A few weeks ago the Missus and I had a couple friends over for homemade sangria and barbecue. Awesome night - the food was good, the conversation and sangria were great, I was suckered into having some absinthe with Indie Maven Sean, and much Wii was played (the pictures are blurry but still hilarious). Victoria is young, about 13 years younger than me to be exact, and she's at that great age (22) where the world of literature opens up and you begin to discover things outside of school assignments. So when she mentioned to me that she had started reading Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which happens to be one of my Shelf of Fame books, I squealed like a schoolgirl. The discussion jumped back and forth between the lot of us, and eventually the words I've always wanted to hear from a beautiful 22 year old woman escaped from her lips:
"Could you make a list of some other great books you'd recommend?"
Hey, I'm happily married and closer to 40 than 30...what'd you think she was going to say?
So I poured over my library, and out of the 104 books currently tagged as "Shelf of Fame" I came up with 25 modern novels that I'd personally recommend, not only to Victoria but to anyone. These aren't my 25 favorite novels (although some are), they're just 25 random selections, all novels, all written after 1938 (the date of the oldest book in this particular list). In alphabetical order by author:
1. Edward Abbey - The Monkey Wrench Gang: Anarchy and sabotage in the name of the environment, this is a classic comic novel about a a Vietnam vet who returns home to find his beloved landscapes being decimated by greedy developers. Banding together a crew of misfits he wages war against the forces of industry. A wonderful "satire" that closely echoed Abbey's view of the wilderness.
2. Nicholson Baker - The Fermata: Nicholson Baker takes mine and millions of other boys' chief adolescent fantasy - the ability to freeze time - and turns it on its head as a beautifully written study of our need for intimacy and the curious minutia of our lives that can only be examined by looking closer.
3. Ray Bradbury - Dandelion Wine: This is the novel of my childhood. When I was alone, sitting under the giant weeping willow in my backyard, reading comics and watching the clouds (yeah, I did that stuff). Bradbury takes the ordinary and through the eyes of youth makes magic.
4. Mikhail Bulgakov - The Master and Margarita: On the surface? Satan comes to Moscow in the 1930's to visit a man writing a book about Pontius Pilate. Deeper? A scathing attack on Stalinist Russia, a novel-within-a-novel slice of meta fiction, and a wonderful look at the darkly comic soul of Russian literature.
5. Italo Calvino - If On a Winter's Night a Traveler: More meta fiction courtesy of one of Italy's best writers. A curious cousin to A.S. Byatt's Possession, this is the story of a reader trying to read the novel "If On A Winter's Night a Traveler, only to find his copy contains nothing but the first chapter. It goes on from there to explore the nature of reading and writing, and has romance to boot.
6. Truman Capote - In Cold Blood: No film adaptation has come close to capturing how incredible this account of the Kansas slayings of the Clutter family in 1959 is. A singular work of narrative nonfiction, this changed the face of investigative writing forever. Even more incredible when you consider it's from the same guy who wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's.
7. Don DeLillo - White Noise: An "airborne toxic event" hits a small town in Middle America, but that's just the easy explanation for the symptoms of technology and media buzz that is slowly eroding away the secrets and feelings that work to both reinforce and tear down our relationships with one another. It's hard to pin down this novel in easy synopsis, but by all measures a modern classic.
8. Mark Dunn - Ella Minnow Pea: I unabashedly love this book. Ella fights the tyranny of her small island as, slowly, letters begin to be banned from use. As the novel progresses, Dunn does away with each of the letters as they are banned, and you're left with both a wonderful ode to words and a defense of our freedom of expression.
9. Harlan Ellision - Deathbird Stories: This is the book that completely flipped my lid in college. A collection of short stories about the new Gods we create out of our desperation and need, it only appears to be science fiction. "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" roars at a nation living by the credo of "don't get involved" and the title story forces you to re-evaluate your beliefs in everything. But that's just me.
10. John Irving - A Prayer for Owen Meany: Childhood, faith, war, friendship, this book covers everything and evokes so much I can never do it justice. One of my all-time favorite novels, I'll leave with the tag on the cover: "Owen Meany, the only child of a new Hampshire granite quarrier, believes he is God's instrument; he is."
11. Jack Kerouac - On the Road: It may be cliche, but there's a reason On the Road is so popular. It taps into something primal, something embedded in the soul of every 20-something yearning to break free from whatever ties them to their old identities. And if you can swing it, I definitely recommend the Original Scroll over the popular published version.
12. Jonathan Lethem - As She Climbed Across the Table: Here starts the authors where anything would be a great recommendation. I picked up of Lethem just as his first novel was published and have followed him ever since. He has better novels (Motherless Brooklyn, Fortress of Solitude), but this was the novel that pushed him from "good" to "essential" for me. Guy loves Girl, but Girl is in love with "Lack" an engineered black hole that begins to develop a personality. How do you compete with something that, by definition, is less than nothing?
