10 Enormous Tomes

November 28, 2010

Okay, as promised, here are ten enormous tomes.  Nothing under 500 pages here, but these are all masterpieces.

  1. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, 560 pages: I read this in college and it really stuck with me. A book that was so aware of the problems of its time that it could pass for a historical novel if written today. Make sure you’re reading Dreiser’s original text and not the sloppy editing that was out there for years because what he originally wrote was “indecent.”
  2. Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo, 641 pages: This is the only Russo I’ve read that truly and totally blew me away. This is a sprawling story, but it sprawls enjoyably. And, most importantly, necessarily.
  3. The Amazing Adventures of  Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, 656 pages: Maybe my favorite book. I read this every year and it is always wonderful. Wonderfully fantastical without quite crossing the bridge into unbelievable. The best ending of anything I’ve ever read.
  4. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, 576 pages: The best thing about Kingsolver is how honest her narrators tend to be, even when they aren’t reliable. There are a bunch of them in this book and their honesty is fantastically compelling.
  5. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens 544 pages: This is the first great book I remember reading while being conscious of its greatness. It still holds up.
  6. Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem: I made Cate read this and I think it might be the most impressed she’s been with any of my recommendations. This is one of those, “I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like it” books. Lethem’s best, and he has a lot of good ones.
  7. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, 672 pages: Cate made me read this and I’ve never been so impressed by a recommendation. It instantly became one of my favorite books. Unlike Kavalier and Clay, it is a bit unbelievable, but as with many great books, suspending your disbelief is a big part of the joy of reading it.
  8. I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb, 928 pages: Other than The Lord of the Rings, this might be the longest book I’ve ever read. Another recommendation from Cate and another great book. I was skeptical because it was so long, but it’s a surprisingly fast read both because the language is so good and because the story is so compelling.
  9. Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides, 544 pages: This is such a neat story. I don’t mean that to sound trivial, but it goes so many interesting and unexpected places. The whole book is truly fascinating.
  10. Possession by A.S. Byatt,  576 pages: This might be the most complicated book on this list. Byatt really needs every page to pull it all together, which she does, just at the right moment. Lots of story-within-a-story stuff and it’s all totally necessary. This is a brilliantly assembled book. I can’t imagine writing something like this.

Well, that was a fun exercise. I love doing lists like this. Now, everyone go read these.

10 Slim Volumes

November 23, 2010

Not long ago, I read a post bemoaning the decline of short books. I am personally ambivalent on the issue. It is certainly true that a terrible long book manages to be more terrible than it would be were it shorter, but there are some really wonderful long books out there. Correspondingly, I am going to do two posts. Today, I will present you with ten slim novels/story collections that are very wonderful. When I get to it, I will provide a list of ten wonderful behemoths. There will be no middle ground.

Go pick one of these up and read it tonight.

  1. The Awakening by Kate Chopin: 120 pages – A splendid book. The world would be better if everyone read this in high school so that they could, perhaps, learn to challenge societal norms.
  2. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri: 198 pages – I read this not long ago, and it is absolutely fantastic. I was speechless trying to write about it then, and I find the same thing to be true now. I’ve never seen anyone cover every angle of something the way she covers the Indian-American immigration experience.
  3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy: 230 pages – This book has been written about a lot, and with good reason. It’s among the most compelling books I’ve ever read. It might be the quickest read on this list.
  4. Summer by Edith Wharton: 228 pages – I love Edith Wharton, and, among what I’ve read, this is my favorite. It’s a novel about extreme situations that I nonetheless find believable and relatable.
  5. As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem: 224 pages – The book that got me hooked on Jonathan Lethem. It’s so wonderfully weird. One of the more unconventional love stories I’ve read, and it’s always oddly fun to find yourself really identifying with totally unlikable characters.
  6. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway: 128 pages – I read this one night when Cate was pregnant with Simone. She passed out early, but I couldn’t sleep. I take back what I said about the road. I found this impossible to put down until I finished.
  7. The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel: 228 pages – I don’t think Yann Martel gets nearly enough credit. These four stories are so moving. I love that he is unapologetically sentimental. There is too much irony and smirk in modern culture. It’s refreshing to see something different every now and then. This is that.
  8. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell: 144 pages – He has several short novels, but this, I believe, is the shortest. Still, he manages to tell a complicated story while fully developing a moderately large cast of characters. Maxwell was a master of writing. He is not remembered well enough.
  9. Tambourines to Glory by Langston Hughes: 176 pages – When a poet tells a story, and tells it well, it’s going to be hard to beat. The language in this is so smooth and crisp. Word economy at its best. I don’t think there’s a wasted syllable in this book.
  10. Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson: 238 pages – This book floored me when I read it. Just thinking about the ending still moves me, and his descriptions are so perfect. I need to read more of his work.

