In the spring of 2003, ZZ Packer answered some of our questions.
What was the book that most influenced your life -- and why?
Beloved by Toni Morrison has everything one could want from a novel; finely wrought language, a compelling story, unforgettable characters. Beloved is a reflection of how our most horrid actions are wedded to our most noble desires. Toni Morrison manages to find the ultimate metaphor for America's relationship to slavery: a bitter baby ghost that has returned grown up, her innocent and docile exterior betraying the furious, destructive and vulnerable interior.
Few living authors are able to write in such a way as to give me the shivers -- I loved The Bluest Eye, but it was only while reading Beloved that I knew without a doubt that I was in the presence of greatness.
What are your favorite books -- and why?
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy -- Though Anna Karenina is "technically" better than War and Peace, I can't help but admire Tolstoy's breadth and reach in the latter. I love how the principal characters are all struggling to find their place in the world amid the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars in Russia, and how war -- once a minor inconvenience to the Russian aristocracy -- begins to change and shape every aspect of Russian life. Tolstoy is great at showing characters acting, reacting, arguing, thinking, doing; he can take the smallest action or seeming trifle and convince you of its significance. Best of all, he uses humor like a wand, touching and highlighting the delicious absurdity life and the way we live it.
- The Brothers Karamazov by Fodor Dostoyevsky -- The much-touted "Grand Inquisitor" chapter lives up to its reputation as one of the greatest passages in literature, Dostoyevsky is not afraid to take on a big theme -- Russian identity -- and explore it through the prism of the Karamazov brothers.
- Moby-Dick by Herman Melville -- Melville uses just about every literary form known -- and then a few of his own invention -- in Moby-Dick. Despite the way it's taught in high school -- symbolism, symbolism, symbolism -- the book is most notable for the beauty of its near-biblical language and its surprising union of highly readable adventure story and disturbing look at the nature of obsession. Most successful stories contain a narrative arc, but Moby-Dick manages to oscillate (some would say digress) while it arcs, occasionally delving in and out of Zen-like meditations on nature, brotherhood, and the forces governing the universe.
- Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain -- Twain was simply a genius. Huckleberry Finn is funny, sad, irreverent, and most of all, a good read. Complex issues of morality lie beneath Twain's deceptively simple narrative, and the reader must reckon with questions such as, What is civilization? and What does it mean to be free? What does it mean to be human? Any adult who hasn't read it should read it; any adult who was introduced to it in high school will be amazed at how well it ages.
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison -- How did Ellison do it? The nameless narrator of this masterpiece embodies America's obsession with race and ongoing legacy of racism. Ellison is economical in that he is always working on several levels at once, so reading any passage of Invisible Man has the dizzying effect of looking at oneself in a hall of (mostly cracked) mirrors. This book should be required reading for the human race.
- Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson -- This near-perfect book by Marilynne Robinson is so clear, so fine, one suspects it was written by some divinity. The story is simple but the novel's emotional undercurrent is not. This story narrated by Ruth -- orphaned by her mother's suicide, her grandmother's death, and her great-aunt's good-natured imbecility -- and it's a powerful narrative about kinship and transience. The real star of the book, however, is fine, fine writing, resulting in crystalline language.
- Dog Soldiers by Robert A. Stone -- A great novel that spares no characters; the weirder the situation, the more convincingly Stone renders it. Set during the waning days of the Vietnam War, Dog Soldiers is more than a story about a drug deal gone wrong, it's about '70s counterculture, betrayal, ennui, but most of all Dog Soldiers seems to address the feeling that the typical modern life lacks a core "great adventure" and that one must settle for constructing one's own adventure, no matter how unwholesome that adventure turns out to be. Stone's sentences fairly "pop" with inventive constructions and just plain old good writing.
- Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy -- McCarthy's insane, violent, beautifully written novel of the real American West is not for everyone, but for those who dare, Blood Meridian is the most beautiful-yet-terrifying narrative to come along since Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
- Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin -- Just about anything from James Baldwin is phenomenal, but this short novel, especially, seemed full of the precise language that comes from carefully managed rage. Baldwin truly turned pen into sword when writing this moving exploration of what it means to be black, male, and talented; lost, then found, then lost again.
- Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and The Hours by Michael Cunningham -- You spend your high school years trying to escape writers like Woolf, and you spend the rest of your life chasing them. Woolf was famous for saying she constructed "beautiful caves behind" her characters: "I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect, and each comes to daylight at the present moment."
Her heirs apparent -- in some regards -- are Alice Munro and Francine Prose; her living incarnation, however, is Michael Cunningham. How long had it been since anything made me stay up all night and read to the very end? The Mrs. Brown sections are especially rich.
- Elbow Room by James Alan McPherson –- McPherson won the 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Elbow Room for a good reason. As if his collection Hue and Cry weren't enough, McPherson followed his debut collection with Elbow Room, 12 stories that chronicle the black experience in the '60s and '70s the way no documentary ever could. Beyond the marches and the history-ready versions the civil rights era, McPherson gives us the private lives of blacks struggling and overcoming, bustling and hustling. He is able to make the distinction between the archetype and the stereotype, yet the subtlety of his stories is often lost in the midst of deciding whether to laugh or cry.
- Childhood and Other Neighborhoods and Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek -- "...there seems to be something else in life besides time, something which may conveniently be called ‘value,' something which is measured not by minutes or hours, but by intensity, so that when we look at our past it does not stretch back evenly but piles up into a few notable pinnacles, and when we look at the future it seems sometimes a wall, sometimes a cloud, sometimes a sun, but never a chronological chart."
