Mark Helprin Best book you've ever read: Mark Helprin
By Markus on Friday, February 6, 1998 - 01:16 pm:
    In my opinion, Helprin is the greatest living writer in English, though he leaves some people somehow unaffected. Reading his stuff killed the smallest idle shred of ever wanting to be writer, because I had seen what was possible and I would never come close to that standard. The first (and thereafter continuously) thing you notice is his breathtaking use of the language. He writes on epic themes, primarily love, beauty, and truth, and much of life is in there. At the same time, his books can be screamingly funny; I'm still laughing out loud the fifth time I read a passage. A good place to start is Memoir from Antproof Case, a roller coaster ride through the life and century of a man who has seemingly devoted his life to the eradication of the evil bean: coffee. I found a stack of the hardcovers in a used bookstore and bought the entire lot, to press into the hands of friends and strangers. A Soldier of the Great War is less maniacal, but as intensely moving and exhilarating. Winter's Tale is magical realism set in New York City; I have never cared for either, but Helprin changed my mind. He also has a couple of volumes of short stories; the title story in Ellis Island and Other Stories remains one of the funniest, yet touching, things I have ever read.

By Christopher on Friday, February 6, 1998 - 02:27 pm:
    Helprin is a GREAT wrangler of the english language, true, but I find his political leanings a little disconcerting. If I'm not mistaken I believe he attempted, through speech writing, to pump a little life into the thoroughly wooden Dole campaign in '96. I honestly can't say what the context of these speeches were, as I have attempted to forget everything from that hideous presidential farce.

By Markus on Friday, February 6, 1998 - 07:13 pm:
    You are right, the memories are still too fresh and the consequences still unravelling to get into a discussion of that dismal election (besides the fact that this isn't the Worst election you've ever voted in thread). But no, he wasn't writing for the campaign. He penned Dole's statesmanlike resignation from the Senate speech. As soon as I read it I knew Bob hadn't written it, long before the true author was outed. The speech itself was craftsmanship, and in the worthy tradition of the best of American political history.

    Not that I have anything against Dole; I knew him on the Hill, and the real Bob Dole was the one who came out the day after the election. He and I disagreed on policy, but he's an honorable man. But again, the purpose here is not to debate politics (or I'm outta here).

    Even if Helprin clones his political views from the Senator (which he doesn't), it has no bearing for me, as it doesn't affect his writing either way. I read, admire, and learn from many writers who keep seperate their art and their opinions about public policy.

    I urge anyone who wants a great read, to be reinvigorated by the possibilities of language, or to possibly become a little wiser to consider the above volumes. My personal library runs to the thousands of volumes, and I often get the question which forms the header for this topic. I always considered it somewhat nonsensical and unanswerable until recently.


By Christopher on Saturday, February 7, 1998 - 02:12 pm:
    Well Said, Markus. Helprin is one of the more visual writers to emerge this century, and it's his incredible usage of the language that makes him so. A Winters Tale astonished me. I didn't think it possible that a wordsmith of this caliber could possibly still be stomping on the terra. All too often, I get the feeling that english speaking (And writing...) authors are refraining from using a more ornate style, for fear of speaking over their audiences heads. Helprin invites us to rise to the occasion. Perhaps he will even prove to be a non-partisan speech writer and pen Clintons resignation (hahaha).

By Markus on Monday, February 9, 1998 - 12:24 am:
    <wry grin>

    "His skull felt like it had been bolted to his spine by a Visigoth mechanic"? And I probably would have just said, "He had a killer headache". Yeah, the man does inspire one to pay a little more attention to one's language, especially written, even if it's as mundane as an email.

    Any other literate suggestions from an obviously erudite scholar such as yourself, Christopher? I'm always looking for great writing.

By Christopher on Monday, February 9, 1998 - 02:13 pm:
    Hmmmmm. My tastes range toward the bleaker side. Iain Banks wrote a particularly nasty little novel called "The Wasp Factory", which I found entirely upsetting, yet wholely unforgettable. Perhaps you haven't read any Yukio Mishima? Considering that he was a Japanese writer who was eventually consumed by the concept that Japanese culture was dying at the hands of Western influence, I find it ironic that he is perhaps one of the most Western writers to emerge in post WWII Japan. If you are familiar with Mishima, I can't recommend enough the excellent biography "Yukio Mishima: Life and death of a mask". The author's name escapes me at the moment, but you should have no problem finding it. If you aren't familiar with Mishima, I recommend "Temples of the golden pavilion". It touches on all the major themes of Mishima's work, and is really beautifully written.

