Right now, I am trying to finish three large hissy fits that I just can’t get right, which really pisses me off. So, in an effort to break this brain freeze, I did two things: sprayed the heck out of my roses, and decided to write something about books.
Several of my friends (and friends of friends) have taken a dive at the good ol’ Fifteen Books That Have Changed My Life--They May Not Be The Best Books Ever, But I Will Never Be The Same Again After Reading It. Per usual, I threw my oar (uninvited) into troubled waters, and harshly criticized their choices—especially the books I had never read. Now, I am going to shine a light upon the darkness, lamping the way to a higher and better literacy.
But keeping my choices to “fifteen” will take some doing. So, I am going have fifteen “categories,” as well as alternative suggestions (see above re “cheater”). Please understand I am ready to defend these selections, lo unto death…not my death, exactly…but somebody’s death. Probably my cats’ death.
1. Shoah Literature
The outpouring of history and literature from the Holocaust is important to me, in no small part because I am a German American. There isn’t any way to pick one book to give any kind of a picture of that event. So, cheater that I am, here is my list:
Best in Category
Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved
Best Choice for Book to Read on Shoah, It You Are Only Going to Read One Book (tie)
Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen
A. Anatoli (Kuznetsov), Babi Yar (Uncensored Version)
Mr. Borowski was a Polish writer, imprisoned both in Auschwitz and Dachau. After the war, he returned to Poland, and wrote short stories and poetry. This Way for the Gas is a collection of his short stories about life in Auschwitz.
The problem with most of the casual writings, films, and television programs about the Holocaust is that the inmates are all portrayed as silent, passive victims. What Borowski does is give a truer, more disturbing picture of the camps, showing how the camps were overseen and run by the German and Ukrainian guards, but the individual tasks and work groups were run by selected inmates or “Kapos.” The interrelations between inmates—kapos—guards makes Borowski’s stories especially moving.
Babi Yar is the name of a large ravine in Ukraine, where the Nazis shot hundreds of thousands of people. What few people know is that the Nazis killed significantly more people were by bullets (execution style) than by gas. Babi Yar is a memoir by Mr. Kuznetsov (who used the pen name of A. Anatoli), who was twelve at the time of the 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. This “novel” details his experiences with the Nazis and the Soviets, and what he had to do to survive.
The “uncensored” version is especially interesting, in that when this book was originally printed in the Soviet Union, roughly a quarter of it had been cut by the censors. This edition includes the purged sections in bold face type, revealing both puzzling and obvious choices by the censor. Also included are later comments by Mr. Kuznetsov, as he restored the purged sections, preparing his book for publication in the west.
Honourable Mention (tie)
Simon Wiesenthal, The Sunflower
Jean-Francois Steiner, Treblinka
We know so much about the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps, because those were (in part) large prison factories, so many of those inmates survived the war. Other camps, such as Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec most notably, were “death camps,” in that Jews were sent there to be murdered. Nothing besides murder happened at those camps. Steiner’s book describes the history of Treblinka, and how in 1943 there was an uprising that destroyed the camp.
The Sunflower is an unusual book. The first third of the book is Mr. Wiesenthal recounting an experience he had, as an Auschwitz inmate. One day, he is sent on a work crew to a hospital. A nun pulls Wiesenthal aside, and pushes him into a room with a dying Nazi soldier. The soldier tells Wiesenthal about a mass murder that the soldier participated in, and then asks Wiesenthal to forgive the soldier. Wiesenthal listens, but says nothing. After the war, Wiesenthal tracks down this soldier’s mother, and listens to the mother explain to Wiesenthal what a “good man” her son was. Again, Weisenthal says nothing.
Mr. Weisenthal asks in deciding to say nothing, did he do the right thing? The rest ofThe Sunflower are short essays from fifty-three prominent people from all walks of life, who answer this question. Especially moving for me are the responses from Jean Amery, Primo Levi, and Albert Speer (Speer, in particular).
Books about Germans
Rudolph Hoss, Death Dealer (edited by Steven Paskuly, forward by Primo Levi) (“Bad” Germans Category)
Heinrich Boll, The Stories of Heinrich Boll (“Good”/”Other” Germans Category).
