Thursday, April 25, 2013

book nerdery

ADVISORY TO G-VO:  Skip #8 and #10, since you might read those books at some point.

A blog buddy recently wrote an entry in which he talked about how he discovered his favorite books, and I'm shamelessly stealing his idea.  Just try and prosecute me, bro!

I'll start with a brief synopsis of the book and then talk about how I discovered it.  Aside from the first book on this list, these aren't in preferential order.

1. As Meat Loves Salt by Maria Mc Cann:  Yeah, yeah, I push this book on everyone, but there’s a reason for that.  It’s about Jacob Cullen, a disturbed young man who flees home and winds up joining Cromwell’s army, where he becomes obsessed with a fellow soldier named Ferris.  Sumptuous descriptions, vivid characterizations, some scorchingly erotic scenes, and an emotionally devastating climax all add up to make this the best book I’ve ever read, which is really saying something considering just how MUCH I read.  What astounds me the most about this novel is that even though Jacob does some truly horrible things, I still cared about him and I honestly wanted him to be happy.  I reread this book once a year and it still gets me every time.

The way I discovered this book is pretty embarrassing, but I love you so I'll tell you anyway.  I was seriously obsessed with the Lord of the Rings movies, and I spent an inordinate amount of time looking at Aragorn/Legolas slashfic.  (My current fave slash couple is Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, aka the Science Bros.  Mark Ruffalo, upon hearing about this pairing, had a completely awesome response to it, thus validating the crush I've had on him since You Can Count on Me.)  I was reading a LiveJournal entry by one of my favorite A/L writers, and she asked what everybody's favorite gay themed book was.  Somebody recommended As Meat Loves Salt, and it sounded interesting, so I got it from the library and was instantly hooked.  I remember reading it in the break room at work, and I got to a particularly important part near the end, but I had to return to my desk.  But I absolutely couldn't concentrate, so I hid the book in a huge stack of folders and pretended that I had to run to the copy room.  Instead, I hid in a bathroom stall and finished the last 25 or so pages.  When I was done, I just sat there for another ten minutes, completely drained.  (I mean emotionally, though I'm sure I did take at least one whiz as long as I was sitting there.)  I reread it every year and it still gets me every single time.

2. The End of Alice by A.M. Homes:  A jailed pedophile starts getting letters from a young woman who shares similar compulsions, and their correspondence causes him to look back on the events that put him behind bars.  You don’t find out the full extent of his crimes until the last few chapters, and to put it mildly, it’s a doozy.  This is one of the most disturbing, uncomfortable books I’ve ever read, yet it still makes my top ten.  Why?  Because the writing, when it’s not splashing about in Grand Guignol excesses, is almost lyrically beautiful.  I didn’t read Lolita until long after I’d read The End of Alice, but Nabokov’s influence (puns, taking delight in the way certain words sound and fit together) is clear. 

I was still living in Minnesota when I discovered this book in the new fiction section of the library.  I was sitting in the recliner reading it, my cat Sprite snoozing on my lap, and I exclaimed in horror at one particular scene, scaring the fuck out of Sprite and getting a thighful of claws for my rudeness.

3. The Devil of Nanking by Mo Hayder:  A troubled young woman, obsessed with the Japanese atrocities committed against the Chinese during the Rape of Nanking, goes to Tokyo in search of an elderly Nanking survivor.  She makes some dangerous friends and even more dangerous enemies, all of whom are determined to get their hands on a mysterious elixir.  I don’t usually get frightened by books, but there are some scenes in this one that literally made the hair on the back of my neck stand up.  However, anyone who dismisses this as just another thriller is sorely mistaken, because the ending packs a powerhouse punch that left me in tears.  (Note:  Outside of the North American market, this book is published under its original title, Tokyo, which is craptacular because it sounds more like a travel guide.)

I'd read Mo Hayder's previous books, Birdman and The Treatment, before reading this one, so she was already an established favorite of mine.  I can't wait for Poppet, which comes out next month.

4. The Green Mile by Stephen King:  In 1935, an enormous black man named John Coffey is brought to death row after being convicted of raping and killing two little girls.  A prison guard named Paul Edgecombe starts to suspect that John is innocent after witnessing what can only be described as miracles.

I’ll admit that part of the reason I love this book so much stems from the circumstances under which I first read it.  Stephen King decided to publish it in serial form, releasing a volume (each one consisting of about 100-150 pages) every month until it was finished.  My mom and I, both longtime King fans, eagerly awaited each new release, and I can still remember our outraged screams over one major cliffhanger.  Anyway, that’s not the only reason I love this book; I also love it for its rich characters and its exploration of miracles both big and small.  It’s true that Stephen King has written more than his fair share of tripe over the years, but this is an example of what he can produce when he really puts his mind to it.

5. Dark Hollow by John Connolly:  This is the first book of Connolly’s that I read, and it remains my favorite.  Charlie Parker, the private investigator who’s the central character in almost all of Connolly’s novels, is asked to find a woman’s ex-husband and get him to pay child support.  But then the woman and her little boy are killed, and Charlie, who lost his wife and daughter to a vicious murderer, is determined to track down the culprit.  He’s assisted in his quest by his friends Louis and Angel, two morally ambiguous and decidedly gay hitmen, who get some priceless dialogue.  It’s a riveting thriller, dark and sad at its core, but not without redemption. 

Shortly after moving back to California, I was visiting the library near work and noticed this on the shelf.  After reading the inside cover, I checked it out and was very damn glad I did.

6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling:  I was a latecomer to the whole Harry Potter phenomenon, but a friend insisted that I would love the books, so I grudgingly picked the first one up...and I didn’t put it down, except to pee, until I was finished. 

7. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling:  My favorite of the series so far, thanks to its unbeatable combination of magic, mayhem, tragedy, humor, and adolescent angst.  Of course, I picked this up because I was already a fan by that point.

8. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn:  On her wedding anniversary, Amy Dunne disappears, and her husband Nick is suspected of having some part in it.  That's all I'm going to say about it.

I was already a fan of Flynn's; her debut novel Sharp Objects was one of my ten favorite books of all time until this one replaced it in my affections.  Dark Places is also excellent.  Goddamn it, Gillian Flynn, y u so talented?!?

9. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber:  Set in 19th century England, this book follows a young prostitute named Sugar as she struggles to survive and then finds herself the paid plaything of a wealthy man.  This sprawling novel took the author twenty years to research and write, and it shows; the descriptions are gorgeous, and my attention never wavered, even though the book is almost one thousand pages long.

I don't remember for certain, but I think I was driven to read this by a positive review in Entertainment Weekly, which is where I get most of my book and movie recommendations. 

10. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell:  Ava Bigtree is having a really rough adolescence:  her mother dies, her family's tacky alligator tourist attraction begins to go under, and her father and brother defect to the mainland in search of other employment.  Ava is left alone in the swamp with dozens of alligators and her dreamy older sister Ossie, who believes she can communicate with ghosts.  When Ossie disappears, leaving behind a note in which she claims to have eloped with one of the ghosts, Ava sets out on a perilous journey to rescue her.  Filled with gorgeous descriptions and thought-provoking lines, I couldn't stop thinking about it long after I'd finished it.  I'd never read anything quite like it before, and I doubt I ever will again.  One caveat: be sure to have a dictionary (or handy while reading.  I pride myself on having a decent vocabulary, and I came across at least a dozen words I didn't know.

This was another Entertainment Weekly recommendation.  It was also nominated for a Pulitzer, but they wound up not awarding a fiction prize in 2012.