Archive | October, 2013

Interlude 1: Three new lines from Simone.

31 Oct


Simone: Daddy, do you know what my favorite Thanksgiving book is?

Me: Um, no.

Simone (grinning): It’s Squanto . . . and the Butt-fellow.


Me: Come did Daddy a hug and a kiss, I have to go to work.

Simone: No. I won’t. Because I’m a witch, and I’m magic!


Simone: Daddy, my oatmeal tastes delicious. (pause) Your oatmeal tastes like stinky, old butt-poop.

National Book Award winners, part 13: 1960’s Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth.

28 Oct

(I’m falling behind with the writing of these. Must redouble my efforts.)

In 1960, Philip Roth won the National Book Award for Goodbye, Columbus, a novella with five short stories. It’s a very, very, very fine book, his first, and the beginning of an immense, in many ways unparalleled, literary career.

He beat out many established authors, including Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, Louis Auchincloss, John Hersey, Shirley Jackson, Robert Penn Warren and John Updike. Roth was just 26.

The title novella follows two young people falling in and then out of love. It’s a superb piece of work, fun to read and funny, heart-breaking, evocative, precise in its descriptions and insights. It captures the plunging experience of first love and the dulling realization of that first love’s inadequacies.

The magic of the novella is that the narrator knows he doesn’t want to marry this woman, but he can’t quite admit it to himself. So he gets to play the victim in his own thoughts, even as he works to sabotage the relationship he says he’s trying to save. It’s a remarkable trick, capturing this contradictory impulse in a way that is subtle, convincing, often funny yet melancholic.

Philip Roth's first novel and it's very, very good.

Philip Roth’s first novel and it’s very, very good.

The short stories are all strong. “The Conversion of the Jews” follows a young boy at a Jewish school who keeps getting punished for pointing out inconsistencies in his rabbi-teacher’s thinking. “Defender of the Faith” follows a Jewish lieutenant who begins to despise the petty manipulations of a Jewish enlistee underneath him; he begins to actively work against the enlisted man. Both are great. The other three are fine, too, if a little weaker.

He can flat-out write. Here he is, describing the parent’s house of the narrator’s love interest:


The basement had a different kind of coolness from the house, and it had a smell, which was something the upstairs was totally without. It felt cavernous down there, but in a comforting way, like the simulation caves children make for themselves on rainy days, in hall closets, under blankets, or in between the legs of dining room tables. I flipped on the light at the foot of the stairs and was not surprised at the pine paneling, the bamboo furniture, the ping-pong table, and the mirrored bar that was stocked with every kind and size of glass, ice bucket, decanter, mixer, swizzle stick, shot glass, pretzel bowl—all the bacchanalian paraphernalia, plentiful, orderly and untouched, as it can be only in the bar of a wealthy man who never entertains drinking people, who himself does not like to drink, who, in fact, gets a fishy look from his wife when every several months he takes a shot of schnapps before dinner.


Evocative and punchy, but also insightful, hinging on that phrase “was not surprised,” that reveals all the nastiness the narrator hasn’t admitted to himself. Masterful.


My praise doesn’t come lightly. I’ve (mostly) avoided Roth for a number of reasons.

  1. He has an immense body of work, with no easy entry point.
  2. I felt immensely letdown by The Prague Orgy, one of the Zuckerman novels. The blurbs on the back all praised it.
  3. Roth is a mercurial writer who often engages in meta-fictional tomfoolery. His particular brand is the blurring between his fiction and his life. I’m not a huge fan of the narcissistic school of fiction, where every novel is just another chapter in the author’s actual life (this includes Tom Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, etc.), only augmented with the tools of the novelist.
  4. Roth’s mid-90s novels—The Human Stain, American Pastoral among them, the novels everyone praises so much—left me cold when I tried to read them.
  5. Portnoy’s Complaint is brilliant, hilarious, and wonderful . . . until it isn’t. Something about the novel breaks down—his defenders would say the narrative fractures to mirror the fractured psyche of the fragile narrator—and near the end it’s a hot mess. I read this first, and felt I understood Roth, and rightly or wrongly, that he held no future surprises.


But for a serious reader of American fiction, Philip Roth has to be read and considered. This is a difficult task. I must put my misgivings aside.

