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Top Ten Novels According To Someone Who Actually Read Them: Part One

Jeremy Hunter Pop Culture and Literature

Literature aids in the formation of the physical world. Our reality is created in part through the stories in which we tell, both to ourselves and those we come into contact with, from the time we awake, to the time we fall asleep.  

Although my business is focused primarily on music, writing and literature have both been immense passions of mine and have helped to shape the inner world in which I know. In this blog, I will delve into my top ten favorite books, in no particular order. Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. 

Ham On Rye by Charles Bukowski 

Charles Bukowski was a drunk, a womanizer, a deadbeat philosopher and one hell of a writer. Bukowski wrote a fuck-ton of short stories and books of poetry. His poetry was surprisingly easy to read, and short stories, filled to the brim with drinking, fighting, gambling and sex, which showcased an uncanny understanding Bukowski had on life and the human condition.   

I first came across Bukowski in 2013 after watching a crackpot documentary titled; “Salinger” on Netflix which revolved around great American writer, J.D. Salinger. The documentary was awful and highly deceptive, but through the Netflix recommendations which proceeded the film, the dreadful Salinger documentary introduced me to Bukowski through a documentary made on the author’s life titled “Born into This”, which led me to purchase Bukowski’s novel “Women” from a local book store a few days later. “Ham on Rye” was the third novel by Bukowski I read after finishing “Factotum”. 

“Ham on Rye” detailed the semi-autobiographical upbringing of the novel's protagonist (Bukowski’s alter ego) Henry Chinaski, from his birth in Germany in 1920, to his college days in Los Angeles on the brink of the second world war. The story also closely examines physical abuse Henry suffered at the hands of his domineering and undeniably stupid father, the non-existent relationship he had with his submissive, dull mother, his struggle with acne vulgaris, his early thoughts of women and failed attempts to get laid, as well as the world events which occurred during his chaotic and surprisingly atmospheric childhood. As life passes Henry by, he gets in fights, almost consistently, questions his parents and society, starts drinking very early on and eventually discovers literature and writing; arguably his two most consuming passions.  

Chinaski is a protagonist who simply does not give a fuck. Bukowski, in life, was cynical and admittedly hated most people, but his cynical viewpoint never caused his writing to become dense or depressing. Unlike Hemingway who likely caused many a loyal reader to blow their brains out just as he had through the grim outlook Hemingway’s writing had on life which loomed throughout his bleak writing. 

“Ham on Rye” proved to be Bukowski’s most humorous novel, and the novel of his which most resonated with me. The novel brought back memories of my own chaotic and highly dysfunctional childhood. I find when it comes to literature that finding a central character in which you share common interests will cause you as a reader to become more involved with the story rather than chucking the novel aside two minutes into the first page. Reading a novel should flow like a steady stream of piss after a night of heavy drinking.  

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut 

I read “Slaughterhouse-Five” for the first time when I was attending the film program at The Recording Arts Institute of Saskatoon in 2013. The semi-autobiographical novel, which was expertly written by Kurt Vonnegut, followed the central character of Billy Pilgrim, who has become unstuck in time. For those of you who are currently asking yourselves what the fuck that means, to put it to you simply, the central character started experiencing his life in a non-linear timeframe. This resulted in events occurring spontaneously. One moment, Billy is fighting the Nazis in Dresden during the second world war before his eventual capture. And the next moment, Billy is inexplicably abducted by a technologically advanced alien race called the Tralfamadorians 

The premise may sound confusing, but Vonnegut’s literary structuring caused the novel to be a very easy, straight-forward read. One which I had finished in only two sittings. Vonnegut also explored a lot of philosophical and religious aspects within the novel, as well as the psychological effect the Dresden bombing had on the central character, along with the stress of being a prisoner of war.  

The science fiction aspects of the novel also had a steady flow which brought many questions relating the way humanity may possibly be viewed by hypothetical extra-terrestrials within the far reaches of space. This is in relation to the reasoning behind Billy’s alien abduction at the hands of the Tralfamadorians, and their confession that he was brought to their home planet to be a source of entertainment, as they exhibited him within a zoo. The alien race had also abducted a porn star named Montana Wildhack simultaneous to Billy for the purpose of watching them mate.  

These series of chapters made me internalize the simplistic nature behind humanity and how, despite reaching continual technological advancement through the process of applied knowledge with invention, that humans collectively fail to reach interpersonal advancement which transcends the trivial.  

