Tuesday, September 23, 2008

"...Please take that as both a sign of disrespect and a pointed reminder of my casual illiteracy. Which enrages you more?"

Kyle's Favorite Books of the 90s:
please note that the title is not "Best Books of the 90s" (though they are for me), as I realize just how subjective this can be (of course, you don't see me re-naming my music or TV lists, do you?)

Honourable Mention: Gerald's Game by Stephen King
(man, this book totally skeeved me out); Dark Tower III: The Waste Land by Stephen King (very good, but paled in comparison to The Drawing of the Three, my favorite King book and one of my twenty favorite books ever); the first half of Four Past Midnight by Stephen King ( The Langoliers and Secret Garden, Secret Window were both terrific--that said, I can't remember a single thing about the other two stories, The Library Policeman and The Sun Dog); The Death of Superman by various writers (now, look, I wrote a paper about this as an undergrad, so it probably deserves a spot on the list, but, the more I think about it, the more I'm leaning towards the fact that "Superman dying" worked better as an idea (or a talking point...or a news story) than the actual story surrounding his death. (Put another way: the notion of it greatly exceeded the execution.) Go on, tell me that you read the entire "Reign of the Supermen." No, you didn't....because it was too long and dragged out--in fact, if you read Les Daniels's Superman: The Complete History, you'll discover that DC deliberately dragged it out longer than the writers wanted, since it was such a hit.); Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg (note: I'm positive this would've charted on my list had my copy not been cruelly stolen from me while I was waiting to collect my bags at Pearson after an 18-hour flight from Australia. Damn you, airport thief! I hadn't even gotten to the kidnapping! How did it turn out?); Silent Partner by Jonathan Kellerman (my guilty pleasure of the 90s--especially memorable because I was in Los Angeles while reading about the seedy side of L.A--"hey, look, mom and dad, it's Sunset Boulevard! That's where Dr. Delaware found the murdered hooker!!"--does not chart solely on the basis of me not being able to remember a single important plot point...which is a pretty good reason, all things considered.)

Hard Courts (1991)/A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour (1993) by John Feinstein: the former is worth it for the stuff about McEnroe alone (including the shocking revelation that Mac--in his last, best chance to win one more major title--was DQ'd in the 4th round of the Australian Open for swearing at the chair umpire--if this happened today, it would lead off PTI for a week...), plus the inside scoop on how horribly corrupt the sport was in the early 90s (fun fact: Feinstein, a former writer for Tennis Magazine, was so soured by his experience writing Hard Courts that he pretty much gave up on tennis forever after its publication), while the latter introduced the general public to the concept of Q School (and endeared the likes of obscure players such as Brian Henninger andPaul Goydos to thousands of readers). Talking about this too much kind of makes me sad, as I think that Feinstein is really just going through the motions at this point, and should probably stick to TV work and dropping F-bombs during Navy Football radio broadcasts. Ah, well.

23. The Firm by John Grisham (1991): ah, yes...mock away, but remember, this isn't called "the 25 Best Pieces of Literature of the 90s," so escapism is fair game, and this--released in 1991--is escapism at its very (or near) best. I recall devouring this book over a weekend and developing an unhealthy (mostly because I was 12 at the time and wouldn't have my first drink for four more years) fixation (which remains unsated) with Red Stripe (the drink of choice during protagonist Mitch McDermott's sojourns to Jamaica). Yes, the movie was poor. Yes, A Time to Kill is arguably better. Yes, Grisham has more than likely been replaced by a sentient novel and script writing computer program in the last dozen or so years...but The Firm was a thriller in every sense of the word. (Note: I haven't read this since it came out, and it's entirely possibly it's aged incredibly poorly--remember: Civ Pro II pretty much ruined Damages for me--but so what? It was good fun at the time.)

22. Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992): if for no other reason than it proves that you can write interesting and engaging counter-factual history without relying on Mole People, Cro-Magnons, or apes. Poses the question: what would the world be like had the Nazis prevailed in WW2, Hitler never died, and the Holocaust never been discovered? (OK, technically that's three questions.) More chilling than thrilling (and only partly because, in this alternate reality, Joseph P. Kennedy is the U.S. President--shudder) it has one of the most memorable (and bleakest!) endings I've ever come across.

21. Microserfs by Douglas Coupland (1995):(continuing my habit of bitching about things I ostensibly seek to praise...) the last (only?) good thing he'll ever write? Quite possibly. I went on a real Coupland kick after reading this, but most of it disappointed (Shampoo Planet. Gen X) or was just a total mind-fuck (Girlfriend in a Coma). Carrie had great things to say about Life After God, and others have touted Miss Wyoming and Hey, Nostradamus, so maybe I'm selling him short. This one really resonated with me at the time, even though 95% (ok, I had a 386 at the time, so really: all) of the computer stuff was over my head. Probably the best workplace novel in history (though Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End, released last year, made a laudable effort--I highly recommend).

20. Animal Man
(Issue #19 through #26) by Grant Morrison (1990): ooooo, provocative! This storyline, conceived by Grant Morrison (the uber-talented but wildly uneven writer who, depending on the month, is either doing a great job (issues 1 and 2) or totally butchering (issue 3) Final Crisis, DC's current maxi-series) tackled the very cool question of: what if a comic book character realized he was a comic book character? It started with Animal Man--an admittedly kinda lame comic book hero by the name of Buddy Baker who can take on the attributes of animals he is near--discovering that his family has been brutally murdered and it culminates in Buddy breaking the fourth wall (in #26--an outstanding issue) and confronting Morrison (i.e. the person who decided to kill off his family). The ending I won't spoil, aside from saying that it's handled perfectly. Pretty solid proof (along with #15 on this list) that people who don't take (certain) comics seriously should hit up Sterling Cooper for a job.

A Widow for One Year
by John Irving (1998): I'm kind of making this pick under duress, since Irving has to be included, but I wouldn't categorize this as even one of his three or four best (Curious? A Prayer for Owen Meany; The Hotel New Hampshire; The World According to Garp; and The Cider House Rules are all superior). But the first third here--focusing on Ruth, her parents (Ted and Marion), and Eddie--is very strong. (This first section is apparently the basis for the indie film The Door in the Floor, which, somehow, I didn't see. Did anyone? Was it good? Shuk, I'm guessing you saw it. It sounds like it should be good...)

18. All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (1992): ok, fine, the so-called "Border Trilogy" is pretty damn overrated (The Crossing, which follows ATPH has precisely one really good scene...and is completely forgettable aside from that; Cities of the Plain--#3--is better...and altogether heartbreaking, but feels too padded by half), but All The Pretty Horses, which, truth be told, I didn't read until January of this year, is gorgeous.
"She put the horse forward and came on and as she came abreast of him he touched the brim of his hat with his forefingers and nodded and he thought she would go past but she did not. She stopped and turned her wide face to him. Skeins of light off the water played upon the black hide of the horse. He sat the sweating stallion like a highwayman under her gaze. She was waiting for him to speak and afterwards he would try to remember what it was he'd said. He only knew it made her smile and that had not been his intent. She turned and looked off across the lake where the late sun glinted and she looked back at him and at the horse (p. 131-32)."
Not sure if that really comes across in such a small excerpt, but: such a deceptively simple passage, which actually conveys everything you could possibly need to know about their nascent relationship. McCarthy is the master of the economy of words.

First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton by David Maraniss (1996): I like this book so much more than the man it's about. I seem to have misplaced my copy, but I recall lots of juicy bits about disorganized Bill was (including the famous story that, when he was a law professor at the University of Arkansas, he was such a procrastinator that while his students were working on page one of his final exam, he was frantically writing--and, I guess, though never stated, photocopying--page two. That's so good that it almost has to be apocryphal). Good stuff too about Bill's time as a Rhodes Scholar (where Oxford's academic freedom almost crushed him) and the occasionally chilly nature of Bill and Hil's marriage (I know, you're stunned). Of note is the time--and I swear this is in the book--that Bill plays with Chelsea while singing Dolly Parton's "D-I-V..." under his breath. Good times.

16. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (1990): you know all the cool stuff that didn't make it into the movie? Malcolm's extended riff on chaos theory (replaced in the film by Goldblum creepily hitting on Laura Dern hardcore, even though her boyfriend (Sam Neill) was right next to her in that jeep) and the reason why the computers weren't working properly (they weren't accounting for increases in the dinosaur population)? That's what made the book awesome--taut, tense, and genuinely surprising (whereas the movie--scoring an altogether too high 7.8 on imdb--was basically just a two-hour ILM infomercial). I'm tempted to put this a bit lower since the sequel (in book form) was atrocious, and even worse on screen (to this day, it's the closest I've ever come to walking out of the cinema--if you're curious, it's when the girl started using gymnastics moves to take down the velicoraptor), but that would be unfair.

15. Worlds' End: The Sandman, Vol. VIII by Neil Gaiman (1993): This may well strike people as fanboyish (or, worse, as a desperate attempt to be hip), but I can live with that. You could make a case that I should probably include the whole series here, but I think it skews things a bit too much (for list purposes, at least) to include the entire saga, which spans seventy-five issues and eight or so years. (Also, to my great shame, despite owning the complete collection, I've only read three of the volumes--this, #1, and #2--in their entirety.) Issue #54, which is called "The Golden Boy" (though, oddly, not about Rick Mirer) tells the story of Prez Rickard, an eighteen year old who becomes President (this was based on a forgotten--and by all accounts: atrocious--comic that was published in the early 70s, though that one featured an eighteen year old Prez as Prez whose intense paranoia made Nixon look like Dave in comparison) and is absolutely mesmerizing. Easily one of the five best standalone issues I've ever read.

14. A Man in Full
by Tom Wolfe (1998): First things first: does this book pale in comparison to The Bonfire of the Vanities? Definitely. Am I troubled by the fact that Wolfe hasn't written a single thing of consequence (or, in the case of the article about mutual fund planners appearing in Portfolio last year: anything that's readable) in the ten years since AMiF was released (see in particular the execrable I Am Charlotte Simmons)? Absolutely. Neither point, however, changes the fact that AMiF kinda kicked ass. (And though these are words that I'm sure I'll look back on ruefully in six years: I remain gobsmacked that this hasn't been made into a movie. Is it because Bonfire was the worst cinematic adaptation of a great literary work in history? Oh.)

13. High Fidelity
by Nick Hornby (1995): this may be unpopular, but screw it: this is not as good as About a Boy. That said, the book's protagonist (Rob Fleming) is a believable and generally (except when he's being a heel) likeable guy. Of course, any narrator who has a predilection for listing things will always have a soft spot in my heart...

12. The Green Mile by Stephen King (1996): dunno if it was the way it was rolled out (serialized over six months, a la Charles Dickens), that King broke format (barely any horror elements to speak of), or if he was just really on his game, but I thought this was absolutely tremendous, in larger part because King absolutely nailed the ending (part six is virtually perfect).

11. Timeline by Michael Crichton (1999): forget the only ok movie, this book just goes. This is clamoring to be remade as a six-part HBO (hell, I'd settle for FX) mini-series. Make it happen.

10. Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War by David M. Kennedy (1999): Includes some of the best history writing around. The following is about the "typical" American male (culled from census data) in 1930:
"Raised in the country without flush toilers or electric lighting, as the 1920s opened he moved to the city, to an apartment miraculously plumbed and wired...Jobs were plentiful for the moment and paid good wages. With hard work he was making a little more than a $100 a month. He had been laid off several times in the preceding years but had built a small cushion of savings at his bank to tide him over when unemployment hit again, as he knew it must. The stock market had just crashed, but it seemed to be recovering, and in any case he owned no stocks--for that matter, neither did anybody he knew. Evenings he "radioed." Weekeneds he went to the movies, better now that they had sound. Sometimes he broke the law and lifted a glass. On his one day a week off, he took a drive in the car that he was buying on the installment plan.

