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Haven’t done this for a while. Seems indicated: recommendations for summer beach reading. In the past few months I have happened upon three extraordinarily excellent novels I’d like to share with any dear and constant readers out there. I am hardly the first to note these. All three have been around for three to seven years.

About the third book on my list, Kai Maristed of the L.A. Times suggested, “[I]f you have recently stood in line for Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, read Forever.” That’s the title of Pete Hamill’s masterpiece, which is saying much after work such as Snow in August and Flesh and Blood. As to the story of Cormac O’Connor, the protagonist of Forever (who begins life as Robert Carson in early 18th-century Ireland), he is given the gift of longevity — possibly immortality — by an African slave, a babalawo or shaman. He migrates to Manhattan island in the years preceding the American Revolution. The book is “old fashioned storytelling at a gallop,” says The Washington Post. This makes it a natural for the beach; and with its highly literary prose, its stylistically balanced sentences, it is perfect, as well, to take to bed on winter weekends with mugs of tea (or laudanum).

Much of the story is exquisitely painful. I defy anyone to take long to read it, however; it moves too swiftly. In fact, the novel’s paradoxical drawback is that the story is too compelling for the slow reading that masterful prose deserves. Hamill guides you through some 300 years of New York City’s history, introduces you to George Washington, “Boss” Tweed, et al., while enthralling you with vengeful duels, Yeatsean mysticism, and the killing ironies of extended human life. If you can find an equally sublime work of contemporary fiction at this length, for the love of Dickens, let me know.

Oprah Winfrey took notice of my second recommendation early on: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. She then proceeded to conduct the most lame-brained interview in television history with the reclusive author. The Road, a lapidary examination of a nameless father and son moving through a post-apocalyptic America, is remarkable for several reasons. One of them, Bookforum mentions, “[I]t is as if you must keep reading in order for the characters to stay alive.…” Even Oprah flashed on another: that upon finishing the thing, your first instinct is to return to page one. You do this in order to pinpoint where “[n]ights dark beyond darkness,” becomes “the autistic dark” or “the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world” becomes “the iron dark.” This book has become a film, most certainly with good intentions, but the road to cinematic blunder likely. Spectacle is the last thing this book is about.

My first selection. If, indeed, you stood in line for Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, you might want to seek atonement in a novel by that name by Ian McEwan. It’s now a film I haven’t seen; I can’t imagine it would even begin to do justice to the novel’s intimate, psychological poetry.

Atonement is one of the best novels I have ever read. Possibly the best. McEwan’s book is suited for those who (rightly) would feel guilty about feeding the mind empty calories at the beach. Hollywood has filmed the novel, and again I have no idea what they’ve done with it on the screen. But how on Earth could they get a camera inside the brain matter of Briony as a child and then an old woman, her sister Cecelia, and Cee’s love Robert (especially as he straggles back from the bullet-riddled French countryside to Dunkirk in 1940), while still rendering transcendent language onto celluloid or digital frames?

Among my dozens of copied-out phrases and favorite sentences along the way is a reference to the feeble utterance, “I love you,” which McEwan reminds us is “three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can ever quite cheapen.” But to categorize Atonement as a love story would be to say that Lawrence of Arabia is about sand. Reminiscent of Graham Greene’s short story “The Innocent,” here is the plot device of ostensible obscenity included in a draft of a love letter that causes several hundred pages of human misery when mistakenly delivered. If I can cast a pall on a single sunbather this summer, I will be gratified.

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EricBlair Aug. 5, 2009 @ 10:01 a.m.

By the way, John, a thought: I would be VERY interested to read your choices for your favorite ten books (fiction or nonfiction). You can tell a lot about someone from such a list, I think. I would like to know your list.

But then, you are the fellow who got me reading Merton. Maybe I already have my answer.

Best wishes from your old friend in the Northwest....


EricBlair Aug. 4, 2009 @ 3:42 p.m.

Good to see your posts, John! I think that every writer, no matter how "hack," secretly (or not so secretly) wants their prose to be deathless and pellucid. Though many authors put too much of the "look at me, Ma, I'm a writer!" in their scribblings. That's fine: everyone has different tastes. Think of Robert Silverbeard writing cheap porno versus some truly fine novels.

Heck, Benjamin Disraeli wrote a number of very well received if slightly trashy "romance" novels before he became the famous British Prime Minister.

In terms of literature, some days I like filet mignon, and other days an Alberto's carne asada burrito (which I miss).

In the final analysis, Robert A. Heinlein put it best: "...the acme of prose style is exemplified by that simple, graceful clause: 'Pay to the order of...'"

"Tru dat," and "word" as the yoots of America might say.

Please keep in touch, John.


EricBlair July 16, 2009 @ 4:36 p.m.

