Straight Man by Richard Russo. Before he was the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Empire Falls, Richard Russo was just another writer of small, finely wrought tales of small, mostly unremarkable people — the best-known of which, Nobody’s Fool, was turned into a well-reviewed but commercially invisible movie in 1994. As you’ll see when we get around to the movies section of our Love Post, I was crazy about Nobody’s Fool — but it still took a few months of watching the paperback edition of Straight Man gathering dust on a table at Barnes & Noble before I decided to give it a shot. And who could blame me? Even by Russo’s standards, this isn’t a sexy book; it focuses on the small-town exploits of a middle-aged English professor who can’t seem to stop pissing off everyone around him. It took me awhile to buy Straight Man, but I fell in love with the book right away — there were aspects of the protagonist’s personality that I, ahem, strongly identified with — and it’s one that I’ve returned to more times that I can count over the last decade and change. It takes a special kind of fiction writer to make you laugh while he’s making you think — and to do it while his characters aren’t really doing anything, to boot. I love all of Russo’s books, but this one beats them all. —Jeff Giles
Fool on the Hill by Matt Ruff. Although it’s ultimately the tale of how Stephen Titus George vanquished a dragon from Cornell University, this comic fantasy also weaves woodland creatures, talking cats and dogs, a black knight, and a Greek goddess into the story. The universe of the novel exists somewhere halfway between the first few idealistic ecstasy-fueled raves and the wistful fantasies of modern-day college Quiddich clubs, and once I’d finished reading it it took weeks before real life was able to intrude upon me once again. —Zack Dennis
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain. I visited New York City for the first time last summer and I picked up this book my first day there to read on the subway and on the plane ride home. I have been a fan of Bourdain’s show on Travel Channel, No Reservations, for a while and this book about his life and career as a chef had been on my to-read list for some time. Bourdain is a fantastic storyteller, and a pretty damn good writer, and I enjoyed every minute of what he calls his “obnoxious, over-testoteroned memoir.” —Kelly Stitzel
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. I majored in English and minored in philosophy, but by the time I entered the final semester of my senior year of college, I had wished it were the other way around. Siddhartha was a reading assignment in one of those endlessly fascinating philosophy classes, taken at a time that seems so long ago (almost a decade now, in fact). Unlike any of the texts I read in my English classes, Siddhartha actually moved me. It’s an engaging story, a journey of discovery through all stages of life, filled with jewels of wisdom. And even though it’s a scant 152 pages, you can open it up at almost any random spot and find a thought worth pondering. Just now, for instance, I opened the book up to page 53 and this quote is staring me in the face: “Never again will I lower my eyes when I meet a beautiful woman.” Wussy men of the world, take note. Or page 91: “it is not good to sleep in such places where there are often snakes and animals from the forest prowling about.” I’m looking at you, camping enthusiasts. No, I never particularly aspired to be a saint or a Buddha, and I do not identify myself with any spiritual group or movement. But I could never help giving in to the pull that soulful nourishment exerts, and the way Hesse exerts this pull in Siddhartha, I can confidently say this is the reason why it’s the only book I have ever read from cover to cover more than twice. No doubt the exercise will be repeated again a few more times before I die. —Michael Fortes
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. You may not know this, but before I became a librarian and master of the pop culture universe, I got two degrees in English, with a focus in American Literature from the 2nd half of the 19th century. And even with the career/life changes, my Man, my homie, is still Walt Whitman. My life was literally changed, epiphany style, with reading a first-edition version of Leaves of Grass my first week in college. By the time I went on for my (first) Masters degree I was prone at the feet of the master, digging deep into not just the prose, but the philosophy behind the prose: his worldview, influences, and outlook on America as the best hope of establishing and putting forward democratic principles. My connection became so deep I didn’t even realize it: once I was scheduled to give a presentation on his Civil War poetry in a seminar. The night of the class was also the night of the department party. Because the presentations were running a week behind, I decided that there was no way that I would actually do the presentation that week, and proceeded to get nicely buzzed before class. Well, the person scheduled before me rushed through her presentation, and the professor had me give mine after the break– unprepared and a little sloshed. Quite nervous, I didn’t even fully comprehend what I was saying, until the thing was over. The professor looked at me, and said: “Nice. Very good points. That could make a good dissertation subject.” Other people were pointing out that I was flipping through the book, and quoting passages without looking at the text! I was one with Whitman. So what is it about it. In a way, I truly see it the way Whitman wanted it to be seen: as a secular Bible, with something to apply to almost any situation and mood, as well as a historical work, a work of philosophy, and the beginning of a new form of poetry. You want to talk love? One of the most emotional moments in my life was holding Thoreau’s first edition copy of Leaves of Grass in my hands at the Antiquarian Book Fair in Los Angeles a few years back. Can a book contain electricity? At that moment, I believed. —Matthew Bolin
The Way of the World: A Story of Truth and Hope in the Age of Extremism by Ron Suskind. Trust me to pick a current events book for a Valentine’s-themed column. I rarely read fiction, and for a writer I’m barely an avid reader as it is. If I’m going to read a book, I have to be borderline obsessive about its subject matter. If I find a subject of interest, I will read everything I can find on it. That’s why current events are an easy subject to fall back on for me. However, The Way of the World is more than your average political book. Suskind culls stories from every walk of life to paint a canvas of our current global struggles. The most particularly affecting story is that of a young Afghan teenager named Ibrahim who stays with an American family as part of an exchange program. His story is the purest example of the problem humanity faces at this moment in time. We act as if we are adolescents who can’t accept that people are different, so we lash out from some misplaced anger toward an enemy we are too immature to try understanding. Suskind’s work is the most sweeping work imaginable on this subject, and his point is clear: if we are to prevent the creation of new extremists, we must extend our hand to those would be terrorists rather than throw an impulsive fist. —Arend Anton
American Stories by Calvin Trillin. What is good writing? To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, you can analyze, deconstruct, and claim to quantify it, but the bottom line is: We only know it when we see it. Calvin Trillin was first a reporter before he was a satirist for thinking folks, and this is one of a continuing series of anthologies of his best long features that appeared in the New Yorker. The real story of Ben & Jerry’s, deep murder investigations, deep investigation of wild and crazy homocide reporter Edna Buchanan of the Miami Herald, it’s all here. That and the making of Joe Bob Briggs. The light and the heavy, the funny and the not, the ironic and the dead straight. The one consistent part is the writing–a brilliant example to anyone who aspires to be journalist and a good writer. In the end, if my stuff adds up to ten percent as good as the material in this book, I will consider myself a smashing success. Ain’t there yet. —Mojo Flucke
Zen Flesh Zen Bones, transcribed by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. My father gave me his crumbling New Directions paperback copy of this compilation of Zen parables. “101 Zen Stories”, “The Gateless Gate,” and other Zen writings are all here. While the sound of one hand may have been lost to me at the time, I frequently return to this book and pick up on those gems that were previously hidden away.
Here’s a sample parable, “Nothing Exists”:
Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku. Desiring to show his attainment, he said: “The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no realization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received.” Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.
“If nothing exists,” inquired Dokuon, “where did this anger come from?” —Ben Wiser
Underworld by Don DeLillo. “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” So begins this majestic novel by the greatest of contemporary American writers. The first 60 pages recount the adventures of young Cotter Martin as he sneaks into the 1951 National League playoff game between the NY Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers. The game that ended with Bobby Thompson hitting a ninth inning home-run off of Ralph Branca to secure the pennant for the Giants, the “shot heard round the world.” This is the best fiction writing that I have ever read.
From there the novel takes us from Bronx tenements, to bombing raids over North Vietnam, to the American desert, and beyond. It is the story of a generation, and the shadow of the Cold War looms large over the whole thing. This is a must-read book for any lover of great writing. —Ken Shane
Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris. Among my most treasured keepsakes from my father’s library are postwar author Harris’ two great works of sports fiction — this novel and its predecessor, The Southpaw. Both are narrated, unreliably and in a brilliantly rendered vernacular, by pitcher Henry Wiggen, a half-literate great thinker who weaves a hilarious portrait of a baseball clubhouse in all its lunacy and brotherhood. The Southpaw is all about Wiggen’s free-spirited rise to the top of his profession, but Bang the Drum Slowly brings him to maturity as he befriends a slow-witted third-string catcher who learns he’ll be dead by season’s end. Without sentimentality, Harris wrings unexpected torrents of emotion from the story of this “doomeded” benchwarmer and the effect his plight has on everyone around him. Forget the overly maudlin Robert De Niro/Michael Moriarty film from the mid-’70s, and go straight to the source; it’s Brian’s Song with a brain, Bull Durham with a core of tragedy. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, you’ll cry like a baby; if you are one, it’ll renew your love for the game in all its mythical, tobacco-stained glory. —Jon Cummings
Broken Vessels by Andre Dubus. In 1986, the great short story writer Andre Dubus suffered a crippling injury in an automobile accident, losing one leg to amputation and the other to immobility. The two collections of essays and one book of short stories he published before his death in 1999 detailed the struggles of a once-vigorous, active man confined to a life of restricted motion. Broken Vessels is the first of those books, a series of essays that follow Dubus up to and just after his crippling. It is a small, simple wonder of a book, with his spare, affecting prose put to the task of describing bitter disappointment, sudden loss, and enduring love, all in the course of 195 pages. Whether describing his fondness of baseball, his belief in simple acts as sacraments of love, or his heartbreak over his post-accident divorce, Dubus infuses his prose with a swirl of energy and resilience, encased in a quiet meditation. Broken Vessels is brief enough to consume in a couple sittings, but deep enough to make a lifelong impression. —Rob Smith
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Though plenty of Salman Rushdie fanatics will argue that Midnight’s Children is easily his best work, I’ve always been fond of his now infamous fatwah-inspiring ode to good and evil, popularity and disdain. Oh, sure, the two plot-lines that are not remotely connected yet share character names get confusing (beginner’s tip: make a character name index), as do all those religious references, but for the reader who can be satisfied with some uncovered mystery, it holds an intriguing world of delight. Satanic Verses follows two men who survive a jetliner explosion — Gibreel Farishta, the biggest movie star in India, and Saladin Chamcha, an expatriate who’s just visited Bombay for the first time in fifteen years. Their parallel journeys are set to Rushdie’s command of words so masterful it seems almost effortless. It took me a year to read, a year I’d gladly spend again. —Taylor Long
Whales on Stilts by M.T. Anderson. You’ll probably find this shelved in the Children’s section of libraries and bookstores, but please don’t let that deter you from reading this wonderfully bizarre book. It’s the story of a young girl named Lily Gefilty whose father works in Sales and Marketing for a mad scientist involved in “expanding cetacean pedestrian opportunities”. The boss, Larry, has blue flippery hands and goes around with a grain sack on his head. (We later find out he’s the offspring of a baleen whale and “a very lonely sailor”.) You also get to meet Lily’s friends Katie Mulligan (star of the Horror Hollow series of books) and Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut (a young inventor who has his very own flying restaurant called the Aero-Bistro that’s run by robots and whose books nobody has read in decades). Will these three young people be able to stop Larry before he takes over the world with whales that not only walk on stilts, but shoot lasers from their eyes? The book concludes with “Questions for Further Study” like “Who chose this book?”, “Can I hit him/her in the stomach?”, and my personal favorite: “What do you think the theme of this work is? Please hum it in its entirety.” I love this book, but I do have a pretty warped sense of humor. —Tony Redman
Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. Very few books make me laugh out loud. John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is one, Thomas Berger’s Neighbors another, and I’m glad Woody Allen continues his lunatic streak in print, if no longer on film (his collections of short stories and essays are terrifically funny). Mrs. Bridge, tracing the life of a dim but struggling-to-improve housewife in Kansas City from the 1920s to the 1940s, is helplessly hilarious in spots, as she tries to cope with her distant husband, renegade children, and the currents of social and artistic change disrupting her upper-crust circle. It then brings you up short with a devastating ending, one the so-so 1990 film version of the book and its follow-up, Mr. Bridge, sentimentalized. (Knowing what was coming, I was somewhat relieved by the softening.) Though beautifully conveyed, Mr. Bridge doesn’t have a laugh in it that I recall, and I can only assume that the Kansas City-born Connell (now 84) was writing very close to the bone and heart about family matters. He saw the doleful humor in it, and was careful to brush any tears off the pages. —Bob Cashill
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. With the words “Gatsby bought that house so that Daisy would be just across the bay,” The Great Gatsby grabbed me. While the author was chronicling the opulence of rich bluebloods in the Jazz Age, he was also writing one of the greatest tragedies in 20th century literature. There are books that dazzle you with wordplay and structure, and then there are those written merely to entertain. And then you have book like The Great Gatsby that astounds you every time you read it. I have reread it every couple of years since it was first assigned to me in 10th grade English and still manages to surprise me. —Scott Malchus
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I’ve been interested in the intersection of religion, politics and culture since my first year of college. My love of the science fiction classic Dune almost became a dissertation topic, and it seems my incessant yammering about Frank Herbert’s novel impressed my sister in-law who thought I might like The Sparrow. At first, the novel wasn’t as gripping as I thought it would be, but Russell’s ability to weave science, religion and anthropology into the story was so impressive, that I found the book both enthralling on a narrative level, and equally heady on an intellectual level. For an academic whose writing is largely confined to, well, academic prose, I was worried that Russell wouldn’t be able to write a compelling novel, but boy was I wrong. Her characters are well-drawn, the plot is a wonderful mix of seduction, adventure, faith, and loss, and, more importantly, Russell’s writing style is anything but academic. —Ted Asregadoo