Thus spake E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel decrying, as he calls it, "the tapeworm of time." When Forster speaks about the intensity of the moment, he might as well be referring to a Stuart Dybek story, for what Stuart Dybek does better than anyone alive is take a single thread of time and hold it aloft, the way an embroiderer might, and let that single instant become its own world. Read "Pet Milk," or "Paper Lantern" or "We Didn't," or any story in this writer's oeuvre to see what I mean. Every American writer knows who Stuart Dybek is, yet many nonwriters do not. If you have any interest in writing whatsoever, go out and buy his books.
- La Jeteé -- People either love Chris Markham's film or think it's pretentious. I love how this film -- a series of stills (with one notable exception) -- explores time and the value of time. The movie Twelve Monkeys was based on it, but guess what? This is better.
- Thieves like Us -- I don't know why this movie is so underrated in Robert Altman's oeuvre -- it's a great adaptation of a James Cain crime novel that's reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde but is -- in my humble (and probably misguided) opinion -- better.
- A Streetcar Named Desire -- This script operates on a zillion levels, and Elia Kazan's tempering of the play version relies on symbols and imagery as surrogates for the brutal ending Tennessee Williams originally intended. Wonderful nevertheless.
- Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- This cinema adaptation of Edward Albee's terrific play is both grueling and heartbreaking. Two couples ground in the crucible of their own failures, desires, and secret pasts. Albee gives Martha a near-Shakespearean ode to her husband George that I could listen to/watch again and again.
- Do the Right Thing -- Spike Lee deserved the 1989 Oscar for this fabulous, fabulous film. In his poem "A Dream Deferred" Langston Hughes asks the question, "What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? / Or does it fester like a sore, and then run? / Maybe it just stinks like rotten meat / Or crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet? / Maybe it just sags like a heavy load / Or does it explode?" Lorraine Hansberry answers the rhetorical question in her play A Raisin in the Sun, and Spike Lee echoes the answer in cinematic form in Do the Right Thing.
- Fargo -- just about anything from the Coen brothers does it for me -- their scripts are witty, three-dimensional, and are always many notches above the standard Hollywood fare.
- Taxi Driver -- I just don't think anyone could have portrayed Travis Bickle with the same brand of insane genius and craftsmanship as Robert De Niro.
- Hands on a Hardbody -- No, it's not porn, it's a laugh-out-loud documentary chronicling a truck contest. People say editing is an invisible art, but S. R. Bindler makes the invisible visible; the documentary unfolds like a story should -- with surprises and twists and turns and insights. Incredibly funny.
Jazz, bossa nova, old school hip-hop, funk, classical, Motown.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Since I'd want to my book club to read books I haven't yet read -- but plan on reading -- I'd chose the following:
The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts (edited by Henry Louis Gates) -- Everyone I know who has read it thought it was great.
Ulysses by James Joyce -- I've read the first half about a million times, and the Molly Bloom section about a million times, but I have yet to get through the whole thing, so it'd be a perfect book club book.
The Waves by Virginia Woolf -- One of my friends swears by this book...I think it's the only book of Woolf's I haven't read, so I need to read it.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes -- I just have to read it. I plan on reading it this summer.
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene -- A former professor said reading a Greene novel was like having an instruction manual for how to write novels -- who doesn't want that?
The Wars by Timothy Findley -- This is "the other Canadian writer." I love Alice Munro and Michael Ondaatje, but from what I've read of his fabulous novel The Wars, Timothy Findley is entirely underappreciated in this country.
Cape Breton Road by D. R. MacDonald -- I started reading this book and was smitten with its beauty, its long paragraphs and the snow, the snow, the snow. I want to find out how Innis turns out.... It promises to be an exploration of how we keep our lives going, despite encroaching loneliness.
John Henry Days -- Colson Whitehead is truly the man. He wrote The Intuitionist, and then, as if that weren't enough, he comes out with a novel that blends and bends genres while still, somehow, remaining sincere to its subject.
The Interpreter by Suki Kim -- This noir-ish novel seems to break both the conventions of "the immigrant tale" and the detective novel. A Korean woman who works as a court interpreter comes to a startling realization about her parents' deaths. I can't wait to finish reading it.
The Miracle by John L'Heureux -- I've read other L'Heureux novels and have loved them for all their joys and shocks. My husband recently finished this novel and sang its praises, so I want to be next.
Mating by Norman Rush -- A lot of my writer friends insist that I have to read this.
Hausmann or The Distinction by Paul LaFarge -- Paul LaFarge is our next genius, and from what I've read, Hausmann prodigiously shows off his talents.
The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley -- A highly recommended book about discovering one's past. This book promises to be full of both tragic and illuminating history of slavery in America.
Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee -- Writer friends can't recommend this book highly enough.
Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey -- I loved "Homework and I'm itching to read this latest from Livesey.
Ecstatic by Victor LaValle -- I loved Slapboxing with Jesus, his collection of short stories, so I've been waiting for this novel for quite a while.
What Liberal Media? by Eric Alterman -- His NPR interview was great. He discusses the state of the media and its relationship to politics.
The Lives of the Muses by Francine Prose -- Her NPR interview was great also.
Firefight at Yechon: Courage and Racism in the Korean War by Charles Bussey
The Unwept: Black American Soldiers and the Spanish American War by Edward Van Zile Scott
They Fought like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook
What are you working on now?
I've been working on a novel about the Buffalo Soldiers -- African-American soldiers who played an active role in what was referred to as "settling the West." I've limited my time frame to the period from 1866-82, as this was the time when the Cavalry Units combated Native Americans and were assigned to western forts. The story of the Buffalo Soldiers is mired in conflict, from the complex interactions between the black cavalrymen and their white officers, to skirmishes with bands of Apaches to racist townsfolk who wanted to oust the Buffalo Soldiers from their midst.
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