A lot of people are crazy about The Alchemist (apparently Will Smith, Joe Jonas, Bill Clinton, Madonna, and the douchebag next door are fans) and that’s fine. This 20-year-old book has been a best-seller in 74 different countries, it still appears consistently on the New York Times best-seller list, and IMDB tells me that the Harvey Weinstein-produced movie will come out soon and star Laurence Fishburne as the Alchemist. Awesome. Read it. Except maybe don’t read it, because it’s kind of terrible.
The thing about The Alchemist is that it can be found in the self-help section as often as it can in literature. It’s about finding your “Personal Legend”–a cringe-worthy, narcissistic, capitalized phrase–and it features writing like this: “‘Well there is only one piece of advice I can give you,’ said the wisest of the wise men. ‘The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never forget the drops of oil on the spoon.’”
Basically, the message is that you should actively pursue what you want, and not be surprised when things happen on your quest to achieve your Personal Legend, and you might go looking for treasure to find out you had it all along. What bothers me is that this is somehow regarded as a life-changing fable when it should be common sense to anyone who’s not a jackass. And the abstracted, faux-lyrical quality of the writing makes the message seem so mystical and vague that it gets filed away as a deep thought, something much more complicated than it is.
But who am I to contradict the Fresh Prince?
This book is the reason I don’t go to USC–I was reading it on the way there, and by the time the plane touched down I felt like a serial killer and thus did not have a good college visit. Because I am kind of down with Chuck Palahniuk, but not really. I think Fight Club is really awesome the first time you read it and then absolutely ridiculous every time afterwards, but honestly, people who are able to draw great insight from this type of “transgressive fiction” (Wikipedia’s appellation) are terrifying. But it’s interesting any time that genre stuff intersects with mainstream fiction, and as someone who is generally unaware of horror writing, I will say that this book works in that aspect: it’s about a lullaby (an ancient African “culling song”–at least he’s drawing on the good old white-bread fear of black people) that kills anyone who hears it, and the main character Carl begins accidentally killing people by thinking it. The story features events such as the one where Carl has sex with his dead wife thinking she’s just asleep, and there is a truly chilling last scene involving someone trying to eat precious jewels and just ripping their own face apart, detail by detail.
So as far as horror, Chuck Palahniuk has got it going on. On one of his book tours, a total of forty people fainted after listening to one story. But as far as actual insight, which I think is what he’s going for, I’m not into it. This is his wisdom: “These distraction-oholics. These focus-ophobics. Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing…With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.” Seems like books like his are written for just these people, though, right? I’m not into it.
This book is so good. Maybe it’s my favorite American classic. Winesburg was published in 1919 and there are major echoes of it everywhere: in Faulkner for sure and Hemingway and even like Kurt Vonnegut and The God of Small Things. It’s a short story cycle about a small town where the people (and the central character, reporter George Willard) have a distinct tendency towards the grotesque, pathetic, embarrassing, raw, parodic, religious, etc–and the stories, taken as a hypnotic whole, have left sort of a Jungian footprint on my mind. In a way I think of Winesburg, Ohio like I think of the Psalms, or graveyards, or dreams about falling: something which tells you the truth atmospherically, but keeps you from understanding it outright. (There’s certainly something about cycles that brings this out, and unfortunately song cycles and poem cycles get all the attention and not enough people write short story cycles to maximize this effect.)
And something about this book seems to really say something about what is and isn’t possible, or inevitable, in the act of telling the story of a person’s life.
From the first story, “The Book of the Grotesque”: “In the bed the writer had a dream that was not a dream. As he grew somewhat sleepy but was still conscious, figures began to appear before his eyes. He imagined the young indescribable thing within himself was driving a long procession of figures before his eyes. They were all grotesques. All of the men and women the writer had ever known had become grotesques.”
Remember in Good Will Hunting, when Matt Damon tells Robin Williams that “A People’s History will knock you on your ass?” It will certainly do that. I don’t think I’ve ever learned more from a book, and I should probably reread it every six months or something so that I don’t forget the long, long, long list of people whom the United States basically fucked (or at least tried very hard to) in the name of power and wealth and the supremacy of the white, straight, male capitalist. Of course, being in Texas right now, I am realizing all over again that most conservative people would either hate this book, or dismiss it as propaganda–like affirmative action or something! Or maybe they would undergo a life-changing experience in really-really realizing that the history we know is told from the winner’s perspective and is, at the very least, incomplete.
Howard Zinn has done a great thing by writing this book, which is dense but far from textbooky, lively all the way through. It should certainly be required reading, which is the reaction that most people have after they finish A People’s History. Others are unnerved by an entire book that centralizes characters we’re not used to seeing centralized–Native Americans, black abolitionists, gay people, women, a truly dangerous government–and that in itself is certainly proof that this book needed to be written. Because even if America’s narrative is as grand as we want it to be, there are people that fell by the wayside, and a lot of them got fucked.
This is one of the cases in which the movie is better than the book, but to be fair, the movie is really good–and the book is the perfect thing to read if you’re sick of thoughtful, overly ponderous lit-ter-a-ture. I don’t even like mysteries or dystopian premises that much (with the huge exception of LOST, of course), but the basic concept–that all of a sudden, the entire world stopped being able to have children–is so interesting and really, just so basic, that this book is worth reading. And P.D. James is a straight-up mystery writer (and incidentally, also a baroness), so Children of Men doesn’t feel as clogged as the equivalent Margaret Atwood thing would. Authors who are capable of writing legitimately good mysteries seem to me to be tapping into some old-fashioned desire for structure, and P.D. James herself says that her favorite author is Jane Austen: these stories are cleanly figured, precise, and if you’re lying by the pool and want to read something other than an old issue of whatever magazine you just found, check this out.
