The Ten: The Books That Stay With Me (Or You)

By Michael Nye

In the three weeks or so, there has been one of those tagging games on Facebook that have been ubiquitous since, oh, probably as soon as the site launched. Though one of my aunts used to send me emails that were very similar way back when all we had were AOL.com email addresses, so these “tagging” games have probably been around since humans learned to write. Anyway, the current one is to list the ten books that have “stayed with you” in your life. I was tagged by my friend Laura Relyea.

There are many tagging posts on Facebook, and probably, if you haven’t already written yours about books, you’ve at least seen them in your feed. I generally ignore these tagging games (and Candy Crush invitations) but I didn’t have an idea for a Monday post and it’s relevant to books and all that, so I thought, yeah, this will work.

However, with one or two exceptions, most of these lists that I’ve seen on Facebook lack context. Why did these books stay with you? What does “stay with you” mean? Why are you imploring me to read them? Or, perhaps, you aren’t imploring me to read them, you’re just sharing (or something). Or, it’s all humblebrag, as this correspondent from Huffington Post thinks, with the requisite amount of snark. But, I’ve generally found that I see people’s list and I wish that me and that person could talk about it. Just seeing a friend’s book list doesn’t feel like it even touches on why the book matters, to my friend or me, especially if the list is diverse. It only leads to more questions. So, here’s my list with, I hope, a sufficient enough explanation of why it’s on the list. These aren’t necessarily my favorite books: trying to do something a wee bit different here. And if it isn’t sufficient, hey, just ask me. I like getting emails.

Onward!

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I’m sure there were other books in my childhood that were big, important, impressive, amazing books. But this is the one that I really remember. This book is about Milo, a boy who is bored and unhappy with everything, and he comes home from school one day to find a cardboard box in his room. He opens it up, and finds that there is a toolbooth and a mechanical car big enough for him to sit in. He figures, why not? And, next thing he knows, he’s no longer in his bedroom but in some new amazing magical land. There are watchdogs named Tick and Tock, there is an island called Conclusions that you “jump to” (get it?), and about a hundred other delightful word games mixed in with what is a very cool story. This is the book that I felt was written just for me. And, there are thousands of readers of Juster’s novel who feel the exact same way.

Kindred by Octavia Butler. Of all the books I read in high school, this is the one that stands out. I read this junior year. When, on page sixty or something, it’s revealed that the main character—a black woman from San Francisco that keeps inexplicably getting sent back and forth in time to a 19th century plantation—is married to a white man. Why didn’t Butler tell us that sooner, I asked my teacher. I felt like I had discovered something that no one else had ever noticed! Oh, and, of course, Butler’s novel is a brilliant science-fiction, historical, romance thriller that deftly blends time and space and characterization better than most. An absolute gem.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I’m pretty sure I read this in graduate school. I used to go to the nearest coffee shop, which was a Barnes and Noble, to read and write. Back then, BN didn’t offer free WiFi, which is a really good way to get your writing done. Anyway, I remember reading large chunks of this novel, and was amazed and delighted by the narrative, the way Mitchell shifted voice for his various stories, and how entertaining the novel was to read. Since I’m now struggling to feel much for his new novel, I sorta wonder how much I would like Cloud Atlas if I read it again today (something I’ve wondered about all the books on this list).

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. When was the first time you read this book? Along with To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s the only book that my students are guaranteed to have read. I’ve probably read it at every level of my education, and once a year since. Fitzgerald was the first writer I tried to emulate: I would retype his stories, practice his rhythms and sentences, try to understand how he made Carraway so elusive and Gatsby so magnetic. Many years ago on the Ploughshares blog (I believe Elisa Gabbert was curating it then), interviews always ended with the question “Hemingway or Fitzgerald?” and I was always a bit pleased at how many people said Hemingway, as if Scott and I were friends with the world’s best secret.

Old School by Tobias Wolff. I hated this book. This is not a joke. I thought this was one of the worst novels I’ve ever read.

A quick digression: I’m well aware that Toby Wolff is one of the finest American short story writers of the late 20th century, and by all accounts he is a terrific teacher and all around good guy, and this probably means I’ll never ever set foot on Stanford’s campus, and I do sorta feel bad about saying this about his novel; further, I think of all the nasty things said about books, about negative reviews, literary citizenship, community, etc. and I not only wonder about adding to the noise, but, and I would guess most people who teeter on this fence feel the same way, I worry about how this will shape my life: what if Toby Wolff knows my chancellor and gets me fired; or his friends write me and tell me I’m stupid; or I get this massive backlash from readers; and is all of that really worth it just to write two or three paragraphs about why I don’t like the book, and really, is there any harm in not liking book; no, probably not, but, actually, having all these thoughts running through my head actually kinda make me angry because then we really aren’t a community where “all voices are heard” and we sorta live with fear of offending people in case we need a favor in the future, and, really, to hell with that.