He was living better than his parents had ever dreamed of living. He was young and vigorous; times were good. He had just cast his first presidential vote, in 1928, for Herbert Hoover, the most competent man in America, maybe in the world. In that same year he married a girl three years younger than he. She gave up her job to have their first baby. They started to think of buying a house, perhaps in one of the new suburbs. Life was just beginning.

And their world was about to come apart (p. 42)."
9. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace (1997): a great collection of essays, with topics on a wide array of things: professional tennis, modern literature, serialized TV, a week on a cruise ship (one of the high points--more on that in a bit), trigonometry, state fairs, and David Lynch. The footnotes in particular are altogether delightful.
"Michael Joyce is, in other words, a complete man (though in a grotesquely limited way). But he wants more. Not more completeness; he doesn't think in terms of virtues or transcendence. He wants to be the best, to have his name known, to hold professional trophies over his head as he patiently turns in all four directions for the media. He is an American and he wants to win. He wants this, and he will pay to have it--will pay just to pursue it, let it define him--and will pay with the regretless cheer for whom issues of choice became irrelevant long ago. Already, for Joyce, at 22, it's too late for anything else: he's invested too much, is in too deep. I think he's both luck and un-. He will say he is happy and mean it. Wish him well (p. 254-55)."
8. Means of Ascent: LBJ, Volume II by Robert Caro (1990): you didn't ask, but Caro--hard at work on LBJ vol. 4, one hopes--has written one of the five best books of the 00s (The Master of the Senate: LBJ, Volume III) and of the 80s (The Path to Power: LBJ, Volume I), and the best book of the 70s (The Powerbroker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York). Oh, and these are the only four books he's written. So, yeah...he's a pretty good writer. While it's fun (well, actually, more like "agonizing") to read about LBJ brazenly stealing the 1948 Senate race in Texas (seriously: wars have been more subtle), what really makes this book is that it doubles as a biography of one of the most interesting historical figures you've probably never heard about: former Texas Governor Coke Stevenson (and LBJ's opponent in '48), who was kind of like Roy Rogers, if Roy Rogers were totally fucking awesome.

7. About a Boy by Nick Hornby (1998): What I remember most about AAB is reading outside Thames Hall while waiting to write an exam, being unable to refrain from laughing out loud, and having nervous crammers looking at me like I'd gone insane. I really do wish Hornby still wrote like this. The movie is more than passable--a better adaptation than most--but runs out of steam at the end, inexplicably ditches the book's perfect ending for a far more awkward one, and in the humor department, in comparison, is sorta toothless.

6. The Fifties by David Halberstam (1993): such a brilliant and yet simple idea that it's stunning that no one has ever thought of this before: pick forty or so people, places, movements, things--here: Elvis, Bill Russell, McDonald's, The Feminine Mystique, McCarthy, the pill, the automotive industry, and so forth--and write individual chapters about each. Of course, it helps if you can write like Halberstam, which so few (if any) can. The best chapters are the ones that seemingly come out of nowhere, like his musings on the tragic life of the perennially gin-soaked Grace Metalious, author of the filthy (for its time...and still kinda now) Peyton Place. Maybe the all-time best bathroom book...provided you like to spend five-plus hours on the toilet.

5. Lincoln by David Herbert Donald (1996): OK, so you've probably guessed that I'm a pretty big Lincoln fan (to the point where I've now referenced him in two separate wedding speeches), so this book's inclusion likely isn't a shocker. This is probably the best one-volume Lincoln bio going (best twelve volume bio, by acclimation, goes to Carl Sandburg), and is beautifully written. Enough said.

