I was leery of this one, but it's books, so I was reeled right on in by Anno's invitation. Plenty missing, I'm sure. Mea culpa to the reading gods that know better. These are the ones that stuck. Other than the first two, there is no particular order. Here goes:
01. Gravity's Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon): No surprise here: I've sung my praises on these walls countless times. Introduced to the mighty P by a seminal graduate student my junior year. This one blew my mind and, as these walls will attest, it has stayed blown. The Easter book. Perhaps my favorite reading of it was 31 years ago, while surveying land out in the west Texas hill country up north of Leakey.
02. Against the Day (Thomas Pynchon): This was the true sequel to GR, though we all waited through two other novels and 33 years to get there. As haunting and wonderfully sprawling as its mate, but with the added sensibility, I believe, brought by becoming a father late in his life. This and GR are, in a way, in their genius, one book.
03. Coming Through Slaughter (Michael Ondaatje): I discovered this beauty on a sale table in Waldenbooks at North Star Mall here in Tres Leches 34 years ago: had never heard of book or author. Probably a precursor to my eventual sojourn in New Orleans. Its spare, fractured hallucinatory prose is gorgeous. The tragic story of New Orleans jazzman Buddy Bolden, the legend behind them all.
04. Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood): I was very late to the Atwood party, though not without trying: she just never took through the years. About six years ago, the organization (Gemini Ink) I was working for here in TL was bringing her to town for a three day stint. I felt compelled to break through my Atwood block. This was the one that did it, with its crazed crazed crazed dystopian tale. Atwood's hip hop novel, if you will. It paved the way to my reading another half dozen of her books in a six week period.
05. A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (Robert Olen Butler): This book of short stories probably broke open the writer in me: I was haunted by the voices in these stories, many of which were spoken across the south Louisiana landscape I was living in at the time. They literally lived inside me, whispering, for the six months before I finally wrote my very first short story back in 1992.
06. The Palm at the End of the Mind (Wallace Stevens): I was turned on to WS by the same grad student who sent Mr. Pynchon my way, showing me that there was, indeed, life beyond Mr. Eliot's wasteland and quartets. WS remains impenetrable in many ways, but that simply adds to the stickiness, right?
07. Reading Lacan (Jane Gallop): Speaking of impenetrability, here is an impenetrable book about one woman's own reading of an impenetrable author. It's clear my mind is perfectly willing to bathe in a milky steambath of incomprehension and ambiguity, because there's no way to say that I understand either JG or the seductive and elusive Monsieur Lacan himself. It's Mose Allison ("Your Mind is on Vacation") all the way.
08. Lonesome Dove (Larry McMurtry): I was in the Melrose Hotel in Dallas, weeping when you-know-who dies. (Okay, I admit it, I was reading on the terlet). I was late to this party, too: my parents read it to each other on a road trip through Big Bend and the Davis Mountains and I passed, after that first go-round of hymns of praise. I finally made it through the slow first 70 or so pages and never looked back. Small screen adaption: Tommy Lee as Call and Duvall as Gus - it didn't get any better, though Robert Urich as Jake was a travesty. Jake was a man for whom whores put out for free. Clearly, too much dinero was spent on TLJ and RD: the till was empty, when it came time to cast Jake. (Sam Elliott, if you're asking.)
09. The Oz Books (L. Frank Baum, and others): I think the collection was up to about 55 books when I read them all one summer at my grandparents' ranch, hauling them out from one of the glassed-in bookcases in the front hallway. Mr. Baby and I have read our way through most of the Baum ones, this childhood go round.
10. Collected Stories (Grace Paley): If bigamy were legal, and your second spouse had to be a narrative voice, then I would be married (also) to this book. I had long been in love with the narrative voice of Padgett Powell (see below): about five years ago, I learned (intuitively first and then firsthand from PP himself) that Grace Paley was Padgett before Padgett was - his fairy godmother. Grace's compassionate radicalism is embedded in the glorious rhythms and voices of her stories.
11. All the Pretty Horses (Cormac McCarthy): It must say something that this book tops the Books I Should Read In Life list that my son asked me for a couple of years ago. I love fiction that brings me right to the city where I live, and ATPH has an early scene right here in the Menger Hotel - with snow outside! Talk about a book that haunts and lives in your skin, though it took three tries for me to finally slip through the portal into its magic. Thank god that CM moved from Tennessee to El Paso and gave us the ultimate voice for this part of the world.
