Happy New Year, Novel Nichers! May it bring you an abundance of good, thought-provoking, stay-up-all-nighting reads. I’m thrilled that my first post of 2014 isn’t actually *mine*: it’s a guest post from K. Jared Hosein, author of Littletown Secrets (Potbake Productions), in which he discusses the top twenty books that’ve influenced the vein, tone and weight of his own writing.
I recently named Littletown Secrets one of the best Caribbean books of 2013 in a Trinidad Guardian article, so it’s safe to say that I’m a fan of Hosein’s writing. I’m so intrigued by his picks that it’s motivating me to make a top 20 list of my own. More of that later — for now, here’s K. Jared!
You can’t write well if you don’t read.
And I would like to say that if there were ever some objective Euclidean list of axioms for literature, this would be at the top. But literature does not deal with absolutes, theorems or laws, but rather codes of conduct. Literature remains subjective and every person gravitates (or falls victim) to their own taste. I have never been the biggest fan of classical literature. There are some I enjoyed, but of my opinions: A Tale of Two Cities is egregiously over-written; The Scarlet Letter is barely readable; The Last of the Mohicans is dreadfully boring; and I’d prefer watch Kenneth Branagh do Shakespearean adaptations on the silver screen than actually read Shakespeare.
I grew up not liking to read, because these were the books presented to me as a child. I finished a book, like I would finish a plate of lentils. I didn’t enjoy it, but I knew it was probably good for me. It was actually the storytelling in 90’s role-playing fantasy videogames that first piqued my interest in the craft. It was from there that I wrote a story, which was published for the local Sunday Guardian. The “payment” I received was a book of my choice from a select store. I wasn’t too thrilled with this.
But when I went, the lady at the counter recommended what she had probably recommended for every little boy my age: Enid Blyton. I devoured it in one sitting. Pretty soon, I had a stack of Blyton books. As I got older, my preference changed. And it’s still rapidly changing. I think that must be a sign of maturation. Not an evolution of taste, I would say, but the hunger for different styles, tones and grooves marks the moment to further oneself. I stress, literature is anything but absolute, which is what makes it even more exciting to explore.
I’ve snapped a picture of twenty books that I believe have influenced my feelings and ideas about writing. They are not the best books I’ve ever read. But a book doesn’t have to be Pulitzer material for it to affect your belief in some way. I try not to idolize any work too much, as I fear finding myself craving to “live up to something else”. Though ambition and inspiration usually join hands and the craving is, thus, inevitable from time to time.
These books span from my childhood to just one year ago. I’m going to append each title with a mini-rationale for its placing.
The Pleasures of the Damned (Charles Bukowski) is a collection of poems by, well, Charles Bukowski. In my review for this book, I said that Bukowski is overbearingly honest in most of his poetry. He creates dystopia without apocalypse. The ordinary degenerate. There’s nothing else to it, since basically he was a degenerate. The collection, however, made me view poetry in a different light when I first discovered Bukowski at fifteen. Poetry didn’t have to be embellished or written with finely curled letters. It could be simple and ugly. Not even well-articulated hatred, like Sylvia Plath. Just raw, pithy imagery about toughness, like a one-eyed cat, a tough motherfucker, chasing blind mice.
Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut) concerns Billy Pilgrim, who becomes “unstuck in time”. After being abducted by a strange group of aliens, Billy finds that he can see his entire life (and even past his death, until the end of the universe itself). I read this in university and it changed my perspective on how science fiction could be written. Vonnegut, to me, seems to write with an extraterrestrial readership in mind. There is a certain humour in the simplicity we take for granted. Vonnegut captured that here. It is something I hope to also.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie) concerns Arnold Spirit, as he grows up in the ‘rez’ (Indian reservation), surrounded by disillusioned, drunk and temperamental Native Americans. This is the quintessential young-adult book, yes, complete with bullying, falling in love and illustrations. And it is quite remarkable. Young-adult authors engineer their books to extract an emotional catharsis, I believe. Finding humour in degradation. And the great fear that settles when one is told of their own home, “This place will kill you.” Living in a crime-ridden country, I can relate. Also, who knew comic strip cartoons could go so well with prose?