So.

Old School is a terrible book. It’s a novel written by a guy who, it seemed, didn’t really want to write a novel. There are guest appearances by Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, who are portrayed exactly as you think they would be, wrapped up pretentious teenage boys saying pretentious things about literature, and then Ernest Hemingway is supposed to show up only – surprise! – he kills himself RIGHT BEFORE HIS VISIT (oh, how convenient!) so the book is one big boring narrative leading to absolutely nothing and then, sorta, the book decides to actual begin with a longish short story about theft, and you realize that 150 pages were tacked on to the front of the real story. Why? I don’t know. Lots of critics loved this book. They were wrong. They were very wrong.

I was puzzled. Why did all the critics think this book was good? Why did people rave about it? This was the first time I vividly remember going completely against the grain, against popular opinion, and doing so with absolute certainty. This wasn’t just a matter of taste. This was bad, and people were telling me it was good. My first lesson is being willing to refuse, to be my own critic, about contemporary books.

(rant over!)

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Yes, I liked this book that much. Yes, I understand the criticism of it. Yes, Tartt writes some very bad run-on sentences with some clunky metaphors. Maybe because it has all these flaws and it doesn’t matter at all is why I love it. Maybe because I lent my copy of it out twice. Maybe because discussing the book with some of my favorite people over the past year is part of the reason it’s on the list.

Selected Stories by Andre Dubus. I think the first Andre Dubus story I ever read was “The Fat Girl” but I’m not a hundred percent positive. I also wouldn’t choose that one as one of my favorites of Dubus. I don’t remember when I first bought his books—I own them all—or when, exactly, Selected Stories became the book that I reread once a year, or pick up when I’m sad, or pick up when I’m working on a story and feeling stumped with characterization. Selected Stories might be the book that I’ve read the most.

But there’s another reason this book is on my list.

Andre Dubus is how Laura Relyea and I became friends. Andre Dubus is how Andrew Scott and I became friends. There are examples of authors considered a “writer’s writer”—John Williams and William Maxwell spring to mind—but then there are the “writer’s writer” who are deeply personal to you: how you write, how you feel, how you think. And when you meet people who are moved by someone’s work in the same way you are, you’ve found something rare.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Oddly, twice in the past two weeks or so, friends have told me they didn’t like this book. WHAT?! I had so much fun reading this book, and re-reading it, and the depth and humor and insight that Smith brings to her characters. Many current readers probably know Smith best for her essays—which are excellent—but I always return to the energy and wit of her first novel.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. Say what you will about Franzen, and many have, but when I first read this novel as an undergraduate, I was blown away. This was the kind of large canvas, the type of complexity and anger, that I responded to, the type of book that I wanted to write. It actually made me a little sad that someone else wrote the book that I wanted to write (if I knew how to write a novel, which I still don’t, or had even begun writing a novel then, which I hadn’t). I’ve read all his novels—and like them quite a bit—and the one I’ve reread is Strong Motion. But this was the novel that had the most impact on me, that made me think about aiming bigger with my own writing.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles. I wrote about re-reading this novel a few years ago, and how it was a bit stunning that such a dark, grim novel is so often taught in junior high. This is a masterpiece of language and character, every paragraph excellent, the horror of war lingering over the boys’ existence, and a tale of jealousy and friendship wrapped into one slim, elegant narrative. I’ve often thought about how such a story can exist beneath a story of prep school tragedy, how there are so many layers to this book, and how Knowles’ novel has remained on my mind with everything I’ve written the last three years.

Honorable Mention: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates; The Privileges by Jonathan Dee; Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy; Columbine by Dave Cullen; Loose Balls by Terry Pluto; Rookie of the Year by John R. Tunis; Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker; Frankenstein by Mary Shelley; The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach; The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens; Chronicles of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell; Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison; England, England by Julian Barnes; A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr; The Millionaires by Inman Majors.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

Short Story Month, Day 31: "Babylon Revisited"

During the month of May, The Missouri Review will highlight a single short story to help celebrate National Short Story Month. We’ve asked a diverse group of readers and writers to participate by sharing a short story that demands to be read. Today’s blog post comes from managing editor Michael Nye.

