Friday, August 27, 2021

10 Books I can't live with out By Josh Stallings


Q: Which book that you’ve read has had the most profound effect on you? And why?

A: I have a love hate relationship with the alphabet and the written word in general. Growing up an undiagnosed dyslexic, I struggled over Dick and Jane and their damn dog. I hated reading, but I loved being read to. My love of books came from my parents. They were voracious readers. One of my favorite memories is lying on the living room floor with my brother and sisters listening to my father read A.A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh.” I love that book. The characters inhabiting the Hundred Acre Wood are archetypes for all of us. Eeore, he’s me. Who hasn’t been both Piglet and Winnie-the-Pooh at one time in our lives. At Christmas time Pops read Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Setting me up for a life of searching for words that sing.

I read a lot of plays partly because they were short, packing big stories into few pages. Indians by Arthur Kopit stuck with me for the power of the monologues. David Mamet’s American Buffalo was profane dirty and spoke of a world I understood.

A friend in high school loaned me Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” The way HST strung words together blew my mind. I knew I could never write like that, but man I loved reading it. 

The book that had the most impact on me as I became an adult was John Irving's “The World According to Garp”, it showed me a way to be a writer that wasn’t drunk or crazy, ok a little crazy, and the nobility of being a husband and a dad.

A book that effected my writing profoundly was James Crumley’s “Dancing Bear.” It is spare and tightly told, yet feels comfortable to meander through Montana’s bars and countryside. No one writes as lovingly about broken people trying to be better and failing. My opinion may be influenced by when and where I read it. A road trip with my brother along the western coast of Mexico. Moving up a river, outboard motor pushing us deeper into the dense jungle. Passing the bottle of rum back and forth. RyCooder’s Paris Texas sound track on the boom box mixing with bird and animal calls. I’m reading James Crumley for the first time. I bought Dancing Bear because I liked the cover and trusted Vintage Contemporaries editorial taste. All of these factors interlink in my memory and love of the book. A capper, “Dancing Bear” has the most Hard Boiled last paragraph I’ve ever read. “Modern life is warfare without end: take no prisoners, leave no wounded, eat the dead–that's environmentally sound.”

Books and movies and rock music have profoundly shaped who I am in every way possible. What makes one book connect to me on a deeper level, and not another?

1) Timing. 

I grew up feeling I was an outsider to the main culture. I connected with books that spoke to and from outsider view points. HST and Crumley fit this perfectly. I have since learned about confirmation bias. Book by drunks, drug takers and petty criminals made me feel ok about my choices. 

More and more I look for writers who speak to where I am, but also challenge my world view. Carolina De Robertis’ “The Invisible Mountain” did this in many ways. It’s a big multi generational tale set in Uruguay. Her words pulled me into a world I might not have chosen. And every time I knew where she was going she flipped it on me. It was a female driven novel. Men when seen were from the women’s POV. Living in her world view made me question mine, a necessary thing if I want to grow as a human and as a writer.

2) Quality of the writing. 

Purely subjective, and unrelated to genre, but if the words don’t sing to me I’m out. Doesn’t matter how inventive or relevant the story is, if I don’t find myself gasping at a sentence or phrase every couple of pages it won’t open my heart to the story being told. Ken Bruen does this. He is modern poetry sparse, with hard edging into cruel stories. Jamie Mason kills me with the way she dances with words, her style completely unique and jaw dropping. “The Hidden Things” captures a young teenage girl coming into her own in the midst of art thieves and mayhem perfectly. If you aren’t reading Jamie Mason, you are missing out on one of the most original voices writing today.

3) A character to fall in love with. 

I’ll never forget Duchess from Chris Whitaker’s “We Begin at the End.” She is a damaged girl, caring for a young brother in a dangerous world filled with characters she rightly or wrongly doesn’t trust. She never saves a cat, she does more damage than good, but she is trying and willing to sacrifice everything to save her brother feeling the pain she does. Those themes run through the books I love and the ones I write. From Chandler’s Marlow to Charlie Huston’s Henry Thompson the ones that stick with me are broken, struggling to be better. I have done things I’m not proud of. I continue to acting in ways I wish I didn’t. If redemption is possible for Markus in Pearce Hanson’s Stagger Bay, maybe it’s possible for me.      

*NOTE: I see this is less an answer to the question and more a snap-shot of how I feel about about books in the middle of one night in August 2021. It will change. I will evolve and in doing so my memories will shift. That is the nature of my brain. 


Susan C Shea said...

Wow, what a deep and satisfying dive into your life as it intersects with writing you love. Some of your favorite authors are mine too, a couple are unknown to me but won't be for long. Several writers and readers I respect admire Crumley. Among the books my late partner chad and that I have added to my own shelves are two copies of THE MEXICAN TREE DUCK, which I guess I'll have to read! Question: Is the photograph your father reading to you? It's so warm and intimate - lovely.

Josh Stallings said...

I'm so glad it works for you. I never know where these questions will lead me, but I love the process.. Yes, that my dad. I am grateful for his wild artistic intellectual life that filled us with lots to chew on.

Brenda Chapman said...

Love your answer to this week's question.