Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My Mount Rushmore of Writers - Fiction

Last week, I discussed who would be on my Mount Rushmore of Non-Fiction writers - now it is time for fiction. Naturally, this was even more difficult. I could do a Mount Rushmore of just crime fiction, but I stuck to the rules and picked four writers who have shaped my literary world. (Editors Note: I shied away from the "classics" - not because I do not believe they have helepd shape fiction; rather, because this is not a university class).


Clive Cussler has to be at the top of any literary pantheon of fiction gods for me. He is not the best writer in the world, no one will ever accuse him of being Charles Dickens or Shakespeare, but he just may be the most entertaining. Add to that the fact he got me reading, really reading for the first time, helped cement his place on the list. When I set out to create this list, his name was the only one absolutely set in stone.

Best Book: Sahara holds a special place for me in his trove of works. It has everything you could want in a novel; character, plot, history, action and great characters. A deeper novel then people will ever give credit, this is one piece of popular fiction which rises above the rest.


Herman Wouk earned a place on this list by writing what may stand as the two best books I have ever read. His two volume World War Two epic was everything a saga could be and set the bar for all war fiction that followed. Sure, the romantic subplots sometimes dulled the flow of the book, but you cared about the characters. You wanted them to find happiness, secretely knowing all along that they never would. At the end, all you want is to share Wouk's deeply powerful theme: the only true way to stop conflict is through love of peace, not fear of war. A staggering work of fiction everyone should read.

Best Book: Do you even need to ask? In case you missed my comments above, The Winds of War and War and Rememberance remain two of the greatest works of fiction. Timely, prescient and powerful these are books that demand reading.


There are probably five or six crime fiction writers I could have placed on this list, yet I went with Dennis Lehane. Why? Read his books and you won't doubt me for a second. Starting with his Patrick Kenzie / Angie Gennaro series all the way through Mystic River, Lehane has proven again and again he is a master of the literary noir novel. His novels are so much more than simplistic "crime stories", they are deep, thoughtful and thematic. Take his brilliant Darkness Take My Hand a harrowing look at the cost of violence. Who pays the price for the actions we undertake rashly? Who suffers? Read any of his books and you will see why the shattering twists and turns will keep you gripped in the story until the end. I'll wait for you to pick up your jaw from the floor.
Best Book: You could take your pick from the Kenzie / Gennaro series, or you could go with Mystic River or even the psychological brain-twister Shutter Island. I will stick with one of my all-time favorites Darkness Take My Hand, probably the best serial killer novel ever written.

Stephen King may eventually be known as the greatest writer of his generation. Laugh if you want, but who more than King has made popular fiction into literature? His books have examined many themes which have haunted our society and he continues to churn out stories at an astounding rate. Not bad for a guy who supposedly retired several years ago. The things that have come out his mind deserve recognition whether you think his work should be in the "great literature" cannon or not. A hundred years from now they may not be reading many authors from our time, but I guarantee they will be reading Stephen King.

Best Book: A toss up between It and The Stand, I ultimately went with The Stand but both books endure as great works. The Stand for its perfect depiction of good versus evil and It for its exploration of what it really means to let go of your childhood fears.

The Best of the Rest:

Philip Kerr - A writer whose depiction of the rise and fall of the Nazi's through the eyes of a Berlin private eye makes for pitch perfect novels. Try and stop yourself from reading all six books straight through. He just continues to get better and better - need proof? His lastest Bernie Gunther mystery A Quiet Flame may just be the best book he has written yet.

James Lee Burke - His Dave Robicheaux books have shown the dark side of Louisiana to the world and like Kerr, he just continues to get better and better. Also, he may have written the best book about Hurricane Katrina - The Tin Roof Blowdown.

James Ellroy - Has written some of the best Noir around, yet it is his unmatched ride through the turbulent history and tangled conspiracies of the Kennedy years that earns him his spot on this list. American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand are incredible books that should be required reading for understanding the darkest period in American history.

George Pelecanos - Like Dennis Lehane, Pelecanos writes books that ratchet up crime fiction. His stories are intensely character driven and play out like gritty, grim, urban westerns. Yet, there is the pulse of a city and the heart of nation beating beneath the decay and death he chronicles.

