Wednesday, August 31, 2011


10) George R.R. Martin
            I’ve only read one work of George R.R. Martin’s, a work that isn’t even complete. But having read just the first four books of his mammoth undertaking of epic fantasy, A Song of Ice and Fire, I’m prepared to say that Martin is one of the most accomplished fiction writers on the planet. With his ongoing saga, he has out-Tolkiened the man himself. Not only has he fashioned a world with a history and culture vast and complex as Middle-Earth’s, but Martin’s characters and sense of story structure are infinitely superior to Tolkien’s. This is who you read if you want your fantasy to be adult in every sense of the word.
            Start with: A Game of Thrones, 1996
            Then try: A Clash of Kings, 1998

9) James Ellroy
            If the English language has an intrinsic gender, James Ellroy has ensured that it is a male. The Demon Dog uses words like they’re jabs and hooks, sentences like head-butts, paragraphs that are swift kicks in the cajones, and characters that move with the animalistic single-mindedness of a pack of wolves. He throws these ingredients into a heady brew and what he serves up are stories of crime and redemption that explode in a mushroom-shaped plume in the sky over White Sands. Even if his style is so bare-knuckled it turns you off, you can’t deny it: Ellroy has balls!
            Start with: L.A. Confidential, 1990
            Then try: The Black Dahlia, 1987

8) Raymond Chandler
            Chandler wrote almost exclusively about his most famous creation, archetypical private eye Philip Marlowe. Chandler wrote in style that is now synonymous with hard-boiled fiction in general. But read a little closer and his artistry becomes easy to identify. Chandler brought a poetry to his lean and mean prose that cut right to the bone of the existential conundrum of human life, what makes people live as darkly as they do and what makes a decent man like Marlowe stand eyeball-to-eyeball against the darkness and refuse the turn away from it. But that will only occur to you after you’ve absorbed the dynamite story Chandler laid out for you.
            Start with: The Big Sleep, 1939
            Then try: The Lady in the Lake, 1943

7) David Mitchell
            I grow green with envy whenever I meet someone who is experiencing the work of David Mitchell for the first time. Born in Britain but having lived and traveled wide and far around the globe, his writing reflects his status as a genuine citizen of the world. A postmodernist in the best sense of the word Mitchell blends and twists genres and styles with stunning alacrity. But despite his prosaic pyrotechnics, Mitchell never forgets that his first job is to tell a story. With indelible characters and ingenious plotting he does this better than most writers twenty years his senior.
            Start with: Cloud Atlas, 2004
            Then try: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, 2010

6) H.P. Lovecraft
            Bottom line: H.P. Lovecraft was the greatest short story writer who ever lived. Every practitioner and fan of horror and suspense, whether they want to admit it or not, owes their undying allegiance to Lovecraft’s legacy. Yes, the more of him you read you recognize the archetypes he returned to time and again. Yes, he expressed certain socio-political views we find hard to stomach today. But the man understood fear, where it comes from and how to tap into a reader’s. In his relatively brief career, Lovecraft wrote stories that not only can turn the night dark and stormy eighty years later, but keep you reading them over and over.
            Start with: “The Call of Cthulu”, 1926
            Then try: “The Colour Out of Space”, 1927

5) William Shakespeare
            Yes, I read Shakespeare for fun. And so can you! I understand that the poetry is daunting at first. But if you can find your own Rosetta Stone into the text, his stories and characters are as enthralling and comprehensible as anybody’s. Shakespeare shared the point of view of the common man. He possibly did more to destroy the concept of the Divine Right of Kings than anyone by showing just how fallible and human the divine can be. Use that as your entryway into the plays and, I assure you, you will find stories that are more rich, colorful, daring, and entertaining than ninety-nine percent of anything else you could pull of the shelves.
            Start with: Macbeth, 1606
            Then try: Othello, 1603

4) Thomas Pynchon
            He’s one of the most divisive writers in the history of literature, truly love-him-or-hate-him. Check out Amazon’s reviews if you don’t believe me. The vehement dismissal is understandable. Pynchon is discursive, difficult, vague, and he breaks every rule you learn in Writing 101. And yet, I absolute love him. Like Philip K. Dick, Pynchon broke through with the emergence of the counterculture due, in large part, to his liberal depictions of recreational drug use and his embrace of the intrinsic incomprehensibility of the world around us. But Pynchon takes it a step further and frees the writer – and reader – with adherence to a deceptively simple maxim: in a world where the rules are unknowable, maybe there are no rules.
            Start with: Gravity’s Rainbow, 1973
            Then try: Mason & Dixon, 1997

3) Alan Moore
            Try reading Alan Moore, a man committed to practicing the craft and realizing the magic of sequential art, and tell me he is not every bit complex, intellectual, and entertaining as any novelist you could read. Like a mad seamstress he weaves together seemingly unrelated threads of both narrative and theme until you are looking at a tapestry, one that is immediately pleasing but requires distance and deep thought before it can be fully appreciated. Possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of a wide array of interests that have nothing to do with costumed crime-fighting, Alan Moore uses the comics medium as the perfect vehicle to tell any story his frighteningly fertile imagination can conjure.
            Start with: Batman – The Killing Joke, 1988
            Then try: Watchmen, 1987

