Monday, August 31, 2009

The HoG25: The 25 Best Books Of The Last 25 Years (Part Two)

Yesterday we gave you a baker's dozen of books we've enjoyed reading. What follows is the remaining 12 from our esteemed list.

Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins (1984)

Bankmeister: When it comes to the art of mixing story lines, Tom Robbins has an unmatchable talent. He’s also great at conjuring up bizarre characters, interesting plot devices, and intriguing passages of a sexual nature. One could argue that any successful novel has a protagonist with a conflict and wrestles with that conflict in hope of resolution. King Alobar is one of several protagonists in Perfume, and he might be the primary one in this story, but that aspect is of little importance. What Alobar seeks is eternal life, which, on the surface seems silly of course. That’s impossible; no one has ever achieved it.

That’s the glory of Robbins, though. Forget the impossibility. Never mind the fact that it can’t be done. Let’s go after the thing anyway. And if we can mix in a boat load of sex, and perhaps some drugs, along the way, let’s do it. That’s the beauty of Robbins and why this novel must be ranked with Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Still Life with Woodpecker.

No novelist in the last quarter century has so successfully tackled the imaginary, the unpossible, and wrapped it up real-life trinkets, sparkled it with such profound creativity, for an end product that brings reader joy on a level as high as Robbins did with Perfume. The Bohemian king and the favorite of all of his wives begin the tale, and only an author with Robbins’ imagination could plant Alobar later in the story with said wife, but this time in the form of her child reincarnation. Mix in a lesbian waitress, stops in New Orleans and Paris, and don’t forget the heavy dose of Robbins’ successful absurdities, i.e. beets and perfume, and you’ve got a tale with limitless energy easily worth reading twice. Robbins’ contributions to novel experimentation are solidified in Perfume, thus warranting placement in the top 25.

D-Day by Stephen Ambrose (1994)

Old No. 7: June 6, 1944 was arguably the most important day in American history since the end of the Civil War. Ambrose is an absolute lion of an historian and wrote this definitive account of the Normandy invasion (as well as Band of Brothers, The Victors and Citizen Soldiers). If you appreciate, as I do, the fact that we do not speak German in this country, you might want to peruse this book at some point in your life.

Ambrose, who taught for many years at the University of New Orleans, was instrumental in opening the National World War II Museum in the Warehouse District of that city. I would similarly pressure my fellow Americans to check out that institution the next time you're otherwise wasted in New Orleans. The planning, secrecy, bravery, vigilance and luck that went into the Allies' success on D-Day was nothing short of remarkable, and Ambrose chronicles it all with effective prose. He doesn't get as bloodthirsty and macho as, say, Tom Clancy when detailing American military might.

Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984)

Cecil: Neuromancer is a sci-fi book, yes, but a hugely influential one, which is why it’s on this list. In it, Gibson basically invented the ‘Cyberpunk’ genre, which has influenced modern culture in ways that he probably never could have dreamed up back in 1984. Or, well, maybe he could have.

All technology, grime and shadowy forces of oppression, Neuromancer tells the story of a computer hacker named Case, and…you know, the plot is far too convoluted to even begin to explain. Suffice to say that Gibson approached the notions of corporate domination of government, virtual reality and artificial intelligence long before anyone besides Philip K. Dick.

Without this book and the two that follow it in the Spawn series, there’s no Matrix (which is a concept lifted entirely from this novel) and no full-length movie treatments of Dick novels like Total Recall. Keanu Reeves might never have seen the screen after Bill & Ted if it wasn’t for William Gibson.

Now that I write that, I’m not sure I like this book so much anymore.

Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver (1988)

Bankmeister: Raymond Carver is one of the primary figures associated with the rebirth of the short story. He favored it because of its brevity, that it could be created and enjoyed in one sitting, and it is rumored that he did significant portions of his writing in his car in the driveway of his home, one of the few places he could successfully sneak off to and work. The importance of Carver is not in new-fangled twists, bells and whistles, or the imaginary, but instead real life, the struggles, the mystery, and the danger of one’s existence.

It’s possible that Cathedral, published four years earlier than Calling, is his most important work, in that in that collection, Carver first tackles many real-life elements, and the self-titled story is likely his most famous. Calling, however, does the same and is more inclusive of his body of works and it came out months before his death at the age of 50. Carver was interested in a theme of American ruggedness, and Calling enveloped an array of identities with its characters to explore it. Their potential for success with their endeavors, and their frequent failures with them give Carver’s stories an occasional sense of melancholy, the minimalism, with which he is frequently associated.