The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger) is a book we all know, or should know. It is a polarizing book, not for its content so much, but because it has been read by some of the most irritating people. Holden Caulfield has been kicked out of Pencey Prep and wanders around New York City for a few days before returning home. He also wears a red hunting cap. That’s it. That’s the book. And I’ve read it, no exaggeration, about ten times. I read this when I was fourteen after I borrowed it from my school library. Didn’t know anything about it when I did, but damn, it was hard to do my homework the night I started it. I don’t love Holden. I don’t even like him. But I realise: I don’t have to. It helps, yes, to feel something for a narrator. But I realised that they don’t always have to be affable. Just intriguing, as character is the greatest tool we have to elevating plot.
Johnny Got His Gun (Dalton Trumbo) is similar to another book I have on this list, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, though they are both here for different reasons. Joe Bonham awakens in a hospital and eventually deduces that he is basically a living torso. Yes, his face is gone and his appendages have all been blown off by an artillery shell. He’s a prisoner in his own body. It is a poignant and extremely depressing novel. It is here because of its attention to sensory detail and use of flashback during the recall of Joe’s life and family. It also shows the influence the written word can have against a behemoth such as World War I.
The Gunslinger (Stephen King) is the first book of the Dark Tower series, the magnum opus of King’s career, and I’ve put it here to represent both itself and the series. Though I’ve only read up to its fourth installment, the series is a detailed and expansive work that treads through the wasteland of a world that can only be described as where “the rest of the world has moved on”. Characters from previous novels make appearances, affecting the plot and reinforcing the idea that all King’s work is set in one universe. A haunting western setting along with deliberate anachronisms showed me that there really is no boundary to the worlds you can conjure up. Everything is acceptable, once done calculatingly and professionally.
Everything’s Eventual (Stephen King) is a short story collection, of which I wish to discuss only the titular story. “Everything’s Eventual” concerns Dinky Earnshaw, who has the ability to construct symbols that elicit strong suicidal feelings for those who view them. Dinky doesn’t understand his ability, and doesn’t use it until he is convinced to do it to rid evildoers in his city. I was thirteen when I read this, and I had never even imagined that such a Jedi-like mind trick could be taken seriously out of a Star Wars setting. King made it work, however. From an early age, because of this story, I realised how limitless writing really was. Sorcery could exist in suburbia, and that was fine.
Flowers for Algernon (Daniel Keyes) is an epistolary novel (and I actually didn’t know what that meant until I read it) about Charlie Gordon, a mentally challenged janitor whose rapidly increasing intellect affects his life and those around him. As it is an epistolary novel, the story takes place in entries from Charlie’s journal. The result is quite effective, as it shows both Charlie’s own changes in his thought processes, and clarity of events in hindsight. I came across this in a second hand book kiosk while I was in high school, and I actually had no idea at the time that books could be structured that way successfully.
The Chrysalids (John Wyndham) is a book that most high school students around my time might have done for their O’ Level Literature class. Though I didn’t study Literature, I read the book anyway. I was probably thirteen at the time. The story concerns David, one of a group of telepathic children whom live in Labrador. The people of Labrador believe that any deviation of the human anatomy (or ability) must be banished to the “Fringes”. It’s one of those classical allegory stories that youngsters are told to read, like Animal Farm. And while Animal Farm carried a strong message, it didn’t affect me as much as Chrysalids’. It carries one that is central to literature itself: never stop analysing everything.
The Call of the Wild (Jack London) concerns Buck, a domesticated dog that has been sold to become an Alaskan sled dog. The language is straightforward yet descriptive and the primal themes retain power in their simplicity, so when I read this at a very young age, it hit hard. It’s probably one of the most effective books I’ve read. It doesn’t miss a beat and the theme of “returning to nature” will always be relevant to literature, to society, to any persona one may hold. We all must be animals when the time comes.
Stay tuned — soon, we’ll be visiting the second half of K. Jared’s list — plus catching up on what’s new in his own writing world!