A Baker’s Dozen (Plus One) of My All-Time Favorite Books: Part II

Only two titles on the list today.  I was going to add a Lee Smith novel here as well but I ranted on so long about Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (which is kinda funny given the reason I give below for not finishing it) and The Fountainhead that I think I’ll give Ms. Smith’s lovely little book its due in the next installment.  With that said, you’ll find two more of the BESTEST BOOKS EV-AH below.

Far Tortuga – Peter Matthiessen

Far Tortuga

If you’re familiar with Peter Matthiessen’s work, Far Tortuga may seem an odd choice for this, a list of books I’d want with me on a desert island.   He’s far better known for novels such as At Play in the Fields of the Lord and the Shadow Country trilogy, as well as nonfiction like In the Spirit of Crazy Horse.  Far Tortuga is, or was at the time, worlds apart from anything else he’d produced, a novel written almost in verse and definitely in a non-traditional format.  The sea and its Caribbean environs are characters just as important as the crew of the ill-fated turtle hunting boat, the Lillias Eden, whose last voyage is the subject of the book.  I came to Far Tortuga already a Matthiessen devotee, having discovered him along with Edward Abbey (see my Baker’s Dozen, Part I post, October 19, 2015) in my mid-twenties, and I had already read In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, The Cloud Forest, and African Silences (all nonfiction) when I picked this up for the first time.  The words on the page look and read like a prose poem, not the pedestrian paragraphs of your Average Joe of a novel, so I, not being the biggest poetry fan in the world, gave this book the big ol’ side-eye when I turned to the first page.  But I found myself drawn into the Calypso-like rhythm of the sailors’ voices (“…Speedy-Boy, you best cotch turtles one time in dis life just so you know it”) and what I thought was going to be a chore to read flows like the clear, blue Caribbean itself.

Matthiessen, along with that cantankerous Abbey, was somewhat of a hero of mine back in the day.  In addition to being an award-winning writer (he won the National Book Award three times), he was a naturalist, environmental activist, co-founder of The Paris Review, and, believe it or not, for a period of time a CIA agent!  Matthiessen and Abbey went to town on my brain in the early ‘90s as I gobbled up book after book written by the both of them, and together they imbedded into my grey matter a still-unwavering love of nature and wilderness.  I was never the same after encountering those two.  Sadly, Peter Matthiessen died last year at age 86 after a battle with cancer.  We still have his words.

The Fountainhead – Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead

And I bet you thought Atlas Shrugged was going to be my Ayn Rand choice.  Not hardly.  I have yet to finish that effin’ doorstop of a book.  It’s not that I don’t get that Atlas is supposed to be one of the greatest books ever written, and it’s not that I didn’t even like it somewhat, finding it, as I did, actually pretty relevant to some of the economic issues America is experiencing today.  It’s that, in Atlas, Rand becomes the absolute queen of belaboring the point.  Why be concise and clearly express an idea once when you can pound it into someone’s friggin’ head fifty different ways?  There’s a Dilbert comic strip that expresses my sentiments about Atlas Shrugged perfectly (I can’t reproduce it in its entirety here, but I will quote it, with many thanks to Scott Adams).  Imagine I’m Alice and Ayn Rand is Topper (at least I think it’s Topper in this particular strip):

Frame 1:          Alice:  “Excuse me, by my count, you’ve said the same thing 27 times, using different words.”

Frame 2:          Alice:  “If I can get sworn statements from everyone here that we understand your point, will you stop talking?”

Frame 3:          Topper:  “That’s mighty rude of you.”

Frame 3:           Alice:  “I don’t get your point.  Can you repeat it 26 more times?”

But, unlike Alice, I do get Rand’s point.  She told me once and I got it the first time.  Didn’t need to hear it again.  I finally gave up about two-thirds of the way through.  I’ll give it another shot sometime in the future.   After all, my relatively non-bookish Hubs finished it and liked it, and I can’t let him show me up.

But, oh yeah, I was supposed to tell you why I like The Fountainhead, which is, in my opinion, the best Ayn Rand book and one of my favorite books of ALL TIME.  It was given to me, again in my mid-twenties, by an attorney I worked for at the time who was also a good friend.  I don’t know why he thought I’d like it and I was a little perplexed when he gave it to me, but his gift was spot on.  Rand’s story is of an unconventional, Frank Lloyd Wright-ish, up-and-coming young architect, Howard Roark.  Roark is highly innovative, absolutely refusing to give in to convention with his designs, and this is the account of his fight against rivals who are threatened by his genius and will try destroy his reputation at all costs.  His unwillingness to cave in the face of the interminable obstacles that he faces in his rise to the top of his profession is pretty damned admirable.  Believe me, his enemies throw everything AND the kitchen sink at him trying to bring him down.

You know, I really can’t pinpoint exactly why I like this book so much.  It’s about architecture, which doesn’t exactly blow my skirt up.  I know an ugly building when I see one, but other than that, my knowledge and interest in the subject goes about as far as Frank Lloyd Wright.  And who doesn’t know Frank Lloyd Wright?

It’s a book I don’t think I would have picked up on my own at the time (or maybe even now), but since it was given to me I felt obligated to read it and then, all of a sudden, I couldn’t get my sniffly, allergy-ridden nose out of it.  It is very dramatic, with lots of tension and teeth-gnashing, and I think it just comes down to the fact that Ayn Rand wrote an epic potboiler of a novel.  In any event, along with Far Tortuga, it’s time for a re-read.

