If you're a fan of the excellent online 'zine Plots With Guns, or Best American Mystery Stories 2008, or even Surreal South 2007, chances are you already know of Kyle Minor. Just yesterday was the pub day for his first collection of stories, In the Devil's Territory. Kyle has a poet's heart and his work is not genre-specific;
you'll find his stories taut and wise and occasionally deliciously raw, no matter what their subject.
This spring he'll embark on an ambitious twenty-five city tour with Kathleen Rooney, author of Live Nude Girl. They blog about it here.
I'm always curious about the books that other writers have found indispensable, and Kyle is one of the best-read writers I know--so I thought I'd ask him about the books that mean the most to him.
(Correction 11/21: Photo Credit Miriam Berkley--Her profile is here.)
Ten Books I Hope My Children Will Read Before They Turn Twenty
by Kyle Minor
I’m honored to have a chance to drop some words in the Handbasket, because this is a blog I read regularly, and Laura Benedict is a person I very much admire.
Laura has asked me to type about the ten books I hope my children will read before they turn twenty. This is a subject that has caused me no small amount of worry. This week I’m celebrating the publication of my own first book, a collection of stories titled In the Devil’s Territory. The stories in the book will be new to most of the people who read them, but they’re not new to me. It took me four years to write that book, and it’s been nearly a year since I let it go. In the time intervening, I’ve completed a novel and made a lot of progress on a nonfiction narrative that seems to be growing into a third book. So I have some distance, now, on that book, and those stories, and what I realize, now, is that while writing my first book I was at the same time wrestling with all of the things I saw and experienced before I turned twenty. I was raised in West Palm Beach, Florida, a cosmopolitan and contemporary and wholly American place if ever there was one, but I spent most of my growing-up time there among a religious subculture that I spent my childhood embracing, then spent much of my young adulthood alternately embracing and rejecting.
When I look now at the book I have written, I can see that I was in the process of teaching myself that the people I grew up around were pretty much the same as people are everywhere. They had the capacity to offer up great generosities and great pettinesses, and often both at the same time. My fifth grade teacher, for example, was a Cold War hero. She escaped East Berlin in the dead of night, swimming back and forth across the frigid Spree River three times, each time with an elderly relative on her back. All my life I have been telling myself that she did all this so she could make her way to West Palm Beach , Florida , and ruin the lives of fifth grade boys. But when I sat down to try to write her story, on her own terms, and my story of knowing her, I knew that to reveal the kinds of truths fiction can reveal, it would cost me something, and what it cost me was the innocence and singularity of the story I had been telling myself about my story and hers. It was my responsibility to try to see the story of the child I had been through her eyes, to try to understand the pressures, prejudices, fears, and failures that she must have been trying to work out in her own life at the time hers intersected with mine.
As I wrote, I began to feel rather deeply toward a woman who had once pushed me up against the yellow air conditioning unit my father had installed outside her classroom and told me, “Surely God does not love a child like you must be.” I began to understand the reasons why she would have valued things I had come to loathe, such as daily calisthenics, daily recitation of a Protestant catechism, and daily inspections of desktops for dustlessness. I dreamed a death in Frankfurt for the father she loved. I dreamed in her a devotion to the God who had not been able to save her mother from a border guard’s bullet. I dreamed her a secret life caring for an invalid aunt without aid of the American Lutherans she sat beside weekly in Sunday services. I was making it all up, of course, and I ascribed to characters modeled on myself and members of my family actions far darker than those we had committed in real life. But through all of it, I was working toward empathy, an act of understanding by which I could make human a figure I had long wrongly taken for the monster that none of us really are. It is a sobering act, deciding to conclude that those we have taken for monsters are not monsters at all, but rather human beings the same as we are, no more or less capable of inflicting harm than we are. It causes the writer to turn the microscope back upon himself, and see close up the ways in which he has failed others, has inflicted hurt, has claimed nobility while being unknowingly and unthinkingly driven by selfishness.