Regardless of his categorical positioning, his characters, their struggles, the emotion and the true-to-life relationships they form and disband in Calling test some of the same motifs explored in the works of Cormac McCarthy, but they don’t need the geographic landscape, the outlaws, or the bandits. They can, and do, unroll in the living rooms, the treatment centers, the vehicles in Carver’s plots. If Carver’s work was minimalist, and I don’t claim to argue that label, then so be it. But above anything, it’s real, powerful good, and belongs on the bookshelf of every American home.

The Smartest Guys In The Room by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind (2003)

Old No. 7: You've no doubt heard of the collapse of Enron, it was the largest bankruptcy in world history. It also forced the Houston Astros to change the name of their stupid little ballpark. What you may have missed is the whole story of Enron, the depth of corruption and incompetence within its corporate culture, and how little we've learned since then--much of our current economic disaster is a replay of Enron mistakes.

McLean and Elkind worked for Fortune Magazine, covering Enron and the energy industry. McLean started questioning in print the business practices of Enron and its (in her view) overpriced stock in 2001. She was met with vicious resistance by Enron administration and investors who were getting rich off of this house of cards.

McLean was, of course, right in the end. Enron was a criminal enterprise that ended up fleecing thousands of shareholders and employees. It stands as a symbol of corporate greed and ethical misconduct. If you don't mind reading books where you know the ending before you begin, give it a whirl. Or, for those with shorter attention spans, the documentary based on this book is available for streaming on Netflix.

Maus by Art Speigelman (1986)

Cecil: A graphic novel about the Holocaust is a hard enough conceptual nut by itself—but a graphic novel about the Holocaust featuring Jews as mice, Nazis as cats and pigs as Poles might seem, on the surface, to be a terribly trivializing, poorly thought venture.

It isn’t. To the contrary, Maus is one of the most arresting works of art—any kind of art—I’ve ever seen.

Longtime New Yorker cover cartoonist Art Spiegelman employed the experiences of his father, a survivor of Auschwitz, as the basis for the story. The narrative itself is a complex blend of that tale and the actual strained relationship the two shared decades later, in the context of a series of interviews that Spiegelman conducted with the man late in his life.

The juxtaposition of the two in present day, dealing with a lifetime of relationship baggage—Spiegelman blamed him for his mother’s suicide—while simultaneously re-living the horror of the Nazi genocide through senior’s grim recollections, makes for a truly stunning work. If you don’t like comics, if you have no time for the graphic novel, if historical reminiscence isn’t your thing, I don’t believe that it really matters—Maus is such a powerful, unique, heartbreaking piece of literature that it transcends genre.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)

Bankmeister: The topics that Jon Krakauer takes on in his writing are far from easy. He has, in just over a decade, written about a disastrous attempt to climb Mt. Everest, Mormonism, and the story of Chris McCandless, the subject of Into the Wild. He is rumored to be releasing a story about former Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman’s experiences in Afghanistan next month, but for now, we’ll just acknowledge the difficulty in his investigative-reporting subjects.

McCandless, or Alexander Supertramp, gave up on civilization, gave away his belongings, and gave his life to a trek to Alaska, an attempt to live in the wilderness, away from the clich├ęd-but-true hustle and bustle of modern life. Krakauer wrote a 9000-word article about the youth’s disappearance into the wilderness, but beyond the publication of the January 1993 edition of Outside Magazine, he was still largely infatuated with the boy’s story, and therefore invested a year and change into researching it. Into the Wild is the end result and it is a read no less intriguing, no less intense than any bit of history, piece of fiction you will ever devour.

The author tracks McCandless’ hometown friends, college colleagues, and folks he met along the way to Alaska, and pastes in postcards, diary entries and other tidbits of the journey, as well as personal anecdotes from his own younger days, memories he found to be largely tied thematically to some of the experiences of McCandless. Yes, the movie was fantastic, and of course, the Eddie Vedder soundtrack was great, too, but the point of origin for tracking Alexander Supertramp begins with Jon Krakauer and his excellent debut in post-magazine literary journalism.

Team Of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2005)

Old No. 7: If you followed the 2008 presidential election with any level of interest, you surely have heard of Team of Rivals. Barack Obama is a serious Abraham Lincoln junkie, and he used this book as a blueprint for his postelection cabinet selections. After vanquishing Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson in the Democratic primaries, Obama hired all of them in his administration.