When I first decided I wanted to be a writer, way back when I was an undergraduate at Ohio State, I gravitated toward F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t know why. I bought and read all his novels. His collected stories was my Bible. When people asked me who my favorite writer was, I said Fitzgerald. Without thinking much about why. Fitzgerald is now best known for The Great Gatsby, but during his lifetime, he was a short story writer, writing stories that appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Red Book, Liberty, and McCall’s.

I’m thirty four years old, and have only recently reached (some) level of comfort with admitting I haven’t read The Famous Book You Want To Talk About and Are Shocked I Have Not Read. I’ve also begun to question the books I have read. When I read The Grapes of Wrath, I didn’t like it: would that be true if I reread it today? Moby Dick was brilliant when I was in my late twenties; how would I feel about the book now? How many other books do I need to revisit, reconsider? Fortunately for me, this is National Short Story Month, not National Novel Month. So it seems appropriate to close May by rereading  my favorite (allegedly!) short story writer and what’s considered one of his greatest stories.

“Babylon Revisited” is the story of Charles Wales, an American living in Prague after the boom years of the Roaring Twenties have crashed and burned. The story is set in Paris, and when the story opens, Charlie has just arrived. He finds the city is, of course, not the way he remembers it; old friends are broke or just flat out gone; all his old haunts are still and quiet. None of it feels right to Charlie: nothing is quite recognizable and he’s softly embarrassed by all the things he can’t remember or never did when he lived in Paris. He tries to convince himself that the past doesn’t matter. Instead, he focuses on his nine-year-old daughter Honoria, who he hasn’t seen for ten months, in the hope of convincing her guardians, his sister-in-law Marion and her husband Lincoln, to let him take his daughter back to Prague. He hopes they can forgive him for what happened to his deceased wife Helen, which Fitzgerald is careful not to reveal too soon.

The melancholy and the hopeful stubbornness Charlie shows in the first scene resonates in each of the story’s five sections. The large, bustling city he remembers is gone, and Charlie is both relieved and nostalgic for the days when he was filthy rich and frequently drunk. It was a party that never should have ended.

Helen haunts the story. Naturally, Marion is unconvinced that Charlie has changed. Every word she speaks, every gesture she makes, is cautious, icy, a thinly veiled contempt for her brother-in-law. Charlie’s mind never focuses on Helen, too painful to linger on, too incompatible with his hopeful view of the future. Helen reminds both characters of their past—my wonderful and flawless sister; my carefree partner-in-crime wife—that no longer exists and probably wasn’t a true image of Helen anyway. They both need Helen to be a martyr, to serve their own needs.

But the story gives Charlie, and the reader, a second type of ghost: Duncan Schaeffer and Lorraine Quarrles, “one of a crowd who had helped them make the months into days in the lavish times of three years ago.” They are doppelgängers for Charlie and Helen, the presence of the past that can be shaken off and turned into pretty memories. They are still drunk and lascivious, and Charlie tries and fails repeatedly to duck them. All of which brings the story to its apex when they corner Charlie by storming into Helen and Lincoln’s living room.

Honoria is more of a device than a character, and I wondered more than once how deliberate this characterization was. To see her as a token to be fought over seems to fit the story, fit how Charlie wants possession of her (of his past, of his change) without really contemplating why. There is little signs of love for her from Helen and Lincoln, who are simply doing their duty more than anything. It’s American of them, in the most derisive of ways, to want to have something solely for the purpose of having it, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. Even of their own lives.

This week, after rereading “Babylon Revisited” once, I wrote one of my friends and said that Fitzgerald’s story really seems to be of an era rather than timelessness. I’m less convinced this is true now. All great stories are of their time … and of our own. Experiencing Charlie’s decadence and decay recalls our recent booms and busts. Whether it was the Great Recession and the housing bubble, the tech boom, Dow 36000, the Post War Boom … well, you’ve seen and heard this dance before. This time it’s different, they say. It never is. Any student of history knows better. Any reader of fiction.

Charlie’s collapse, both mental and financial, could be from any era. So too could his stubborn American view of the morning—“football weather”, he calls it—when anything is possible, anything can be done. But Fitzgerald shows us what Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This constant fragility of our lives, of what we’ve done, is the kind of tragedy that Fitzgerald orchestrated these moments better than any other writer of his era. The story’s devastating last line perfectly captures this fragility. I won’t give away the ending of this story, just in case, but close with this from the end of the first section:

It had been given, even the most wildly squandered sum, as an offering to destiny that he might not remember the things most worth remembering, the things that now he would always remember—his child taken from his control, his wife escaped to a grave in Vermont.

