while chasing liverwurst into a picnic basket, loses his way from rural Connecticut and finds himself lost in Grand Central Station in New York City. He befriends a cat-and-mouse duo (Tucker Mouse and Harry Cat) as well as a human boy, has a series of adventures, and finds his way home. The other books follow up on the three characters, both together and apart.
These books, along with the Bunnicula series, were my first chapter books. I’d pretty much had to teach myself to read with some assistance from Sesame Street because my parents were incredibly busy working, and my grandfather who watched me during the day spoke very little English. Having little assistance in the matter, I read what my older brother read. Suddenly I learned that cats didn’t just go around wearing stripey hats and pissing people off with incessant rhyming; they could also be warm and kind to their temperamental mouse friends. I learned that crickets are considered lucky, and have never killed one in my life as a result. I fell in love with reading because of these books.
I go back to read The Cricket in Times Square and recognize how ridiculously racist it is (bowing, obsequious Chinese people and loud obnoxious Italians, both with terribly accented English, specifically). But I also recognize how much better it is than the crap my kids have been reading. One day I’ll get them to put Junie B. Jones down and pick up my old books, and turn them into proper nerds.
2. David Eddings (1931-2009)
When I was 12 or 13, young adult literature started to bore me. I didn’t feel like venturing into literary fiction though, and was somewhat at a loss about what to read next when a friend of my brother’s spotted me at the library and plopped a copy of Pawn of Prophecy in my lap, saying nothing but “You’ll thank me.”
Thus began a love affair with fantasy that would last nearly a decade before I realized I’d neglected literary fiction for too long. Let’s be honest though – David Eddings was not a spectacular writer. If I’d picked his books up as an adult and read them with the literary knowledge I possess now, I don’t think I’d have loved them nearly as much. But what David Eddings did do well that I appreciate to this day was both worldbuilding and developing vivid characters full of charm and faults and complexity. People you’d love to hang out with if they were real. He established rules and logic for his magic, and used his characters’ strengths and agency to resolve conflicts rather than mystical intervention or gratuitous help from friends. Plus, he never ever failed to credit his wife, Leigh, with helping him develop these characters, which is just endearing.
After devouring the Belgariad (a series of 5 books), I moved on to the Mallorean (a sequel of another 5 books) and developed an eagerness for more and more fantasy, hoping to recapture that feeling of being transported elsewhere that I felt with my first David Eddings book. Patrick Rothfuss, Jim Butcher, and Brandon Sanderson have done a splendid job filling the void David Eddings left behind, but David Eddings will always be first in my heart.
3. Shel Silverstein (1930-1999)
I’ll admit this now: I am really poetry dumb. Earl fucking loves Philip Larkin, and gave me a book of his poems which I earnestly made an effort to read and comprehend, but apart from those, poetry just goes flying over my head, like how art does.
I’m determined to save my daughters from this stupidity, so I sat Clarice down with a beaten up copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends and we read through them together, analyzing each poem line by line. Clarice ate that up, hungrily. We went through every single poem, with her asking each night, “Can we do one more?” The funny thing is that as we went through each poem, I started recognizing some of the things Shel Silverstein was doing with his language and word choice, and the overall structure of the poems. Plus talking about the meaning sparked some long discussions with my daughter. I remember my heart breaking when I had to explain to her what racism is.
I really hate The Giving Tree. I think it sends a terrible message about not advocating for oneself. But I love Shel Silverstein’s poetry books. I have to respect a poet who draws his own funny pictures and can get an 8-year old child and an adult with the poetry-comprehension of an 8-year old child to believe that poetry is actually accessible.
There, I said it. I read My Ántonia, which I absolutely adored. Willa Cather spent a lot of text indulgently describing landscape, making Nebraska sound like a place you might actually want to be. But while you weren’t paying attention, she subtly wove you into each character, wholly investing you in the story. Then once you were invested, *BAM* surprise! Have some progressive feminist issues you didn’t see coming.
I have 4 shelves of to-read books. I estimate it will take me between 2 and 3 years to get to them all, and my method of selecting which book comes next is unpredictable. It involves asking Clarice and Dr. Lecter to each select a book based on any criteria; usually it comes down to what color the spine is or how thick the book is or what animal is on the cover. At some point, they picked a streak of books very low on my priority list, so I’ve since asked Earl to pick one too, as he has access to my ordered to-read list on goodreads. I don’t know when I’ll actually get to O! Pioneers, but I’m really looking forward to it.
5. Mark Twain (1835-1910)
On the subject of confessions, I haven’t read Tom Sawyer OR Huckleberry Finn. Nor have I read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Nor The Prince and the Pauper. Nor Pudd’nhead Wilson. I know, I know. I’m not sure how I made it 30+ years being this poorly read. Mark Twain appears in this list despite my gross negligence of these major works for two reasons: a short story called Cannibalism in the Cars and a pamphlet (a publication between 5 and 48 pages long) called King Leopold’s Soliloquy.
I don’t want to spoil either, but both had me putting the books in which they were published down so that I could laugh. I don’t mean one of those barely audible snort-chuckles either. I mean I had to physically put the books down because I was laughing that hard.
