Top Fives

In which Scott Dickensheets and Geoff Schumacher discuss books they have liked and loved at different times and for different reasons.

GEOFF SCHUMACHER

Most cherished or influential in youth

As a preteen, my primary interest was sports: professional football, basketball and baseball. On family outings to the bookstore, I invariably would pick out a book such as Great Quarterbacks of the NFL. I relished the saintly portraits of Bart Starr, Fran Tarkenton and Norm Van Brocklin.

While sports remained an interest, upon entering teenhood my reading took a turn into heroic fantasy. Heading the list was Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné, Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser and Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. I devoured every story of swords and sorcery by those authors, and the ones by a host of subpar copycats as well.

I probably was around 16 when I began to venture into more challenging literary territory. We’re not talking the Russian or French giants — still too much of a small-town hick for that — but certainly books a step or three above pulp adventure stories.

1. The Lords of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

During a summer break in high school, I remember being so entranced by The Two Towers that I stayed up all night reading it. I don’t remember nodding off, or even wanting to nod off. I was IN Middle Earth, man, on the journey, and I wanted to see the story through to the end. This was a major turning point in my reading life — the attacking and conquering of a big book.

2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

This probably was the first major work of literature that I read, and I think I selected a proper one to start with. Steinbeck’s masterwork surely triggered my interest in human affairs beyond sports and magical lands. It also played a major role in steering me in a political direction opposite of my parents.

3. Walden by Henry David Thoreau

This book helped to expand my awareness of the larger world, and the philosophical questions that accompany its contemplation. I am far from alone in this, but there many lines from Walden that still regularly echo in my brain. I’m not much of a rereader, but I do like to occasionally dip into this book for a taste of its grace, wisdom and humor.

4. The Nick Adams Stories by Ernest Hemingway

Reading heavily in the fantasy and horror genres naturally spawned efforts on my part to write fantasy and horror stories. This did not go well. I actually submitted some very poorly conceived and executed stories to small magazines, and received a number of polite rejections. (Honestly, I was just thrilled that somebody had taken the time to send a rejection slip.) But reading Hemingway’s spare style in this collection of his earliest stories, I recognized that this was more the kind of thing I might be able to do. Not that I could equal Hemingway, but I could document life as I actually saw it rather than conjuring fantastical lands and plots of high drama.

5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

This book, more than any other, fueled my decision to pursue a career in journalism. It’s a common story among journalists my age, I know, but it’s absolutely true. Thompson gave the profession a wild, romantic edge that sticks with me to this day, even as I fail miserably to live up to it.

Older or classic novels

1. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

I can’t imagine an aspiring writer who could do anything but fall under the spell of this story of American writers in Paris in the ’20s. Even if it turns out Hemingway was full of shit about some things in this memoir, it paints a picture of an undeniably beautiful era in creative history. Hemingway makes poverty sound like a worthwhile sacrifice for art. A classic excerpt:

“It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old waterproof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a café au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. I was writing about up in Michigan and since it was a wild, cold, blowing day it was that sort of day in the story.”

Along with Thoreau, this is really the only book that I reread from time to time.

2. Ask the Dust by John Fante

Fante’s masterpiece is short, odd and utterly entrancing. Consider the first unforgettable opening paragraph:

“One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.”

I’ve never read a better first paragraph.

3. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Is Richard Yates bleak? Hell yes, he’s bleak. Most people are losers and fools, and they know it. Life is wretched and then you die. Terrible things happen, and there’s not much you can do about it. No, we’re not talking beach reads here. But Yates is a truth-teller about the human condition, about the hard, cold fact that there really are very few heroes walking the earth. Revolutionary Road is his best and best-known novel. His other novels have great pieces in them, but few are fully realized from beginning to end.

4. The Man With the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren

Algren was another dark writer — grittier than Yates, more class conscious and street savvy. This novel about a drug addict was his best novel, so effective in depicting a time and place (Chicago during the Depression). Algren had a distinctive but odd writing style, perhaps jarring to some readers expecting the crisp syntax of a Hemingway or Steinbeck. Not to be emulated, perhaps, but it worked for him.

5. Norwood and Dog of the South by Charles Portis

Portis is an oddball out of the ’60s and ’70s, but I love him. He’s best known for writing True Grit, but these two novels are my favorites. Both are hilarious. Norwood is about as simple as a novel gets, following a Southern hick named Norwood Pratt who has some mild adventures on a road trip from Texas to New York to collect a $70 debt. He secures a fiancée along the way, and also has a dozen fascinatingly bizarre conversations with people. Here’s part of one:

“This stuff is cheap but it’s very nutritious.” He picked up the can and read from it. “Listen to this: ‘beef tripe, beef hearts, beef, pork, salt, vinegar, flavoring, sugar and sodium nitrate.’ Do you know what tripe is?”

“It’s the gut part.”

“That’s what I thought. I suspected it was something like that.”

“It’s all meat. Meat is meat. Have you ever eat any squirrel brains?”