Dear John: that was a great essay! I much appreciated your insights on the novels. After all, you were the one who first gave me the fine quotation regarding every word a novelist writes---either reveal character or advance plot. And if the novelist is good, each word can do both!

I particularly appreciate your comment about "taking your time" as you read. It's the difference between junk food and good food. For the mind?


John Brizzolara July 31, 2009 @ 1:08 p.m.

Gringo, -- I certainly did read Exley's "A Fan's Notes." It was in the early '90s and recommended by a librarian friend. Yeah, I loved it. -- Brizz


John Brizzolara July 31, 2009 @ 1:10 p.m.

SDaniels, -- Thanks for commenting so often. I've always meant to read Beckett and haven't. I will seek this stuff out. Thanks. -- Brizzolara


John Brizzolara July 31, 2009 @ 1:14 p.m.

Eric! -- Saints preserve you, lad! Advance action and reveal character could well be construed as hack advice but what the hell. Sometimes when you're writing for money things get fast and dirty as you and Greg B. may know. The novels I mention in the column are -- none of them -- written ostensibly for money. Thanks for consistently encouraging words, my friend. -- John


SDaniels July 31, 2009 @ 1:18 p.m.

You're welcome, Mr. Brizz--my pleasure. Maybe you can help me out. I'm researching a project on the writings of Robert Smithson, the 70s earthworks artist, and need to look into his background with sci-fi. Have read some Eric Temple Bell, but looking for any sci-fi (anything before 1973) treating the concept of crystals and "crystalization." Any recommendations?


David Dodd July 21, 2009 @ 1:26 a.m.

Hey, Mr. Brizz, I have to ask if you've ever read Frederick Exley, in particular, A Fan's Notes. I think that it's a great beach novel, and a wonderful trainwreck. Also, noting your unique cynical, sarcastic, and dry style, it would be right in your wheelhouse, so to speak.


SDaniels July 21, 2009 @ 12:29 p.m.

Great beach reads--believe it or not--Beckett's first and second novels of 'the trilogy'--Murphy and Malone Dies. Remember the "sucking stones" episode? Third in trilogy, L'innomable, best read in a dark closet with a booklight.


John Brizzolara Aug. 4, 2009 @ 10:26 a.m.

SDaniels, -- Eric Temple Bell, I'm guessing, is the guy who also wrote under the name William Tenn. I met him once and can't remember his real name -- but he published under his real name too. I'm thinking an anthology called WANDERING STARS which he may have helped edit along with Jack Dann but I believe he has a story in it as well. Good luck finding that. Hah! I could be way wrong too about Bell and Tenn. Actually, it's likely. As far as sf about crystals, I've got a novel with a gigantic crystal in it which is referred to as a "psychocosmogram." Whatever the hell that might be. That one is called EMPIRE'S HORIZON from DAW Books/ 1989. Good luck finding that too. Hah! The absolute best, though it has nothing to do with any New Age associations, is J.G. Ballard's THE CRYSTAL WORLD -- 1960's, I believe. Out of print probably as well. It is a wonderful extended metaphor of an epic poem and inner adventure story. Loved that thing; can't recommend it enough. Good luck and all best, -- Brizzolara


SDaniels Aug. 4, 2009 @ 11:29 a.m.

Yes, I love Ballard's Crystal World, and so did Smithson.

Yes, I think that is another of Bell's pseudonyms, and there is another--escaping me at the moment. I'll try to find EMPIRE'S HORIZON from DAW Books/ 1989, with the 'psychocosmogram,' as it sounds like it might not only bring in the crystal, but fit in with Smithson's use of Gestalt to propose an active reading "at the margins" of text.

Though Smithson died in 1973, I might be able to trace a thematic line backwards from this text ( just part of the 'process' :)


SDaniels Aug. 8, 2009 @ 1:12 p.m.

EricBlair wrote: "In the final analysis, Robert A. Heinlein put it best: "...the acme of prose style is exemplified by that simple, graceful clause: 'Pay to the order of...'"

As a scholar of literature, I thank the gods that this reductive attitude for pay for pages is not really the case. If you are not moved to write great prose, there will be no analysis for you.


EricBlair Aug. 8, 2009 @ 11:36 p.m.

Sdaniels, I'm not disagreeing with you, but two words: Jackie Collins.

Two more: Clive Cussler.

Enough said.

Which doesn't, again, mean you are incorrect!


SDaniels Aug. 9, 2009 @ 1:35 a.m.

Well, I understand your point, Mr. Blair; it appears we are arguing at cross purposes. But truly, aside from a few "fun" analyses buried in a couple of journals on pop culture, where you also will find more deserving pop icons such as Madonna or Michael Jackson, writers like Collins (never heard of Cussler, but assume it's about the airport novel) do not receive any treatment or appreciation qua literature as art. A great writer might cop an attitude about writing for pay--and many have taken this hackneyed route--but s/he knows how much work and talent it really takes.


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