13. Norman Mailer - The Executioner's Song: Oh man, Mailer is such a frickin' giant I could easily point out half a dozen that would fit here. But The Executioner's Song holds a special place in my heart as the spiritual partner to In Cold Blood and as the book that kept me company during a particularly harsh and lonely winter.
14. James Morrow - Towing Jehovah: God is dead. His two-mile long body lies in the ocean, and the Vatican charges disgraced oil tanker captain to tow the deity to His final resting place in the Arctic. Morrow ties dozens of ideas and ramifications into this first part of a trilogy of novels dealing with the death of God and, oddly, left me feeling more buoyed in my faith. Dunno if that was the point, but there you go.
15. Haruki Murakami - Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World: This could be any Murakami novel. Every novel and short story collection is a gift, and you can't go wrong with anything. I chose this over The Wind Up Bird Chronicle for two reasons: it's shorter, and it captures all the major themes, patterns, and wonder that Murakami demonstrates in his writing. For short fiction After the Quake is delicate and perfect.
16. Vladimir Nabokov - Lolita: Still wickedly subversive, still a sterling example of what language is capable of, this is one of those novels where the conceit (man falls in love with 12-year old girl) is so well known that you think you know what the novel's about. Yes, it's about that, but it's so much more.
17. Ayn Rand - Atlas Shrugged: I read that this is one the most influential books of the 20th century, after the Bible. As much as it is a manifesto of Rand's Objectivism philosophy, it's also a powerful novel about what happens when the movers of the world decide to suddenly stop it. "Who is John Galt?" has become one of the most famous questions in literature, and this massive book encompasses that answer and so much more.
18. Tom Robbins - Even Cowgirls Get the Blues: Please don't pass this up because you saw the less-than-stellar adaptation by Gus Van Sant. This is an incredible novel about love, freedom, and hitchhiking with enormous thumbs. It's also Robbins playing with language in such a way you find yourself re-reading paragraphs just to savor the words on the page.
19. Philip Roth - The Counterlife: In truth, you should read Goodbye, Columbus and Portnoy's Complaint first to get the "essence" of Roth's work. When you get done with that (both are Shelf of Fame books for me), come back and read this inventive novel of changing identities, love, sex, and all the things Roth obsesses over in his novels.
20. Jose Saramago - Blindness: A city is gripped by an unexplained epidemic that is causing everyone to go blind, except that instead of darkness they see nothing but a piercing white light. Saramago uses this premise as an acute examination of human nature and the potential collapse of our various systems that sustain us. Following a woman who feigns the disease to accompany her husband, Saramago presents the reader with every facet of the human condition. His greatest work.
21. Hunter S. Thompson - Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: An easy pick to be sure, for all the same reasons On the Road was an easy pick. But Fear and Loathing taps into the same things Kerouac's novel does, but with a smirk and a wink and sets the standard for the "gonzo" journalism that's the rage now.
22. John Kennedy Toole - A Confederacy of Dunces: A modern Don Quixote railing against the modern windmills of our age, a beautifully realized character on the page and a series of comic misadventures, this is a genre of writing all too rarely executed with this type of precision. Toole's tragic suicide and the the subsequent posthumous publication of this novel adds an additional level to the already towering figure of Ignatius J. Reilly.
23. Kurt Vonnegut - Cat's Cradle: Another one of those "pick any book" authors. Everything Vonnegut does is magical, and this novel maybe best captures all the best things about him. Really, to go on any more would be pointless - just read everything, and that includes Player Piano, which is admittedly merely "good."
24. David Foster Wallace - Infinite Jest: This is almost as much a challenge as it is a recommendation. Wade through the 1,000+ pages (over 100 of which are footnotes) of life on the junior tennis circuit, addiction in all its forms, a videotape so funny it kills you after you watch it, and a future where each year has a corporate sponsor (e.g. The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment). Foster creates a narrative so immense, so labyrinthine (is that even a word?) you happily get lost. Not for the faint of heart or easily tired. This book is B-I-G.
25. Jeanette Winterson - The Passion: Few authors can weave such exquisite tales of the nature and complication of love like Jeanette Winterson can. The Passion is a love story between Napoleon's cook and a pickpocket with webbed feet. Like all her novels, it's rich in its use of meter and imagery and a light breath of air.
There you go. This could easily have been a list of 50 or even 100, but somewhere in this list of 25 novels is something I think you'll grow to love. Anyone with additional recommendations please let me know
And just because it took so damn long to crop and resize all those pictures: