Friday, March 13, 2009

Guest Blogger Andy McGuire: The Books I Love

Novel Matters readers, I'm honored to introduce Andy McGuire as our guest blogger today. As you will soon know, Andy speaks lovingly of his favorite books. I first heard Andy on an editor panel at Mt. Hermon Christian Writers Conference. He knows his stuff. He's thoughtful and talented and generous. Currently, he's an editor at Bethany House and the author and illustrator of Rainy Day Games: Fun with the Animals of Noah's Ark, a must-have for any child's read-along library. As for the generous part, Andy is ready to answer your questions about Christian and Children's Fiction at his web site: I was pleased to find some of my favorites on Andy's list, and I will eagerly add more of his favorites to my bookshelf. And now, let's let Andy talk for himself. Take it away, Andy!

Ah…a list of favorite books. The potential to embarrass myself. In my mind I see hundreds of jaws dropping as readers shake their heads in dismay and (perhaps) judgment. “He picked THAT?!? I hated that thing! Where was the plot? And who was I supposed to relate to?”

Recommending books is only slightly less risky than writing them. Both activities require putting your soul on display for the world to see, knowing that some who thought they “got you” didn’t. But alas, if no one recommended books (or wrote them, for that matter), what would we find to read?

So here’s a list for you to consider, then I’ll talk about a few of them. I list them in alphabetical order by author rather than order of preference—I suppose I still feel the need to hide a small part of my soul.

Hey Nostradamus, Douglas Coupland

Eleanor Rigby, Douglas Coupland

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

Peace Like a River, Leif Enger

The Lord of the Flies, William Golding

The Princess Bride, William Goldman

Soldier of the Great War, Mark Helprin

About a Boy, Nick Hornby

A Separate Peace, John Knowles

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Gilead, Marilynne Robinson

Straight Man, Richard Russo

The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton

All Hallow’s Eve, Charles Williams

The Place of the Lion, Charles Williams

Joy in the Morning, P.D. Wodehouse

Why these? There are two things that I feel are absolutely necessary for any good story and one other thing that can elevate it to a “great” one:

1) characters that I wish to spend time with;

2) a structure that gets me from one place to another; and

3) a point.

These necessities need a short explanation, I imagine. Notice that in requirement #1 I didn’t say “good characters” or “noble characters” or even “characters I like.” I don’t have to like a man, let alone approve of him, in order to wish to spend some time with him. But I do have to be interested. Something about him must intrigue me.

Requirement #2 is probably the hardest to define, but it means that the story has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Many stories written over the last generation or two move along aimlessly until they stop arbitrarily somewhere along the way. The excuse for this shabby storytelling is that it’s more like “real life” than those antiquated tales that actually have a conclusion. Two objections to this argument. First, who says life doesn’t have conclusions? As Christians we certainly believe that justice will prevail, love will conquer death, and peace will reign. Second, even if you aren’t thinking metaphysically, we still want stories to come to a satisfying conclusion because life, at times, doesn’t feel like it does. Stories shouldn’t imitate the mundane, they should rise above it. This sounds contradictory because of the switch from long-term thinking to short-term thinking. In the long run, all of creation will come to a resolution. In the short run, it doesn’t feel that way, so we need stories to remind us of justice and grace. Perhaps we’re hardwired for this, so stories that go against this drive leave us dissatisfied.

Requirement #3 is hopefully self-explanatory. A story should say something about big things. The meaning of life, the sacrifice of grace, the power of love. More importantly, give it to me in a way I hadn’t experienced before.

So, onto a few of these books. Some of them have fairly obvious Christian themes, like Gilead, Peace Like a River, and the two Douglas Coupland books. Others deal more tangentially with Christian morality and God’s presence in creation. Soldier of the Great War and The House of Mirth would fall into that category. Soldier is one of the best apologies for the existence of God through the witness of beauty I’ve ever read.

Still others on this list don’t seem to have any ties to Christianity other than their being about right and wrong, love, joy, and, in one way or another, truth. Grace seems to be a theme that runs through most of these stories as well. I think grace, even more than redemption, softens us up and changes us. The ending of Gilead did that for me.

And then there’s humor. I love to laugh. I think there is something ennobling about humor. To look for opportunities to laugh is inherently a humble pursuit of wisdom (although it can be twisted at times). Straight Man and The Princess Bride are both “laugh out loud” books, as is anything by Wodehouse. I picked Joy in the Morning almost at random. Anything from his Wooster and Jeeves series would do for this list.

That’s about all from me. Don’t judge me too harshly. Or at least keep it to yourself. Ha! As if that could happen on the internet.


Steve G said...

Humour is a big one for me. Put the quirky character in with Laugh Out Loud humour and I love it. I suppose one real challenge for literature is dealing with the "Point" while maintaining a "light" story. Very hard to do.

And what you said about the point. It can elevate "fer shure", but as a writer the challenge here is to put the "point" in the under-layers (that's the underwear of the book...) so the reader isn't hit over the head with it. I've learned that is easiest done when the author respects the reader, which is a necessity for great literature.

Patti Hill said...

Andy, thanks for guest blogging for Novel Matters. I think you're safe with us. You've compiled a great list and given me some titles to add to my reading list. I desperately needed a larger nightstand!

My favorites from your list are Peace Like a River and To Kill a Mockingbird, both told from a child's point of view, and both leaving an indelible mark on the reader. What is it about a child's voice? Are we more trusting? Do they report happenings with unfiltered narrative? The more I think about it, the more I believe that a child's voice gives the author a clean, unclutter, nonjudgmental voice in which to speak. That's the power. I think.

Anonymous said...

Andy, we really appreciate your taking the time to be our guest at Novel Matters, and to share your list and your insights. I've read several of the books you mention, but like Patti, I've also added to my to-read list. But that's one of my favorite things to do.

As a writer I appreciate the simplicity of your outline for how we should write. Not that it's simple to accomplish, not by any means -- but there is a simplicity in our purpose: vital characters, a good story arc, and a point.

I've just read (for the 2nd time in a short period) Blue Hole Back Home by Joy Jordan Lake. It is one of the finest books I have EVER read, and for just those reasons. Incredible characters, a story that builds in an almost-perfect manner, and a point that really touches the heart. I highly recommend it.

Anonymous said...

Great list, Andy. there's nothing quite so fun as talking books! I've missed some on your list.

Patti, interesting observation about books from a child's POV. I love them. I'd add Secret Life of Bees and Swan Place to my list-- both through the eyes of a child. Plus, Sharon's Souza's WIP, Hub of a Daisy and Jennifer Vallent's Fireflies in December. Hmmm.

Thanks, Novel Matters, for having Andy drop in.

Kathleen Popa said...

Andy, this is a great list. A lot of my favorites here, and a few I'd never heard of. A Separate Peace is one I hear few people talking about, but it's unforgettable. In fact, Joy Jordan-Lake's Blue Hole Back Home is often compared to Mockingbird, but I think it is also a lot like A Separate Peace. A book can't get any better than that.

For stories told from the perspective of children, we have to mention Angela's Ashes. I know, it's non-fiction, but it reads like a novel, and the voice just amazes me.

Sharon's Hub of a Daisy is a gorgeous novel. And it's not published yet! (Oh, the benefits of being Sharon's friend, to get to read her novels first.)

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite questions to ask people is, "What do you like to read?" So I especially enjoyed this post. It's especially helpful to aspiring authors to know what editors favs are--it gives us some sense of what engages those on that side of the desk. I agree that it makes one a little vulnerable to give a public list. So thanks for being brave, Andy! I, too, will enjoy checking out some your favorites that I haven't read.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, everyone, for all your kind words. I thought I'd respond to something Melinda said. It's revealing to learn what editors like to read on their own time, but it's good to keep in mind that what they read isn't always what they acquire. Generally, editors are "word people" and like their novels to be a bit on the literary side. The bulk of the readers, on the other hand, just want likeable characters and an engaging plot. On the other hand, that's often what I want too, so maybe that doesn't explain anything. All I know is there usually does seem to be some distance between reading tastes and acquiring responsibilies.

Bonnie Grove said...

I agree with Andy in saying that fiction is personal.
Years ago a friend handed me a book, "It just isn't my sort of thing," she had said. "Seems more up your alley."

It was Olive Ann Burns' Cold Sassy Tree - and while my friend was unmoved, I was enthralled. Not only was the writing excellent - she changed the idea of what a family history/memoir should be for me. She did something other writer's hadn't done before.

That last sentence defines much of what I love to read - books that are so creative, so layered they succeed on several levels. Andy's pick of The Princess Bride did that for me (but, let's face it the book was a one timer - you can't pull that off twice or it would wax old quick. Part of what makes it brilliant if you ask me).

That is what I'm striving to learn in my own writing.

Lori Benton said...

Bonnie, even as I read your comment, Cold Sassy Tree (audio version) is playing on my CD player. I'm liking it. Great voice. Humorous. Great conflict. Just getting started good. Any story with dialogue that includes "Dog bite yo' hide!" is my kind of story.

Andy, what a fun concept for a picture book. Just looking at the cover artwork, it's one I'd buy for myself, no matter I don't have children. :) Thanks for guest blogging.

Melodee said...

I read Soldier of the Great War solely based on your recommendation (at Mt. Hermon). It led to a rarity for me--reading passages aloud to my husband and writing in the margins. Then I read Freddy & Fredericka and laughed out loud.

Great recommendation!

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Thanks, Andy, for your post today. I appreciate what you had to say about editors not necessarily acquiring what they read. Although we, as authors, need to read (and enjoy) the genres in which we write, I believe the same is sometimes true for us. I feel that we need to be well-rounded and reap the benefits of a wide range of writing styles.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate what Andy had to say. And as a writer who was edited by Andy, I have to say that he kept me from my worst self in the scary world of a first novel. Thanks, Andy. Let's just keep all those edited-out purple phrases between you and me, okay? Oh please?

I'm wondering about something. Andy said that what editors read isn't always what they acquire. I'm thinking that what authors read they don't always write. For one thing, no good writer wants to be an imitator or even derivative.

But even our most cherished reading materials, as Andy observed, can cause people to back away from us. I remember the near-tangible shudder from my agent Janet Grant when I mentioned on the phone in the same sentence that I was working on a literary suspense novel and loved Faulkner's style.

All that said, I really appreciate Andy's transparency with his reading list -- and I have some new titles to add to my own now based on his recommendations.

Latayne C Scott

Anonymous said...

Hi Andy,
Love your list, agree with you on Humor. I find my own tastes run down a less sophisticated channel; I'm pretty lowbrow. But I have to agree with you on Wodehouse. Too bad there's a generation that knows not P.G. Wodehouse--laugh out loud funny stuff.