The best books to tickle your fancy

Lawrence Grobel Author Of You Show Me Yours: A Writer's Journey From Brooklyn to Hollywood via 5 Continents, 30 Years, and the Incomparable Sixties
By Lawrence Grobel

The Books I Picked & Why

Martin Eden

By Jack London

Book cover of Martin Eden

Why this book?

If you want to be an artist of any kind, you must develop a thick skin, because you will face rejection most of the time. Martin Eden came along at just the right time, when I was 15, sending my poetry to The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and Esquire, and receiving in return rejection slips with very little encouragement. Once Martin Eden discovered writing, he didn’t let the editors who rejected his early work break his belief in himself. Acceptance came, but at a price. He becomes disillusioned with how phony the world can be. I still retain my optimism. What I got from Jack London’s novel was learning not to let the bastards beat you down, and to reject rejection.

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By Joseph Heller

Book cover of Catch-22

Why this book?

This one saved my summer. I got a job between my junior and senior years in high school loading and unloading heavy boxes at a pharmaceutical company. It was labor intense. My only solace was the 15-minute coffee break and the half-hour lunch break, where I could go off by myself, eat a sandwich, drink an iced coffee, and read Catch-22. I didn’t expect to laugh so hard from a book about WWII, but Heller sublimely captured the absurdity of military life. It made me acutely aware that you could laugh at things that might normally make you shiver in fright. And it might have even saved my life, because when I came of draft age I knew for sure that I would never agree to be put in a Catch-22 situation.

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A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

By James Joyce

Book cover of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Why this book?

Joyce is the writer all aspiring writers must deal with, and this book is far less difficult than the two that followed. It’s also the one that showed me that while others might expect something else for you (in my case, becoming a lawyer or a doctor), the correct path is the one where you follow your heart. Stephen Daedalus turned away from the darkness of the priesthood and toward the light of becoming an artist. In his case, in Joyce’s case, the art was with words. 

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The Ginger Man

By J.P. Donleavy

Book cover of The Ginger Man

Why this book?

In 1955, the only publisher who would touch The Ginger Man was the Olympia Press in Paris. Its bawdy prose and its highly original style made it an immediate classic. Donleavy took one of the experimental styles that Joyce used in Ulysses and turned it into this black humor novel following Sebastian Dangerfield, an American in Ireland, maneuvering his way through college, marriage, fatherhood, and friendships in a roguish, outlandish manner. Time magazine considered him “One of the most outrageous scoundrels in contemporary fiction.” Rarely have I finished reading a book and then picked it up to read again. Donleavy’s way of weaving words, his use of first and third person in the same paragraph, his telegraphic sentences, his ribald humor were so fresh and singular, as you follow Dangerfield from one mishap to the next, alarmed by his behavior, and yet rooting for him all the same. It was the sheer joy of the writing that inspired me to try my hand at a “Donleavyan” novel. He taught me that all rules were there to be broken.

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Henderson the Rain King

By Saul Bellow

Book cover of Henderson the Rain King

Why this book?

This comical journey into the heart of a mythical Africa was compared to the Odyssey and Don Quixote by Newsweek. “I am a high-spirited kind of guy,” Eugene Henderson says. “And it’s the destiny of my generation of Americans to go out in the world and try to find the wisdom of life.” I read Henderson the Rain King in high school, and it stayed with me when I joined the Peace Corps after college and journeyed to Africa. I couldn’t get Henderson’s refrain— “I want I want I want”—out of my head. What I wanted was experience. Adventure. To live free. Bellow’s picaresque book—his ideas, his imagination—was a beam lighting the path that I wanted to take as a writer.

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