Roth, like Cheever, Salinger or Mailer, is as much a brand as an author. He used his personal life so well and so often—the divorces, the criticism, the controversies, and so on—that it’s tough to separate the author from the work.

And partially because of this, Roth’s body of work is difficult to digest. He’s published some 27 novels. He’s won numerous awards. He’s big-hearted, funny, yet cutting and vicious, satirical, diamond-edged. His writing is (almost) always clear, often beautiful.

Roth does everything great writers do—he’s intriguing, tough-minded, probing, insightful, ambiguous about the right things. He carries righteous anger and empathetic love side by side for his characters.

He remains a potent force in American fiction. He has a handful of big themes—sex, assimilation, aging, death—alongside his big issue, the plight, rigor, strength, and neuroses of the Jewish-American. He’s pungent on the issue. After his early success, he was accused by Jewish intellectuals of providing ammunition to anti-Semitic forces. He then looped this response to his work back into his fiction, detailing Jewish writers struggling with this exact same criticism. He inserted himself into novels, or a facsimile of himself. The meta-fictional games are wearying, childish even, and others do it better. (They probably reached their zenith in John Barth’s Chimera.)

He isn’t for everyone. He presides over a small patch of turf. His reputation has protected some of his weaker novels. His Zuckerman novels are, almost to a volume, overrated. He draws much of his great power from his authorial solipsism, narrative arrogance. He isn’t quite as wild as his reputation. His defenders are an earnest, hyperbolic bunch. He has experimented far less than it seems; he’s the literati’s equivalent of Stephen King. He takes less chances than many of his colleagues and there’s some essential middle brow nugget—he’d hate this description—marbled into the bulk of his work.

In the end, he’s always good but rarely great.


1960 was an intriguing year for fiction.

William Burroughs published his (extremely overrated) Naked Lunch. Saul Bellow released Henderson the Rain King (see my thoughts on Bellow here). Richard Condon put out his insane, and deranged Cold War novel The Manchurian Candidate. John Knowles published that school-curriculum mainstay, A Separate Peace. Shirley Jackson (who rules!) put out the very scary, very fine The Haunting of Hill House. Terry Southern—one of the wildmen of literature, but also a bit of a continuous misfire, who never quite lived up to his reputation—released the bizarre The Magic Christian. Kurt Vonnegut published The Sirens of Titan, one of his more traditional science fiction novels. Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Robert Heinlein all released novels. Over in England, Keith Waterhouse and Alan Silitoe each put out their defining works, Billy Liar and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, respectively. And way over in Germany, Gunter Grass published one of the major post-war German novels, The Tin Drum.

A good year for literature all around.

And in theatre! My god, Brecht, Sartre, Albee, Williams, Camus, Pinter, Beckett, Genet and Ionesco all published major plays[1].

[1] Maybe I should be writing about drama instead.

Interlude 3: A child in the 80s. Eighties fantasia.

24 Oct

(Back in the submitting game. In an odd twist of coincidence, the very day I dropped new manuscripts in the mail, I received a rejection for a manuscript that had been out so long I forgot I had submitted it. Weird. The sting has lessened with time, but there’s always a touch of despair. In other news, the pneumonia is gone, but the whole household is suffering from some type of collective nausea.)

On a lark, I was looking for the genesis of the slew of sword and sorcery fantasy movies released in the eighties. I didn’t really find an answer. Was it an escape from the late-stage Cold War? A retreat from the ruin, decay, entropy on such large-scale display in America’s rust belt cities? An on-screen manifestation of the inflation, boom-bust Thatcher/Reagan era economics? Was it the smell of cold hard cash?

The 1990s were weak; the rise of the internet brought with it new science fiction and an onslought of cyber-directed movies. In the fantasy world, Army of Darkness is the best of the decade, with The City of Lost Children a very close second. Dragonheart is watchable, the rest mostly doggerel.

Things were better in the oughts: the movie on everyone’s best-of list, Spirited Away; the genre-defining epic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings; Del Toro’s fun-time take on Hellboy, and even better Spanish civil war horror movie, Pan’s Labyrinth; the Manichean epic, Nightwatch (the second part is a major letdown); The Fall, a very fine re-imagining, of sorts, of Baron Munchausen; the excellent Kung Fu Hustle; the remarkable, fabulous The Secret of the Kells, a story of scriptorium monks facing a Viking apocalypse; Coraline, a very fine horror-fantasy that starts slow and builds to a nightmare intensity; and all those comic book adaptations, which by now should be considered its own genre.