Rudolph Hoss was the Kommandant of Auschwitz from 1940 to 1943. After the war, he was captured by the Poles, and wrote this memoir while in prison. In his foreword, Mr. Levi says “[u]sually when you agree to write a foreword, you do so because you truly care about the book: it’s readable, the literary quality is high, you like or at least admire the author. This book, however, is the extreme opposite.” Per usual, Mr. Levi is absolutely correct. Hoss truly is (in Levi’s words) a “coarse, stupid, arrogant, long-winded scoundrel, who sometimes blatantly lies.” Levi goes on to say “[t]his book . . . is the autobiography of a man who was not a monster and who never became one.” Reading this book is shocking, in that it is a vivid picture of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” Hoss’s self-portrait is all the more horrific, to the extent his lies and self-justifications are so ridiculous, he is so delusional as not see how he contradicts himself.
Heinrich Boll’s Stories will probably be a more personal than a popular choice—meaning that I like this book more than other people will. Mr. Boll’s stories take place in Germany after the war, focusing on the physical and psychological struggles of the German people, trying to decide who and what they are, post Third Reich.
Ellie Wiesel, The Night Trilogy
I am not saying that Night, Dawn, and The Accident are “bad”—I am saying, though, that for all the acclaim that Mr. Wiesel has received (especially for Night), there are many better books out there. In addition to the ones I’ve mentioned, I’ll give a special shout out to Sara Nomberg-Przytyk’s Auschwitz, True Tales from a Grotesque Land.
2. The “Huh?” Award
Herman Wouk, The City Boy
3. Poetry Corner
Charles Bukowski, War All the Time
don marquis, the lives and times of archy and mehitabel
I have no sense of rhythm. None whatsoever. Additionally, I am wholly and completely unable to sing. Consequently, poetry as a rule means nothing to me. I just don’t get it. So I like “fake poetry.”
don marquis’s archy is a cockroach who “typed” blank verse by jumping off the top of a typewriter, and landing head first on the appropriate key. mehitabel is a stray cat, who became a friend of archy’s. archy insists that in a prior life, he was a “vers libre bard” who died, and now his soul inhabits the body of a cockroach. The poems are archy’s comments on life and the happenings of other insects and animals that inhabit his world.
4. Freakishly Good Writing Award
Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools
O. Henry, The Complete Short Stories
Everybody in junior high has had to struggle through an O. Henry story, usually “The Gift of the Magi,” which has become an unfortunate, tired cliché. But Sidney Porter’s (O. Henry was his pen name) use of language and humour is tight and still holds up well—especially if you like that old-timey language (if you don’t, then go make up your own list of books).
Ship of Fools is one of the most amazing books I have ever read, in that I really enjoyed the book, but disliked every character. All of them. I still have no idea how Ms. Porter can write a novel—a great novel--without a single likeable person.
5. Columbians Who Won the Nobel Prize for Literature Magical Realism Award
Public: 100 Years of Solitude
Personal: Autumn of the Patriarch
MANY people pick 100 Years of Solitude as one of the best books ever, mainly because it is. Still, I really enjoy Autumn of the Patriarch. A difficult read, Patriarch is written in almost pure stream of consciousness, with little to no punctuation. Ordinarily, I hate that. But when you’re Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you can make it work and work well.
6. Oregon, Capital of the Universe Award
Public: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Personal: Sometimes a Great Notion
Cuckoo’s Nest gained considerable popularity after the excellent 1975 film. The story takes place in a mental hospital, but the film focuses on Randale McMurphy, the Jack Nicholson character. The book, on the other hand, is narrated by Chief, the large Native American who pretends to be deaf and dumb. Despite the change of focus, the film is very faithful to the book, but the book also deals with Chief’s hallucinations and real mental health problems.
Sometimes a Great Notion is about a family of loggers, living next to a meandering river. A friend told me he thought Kesey wanted to write a novel that also meandered, like the river did. I agree with him--but he didn’t like the book, while I did. In this novel, Kesey deliberately breaks all the rules of writtin’ that your English teacher tried (in vain) to pound in your head. But Kesey writes well enough so you can still follow the story, even when he changes speakers in the middle of a paragraph, without saying so.
