Posts Tagged ‘author’

My Favorite Author

Monday, April 29th, 2013

Having me pick a favorite author is like having me to select a favorite breath of air. Reading for me is very much like breathing. It’s necessary to keep me alive, to keep me sane. I do it without thinking, without consciously saying, “I think I’ll sit down and read.” For me, it’s the default state. If I’m not doing anything else, I’m reading.

Favorite writer? A futile question. My answer will vary depending on my mood when you ask, the time of day, or, more importantly, the book I’m currently reading.

But you came here for my favorite author, so here he is: James Lee Burke.

Some call Mr. Burke a genre writer. That may be true, but it’s also dismissive. Burke’s books are almost all mysteries, all detective novels (with a few cowboys thrown in for good measure), but I dare even the most exclusive “literary novel” reader to pick up any one of Burke’s works at random and tell me that this author isn’t one of the finest practitioners of writing in the English language. If you love mystery novels, you should know Burke. He’s won the Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America twice.

Most of his work is set in the deep South, in and around New Orleans, but also in Texas and, on occasion, in Montana. Burke’s mastery of place, atmosphere, and setting are simply stunning. Read just the opening page of any of his books and you are there. You might call it cinematic, but Burke practices some sort of literary virtual reality. You know where the characters are standing at every moment. You’re standing there right there with them. You can feel the heat and humidity, you can hear, taste, and smell as they do. I can’t imagine a computer simulation that could be as complete and as deeply immersive.

I’d say his work is a master class in writing, but he is so powerful that it’s hard to not be swept away by his words. It’s difficult to analyze what he does without suddenly finding yourself emerging at an end of a chapter and asking yourself, “How did that happen?” But study him I do. I don’t choose to emulate him, but I do want to understand how he does it.

Burke writes about crime, violence, and deep personal demons. His novels can be shocking, disturbing, and profoundly suspenseful. And they are satisfying for me in a real and deep way. It’s a good thing for me that Burke is prolific, averaging a book every year. For a long while his publication schedule coincided with our family vacations to the beaches of the Outer Banks in North Carolina and I looked forward to settling down in my beach chair with a cooler of beer at my side, an umbrella over my head to shelter me from the heat and act as a break from the unrelenting wind, and the latest James Lee Burke novel in my lap. When I think vacation, that’s the image that pops into my head.

I first discovered Burke by listening to an interview with him on NPR’s Fresh Air by the incomparable Terry Gross. He read aloud from his novel, “Heaven’s Prisoners” and from that moment I was hooked. There in my car, listening to him read, I found that I was holding my breath (which is not recommended while operating a motor vehicle). I quickly bought and read everything he had published to date and ever since have made a point to buy his latest book in hardback. I look at that as a way to reward the author, hoping that he’ll keep it up. His main character, Dave Robicheaux, is like an old friend now and I’m glad to see him, even if I know that Dave is a troubled man and violence follows him.

You can start anywhere, but if you’re at all interested in series fiction you’ll want to start at the beginning with “The Neon Rain,” published in 1987. I recently reread the first five Robicheaux novels and was impressed once again at how powerful Burke’s writing is, how fresh, and how demanding he is of the reader. He tells the stories his way and will simply not permit the reader to look away.

His latest novel is on its way to me now. “Feast Day For Fools.” I can’t wait.

For completeness, I’ll add a list of other favorite authors. They are, in no particular order, William Gibson, Patrick O’Brian, Gene Wolfe, Barbara Tuchman, Alfred Bester, Neil Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Graham Greene, John Le Carre, Steven Pinker, George Dyson, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), E.B. White, John McNulty, James Thurber, Vernor Vinge, John D. MacDonald, Rex Stout, Robert A. Heinlein, Harlan Ellison, Ted Sturgeon, Cordwainer Smith, Ursula Le Guin, Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr.), Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, William Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Tom Stoppard, Edward Albee, Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekov, Edgar Allen Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.P. Lovecraft, James Clavell, Brian Aldiss, James Blish, Olaf Stapledon, Robert Zelazny, Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Ann Pratchett, Richard Powers, Richard Russo, Jarod Diamond, William Least Heat Moon, Oliver La Farge, Larry McMurtry, Gore Vidal, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Alexander Dumas, Gustav Flaubert, Walker Percy, Arturo Perez-Reverte, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Umberto Eco, John Irving, E. M. Forster, Milorad Pavic, Adam Gopnik, Michael Chabon, David McCullough, George R. R. Martin, Gerald Posner, Ambrose Bierce, Daymon Runyon, Donald Westlake (Richard Stark), Nathaniel Philbrick, J. R. R. Tolkein, Larry Niven, John Ciardi, Neil Simon, …