Fresh from that experience, I must consider what books from my past are most valuable to pass along to my children. I must consider what books I’ve discovered in adulthood have opened me to a more generous assessment of life’s possibilities. I must not rely too much on the books I love the most, almost all of them works of fiction written in the twentieth century (although I’m sure I will anyway), but I must also be careful not to privilege works of information over works of imagination, because works of the imagination – plays and poems and mystery stories and mythic tales and so on – can often better convey our most deeply felt longings and the complicated web of motivations through which we act upon them.
So it is with fear and trembling and a sense of my inadequacy to the task (For real! This list is for the children I hope to love toward a fulfilled and happy adulthood!), I’ll give it a shot:
1. The King James Version, the book I’ve struggled with and against my whole life. The King James Version, because it was the version I was forced to memorize verses and sometimes chapters at a time throughout my school years, and The King James Version because for all its translational flaws and archaisms, it is still the originating music from which contemporary writers of prose and poetry in English make our own.
2. The Selected Stories of Andre Dubus, a book by a writer who was himself full with the Bible, and who was also full of human desire the size of Mt. Everest . Dubus’s stories are almost always about the intersections between the sacred and the profane, and they are almost always studies in a deep, abiding, and well-earned grace the likes of which I’ve not been able to reconcile myself toward in my own life and in my own stories. There is little in the way of splash or artifice in Dubus’s stories. Instead we get all the sadness and complicated joy of life in tiny untidy packages that read now as valiant cries against the tyranny of death.
3. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, a book that is wise enough to know that neither factual accounts of history nor sober psychological realism can be sufficient to account for the horrors of the worst war the world has known to date, a war whose horrors could easily enough be duplicated given our demonstrated willingness as a species to let ambition lead to belligerence and belligerence to wholesale massacre. Vonnegut figured out, presciently, that the subject is almost too big for us to get our heads around any other way than by science fiction, time travel, trouble on trains, and Trafalmadorians. That it also happens to be the funniest book ever written about atrocity only contributes the devastation it inflicts upon the reader. I did not leave the house for two days after the first time I read it.
4. The Collected Works of John McPhee, because the understated New Yorker writer set himself no less a task than writing the entire post-World War II history of the United States by way of the most ordinary things in our lives: oranges, rocks, the Monopoly board, the birchbark canoe, the airship. Reading his work now, one is surprised to learn how much he has in common with Nostradamus. In The Curve of Binding Energy (1974), he warned of the vulnerability of the World Trade Center to terrorist attack, and in The Control of Nature (1989), he warned of the vulnerability of New Orleans to the sea. As the twenty-first century has already shown him to be terribly prophetic, perhaps we would be wise to revisit all of his work with a careful eye. Even if nothing comes of it, we’d still have the pleasures of Levels of the Game, a book-length account of a single tennis match, or Coming into the Country, the definitive report from Alaska as it was dragged kicking and screaming into statehood.
5. The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by Milan Kundera. Okay, this is cheating (but I’ve been cheating all along – the Bible is 66 books long, and the collected McPhee, which hasn’t even been officially collected yet, is 26 volumes), but in a way both books are a single book, and together they are Eastern Europe’s greatest literary achievement, which is quite a claim when one considers that I’m saying they trump Kafka, Conrad, and Stanislaw Lem. Both books proceed from the shadow of the troubled and glorious history of the city of Prague and the Czech people, an intellectually and aesthetically vibrant milieu suppressed first by the Nazis, then the Communists; but even though these impositions form the backdrop for the novels, their proper subject is the vast symphony of life, and when the reader turns the last page of either, he or she is left with the feeling that something has forever been changed, that some core resonance that binds us together with one another and with everyone who has come before us, has been discovered and experienced and given as an ongoing gift. Few works of literature (or film, or music, or any other sort of thing) can lay claim to such riches.
6. The Selected Poems of James Wright, because a page at a time, they elevate the life’s experiences of the son of a Hazel-Atlas Glass factory worker to the song of everyman. Take, for example, “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio ,” the poem whose ending is echoed (I hope) in the concluding lines of “The San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl Party,” the first story of my book:
In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.
