A version of this appeared in the Charleston Gazette a few months back:
The Charleston Gazette is publishing short essays called Books I Have Loved. Here is mine:
My best friend in the Peace Corps introduced me to John Steinbeck. Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row were the first books that caused me to laugh out loud. In Dubious Battle was my favorite of Steinbeck’s serious novels.
Other gut laughs came from: Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, brought to my attention by Mike Adkins, one of my Duval High School students, who also handed me Robert Forward’s elegant science-fiction Dragon’s Egg; Tom Sharpe’s hilarious Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure, spoofed the insanity of South African society under apartheid.
My all time favorite novel is The Black Obelisk by Erich Maria Remarque, who wrote the more famous All Quiet on the Western Front. The Black Obelisk begins in 1923 Germany when the economic collapse fueled the early days of Hitler. Sometimes funny and black humored, this story is told as a salary increase in the morning had to be spent before the noon currency exchange rates rendered it worthless and a cigar could economically be lit with a ten mark note. And there is a drunken retired army officer who urinates on the black obelisk.
Starting with Things Fall Apart, I read the wonderful novels of Nigerian, Ibo author, Chinua Achebe. Achebe tells of the subjugation of the Ibo culture by British domination and takes place southeastern Nigeria where I lived in the Peace Corps.
Some other favorites are: Peter Matthiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord with its treatment of missionary arrogance and folly in the Amazon jungle; The Last of the Just by Andre Schwarz-Barz, considered by some to be the greatest novel of the Holocaust.
Of course 1984 and Animal Farm had profound effects on me. I read those as a WVU student in 1955, when 1984 seemed far in the future. I could go on with such as Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s sly musings and many others that stopped me in my tracks and turned me around.
Denise Giardina’s Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth tell us in seamless prose how West Virginia got in such a mess; as does Ronald Lewis’ Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880-1920. For pictures of that mess try, Plundering Appalachia, edited byTom Butler and George Wuerthner. And don’t miss Night Comes to the Cumberlands.
And to grin and laugh, sometimes out loud, there are the first two volumes of Pogo comic strips, from whence comes, “Deck us all with Boston Charlie.”