Saturday, February 13, 2010

My Life So Far (Based on the Novel By ...)

This one is harder - I tend not to read books in the same year they're published (with a few exceptions).  So tying a book to a particular year is tough. Syd Hoff was my literary hero when I was first introduced to the joys of reading by my mother at the age of three. From three to six, it was all about Syd. It turns out that Syd and I share a birthday (September 4th), though I didn't know it until about five minutes ago when I looked him up on Wikipedia. It turns out that you can sort of classify my love of reading into eras:
I strayed a little, of course. During the prepubescent eras, The Phantom Tollbooth was the most significant of the "one hit wonders" I loved. And Where The Wild Things Are around the same time as Syd. Later came the Everything Else era which meant literally that: any single author/genre/whatever was now beside the point.

Everything Else started around 1975 when I made it out from the downstairs backroom of the Everett Public Library upstairs to the land of big people's books. Manchild in the Promised Land was the first "adult" strength read, a tale of growing up that was grown up with a vengeance. And wholly foreign from my way of life. In other words, brilliant.

The late 70's found me devouring Creem and Rolling Stone, the former handing me Lester Bangs and the latter the works of Hunter S. Thompson. That was all she wrote. Lester and Hunter were gods to me, especially Hunter. For me, there's Hunter and then there's everybody else. Even his later work, when he got lazy and repetitive. Didn't matter, it was all fantastic. It taught me what the truth really means.

Of the fictional variety, I loved/love Bret Easton Ellis (especially American Psycho), Jay McInerney (especially Story of My Life), Joseph Heller (especially Something Happened), John Irving (especially A Prayer for Owen Meany), F. Scott Fitzgerald (especially Gatsby and The Beautiful and Damned), William Burroughs (especially Junky), Charlies Bukowski (especially Ham on Rye), James Frey (I love his style, and especially A Million Little Pieces, even more now that I know portions were made up), Leon Uris (especially Trinity and The Haj).

My favorite book of all, hands down, no-contest, is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. I first read it in the early 1980's and have since re-read it a number of times. It never gets old.

The only book of any heft that I've read in one sitting on a single day is Christine by Stephen King. I'm not a huge King fan but have read more than a few of his tomes, many of them simply wonderful. I happened to start Christine early morning hunkered down in the laundry room on board CVN 69 while floating around the Mediterranean Sea during the summer of 1983. I was new to the ship, working in the Intelligence Center, but temporarily assigned to clean my division's enlisted sleeping area. Most lowly straight-outta-school enlisted types take a turn at this and the duties included doing the entire division's dirty clothes and towels. There was only one laundry room available and it was particularly backed up on this day, so I spent thirteen hours head resting on the large sacks of clothes, waiting for and then doing the shitload of uniforms, towels and other at-sea personal items I was stuck with. I spent that time with Christine.

Lately I've been going through random stuff, whatever I find on Amazon or in Borders. I love the Japanese novelist Natsuo Kirino, especially Out. Even translated, her books are bitter, cynical, funny, just great.

In the last dozen or so years, I would have to say that my favorite single book has been Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis, published in the late 90's. God I hope she publishes again one day.

As evidenced by my King affection, I'm not immune to the charms of McNovels. I've enjoyed those by the likes of Tom Clancy, John Grisham and Michael Crichton, especially the latter. If I'm stuck at an airport and find myself without a book, these guys are nothing if not consistent. Crichton was a Harvard M.D. whose first book was a non-fiction account of modern medicine circa 1970, entitled Five Patients. It's one of my favorites. As is The Andromeda Strain. These guys tend to have good story structure but mostly fall short on character development and prose/imagery. Characters and imagery are the most important qualities of a good read for my money, but I can and do take story structure alone in a pinch. Sometimes you're surprised by these guys and get a good chunk of all three.

So that's the "list" as best I can put it. It's out of phase, out of time, not particularly linear. I've read a helluva lot more books than I've seen movies, more even than I've listened to songs (I'm not talking casually listening here, which I do many times a day, but really focused listening). Still, I can't bring myself to associate any one to a given year.

For those that suffered through this self indulgent literary life crawl, you can take comfort in the fact that I'm done with this particular obsession. No more lists for a while.

Now I need to go out to the porch and chip the rest of the ice off my front strairs (wouldn't want the postman to slip, fall and sue me). Then it's time to prepare for Chinese New Year coming our way tomorrow. The Year of the Tiger, my Chinese astrological sign. Of course, in China it's already tomorrow and Chinese Dick Clark has long since hosted the ball drop from Tiananmen Square. Back here in Philly, I need to get my last ditch New Year's Resolutions in order before our time about eight hours hence.

Oh, it's also Valentine's Day tomorrow. I don't know why Billy Ray Valentine gets to have his own day, but apparently he does. I'll drink some frozen orange juice in his honor.


  1. For me, it was the "The Three Investigators" series written by Robert Arthur (William Arden and a few others over the years) that formed the basis of my childhood reading experience, along with the Encyclopedia Brown books...

    ...Apparently that's where our common literary paths diverged. I soon discovered the joys of huffing gasoline with a girl from the neighborhood, and sadly haven't picked up a book for the pleasure of reading it ever since.

  2. Yes, well there's much to be said for the artistry of petrol huffing. Perhaps you might recall the different brands and grades of gasoline fumes you've enjoyed over the years?