12. A Woman Named Drown / Edisto (Padgett Powell): I'm sorry; I couldn't separate them. For sheer droll joy and hilarity and crazed white boys and their color dementia and language as your love slave, it do not get any better than Mr. Powell. He is the master (though he is in a pedestal shoving match with Barry Hannah, for that honor). The liberating joy of Life After Faulkner.
13. Junkets on a Sad Planet (Tom Clark): The Life of Keats in narrative poems: the writing in this book is gorgeous and heartbreaking, written by a man who, though much longer-lived than Keats, has lived through his own relative and inexplicable obscurity. But what a gift he has given in these luminous poems.
14. The French Lieutenant's Woman (John Fowles): I was reading Fowles my senior year in college, when I should have been reading everything else, turned on to him by a friend. Fowles took me out of reading for class to reading for sheer pleasure. The first book I ever cast, as it was in pre-production for years. My choices for the Meryl Streep / Jeremy Irons final choices were Julie Christie and Alan Bates. Showing my age there.
15. Rimbaud in Abyssinia (Alain Borer; translated by Rosemary Waldrop): Probably the first book I throw into the Desert Island backpack (the Pynchon will already be in the first aid kit). Borer goes in search of the silent Rimbaud who disappeared with his passion and genius into Africa, never to write again, save for the sparest of letters home and an article or two. AB digs deep into this silence to assemble a sense of the man that is seamless with what he "left" behind. I mention Waldrop, because her translations of the Rimbaud poems (excerpts!) are by far the best I have read in English. Usually, when I read either prose or poetry in translation, I have the nagging sensation that something is just not right: Rosemary most assuredly got it right. A heartbreaker.
16. The Tennis Handsome (Barry Hannah): The demented genius of Southern fiction, and this is as wonderfully demented and surreal as it gets.
17. The Alexandria Quartet (Lawrence Durrell): I still taste and smell the limestone dust and citrus of these gorgeous, other-worldly novels.
18. The Tropic of Capricorn (Henry Miller): For my money, by far the better of the twinned books. HM came late to his genius and I came way late to him. I remember vividly (why, I do not know) reading a passage of Cancer in the upstairs stalls at the Landa Library manse here in Tres Leches, putting the book back on the shelf, and wondering what all the fuss was about. This was 1976. In 2001, I devoured all the Miller I could get my hands on, much of which is garbage. But, Capricorn is fucking (of course) awesome.
19. Faulkner: No one who graduates high school in Mississippi and then goes, like Quentin Compson, to Harvard, gets out alive. Take your pick: Light in August, A Fable, Absalom, Absalom, The Wild Palms (trip to SA in that one!), The Sound and the Fury. But, if you're gonna write yourself and you're not named Cormac McCarthy, you've got to get out from under that red rock...Otherwise, he'll scare the writer right out of you.
20. The Dream Songs (John Berryman): Next after Borer into the pack, I revel in this man's dementia - as do my students. How many high schoolers can say they partook of Henry in their impressionable years? High schoolers love to say that they're writing "random" stuff. "You want random?" I say. "Dream Song 4" blows their minds. As it still does mine.
21. Going After Cacciato (Tim O'Brien): The Vietnam War's A Farewell to Arms. Melts in your mouth: a lovely fairy tale.
22. Longing for Darkness (China Galland): China's hymn to the goddesses of the luminous dark, a song for Yemaya, and a song to my own search for the Black Madonna and Ms. Tina Karagulian.
23. Nothing Like the Sun (Anthony Burgess): Back in the 60s, Clapton Was God. In the late 70s, Burgess Was God for friend Steph and me. We read our way through all the AB on the shelves, which was plenty (the anti-Pynchon), and gloried in this beautiful pavane to the love lives of Will Shakespeare.
24. Bleak House (Charles Dickens): At age 53, this one finally opened the Dickens portal, utterly convincing me that high school was way too soon to foist (and waste) this god on readers. I lived Dickens for another six months after BH, and will no doubt go on further Dickens sabbaticals in the future.
Too soon to tell, but likely to make the list: Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.