If you haven’t already, you can read “Babylon Revisited” here.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

Odd Jobs: Before They Were Writers

One of the joys of reading literary biographies is the discovery of what writers did for work before they decided to devote themselves to making literature. Currently I am reading The Talented Miss. Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenker. After graduating from Barnard, the ambitious Highsmith went around New York City and applied for staff jobs at Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, The New Yorker, Mademoiselle, Good Housekeeping, Time and Fortune. She was turned down by all of them despite her good looks, connections and her successful academic career. For years, many of these magazines would also reject her creative work. In need of a job so that she didn’t have to return home humiliated, she accepted a position as a scriptwriter for Timely Comic (later renamed Marvel). She worked there for seven years during what was considered the golden era. Her most successful superhero invention was the Black Terror. After a life-changing lab accident Bob Benton is left with bullet-proof skin that allows him to battle injustice as his alter ego, the Black Terror. Modeled after Superman, Bob Benton never reached the success of Clark Kent, but the character’s creation did lay the groundwork for the dual nature of one of literature’s most famous sociopathic aesthete, Tom Ripley.

Patricia’s acquaintance and occasional drinking partner Dorothy Parker didn’t have the benefit of a college education; as she liked to say she attended the “school of hard knocks.” After her father died, leaving her very little money, she scrambled for work and found it playing the piano for a dance school and occasionally helping to teach the turkey trot, Castle-walk and tango. Eventually on the strength of the acceptance of her first poem “Any Porch” by Vanity Fair, she walked into editor Frank Crownsheld’s office and told him that she wanted a literary life. Appreciating her gumption, he placed her with Vanity Fair’s sister magazine Vogue. She was paid ten dollars a week to copy edit and write photo captions.

Dorothy’s good friend F. Scott Fitzgerald achieved early success with This Side of Paradise but before the novels publication he was failing at everything. Because of his poor academic record, he left Princeton without a degree and took up a commission in the U.S. Army. He was never sent to the front because he was so hopeless as an officer that his commanders worried about friendly fire. Demobilized, he went to New York and worked for an advertising agency for $90 a month and wrote at night. In one year he racked up 122 rejection letters, which he tacked on the walls of his one-bedroom apartment. Finally he sold his first story “Babes in the Wood” to Smart Set for $30. Eventually he attracted the attention of Maxwell Perkins, who shepherded the young writer along.

Early on J.D. Salinger thought he wanted to succeed Robert Benchley as the New Yorker’s drama critic. If he didn’t land this job, his back-up plan was to become an actor. He made the rounds of New York theaters, hoping for a break. But nothing. The closest he came was landing a job in the entertainment industry as the activities coordinator on the cruise ship MS Kungsholm. He was in charge of shuffle board games, deck tennis and filling in as a dancing partner for unattached ladies. Frustrated with him, his father, a successful importer/exporter decided Jerome should follow in the family business. He packed him off to Vienna to learn the ham trade. After a few months it was clear that he was not cut of for the business of slaughtering pigs (Salinger was a life-long vegetarian).

Kerouac never really held a nine-to-five job, but before he hitchhiked back and forth across the U.S., he did a stint in the Merchant Marines. For a man who hated being given orders (he gave up his football scholarship at Columbia in part because he hated the coach barking at him), it was an odd career choice. He was also a pacifist and deeply troubled by the shift in morals brought about by the Second World War. He simply didn’t understand the new prosperity or what he called the “gold rush” that was sweeping the country. He was temporarily put in a psychiatric ward and would eventually receive an honorable discharge.

And the list goes on. Joyce worked as a language teacher for the Berlitz School in Trieste, William Carlos Williams doctored the sick and infirm, and, of course, Wallace Stevens always kept his job as an insurance salesman while jotting poems at his desk.
Since only the rarest authors can live by writing alone, most of us have had to take various jobs or join the ranks of academia in service of our art. I’d love for our readers to add to list. Tell us a tale or two about your favorite writer before he or she made it.

Kris Somerville is the marketing director of The Missouri Review

What To Read, What Not To Read, and How To Choose

In Barnes & Noble bookstores all throughout the country, the Summer Reading tables are up and overflowing with mass market trade paperbacks. Or, if someone’s high school English teacher is evil, hardcovers. Every spring, local Barnes & Noble bookstores receive the summer reading list from local high schools, stock up accordingly, and stack these strategically placed tables with the classic literature we read as teenagers … or that we feel we probably should have read as teenagers.