This is one of the most heavily-awarded books of all time and, with at least partial thanks to Oprah, one of the best-selling of the twenty-first century. (Incidentally, if you didn’t know this, Franzen turned up his intellectual nose at becoming one of Oprah’s book club picks, but this was in 2001, when Oprah’s book club still often featured women’s-interest, high-cheese Walmart-y paperbacks with hazy horse silhouettes on the cover. Now she’s gone legit: Carson McCullers and One Hundred Years of Solitude legit.)
But I didn’t like it. I know it’s good, and really it’s brilliant, but it’s so methodical and systematic and withering that I was suffocating by page ten. Like White Noise, it’s tense and anxious in the service of cultural relevance, but there’s nothing as badass as the Airborne Toxic Event in this book to distract you from the cement-mixer of a family story, in which everyone is passive and depressed and dysfunctional. Basically, the high point for me was when the dad started hallucinating poop.
I actually just looked up the list of the most-honored contemporary novels and they are mostly ones that I strongly disliked. This one, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time,” American Gods, White Teeth. I get it. These books, like The Corrections, are good in that they are unusual and technically proficient, and they are really extraordinary works of fiction in a lot of ways. But they’re not friends!
This, on the surface, didn’t seem to be my kind of thing: a novel about the German occupation of France, divided into two parts called “Tempete en Juin” (Storm in June) and “Dolce,” and with that picture on the cover and all. And then it turned out to be one of my favorite books of all time. Suite Francaise comes with an unbelievable history–it may be the first book ever written about World War II, since the author (who died in Auschwitz) was writing about the events as they were happening. In 1998, her daughters opened the notebook containing the manuscript–they had refrained from doing so, thinking that it would just be a journal too painful to read–and realized that their mother had written two parts of a planned five-part book, and thus, Suite Francaise. At the end of this published version are her notes for the rest of the book, along with the correspondence between her husband and the officials at the concentration camps, and it’s heartbreaking: her husband is trying to mail her asthma medication while she faces imminent death, and she’s trying to understand how to write the end of a war novel while the war is still going on.
And besides all of that, the book itself remains the most delicate, persistent, true, incisive thing. On conflict it is as humanizing and brilliant as War and Peace. Before I learned how it had come to be, the book already felt precious, and you will lose yourself reading it in the best way possible.
Okay, don’t even start thinking about the movie here, or at least let it go at this: the movie is great, but this book is even better, even with the absence of Wallace Shawn. I swear. But yes, you probably know the story–the basic story. What the book will tell you are the tremendous back stories: the history of the succession of the Most Beautiful Woman in Florin title, the childhood of Fezzik the giant, the reason why Vizzini is such a nut job, the construction of Count Rugen’s Most-Dangerous-Game lair and the reason why the albino came to work there, everything. It is as pleasurable as the guiltiest pleasure, except there’s no reason to feel guilty because this book rocks.
Also, William Goldman tells you all book long that he’s abridging a longer piece by “S. Morgenstern,” a version that was meant to be a satire of European royalty–and he tells you what he’s cutting, and why, and how he came to do it, and what his wife has to say about it. But S. Morgenstern doesn’t exist, and neither does the “original” text (despite the fact that Goldman actually published a book under the name S. Morgenstern later: keep that joke going). This trick–claiming your book had existed previously–is as old as the hills, used by Umberto Eco, C.S. Lewis, Italo Calvino, Michael Crichton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Cervantes, et al. Loves it!
This is my favorite of Roald Dahl’s books (and/or my favorite thing ever) and the most grown-up of his children’s books by far, because it’s based on one of his “adult” short stories. As usual, the protagonist is a smart, self-sufficient, imaginative, humble child–in the line of Charlie, Matilda, and company–and in reading about Danny it becomes obvious that characters of this sort are endangered, being replaced with narcissistic singing high-schoolers and frustratingly boring vampire enthusiasts. So buy a copy of this book and be part of the resurgence of the real kid. Danny feels magical, but unlike Roald Dahl’s other stories, the magic is entirely homemade, borne out of the cleverness of Danny and his awesome father–thus, the danger and sadness and happiness are that much more real and tangible. It’s an underdog story, in which Danny and dad stick it to the man with an epic prank; there are pheasants, sleeping pills, inspectors, baby carriages, and a gypsy van where all the action begins. I could not be more enthusiastic about Danny. It makes you believe that the good guy will win–and not just boring-good, but smart and creative and mischievous-good, which is the best kind.
Related Q&A: do you consider Willy Wonka a good or evil character?
Somehow this book is still on every bestseller-paperback shelf ever. I saw it at Costco the other day. But why? I don’t understand why places that sell bulk paper towels also always sell books with the potent combination of an inspirational message and a (sexual) abuse scene involving children. And after enough books in this tradition–Where The Heart Is, The Kite Runner, A Child Called “It”–it begins to seem like one is necessary for the other. Abuse of some sort is necessary to every good inspiration story. NOT TRUE.
Really, though, my beef with A Million Little Pieces is that it’s gotten so much attention for something so mediocre. It is valuable as a picture of substance addiction, for sure: I don’t mean to downplay the hardcore pain of a life spent drinking a bottle of vodka every hour, even though my interest in such descriptions seems a little too close to my interest in watching Cops (a prurience that I’m sure James Frey was happy to draw upon in his readership.)
But like–he calls his addiction “the Fury.” He says stuff like “Sometimes skulls are thick. Sometimes hearts are vacant. Sometimes words don’t work.” And as far as the Oprah-found-out-he-faked-the-root-canal-scene controversy goes, I don’t care if he faked part of this. But I do think it’s noteworthy that he said this in his written apology, which now prefaces the book: “My mistake, and it is one I deeply regret, is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience.”
Yikes! What did you just say you did again?