Still, the big spectacles of the 2000s deprived the genre of its best asset: charm. The sets, costumes, makeup, the real horses, the stark landscapes of Croatia and Southern Italy and so on, these were rich and fertile soil for the imagination to thrive. The rickety sets matched the subject matter. There’s something off-putting, and charmless, about the immensity of the spectacle trying to capture pre-digital worlds.

The 1980s were better at marbling fantasy into other genres. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Brazil, and Ghostbusters are all great examples. The 1980s were also better at capturing the dream logic of children. As fantasies tried to cater to adults, becoming more explicit in their violence and more realistic in their special effects, they lost the very thing that makes a good fantasy so terrifying: the human capacity to fill in the blanks.

Some great films:

Conan the Barbarian—Slave becomes a destroyer of empires. Remove the succubus scene, whittle down a few others, and you have a superb movie.

Raiders of the Lost Ark—Muscular nerd-archeologist bests the Nazis in Northern Africa. A gleeful blast of retro-serial smash and grab adventure, with an impossible plot and oddly affecting moral rectitude.

Time Bandits—A band of time-traveling little people ensnare a little boy as they steal a map of the cosmos from the devil. Spectacularly weird entertainment for adults and children alike.

The Dark Crystal—A personal, mystical, wondrously odd fable of ancient races battling it out on a surreal planet with multiple suns.

A great eighties fantasy. With puppets.

A great eighties fantasy. With puppets.

Ghostbusters—A supernatural comedy that still works, and a great New York movie.

The Never-Ending Story—Superb, imaginative, and for the most part still beautiful to look at.

Brazil—Gilliam’s third best film—behind Twelve Monkeys and Time Bandits—a bizarre mashup of dystopian satire and visual slapstick. The last ten minutes will give you nightmares.

Ladyhawke—Somber, serious, the story of two lovers doomed to forever be almost-within-reach by a fallen priest.

Legend—Ridley Scott’s very fine kids’ movie, about a teenage knight, the last unicorn, and a trio of goblins who inadvertently raise the devil. Fabulous costumes and set design.

Labyrinth—One of the great children’s fantasies, about a teenage girl who wishes her brother into the hands of the goblin king. Weird and wonderful.

Delightful, wild and weird.

Delightful, wild and weird.

Big Trouble in Little China—A not so smart trucker falls afoul of a cosmic kung fu battle between good and evil. It wears its age badly, but still a compulsively watchable movie.

Wings of Desire—Wim Wenders’s best film, and one of the great films of all time, a meditative, moody, yet tender and funny story of angels who can only observe the suffering of humans, and the one angel who decides he wants to experience some of the highs and lows himself.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen—Gilliam’s very fine—if also manic and at times oddly mistimed—comic tall-tale romp through the back alleys of the Ottoman Empire.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai—The best science-hero cum rock star alien invasion movie ever made.

A hipster's dream.

A hipster’s dream.

My Neighbor Totoro—My vote for the best kids’ movie of all time. The hero’s virtues are curiosity, fearlessness, humor, and kindness. Two girls make friends with a forest creature, who helps them cope with their mother’s illness.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure—Embodies the late 80s/early 90s excess better than just about any film. The basic message: suffering is just another form of not being cool. Still, a fun ride.

Gremlins—If you removed the sequence of the gremlins at the bar—almost certainly filmed for the trailers—this would be the best horror Christmas movie of all time. A great first horror movie for kids.

The Golden Child—Wearing its age well; the story of a fast-talking private eye who stumbles into an occult plot to turn the Dali Lama into an antichrist.

Alice—Weird disturbed animation/claymation.

Some intriguing, fun as hell genre pieces:

The Beastmaster—Bad but effective; super-powered slave destroys an evil, pagan empire. Made by b-movie extraordinaire Don Coscarelli, director of Phantasm II (itself a very intriguing departure for an intriguing franchise).

Krull—So. Much. Fun. Bad special effects and a very strange assortment of actors, but a killer story.

I love this movie.

I love this movie.

Willow—A misfire in many ways, but kids love it. I did, too.