I've always like Doris Kearns Goodwin. She appears on Meet The Press several times a year, always wearing the same weird blazer adorned with chains and buckles. She's a huge Red Sox fan, and I'll even forgive her appearance in the shitty Babe Ruth curse documentary based on the work of Dan Shaughnessy. Doris rules.

Sure, she was accused of plagiarism in 2002, and plagiarism is really bad. It's like the literary equivalent of performance-enhancing drugs. But Goodwin came out and said that she never knowingly ripped off another writer, and if any lifted passages were found in her system they were surely the result of a tainted over-the-counter supplement. If we can honor the achievements of Rafael Palmeiro in this series we're damn sure giving Doris The Cheater her due as well.

Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky (2002)

Cecil: How entertaining can a book about salt actually be, you ask? Well, even George Bush, noted incurious slab of human posterboard, said that he read it—and the thing doesn’t even have pictures.

It’s all thanks to author Mark Kurlansky’s gift at taking an unusual, unnoticed subject—Basques and codfish are the focus of two of his other works—and spinning them into fascinating excursions. Salt details the manner in which culture was shaped by the quest for, as Kurlansky puts it, “the only rock we eat.”

He explains, for instance, that the confused roadways of mainland Europe, all loopy and turny, are like that largely because early humans followed deer trails to sources of natural salt, and those trails morphed into pathways, and then, eventually, actual thoroughfares. He goes into great detail about the nature of the stuff itself, how the purely white Morton’s on your table is hardly representative of the whole, the fundamentally important role it plays in our biology—really, just a great read.

Kurlansky is about my favorite non-fiction writer out there. His style is loose but informative, he has respect for his subjects and he always comes at you with something new. I have a compendium of food writing that he edited, and it’s pure, uncut word crack—contemporary descriptions of feasting in the 14th Century next to excerpts from Chehkov. He’s good, and Salt is probably his best.

Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie (Gonzo Papers, Vol. 4) by Hunter S. Thompson (1994)

Bankmeister: I am not interested in politics. I vote, every time I am allowed, with an opinion formed mostly on what others tell me. I do not care for the Republican Party, and I will most likely disagree with any morsel of conservative political ideology. It therefore makes great sense, to me, that, when one of the greatest writers in the last century, takes a mad leap into the 1992 presidential campaign, that I will devour the book that comes out of it.

There is very little formula to this book, which is one of 1000 reasons why it is superb. It is full of text, yes. But it also has a ton of faxes, photos, icons, quotes, charts, and other crumbs of complete hilarity. This book almost changed my mind about politics. Almost.

What it most certainly did was reassure me that anything was possible, that any entity, despise it as you may, can be tracked, with varying degree, and journalled about, for all to read. I have no idea how many times I laughed aloud while reading this as a 19-year-old largely uninformed voter, but it renewed my faith in the possibility of policing a government, showed me what journalistic balls were all about, and made every ounce of the big-brother-is-watching sentiment in my brain shrivel like a marshmallow in a campfire.

In one sense, comparing this publication to Thompson’s other works is a bit silly, but on the other hand, it’s not. It fits right in with all of the other genius thoughts he penned in his time of in-print producing, and should be heralded as a must read for the most apathetic, the most-involved voter-eligible American alive. Nothing shy of tremendous.

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (2000)

Old No. 7: Gladwell is the Tim Duncan of authors. Year after year he produces astounding work, both in his writing for The New Yorker and in his books. Tipping Point was the first of these, and it's since been joined by Blink, published in 2005, and last year's Outliers. His sustained excellence is delivered with excessive humility and utter lack of ego. The guy's sold a ton of books and is a freakishly talented scribe. If he wanted to be a complete asshole he could get away with it, yet he comes off as a likeable fellow.

If I can convince you to perform only one future act, HoG reader, it would be to read something from Gladwell. You can pick up Tipping Point used on Amazon for like a dollar. Do it. You'll feel smarter instantly, and you'll dazzle friends and acquaintances with your newfound depth of knowledge. You'll see patterns emerge from seemingly random everyday occurances. You'll be a better sports fan, a better citizen, a better human being.

Some have dismissed Gladwell's work as lightweight deconstruction of serious study. He does take on big issues in science, sociology, politics, marketing and academia and break them down into easily digestible nuggets for idiots like me. I'd like to know what's wrong with that, you ball-licking East Coast haters. The only problem with Gladwell is that he doesn't write nearly enough. If he published or posted as often as Posnanski I'd probably just quit my job.