7. Special Award for Being Extra Special
P.G. Wodehouse, The Jeeves Omnibus, Volumes 1-5.
8. Jury Prize Award Because Book Does Not Fit in any Category
Grateful Dead Anthology, Volume I
As mentioned above, I have no sense of rhythm but do have a tin ear. Nevertheless, I bought a tenor saxamophone (c.f. Homer Simpson) off E-Bay, and am teaching myself how to play it. Anthology is a sheet music collection of Grateful Dead songs, from their early albums through Shakedown Street, in p/v/g (piano, vocal, guitar) format. Now, I KNOW this music is written in the key of C, and a tenor sax plays in B flat, and I’m just as likely to transpose straw into gold as I am keys in music—but so what? I play the vocal line as written, and what comes out the bell of my sax just plain works.
9. Liberalism Award for Showing Liberalism is Not Just a Good Idea
Salmon Rushdie, The Satanic Verses
This story flips back and forth between the present day and the seventh century. The Koran has been dictated by god to Mohamed, but there are some verses that are contradictory. Those verses can’t have been from god—therefore, SATAN must have pretended to be god, and sent those particular verses to Mohamed.
This book wins the Liberalism Award, because if you think Satanic Verses should be banned, then you are an asshole.
10. Still Underrated Despite Wild Acclaim Award
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5
All too often, Kurt Vonnegut is dismissed as one of those authors you read in high school, and then leave behind—kind of like Archie comics. I am ready to fight about this one, because I think Slaughterhouse 5 is one of the best novels in the English language. A “memoir” of sorts, the story vaguely follows Mr. Vonnegut’s experience as a POW and resident of Dresden when that city was bombed during World War II. The book also involves getting unstuck in time and travel to another planet. What makes this book so powerful is the language is deceptively simple. The writing is masterful, and wicked funny.
11. The “Jesus H. Christ, Can’t You Count?” Award
Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy
12. The Russian Award Because the Russians Deserve Awards
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (Pre-Soviet era)
Mihael Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (Soviet era)
Mr. Richard Pevear and Ms. Larissa Volokhonsky have translated editions of both of these books. Read those translations.
Elliot Rosewater, one of Kurt Vonnegut’s characters, says “Everything you need to know about life is in The Brothers Karamazov—but damn it! It’s just not enough.” He’s right. Arthur Miller, the playwright, was a mediocre student, and was all set to live out his life in a mediocre career, when he read Karamazov, thinking it was a murder mystery. After reading it, Mr. Miller decided to become a writer. The book is that good. If you don’t want to tackle such a fat book with a million characters (and each character has like four different names), the two chapters “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor” make an excellent, stand alone story.
Master is another magical realism novel, taking place during the bad old days of Stalinism prior to the Second World War. During a crazy, insincere time, the Devil with a small entourage appears in Moscow, leaving a wake of chaos behind them.
13. The Atomic Bomb Award
Richard Rhodes’s Atomic Bomb trilogy (The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Dark Sun,Arsenals of Folly)
Thomas Power, Heisenberg’s War
Heisenberg’s War is the story of Werner Heisenberg’s activity during World War II. The preeminent physicist of that day, Heisenberg refused to leave Nazi Germany prior to the war. There is a hot controversy in some circles (small circles, granted) that Heisenberg stayed in Germany to assist the Nazis by trying to build a German Atomic Bomb. Mr. Powers tells an entertaining and ultimately convincing (well, he convinced me) tale that Heisenberg had the opportunity to try to develop such a bomb, and chose not to do so. History schmistory, the book’s just a great read.
14. Philosophy Award for Philosophy
(four way-way tie)
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power (Walter Kaufman, Ed.)
Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man, Immoral Society
James Burke, The Day the Universe Changed
Plato, "Euthyphro," "Apology," "Crito," and "Phaedo"
“Philosophy” means your explanation of your world, and how it works. While there are more complete explanations of the working of the world (Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Einstein’s Relativity, and Penrose’s The Road to Reality), these four have special meaning for me.
