My Favorite Reads, #1

It’s become a recent meme to ask writers, filmmakers, artistic types, etc., their favorite books, movies, records, and so on. I’ve even had a few requests for some of my own. So in response, here’s the first installment of My Favorite Reads.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. Called ‘literature for fantasy geeks,’ The Magicians attempts to fill that odd niche between Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Dungeons and Dragons. It almost succeeds. Concerning a young man in modern NYC who’s chosen to attend a secret school for magicians, it’s as much about the pain of growing up as it is about learning to cast spells. It also illuminates how the real world is just as fraught with mystery and danger as the magical one in which we hope to escape.

The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. Which literate Southerner has not read — and come to terms with — Flannery? Funnier than Faulkner, darker than Welty, a spiritual ancestor to artists as diverse as David Lynch, Bruce Springsteen and every so-called ‘Southern Writer’ since, O’Connor is the queen when it comes to unsentimental, semi-grotesque small town clarity. Though she writes about the 1950’s provincial South, somehow she’s still relevant, perhaps because she always saw things not as they seem to be, but as they are.

Elric of Melnibone, by Michael Moorcock. Moorcock has been called the best post-war British fantasist, and this is his response to what he saw as Tolkien’s too-chaste good guys and too-swarthy bad guys. Moorcock’s Elric is a weary servant of Chaos, a self-deposed Emperor of a sick and depraved kingdom who wreaks havoc on his and his loved ones’ lives. Inventive, twisted and tragic, the Elric books are full of sixties psychedelia and the single coolest artifact in all of fantasy literature, the malevolent black sword Stormbringer.

Mythago Wood, by Robert Holdstock. Winner of the World Fantasy Award in 1985, this novel details a strange old forest outside Herefordshire, England which is a lot larger and a lot more mysterious than it seems. Once a person is able to ‘get inside’ the wood, the rules of physics change, and history (both real and mythical) is a lot closer than you realize. Told in simple, elemental language, the true strangeness of the story is only gradually revealed, and the ending is perhaps one of my favorite codas of all time. Where’s the movie?

This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff. A memoir of growing up under a sociopath in rural Washington, Wolff’s writing is so elegant and so simple that practically any tale composed in this manner would have been riveting. As it is, Wolff’s story of a boy’s coming of age under great hardship is so well-written that when I finished it and moved on to another book, it felt like a car leaving a well-tended interstate and suddenly careening off onto a rutted dirt road. Amazing and beautiful.

Rotters, by Daniel Kraus. Looking for a good young adult novel mainly just to see what the genre is like, I stumbled across this odd tale and couldn’t put it down. I’m surprised that’s it’s even considered YA, because it’s so dark it rivals pretty much anything I’ve ever read by Stephen King. Utterly unpredictable, and depicting a fascinating and richly-imagined subculture of morbid grave robbers, the book is a horror story told by a child. You won’t forget the images the book forces upon you. Even when you try.

Favorite Fiction, Revisited

LeiberSwordsDeviltry1_cropOne of the cool things about getting older is the perspective it gives you. Now that I’m (ahem) of a certain age, I’ve found it fun and enlightening to go back and revisit some of the beloved genre novels that worked for me so well when I was in my teens.  In short, I’m now rereading the great science fiction, horror and heroic fantasy classics of my youth.

I loved the ideas, the landscapes, the characters, and — yes — the escapism of a lot of these novels. But also I learned from them; they were my friends. Now, I wanted to see them from a new vantage point — were they good?  Were they worthy of my time?  Is it just plain nostalgia? Should I go find my temporarily shelved copies of Nudge and The Alienist?

I started with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars, which was amazing, and seemed to prefigure this effects-laden Hollywood blockbuster era of movies by about, oh, a hundred years or so.  Then it was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and finally I made my joyful way through Stevenson’s famous novelette of Victorian supression, Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  All were simply delicious, and reminded me why I love to read in the first place.

More recently I moved up to a few contemporary works: Roger Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows, a literary take on heroic fantasy which could never be filmed, was first. I just re-finished Peter Straub’s Jack of Shadows, and it knocked my socks off (see that entry here).  Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot — one of his seminal early works — gave me a bit of a thrill, and reminded me why people like him so much in the first place.  Michael Moorcock’s Swords Trilogy, a wonderful psychedelic fantasy series originally written and published in the swinging sixties, blew my mind, baby.  Now it’s Fritz Lieber’s Swords And Deviltry, the first entry in his legendary Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser books.

Of course, I do space these out among other, more challenging, literary-based works:  The Corrections, Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw, etc.  But my heart (my Rosebud!) still lies with these sometimes cheesy but undeniably fun period genre novels.  And if the original version sported a cool Frazetta (or Frazetta knock-off, as above), then all the better.  (In that spirit, the books I read have been, as much as possible, the initial paperback versions — yellowed, dog-eared pages and all.)

Lieber, I learned, is a prose stylist of the first order; the writing is simply gorgeous, something I was unable to appreciate fully the first time around.  This came as a surprise because fantasy is seen as fairly weak when compared to non-genre prose. (Once, when I finished Toby Wolff’s memoir A Boy’s Life and turned my attentions to a newer acclaimed fantasy series, George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, it was like driving on a splendid four lane highway and suddenly bouncing along a dirt road.  Martin’s language was leaden; the voice unoriginal, and it made me appreciate Wollf’s seemingly simple sentences as wise and elegant all the more.)

I’m happy to report that the true fantasy and sci-fi classics are mostly excellent: Just like Tolkein’s work is splendid by any standard, these are also bursting with life.  Lieber’s writing is funny, dark, smart and so well-ingrained in modern geek culture that it practically wrote the book on, well, funny, dark and smart fantasy (it also served as the unofficial basis for the world of the early Dungeons and Dragons game — which may not come as a recommendation for some).

But as an adult, and an artist myself, I remain impressed with Lieber’s accomplishments, and am reminded why I was so drawn to these genre works in the first place:  Often, they served as receptacles of ideas — they confronted life and its challenges through an interesting lens of escapism and teenage power fantasies that appealed not only to me, but to millions of people across the world. They make me remember why I love reading, why I love rainy days — so we have an excuse to sit inside, under the covers, and fall into a good book.

Next up:  Asimov’s Foundation books and Moorcock’s Elric series.  I’m so looking forward to it.