By Eric Olsen (with Dick Cummins, Dan Guenther, and Don Wallace)
This is the third in a five-part series of email exchanges among writer friends about the best books they’ve read in recent months—in some cases, ever. Catch up here: Part 1 with Dan Guenther, Part 2 with Dick Cummins.
It’s been a long strange trip for Don Wallace, who wrote his first story in 4th grade and is taking suggestions for his epitaph: “Needed a haircut for 45 years”—“Believed what his creative writing teacher said at UC Santa Cruz about West Coast writers not needing an agent” — “Lived next door to a serial killer and has not written about it (yet)”…
A haywire interview for a fact-checker job at The New Yorker led to a 30-plus-year career as a magazine editor at other magazines, some of them chic, some squalid. On the whole, he feels he dodged a bullet. Author of a novel about pro bass fishing (Hot Water), a book about the hype-and-commercialization of high school football (One Great Game), a serialized novel (everyone should try one once in their life) that ran for three years in Naval History magazine… And about six unpublished novels, one documentary film on Hawaiian music, three linked memoirs in Harper’s, and his forthcoming memoir, about a fixer-upper house he and his wife, fellow Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum Mindy Pennybacker bought when they were broke and struggling in Manhattan. The ruin was in a small village. On a tiny island. Off the coast of France. Now, 30 years later, here’s the book that explains it all: The French House: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village That Restored Them All (to be released by Sourcebooks, June, 2014). For more, see Don’s Facebook page.
Don’s favorite recent reads:
Let me begin with the Rose Bowl. An offensive play-calling debacle by Stanford—where my father played, also attended by both wife and son—why are we always smarter than our coaches? Why is it actually true this time and not just, pace A Fan’s Notes, just some ranter’s fantasy?
I loved that book, A Fan’s Notes by Fred Exley. It’s about a man who could be a great writer throwing it all away on his mad obsessive alcoholic fandom involving the New York Giants. It is scary, awful, funny, more honest than anything I’ve read in the memoir department. And it is really very good—he got a great book out of it, his only such. I have written several memoirs, and looking back I realize the book, which I read while at Iowa, is a bridge for a writer, or at least one like me. Going back to A Fan’s Notes in 2013 was a little scary, but it’s all still there—a great wallow that taught me to be honest with my life, thoughts, fears as they actually might appear—and then to go out and expand upon them in writing, as Ex did. This is literature that feeds the soul.
PS: Now that I think of it, it also opened the door to my book about high school football, which was an attempt to square my love and loathing for the game with my pursuit of writing (and not sportswriting).
I place Malcolm Lowry in that bag, by the way. Many if not most hate Under the Volcano; I dunno why. I love it and even October Ferry to Gabriola, which is hardly a book, more a looping lost ellipsis of a sentence—which taught me a little, too.
So, my other recent faves?
Wolf Hall (Picador, 2010) and the sequel, Bring Up The Bodies (Picador, 2013), both by Hilary Mantel, don’t need me to recommend them, but they are the best historical fiction of the decade. Even better, they’re at the top of my straight up list in fiction. For a writer with Iowa-based DNA in his system, the POV and interiority (heh-heh) offer lessons and inspiration. Hilary Mantel gets a beanbag chair on Mt. Olympus.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure, these books concern the life of the ‘enry the Eighth I first learned about in the 1967 Herman’s Hermits song. Later I caught up to the Shakespeare history plays and the various film interpretations—”Anne of a Thousand Days” and “Becket” in particular. Well, these books follow the villain, the fixer, the dark commoner and master plotter Thomas Cromwell, who, if the King asked for an annulment, found a way; who, if he needed a decapitation of an inconveniently barren wife, produced the evidence. The great trick by Mantel, besides her truly daring and rewarding narrative complexity, is to make Cromwell totally sympathetic and (we see this coming in the forthcoming third volume) tragic. He’s a leveler of aristocrats and we cheer him on, even as the heads roll. Too bad he’s not available for the current administration.
Hugh Selwyn Mauberley by Ezra Pound (Amazon Digital Services). Must-read poem about World War I and the shattering of human consciousness, that gave us the greatest take-down of war in stanza V: “There died a myriad/And of the best, among them,/For an old bitch gone in the teeth,/For a botched civilization.” Pound is difficult to read and to stomach, in his later ravings, but we don’t get where we are without him.
The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Volume 1, and Volume 2: In the Midst of Life (Amazon Digital Services). Most of us know him for the one brilliant short story and short film, “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which, I discovered, is a crying shame. He is our Isaac Babel of the American Civil War, a man with a row to hoe in the bloody corrupt fields. There are over a thousand pages here, much uneven, yet browsing them on a Kindle turned being trapped in an airport into a major literary experience. He is a reporter; a cynic with an unsparing wit; and a teller of tales of a true and death-haunted America, served up with bitter greens and gristly fatback. We needed him in Iraq, 2003.
Land of Little Rain by Mary Hunter Austin (Modern Library, 2003), a slim and wondrous account of a tiny patch of valley that lies under the escarpment of the Sierra Nevada range. Austin arrived in the 1880s and tells a spare story that broke ground in how to write about nature and mankind in the semi-wild. Correction: there is no “story,” just sentence after sentence of interpenetration of the wild. As a narrator, she’s barely there. No backstory. You are the camera, the consciousness. As I say, groundbreaking.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed (Vintage, 2013). A very popular memoir and tell-all of another busted-up American life cured by A Year of Doing Something Different, in this case hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed wasn’t a hiker: she’d done some heroin, her mother had died, she’d wandered away from a perfectly good husband. To save herself, she shouldered an 80-pound pack and proceeded to stumble her way to sartori, or at least the next campsite. This kind of book is a formula (The Year Without Toilet Paper is an actual title out there, I’m sure) but in Strayed’s hands the book is affecting, self-deprecating, and yes, uplifting. I spent my summers hiking as a kid and teen, covering some of the ground she did, but this is not your R.E.I. snob kind of hiking. It’s semi-incompetently putting one step in front of the other en route to self-discovery. Good for her.
Next week, Eric Olsen’s favorite recent reads.