Sunday, November 23, 2014

Best books list

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.

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