Sante Sangre—A grisly outing from pseudo-mystical cult favorite Jodorowski, about a circus and a fat slob who cuts off women’s arms.

Return to Oz—Underrated—and highly disturbed—sequel to The Wizard of Oz. Madness, psycho-sexual mania, paranoia, an ancient villain who can manipulate stone complete this tale of Dorothy as she navigates the Kansas prairies and is committed to an asylum for her post-traumatic visions after the tornado.

Excalibur—A very fine retelling of L’Morte D’Arthur, only with pretty terrible acting and poorly timed voice-overs.

Flash Gordon—A delirious piece of madcap fantasia, stupid yet smart, cheesy yet cool.

And some fantastically bad fantasy:

Deathstalker—Miserable, late-night T & A Conan knockoff. Lacking even the basic so-bad-it’s-good criteria.

The Barbarians—Yowza, my vote for one of the best worst movies of all time,  just a terrible movie starring muscle-bound twins who can’t act, can’t sword-fight, and yet run around smiting villains and getting the girls.

Yup. Not a joke.

Yup. Not a joke. Really.

Conan the Destroyer—Worst sequel of all time, replacing the first film’s pagan stoicism with camp nonsense. Execrable.

Sword of the Valiant—An absolute abomination of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with Sean Connery playing the green knight as a lecherous, evil villain. Wonderfully, operatically bad.

Barbarian Queen—Don’t remember this one too well. Speaks more than anything I could say about it.

Masters of the Universe—Dolph Lundgren has the power. The big budget He-Man film, not as bad as it sounds, but still worse than it should have been.

Red Sonja—Just terrible, and unfun.

Interlude 2: Adjustment Bureaus.

21 Oct

(In which the author continues to sift  through best-of lists)

The odd thing about the Entertainment Weekly best movie list is that in 1999, the publication put out a much better, more intriguing list. See the link here.

An EW adjustment bureau has, more than once, altered their pre-millennial list. But the editorial staff hasn’t adjusted for new great films—such as Army of Shadows, In the Mood for Love, There Will Be Blood—instead they’ve shifted things around with no apparent rhyme or logic.

The original list was pretty great, mixing the predictable—Citizen Kane, Godfather—with superb b-movies, like Touch of Evil, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Pickup on South Street[1]. Stills accompany each entry, plus intriguing explanations as to their positioning and importance. (The list isn’t without its weird choices; they have Aliens at number 42, which is insanity; The Piano instead of L’Avventura or The 400 Blows; and Apocalypse Now isn’t even on the list.)

The new list makes bizarre alterations. Mean Streets, a great movie, has been moved to the number 7 of-all-time slot. (I love it, and watch it perennially, but that’s just way too high.) Bonnie and Clyde has been moved to number 4. To put this in perspective, that’s in front of Seven Samurai, La Dolce Vita, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and Goodfellas. Annie Hall, another one of my favorites, now sits at an astonishing number 13. In front of Vertigo (maybe), Chinatown, Blue Velvet, Dog Day Afternoon, 8 1/2, All About Eve and The Seventh Seal[2].

But it’s the new additions to the list that are strange. Goldfinger—which isn’t even the best James Bond movie[3]Titanic, The Hurt Locker, Cabaret (nope, nada, never), and Brokeback Mountain all make the new list. Good films, all, with the possible exception of Cabaret, which hasn’t aged well and has creaky acting, but they don’t belong on the best-of-all time.

But the big error on the list is the inclusion of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.


The Dark Knight is an impressive spectacle. I enjoyed watching it. But it’s also morally flawed and deeply troubling. And not in a good way.

Let’s start with the Joker. A great performance, with fascinating perverse sexual undercurrents—and I’ve always seen the Joker as less a clown than a psychopathic, knife-wielding dandy—but also a lie. He isn’t anarchy, as the movie argues over and over. He’s death, destruction and murder. He’s falsehood and lies. He’s Satan in a permanent clown mask.

Which would be fine, interesting even, except he’s put up as the mirror opposite of Batman. (He even says, near the end of the movie, “You complete me!”)

Not one of the best movies of all time. Nope.

Not one of the best movies of all time. Nope.

