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.