Since I'm a literary type guy, people often ask me what my favorite books are. Here's a list I recently produced for a class I'm taking. Enjoy; they are all gems.
A Sense of Place-- Travel Writing, Storytelling and the Journey: An Annotated Bibliography
Franzen, Jonathan. How to Be Alone: Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. Print.
Franzen’s essay collection gives his distinctive voice a platform through which to launch his characteristic vitriol regarding subjects ranging from the state of the publishing industry, the fate of fiction, and the increasingly pervasive voice of technology, to more personal subjects like Alzheimer’s disease, aging and the role of fiction in coping with personal history. The first essay in the collection, “My Father’s Brain” provides interesting background on his novel The Corrections, and is a truly great example of personal narrative. The essay is interlaced with factual research based information, but also includes a lot of personal recounting of events in the author’s life. The combination serves to create a piece that is both informative and laden with pathos.
Franzen has been accused at various times of being an elitist because his work is sometimes seen as less than “accessible.” Franzen’s high-minded approach has influenced my own style and given me confidence in my conviction that good fiction should always be experimental in some ways. In my own writing, I am always trying to experiment with style and form. I firmly believe that any writing that attempts something fresh and new is inherently successful, regardless of whether it ends up being a critical success or appealing to large audiences.
Pamuk, Orhan, and Maureen Freely. The Museum of Innocence. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. Print.
The celebrated Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk undertakes a project of a qualitatively different order with this ambitious novel. Set in the Istanbul of 1970 and spanning to the present, it is the tale of Kemal and his young lover Fusun. The plotline is not remarkable among Turkish dramas, and many critics have remarked that Pamuk is engaging in parody in the collective clichés of a culture. However, the story of Kemal’s obsession is told in such a fashion—through the objects that Fusun touched—that the novel becomes a very unique thought experiment quite unlike anything else in fiction. In addition, Pamuk has taken a bold new step and created a physical museum in Istanbul where visitors can see the scenes and objects from his novel displayed in picture boxes, blurring the line between fiction and reality.
The Museum of Innocence has affected my outlook and my work in the sense that I want readers to wonder whether the characters I have created were real people. I want to take actual scenes from the world and from the places I choose for my settings to come to life in such a vibrant fashion that the reader will believe that what I have written is non-fiction. Really I am a travel writer, an essayist and an artist of creative nonfiction. However, in certain cases, fiction is better suited than non-fiction to tell a particular tale with brighter colors and more believable actors. These are the rare cases where fiction is more “real” than non-fiction. I also admire the way Pamuk chose a concept and carried that concept throughout his entire work. The idea of telling a story through objects is singularly fascinating and imaginative. Pamuk has achieved the goal of using objects to create a narrative and has proven his ability not only to relay the story of one couple, but to define the history of an entire group of people within a nation.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York, NY: Meridian, 1956. Print.
Campbell’s work on archetypes is monumental. Many writers have incorporated the stages of the “Hero’s Journey” into their work, and although James Joyce was probably the first writer to understand that all great heroic stories stem from the same “monomyth,” Campbell’s work is the definitive explanation of this archetype. Campbell identifies the stages of the journey that the hero of a work must undergo and gives examples from classic mythology. Campbell’s plot structure is greatly useful when considering the story arch of a heroic journey.
The fictionalized memoir I have been working on for this class (MCW 630: Seminar in Fiction) will employ some of Campbell’s storytelling patterns. Regardless of whether or not the “hero” of my work will follow the basic stages of Campbell’s heroic journey is irrelevant to the overall meaning of this work in my writing. The element of Campbell’s work that is most germane to my writing is the simple conclusion that a “hero” does not need to be “fresh” in every way. The classic archetype of the hero’s journey will always form an appealing story, regardless of how many times this tale has been told.
Troost, J. Maarten. The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific. New York: Broadway, 2004. Print.
Troost’s narrative is part adventure story, part travelogue, part memoir, and part comedy. He combines these elements skillfully to tell the tale of a few years living in Kiribati, a small series of islands all part of the same atoll. Troost’s story starts when his wife accepts a position as a volunteer on Kiribati and he accompanies her as an amateur journalist. His reporting is accurate, but rings with a sarcastic and humorous tone. The book does not qualify as purely a travelogue because it contains conventions of memoir and is suffused with Troost’s characteristic editorializing on the affairs of the Kiribati natives.
The book has had a profound affect on my travel writing and on the fictionalized memoir I am currently working on. I admire the way that Troost was able to represent the facts in a compelling manner, but also shed light on cultural differences without “othering” or demeaning the anthropological identity of Kiribati. Readers of my work should undergo a learning experience that is based in truth, but I hope to increase the readability of my travel writing through the use of humor and personal narrative.
Eggers, Dave. What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng: A Novel. San Francisco: McSweeney's, 2006. Print.
Eggers’ account of Valentino Deng’s exodus from Sudan as part of the infamous group of Sudanese “Lost Boys” bends genre as a biography written in first person. Deng is a real person who underwent weeks of interviews in order to create this book alongside master writing craftsman, Eggers. However, despite the factual nature of the events described, Eggers’ suffuses the work with vibrant description until a glowing work of fiction emerges. I admire the way that Eggers took on the socially conscious subject matter and addressed current and pressing world problems.
Eggers has long been a literary hero of mine. I hope to someday emulate his work and write stories that take place within a cultural context that will be “foreign” to most American readers. I am inspired by his ability to write well, in an engaging style, about problems that may not come to light otherwise. Eggers is a champion of genre, having written memoir, fiction, biography, nonfiction, essays, criticism and even children’s stories. I hope to be as versatile.
Hessler, Peter. River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. Print.