Part III of the Dozen is in the offing, and I suspect it will have strong whiff of Southern Lit to it (smells like magnolias, ya’ll) as well as a little dab of fantasy.  Adios, peeps!

A Baker’s Dozen (Plus One) of My All-Time Favorite Books: Part I

Time to trot out a list of some of my very, very favorite books ever, those closest to my heart, the ones that knocked my world ever so slightly off its axis.  You may like them, you may not, but you should at least give them a try.  Some are obvious choices, some are hiding just beyond that tree over there, but each one of these, at the time I read them, stirred up something deep inside me that I couldn’t always quite name.  Stand aside and welcome the first three on the list (in no particular order):

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

A Constellation

This is a VERY fresh addition to my list, but a most deserving one.  You might think that a novel taking place in the recent history of war-torn Chechnya couldn’t be anything but a complete downer, but you’d be wrong.  Set in depressing circumstances, yes, but Anthony Marra’s 2013 debut novel punched me flat with the darkly funny, warped humor of its characters.  This particular exchange caused me to choke on my wine:

“’Let me tell you a story,’ the brother said, holding his cigarette like a conductor’s baton.  ‘When I was a child I had a pet turtle, whom I named after Alu because they shared a certain – how can I put it – bestial idiocy.  Once I went to Grozny with my father and five of my brothers for the funeral of my father’s uncle, and we left so quickly I hadn’t the time to provide the food for Alu the Turtle.  My brother, Alu the Idiot, had a fever and stayed home with my mother.  In a moment so taxing on that little intellect that steam surely shot from his ears, Alu the Idiot remembered to feed my turtle.  He caught grubs and crickets, likely tasting them before he gave them to my beloved crustacean.  Since then Alu the Idiot has grown into a Gibraltar-sized hemorrhoid, but when he was a child he used the one good idea his life has allotted him to feed my turtle, and because of it, you get a second favor.’

‘Turtles aren’t crustaceans,’ she said.

‘Excuse me, half crustaceans.’

‘They’re full-blooded reptiles.’

The brother gaped at her.  ‘You should hear yourself.  You sound ridiculous.’

‘A turtle is one hundred percent reptile,’ she said.  ‘I imagine even Alu knows that.’

‘Don’t insult me.  Everyone knows a turtle is a crustacean on its mother’s side.’

‘Explain that to me,’ she said, shifting in the seat as the car spun in circles.

‘A lizard fucks a crab and nine months later a turtle pops out.  It’s called evolution.’

‘I hope your biology teacher was sent to the gulag,’ she said.”

If you don’t think that’s hilarious, you should just stop reading right now, since you were obviously born without the funny gene, and you and I will not get along . . . ever.  Who thinks up a conversation like that?  Anthony Marra apparently.  He’s an acrobat with dialogue and, unbelievably, you find yourself wanting to hang out in Chechnya with these folks.  As Meg Wolitzer put it in her review for NPR, “The main characters are vivid and real and stuck, and I guess I wanted to be stuck along with them.”  I could have stayed stuck for the rest of my life, and I was truly, truly bummed when I turned the final page and found there were no more pages.  Marra, you have ruined me for anything else.  Ruined me, I tell you!!

As I read this book, I couldn’t help but wonder how Anthony Marra was going to follow up this masterpiece.  Would he go all Harper Lee, or Margaret Mitchell, or John Kennedy Toole on us, having shot his wad with the first book?  (Yes, I know Harper Lee finally did publish again . . . albeit controversially.)  Evidently not, since his next offering, a collection of short stories called The Tsar of Love and Techno just hit book stores this month.  Believe me, it’s on my short list to read soon.



Neal Stephenson, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.

An attorney I work for (I’ll call him Bon . . . as in Scott) and I have a long-standing disagreement about Stephenson.  Bon’s favorite is Snow Crash while mine is Cryptonomicon.  He does not like Crypto one bit, says he’s tried to read it a couple of times and couldn’t finish it.  Snow Crash may be more accessible, I’ll give him that.  Crypto is a massive tome totaling over a thousand pages, is intimidating just to look at, and even the name is a little daunting, but oh, once you crack it open!  (Hell, even I was intimidated the first time I saw this book, and I love a good, fat fatty of a novel!)  Shifting between World War II and the present, and with Alan Turing making a cameo appearance (and by the way, go stream The Imitation Game for an in-depth look at Turing; go do it right now, I mean it! You can come back to this later!), this dense saga is a techno-nerd’s dream, but you don’t have to be a nerd or a techie to enjoy it.  You just have to get past the intimidation factor and give it a good, long chance.  Stephenson’s brand of intelligent, snarky humor helps tremendously and, just like Anthony Marra, his flair for dialogue makes my mind reel.  Even though this list is in no particular order, Cryptonomicon lands squarely in my Top Five Books of All Time.

Desert Solitaire

Desert Solitaire

It’s been a good twenty years since I read this, and it’s long overdue for a re-read.  Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire:  A Season in the Wilderness sparked my now decades-long love affair with hiking and natural places, although this isn’t a book about hiking per se.  Desert Solitaire chronicles Abbey’s three seasons as a park ranger in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest.  Abbey, in all his curmudgeonly glory, managed to turn me into a die-hard tree hugger in my impressionable twenties, and while my environmental sensibilities aren’t quite as fervid or radical as they once were, I still give thanks to Edward Abbey each time I head down the trail.

No way in hell my entire Baker’s Dozen (Plus One) list will fit into one blog entry, so I hope that I can entice you back for Part II in a few days.  Peter Matthiessen, Ayn Rand and Lee Smith are waiting in the wings!