This is where the film gets into trouble. Batman is portrayed as a controlling, fascistic moralist, who wants to compile and track everyone in the city to prevent crimes. He is Orwell’s big brother, only in the early stages. He uses his vast wealth not to feed the hungry, or build affordable housing for the city’s poor, or create drug treatment clinics, or soup kitchens, etcetera, but to create a security state apparatus designed to crush criminals of all stripes.

Here’s where the film’s themes run aground. Of course, Batman’s totalitarian impulses are preferable to the Joker’s vicious unpredictability. But it’s a false dichotomy. The opposite of totalitarianism isn’t murder, and the cost of freedom isn’t wanton and reckless murder. There’s a middle ground—we call this society, civilization—and the film obfuscates this essential fact. Worse, Batman is portrayed as a fundamental part of the problem, which negates the very heroics the film is trying to highlight and, in a sense, celebrate. This isn’t sophisticated writing, it’s simplistic sophistry. And bad storytelling.

The Dark Knight has other issues—how could Batman taking the blame for Harvey Dent’s murders be the best possible solution to a simple problem?—that dilute it’s visceral power. But in the end, it’s confused political, moral, and philosophical message leaves it somewhere near evil and far from good.

Lists matter. They embody values, both aesthetic and otherwise. The Dark Knight’s critical and popular cache is troubling indeed.


The logical thing would have been to bump some of the films from the original list to make room for movies that have been released since. EW didn’t do that. So I will. If I could only add ten (I’ve picked 18) movies from the oughts to the best-ever list, I would pick:

The White Ribbon

In the Mood for Love

The Lives of Others

There Will Be Blood

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


The Beat that My Heart Skipped

Mulholland Drive

Memories of Murder

City of God


Werckmeister Harmonies

Volver/Talk To Her

Tristram Shandy/In the Loop

Kung Fu Hustle

Army of Shadows

With Junebug, A Tale of Two Sisters, Cache, The Social Network and Revanche all close behind. I’d be happy to hear parallel lists. Zip them to me and I’ll put them on the blog.

[1] I would pick one or two from The Warriors, Class of 1984, These Are the Damned, The Thing.

[2] A devoted cinephile, Allen would be appalled by this.

[3] That would be From Russia with Love, then Dr. No, then Goldeneye, then On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, then You Only Live Twice and then probably Live and Let Die. Then Goldfinger.

Interlude: Lost in best-of lists, lost and loving it: A semi-formless riff.

14 Oct

(Taking a two-week break from the National Book Award books and posts. Pneumonia done been gone. Read Victor LaVelle’s Big Machine and loved it. Read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One and loved it.  Am writing as much as am able. Submitting, too. Simone is acting out picture books in the other room while I frantically type. Hard to concentrate. Children are always the wolf at the door.)


I’ve spent the last week or so reading and re-reading the Entertainment Weekly’s top 100 novels, movies, albums and TV shows. It’s a mania. And a big waste of time.

Only, it isn’t. I love best-of lists. Even when I hate them. I find them infuriating, exhausting. They tap into my compulsive side to consume, organize and synthesize. Lists also contain embedded values, and say a lot about an organization’s tastes. Or a people’s. Or a culture’s.

This particular issue doesn’t provide any criteria, so it’s hard to take seriously. Influence? Style? Psychological insight? Entertainment? Sweep and scope? Ambition? The list doesn’t say.

And when organizing art into a value system, criteria must be applied. Else things seem sloppy, slapdash and arbitrary. Which is exactly how I would describe EW’s novel list[1].


The novel list is the most easily dismissed. EW stopped being a literate publication a long time ago, and the list reflects middlebrow, American-centric tastes. They’re more comfortable with movies and shows. They don’t have a significant book review section, and haven’t had an influential reviewer in years. (Time has Lev Grossman, who pisses me off, but the man can write.)

Still, even for a throw-away publication, there are some terrible choices. The Great Gatsby is not the number two novel of all time. No, and no. Neither is Great Expectations number four. (Take a look at the list here.)

A misleading misnomer of a title. More apt would be "100 pretty good novels, etc."

A misleading misnomer of a title. More apt would be “100 pretty good novels, etc.”

But the real hair-raising ire comes with number 7: the Harry Potter series. Ye gods. We’ve lost our way somewhere. Something poisonous has entered our reading lives. An obsession with easy books.

