Hemingway Cover


  1. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.  Powerful and tight, and Hemingway at his best.  I’m glad that most people just think of him as a writer with simple sentence constructions, blunt and curt prose, and a small vocabulary.  One of my private conceits is that I imagine myself the only person who really sees the artistry of what he’s doing.  I’m glad nobody else is paying attention.  I love when I work for hours on a small paragraph and achieve something even remotely close to what he might have written.  “I can’t stand it to think my life is going so fast and I’m not really living it.”
  2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  This man was not so much a writer as a composer.  The prose attains a lyrical beauty.  Beginning writers need to learn how to avoid word repetition and starting sentences with the same words… Then you read Steinbeck and you realize that these are instruments too sharp for your clumsy little hands, but if wielded properly can slay the soul.  “There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize.  There is a failure here that topples all our successes… And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange… the food must rot, be forced to rot… and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath.  In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”
  3. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  He writes with an epic scale and when reading Marquez I feel him creating the whole world around me.  I admire the way he evokes passion and yearning.  “She was no more than twenty-five, she was slender and golden, she had Portuguese eyelids that made her seem even more aloof, and any man would have been satisfied with only the crumbs of the tenderness that she lavished on her son.”
  4. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass.  Oskar Matzerath might be my favorite protagonist of all time.  He’s memorable because he’s a sort of tortured superhero (or super-villain), if you take him literally (although he’s composing his memoirs from an insane asylum)… but here’s a boy who became a dwarf because he chose to stop growing, and who becomes the leader of a gang based on his drumming and his abilities to shatter windows with his shrieks.  He inherited the desire to hide under his grandmother’s dress because his mother had been conceived by a man who’d taken refuge from soldiers there (under her dress in a potato field).  “For several minutes Oskar stood there in a very tight skin, a prey to so many thoughts of the most divergent origins that his heart had difficulty in imposing any sort of arrangements upon them.” 
  5. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury.  The charge in this novel is the sense of wonder with which the world is viewed, and a sense that things are so perfect and beautiful that you fear that the end or some darkness is lurking nearby.  “Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”
  6. The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.  I love the dreamlike, lyrical prose and the mysterious unfolding of the story, so elegantly crafted.  “So the books for the Englishman, as he listened intently or not, had gaps of plot like sections of a road washed out by storms, missing incidents as if locusts had consumed a section of tapestry, as if plaster loosened by the bombing had fallen away from a mural at night.”
  7. A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter.  Sometimes an author’s prose style evokes a visual image for me; I see the words like brush-strokes.  I visualize Salter’s work as pointillism—many small, distinct images that you have to view from afar to appreciate the full picture.  “I only want everyone who reads this to be as resigned as I am.  There’s enough passion in the world already.  Everything trembles with it.”
  8. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.  This is a scandalous book and one that many still condemn.  The most compelling thing about it is the electricity created by the sheer magnitude of Humbert Humbert’s internal conflicts and passions.  There’s a continuous charge created by his inner torments; he’s helpless to his lust, he’s mad with guilt yet still thrills in his sins.  It’s almost as though in writing his memoir he’s both titillating and torturing himself; condemning himself and trying to win sympathy.  “The dimmest of my pollutive dreams was a thousand times more dazzling than all the adultery the most virile writer of genius or the most talented impotent might imagine.”
  9. The Lover by Marguerite Duras.  I appreciate her ability to convey an atmosphere and enigmatic emotions through language.  “The story of my life doesn’t exist.  Does not exist.  There’s not any center to it.  No path, no line.  There are great spaces where you pretend there used to be someone, but it’s not true, there was no one.”
  10. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.  More than anything, what gets me about this one is just how in tune you feel with Holden Caulfield—every quirk of his personality comes out through his thoughts and his voice.  “That’s the thing about girls.  Every time they do something pretty, even if they’re not much to look at, or even if they’re sort of stupid, you fall in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are.  Girls.  Jesus Christ.  They can drive you crazy.  They really can.”

Now I get to cheat and mention a few I wish I would’ve fit into my top ten:  James Baldwin, Tim O’Brien, James Jones, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Milan Kundera, Virginia Woolf, Ralph Ellison, James Joyce, Haruki Murakami.  Except, now that I’m cheating I want to go on and on…