This list is in no manner comprehensive or complete. I simply stopped typing. I expect to add to my list of favorite authors quite soon.

Originally published in the Read & Trust Newsletter

Make Good Art

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

Yesterday’s Required Reading featured author Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is a remarkable author, someone who really has a voice. It’s clear, articulate, and has a pacing and rhythm that captivates me. It’s clearly his voice.

I was reminded of this recently when I watched the video of Gaiman delivering the commencement speech for the 2012 graduating class of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. It was brilliant, touching, funny, and completely Gaiman. And hearing him deliver it, hearing him read his speech in his own speaking voice, reinforces my great admiration for him. If you haven’t yet seen it, it is twenty minutes well invested.

Here’s the video:

There are many, many excellent things he has to say in this speech, but the most important of them all is this: make good art. It doesn’t matter what happens to you—just make good art. And on this he is remarkably spot on.

Sometimes life is hard. Things go wrong in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get go wrong, when they get tough, this is what you should do: make good art.

Others may get angry and strike out at others. Some may seek revenge. Some may sulk and withdraw. Some may turn inwards and disappear. Some may complain. Some may quit. But if you make good art you’ll triumph.

This is true.

My youngest daughter, an art student, recently pointed at the hundreds of names that floated by on the movie screen, the credits. “When someone asks me what an art school degree means I tell them to look at this,” she said.

“Tell them to point to any non-natural object around them,” I told her. Someone made that. An artist.

We all need to be musicians and dancers and builders. Makers. Artists. Because that’s what humans do with adversity and challenge.

We make art.

Raise your sights, set your goals to do more than just make art. Make good art.

See also this wonderful illustration of Gaiman’s words.

Required Reading: Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns Of August

Monday, March 19th, 2012

There’s a special pleasure that come from reading very good books. I can feel myself grow smarter, better, as I read them.

I rarely feel smarter than when I read Barbara Tuchman.

I recently received the newly released Barbara Tuchman: The Guns of August & The Proud Tower (Library of America). I have both books in my library already, but I wanted this particular edition as well. I also wanted to reward the excellent Library of America for selecting Ms. Tuchman and committing to keeping her work in print.

I’ve read these works before, but when I opened the beautiful new book and started reading The Guns of August once again, I was struck with just how wonderful a writer and storyteller Tuchman was. She was, without question, one of our finest historians and writers.

And one of our most important.

I spoke of feeling more intelligent, smarter, when I read her books and I think that this is a clear fact. We all need to know what she has to tell us. You may not realize just how important a book The Guns of August is. It changed the course of history itself and quite likely prevented a global nuclear war.

You read that right: President Kennedy reflected on the lessons in this book during the Cuban missile crisis and insisted that his cabinet and military leaders read it. Kennedy refused to make the same mistakes as the Germans in 1914 and helped walk us back from the brink of Armageddon. We all owe an eternal debt of gratitude to Barbara Tuchman.

Kennedy couldn’t read what I feel is her most important work, The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, but you can. It is absolutely required reading for all leaders and politicians. It is for you, too.

But first read The Guns Of August so that you will better heed her advice. Then read A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century and be dazzled by her depth of vision and learn that the world isn’t nearly as simple as you thought (and we humans make the same mistakes over and over again).

Then read The First Salute for a stunning view of America’s history and learn that you didn’t know as much about the American Revolution as you thought you did. Then you can read the benefit from The March of Folly. Trust me, you need to know what this book contains.

Read all of her work, but don’t deny yourself the lessons of The March of Folly or the stunning story of The Guns of August.

You’ll feel smarter, be smarter, if you just open these books and read.