Numbers 11 an 12 are Mrs. Dalloway and The Sound and the Fury. Perhaps they both belong on a top 100 list of all time, but they are way too high. And not easy at all; ignore my aphorism above.

Okay, so yes to Blindness; yes to War and Peace; yes to Huck Finn; yes to Rabbit, Run; Crime and Punishment; Native Son; Moby Dick; Invisible Man; Pride and Prejudice; Catch-22 and Lolita. Probably yes to Disgrace. Probably yes to To Kill a Mockingbird.

Not bad books but still, no to The Sun Also Rises (I would pick The Nick Adams stories, maybe); no to The Catcher in the Rye; no to Portnoy’s Complaint (it falls apart about two-thirds of the way through, although I would include one or two of Roth’s other novels); no to Orhan Pamuk’s Snow (although I think it’s a fine novel); no to Lonesome Dove (I would pick True Grit or Butcher’s Crossing, or The Border Trilogy if I had to pick a western).

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is picked for number 15, which is nuts. He’s one of my favorite authors, but All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian both deserve a spot over his grisly survival tale. (Suttree beats it out, too.)

EW inexplicably includes Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, which is just strange. Who reads Hesse anymore? Other strange picks: His Dark Materials (I’m a big fan, but?); Neuromancer (ditto); Middlesex; The Talented Mr. Ripley; and Tristram Shandy. These aren’t bad novels at all, but I can’t understand how they would be included over Don Quixote, The U.S.A. Trilogy, The End of the Affair or hundreds of others.

A Wrinkle in Time doesn’t belong on any best-of list. Neither does John Irving. Go Tell It on the Mountain—a fine novel—doesn’t belong on the list. Murakami is included, as is Margaret Mitchell, Jonathan Franzen (a thousand times no), Michael Chabon, Charles Frazier (for shame!), Hilary Mantel, Tom Wolfe, John Le Carre, Ayn Rand (never!), Italo Calvino (nope), Orson Scott Card (um, no), Salman Rushdie (it cannot be) and Bram Stoker. None of these would be on any list of mine.

The list gets just two (not obvious) things right. Richard Price’s Clockers really is one of the great novels—at least of the 1990s—and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, although not one of the best of all time, is a very fine, moving novel about Iraq soldiers touring the U.S. on a PR trip.

What else does the list get wrong?

Underworld isn’t on the list (it’s tar and feather time), nor is White Noise. The Shipping News doesn’t make their cut (how in the world it wasn’t included I have no idea); On the Road, The Savage Detectives (or 2666 or both); The Dog of the South and/or Masters of Atlantis; Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep; Tree of Smoke; 120 Days of Sodom (it must be at least mentioned); Of Human Bondage belongs on any list, anywhere; Babbitt deserves a slot; Slaughterhouse Five is a masterpiece, and it’s not on here, either.

No Graham Greene, no Henry Miller, no Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead belongs somewhere in the vicinity); no Joseph Conrad (which is fucking sacrilege); no John Fowles; no Thomas Pynchon (V. is a must). No Jane Bowles, no Gertrude Stein, no Dorothy Parker, no Marilynne Robinson (Gilead belongs on every greatest novel list).

I could go on. But I’m more interested in why they picked these books and not others. It’s interesting to leave Ulysses off the list, but also inexplicably strange to include Charlotte’s Web on it. There’s little experimental fiction on the list. There’s no rationale for why some canonized books are still here (An American Tragedy, Bleak House, My Antonia) but not others (Mainstreet, The Grapes of Wrath, Candide and where the hell is The Scarlet Letter?).

The list excludes outlaw fiction. No Harry Crews, no Charles Bukowski, no Steve Erickson, no Anais Nin, no James Ellroy, no Jim Harrison. No Celine, no Gide (thank the heavens; I’m not a big fan), no Genet, no Hamsun, no Bernhard. I don’t see any African novelists—Achebe or Alan Paton are usually included in most lists, for the appearance of fairness, I suppose—and with the exception of Marquez, no South American novelists. That means no Fuentes, no Rudolfo, no Casares, no Llosa. Scandinavia is excluded completely. I don’t see any Chinese or middle eastern novelists.

And without an explanation as to why this list exists, it seems weird. Aggressively ethnocentric. And out of keeping with the 21st century world.


