Top Ten Books And Why – Francis Berger
In these secular times it has become somewhat unfashionable to read “The Good Book.” Nonetheless, even if someone is a hardened atheist, an understanding of the foundation of Western society, especially in the realm of ethics and morality, would not be a detriment. Having said that, it is still the go-to source for great and often archetypal stories.
The Greek Myths – Robert Graves
Perhaps the most accessible and careful retelling of the myths that serve as the prototypes for so many later narratives.
Hamlet – William Shakespeare
To be or not to be . . . need anything more be said?
Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky
All the tension of a whodunit enveloped in the moral labyrinth of a why-did-he-do-it. More than anyone, Dostoevsky screams to us from the rooftops of the dangers of a world “where everything is permitted.”
War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
Most people refuse to read this novel for its sheer bulk alone. Yet, interestingly enough, many of those same people see nothing wrong with reading several thousand pages of the Harry Potter series. If length alone does not scare most readers off, the complexity of the plot and the many characters who people it do. In today’s age, where all kinds of supplementary material can be found online with a few pushes of some buttons, there is no excuse for anyone to avoid Tolstoy’s masterpiece.
Lost Illusions – Honore de Balzac
Ever know anyone who came from humble beginnings and wanted to make it big in New York City or Hollywood? Were you ever one of those people yourself? Perhaps you still are? Fascinated by American Idol? Forget all that. Balzac delves into the lustful furnaces of human ambition to discover what steel society is really tempered from.
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
The greatest metaphysical story ever composed, complete with Shakespearean syntax and the towering figure of Captain Ahab, one of the most compelling characters ever created.
The Gulag Archipelago – Alexander Solzhenitsyn
In order to create a utopia, one first needs a sewer system. A damning document of communism and its inherent cruelty. A warning to all future attempts at creating heaven on earth.
A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
The ultimate redemption story. A timeless classic and, for Dickens, refreshingly brief in its telling.
The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger
Salinger does such a masterful job capturing the narrative voice of Holden Caulfield the reader cannot help but be swept away in the all the angst and anger. I also tip my hat to the idea that Salinger steadfastly refused to have anyone make a film adaptation of his novel. Let’s all hope Catcher never makes it to “a theater near you.”
I see book lists all the time, and this screams to me smart, literary. Former attorney and now high school AP economics teacher here. The Bible is awesome. I recommend it to anyone and then go a step further. Read how people have looked at them through the years and through multiple religions. To me Edith Hamilton wrote the text book on myths. And there is so much to be said of Hamlet. It’s a great story, and for people who don’t know the Lion King is Disney’s reinterpretation of the classic. It’s different, but Hamlet is interesting. (Side note to females: Never kill yourself because a guy doesn’t want you. Ophelia’s an idiot. Move on.) Moby Dick and a Christmas Carol… awesome, but I like these stories. Perhaps one day though a man will explain to me in words I care to hear why Crime and Punishment, War and Peace or a Catcher in the Rye are on these lists. If I hate the book, like I hate the Great Gatsby, no amount of telling me why I’m wrong works. I’m missing the emotional connection. Just my two cents and not worth even that much.
Now teacher, let’s hear your process.
My Writing Process – Francis Berger
Since The City of Earthly Desire is my first novel, I can only describe the writing process that went into its creation. This novel took a long time to write; the various phases of the process mirrored the changing seasons of the year: spring was for planting and nurturing, summer was for creation and manifesting, fall was for reaping and harvesting, and winter was for analysis and consideration. Of course, my writing seasons were not as neatly divided as seasons during the year are. My writing spring, for example, dragged on for far longer than three months, whereas my writing summer barely lasted two months. Still, the notion of the seasons and the different responsibilities each one brings can still be validly applied to the writing of the book.
For my novel The City of Earthly Desire, spring lasted almost a year. I had a notion I had to write a novel about post-communist Hungary and its burgeoning adult entertainment industry, but it took me a long time to conjure up the characters and assemble the story. I didn’t burden myself with deadlines during this phase. Nor did I pressure myself in any way. I merely opened myself up to ideas and let them take me where they would. Once I had a vague outline for a story, I began research in order to broaden, deepen or, in a worst-case scenario, destroy the ideas that had come to me.
Because I am a teacher, I have two months off during the summer and I dedicated this time solely to the first draft. Unlike the imagining, conjuring, researching, and assembling, I found it impossible to parcel up my time when it came to the actual writing of the narrative. When I finally get down to writing, I cannot have other distractions. My day began very early in the morning and would often not end until very late at night. By the end of August, I had completed the first draft.
With the first draft complete, I could return to dividing up my focus on the book with my other responsibilities. I spent five or six months reading and revising what I had written. This turned out to be much tougher than I had anticipated and the piecemeal nature of the work I did during this time helped me focus on the specifics rather than on the general.
When the revisions were complete, I dedicated two or three months simply to proofreading and editing. Considering the length of the novel – over 200,000 words, this was no small task.