Like most high school kids, I did all my summer reading the week before school started. This helps to explain my failing grade on A Passage To India (it was set in England, right?) and taught all high school kids (okay, me) that renting the movie is not the same as reading the book.

From teaching creative writing and composition at the university level for a few years now, I think it is safe to say that the only two books that students are guaranteed (or at least really close) to have read by the time they have graduated high school are The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird. Other than that? Who knows? In this BN that I’m writing a portion of this blog post from, the Summer Reading tables have titles such as The Bell Jar, The Sun Also Rises, Catcher in the Rye, and Night. All of which I’ve read.

They also  have The Killer AngelsGrendel, The Secret Life of Bees, The Fountainhead, and The Diary of Ana Frank. I’ve never read any of these books.

Recently, hoping to fill a gap in my contemporary literature, I decided to follow the lead of Rebecca Schinsky, who runs The Book Lady’s Blog, and re-read all of Toni Morrison’s books leading up to the release of Morrison’s new novel, Home, which came out last month. It was a good idea. It was motivation. It was interactive. And I managed to read several Morrison books—The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved—before flaming out, meekly glancing at the stack of Morrison books I bought, sitting on top of my bookshelf, spines exposed, collecting dust.

How do I choose what to read? Lately, I’ve been reading one new book followed by one re-read, and then read another new book, then another re-read, and so on. Mostly, I’ve been lucky that the books I’ve read for the first time—The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris and Tinkers by Paul Harding—are excellent. There is also the delight in re-reading a classic and seeing it anew each time, the things that I didn’t notice or fully appreciate, perhaps because I couldn’t see them, perhaps I’m making them up, who knows, the pleasure is new even if the narrative is not. I love this. Some people have a reading plan. Most people I know have a TBR (to be read) stack, or several stacks, throughout their home.

So, let’s keep going backwards. Before Harding and Ferris, I re-read The Phantom Tollbooth, which was the first book I read that felt like was written just for me. Before that, I was visiting my mother in Cincinnati, and snagged a used copy of The Great Gatsby and blew through that in a day. I had just finished Mrs. Dalloway. Someone close to me urged me to re-read it, thunderstruck by the fact that I had never even finished it, let alone liked it. She was right: it’s a beautiful, lovely, perfect novel. Next: The Marriage Plot. It was one of the It Books of Literary Fiction in 2011, and one of my friends had talked to me about how the novel was more of an argument than a narrative, and I wanted to know what he was talking about. He was right: an interesting idea but not a particularly memorable novel. Next: several Toni Morrison novels for the reasons listed above. I skipped around simply because one day heading out the door I grabbed the wrong book, and started reading them out of chronological order. Whoops. Next: Portnoy’s Complaint. A writer-friend always talks up Roth, and I haven’t read much Roth, and I bought this in hardcover for twenty five cents last summer, so, yeah, why not? (verdict: yuck). Next: The Best American Essays 2011. I assigned this to my internship class, along with BASS, which I had already read.

And so on.

Do you see a plan there? Neither do I. I see a variety of interests that spring up for a variety of reasons and, despite any planning or best intentions, some that require immediate attention and others that do not.

Here’s the thing: even though I know I can’t and won’t read everything, I still feel anxious about the fact that I haven’t. How can I really know what I’m doing as a writer if I haven’t read everything? How can I really know what’s going in contemporary literature if I’m not up on every single new thing that is published? And, if I can’t get into both of these camps, how am I doing my job, how am I following my passion (writing), if it all often feels far too exhausting to keep up?

This feeling of anxiety never fully goes away. But here’s the weird thing: I don’t really want it to. I don’t want to be comfortable with my reading choices. A certain amount of discomfort keeps me sharp, keeps me open to reading a book I might have dismissed five years ago, or re-reading something that hadn’t impressed me, or dropping everything else I’m reading because of the enthusiasm someone has for a book she just finished and that I must read RIGHT NOW.

I may never get through all of Dickens, or Nadine Gordimer, or Thomas Pynchon, or any other writer that you could name. I also might never be comfortable with the fact that I won’t. But a little bit of discomfort and emotional browbeating are two different things. Read what you love. Don’t waste time on the books that don’t move you. With an open and curious mind, there will always be new books to read, old books to re-read. One particular book or author will never make us feel we “get” modernism or post-confessionalism or whatnot. A little bit of humble (“No, actually, I’ve never read that …”) and a little bit of curiosity go along way. There’s always something terrific to discover for the first time.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye