Thursday, December 13, 2007

top 10 books

Has it really been over a week since my last post? I apologize. I am not reflecting the responsibility and diligence that one would typically associate with bloggers. I'll be better.

Time for another Top 10 list, I believe, and this time I'm going with books. Now, you would think that this would be a really hard list to come up with, but it really wasn't as hard as I thought it would be. That might be partly because the list I have to draw from isn't nearly as impressive as I thought it was before Monday night, when I brought home an AP test prep book and Sara and I went through the list of suggested books to see how many we'd read. Out of 50 books, I'd devoured 19, which seemed respectable. My wife, however, had read 18 of those 19 plus 20 others. 38 out of 50! That's ridiculous. (I'm trying to make a big deal out of M. Butterfly because that was the only one I'd read that she hadn't. Greatest book of all-time. Can't believe she hasn't read it. Guess she's not so smart.) Anyway, I came up with a list of books I liked, but the top 8 or so were obvious. My basic criterion was this: If someone I knew were going to die in a week and asked what one book he or she should read with the time he or she had left, what would I choose? The answers follow in my list of the Top 10 Books of All-Time:

10. Staggerford, by Jon Hassler. Hassler's pretty awesome--reminds me a lot of Richard Russo, who you'll find later in the list. This is the story of a week in the life of Miles Pruitt, a high school English teacher in Minnesota. (Hassler is, incidentally, an English professor at St. John's in Collegeville, MN.) It's a really spot-on look at what it's like to teach high school. For an example, read the first chapter, in which Hassler kind of lays out Miles's day based on the kinds of classes he has. Every teacher I know that's read this book says, "I've absolutely had that class" about every class he describes. It's Hassler's first novel, which makes it that much more impressive.

9. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, by Chuck Klosterman. A couple of books are going to show up on this list that aren't likely to show up on anyone else's list of the "greatest books of all-time," but I don't care. If you want Ulysses, read I prefer this. I'm quite sure that James Joyce never wrote an essay about Saved By The Bell, or The Real World, or a GNR cover band, or anything nearly as cool as the stuff Klosterman covers in the 18 essays that comprise this book. It's funny, smart, unique, and thought-provoking. He also talks a lot about pornography and drugs, so my students like it. Whatever.

8. Freakonomics, by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. If you would have told me 10 years ago that my 8th favorite book was going to be written by some economist, I would have punched you in the gut. However, it seems that that would have been a mistake because it turns out to be true. But Levitt and Dubner don't explore interest rates and all of that nonsense. They look at more interesting real-world issues like whether the name you give your kid really matters and why violent crime rates in New York dropped so significantly in the 90's. This is the book that turned me on to all of the other economics-type books that I've fallen in love with--Blink, The Tipping Point, etc.--so it gets a place on the list.

7. How To Be Good, by Nick Hornby. Like John Hassler, Nick Hornby is awesome. Like Chuck Klosterman, he's both funny and smart. He's written books that have turned into blockbusters--About A Boy, Fever Pitch, etc.--but I prefer this one to all of those. (Full disclosure: I've only read two others. I bet I wouldn't like anything else as much, though. Probably.) Anyway, How To Be Good is the story of a woman who is in a bad marriage and wants out. She's a doctor, and her husband is the author of a newspaper column called "The Angriest Man in Holloway," so clearly she is the "good" one, and he is the "bad" one. But then he goes through this spiritual transformation and decides to start being really good--like giving away their stuff and inviting homeless kids in to live with them. So now she still wants to leave because he's unbearable, but she's less confident that she should because she might not be the "good" one anymore. The end bugs me a little, but overall, great story.

6. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Since everyone knows the story of TKAM because it's so awesome, a question: How amazing/ridiculous/baffling/etc. is it that this is Harper Lee's only book? I mean, what possible reason could someone with this kind of talent have for not writing more? She seems fairly normal, as far as writers go. She hung out with Truman Capote and helped him with his research for In Cold Blood, and she apparently became friends with Gregory Peck after he played Atticus Finch in the movie version (about which she seems to have nothing but good things to say). I guess maybe she's so normal because she didn't write more. All the prolific ones become alcoholics or druggies and die young. Maybe a good decision.

5. On Writing, by Stephen King. Seriously, I enjoy Strunk & White's The Elements of Style and an assortment of other books about grammar and usage and all of the other stuff that bores most people, but this is not one of those books. This is as fun to read as most of King's fiction. And if you want a real treat, get the audio version and listen to him read it. It's awesome. He's funny, he tells great stories (like when he got the idea to write Carrie), and you might learn something too. But you don't have to if you don't want to.

4. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This should probably be higher because it's probably the most perfect book ever written. The only problem is the old Dying Friend Test because I would want that book to be sort of funny, or at least witty, and I'm not sure Gatsby is. However, it's awesome, and Jeff Brower helped me realize why. Now, Jeff hates it, but when I asked him about it the other day, he confessed that he was still impressed by it: "I'm impressed by anyone who can write so easily." That's it, isn't it? Fitzgerald just writes so easily. And even if it wasn't literally easy, which it almost certainly wasn't, it seems easy, and that's basically the same thing as far as the reader is concerned. Anyway, here's to Gatsby.

3. Straight Man, by Richard Russo. In the first scene, Hank Devereaux's nose is huge and purple after getting stuck with the loose wire of a notebook. And then it gets better. Hank is a middle-aged English professor at a small college in Pennsylvania who is struggling with all of the stuff that guys like that struggle with: his health, tenure, his marriage, his students, etc. His story includes things like donkey basketball, a Groucho Marx-bespectacled goose, a guy nicknamed Orshee after the way he alway corrects the automatic use of the male pronoun...At one point, Hank tells a creative writing student: "Always understate necrophilia." These are a few--but not all--of the reasons this book is great. I cannot imagine someone not loving it. I really can't.

2. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger. In King Dork, Frank Portman says of TCITR: "It's kind of like a cult. [Teachers] live for making you read it. When you do read it you can feel them all standing behind you in a semicircle wearing black robes with hoods, holding candles. They're chanting, 'Holden, Holden, Holden...' And they're looking over your shoulder with these expectant smiles, wishing they were the ones discovering the earth-shattering joys of The Catcher in the Rye for the very first time." This is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but it's absolutely true. I was a late-bloomer as far as bibliophilia goes (senior year--AP English), and this is the first book I ever read that I wanted to re-read right away. It was my favorite for a long time. Then I read...

1. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. The best. My dad told me once that "the first half of Catch-22 is the funniest book I've ever read." Yup. And Jeff Brower once told me, "'The Eternal City' is my favorite chapter of any book I've ever read." Yup. There is no superlative too super for this book. As Dwight Schrute might say, it hits everything on my checklist: funny, tragic, great use of language, colorful characters, gripping plotline, terrific surprise ending. If I had a friend that was going to die in a week, I'd send his family out of the room and leave him with a copy of Catch-22. And I think he'd thank me.

Later (but not too much later) gators.


jbake2.0 said...

thing number 1: i do blood drives at st john's university 3 times a year. they are great blood donors.

thing number 2: i love Sx, Drgs, Cc Pffs.

thing number 2.a: I hate using vowels.

thing number 3: i bought chuck k's book "IV" for three people this year for christmas (not for you).

Stacy said...

I can totally beat 38 out of 50.
the family nerd

The Smith's said...

I also love "On Writing" and recommend it to everyone - and i like to think that when Harper Lee kicks the old bucket, they'll find a box of completed manuscripts under her bed.

Can you tell that I am totally postponing work right now by reading your entire blog?