Hessler is unsurpassed as the preeminent expert on modern China from the foreign perspective. He worked as a correspondent in Beijing for many years and produced many great works, but River Town is singular among his many books. Hessler discusses China with both candor and the compassion of a genuine “Sinophile.” He is sympathetic, but by no means an apologist. River Town is his account of his two years in the Peace Corps in Fuling, a town along the Yangtze River, which was (at the time of his writing) beginning to disappear under the rising waters of the river. The controversial “Three Gorges Dam” was expected to displace millions of people and destroy centuries old villages. Hessler writes in an elegiac style about a disappearing people, a vanishing culture.
Hessler’s work is admirable and speaks to many of the sensations I have personally felt while living abroad. As Hessler starts to learn Mandarin, he attains a Chinese identity when he is given a Chinese name—“Ho-Wei.” The disparity he feels between his Chinese self and his American self reads like a version of “Borges and I” with the dual identity theme of “author-self” and “self” taking shape for the visitor to a foreign land. Hessler’s personal descriptions of the alienation and fascination of living in a foreign land ring true to the style I would like to create in my travel writing. When I lived in Taiwan, the students laughed at my Chinese name, "Yue Han" (约翰) which consists of two characters--the first means "promise" and the second means "writing." It is a good name for a writer. The idea of a “foreign self” and a “local self” is an idea that I take from Hessler and regularly use in travel narratives.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse 5. London: Panther, 1970. Print.
No writer has influenced me more completely than Kurt Vonnegut. My current work revolves around shift in time and place. Slaughterhouse 5 used a shift in narrative point of view from first person to third person, and includes many temporal space and time shifts as the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, becomes “unstuck” in time after being abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. No one has told a truer story of war through a science fiction platform. Vonnegut was a visionary and he was not afraid to experiment. To read and re-read this book in particular will cause us to admire a work of true brilliance.
Greene, Graham. The Quiet American. New York: Viking, 1956. Print.
Greene was a travel writer and a fiction writer, but he was arguably the best at combining the genres. He knew Vietnam so well that he was able to concoct a believable novel that was so filled with a sense of place so as to be cited as actual history in discussions of the Vietnam War. Greene knew the politics of Indochina so well in 1955 that his work almost predicted the events that would unfold there over the next 18 years.
Greene’s work has been influential for me in creating a sense of place and in creating characters. The protagonist of this novel is a journalist whose main character motivation stems from the journalist’s creed of the “fairness doctrine.” He reports the facts as they happen and does not intervene. It is with shame that he interferes with a CIA plot in Vietnam. By the end his character changes and he learns that sometimes it’s necessary to “pick a side.” This template for character change over the course of a story is as relevant now as it was then.
Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace. New York: Viking, 1999. Print.
Disgrace is the story of a South African Literature Professor who is ousted from his University employment because of an affair with a student. When he moves in with his estranged daughter he is the victim of a home intrusion and racially motivated violence. Coetzee brilliantly creates a character that is so violently ensconced in his rationale for racial and gender superiority that he fails to see the changes occurring in his world of post-Apartheid South Africa. Coetzee does remarkable work with a character and the novel is filled with a sense of place.
Coetzee’s use of literary allusions is something I wish to emulate. A well-read and literate person is a compelling narrator because they are skillfully able to use and explain allusions throughout a story and lend metaphorical resonance to the novel. I also admire Coetzee’s ability to present the nuances of a complicated situation with ambiguity. He crafts his narrative and his character in a way that makes the work as a whole thoroughly debatable, and the work becomes a reflection of the reader, not the author.
Chatwin, Bruce. What Am I Doing Here. New York, NY, U.S.A.: Viking, 1989. Print.
Bruce Chatwin is an icon in travel literature. His unpretentious and humble scribblings, compiled in this anthology, stand in marked contrast to the writings of genre-defining travel writers like Paul Thoreaux. Chatwin’s account of being imprisoned and tortured in Africa is among the most chilling pieces of travel narrative I have ever read.
Chatwin is another author who bends the form of the narrative into seldom seen thought experiments. Many of his musings seem tangential if the purpose of a travel narrative is to create a sense of place. Chatwin is the travel writer who underscored most fully the idea that the travel piece can also be personal.
Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild. New York: Anchor, 1997. Print.
Again, Krakauer is an author who integrates personal narrative into his nonfiction reporting. The story of Chris McCandless, a histrionic 20- something who disappears into the Alaskan taiga wilderness to die in an abandoned van, is described alongside parables from Krakauer’s own wide- ranging climbing and exploration experience. Krakauer also uses the novels that McCandless reads as a way to investigate the nuances of his troubled soul, making the book remarkably literary. As a life-long English teacher, I have always looked for connections between what I am able to write and the things I have read. I believe that good writing will be interlaced with allusions. Some of the most compelling pieces of literature are those that continually reference other literature. The way Krakauer uses the transcendentalist writers to explain the actions of the young McCandless is a truly brilliant stylistic device which functions well within this nonfiction book which has attained the status of “modern classic” in the last 15 years.
DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.
Ever since I read his comical postmodern description of the most photographed barn in the world, I have been interested in DeLillo’s work. This one book did more to help me define my sense of humor in writing than any other piece of fiction. Postmodern irony can be the most effective way to approach the changing realities of our age. This novel concerns a professor of “Hitler Studies” who is often overtaken by his fear of death. The novel concerns itself with the interplay between plotline and digression, which I find interesting. Most of the tale is told through vignettes that are entirely tangential, but which contribute to theme and character, if not plot. In my own writing I want to get away from plot-driven narratives and move toward creating a snapshot of an era or a place.