2) Isaac Asimov
            The depth and breadth of Asimov’s interests and respective acumen is staggering. He is the only writer to have at least one book represented in, save one, each section of the Dewey Decimal System. Whether writing his iconic science fiction, hard science, or history, Asimov wrote in a clear and simple voice that sucks you in and makes even the most esoteric minutiae palatable to any reader. All that minutiae makes the worlds he brings to life, be they hundreds of years in the past or many millennia in the future, completely believable and totally absorbing. He was an honest-to-science genius who never lost sight of the joy of learning, a joy he never neglected to instill in his readers.
            Start with: I, Robot, 1950
            Then try; The Caves of Steel, 1951

1) Kurt Vonnegut
            I don’t know how to start explaining why Kurt Vonnegut is the greatest. His writing is so simple and straightforward, he makes it look too easy. Which, of course, means it’s deceptively difficult to pull off. And he pulled it off in masterpiece after masterpiece. I consider even his less celebrated novels, like Slapstick and Galapagos, to be masterpieces. Vonnegut was heartbreaking, funny, whimsical, suspenseful, and silly; and you never knew which side he was going to show with each turn of the page. But it was his empathy with people and his understanding of the slings and arrows of an average life that keeps him resonant with each successive generation of readers. Read him when you’re feeling down. You’ll feel he wrote the book only for you. Kurt Vonnegut once said that he considered Mark Twain to be “an American saint.” I would say the same of Kurt Vonnegut.
            Start with: Slaughterhouse-Five, 1969
            Then try: Deadeye Dick, 1982

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


            Okay, here we go…

20) Joseph J. Ellis
            The Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College is the perfect jumping-off point for anyone who would like to better acquaint themselves with the founding of the United States. Ellis uses scrupulous attention to detail and a strict adherence to certifiable evidence as he chronicles the most important and most criminally mythologized chapter of American history. He educates, he enlightens, but above all Ellis understands that history is a story and is meant be told – and examined – with the infectious gusto of a born raconteur.
            Start with: American Creation, 2007
            Then try: Founding Brothers, 2000

19) Cornell Woolrich
            Just read a bit about his tragic, claustrophobic life, and you’ll never have trouble understanding how Woolrich cemented his reputation as a paragon of hard-boiled fiction. His prose is every bit razor-sharp and haunting as you would want in noir literature. But what separates Woolrich from the rest of the pack is his empathy with evil. He appreciates where our intrinsic wickedness stems from and brings the reader perilously close to the heart of the flame. It’s almost mind-boggling that Hollywood has chosen to plunder his works over and over again. But good look finding his books – most of them are out of print.
            Start with: I Married a Dead Man, 1948
            Then try: Rendezvous in Black, 1948

18) Haruki Murakami
            There’s a reason he has such a large and passionate following here in America. Murakami reflects an Eastern point of view refracted through a prism of Western storytelling. He embodies the best that the Baby Boomers bring to their art: a pronounced streak of empathy and humanism and a keen awareness of the history of media on the culture at large. In one mad, seamless patchwork of genres and styles after another, Murakami personifies the potential of contemporary pop art and storytelling prowess so assured, it crosses all human boundaries and touches anyone and everyone.
            Start with: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, 2006
            Then try; Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, 1985

17) Kurt Busiek
            Don’t let your prejudices poison you against the possibility that a guy who writes comics can craft rich, moving stories with startlingly nuanced characters. Over his thirty-year career of writing for every company, large and small, in the comic book industry, Busiek has written some of the definitive stories of the icons of the medium. But his crowning achievement is his own title, Astro City. In a world where superheroes are commonplace and often mundane as baristas and mailmen, Busiek weaves an ingenious tapestry of tales about super-humans – with the emphasis being on human.
            Start with: Astro City – Life in the City, 1997
            Then try; Astro City – Confession, 1998

16) Neil Gaiman
            Speaking of comic book writers, here’s one of the best in their long, glorious history. But make no mistake, Neil Gaiman has proven himself equally masterful at writing scintillating, unique novels, short stories, and poetry. After all these years, however, The Sandman remains the greatest testament to his ability. Through the overarching mythology, the larger storylines, and the standalone issues; Gaiman provides us with an (pun alert!) endless and endlessly entertaining collection about the importance of change and an infectious celebration of the joy of stories and storytelling.
            Start with: The Sandman – Fables and Reflections, 1993
            Then try: The Sandman – Season of Mists, 1991

