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Fidel's Picks

 

Steve Fidel, Powell’s PR Guy, did a lot of things in his life before he got smart enough to work at Powell’s Books. He was a teacher, advisor, counselor, fundraiser, and writer. He lived in Asia and Europe for more than six years before settling back here in Portland; and given the rainy weather in the Pacific Northwest, one wonders why he left such exotic climes as southern Thailand to come back to gray Portland.

But with his...shall we say, eclectic background, where else could he go but to work in one of the world's great bookstores? When he's not spreading the good word of Powell’s, Steve writes and reads as much as he can.

The Best Ten Novels I've
Read Over the Last Ten Years

All I really require in a novel is decent writing and a few intriguing characters. Given that there are more than 10,000 new books published in this country every year, this is harder to find than one might suspect . The ten novels below are by no means exhaustive, but these were the first ten that came to mind.

#1 Simple and Perfect

No Great MischiefNo Great Mischief
by Alistair MacLeod

I regret coming so late to Alistair MacLeod — this guy can really write! His style and sentences are deceptively simple, and the book itself seems too small to contain all the heart he plows into it. He's been publishing for more than 30 years, but has only completed two short story collections and one novel. When you read MacLeod, you'll recognize why it takes him so long to finish a story — they are all little pieces of perfection, no fat, no pretense, just elegant writing and human stories with wonderful characters. I hate sentimental schlock, and what continues to amaze me about MacLeod is his ability to tread so deftly on that sharp edge between the heartfelt and the sentimental, never falling into simpering abyss. If you like the kinds of stories Alice Munro, Eudora Welty, or Hemingway write, MacLeod is for you.

#2 When Cultures Collide

The Quiet AmericanThe Quiet American
by Graham Greene

Whenever someone asks me to recommend a novel that deals with cultural collision, this is my first choice. Having lived amongst lots of different peoples, I have a prejudice toward books on cross-culture mishap, and am continually amazed that given all the different ways people may perceive the world, we're not at one another's throats more often. Graham Greene was a master of observation and human foibles; and every character in this book, no matter how foul, is so human that you cannot help but like them, or at least empathize. Set in French colonial Vietnam, the characters' situations and pitiful dilemmas remain painfully contemporary. Other great ones along these lines are The Narrow Corner, A Passage to India, and, of course, The Sheltering Sky.

#3 The Great Plains

PlainsongPlainsong
by Kent Haruf

Just before Plainsong really hit big, I interviewed Kent Haruf for a now-defunct magazine called Boswell; and after speaking to Mr. Haruf for an hour, caught a glimpse of the modest spirit behind this wise novel. The story is written with deep humility, a plain and simple song, as the title suggests — though deceptively so. I grew up in a small farming town, and can honestly say I have known every one of the characters in Plainsong, who, though they live in more simple surroundings, lead lives as complex as any other. Like Alistair Macleod, Kent Haruf has got the "decent writing" thing down, and his characters are delightful.

#4 H. G. Wells Meets the Civil War

Gob's GriefGob's Grief
by Chris Adrian

This story has everything — Civil War heroics, survivor guilt, social history, the most believable rendition of Walt Whitman ever attempted in a novel, and an ending of 19th-century fantastical proportions I personally found quite refreshing. Truly, it's nice to see a writer of "literary fiction" employ fantasy to so much profit, and in a first novel, no less. I love this book for many reasons, one of which is for its originality, its pure and innovative voice, and the risks Adrian took. Chris Adrian is a medical student, but I hope, purely for selfish reasons, he has the good sense to give up the blade and take up the pen for more novels like this one.

#5 The Road to Mendacity

The Debt to PleasureThe Debt to Pleasure
by John Lanchester

If nothing else, read this one for its black humor. It is wickedly, deliciously deviant and hilarious. I didn't know what exactly the narrator was up to until I was almost to the end of the book, and all I could do at that point was sit back and admire his deceptions. If you like wicked-good rippers like The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Haunting of Hill House, or About the Author, check out The Debt to Pleasure.

#6 Freaks Rule!

