Monday, July 30, 2007

Great Books, Part II

I'm going to riff on Joe Moore's existential blog from yesterday (and I'm usually the beach-bum philosopher of the group) and go concrete on y'all.

Name me the greatest book you ever read. The book that made you want to write. That made you dream. That made you weep. That made you scream. That made you soar. Ah, back to the beach-bum philosopher.
I'll start the game with my favorite book, Far Tortuga, by the great author Peter Matthiessen.

Known more as a naturalist and a non-fiction writer, Matthiessen's fiction is top notch. And Far Tortuga is my favorite of his - and that's a tough choice for me. It's a very difficult book to read style-wise, but if you can get into the rhythm and you love the sea as much as I do, this book will reward you with a singular reading experience. But I say that having recommended the book to several people and they hated it. Which leads me to the extra credit portion of the game.
Extra points if you love the book and everyone else hates it. Now that's a great book, eh Joe?


Bill Cameron said...

I'd like to name three books, because the way I encountered them profoundly affected my desire to write.

The first was The Scarlett Letter, one of those books written at least 80 years before I was born which I was forced to read in high school. Except I was only forced to start it. I finished it all on my own, in one sitting. I suppose since it's so-called "literature" written by a dead white man, and therefore the current vogue is to be dismissive of it, I'm maybe not allowed to have loved it. But I did. In addition to the pathos and the lyrical language, it was a damn gripping thriller. It's the first book I read in which I felt I really understood the power of words.

Then a few years later I read another dead white guy. The Sound and the Fury by my man William Faulkner. More challenging, more difficult to approach, but the book that taught me that story is often revealed piecemeal, through contradiction and misdirection, and when it's done well, it can shake you to your core.

Then a few years after that, I read One Hundred Years of Solitude. Garcia Marquez isn't dead, and he's not quite white, so maybe this one is okay. Even in translation, the power of words and image shines like a beacon, and this utterly gorgeous novel, alternately heartbreaking and inspirational, showed me the power of time and history, and of our relationship as human beings to both.

These are all books I return to for rejuvenation and inspiration.

Nina Wright said...

Lots of books mesmerized me when I was a kid and no doubt shaped my desire to write and, later, to write for juveniles as well as adults. But the FIRST "Greatest Book"--which is perhaps the only one that really counts--was A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times...." I fell passionately in love with the rhetoric, the historic sweep, the high stakes, the broad canvas, the minute details. Ultimately, what broke my heart and left me breathless was Dickens' keen eye and strong heart, his uncanny faith in and ability to render the contradictions of the human condition. By the way, nobody else in my 9th grade class liked the book at all. ;<)

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

How much fun it is to dig back and think about all the books that shaped me as both a reader and a writer. The most powerful for me was "To Kill A Mockingbird" by Harper Lee, read for the first time in high school. A few years ago I actually found and purchased a signed copy.

Also on my top five "books that molded me" list are: "The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair, "The Yearling" by Marjorie Rawlings, "Roots" by Alex Haley, and "Great Expectations" by Charles Dickens.

However, it was the light and frothy "Murder Runs in the Family" by Anne George that made me want to write humorous mysteries.

Joe Moore said...

Mark2, thanks for building on yesterday’s post. It produced a lot of lively comments, that’s for sure. To add to your post today, I will reveal just how shallow my lit background is and how predictably I fall into the commercial pulp heap. The first books I truly loved and devoured were all the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming. Once I discovered them, I read them all over a single summer or maybe it was a long weekend. I did the same thing with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books.

As far as encouraging me to become a writer, it had to be all the Clive Cussler novels I read since his first one in 1973. I recently met Mr. Cussler at ThrillerFest and thanked him for giving me the inspiration to write action adventure thrillers.

I read LOTR twice in college but would never take on reading the Tolkien trilogy today. Just too long and not enough time. The only book I ever read three times was RED DRAGON by Thomas Harris. It was just as scary the third time as the first. Despite the arguments I’m sure I’ll get here, I consider Mr. Harris one of the greatest writers of my generation. I happen to be reading HANNIBAL RISING now and loving it.

Who knows what might turn up next in my commercial pulp heap.

Mark Combes said...

Don't apologize for being a James Bond fan. I'm a huge Travis McGee fan and I don't think anyone thinks of that series as "literature."

But it is interesting how everyone mentions a "classic" piece of literature eh? Maybe those high school literature teachers weren't as dumb as we thought....

My "classic" pick? "Treasure Island." Often thought of as a childrens book - but it's a "classic" thriller in my mind.

Bill Cameron said...

Oh heavens, yes. Ian Fleming and John D. McDonald are fabulous! And Treasure Island? Hell Yeah! I read that with my son recently (he was 11 at the time) and I'd forgotten how much I loved it until I returned to it. He loved it too!

Felicia Donovan said...

Love this thread. When I was a little girl, I read one of the "Little House on the Prarie" series about a blizzard. I read it in the midst of a bad snowstorm. It impacted me tremendously that a writer of a hundred years back could capture the essence, power and tension of a terrible storm. I could feel Laura Wilder clutching at the rope Pa had strung between the barn and the farmhouse as she struggled hand over hand to make it back safely. I was only ten, perhaps, but it remains forever etched in my mind that I suddenly "got" how powerful writing was.

Hemingway's Man and the Sea still holds a spot in my heart because it holds so much literary complexity and symbology, plot tension and strong descriptors, despite being a fairly short novel.

But what I really loved was Nancy Drew! Who didn't want to be the indomitable Nancy running around solving crimes with such attention to detail and inherent intuition? I also loved the Hardy Boys but I think that may have been for other reasons...

Recent novel that has made me cry: The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd.

Recent novel that I thought was exceptionally well-constructed: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.

Lupe M. Gonzalez said...

I haven't posted before, but I do enjoy reading the blog. Candy Calvert steered me over here. We're members of the same writer's group, our local RWA chapter.

I just had to put my two cents in about the book that inspired me to write - Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I think it was because it's about 4 sisters and I'm the oldest of 4 sisters (and one of them aspired to be a writer).

The second thing that drew me to this book was when Jo thought she was beyond redemption because she would always get so angry. Marmee tells her that 'she is angry every day of her life'. I read this book in middle school, I think, and to this day I remember when I read that line. I don't think I fully understood it then, but it still gripped me.

I've also watched the old (June Allyson as Jo March) and new (Winona Ryder) movie versions of the story. I like them both for different reasons.

Thanks for such an enjoyable blog.


P.S. I also had to read The Scarlett Letter in high school, but it wasn't until I was older that I fully appreciated the story.

Julia Buckley said...

Bill--as someone who has taught THE SCARLET LETTER for years, I'm with you! What a great book, and now I know chunks of it by heart.


But as for what inspired me, I read every Mary Stewart romantic suspense novel when I was a teen, and I think they have stayed with me the most. I dedicated my first book to Ms. Stewart.

Miles said...

In one of his talks Peter Matthiessen refers to Far Tortuga as a writer's novel -- one that that other writers would appreciate but that most people would find a difficult read. Even as a Matthiessen fan I have to agree with him.

The "greatest book" is a tough question -- and the answer depends very much on my mood. One measure, though, is the willingness to admit that "I'd give my right testicle if I could write like ... ." (I'm not sure what the equivalent expression from a woman would be.) For me that honor goes to Albert Camus' The First Man. I admire Camus' sensual writing in the rich descriptions of his boyhood in Algiers. I swore when I read it that I could smell the dust, spices and heat of Algiers. Camus' loving treatment of his youth is also achieved without a hint of sentimentalism.

Mark Combes said...


Your love of Camus is the very reason I love Far Tortuga - I feel the sea when I read the short bursts of description. Truly great books take you away - be it Algiers or Grand Cayman....

And Lupe (a name I really love by the way) welcome to "The Spot!" And I'm seeing Scarlett Letter popping up frequently and I confess, I don't think I've ever read it....shame on me eh? That's another book for the "to be read" stack.....