The list has sidebars, so consider this a sidebar in my criticism of it. The best story collections is pretty solid: O’Connor, Munro, Borges, Shirley Jackson, Cheever, Raymond Carver, George Saunders among a handful of semi-duds.

But the graphic novels list is predictable and annoying.

Here’s mine, in no particular order:

Sandman—The greatest fantasy epic the medium has ever produced.

Watchmen—The best deconstruction of superheroes ever written. With stunning artwork.  

The Invisibles—Super-scribe Grant Morrison channels Philip K. Dick and William Burroughs in this epic, maybe-end of the world tale. One of my most profound reading experiences. 

The Complete Persepolis—The best non-fiction comic ever written.

Fun Home—The best confessional comic ever written.

Fax From Sarajevo—Joe Kubert’s knockout telling of the true story of his friend living in Sarajevo during the wars.

The Darwyn Cooke Parker books—Superb artwork, excellent writing, great crime capers. Flawless.

The Dark Knight Returns or Batman: Year One—Frank Miller before he lost his gift, telling the story of Bruce Wayne at the end and at the beginning of his career as Batman. Gritty, yet subtle.

David Boring or Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron or Ghostworld—Daniel Clowes’s misanthropic tales touched with science fiction and perversity. Glove in particular is a crazed ride. He’s the David Lynch of the comic book world.

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid in the World—Stunning artwork and design, and a heart-rending story of three generations of melancholic dudes. Each page is a marvel.

From Hell—Alan Moore’s insightful, disturbed, non-linear take on the Jack the Ripper legend. Literate and unforgettable.

Enigma—High psychosexual weirdness from Peter Milligan, about a messiah child with superpowers left to die in a well, and emerging with a amoral value system and an affinity for lizards and other vermin. Mid-90s zeitgeist existentialism.

The Beats—Harvey Pekar’s superior essay on the life and works of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs, as well as insightful appraisals of their work, in Pekar’s inimitable style. (Pekar’s post-American Splendor work, including Ego and Malice, The Quitter, and SDS are the best books he produced.)

Red Rocket 7—Mike Allred’s epic story of rock n roll music history intertwined with the personal history of an alien clone. One of the best things ever.

And that’s fourteen. Lists aren’t easy. I’ll stop there.


And I’m losing myself here. So many lists crowd the digital eco-sphere it’s tough to digest. But I’ll try.

Time magazine has a much, much better list. It’s wilder, more inclusive, with weird choices (like Cheever’s Falconer, for instance) that are fun, as opposed to offensive.

Here’s a link to it.

They have A.S. Byatt, Ken Kesey, Richart Yates, Don DeLillo. Plus Philip K. Dick, John O’Hara (overrated; read my review of Ten North Frederick), Bernard Malamud and Robert Stone and James Dickey and John Barth. A wilder, better list, yet somehow even more Anglo-centric. (They should just do the best novels written in English, it would save them heart-ache and criticism.)


The Modern Library list is in some ways stranger than both. Here’s the link.

They have Erskine Caldwell, an overrated writer of pulpy grotesques; Ironweed, an intriguing novel of ghosts and memory with some killer lines, but strangely difficult and obtuse; Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop which is just okay; The Moviegoer, which isn’t bad but come on (I review it here); and too much Faulkner, too many Henry James. (Plus James Jones, I review From Here to Eternity here, an awful mean-spirited book.)

Their list is—with the exception of Pynchon, O’Brien, Burgess and Lowry—staid, canonical and semi-safe. I prefer the old warhorses to J.K. Rowling and the like, but there’s something askew in this list. A reverence for writers of a bygone era. A resistance to genre fiction, which often makes sense but can exclude significant writers. The Modern Library list has no sense of balance, fairness, or exhaustiveness. The writers of the list picked their favorite authors and then front-loaded them into the rankings.

I’d rank the EW list the worst. The Modern Library and the Time list are interchangeable. The World Library best books of all time is fascinating, but also cluttered—for lack of a better word—with ancients texts. I love ancient literature, but with Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Bible and so on, there’s little room for novels. Here’s the list.

Enough. I’m ranking the best-of lists into a best-of list. As I said, it’s a mania. Best-of lists have a way of stealing time away from enjoying actual books. Must get back to my own work.

[1] I’ll address their movie list in my next post. Hold on to your butts.