Celebrities Writing Badly

November 15, 2010

During a recent bookstore trip I realized there are a ton of horrible novels on the shelves written by celebrities. This made me grumpy. It’s bad enough that people like Dan Brown, Nicholas Sparks, and the like make it hard to find the good books on the shelves. Add in celebrities with no talent but agents willing to sell anything and it’s practically impossible.

I will now tear apart the opening passages of three awful books by talentless “writers.”

Let’s start with Hilary Duff’s Elixer.


Wedged in the middle of an ocean of people, I gasped for air, but nothing came. The heat from a million writhing bodies radiated over me, their sweat weighing down the air. I searched anxiously for an escape, but painfully bright lights strobed on and off, clouding my sense of direction.

I was losing it. I was going to pass out.

I forced in a deep breath and tried to talk myself down. I was fine. It wasn’t like I was anywhere dangerous. I was on a dance floor, in the most exclusive nightclub in Paris. People lined up all night in the freezing cold for even a chance to stand where I was now.

Dreadful isn’t it? Ms. Duff does seem to understand the importance of varied sentence length, but that’s all this has going for it. “A million writhing bodies?” Hyperbole much? Also, the heat isn’t radiating over you. Presumably, the writhing bodies surround you (as you are on the dance floor). Envelop is probably closer to the meaning you were after.

Now, let’s talk about those pesky -ly words. They are often overused. My high school students have this problem (note: they are not published novelists). Let’s ditch “anxiously” and “painfully.”

The next paragraph is two sentences long. It should be one.

The last paragraph contains imprecise word choice at its best. What does it mean to “talk myself down?” Down from what? Calm maybe, instead of talk? Is that what you mean? “It wasn’t like I was anywhere dangerous,” now watch the magic: “I wasn’t anywhere dangerous.” That is called word economy. Make it your friend. Also, why is dance floor followed by a comma?

This excerpt is making me angry. Time for something fresh. How about conservative windbag Glenn Beck’s The Overton Window:

Most people think about age and experience in terms of years, but it’s really only moments that define us. We stay mostly the same and then grow up suddenly, at the turning points.

His life being pretty sweet just as it was, Noah Gardner had devoted a great deal of effort in his first twenty-something years to avoiding such defining moments at all costs.

Not that his time had gone entirely wasted. Far from it. For one thing, he’d spent a full decade building what most guys would call an outstanding record of success with the ladies. Good-looking, great job, fine education, puckishly amusing and even clever when he put his mind to it, reasonably fit and trim for an office jockey, Noah had all the bona fide credentials for a killer eHarmony profile. Since freshman year at NYU he’d rarely spent a weekend night alone; all he’d had to do was keep the bar for an evening’s companionship set at only medium-high.

Always nice to open with a broad judgment of humanity. At least the intro paragraph is coherent. That’s more than I can say for the single-sentence convolution-fest that is the second paragraph. I’m not even going to try and point out everything wrong with it. I’m just going to rewrite it: “Noah Gardner was happy with his life and had devoted his early-twenties to avoiding such moments.” There, isn’t that better?

I don’t even know what to write about that last paragraph. It’s a complete disaster. Once again, he’s making judgments about what large segments of the population think. This is bad form and can be alienating, so it’s a good idea to avoid it in your first three paragraphs or so. I think my favorite moment in the paragraph is “companionship.” Someone give me one reason why that shouldn’t be “companion.”