15) Jim Thompson
            It’s fitting that he admired Dostoevsky. Amongst the writers of dark, deep hard-boiled fiction, Jim Thompson went the darkest and deepest. Pick up one of his books and you’ll soon find yourself trapped in a labyrinth where the walls are made of the ugliest, basest aspects of the human condition. Continue through the maze and you’ll find at its center what could very well be the fundamental source of man’s imperfections. It also doesn’t hurt that he populates his books with fascinating characters, dialogue fired from a Howitzer, and stories so tightly constructed they’re likely to choke you. Need more proof? Kubrick hired him to write two of his best movies: The Killing and Paths of Glory.
            Start with: Pop. 1280, 1964
            Then try: The Killer Inside Me, 1952

14) Arthur C. Clarke
            And here’s another writer Kubrick regarded highly enough to collaborate with. Clarke is the perfect example of the science fiction writer who places equal emphasis on the science and the fiction. He never sublimates the craft of writing to the cosmetics of aliens and spaceships. He is a grade-A storyteller who uses his very formidable talents to intelligently pontificate on the ramifications of extraterrestrial contact on the evolution of the human race. That Clarke is able to successfully dramatize its absolute beneficence is indicative of his unique point of view and his standing as one of the giants of the sci-fi genre.
            Start with: Childhood’s End, 1953
            Then try: Imperial Earth, 1975

13) Philip Roth
            Honestly, there are a few examples in Roth’s bibliography where he forgot to tell a story, where he overwrote and neglected his job. But over the course of a fifty-plus year career in which you average a novel every eighteen months –  a career, by the way, in which you’ve won practically every major writing award a writer can win (often more than once), it’s bound to happen. But pick up one of Roth’s books at random and you’re likely to find yourself ensconced in a story populated by wonderfully complicated people, stunning insights into what it means to be American, and some of the most beautifully wrought prose you’ll ever read.
            Start with: Portnoy’s Complaint, 1969
            Then try: The Plot Against America, 2004

12) Sherman Alexie
            You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more harrowing representation of the plight of the Americanized alien than in the pages of a story by Sherman Alexie. The Spokane/Coeur d’Alene writer has written a handful of novels, but he is, in my opinion, the best writer of short stories working today. His collections contain a wide array of parables; some moving, some terrifying, and some funny. But all of them are stories of people trapped in a world dedicated to their gradual, agonizing annihilation, stories that are far from fictitious to American Indians like Alexie.
            Start with: The Toughest Indian in the World, 2000
            Then try: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, 1993

11) Philip K. Dick
            I want my PKD! Not surprisingly, his popularity crested with the rise of the counterculture movement. He was equally critical of and sympathetic to recreational drug use. He filtered the growing concerns of the modern world through the lens of science fiction and, through it, saw the future. Possessing a seemingly boundless imagination, Dick crafted one startlingly original tale after another in which, as we often do, he tried to not only answer the question, “Why are we here?” but the further question, “Are we even here to begin with?”
            Start with: Ubik, 1969
            Then try: Counter-Clock World, 1967

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


            Rubicon, written by historian and novelist Tom Holland, recounts the events of the last century of the Roman Republic, illustrating the mercurial and violent transition from a republic to an empire. Holland deftly navigates the intricacies of the historical record as he passionately dramatizes the key events of the period: the tribunates of the Gracchi brothers, the tug of war between Marius and Sulla, and the arcs of the First and Second Triumvirates. He creates vivid, fully humanized personifications of the players in this seminal human drama, from the big names of Sulla, Cicero, and Caesar to the tertiary characters of Caelius and Domitius Ahenobarbus. Holland writes with a novelist’s ear, constructing impassioned, imaginatively-worded sentences from a specific point of view. He knows what story he’s telling and does so with a scholar’s focus and storyteller’s energy. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable historical read.
            So why don’t I like it?
            Holland is writing history, not historical fiction. But, as a historian, he makes several intellectual leaps that, coming from a historian, I find unforgivable. Holland’s thesis is that the Republic was a state of freedom and inherently good, while the Empire was a state of slavery and inherently bad. That assessment is a miscarriage of scholarship. From its inception the laws of the Roman Republic were heavily slanted in favor of the patrician elite at the expense of the plebeian majority of the population. Yes, they had elections for a representative government. But Holland ignores the fact that Julius Caesar did not invent bribery. If he had done his job as a scholar, he would have noted that one of the reasons Caesar was so hated by his fellow patricians was his arrogant and unapologetic flaunting of his bribery when it should have remained on the down low. And if the Empire is inherently bad, then how does he reconcile that with the re-establishment of the rule of law and economic stability of Vespasian? Or the even-handed, fair-minded governance of Trajan? Holland also takes the primary sources at face value without considering the fact that the historians of ancient Rome were culled from the ranks of the nobility and often did not represent the feelings and opinions of the general populace. His failure to do so results in highly dubious motivations being attributed to figures they may not apply to.
            Holland commits these crimes against historical reportage in the pursuit of securing a contemporary moral conviction against an ancient people with mores and a collection of values that are completely incompatible with ours. It’s a galling mistake to apply our morality to a people who are as alien to us as visitors from another planet. But that’s what Holland does. In doing so he crafts a marvelously involving narrative that falters under the weight of close scholarly scrutiny.