I honestly don’t know how Mark Twain does it. He uses his talents to write biting satires about issues he finds important (the broken American political system for Cannibalism in the Cars and the atrocious genocidal behavior of King Leopold II in the Belgian Congo for King Leopold’s Soliloquy), and somehow makes them uproariously hilarious. I’m not sure what Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn have in store for me in the way of social commentary – yes, both are still waiting to be chosen by Clarice and Dr. Lecter from the to-read shelves – but Mark Twain now has my complete trust.
6. Bill Bryson (1951)
Bill Bryson is a tricky choice because although he was born in the United States, he did move to England and live there for several years and wrote Notes from a Small Island based on his time there. However, his wikipedia entry calls him a “non-Briton”, and that’s good enough for me.
Bill Bryson reminds me a bit of myself, in that his attention seems to wander easily. I’ve read 5 of his books and only two of them discuss the same topic (travel). His writing is incredibly engaging and he makes topics that might ordinarily seem dull accessible to the most inattentive of ADHD types. You know, like me. If you’re looking to start a new non-fiction read, go with A Short History of Nearly Everything. It started me on a Bryson streak that is still going strong.
Plus, look at his jolly face. You can’t turn that face away.
I don’t remember what caused me to pick up A Prayer for Owen Meany. I think it happened around the same time I picked up Bill Bryson, and I’ve been a devotee of both since. I really can’t quite put my finger on what it is about John Irving that makes me love his books. Maybe his whimsicality? Maybe how he writes about controversial subjects in his own quirky Irving way? Maybe how he handles the “Othering” of the LGBT+ community by refusing to Other the LGBT+ community (understandably so, since his son is gay).
I do feel like there’s a definite hierarchy of novels in terms of most to least readable, though I still have at least 3 of his novels on my to-read shelf. Owen Meany will likely always be my favorite, but I’m leaving room for other Irving works to supplant it.
8. Helen DeWitt (1957)
Helen DeWitt is on this list for a few of reasons: 1) she’s originally from the same area as me, 2) her debut novel, The Last Samurai, is out of print and I don’t comprehend why because it’s freakishly good, and 3) she is a big huge nerd, and I love nerds.
I first encountered this book when I read a completely different non-fiction book by Mark Ravina with the same title while researching exactly how far from the truth Tom Cruise had strayed with his stupid “Oh look, I am a drunk white man and I’m better at being a samurai than all these Japanese dudes” movie. As it turns out, neither of these books bears much similarity to Tom Cruise’s movie: Helen DeWitt’s novel by virtue of being a story about a son and his single mother revolving around Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and Mark Ravina’s book by virtue of being a factual account of Saigō Takamori, the actual last samurai to stand against the Meiji government, and totally did not befriend some random American who hooked up with his sister.
The Last Samurai is delightful. It’s told from the perspective of an obnoxiously over-intelligent mother and switches halfway through to the perspective of her precocious son, who’s been raised watching Seven Samurai to serve as his positive male influences in lieu of an actual positive male influence, and goes in search of his biological father. It’s somewhat experimental fiction, and often delves into story-within-a-story type narratives. There are also frequent bursts of erudition in the form of math and linguistics and such, which can be a turnoff, but I found it hugely appealing (see: “I love nerds”).
Lightning Rods, her second novel, is on my to-read list now. I was reminded to add it when I found this list of 50 Books By Women Authors earlier this year.
9. Junot Díaz (1968)
On the subject of loving nerds, Junot Díaz wrote The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a Pulitzer-winning novel about a nerd whose family comes from the Dominican Republic and his search for love and acceptance. It’s peppered throughout with footnotes, and I adore gratuitous footnotes in novels.
I don’t know how the hell Junot Díaz came up with the concept for this novel, but he’s a professor in Creative Writing at MIT, so he probably knows something about that whole creativity business. I heard an interview with him on NPR where he’d admitted that he was nerdy like his titular character (though not quite as nerdy), and retreated into books when he was feeling lousy about speaking English poorly. He’d also been taught by his father that reading can be masculine behavior, which I found appealing. Based on that interview alone, I added This Is How You Lose Her and Drown to my to-read list.
Not long ago, he shared the reading list from the syllabus of his World-building class, where he said the following:
I teach classic Gothic texts which are themselves not very diverse by our standards, but the critical lens I deploy helps my students understand how issues of race, gender, coloniality etc. are never far and how these problematics in fact underpin even what what would be considered a ‘white text.’
Doesn’t that sound like a guy you want to read??
10. James Baldwin (1925-1987)
If there is a running theme to this list, it’s “I haven’t read enough of this author’s works, and there are a ton of his/her works on my to-read shelf”. Why should James Baldwin be any different?
John Irving, my #7, incorporated Giovanni’s Room heavily into In One Person, to the point where I added it as soon as I finished reading In One Person. Not long after, I started following the becoming radical here on WordPress, who writes frequently about James Baldwin. I’ve now read a few of his essays, and I don’t understand why this man is not more well-known. At a time when it wasn’t en vogue to do so, Baldwin was writing books, essays, and poetry about the marginalization of people based on race, class, and sexuality.
He was a brilliant writer, and I don’t feel that I can do him justice, so I’ll just refer you to something the becoming radical recently wrote about him, quoting large swaths of Baldwinisms because his writing speaks for itself.
There’s my list. Who would go on yours and with what criteria?