Monday, March 7, 2011

Books Worth A Look

One of the thing that regularly astounds me is the absolute dreck that passes for popular literature these days. It's almost guaranteed that if it's on the New York Times bestseller list, endorsed by Oprah or touted in your weekend paper, it will be awful. If it gets made into a movie, even worse.

I suppose some thanks should be given that people still read at all. Really, who needs books when American Idol is on 200 days a year and Survivor is around to fill up the spaces in between, right?

Now, admittedly, I haven't read a lot of popular literature since I was about 16 and Stephen King ruled the roost. But, I did read the Da Vinci Code and the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, certainly amongst the hottest books of the decade and they were awful. In fact, the Da Vinci Code was beyond awful. Dan Brown will surely burn in hell, not for degrading the Catholic Church but for writing such incredible gobbledygook. But, these, along with what seems to be an endless procession of vampire-based books that make me want to drive a stake into my own heart are what, sadly, passes for literature in the early 21st Century. Yuck, yuck and extra-double with dripping blood on top yuck.

So, that being said, should anyone stumble across this blog, here are 3 contemporary authors I highly recommend and that I guarantee are far superior to anything usually found on the bestseller lists (I might get to less contemporary favourites another time):

1) David Foster Wallace. Rather than save the best for last, I'm going to put the best at the top. It's hard to describe DFW in a way that would come close to doing him justice. Let's just say he committed suicide in 2008 at the age of 46 and every time I read one of his books I sigh a lot wishing he were still with us because he had half a lifetime ahead of him that could have been used to fill the world with even more of his beautiful, sad, whimsical, philosophical, comical, introspective essays and stories. I could use adjectives ad nauseum to describe DFW and it still wouldn't come close to describing how perfect a writer he was. I will be forever grateful to my internet friend, cat of Austin, Texas, for first recommending I read Infinite Jest.

Now, Infinite Jest isn't for everyone. It has footnotes that are almost books in themselves - DFW was known for his extensive footnotes, and I think he probably used them so that he could explore nooks, crannies and tangents that were vital to his thinking but would have subtracted from, or at least confused, the actual story. Infinite Jest weighs in at 1,400+ pages and it took me a good three months to work my way through it, often reading paragraphs multiple times to ensure I grasped the meaning but sometimes just to savour the construction a second or third time. When I got to the end, my first impulse was to flip back to page 1 and start again. This I will do eventually but in the meantime there were other books of his to get to and I haven't reached the end yet.

DFW wrote three or four novels (one is yet-to-be published and I've already pre-ordered it, to give you an idea of how much of a fan I am). The novels have several things in common: they are all set in the near future but in a slightly alternate universe so that you recognize the time, the places and the world around you but also that they are a little off-kilter. This unsettles the reader enough to make you pay close attention but not so much as to make you think you're reading science fiction.

He also wrote numerous essays which are compiled in several collections. His most famous writing is probably an essay about a week he spent on a cruise ship (it can be found in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again - see, even the title makes you sit up and take notice).

If 1,400+ pages sounds like it might do you in, try the above mentioned essays or another collection, Consider the Lobster, or his first novel The Broom of the System. Or anything else you can find with his name attached (including David Lipsky's Although Of Course You End Becoming Yourself - his detailed article - 150 pages or so - of spending five days on the road with DFW doing a book tour - the lucky, lucky bastard).

2) Ben Elton. Elton is a British comedy writer whose books usually center around common themes of the moment. So, he's written books about the War on Drugs (High Crimes), the environment (Stark), traffic (Gridlock), reality TV (Chart Throb and Dead Famous), social networking (Past Mortem), the recent recession (Meltdown) and a few others.

Elton's books contain often-befuddled characters caught up in situations they can't control or that they try, without success, to control. He is a pure comedy writer even when tackling serious themes. He writes great airplane books. I recommend Chart Throb, Stark and High Crimes as three of the best. What Chart Throb does to these karaoke contest singing shows that have swept the western world left me near tears in spots because I know too many people who waste too much of their time on that dreck and he captures the silliness of it all so perfectly.

3) Gerald Seymour. Seymour is another British writer but unlike Elton, his books are very serious. He writes what would generally be known as thrillers only they're not.

What sets him apart from more popular authors like John Le Carre, Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy is the way he frames his characters. They are all flawed, every single one of them. And, flawed in ways that means even the heroes aren't really heroes, they're just people doing their jobs and often only so that they can escape their pasts.

Seymour's books are written in shades of grey even when the issues are black-and-white. His protagonists have often committed unethical acts but are still ethical people. His antagonists are the dirtiest mofos around (terrorists, mob bosses and the like) but they have depth and character. The endings are rarely pretty because, in actuality, events such as those he describes rarely end with everything tied up nice and neat. I recommend The Collaborator and The Untouchable as two of the best I've read although I've only been able to find about half his novels so far here in Canada.

Among contemporary writers I'd also recommend Michael Chabon (serious literature with a funny side - and one who did have a good book become a good movie - The Wonder Boys), Bill Bryson (travelogues with a heart and explorations of just things that interest him - try A Brief History of Nearly Everything), David Sedaris (comedic essays - Me Talk Pretty Some Day was brilliant) and James Lee Burke (crime novels set in the Louisiana bayou - I like the Dave Robicheaux series but there are too many to mention, just trust me). They all spring to mind when I sit and think about it for a few seconds.

Give some of them, any of them, a go. I guarantee you will never disgrace your home with Dan Brown again.

1 comment:

Catherine said...

You mean you aren't reading Glenn Beck's The Overton Window??

Shakesville is blogging that one and it is AWFUL. It would probably make Dan Brown look like Shakespeare, though I wouldn't know because I've never read Dan Brown.

Usually when someone recommends a popular contemporary book to me, I just lie and say, "Oh, thanks, I'll be sure to check that one out."