Monday, August 31, 2009


This A-to-Z Literary blog project, as you'll recall, was about the authors probably even more than it was about the individual books. My goal was to work my way through the alphabet, selecting one author for each letter whom I had meant to read for a while. If I read a "classic" book that I had also meant to read, so much the better. As it happened, my absolute favorite book and favorite author of the project are the same letter, but I will get to that in a minute. In considering the 26 authors, I put them into five basic groups, based on the answer to the question "Do I want to read this author again?"

OF COURSE! Martin Amis, Truman Capote, Umberto Eco, E.M. Forster, Salman Rushdie, William Styron, John Updike, Gore Vidal, Robert Penn Warren, Irvin D. Yalom

SURE... Philip K. Dick, Dashiell Hammett, Pico Iyer, Erica Jong, D.H. Lawrence, Frank Norris, Gao Xingjian

MAYBE Nadine Gordimer, Arthur Koestler, Norman Mailer, Chuck Palahniuk, Daniel Quinn, Ivan Turgenev, Emile Zola

NO...? William S. Burroughs

NEVER! Cynthia Ozick

The Awful: I cannot tell you how much I loathed O, The Puttermesser Papers. Not only am I forever swearing off Cynthia, but I think that book might be one of the worst books I have ever read. Maybe THE worst -- unless I've read something else that was so bad I blocked it out of my memory. Burroughs I actually might read again. I do like the Beats (Ginsberg is my fave) and their whole schtick, it's just that Naked Lunch really didn't do it for me. It was weird, and pointless, and weirdly pointless.

The Disappointments: Along with Burroughs, there were some others who did not live up to the hype and the accolades I have perceived to be bestowed upon them. Norman Mailer, Nadine Gordimer, and Chuck Palahniuk were just - okay. They have devoted followings, literary acclaim, and even a serious prize or two under their belt, so I was a little surprised. However, they were not bad, by any means. I might try them again, at some point. Especially Mailer, because inevitably I will end up reading his works that won Pulitzers, and I did like some things about The Naked and the Dead. It has also got better with hindsight, and it was a fast (although long) read. Chucky P., I can see his potential. Gordimer's None to Accompany Me was infuriating partly because of the main character's whiny, spineless infidelity, not because the author lacked writing talent.

Novel? Pico Iyer's Cuba and the Night and Erica Jong's Fear of Flying were barely novels; they were not just thinly veiled memoirs, but I daresay not-veiled-at-all memoirs. Coincidentally, neither book was all that great, but I saw interesting writing and interesting personality, and they made me want to read more of that author's thoughts, whether they choose to call it fiction or not.

The sure things: I knew for a fact that I would like Capote and In Cold Blood, Eco and The Name of the Rose, and Salman Rushdie and The Satanic Verses. I ended up liking The Satanic Verses the least of those three, finding it a little weird/tedious at parts, but I did like it, and thought Rushdie was great, and want to read other books of his. His book was also one of the most unlike how I thought it would be -- decidedly more wacky than I had been led to believe, what with it inspiring retarded radical religious death threats and all. If there is anything in the world more simultaneously serious and utterly laughably stupid than the "fatwa" against Salman Rushdie, I don't know what it is. In Cold Blood is, of course, close to perfect. Umberto Eco, a literary genius, should probably be the next winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The surprises: Which are, in many ways, the point of the project. I discovered some authors whose writing I loved more than I would have guessed, and some books that are even better than I thought they would be, such as All the King's Men and A Passage to India. Martin Amis, too, fits the bill as exactly what I was looking to discover.

The stats: I read 23 men and only three women. Yikes! How disappointing! There were 15 Americans, four Brits, and seven other countries. Twenty-one books written in English and five translated. Two from the 19th century, four from the early 20th, eight from WWII through about the 60s, and a dozen from the late 20th century.

The winners! But, the real question (and answer) for which you've been waiting, is obviously: who was the best? Well, if I were going to hand out, say, Olympic medals, it would have to go like this. Taking the bronze, for exquisite writing that shows others how it's done and leaving me so excited to delve into his other works...E.M. Forster!

In second place, with a silver medal in the A-to-Z blog project event, a writer who blew me away with how good of a writer he is on every level -- words, wordplay, story, research, depth, breadth, imagination, compelling to read more, and philosophical outlook -- even though I have also heard for years what a good writer he is, we have Gore Vidal. A genius, nothing less. I cannot recommend Julian highly enough.

And the gold medal book AND author, my absolute favorite of the 26, astonishingly good, should never be allowed to fade into obscurity, and so so so well done, I give you the winner: Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron.

The end? No, it's just the beginning actually. I have thought about the better thirteen of the authors (my "top half," you see) and over the next year, as I move on to other reading, I will also read another book by each of those thirteen. We will see if they continue to impress!


Brian said...

I would have guessed Philip K. Dick might fall into the surprise category, for various reasons.

I am surprised that All the King's Men surprised you in how good it was.

Clarification is needed for your prizes: does "the best" mean these specific works or the writers who wrote them?

linda said...

Hmm... point taken about Philip K., as I have my genre fiction issues, but rather enjoyed both him and Dashiell. I didn't think I wouldn't enjoy them, though, you see what I mean? I selected/agreed to read them because of themselves, in spite of their genres. As for All the King's Men, I just didn't know enough about it to know how interestingly written it was.

The three medals are for the three best writers I discovered on this project, in my humble opinion, in terms of that I read them and their greatness spoke to me. In that sense, it was hard not to award a medal to Capote and Eco, but them's the breaks. And it just so happens that the most astonishing writer and astonishingly good book were 'S.'

Wendy said...

Your project is amazing. Had no idea you were doing this. I keep meaning to read most of these same authors. Keep meaning to get around to The Name of the Rose. Styron wasn't on my radar screen, will check it out. I like Martin Amis in theory and liked his autobiography but London Fields is probably the book that I liked least that I ever forced myself to finish - which one did you read? Once again, I marvel at your seemingly endless energy. I'm looking forward to more reading time soon.

linda said...

Wendy, I did not read London Fields, I read The Information, which by all accounts is like the most random Amis ever. I might give Time's Arrow a whirl next. I enjoyed him the most when his English character was mocking the U.S., while still being self-deprecating. Good stuff!

You should get around to The Name of the's not War and Peace or my favorite book ever or anything, but it's worth it, and if you're like I was you probably have eighty-seven college friends who have been telling you to read it for a decade or longer. If nothing else, you can shut them up if you read it.

Styron forever!!!