Author Photo And Bio
I have been completely beside myself with this list. For a couple of reasons: the first is that I haven’t read all the books in the world I should have. I look at Mailer’s list and wonder why I ever thought I could be a writer. He did REAL TIME. Finally I decided to list those books that were great to me and for me: the books that made me the reader and writer that I am, for better or worse. Or the books that without which I would be an even worse writer than I turned out to be.
1. The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino (1957). (See Daniel's appreciation below.)
2. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955). “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” So begins the Russian master’s infamous novel about Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man who falls madly, obsessively in love with a twelve-year-old “nymphet,” Dolores Haze. So he marries the girl’s mother. When she dies he becomes Lolita’s father. As Humbert describes their car trip —a twisted mockery of the American road novel —Nabokov depicts love, power, and obsession in audacious, shockingly funny language.
3. Light in August by William Faulkner (1932). This novel contains two of Faulkner’s most telling characters, the doggedly optimistic Lena Grove, who is searching for the father of her unborn child, and the doomed Joe Christmas, an orphan of uncertain race and towering rage. Faulkner’s signature concerns about birth and heritage, race, religion, and the inescapable burdens of the past power this fierce, unflinching, yet hopeful novel.
4. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1961). The moviegoer is Binx Bolling, a young New Orleans stockbroker who surveys the world with the detached gaze of a Bourbon Street dandy even as he yearns for a spiritual redemption he cannot bring himself to believe in. On the eve of his thirtieth birthday, he occupies himself dallying with his secretaries and going to movies, which provide him with the "treasurable moments" absent from his real life. But one fateful Mardi Gras, Binx embarks on a hare-brained quest that outrages his family, endangers his fragile cousin Kate, and sends him reeling through the chaos of New Orleans' French Quarter in this wry and wrenching tale rich in irony and romance which was awarded the National Book Award.
5. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881). James’s Portrait is of that superior creature Isabel Archer, an assured American girl who is determined to forge her destiny in the drawing rooms of Europe. To this end, she weds the older and more cultivated Gilbert Osmond, and eventually finds that she is less the author of her fate than she thought. Throughout, James gives us a combination of careful psychological refraction and truly diabolical plotting. The result is a book at once chilling and glorious.
6. Stories of John Cheever (1912–82). Seemingly confined to recording the self-inflations and petty hypocrisies of suburban WASPs, Cheever’s short fiction actually redefined the story form, mixing minimalism and myth to create uniquely American tragicomedy. A master of the ambiguous ending, Cheever could also be direct: In “The Swimmer,” a man dreams of his family as he blithely “swims” home through his neighbors’ backyard pools, only to collapse at the door of his empty, locked house.
7. Stories of Flannery O’Connor (1925–64). Full of violence, mordant comedy, and a fierce Catholic vision that is bent on human salvation at any cost, Flannery O’Connor’s stories are like no others. Bigots, intellectual snobs, shyster preachers, and crazed religious seers —a full cavalcade of what critics came to call “grotesques”—careen through her tales, and O’Connor gleefully displays the moral inadequacy of all of them. Twentieth-century short stories often focus on tiny moments, but O’Connor’s stories, with their unswerving eye for vanity and their profound sense of the sacred, feel immense.
8. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726, 1735). Lemuel Gulliver, a ship’s doctor, embarks on four wondrous voyages from England to remote nations. Gulliver towers over six-inch Lilliputians and cowers under the giants in Brobdingnag. He witnesses a flying island and a country where horses are civilized and people are brutes. Fanciful and humorous, Swift’s fictional travelogue is a colorfully veiled but bitter indictment of eighteenth-century politics and culture.
9. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969). Part science fiction, part war story, this is the story of Billy Pilgrim, a former World War II prisoner of war who survived the firebombing of Dresden, as did Vonnegut himself. Abducted by visitors from the planet Trafalmadore, Pilgrim comes “unstuck in time” and is thus able to revisit key points in his life and even his future. Written at the height of the Vietnam War, this muscular satire reveals the absurdity and brutality of modern war.
10. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980). This is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, their eccentric and remote aunt. The family house is in the small Far West town of Fingerbone set on a glacial lake, the same lake where their grandfather died in a spectacular train wreck, and their mother drove off a cliff to her death. It is a town "chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere." Ruth and Lucille's struggle toward adulthood illuminates the price of loss and survival, and the dangerous and deep undertow of transience.
Appreciation of Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees by Daniel Wallace
The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino, is the novel I think of as a singular and instrumental influence on me and my life as a writer. That being said, I read it decades ago I remember very little of it now: characters, plot points, major themes or motifs. Not really sure about those things. I do remember a dog, a woman, Voltaire . . . In a nutshell: in 1767 a strong-willed 12-year-old son of an Italian baron refuses to eat snails one night, is sent from the table, climbs an oak and swears never to come down – and doesn’t, not for the entirety of the novel. The rest of his life is lived in the trees. Which is impossible, but I believed every word of it. In fact, other than this one detail (that our main character traverses Europe, has friends and lovers and a dog without ever touching toe to ground) the story is told in the most realistic and historical detail. That is the great lesson I took from this book and from Calvino’s other books as well: that as long as the reader feels secure in the hands of an honest, forthright storyteller the writer can get on with the business of adornment and exaggeration, the making up of things that never happened, never could have happened, and never will, and the reader will believe that too. It’s called magical realism, but it might just as well be called realistic magic.