Read This Book Now, Part 12: A Confederacy of Dunces

This is our last entry in the Read This Book Now series. Drop what you’re doing right now, and read John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.  Then read the other entries in this series here. Keep your eyes peeled for our next series, starting up this summer.

I nearly missed out on this book for the same reason I miss out on a lot of books, movies and music: If too many people like something, part of me starts to think it must suck. I don’t know why, but if more than three people, or any one person on television, recommend something I start rolling my eyes. Maybe it’s because I think that if something appeals to everyone it must be so watered-down and vanilla that people with no taste at all can enjoy it. The point is, I’m usually wrong and miss out on cool things. For this reason, I heard about A Confederacy of Dunces long before I read it. A friend demanded I read Confederacy repeatedly, and after finally reading it, I’m ashamed to say how long he badgered me before his recommendation took. So if you haven’t read this book for the same reason, do yourself a favor and get a copy. You won’t be sorry.
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Read This Book Now, Part 11: Vernon God Little

Drop everything and read Vernon God Little, by DBC Pierre, nowSee other entries in this series here.

DBC Pierre is a Mexican author from Australia; his parents are English and he grew up largely in Texas. He was a cartoonist and a drug addict for a while, then he became an award-winning novelist on the first try. He’s not so easy to categorize, and neither is his work.

Pierre’s debut novel, Vernon God Little, won the Booker when he was 42. In it, our hero and narrator is Vernon Little, an awkward teenager in the small town of Martirio, Texas. Vernon’s voice is a mix of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye and Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces. In other words, funny, quirky, cutting, perceptive, and with a realistic hillbilly twang.

Before the novel begins, Vernon’s best friend, Jesus Navarro, opened fire in the middle of the high school and killed many people before turning the gun on himself. Since Jesus is gone, the town wants someone else to blame, and they settle on Vernon.

Those previous two paragraphs don’t seem to work too well together. But Pierre somehow pulls it off and Vernon God Little is the funniest book about a school shooting that you’ll ever read.
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Read This Book Now, Part 10: Rebecca

Drop everything and read Rebecca by Dapne Du Maurier now. Read other entries in this series here.

I recommend reading Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca not because it will have a profound impact on your life (it won’t) or because it belongs in the upper echelon of contemporary literature (it doesn’t). Rather, this recommendation is intended for a very specific audience: aspiring writers. For anyone who has ever had trouble mastering the most basic and essential building blocks of good fiction (namely plot, setting and character), I can think of no better place to go for inspiration than this brilliant and engrossing mystery.
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Read This Book Now, Part 9: The Financial Lives of the Poets

Drop what you’re doing right now, and read Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets.  See other entries in this series here.

Once upon a time, before The Financial Lives of the Poets opens, Matt Prior was a successful financial journalist with a smoking-hot wife, a stately house, a snappy sports car, and plenty of leftover cash. The world was his oyster—but pearls weren’t enough. Prior wanted more. So he quit his job to build PoetFolio.com, a site dedicated to offering stock tips and financial news in “pedestrian, amateurish” blank verse. Like so many others living the dream, Prior told himself, “You deserve this, you are a fucking American.”

Jess Walter disagrees, and spends the next 280+ pages making Prior pay for his sense of entitlement. By the time the novel opens, a couple years after this big-balled venture, Prior is hurtling toward rock bottom. PoetFolio.com has failed (lack of porn), the now-fledgling west-coast newspaper has laid him off after a short-lived return, his wife Lisa is cyberfucking an ex-boyfriend, and his senile father has taken up residence in front of the television. The garage overflows with trinkets and toys from Lisa’s failed eBay business. The couple’s two sons are in an expensive Catholic school. Prior needs to scrape together $30k or lose the house in a week, his 401(k) has turned into a “4(k),” his financial advisor has diagnosed him with “fiscal ebola,” and the boys need milk for their morning cereal.

So Prior heads to 7/11, runs into two white gangbangers, takes a hit of their joint, and discovers that, wow, these kids today have some strong weed:

I suppress a cough. Nose runs. Eyes burn. Someone is composting leaves in my throat. Scraping my lungs with a shovel.

From this moment on, Matt Prior has a new career.
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Read This Book Now, Part 8: The Ask

Drop what you’re doing right now, and read Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask.  See other entries in this series here.

In my senior year of college, I co-taught a creative writing seminar called “Books that Make You Want to Write” with my adviser, James. While poring over what books to cover, we shared the following dialogue:

James: “Dude, we should read Home Land. There’s a scene where the main character leaves his girlfriend so she can smoke crack alone in a hotel room, and another where he’s having sex with her and says, ‘I’m your dead brother Lenny!’”

Me: “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I agree wholeheartedly.”

It was love at first referral, and I discovered one of the wittiest writers of my experience. Sam Lipsyte specializes in characters who suffer from broken filters between their brains and their mouths. Labyrinthine inner monologues will frequently spasm into a protagonist’s daily discussions, much to the confusion of those around him and the thoughtful laughter of the readers.
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Read This Book Now, Part 7: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass

Drop everything and read these books by Lewis Caroll nowSee other entries in this series here.

We all know the story. But if you have not read the book, do so. If it is not too late, don’t spend $23 to see a computerized smile come flying at you in 3D and Johnny Depp in yet another role where you cannot help think pedophile. Instead, pick up a used copy of the book on Amazon for a penny (actual price) and go to the park and read it. Better yet, patronize your local library…and hope you don’t encounter that pedophilic character after all.