Quick story: in July 2005, I had been living in South Korea for just over a month...and was fairly miserable. Homesick, drinking too much (I know: you're stunned), and generally feeling pretty sorry for myself. I taught from 12 to 7 Monday to Friday, and counted the minutes until I was done, whereupon I would head home, buy a two-litre bottle (or two) of beer (the absolute best thing about Korea--I'm amazed they haven't started doing this here yet), grab my iPod (I was listening to Set Yourself on Fire, Plans, and Funeral on pretty much an endless loop) sit on my balcony, and read this book. (This went on for about two weeks.) This was the best part of my day, by far...and I will always be grateful for that. And then I met this girl...

4. Truman by David McCullough (1992):
I would suggest that it's basically impossible to read this book and not fall sort of in love with Harry Truman. I would also suggest that this is probably a pretty good indication that McCullough goes a bit too far in defending the ever-embattled HST (his stubborness is definitely downplayed--or, at least, is characterized as a virtue far too frequently--and his post-presidency years--where he was, at best, kind of a dick (see his decision not to endorse Stevenson in '56), at worst: batshit insane--are kind of glossed over). Nevertheless, if it isn't quite perfect history, it's a fascinating read, and, at 1,000-plus pages, somehow never drags.

3. In The Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien (1994):
fabulous book. Summarized in roughly 50 words, it's: John Wade, a Vietnam vet and up and coming politician, runs for the Senate, but loses as a result of a scandal from his past. He goes to his cottage with his wife, Kathy, whereupon she disappears under mysterious circumstances. What exactly happens to her is never explained, though numerous theories are thrown out there.

In lesser hands, this would be maddening, but O'Brien shrewdly gives the reader just enough information for them to formulate their own ending, even if may not be the "right" one. Some of the best writing I've ever come across here, and lots of juicy meta-textual stuff that demands re-reading.

2. A First Class Temperament: The Emergence of Franklin Roosevelt
by Geoffrey C. Ward:
more than any other book, AFCT is what got me serious about history (that I eventually got decidedly cavalier about history and didn't finish my Ph.D. shouldn't be held against it!). The book, which covers roughly the two decades immediately before he became Governor of New York in 1928 (the title, incidentally, refers to Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' impression of FDR, upon meeting him in 1933--"A second-class intellect. But a first-class temperament!"), is astoundingly well-researched...and the prose is even better. I can't recommend this more enthusiastically.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996): surprising absolutely no one, I assume. IJ is actually my favorite book ever from my favorite writer, so this was a no-brainer. When asked what it's about, I usually ramble on incoherently for five minutes...so why should I handle it differently here? It's about: a tennis academy in Enfield, Mass.; a rehab centre in same; addiction; North American politics; terrorism; philandering; film study; robberies; chemistry; talk radio; adolescence; a film so entertaining that it's said that if you watch it once, that's all you will want to do for the rest of your life; advertising; and wheelchair assassins. Confused yet?

As you no doubt know, DFW, (it goes without saying:) tragically, took his own life just over a week ago. A couple of people have asked me if I'm going to write some sort of tribute, and the answer is, well, no. When I got Shuk's message in my Facebook inbox (worst. way. ever, incidentally, to find out about something like this, but I digress...), for some reason I immediately thought it was a hoax (my mind wandered to that great Onion bit with the fake DFW break-up letter for some reason...). My second thought was "I can't believe he did this." My third thought was of all his writing about clinical depression (specifically, the stuff about Kate Gompert in IJ and "The Depressed Person"--about the bleakest thing you'll probably ever read...though DFW's obit in the NYT runs a close second--in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men), which led immediately to my fourth thought, mainly: "how did we not see this coming?" I'm still there.

Without (hopefully) being (too) pretentious, smug, or selfish, his death is a major blow to modern American literature. In my heart of hearts, I knew he would never write something as good as Infinite Jest (or, far more likely, never write another novel period), but there was always that glimmer of hope that he might. That that hope is now extinguished bums me out to no end. He will be deeply missed.