Being that the novel by Vonnegut is semi-autobiographical, Kurt experienced being a prisoner of war in Dresden first hand, with the Dresden bombing being a dire experience which stained the novel and had a lasting negative effect on Vonnegut’s psyche. Following the war, Kurt did his best to make sense of human behavior, which caused him to become fixated on the shape of stories. The challenge for Vonnegut was then to craft a story which ignored following the basic chronological structure, while maintaining a central, yet seemingly spontaneous plot where events overlapped one another. “Slaughterhouse-Five” is now widely considered to be one of the top 100 Greatest English Language Novels of the past century. A significant and well-deserved distinction. 

   

“Catcher In the Rye” by J.D. Salinger 

J.D. Salinger was a reclusive writer, who received worldwide recognition for having written a truly brilliant novel which was published when the author was only thirty-one years old. That novel, “The Catcher in the Rye”, follows a weekend in the life of the teenage protagonist, Holden Caulfield, as he drifts through New York City. The novel itself has a tainted past, with delusional psychopath and undisputed piece-of-shit, Mark David Chapman, citing the novel as his inspiration to gun down and kill legendary musician and key member of The Beatles, John Lennon. John Hinckley Jr. also attributed “The Catcher in the Rye” as being a source of misguided inspiration behind his failed assassination attempt on the life of American President, Ronald Reagan. Hinckley also had an unhealthy obsession with Jodie Foster after repeat viewings of “Taxi Driver”, which we won’t get into at this time. 

Anyway, the grim history behind the brilliant novel, adds to the heightened intrigue of the story, which was filled with pessimistic ideology relating to the way in which a teenage Holden Caulfield viewed the world and those he came into contact with. Caulfield viewed the world as being filled with phonies. The phonies, in Holden’s eyes, were the people (mostly adults) who were dishonest about who they were and developed facades in order to maneuver through society. On a psychological level, Holden’s observations of society may have related on a deeper level to Sigmund Freud’s theory that each one of us have two distinct selves, separated by two metaphorical masks in which we wear. The first mask, we wear in public when everyone is watching and judging, which is essentially our fabricated self, and the second mask, we wear in private, where nothing is hidden or suppressed which is characteristically considered to be our authentic self. There were additional layers to this theory of Freud’s, but it would take a series of blog posts dedicated to delving into the deep, dark depths of human psychology to thoroughly break these theories down, which I am unwilling to get into at this time. 

Another aspect of Holden’s pessimistic and cynical outlook within the story may have related to the literal battles Salinger was facing as he was writing the classic novel. In the early 1940’s, as the war rippled like a tidal wave throughout Europe, Salinger was on the front line, fighting Hitler’s war machine as he wrote a great deal of the novel with a constant threat of death looming in the air. Despite what any writer will let on, current events within their own life will subconsciously dictate the direction of any given story. Although Holden was a weary, cynical sixteen-year-old on paper, Caulfield remained nothing more than an aspect of the authors own personality, with Salinger’s own disdain for the world at that time being projected into the entire psychological world of his most memorable character. 

The novel still manages to sell over a million copies per year, despite being seventy years after its initial publication in 1951. It also remains one of the most banned novels in history, with many critics and teachers believing that the novel will corrupt the minds of young readers through the unapologetic viewpoints and opinions of Holden Caulfield. The novel being the inspiration behind the murder of John Lennon may have played a role in the novels banning, although when it comes to literature, more cases of violence could be attributed to “The Holy Bible”, which has evidently killed hundreds of millions of people over the past two thousand plus years since it was first published, based heavily on readers fighting over its validity and misinterpretations which has led to repeated wars throughout the centuries.  

George Orwell also faced equal scrutiny when his masterpiece novels “Animal Farm” and “1984” were published, with both novels getting banned many times over. I feel that Salinger’s novel, as well as both mentioned works by George Orwell, may have been banned because of their ability to open minds. Where Holden Caulfield was able to point out the phoniness within the world around him, it led readers to question the way in which they viewed the world around them. Through common day society, where ideology and virtue signaling overpower common sense and conviction, Holden Caulfield’s assertion that the world is phony may not have been too far off, which attributes the novel to being among my favorites. 

Although I have intentionally avoided discussing major plot points within the novel, which will be a common theme within this blog, I will discuss the novels most famous line; 

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going, I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.” 

My own interpretation of this line relates to the gravitational shift from childhood to adulthood, and how J.D. Salinger likely felt that it was important to protect children from this inevitable shift – to save children from falling over “the cliff” which reflected a retreat from innocence. The famed authors own struggle to make sense of a war which saw a complete disregard for human life, may have played a role in Salinger’s assertion that the adult world signified danger and a phoniness which adolescence didn’t reflect. If this was Salinger’s intended message, then I couldn’t agree with him more. 

“A Moveable Feast” by Ernest Hemingway 

Hemingway’s literature, for the most part, depresses me, as the writing reflected the grim realities faced within life. This is where I believe Bukowski, who idolized Hemingway, succeeded as a writer where Hemingway failed. Because Bukowski wasn’t afraid to not only drink the wine, but enjoy the dance.  