The story we know as Alice in Wonderland is actually an amalgamation of the two books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I originally considered writing about just one of the two, but each are not much more than 100 pages and the font is bigger then I’m sure the numbers on the phone the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” lady couldn’t reach, so I’m cool with treating them as one.
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Read This Book Now, Part 6: One Hundred Years of Solitude

Drop everything and read One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez, now. See other entries in this series here.

Gabriel García Márquez does not blend fantasy and reality into one surreal realm.  Mr.Márquez creates instead an environment where each sphere vies for dominance.  The reader might forget whether the novel takes place on the Earth the reader understands viscerally until he or she stumbles upon one ethereal scene that impresses upon the reader the book’s dual nature before it dissolves and allows reality to resume.  However, I defy the reader to confess that he or she did not feel Mr. Márquez’s universe as the reader feels his or her flesh.

He had not stopped desiring her for a single instant.  He found her in the dark bedrooms of captured towns, especially in the most abject ones, and he would make her materialize in the smell of dry blood on the bandages of the wounded, in the instantaneous terror of the danger of death, at all times and in all places.

This narrative manifests for the reader physical and emotional impressions as deeply as a rifle’s butt dully collapsing a soldier’s skull.  It is not whimsy that makes so powerful the author’s writing.  It is intent.  To doubt that Mr. Márquez did not want to thrust a people’s reality into the reader’s side is to miss his motivation.
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Read This Book Now, Part 5: Let the Great World Spin

Drop everything and read Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann now. See other entries in this series here.

The book ended, dammit.  It ended and I’ve been ruined for novels since.

I can’t even tell you if it’s anything like McCann’s other books.  I’ve tried to read one, but always I close it after a few sentences, because its prose—adept enough, beautiful enough, intriguing enough—is breaking my heart.  Just because it isn’t Let the Great World Spin.

I know people who’ve gone to see “Avatar” two, three, four times, because they can’t handle the shock of being thrust back into the real world.  I get that impulse.  But—screw the too-pretty, vapid, light-wreathed world o’ the giant Smurfs.  Let the Great World Spin in the world I want to stay in, because it’s messy and human and hard and true.

Did that sound like a cliché?  My apologies, but I am not alone.  You need only glance at the reviews for this book to realize that attempting to describe it reduces people to vague, grasping hyperbole and lots of uses of the word “human.”  Even basic description seems to elude reviewers.  It’s a New York novel!  That opens in Ireland.  It’s about Philippe Petit’s famous tightrope walk across between the Twin Towers!  Not “about,” not really.  It’s written in the voices of several unconnected characters!  Define “unconnected.”  It’s a 9/11 novel!  That takes place decades before the towers fell.  (And yet it is, sort of: Before those planes flew into the towers, no one imagined they really could.  And before a man strung a wire between the two towers and walked across, well, no one dared imagine that, either.)

A friend who had not seen the documentary movie “Man on Wire” told me she thought the tightrope walker a metaphor for God, the way beauty and wonder (and terror, anything that grand in its ambition) exist all around us, utterly unconcerned with us.  Our lives are steeped in them, but we rarely notice.

True, but it’s McCann who’s the god here, his orchestration that adept.  The characters in Let the Great World Spin are rarely physically alone.  They share rooms and scenes despite different genders, different ethnicities, different ages, and McCann slides into each of their voices as though to say see, we really are all just human.  But the effect never lets you forget that each is—that we all are—alone, suspended in our individual consciousnesses and mortal.

It’s not a perfect book.  As other reviewers have pointed out, some of the voices—particularly the prostitutes’—are a little forced, some of the coincidences a little too coincidental.  Perhaps I should make this urgent a case only for a perfect book.   But what is perfection?  How human would that be?  At the book’s heart is the messy complexity of life.  At its heart is that full impulse, that full drive.

Read it, it will make you happy to be alive.

And then it will end, and you will be ruined for awhile.

I truly am sorry about that.


(Somewhat) Similar reads: Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathon Safren Foer; Things I Like About America: Personal Narratives by Poe Ballantine; the short story “Future Emergencies” by Nicole Krauss.  And, of course, a documentary: “Man on Wire.”

Read This Book Now, Part 4: The Knife Thrower

Put aside everything you’re doing and read The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, by Steven Millhauserimmediately. (See the other entries in this series here.)

For the record,  my favorite, favorite book ever and a book I truly think any reader should drop everything for is Lolita. But I’ve harped on it on this site again and again already. I read a lot of books, though, and there are a ton I think every reader should read. Steven Millhauser has written a number of these and The Knife Thrower and Other Stories is my favorite of his. Read it now.

Millhauser was one of a handful of excellent professors I had in college, so I’m a little biased. If you’re reading this site, I’d be a little surprised you’ve never heard of him. But if somehow you haven’t read him, you should. He is undeniably one of the most precise and imaginative writers writing today. He is a fabulist and a natural storyteller with a knack for writing stories that are at once cerebral and accessible.
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Read This Book Now, Part 3: The Emigrants

Put aside everything you’re doing and read The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebaldimmediately. (See the other entries in this series here.)

I was waiting for a professor of mine who was meeting me for lunch.  He was running a few minutes late, but I hardly noticed or cared.  I had The Emigrants open in front of me.  I’d just started it on the bus that morning, so I didn’t quite know what I was in for yet.  The slow unfolding of the first chapter, the long paragraphs, liquid with shifting voices, and the curatorial attention to detail all gave me the feeling of floating through a small British village submerged in saltwater and preserved in light.  I didn’t realize my professor had arrived until, standing right next to me, he said, that’s a great book.
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