Anyway, I think the most constructive thing I can for all five (up from three! It's been a big year!) of my readers is to provide a list of Ten David Foster Wallace things that you absolutely have to read:

DFW's Greatest Hits (in no particular order)

1. Infinite Jest: come on, already! I know it's a daunting task (I started it three times before finishing it), but it's well worth it. And, by the end, you'll actually come to love the endnotes...and even the footnotes and endnotes within those endnotes (I'm not making that up). If you're unconvinced, pick up a (or, hell, borrow my) copy and read the first fourteen pages (Hal interviewing with the University of Arizona) or pages 321-242 (the Eschaton game--which is wickedly funny). You should be hooked by this stage.

2. "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" in
ASFTINDA: the cruise ship story. Originally written for Harper's, it's laugh out loud funny throughout. To wit:
"...and the source of all the dissatisfactions isn't the Nadir at all but rather plain old humanly conscious me, or, more precisely, that ur-American part of me that craves and responds to pampering and passive pleasure: the Dissatisfied Infant part of me, the part that always and indiscriminately WANTS. Hence this syndrome by which, for example, just four days after I experienced such embarrassment over the perceived self-indulgence of ordering even more gratis food from Cabin Service that I littered the bed with fake evidence of hard work and missed meals, whereas by last night I find myself looking at my watch in real annoyance after fifteen minutes and wondering where the fuck is that Cabin Service guy with the tray already (p. 315-16)."
3. "Tennis Player Michael Joyce's Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Discipline, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness" in ASFTINDA: as discussed above.

Commencement Address, Kenyon College, 2005: a little more on the nose than some of his other stuff, and a tad obvious in places, but very interesting. The last line pretty much makes the whole speech.

5. "Octet" in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men:
hypothetical scenarios run amok. Riveting. You can probably safely skip the rest of this, as it's fairly uneven (though the final "Brief Interview"--the next to last story in the collection--is worth reading).

6. "Host" in The Atlantic (2004):
note: it also appears in
Consider the Lobster, but under different--not as good--formatting. I'd recommend downloading the copy I've linked to.

7. "Little Expressionless Animals" in
Girl With Curious Hair: admittedly, this story doesn't quite work, but the concept is so intriguing (girl wins 700 straight games on Jeopardy!, thus destroying the program--and, remember, this came out roughly eight years before we knew who Ken Jennings was) that you probably owe it to yourself to read it.

8. This two-page long sentence in "Mister Squishy" in
Oblivion: the entire story is worth checking out, but it's this sentence where DFW really shines.

9. McCain's Promise (2008):
going to follow my own advice, since I haven't actually read this one yet. The article it's based on ("Up Simba!" in Consider the Lobster, which, itself, was a lengthier version of a '04 Rolling Stone piece) is quite good, so if you don't feel like shelling out an extra $15 bucks for slightly more material, CTL should do the trick.

10. "Federer as Religious Experience" (2006) in
The New York Times Play Magazine: dude knew his tennis.

(Bonus: "The Future of the American Idea" in The Atlantic's 150th Anniversary issue: thought-provoking, yes, but what I really dig is his casual reference to "Federalist 10" in his footnotes. Goddamn, was he cool...)


Hal Incandenza said...

Shuk provides a lengthy response (and thus succeeds in hijacking the comments thread) here: http://tinyurl.com/45n54x.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for making me poorer by proxy, my amazon wishlist has just grown.

The Door in the Floor is, as far as i remember, a bit slow and pretentious, but Jeff Bridges makes it kinda watchable.

Also, not to be anal, but you have a typo in David Halberstam.

Hal Incandenza said...

Check out the skyrocketing readership...and from a former Jeopardy! host to boot (because you've never heard that joke before)! Or that's just a pseudonym (Ryan?).

Thanks for the heads-up re: the Halberstam section which, upon further review, contained three errors, including me managing not to spell his last name correctly either time I attempted to do so...

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