“No, how are they?”

“About like calf brains. They’re not bad if you don’t think about it. The bad part is cracking the little skulls open. One thing I won’t eat is hog’s head cheese. My sister Vernell, you can turn her loose with a spoon and she’ll eat a pound of it before she gets up.”

Recently read fiction

1. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

The best and most entertaining novel I’ve read this year. The section featuring Richard Burton — yes, the actor — is genius.

2. These Dreams of You by Steve Erickson

Why isn’t Steve Erickson better known to the general reading public? This is a really fine novel, deftly written and thoughtfully conceived.

3. Under the Dome by Stephen King

After his 1999 accident, King announced that he would be slowing down, not writing so much, perhaps retiring. He probably was sincere at the time. But he obviously couldn’t help himself, and has been practically as prolific after his near-death experience as he was before. But he’s been more consistent, better overall than his largely uninspired production during the ’90s. Under the Dome is a terrific read, pondering what might happen if a giant dome suddenly covered a town. How would the people act? How would the environment inside the dome change? What would people outside the dome do?

4. The Great Leader by Jim Harrison

I like every novel by Jim Harrison, but some of them don’t hold together so well. You read them more for the language and philosophy than for the story. But this 2011 novel, about a detective’s cross-country quest to track down a cult leader, holds together just fine.

5. Zone One by Colson Whitehead

A literary zombie novel? You know it was coming. Somehow, Whitehead pulls it off.

Recently read nonfiction

1. How to Live: A Life of Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell

This is how a person today should write about a writer-philosopher who lives during the 1500s. Bakewell does a wonderful job of making Montaigne interesting and relevant for a modern reader.

2. Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation by Tom Bissell

Essays and articles by one of the top literary journalists working today. The article on Jim Harrison (mentioned above) is outstanding.

3. The Way the World Works by Nicholson Baker

Frankly, I like Baker’s nonfiction better than his fiction. These essays just reflect a really smart take on the world.

4. Reading for My Life by John Leonard

This posthumous collection of Leonard’s best works does justice to his genius as a critic of popular culture.

5. Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan

This collection of articles and essays is a fine companion to Bissell’s (above). If you’re a magazine editor and you want to hire a writer to capture the essence of a particular cultural subject, Sullivan is your man.

* * *

SCOTT DICKENSHEETS

Most Cherished or Influential in Youth

Rocket boy Tom Swift was my first real childhood jam, but it wasn’t until the Encyclopedia Brown books that I started having conversations like this: Mom: “Scott, your friends are here.” Me: “Tell ’em I can’t play.” These books about a youthful Sherlock established an enduring love of cleverness and stories involving flagrant displays of brainpower.

So it was no surprise that I graduated to the Hardy Boys mysteries. A neighbor gave us a long shelf of these books, and I read every one of them — sometimes two a day (“Still can’t play, ma!”) — plus every new one. Periodically I begged Mom to drive me down to the Boulevard Mall, this being back when the B. Dalton there was the only decent bookstore in town, to buy whatever new Frank and Joe mystery was available. It’s like Franklin W. Dixon, whoever they were — it was the pseudonym for several hired pens — could see right into this reader’s head.

The Mudhen is so obscure it doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry. Hell, it was forgotten when I read it back in the early ’70s, and it would be so anachronistically out of step with today’s YA fiction that I’m not surprised this book and its two sequels have fallen entirely out of print. Mudhen Crane is a brilliant but lazy student at a private boy’s boarding school. He bends his intelligence toward two ends: avoiding work, and helping his fraternity (the Eagles) beat its rival (the Bears). The books reflect their era: the sort of hopelessly innocent time in which guys unself-consciously go by nicknames like Mudhen, Froggy, Noodle, Cheese and Skunk, and all rivalries are genial; also, and this escaped me at the time, it was an era of retrograde gender and racial politics. What I cared about was that, in the Mudhen, I had an early premonition of myself: if not brilliant, at least decently brainy, an indifferent student who’d rather use his brainwaves for fun and work-avoidance.

Lest I come off like some undescended testicle of a kid, let me hastily note that I also read all the Conan the Barbarian books, in sequence, and then again, in no particular order. Swords. Picts. Snake gods. Wenches. I mean, you tell me. Conan turned out to be a gateway barbarian, ushering me into a blur of sword and sorcery nonsense, including the Fahfrd and Gray Mouser series by Fritz Lieber, and the Elric of Melniboné books by Michael Moorcock — but not, oddly, any Tolkien. I tried The Hobbit. Meh.

Old or Classic Novels

Melville, yes; Moby-Dick, no. (So far.) For an English class, I did read Herman’s Pierre; or The Ambiguities. It is magnificent and infuriating, and 500 adjectives in between. Despite the antique language, it feels in many ways rather modern — in its mix of humor and tragedy; in the way it changes tone, perspective and style at will, sometimes parodying the form (romance, picaresque, philosophical novel) it had, a few pages earlier, been an earnest example of.

