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Monday, September 22, 2014

Top Ten List (revised…slightly)

"There's more to life than books, but not much more." The Smiths

I’m not as fond of list making and favorites as most people. Upon a bit of reflection I feel that a top ten list of books isn’t a bad idea simply because it may let someone, who may have thought otherwise, know that books are important to some people. In a culture where books seem to be increasingly irrelevant this should be the duty of all who read. Here goes.

 1) The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe

I have read this book about eight times and I defy anyone to open the book to any page and not find something brilliant. Every chapter is a well-crafted short story and can be read as one. Wolfe is an excellent reporter and in this novel he captured the rich and the poor, the powerful and the lowliest citizens of NY in the late 20th century.  

 2) La Tía Julia y el Escribidor, Mario Vargas Llosa

It's called Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter in English. This is by my favorite Latin American author who once ran for president of Peru. Writers are actually important people in some parts of the world and not just the academic douche-bags who make up most of American letters in our time. This novel is uproariously funny in telling the tale of Llosa’s teenage romance and marriage.Llosa created my favorite character in all of fiction, the manic auteur of radio soap operas, Pedro Camacho.

 3) L’Etranger, Albert Camus

The first book I read in French. I was in college and studying some boring-as-hell economics text. I was in one of Indiana University’s smaller libraries and wandering the stacks trying to wake up when I came across this novel. I sat down and began reading and was thrilled that my French was adequate to propel me through this most existentialist of existential novels. Reading this book also taught me a lot about how to learn a language. I have since rejected the study of grammar and stayed with reading.

 4) Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut

I could put any and all of his novels but this was my first. I discovered Vonnegut as a 17 year old kid bored to tears with school and equally bored with high school social customs. Vonnegut made me think that maybe I wasn’t the weird one or at least it was OK to be weird. I loved his absurd sense of humor and have tried to imitate his and Groucho Marx’s wit my entire adult life. What I especially like about Vonnegut was that he was funny as hell right up to his death. I hope I can be funny, mildly hip, and relevant as I get older.

 5) Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, John Ralston Saul

Written in 1991 by the Canadian polymath and fortune teller, this treatise on the modern world is incomparable in its scope, wisdom, and foresight. He explained to the public how much of what America feels is capitalism, like many of our biggest publicly-held corporations, is no such thing. More than anything Saul saw the rise of the plutocrats in the West and the damage they are doing to our society. His essay on the modern novel is the best thing I’ve ever read on literature.

 6) The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

I now find his racism and bigotry disturbing and disappointing. I will refrain from criticizing Hemingway because he was a product of his time, as are most mortals. I read it first when I was a hick kid of 17. It made me want to live in Europe and learn to speak French and Spanish and that’s what I did. Shaping a human life is pretty strong stuff for a novel. I am grateful to Hemingway for inspiring a kid to dream and learn (often the same thing). I’ve since reread the entire Hemingway bibliography in Spanish which has been a boon for learning my adopted language. His books are easy to find here in translation (and cheap!). As a person I think he was an idiot but that shouldn’t concern the reader much.

P.S. I much prefer the European title for this book, Fiesta, as it’s much less pretentious and reflects better the novel itself.

 7) Generation X, Douglas Copeland

It’s really not much of a novel and certainly not a very good one but this was the first book that I read that took the piss out of “the American dream,” whatever the hell that was or is. I came across this book at the perfect time, just after I returned from three years living a most idyllic existence in Greece during my military service. I knew then that the bourgeois life of wife, job, kids, house, etc. held absolutely zero interest for me and this book let me know that I wasn’t alone. Generation X has what so much of American fiction lacks: insights.

 8) Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess

"It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me." This is how you begin an epic masterpiece and this one is a vague pastiche on the life of Somerset Maugham. I’ve read this 800 page book three times, and each time when I finish, I’m sorry it has to end.

 9) Sin Noticias de Gurb (No Word from Gurb), Eduardo Mendoza

Without a doubt the funniest comic novel I’ve ever read in any language. Gurb tells the story of two extraterrestrials who touch down in modern Barcelona. They can take any form. Gurb takes human form and in an attempt to explore gets into a car with an earthling and disappears for parts unknown. Most of the rest of the story, written in ship’s log form, concerns his unnamed partner’s search for the only being capable of piloting their craft. The book gives an outsider’s view of Spanish culture and hit home for me as I am Gurb. It’s a very short and simple book but the idea and execution are pure brilliance. I can’t believe this hasn’t been adapted into a film.

 10) Memoirs of an Invisible Man, H.F. Saint

I can state without any exaggeration that the umpteen times I have made it through this book cover-to-cover were the most fun that I've ever had reading. This last reading I pulled off in a single day! I also think that it's interesting how many people state that this is their favorite book. Although the protagonist is turned invisible in an accident at the beginning of the book most of the book is his quest to make himself completely invisible, like someone in witness protection. Don’t confuse this modern masterpiece with the piece-of-shit movie supposedly based on it.


  1. I just read a Mendoza book - An Englishman in Madrid. Wasn't very impressed by it.
    Just to add my two cents - the Master and Margarita (Bulgakov), a Tale of Two Cities (Dickens), Gormenghast (Peake) and, recently found, the astonishing 'The City and the City' by China Miéville. With Hemingway, my favourite is the powerful For Who the Bell Tolls. Ends!

  2. I highly recommend Sin Noticias de Gurb. It's an easy, fast read and freaking hilarious. I'll look into the China Miéville book.


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