David Peace - Not familiar with the name? You should be: he writes dark, historical thrillers which examine themes of police corruption and the fallout from crime. Whereas most writers shy away from the cost of murder and violence, Peace revels in it. His Red Riding Quartet about the infamous "Yorkshire Ripper" makes for intense, bleak reading. Peace writes books that are so much more than crime thrillers, they are literature, plain and simple.

Don Winslow - I have read a few books by Don Winslow and most can be shrugged off as crime thrillers that are decent. Then, I read The Power of the Dog. His searing, unflinching look at the rise of the Mexican Cartels is one of the great books written on the subject.

William Shakespeare - There was no way I could forget the Bard! All we have, all that has been written, flows from his works.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My Mount Rushmore of Writers - Nonfiction

I was thinking the other day about who I would put on my Mount Rushmore of Writers. Quickly surveying all the books I have ever read, I decided I would have to do one for Non-Fiction and one for Fiction. Without further ado I present the four authors (plus alternates) I would place in my literary pantheon.


Robert Kurson may not be as familier as some of the authors who appear later in this post but he is a king among non-fiction writers. The best part - he's only written two books. This is a man with a long way to go. His second book, Crashing Through is so fascinating and well written he proved lightening did not strike once.
Best Work - Shadow Divers a book which would place him firmly on this list even if it was the only one he ever wrote. Simply put, the book is an absolute masterpiece and one of the best books I have ever read. Period.


Nathaniel Philbrick has also written some seminal, fantastic books about the oceans - one revealed the true story behind Moby Dick, another the greatest explorer America has ever seen. His connections to the large events of America past are incredibly illuminating. With each book he seems to ratchet up his game and the depth and readability of his prose is truly stunning.

Best Work: Sea of Glory a richly detailed portrait of a man who discovered and mapped much of the world, started the Smithsonian musuem and discovered Antarctica - yet was forgotten by history because he was a completely complex, absolute jerk.


Antony Beevor has written the second world war for a long time and each work serves to illuminate and solidify the great events of the war. He has covered Stalingrad, Crete, The Fall of Germany and most recently, "the definitive" book on D-Day. Beevor does not so much as touch on his topics as become completely immersed in the them. He makes even the most mundane of statistics gripping reading. Much of what he writes is powerful and new information, gleaned from incredible levels of research one can only guess at the depths of. If you are into history and World War Two at some point you will cross paths with Beevor, the master.

Best Work: The harrowing Stalingrad which takes the reader deeper into the infamous battle then they likely wanted to go. Did you know for example, more German prisoners were taken from Stalingrad then any other venue in the war? Or that most of them died in Russian POW camps far worse then we can even imagine? A powerful look and the most captivating in our history.


Any pantheon of non-fiction gods would not be complete without Jon Krakauer. A writer with the unique ability to get so deep inside his subject it literally consumes his work, he could make a book about dry toast thrilling. He has scaled mountains, gone to war, searched the extremes of religon and pushed beyond the outer limits of human struggle. There may not be a finer writer of non-fiction alive. We are all bearing witness to greatness, it is just really unfortunate he only puts out a book every four years or so.
Best Work: Under the Banner of Heaven which so powerfully examined the nature of organized religon in our world through the Mormon Church. Given how much importance extremists now play in our world view, Krakauer has written a chronicle which will stand the test of time. A truly one of a kind work.

The best of the rest:

Sebastian Junger - A Death in Belmont and The Perfect Storm were both incredible books. One more seminal work and he makes the list.

Erik Larson - Both The Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck were incredible works (The former in particular) and Larson's style of weaving a singular, history changing moment with a brutal true crime narrative works so well it is scary.

Mark Bowden - Killing Pablo was a fantastic book, but I have yet to read Black Hawk Down, if it as good as advertised, he may make the list.

Sanyika Shakur - His autobiography Monster remains one of the ten best non-fiction books I have ever read. I seriously debated this one, if one book could put someone on the list. In the end, it could not. He is also the inaguaral winner of my "James Patterson Award"...for worst book of the year (for his debut "novel").