Same class — shout out to UNLV prof Darlene Unrue! — also required Charles Brockden Brown’s Weiland, or the Transformation. Brown was one of America’s first novelists (this book came out in 1798) and, again, the prose is too florid for modern taste. The narrative is an okay gothic tale of disembodied voices, psychological terror and murder. So what about it appealed to me? The way it was pulpy with the anxieties of life on this new, young continent, so much of which was dark and mysterious, unknown, uncivilized, not at all like Europe. It was one of the first purely American novels.

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. Because who among us hasn’t been stranded up that crazy river, baffled and terrified about what happens to our souls when the illusion of civilization is stripped away? Or is that just me?

I’m name-checking The Old Man and the Sea because it’s the point at which, for me, Hemingway, ahem, jumped the shark. Maybe you knew it by Across the River and Into the Trees or whenever, but this is when I, at any rate, first grokked that his formal strategies of minimalism, stoicism and simplicity seemed more the product of a fetish than of a useful aesthetic. So I moved on and never looked back.

Is Thomas Pynchon’s V. old enough to be considered a classic? I dunno. Since I read it 30-odd years ago, I’m going with Yes. It contains a scene that’s stuck with me all that time, too, in which a character recalls something he witnessed on Malta: a gang of feral children disassembling a mysterious priest, who, as they pitilessly strip away the priest’s many prostheses, is revealed to be a woman. Sad, haunting.

Recently Read Nonfiction

I’ve had this book on a slow-drip feed for a couple months now, little bits of it when I can: Glimmer, by Warren Berger, a book about design thinking that’s far less wonky than that description suggests. Because design, the pleasing and useful arrangement of [graphic elements, objects, functions within an organization, anything else], is fundamental to civilization, the questions it addresses go well beyond How does this look?

Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful is a terrific read. An account of three long walking pilgrimages undertaken by this nonbelieving writer, it’s funny, thinky, self-lacerating and personable.

Descanso for My Father, by a writer I’d never heard of before taking a chance on this book — Harrison Candelaria Fletcher — is a quiet, thoughtful book of essays by a writer coming to terms with what the loss of his father meant to his family. A descanso is the point at which a funeral procession rests; a cross is placed to mark the spot where the coffin was set down. That perfectly describes this book.

I know this is probably hastening the demise of the printed volumes I love so much, but I’m thrilled by the advent of the Kindle Single. I just finished James Wolcott’s nifty farewell to Gore Vidal (which bequeathed me a false nostalgia for the glamorous era of writers as cultural figures); I’m reading Michelle Herman’s Dream Life, an excursion into family memory; and I’ll eventually reread The Codex, by Oliver Broudy — a long, unconventional and absorbing essay about investigating the meaning of beauty by tracking down a fabled book of vagina drawings used by a cosmetic surgeon in Prague, it’s the sort of thing magazines don’t publish. If not for the Kindle Single format, stuff like this might never see print.

Wild Card: Weird or Random Stuff I’ve Read

P.S. 1 Symposium: A Practical Avant Garde, a pamphlet put out by the people who publish the rarified n + 1 literary magazine. It’s the cleaned-up transcript of some talks given during a panel discussion on the state of the avant garde — in art, literature, whatever — and the conditions necessary for it to thrive. Ridiculously specific and not exactly useful in a daily way, I know. But sometimes my brain likes to drill down deep into an unfamiliar topic like this.

In the last year or two, I’ve taken what for me is a major interest in poetry, spurred largely by the work of Michael Robbins. His poem “Alien vs Predator” received crazy attention when it appeared in the New Yorker a few years ago. I read it, loved it and utterly failed to understand it, but it got me curious about a form I’ve always ignored. Robbins’ first collection, Alien vs Predator, is out now, and it’s stunning, even though I still utterly fail to understand it.

In the process of trying to puzzle out why I was so taken with Robbins’ work, I came across two other books of poetry that I’ve also found myself returning to: Insomnia Diary, by Bob Hikok, and Ceremony for the Choking Ghost, by Karen Finnyfrock, whose “What Lot’s Wife Would Have Said (If She Wasn’t a Pillar of Salt)” should be force-read to every busybody on the right who wants to regulate people’s private lives because they think God wants them to:

“Because any man weak enough to hide his eyes

while his neighbors

are punished for the way they love deserves a

vengeful god.”

Partial List of People to Bleach is . . . well, it looks like a 60-page, handmade chapbook, although I ordered it from Amazon. It’s a handful of bizarre tales by Gary Lutz, who I gather is a cultish writer of short fiction. They’re bleakly comic, slightly surreal (“I owned no furniture; I was afraid of heights”), enigmatic fiction riffs filled with people who act bizarrely and think nothing of it. “Home, School, Office” ends with a guy dragging Scotch tape around his office, trying to pick up a stray public hair left by the officemate he dislikes. He quickly gives up “because I did not know up to what point, to what extent, I was supposed to keep going along with my life.”

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