Motherless BrooklynMotherless Brooklyn
by Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem has mostly written sci-fi, so at Powell's we keep this book in Sci-Fi, which makes no sense at all since the book has nothing to do with science fiction. The narrator, Lionel Essrog, known as The Human Freakshow, suffers with Tourette's syndrome and though you might not want to know him in real life, he's got to be one of the most brilliant characters ever created. His quirky rants put me off at first, but I found myself being drawn closer to him with each page, and by the end of the book, I had gained a whole new appreciation for Lionel Essrog. He's trying to find the murderer of the only man who gave him anything resembling fatherly care. Lionel's search takes on rather desperate proportions, but therein lies much of this book's beauty. There's nothing to compare it to — a true original.

#7 Rancid Love

The Tax InspectorThe Tax Inspector
by Peter Carey

I’m willing to admit a taste for the darker corners of the human heart; and The Tax Inspector is another one that'll make you look askance at everyone you pass in the street, wondering what sort of malignancies may linger in their secret caves. The vulgar Catchprice family have been car dealers for several generations (Peter Carey's family were also car dealers) and they all live together, just off the lot, at Sydney's suburban edges. The Catchprices are…let's see…how to be polite about this? You might say they're a tad eccentric. These are some real extreme folks, but (and I think this shows Carey's genius as a writer), you come out of this cataclysmic tale with an all-seeing understanding of the everyday ways people are corrupted. Along these lines, I'd also like to recommend, Pop. 1280, The Grifters, After Dark My Sweet, and The Killer Inside Me, all by Jim Thompson, master of corruption.

#8 Intrigue in Berlin

The InnocentThe Innocent
by Ian McEwan

A shrink once told me there's no such thing as an innocent. We're all guilty of some deviance at some level. I like stories where a seeming innocent is put into a situation where his/her naiveté is put to the test, forcing them to reveal sides they never suspected. The Innocent concerns an English military intelligence man assigned to Berlin just after the war, where he finds more depravity than he is equipped to even recognize, let alone navigate. Unwittingly, he sinks into the post-Nazi milieu with youthful gusto, and is nagged by his simplicity for the rest of his life.

#9 Forget Iron John

Fight Club Fight Club
by Chuck Palahniuk

This one's somewhat redundant — I mean, everyone raves about Fight Club. Adding my voice just seems trite. But…it's trueFight Club was one of the most original novels published in the late '90s. Granted, it suffers from huge quantities of nihilism, but the '90s were one of America's most self-involved decades (a tough call in a country that wallows in navel gazing). The great thing about this book is that Palahniuk puts a face on, and a heart into, a portion of what drives American nuttiness. I mean, forget Iron John, this is a real book with real male characters who feel like they're struggling with the kind of angst that real men in late 20th-century America struggle with. It's dark, it's funny, it's insightful — good book, great read!

#10 Twain is Still the Master

The Adventures of Huckleberr Finn The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
by Mark Twain

I hadn't read Huckleberry Finn for more than 20 years, but I'm really glad I picked it up again. In terms of language alone, few writers, living or dead, can match the genius of Mark Twain. Finn is America's only equal to The Odyssey. This traveler's tale, set on majestic waterways, provides brilliant social critique, down-to-earth humanist philosophy, and delightful, deadpan humor. If you've read it before, read it again. If you've never read it, I envy you for the fresh experience of enjoying this novel for the first time.

#11 (I Lied)

All the Names All the Names
by José Saramago

I couldn't resist including this stunning novel by Nobel prize-winner José Saramago. At first, the style may be off-putting, but once you get into it, the story flows as delicately as melted butter. With the preternatural perception of Kafka, and the gentle reflection of Steinbeck, All the Names is a mostly allegorical tale of a petty bureaucrat who seeks to understand the lives of the forgotten. His quest ends in a remote corner of a cemetary where he, and the reader, are graced with a nearly celestial visitation. In the hands of a lesser writer, the set-up would have been pure schmalz, but in the hands of Saramago, it's nothing short of poetry.

 

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