By Markus on Tuesday, February 10, 1998 - 04:11 pm:
    Thanks much, I'll check it out. On a completely different plane, Nicholson Baker can be well worth reading, though I'm not sure how much you would identify with his most famous novels, Vox and The Fermata. His trademark is an anal attention to detail carried to a neurotic extreme; for example, the novella The Mezzanine takes place while riding an escalator up one floor and consists entirely of the narrator's internal recounting of the past hour of his ordinary life, complete with digressions and painstaking footnotes. The solipsism is simultaneous fascinating and a little repulsive, and often hilarious. He also has a book of essays out which are along the same lines and fairly nimble. But after a while one begins to wonder at the autobiographical aspects of Baker's protagonists.

    And while he is completely different, I always mentally link Christopher Buckley in my mind with Baker as I started reading both in the same library at about the same time in my life. Buckley's "Thank You For Smoking" is a light scathingly satirical look at lobbists, among other things. But I may find this hilarious because I live near DC and am a recovering policy wonk; also, you had said your tastes run toward the bleaker side.

By Christopher on Tuesday, February 10, 1998 - 05:08 pm:
    Well, Markus, This sounds pretty interesting. I've had "Vox" sitting on my bookshelf for the past year (It was a gift, and my experience has been that, while a book is perhaps one of the best gifts, in my case it's inevitable that its going to be something I've already read, or of no discernable interest. I actually have a section in my collection consisting of 2 rows of gift books that have never been read...). Fanatical attention to detail is a plus in my case. I've always been a stickler for the details, and I find that some of my favorite authors fit this bill. Umberto Eco comes to mind. The downside is when it becomes so extemperaneous as to be narcissistic. Who are they speaking to?
    Your timing is impeccable. I've just finished reading Will Self's "My Idea of Fun", which is one of the most hilariously evil books to have crossed my path in some time. Certainly not everyones cup of tea, and curiously british in a deadpan satirical style, but very much worth the time. Self is a writer who is worth keeping an eye on. I'm expecting great things over the next decade. I'll let you know what I think of "Vox", and thanks for the recommendation (!)

By Markus on Tuesday, February 10, 1998 - 06:16 pm:
    I suspect Vox will leave you somewhat cool; the giver apparently didn't know you too well. (Or it may be, of course, that *I* don't know you very well after a few days exchange of postings.) The Mezzanine or the essays (particularly the one on lumber) may be a better introduction. There's also U and I, which I haven't gotten around to yet but got interesting reviews. Anyway, he came to mind as his is also a very distinctive voice, though very different from Helprin.

    But if you're looking for the bleaker side of things, Sebastian Faulkes' Birdsong is that and then some. It's deeply flawed, as he tries to mesh three completely different stories. I spoke with him once and he implicitly acknowledged this. The slight framing story line takes place in the present and can easily be ignored. The secondary theme is a love story that, while having it's moments, really is quite average. However, the main story is where Faulkes really commits some literature. It follows the protagonist, a British lieutenant, and others through the trenches and tunnels of WWI in France. He takes you right there. Again, my personal circumstances possibly contributed to my intense reaction: I read the book while being shelled in Sarajevo during the war, an ideal atmosphere indeed for the tome. The Bosnian war was essentially WWI fought with WWII weapons, and there was despair and futility aplenty in the senseless slaughter taking place about one; surprisingly quickly it became normal and "everyday", since it was every day.

    Had to smile at your two shelves of gift books. For some reason, very few people (other than my mom) seem to give me either books or ties. Either they know I'm very picky about both, or are just intimidated by my current library.

By China on Wednesday, September 1, 2004 - 03:38 am:

    jesus lives...cancel easter

By Jennifer on Friday, October 1, 2004 - 02:53 am:

    Mark Helprin's writing is so beautiful it makes you ache.

By Stephen Wood on Wednesday, January 5, 2005 - 09:30 am:

    I loved this description, which occurs late in the book, when Virginia Gamely spots Cecil Wooly sneaking into Carnegie Hall:

    "There was no mistaking his truant stride. He had the air of one of those schoolboys whose eyes bounce back and forth in rhapsodic perjury as he tries to pretend that he has walked into a woman's steambath because he neglected to read the sign."


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