Time for the cream of the crop. I give you the first paragraph of Nicole Richie’s Priceless:

As the beautiful young woman strode through the international arrivals terminal at JFK, several people turned to look. A flight attendant noticed the way she carried herself, the clothes she wore, her shoes, and guessed she’d just walked out of first class. She was right. A young man pulling espresso paused, distracted by the girl’s obvious sexuality and lovely figure. She felt his gaze and turned slightly, favoring him with a brief smile that made his hand jump, causing him to scald himself. A man in a Savile Row suit lowered his Wall Street Journal and raised his eyebrows. Hmm. Charlotte Williams was back. Her father would be happy. The market would go up. He folded his paper and called his broker.

I think that is the worst paragraph I have ever read in a published novel. First, there is the obvious problem of telling instead of showing. We here all about how gorgeous and sexual this woman is, but nothing about her appearance or demeanor is described. Then there’s a nice believability issue. Who spills coffee on himself upon seeing a pretty girl? Also, “favoring him?” That’s the best you’ve got? Really?

What’s most interesting about all of this is that each “author” lacks the ability to look past him/herself. Hilary Duff gives us an account of a teenage girl on a dance floor! Glenn Beck tells us what the whole world really thinks! Nicole Richie writes about a pretty girl with a rich dad! I always talk to my students about writing what you know, but it’s nice to do it on a level that isn’t entirely superficial.

I will now go weep in a corner while wondering why this schlock is on the shelves while I remain a lowly English teacher.

Before reading this post, you should at least be passingly familiar with this children’s book.

It was all fun all the time when the Hippopotamus ran off with the other animals. The Armadillo tried to warn her. He wasn’t like her. She was a tropical animal, but his range overlapped with these temperate beasts. He knew the tyranny of seasons. But she would not listen, and so off she went on her run. She imagined that this would be the start of many glorious friendships. Look at how close they all were, the Moose and the Goose, the Bear and the Hare, the Cat and the Rats, and, of course, the Hog and the Frog.

The Cat and the Rats were the first. Only ever running pals, and not especially close ones, it happened very quickly. It was before the weather even turned. That Cat hadn’t been fed and worked up such an appetite on the jog. Suddenly, the Rats looked delectable. True, they weren’t tuna, which was her favorite, but they were plump and juicy. They never saw it coming. The Hippopotamus was shocked and disgusted. But not the Armadillo.

The Hog and the Frog were next. There was a chill in the air and the foraging wasn’t as good. The Hog was depending more on slop. You can’t blame a frog for mistaking slop for a bog. It was an accident, but by the time the Hog realized what she was eating, it was too late. The Hippotamus offered consolation. But not the Armadillo.

Winter came in hard and the Bear had spent too much time running. He was too thin and not at all ready for hibernation. Under pressure, bears will eat anything. The Hare was a friend, but what was friendship with winter coming? A few millimeters of fat meant more. The Hippopotamus was becoming distraught. But not the Armadillo.

The Moose and the Goose took the longest. The Armadillo had known they would be last as neither could easily eat the other one, but it was only a matter of time. The Moose was a homebody, but come winter, the Goose wanted to travel. It wasn’t long until a smooth-talking, fast-moving Gander came along talking about migration and the unnatural inter-species love affair ended. The Hippopotamus was positively beside herself. But not the Armadillo.

The Bear wasn’t finished. Winter passed and the Hippopotamus sobbed. A thaw came and the Bear pulled himself out of his den. He was famished and there were the Cat and the Hog and the Moose. It was quite the buffet. The Armadillo reminded her that she should have known. He had told her that seasons wreak havoc on these temperate animals. That she didn’t understand. It wasn’t the same as the dry and wet seasons she knew. The Hippopotamus didn’t want to hear it any more. She snapped her giant jaws at him and lumbered back home.

The Armadillo didn’t have to wonder about staying or going. He curled into a ball and rolled on down the road. But yes, the Armadillo.