As a writer one of the most common questions I get is “what do you like to read?” I typically read five to ten books a year. I always like to have a collection of short stories on hand as they serve as great inspiration before writing sessions. In the past I’ve spent many months (in some cases, depending on how thick the volume, over a year) with the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, Ann Beattie, Russell Banks, and Shirley Jackson—all of them short story masters. I feel you really get to know a writer when you settle down for a long tenure with their short stories that are often more varied and daring in topic and plot than their novels or other forms. When it comes to full length books, I tend to lean more towards nonfiction (a habit I picked up from mandatory reading in college) with history and psychology being my favorite topics. When it comes to novels, I like to keep up to speed with the competition and typically read contemporary best sellers or the occasional literary classic.
Below is a run down of what I read during the last twelve months (done in an end of the year awards show fashion).
THE BEST BOOK I READ LAST YEAR Award goes to:
The Great Escape by Kati Marton
Marton’s book is a fascinatingly detailed and lovingly researched look at a group of Hungarian Jews who escaped their homeland just before the Holocaust and went on to do amazing things while living in exile (among them renowned scientists Edward Teller and John Von Neumann, film makers Michael Curtiz and Alexander Korda, photographers Robert Capa and Andre Kertesz, and writer Arthur Koestler). Marton’s vivid descriptions of Budapest during its golden era at the turn of the twentieth century and the harrowing times of fascism that followed make you feel like you were there with these amazing survivors. She shows a great respect for the people and places she depicts. This is a must read for any person of Hungarian heritage and WWII/Holocaust buffs, but also for movie lovers, as it discusses the lives of two of the most influential film makers from that time period; Korda who produced The Third Man and Curtiz who directed Casablanca. It also goes into detail how famed war-photographer Robert Capa’s tortured romance with international movie star Ingrid Bergman inspired Alfred Hitchcock to create the seminal characters for his classic suspense film Rear Window.
THE “INSTEAD OF EARNING MY MASTERS IN PSYCHOLOGY, I READ THIS BOOK” Award goes to:
Whispers: The Voices of Paranoia by Ronald K. Siegel
Whispers is an uncompromised series of case studies involving severely paranoid patients. Due to the fact that many are paranoid from excessive drug use, there’s often a sarcastic, cold, and detached narration to the stories. The descriptions of insect infestation hallucinations are particularly graphic, but also darkly humorous. This is a must read for those studying abnormal psychology.
THE “CROSS-PROMOTIONAL ADS ON THE INTERNET ACTUALLY WORK” Award goes to:
Love & Hate in Jamestown by David A. Price
Love & Hate is a vividly detailed and meticulously researched account of the early years of the Jamestown settlement, the life of John Smith, and the legend of Pocahontas. I came across an add for this while writing my review of Terrence Malick’s movie on the same subject, The New World, on the Internet Movie Database. I had to have it, and loved every interesting tidbit of history and fact it provided.
THE “I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M STILL READING THIS” Award goes to:
The Complete Short Stories of Graham Greene
Best known for his novels (The Quiet American, The End of the Affair, The Power and the Glory) or his film treatment for the The Third Man, Greene was also a master of the short story form. He’s one of my favorite writers and he’s quite astute in discussing religion, politics, spying, bourgeois guilt and ennui, and pragmatic romances. This is a rather large collection, close to 50 stories, and with the reading of about one story a week, it has found what seems like a permanent place on my coffee table. My favorites from the collection are “The Basement Room,” “The Blue Film,” “The Little Place off Edgeware Road,” “The Innocent,” “Across the Bridge,” “A Drive in the Country,” and “Cheap in August.”
THE WORST BOOK I READ LAST YEAR Award goes to:
The Ruins by Scott Smith
The Ruins is disappointing popular fiction of the most abhorrent kind. Don’t get me wrong, Smith is a decent enough writer and this was a page-turner in the sense that he was crafty enough to trick me into thinking this was going to lead somewhere. His tale of a group of college-age pals getting trapped on a hill in the middle of a Mexican hell plays out like Hostel meets Day of the Triffids. And that’s the major problem: this seems more inspired by recent horror movies and films in general than by anything of literary merit. There’s some really gross-out stuff, and some sustained suspense, but it all becomes extremely repetitive, and the characters grow more and more unlikable with each unbelievable twist, and the whole book literally leads nowhere. Nothing is explained. No interesting plot point is explored (even Stephen King would’ve known to make something out of the second mind shaft and where that might’ve lead or given some flashbacks to the archaeologists or some sense of history behind this horrible place), and, hell, there aren’t even any god-damned ruins! Avoid at all costs. It’s worse than the worst Stephen King book, and not half as clever in its central conceit as the recent horribly-written mega-stinker The DaVinci Code.
So what am I reading now? Once I’m done devouring the short stories of Graham Greene, I look forward to stalking the short stories of Kurt Vonnegut (a much slimmer volume). I’m also currently leafing through Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch (yes, the film director). Lynch takes a look at how transcendental meditation has influenced his film making, art, and life in general. I can only recommend it to those with a big interest in meditation (I prefer sleep to meditation), or those who love anything that has to do with the enigmatic Lynch (count me in!) The best line thus far from the book is page 115, Lynch’s one page chapter on the explanation of the box and the key in Mulholland Drive, and I quote “I don’t have a clue what those are.” I laughed out loud for a good minute.