Monday, February 15, 2010

Book #19

Jon Krakauer has written several books which rightly deserve consideration as the best of the best. He has explored the inner workings of humanity through the prism of extreme mountaineering (Into Thin Air) and a personal journey of self discovery (Into the Wild) but no book he has written is as powerful as his insightful look into extreme religion (Under the Banner of Heaven).
For thousands of years man has sought to redeem irredeemable actions through religious principles - Krakauer chooses to focus on the Mormon church in his book yet the text works to illuminate the base qualities of all religion. Essentially, as he boils it down, religon has dominated our world for so long it demands closer attention be paid to what we believe - it is our duty to examine the basic tenants of faith. Mormonism has two different doctorines (those who believe in Polygamy and those who do not) and is ripe for such a close, detailed look. The church was born from violent circumstances and Krakauer does not shy away from these bloody origins.
However, as most people know, a deep examination of the origins of any faith (especially one which started less than 200 years ago) reveals significant cracks in the foundation. This is true of Mormonism as everything believed by the faithful can be cut down to what the prophet Joseph Smith saw in a hat. At some points during reading the book, one may stop and nearly shout "How can people buy this?" but the simple fact is - more than twenty million people do. Mormonism is one of the fastest growing religions in the world.
The history of Mormonism is intersperced with the brutal murder of Brenda Lafferty and her daughter Erica by her husband Ron and his brother Dan. Ron would later claim God told him to murder her as she had been corrupted by the devil (both brothers are currently in prison for the forseeable future - Ron sits on death row). The use of faith to "justify" murder is just one black mark in the long and violent history of the religon which has been shrouded for the most part in darkness. Polygimist leaders have built communities and ridiculously guarded compounds to protect what they see as their fundamental rights.
Yet, while Krakauer's illuminating look at religion succeeds he also does what would have seemed impossible - he makes the history of the Mormon church ridiculously entertaining. You literally cannot put this book down. His writing, always one of his strongest suits, is on full display here. While he informs and enlightens he also creates a page turner. Not many authors could have succeeded in this regard.
Naturally, this book has been condemned in many religious circles rather unfairly. Krakauer portrays the facts in a straightforward and non-biased manner. Plus, if you believe in what your religious leaders tell you, why should it matter what other people think of your religion? Ultimately any close look at faith will inevitably cause the cracks to show but is this not a good thing? Questioning the workings of our world and not just blindly accepting what we have been told has made us great, and this book helps to remind us of the need to do just that.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Book #18

It by Stephen King is a monumental horror opus that rightfully deserves its handle as a classic of the genre. This is one deep rabbit hole to get lost in and once you plunge downward the book grips you and refuses to let go. The plot seems deceptively simple - seven children fight a shape-shifting, child-deviouring monster both when they are middle age and when they are twelve years old. Okay, maybe it is not as deceptively simple as advertised.
King wanted to write a book about a troll that lived under a bridge, yet in the author's universe a bridge is too small, so it quickly evolves into a town - his infamous haunted city of Derry, Maine (the setting of many of his best novels). The plot follows a monster which hunts and eats children for a period of two years out of every twenty-seven. A group of seven kids (Six boys and one girl) dubbed the "Losers", decide to make a stand against the evil destroying their town. King juxtaposes their decision to return to do battle as adults with the choices they made as children. This is a big book full of rich characters and details which pull you so deeply into the story you fell as if you have become one of the characters.
It is one of King's most ambitious novels and several cross-cutting themes weave through the twisty narrative. King is letting go of our deepest childhood fears and showing how we must face up to what is hiding in the darkness before it (metaphorically and literally) devours us.
Many scenes in the book are gut wrenching and emotionally charged, while others are blood chilling sequences best not read before bedtime. From the compelling open scene in which a child is sucked into the sewer by one of It's many guises - the clown Pennywise (why all children should be slightly terrified of clowns), to the thunderous climax which leaves the reader astounded and mind-blown, this book is a near perfect story.
The book is long, well over a thousand pages, and demands an insightful reading. In fact, it will take a stronger person than I not to open the first pages as soon as you have turned the last, as the deep contemplation truly begins. This is definitely not your stock horror story and showcases King at his thematic, metaphorical, metaphysical and philosophical best.