I believe that Hemingway’s tense, macho persona was the result of imposing a strict psychological state which suppressed any ideas he felt as being “weak”. He challenged himself to be the purest form of man – a man who fucked a lot of women, which he detailed extensively within his writing, enjoyed big sports hunting, gambling, was repulsed by men who possessed feminine characteristics, and engaged in armed warfare to enhance the realism described his writing at every turn.  

The strict psychological state Hemingway imposed upon himself may have led to bouts of severe depression, which he suffered throughout his life, possibly contributing to his eventual suicide in 1961, shortly before what would have been his sixty second birthday. Hemingway was, however, an extraordinary writer, and proof that man can move past the ideals of nature versus nurture and have a hand in his own eventual creation or metamorphosis. Hemingway chipped away at himself like Michelangelo would a slab of marble until he morphed into the purest form of what he believed a man should be; the embodiment of the tense, fearless protagonist commonly showcased as the central character and narrator within his novels. And for all those who claim Hemingway was something of a fraud, afraid of his own reflection for doing so, fail to see that he did so as a challenge to himself as a writer. To write the strong character on paper is one thing, to unapologetically became that character and live in their shoes, is on an entirely different level of dedication in regards to his chosen craft. Although Hemingway deciding to blow his brains out with a double-barreled shotgun may have led to speculation that there may have been something more going on under the surface.  

I read “A Moveable Feast” for the first time in 2015, when my wife was going through labor at The Royal University Hospital of Saskatoon, before the birth of my oldest daughter, Isabel. Published posthumously following Hemingway’s death, the story revolves around Hemingway’s first-hand account relating to his struggles as a writer in 1920’s Paris. It also deals with his friendships with various famous figures, writers and artists at this time, including James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote “The Great Gatsby”, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, among many others. This period relating to great artists of the time formulating a tight bond, was known as The Lost Generation. As an artist, this period has always been of interest and fascination to me. Especially when the volume of great works by these legendary writers and artists is taken into account. Is it possible that their interactions inspired an almost collective genius which helped to shape their individual works? In a lot of ways, I believe these interactions did. 

Along with detailing Hemingway’s close friendships at the time, the story also delves into his preparation and process as a writer, as well as his transition from a journalist to a fiction writer. The novel also explores his first marriage to Hadley Richardson, and Hemingway’s thoughts on politics, the first world war, and the atmosphere in Paris at the time. The novel, more then all else, reflected Hemingway’s ability to find the plot and story within the mundane and have consistent, unrelenting movement which was a driving force behind Hemingway’s writing as a whole. This force caused his writing to get straight to the point, avoided the drab and unnecessary through minimal and simplistic word choice, while maintaining the interest of the reader above all else. This may be why Hemingway’s writing has always maintained an enthusiastic audience of readers; because Hemingway placed the readers interest to be enthralled through the words on page above his own. Although I have difficulty reading a substantial portion of Hemingway’s literature, “A Moveable Feast” is an enjoyable read and one I highly recommend.    

"Choke” by Chuck Palahniuk 

When I was fifteen years old, in July of 2008, I was walking through a back alleyway on Eighth Street in Saskatoon in between McNally Robinson Bookstore and some sleazy apartments, when I came across a box of books obscurely placed beside a garbage bin. I glanced inside the box and quickly spotted “Choke” by Chuck Palahniuk, which contained an intriguing cover photo which resembled a physician’s diagram of the human body. There were other books within the box, mostly middle eastern travelling guides, but “Choke” had a stranglehold on me. I quickly discarded a majority of the books, and with the box in hand, I made my way to my grandparent's house a few blocks away. When I arrived, my uncle Glenn, who was living at my grandparent's house following his wife filing for divorce, answered the door. He quickly glanced down at the box in my hands. 

“What do you got there?” asked Glenn. 

“Books,” I said, nervously fidgeting as I reminded myself to avoid mentioning that I found the books beside a garbage bin.  

“What are you going to do with all them?” asked Glenn. 

“Read them,” I said, with a hint of sarcasm. “Is grandpa here?” 

“No, he went to Safeway to get some groceries,” said Glenn. 

“Is it alright if I come inside and wait for my dad?” I asked. 

Glenn turned away with a somewhat irritated expression. My father and him have never been on the best of terms. Glenn pushed open the screen door and allowed me inside. 

“Yeah, go ahead,” said Glenn. I brushed past my uncle after kicking off my shoes and headed into the living room where I then sat on the couch, eager to start reading “Choke”. My uncle glanced toward me. 