The Will to Power is a collection of Nietzsche meditations, focusing on first on how nihilism is the highest value, and then goes on to discuss religion, morality, and society. He is dense (not in the bad way), but convincing.
The Day the Universe Changed is a fun book to read. James Burke travels through history, highlighting specific points where our understanding of the universe “changed” as the result of a new discovery. His discussion of the developments that led up to Darwin publishingOn the Origin of Species and the aftermath of its publication are especially entertaining.
I have considerable reservations adding Plato to this mix. The last half dozen philosophy majors I met all identified themselves as Platonists (which is fine), but when I told them I was a Left Hegelian who loved Philosophy of Right, they made awful faces at me. Yes, I AM just another old, leftwing crank, thank you very much. But Plato gets the edge over Hegel for these four dialogues on the trial and death of Socrates. "Phaedo," in particular, erased my fear of death.
15. Human Rights Award
Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn B. Young (eds), Bombing Civilians, A Twentieth Century History
Bombing Civilians is a collection of articles about how war has changed. Prior to the development of the airplane, “war” was limited to armies attacking each other. Attacks on non-soldiers ie civilians was considered a war crime, and banned by international treaty. After the First World War, the definition of “military targets” broadened to the point that wholesale bombing of civilians and civilian targets became acceptable. This book is especially important, in light of America’s invasions of other nations (Panama and Iraq, for example), and what White House apparatchiks will call “military targets.”
15. (Shut up) Book Only a Mother Could Love
Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again
Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia
One of my favorite things is listening to post-Gen Xers complain about Ecotopia. Written in 1975, the premise is Washington, Oregon, and Northern California obtained “the” atomic bomb, seceded from the Union, and set up their own ecologically focused nation called “Ecotopia.” The book is written in the style of Thomas Moore’sUtopia and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, only much worse. The writing is wooden, the characters idiotic, and the book has a 1970s version of “feminism” that’s almost shockingly stupid. Still, this book (in its own way) was a tremendous inspiration for the environmental movement, along with Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring and Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang.
15. (Oh, so what) Great Because They Are Great Award
Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
Bill Watterson, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes (3 volumes)
Lenny Bruce, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People
Oh, just forget it……
Anyone who bans Huckleberry Finn needs the mother of all ass kickings. Mark Twain deserves his place as one of the most revered American writers, and Huck Finn is just a great read. People who attack this book for its portrayal of African Americans do not know how to read. Huck is a pre-civil war Southerner, and sees Jim not as a fellow human being, but as property. Huck is genuinely surprised to see that Jim is crying, because Jim misses his family. Huck didn’t realize slaves could develop strong emotional attachments to family. Later, when Jim and Huck are confronted by slave catchers hunting for Jim, Huck decides to turn “abolitionist” and not turn Jim in—even though in Huck’s mind, Huck is condemning himself to eternal damnation. Now I’m getting all mad. Moving on……
There’s a reason Sherlock Holmes is arguably the most famous fictional character ever: the stories are great. The Sign of the Four just happens to be my personal favorite. It’s also a tribute to Doyle’s writing that such a notorious dope fiend was still considered a model for school children, even during America’s most puritanical times.
Gulliver’s Travels is one of the few (very few, including Don Quixote and The Canterbury Tales. If you have not read “The Miller’s Tale,” READ IT! It is the BEST dirty story EVER. It is DIRTY DIRTY DIRTY! Hilarious too) books that schools make kids read that is a worthwhile read. I still laugh out loud reading it.
If you have to ask about Calvin and Hobbes, then there is nothing I can tell you.
I can’t get any of the hip hop happening groovy cats from Nowsville to read Lenny Bruce, eitherHow To (his “autobiography”) or The Essential Lenny Bruce. The problem with controversial “comedians” like Andrew Dice Clay is that they are just not funny. Whatever else he was, and god knows he was a lot of things, Lenny Bruce was funny. Nunca te olvidamos Lenny. You died for our sins.
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You had no idea I was such a cheater, didn’t you? As always, comments and/or personal attacks are encouraged.