All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.
Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.
7. In the Lake of the Woods and The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, because they show us how the truest versions of our own stories are themselves in doubt, that ours is not a life of surety, that good people do bad things. Along these lines, also: I. and End of I., by Stephen Dixon; all of the Zuckerman books, by Philip Roth; “The Final Proof of Fate and Circumstance” and “One of Star Wars, One of Doom,” by Lee K. Abbott. (Yes, I continue to cheat. I am a cheater. I want my children to read all of these books, and if have to cheat to do it, cheat I will!!!)
8. The Dew Breaker, by Edwidge Danticat, The Black Jacobins, by C.L.R. James, and Papa Doc and the Tonton Macoutes, by Bernard Diederich and Al Burt, three books (one of fiction, two of nonfiction) that go a long way toward introducing the American reader to Haiti, our beautiful, troubled neighbor just south of Florida. I am starting to believe that our dealings with the hemisphere’s poorest country might well be the ultimate test of our collective morality as a people. So far, we are failing the test badly.
9. Going to Meet the Man, by James Baldwin. Not too long ago I read an interview with Toni Morrison in which she said she had come to the opinion that race is a conversation white people should be having among themselves. I believe that she is right, and I also believe that we ought to be listening to voices, living and dead, who have sung loud and true. Going to Meet the Man is a good place to start, and I haven’t even yet mentioned how it would have made this list on grounds of aesthetics alone, for its brave title story, and for the sad and lyrical “Sonny’s Blues,” the story for which Baldwin is best known.
10. Blankets, the graphic novel by Craig Thompson, because it would be the best way I know to show my children something of the place, time, and worldview from which I came, a life different from the one they are now living, and I hope I live long enough to read it alongside them, and hear what they think about it, and about everything else, because more than anything I want to know and be known by my children.
Now I have reached my allotted ten books, and at such length that I doubt Laura will let me post it all. (“You are a novelist,” my graduate school thesis advisor admonished, “not a story writer. Go write a novel.” I fear I should not tell you this, since half the reason I have been asked to write this blog today is to shill my story collection!) Surely I have failed: I have left out Shakespeare, Beckett, Stephen King, Shusaku Endo, Richard Price, David Simon’s The Wire (which may not be a book, but which is surely literature), Raymond Carver, Coetzee’s Disgrace, Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Camus, James M. Cain, Barry Hannah, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, the Russians (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn, Gogol, Bulgakov), all manners of science fiction and crime and mystery writers, the fabulists, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Cormac McCarthy . . . . . . and that’s just the fiction writers!
I hope my children will read broadly in poetry and history, in the languages and the sciences, their coffeetables full with books of paintings and photographs, their television centers overflowing with films. For them I want, in short, everything, and I’ve come to the belief that nearly everything has a little of it in some story somewhere, which means every literate one of us has the opportunity to live many, many lives; and most of all I wish my children lives of such fullness that the books are only a starting point, an impetus, a daily corollary pleasure, which reminds me of a few favorite lines from a favorite poem, Molly Peacock’s “Why I Am Not a Buddhist,” the closest thing to an articulation of a worldview I can offer:
I love desire, the state of want and thought
of how to get; building a kingdom in a soul
requires desire. I love the things I've sought-
you in your beltless bathrobe, tongues of cash that loll
from my billfold- and love what I want: clothes,
houses, redemption. Can a new mauve suit
equal God? Oh no, desire is ranked. To lose
a loved pen is not like losing faith. Acute
desire for nut gateau is driven out by death,
but the cake on its plate has meaning,
even when love is endangered and nothing matters.
For my mother, health; for my sister, bereft,
wholeness. But why is desire suffering?
Because want leaves a world in tatters?
How else but in tatters should a world be?
A columned porch set high above a lake.
Here, take my money. A loved face in agony,
the spirit gone. Here, use my rags of love.
Thanks so much for this, Kyle. You totally had me with the KJV. And cemented the deal with James Wright. A wonderful list.