“What’s your dad been up to?” asked Glenn. 

“Not much,” I said as I flipped open the book and proceeded to act as though my uncle was no longer standing there. Glenn stood there for a few seconds, seeming to anticipate some form of interaction until he came to the realization that I had already forgotten about him. 

“I’m going to go get changed,” said Glenn. My uncle then disappeared down the stairs as I proceeded to start reading. I found myself immediately drawn to the story which revolved around Victor Mancini, a sex addict and con artist who would fake choking at restaurants in order to allow himself to be “saved” by patrons at the restaurant who would then feel responsible for the low-life.  

As a fifteen-year-old who was flooded with hormones, I had difficulty setting down the book as I read chapters where the main character would find himself having sex with multiple beautiful women. The main character, Victor, was who I wanted to be, despite being an awkward fifteen-year-old who had no idea how to talk to women. Luckily, I wasn’t that awkward fifteen-year-old forever. But at that point in time, reading about this fictional character’s escapades invoked a sense of internal satisfaction. 

For the next week, I read the book whenever I had a chance. The supporting characters also piqued my interest, with Victor’s mother being something of a neurotic nutcase who in no way reminded me of my own mother. No way at all. Victor’s best friend, Denny, also reminded me of my friend Tyler from school.  

As I finished the novel, I found myself obsessing over the idea of writing my own story. Since I was interested in filmmaking, I determined that my first attempt at writing should be a screenplay rather than a novel. With this, I read the script to “Pulp Fiction” and memorized the structuring behind screenwriting, the difference between describing interior and exterior set locations, the need to CAPATALIZE a character name whenever they were initially introduced within the story, and learned the need to keep scenes brief to maintain momentum within the story.  

I then got started on what I determined would be an adaptation to “Choke”. But as I got writing, I quickly realized that the prospect of crafting a story which wasn’t centered on my own thoughts and feelings seemed like more a chore then something done to invoke personal enjoyment. With this, I started writing my first screenplay, “Cop Killer”. 

As I arrived at school that fall just as summer break came to an end, I had completed my first draft of “Cop Killer” which proved to give me an extremely accomplished feeling. Although I had no intention of adapting “Choke” into a screenplay, I thought there might be a chance that my buddy Tyler might want to. As I headed into tenth grade English Language Arts, I had the copy of “Choke” tucked away within my binder. I then chose the seat behind Tyler to sit for the remainder of the year.  

During the first ten minutes of class, we always read quietly to ourselves before Mr. Bell proceeded to start with his lesson. Tyler read a copy of “World War Z” by Max Brooks, as I scribbled a picture within my binder while looking to the copy of “Choke”. 

“Hey Tyler,” I whispered.  

Tyler glanced back in my direction. 

“Yeah,” said Tyler. 

“I got a book for you to read,” I said, before snatching the book which I then handed to a baffled Tyler. “I think it would make a good movie.” 

Tyler paused for a second as he glanced over the cover.  

“Chuck Palahniuk,” said Tyler. “That’s the guy who wrote Fight Club. 

“I thought that was David Fincher?” I asked. 

“No, not the movie,” said Tyler. “The novel. Some other guy wrote the screenplay. Fincher’s a director, not a screenwriter.” 

“Cool,” I said. “We should write the screenplay to the novel.” 

“Do you even know how to write a screenplay?” asked Tyler. 

“Yeah, I wrote one this summer,” I said. I then felt the eyes of Mr. Bell as he glanced in our direction from behind his desk. We weren’t being as quiet as I initially thought we were. Mr. Bell stood up and moved across the room toward me and Tyler.  

“What are we reading?” asked Mr. Bell, before abruptly snatching the copy of “Choke” from Tyler’s hands. Mr. Bell then proceeded to walk casually throughout the class while reading the blurb on the back cover. 

“I found it this summer,” I said. “It’s about this guy who thinks he’s the son of Jesus, only to discover he’s just a loser like everyone else.” 

There were a few awkward laughs. I hoped that Mr. Bell wouldn’t flip to a random page, as he just might consider confiscating the novel due to the descriptive sex-filled chapters. Now that I thought about it, the blurb on the back page would have described Victor as being a sex-addict. For fucks sake.  

“It’s a good book,” I said. “I just mentioned to Tyler that it would make a good movie.” 

Mr. Bell headed back in our direction and handed the novel back to Tyler while giving me a half smile, before he headed back to the front of the class and started with his lesson. 

Although to this day, I have read a great deal of novels which contained superior writing to “Choke” by Chuck Palahniuk, the fact that the novel caused me to become inspired to write in the first place is the reason why I have included the novel within my personal top ten favorite novels list.  

This commences part one. Part two will be on its way very soon. And so it goes...  


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