#15: The Grapes of Wrath (1939), by John Steinbeck

There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success.


Like most folks, I first encountered The Grapes of Wrath in high school. I loved it, but my appreciation was entirely surface-level, my 16-year-old antennae not yet tuned to the novel’s strident political implications.

Fast forward about 15 years, and I found myself quite nervous to re-visit it. How dated would this thing be?

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#14: Red Harvest (1929), by Dashiell Hammett

“I’ve got hard skin all over what’s left of my soul, and after twenty years of messing around with crime I can look at any sort of murder without seeing anything in it but my bread and butter, the day’s work. But this getting a rear out of planning deaths is not natural to me. It’s what this place has done to me.”


“Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse … He put these people down on paper as they are, and he made them talk and think in the language they customarily used for these purposes. He had style, but his audience didn’t know it, because it was in a language not supposed to be capable of such refinements … Hammett’s style at its worst was almost as formalized as a page of Marius the Epicurean; at its best it could say almost anything.”
–Raymond Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder”

“Backstory is bullshit.”
–David Mamet

When I was in high school I used to read a lot of paperback thrillers, the kind you can buy in bulk at used bookstores, like 3 for a dollar. They were quick, didn’t take much brainpower, and had me reading way past bedtime, back when I could still read in bed without zonking out in 20 minutes.

I’ve all but moved on from them at this point, souring on the formulas, but I recently had the occasion of looking through old boxes and revisiting some of these books. What amazed me is how little I remembered of most of them, even though, feeling the worn creases, I’d clearly read them. I’d scroll the summary on the back cover of these paperbacks and truly have no recollection of what happened in them, how the story got resolved, who the important characters were, and worst of all, whether I even liked the book. After finishing the book, I’d probably said, “Not bad,” and started in on the next one.

Such is the downside to heavily plot-driven fiction, I guess. Once you find out how these stories end up, you will not likely retain it for long — not without some incentive to.*

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#13: Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), by Philip Roth

What is he doing to himself, this fool! this idiot! this furtive boy! This sex maniac! He simply cannot—will not—control the fires in his putz, the fevers in his brain, the desire continually burning within for the new, the wild, the unthought-of and, if you can imagine such a thing, the undreamt-of.


There’s a thing many readers do that surely drives authors up the wall, conflating an author with his characters. That by merely depicting certain thoughts or actions its creator must be tacitly endorsing them or offering them up as veiled confessions.*

What to do then in the case of Philip Roth, who fashioned an entire career out of a literary hall of mirrors? I never want to say that a character is a stand-in for the author simply because they share similar interests (as in the case of Ernest Hemingway and his fellow bullfighting aficionado Jake Barnes) — authors can’t be constrained by such limits — but Roth seems hellbent time and again on crossing them.

Which brings us to Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth’s infamous sex book. His ode to onanism, dramedy of debauchery, vaudeville of vulgarity. The book that made Roth’s name, the one that will be listed first in his obituary, and the one that showed what an underachiever Jim from American Pie really was.

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#12: The Sun Also Rises (1926), by Ernest Hemingway

“Do you still love me, Jake?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Because I’m a goner,” Brett said.


I didn’t like The Sun Also Rises.

I thought I would, but I didn’t. At 250 pages, I figured I’d breeze right through it, but in fact I found it a slog.

I don’t think it’s “poorly written” or “overrated” or unworthy of the critical anointing it’s received. Quite the contrary, I greatly admire Hemingway’s pioneering writing style. When you in your everyday to and fro are forced to endure an onslaught of run-on sentences and comma splices and all other manner of malformed thoughts spouting forth from the general public, Hemingway’s no-nonsense, muscular prose can be a desperately-needed tonic.

And yet, it just didn’t take.

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#11: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970), by Judy Blume

*Real life got in the way of continuing this list for a few months, but I expect to resume a regular reading/publishing schedule. On to Judy Blume!*

“How can I stop worrying when I don’t know if I’m going to turn out normal?”

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume

Sometimes when I’m at the bookstore and I wander into the Young Adult section, I have to marvel at the marketing bonanza it’s become. At Barnes & Noble, they have begun to split off a segment of the YA area for something called “Teen Paranormal Romance.”

The Triumph of the Adolescent Book Section must be a recent phenomenon; I don’t remember anything of the kind when I was a kid, and I’m not THAT old. I just remember a part of the library where they threw all the books that were either too advanced for children but too juvenile for adults. It seems that the YA genre — not counting the assembly line of dystopian/apocalyptic stories presently glutting the market — is now able to communicate in specific demographic ways that the age-appropriate books of my youth never did.

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