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
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.
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!