Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Lev Butts' Top Ten (Part I)

Recently I found myself tagged in one of those Facebook chain posts that make the rounds every few hours or so. You know those posts: Somebody tags you and you have to post a status that says exactly how you met or you have to tag the first five people on your friends list and they are your survival team when the zombies attack during a nuclear war caused by an asteroid crash or if you're tagged you have to post the answer to some kind of secret question and when you do the answer seems some how dirty ("I like it hot and steamy in the morning on the porch." Secret question: How, when, and where do you like to drink tea?).

I think you're a semi-illiterate moron.
Anyway, I usually try to avoid these things unless I'm bored or grading papers, but this one I liked. 

So much, in fact that I didn't do it. 

It was too good a challenge to waste on Facebook, so I decided to do it here instead:

List ten books (or series) that have stayed with you throughout your life.

I am assuming by "stayed" they mean have had a lasting impact, otherwise you're going to be bored with a list of encyclopedias, outdated cookbooks, and Gideon new testaments I just can't seem to get rid of.

When even Goodwill won't take your books, you know there's a problem.
I chose to write my list here in order to also discuss these works instead of just listing ten random books. I'm dividing it into multiple posts because I don't want to lose you halfway through.

Also I'm lazy and this will get me off the hook for next few posts.

So, here we go in no particular order (though I'm counting backwards because it gives the audience a false sense of anticipation):

10. The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (James Oliver Rigney, Jr.)

Before I became a literature teacher, this was an afternoon's reading.
I first came across this epic fantasy series during the second half of my senior year of high school when the first book, The Eye of the World, was released in paperback and the second, The Great Hunt, was released in hardback. The series tells the story of three young men and two young women from a backwater nowhere named the Shire the Two Rivers who find themselves at the center of literally world changing events.One of the young men is destined to be The Dragon Reborn, a male wielder of the One Power (this series version of magic or the Force or whatever), who will destroy the world when he defeats Shai'tan, the ultimate personification of evil (Shai'tan, Satan; get it?).

Several critics of the series decry its obvious debt to Tolkien, and they aren't wrong, especially in the early sections of the first book. However, I defy them to find a work of epic fantasy written after 1955 that doesn't owe something to Tolkien. I would argue that Jordan borrows far more from European and Asian mythology, especially the cyclical nature of time found in Hinduism and Buddhism, the concepts of balance, duality and a respect for nature found in Daoism, and the Islamo-Judeo-Christian creation story. More importantly, Jordan manages to take these concepts, as well as historical events, personages, and folklore, and weave them into a tightly written (though expansive) epic tale of good and evil. 

I loved it from page one, and despite my somewhat snarky plot summary above, I still do.

At the time, the series was supposed to span six books. By the time I was a senior in college, Jordan had just published the fifth book, The Fires of Heaven, and the series showed no signs of wrapping itself up at the end of the next installment.

I decided to wait to read it until Jordan finished the story before I tried again. Six books became seven; seven became nine. I know his author's bio at the back of every book claims he "intends to continue writing until they nail shut his coffin," I often thought, but surely he doesn't intend to be writing the same book!


Well damn.
Thankfully, his estate hired fellow fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson to complete the last three books of the series based on Jordan's notes, and in January of 2013, almost 30 years after Jordan first began writing the series, A Memory of Light, the fourteenth and final book (fifteenth if you count the prequel novella, New Spring), was released.

So perhaps, this entry fits both interpretations of "stayed with you" since I have literally been waiting my entire adult life to read the damn thing.

I restarted the series over last October. I aim to finish before they nail shut my coffin.  

9. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

Don't let the new edition fool you;
this is the version that won a Pultizer.  
When I was a grad student working on my Masters of English degree, I met the man who would become one of my most important academic/professional mentors, Dr. Randy Hendricks (Ha! bet you thought I was going to say Richard Monaco, didn't you? Hang in there).

Dr. Hendricks was (and is) everything I ever hope to be as an English professor: soft-spoken, encouraging, brilliant, a literary memory like a steel trap, and one hell of a funny guy after a few drinks. Every grad student I knew wanted to be just like him when we finished our programs. 

He was (and is) a Warren scholar, and in an attempt to jump start a conversation with him one night after class (I was taking a Melville course from him) I asked him what I should read if I wanted to read Warren. He recommended I start with All the King's Men.

This book tells the story of the political rise and fall and the moral decline and rebirth of Willie Stark, an idealistic hick who eventually becomes the corrupt governor of Louisiana during the Depression. It also tells the story of Jack Burden, Willie's friend whose primary job is to blackmail Willie's opponents, his descent into world-weary cynicism, and his eventual acceptance of his world and its flaws. While the story ostensibly follows Jack Burden's attempt to dig up blackmail material on his godfather, Judge Irwin, the plot, in good noir fashion, quickly spirals into mystery after mystery. How did the judge get his money? Why did Jack's father leave his mother? As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the every aspect of Jack's life is interwoven with Stark's career: "The story of Willie Stark, " Jack claims at one point, "and the story of Jack Burden are, in one sense, one story."

Willie Stark is equal parts Huey Long and Julius Ceasar. Jack Burden owes much to Phillip Marlowe, Sam Spade, and other hard-boiled heroes of the 1930's pulp magazines. Their story, though uniquely Southern, is also uniquely human.

As a Warren scholar myself, I realize this plot summary does not begin to do justice to the rich plot and intricate philosophical themes of this political novel, but it's the best I can do without giving away too much. 

All the King's Men, is not my favorite Warren novel (that honor goes to his next novel, World Enough and Time), but it is the one I come back to the most. It's also the one that I, like Dr. Hendricks before me, recommend to anyone who wants to read Warren's work.

Avoid this edition, though. "Restored" here does not mean"put 
back into its intended form." Here the publishers intend its less 
common definition: "fancy word so you'll buy the book twice;
actually it's mostly a rough draft."
To Be Continued . . .

That's about all I can squeeze into one post. Join me next month for numbers 8-6.

6 comments:

madwippitt said...

Typical. Leave it on a cliffhanger ... watch it: think of Jordan ...

JO said...

Of al; the tagging-things on FB, this is one of the few I've joined in. It is so much more interesting to know what people read than what they eat for breakfast.

Bill Kirton said...

Enjoyable and interesting as usual, Lev - and, as a fellow sloth, I envy you having conceived the ploy of turning it into several blogs.

AliB said...

Enjoyed your choices, Lev. Wish I had known of ATKM in advance of this month's book group theme of 'politics'. Instead I read a book recommended by my local librarian which I disliked a lot. Maybe there should be a new tag game for books I've enjoyed chucking in the bin ...

Reb MacRath said...

I'm with Bill, Lev. Fine post and clever ploy. Be interesting to see which month or months feature Monaco.

Lydia Bennet said...

Great post and clever lazy-bonesing! We all wish we'd thought of it. Never read either of these, look forward to seeing what else you choose. I too did this on fb. Hard to keep it to ten.