Steve Fidel, Powells PR Guy, did a lot of things in his life
before he got smart enough to work at Powells 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
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 Powells, Steve writes and reads
as much as he can.
Best Ten Novels I've
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.
Read Over the Last Ten Years
Simple and Perfect
When Cultures Collide
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
Welty, or Hemingway
write, MacLeod is for you.
The Great Plains
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
H. G. Wells Meets the Civil War
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
The Road to Mendacity
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.
Debt to Pleasure
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.
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
Intrigue in Berlin
Im 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
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.
Dark My Sweet, and The
Killer Inside Me, all by Jim Thompson, master of corruption.
Forget Iron John
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.
Twain is Still the Master
This one's somewhat redundant I mean, everyone raves about Fight
Club. Adding my voice just seems trite. But
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!
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
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.
All the Names
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
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.