Overall, I found this approach to be effective and I am certain I will utilize it again in the future.
Francis, you are brave. My first book was rejected everywhere. I have a pile of 100 plus rejections. Fun times to be told… no, no, no.
I am also pointing out now to every reader, your child’s teacher does not get paid over the summer. We have ten month jobs, not twelve months. To take the time to write and not get another job, watching your child at a summer camp somewhere, is a HUGE commitment. In this day and age where it’s bash the teacher time, I do like to point out the sacrifice. I made more money working in engineering and then later on in law as a lawyer. Most teacher do not have time to write like this. Sorry Francis for the statement, but people always seem to forget the money issue, unless you are fabulously wealthy beyond belief. I know a teacher. Not me, but I know a guy.
200000 words is a HUGE, HUGE book. The idea behind it sounds interesting, and all in all your story sounds pretty darn intense actually. I have a feeling you’re an intense guy and probably a great teacher. You’re showing your passion with this book, and the excerpt itself sounds smart, engaging, and interesting. We’re very different in style, approach, and everything else, but I love talking to people with deep opinions and commitment. All in all, I’m impressed.
After the communists destroy his dream of becoming a recognized painter, Reinhardt Drixler escapes Hungary and moves to America to further his artistic ambitions and provide a better future for his young family.
Twenty-five years later, his son Béla falls in love with Suzy Kiss, an alluring striptease dancer whose interest inBéla can be summarized in two words: green card.
When Suzy is mysteriously deported, a devastated Béla must make a decision – should he stay in New York and continue with the noble artistic ambitions his father instilled in him, or should he follow his heart to Hungary and explore the enticing and risqué opportunities blossoming in Budapest after the collapse of communism?
WHITE STAG, RED STAR
Once there was or once there was not a hungry, frightened Danube-Swabian woman who gave birth to a boy in a forest. The woman was hungry because for three days she had eaten nothing but stale crusts of bread; she was frightened because the Russian soldiers who had occupied her village showed no signs of wanting to leave. The woman feared she would give birth in the small, dilapidated hunting cabin to which she had fled with twenty of her fellow villagers before the soldiers arrived. The villagers hiding in the cabin with the pregnant young woman prayed the soldiers would be gone before the labor pains began, but their prayers went unanswered – the soldiers were still in the village when the contractions started. The hungry, frightened Danube-Swabian woman began to moan and wail. To muffle the noise, the young woman’s mother-in-law placed a rolled up handkerchief into her daughter-in-law’s mouth. The men took the children and stepped outside. It was a cold early morning in November. A thin layer of sticky snow blanketed the forest. The Russian soldiers occupying the village of Altfreidorf were barely a kilometer away.
“What happens when the child comes out? You can’t slip a handkerchief into its mouth and tell it to be quiet!” the blacksmith said as he stood outside with the other villagers. The men around him nodded, furrowed their brows, and scanned the columns of oak trees for any sign of the soldiers.
The hours passed slowly. No sounds came from the cabin. The villagers outside listened to the constant rumblings of their empty stomachs. The only other sound that punctured the relative silence of the forest was the cawing of unseen crows. In the late afternoon, just as the diffused daylight from the overcast sky began to fade, the cabin door creaked open and Anna Drixler, the young woman’s mother-in-law, stepped out into the snow wiping the jackknife she had used to cut the umbilical cord.
“It’s a boy,” she said. “Gertrude has named him Reinhardt.”
“It’s done? We didn’t hear a thing,” the astonished blacksmith whispered.
“What can I say? He’s an intelligent lad,” Anna Drixler said. She folded up the jackknife and slipped it into her apron pocket. “As soon as he came out, we all told him he had to be quiet, and he understood.”
The blacksmith smiled and withdrew a flask of pálinka from his inner coat pocket. He offered it to the new grandmother, but Anna Drixler politely refused. The blacksmith shrugged, raised the flask into the air before him as if proposing a toast, then took a quick drink. He was about to pass the flask to the priest when the sound of a branch snapping a short distance away made him stop. Everyone outside the cabin froze and listened. Far away, an angry crow cawed, then all was quiet again. The villagers remained as motionless as statues, straining their ears to pinpoint the location of the snapping branch.
When no further noise came, the villagers’ tense expressions relaxed, and they began to move once more. As soon as they did, another branch snapped. The villagers froze again. A few of them pointed to a tangled copse of oak saplings and elderberry bushes near the cabin. Before any of them had the chance to discern what the source of the noise might be, a large stag burst forth from the brush and came to a halt in the clearing before the cabin.
Had it been a common deer, the kind the villagers sometimes saw in the wooded, rolling undulations of the Mecsek hills surrounding Altfreidorf, the appearance of the animal would have been passed off with a chuckle or a shrug, but the buck standing before them was no common deer. To begin with, it was enormous – nearly twice the size of any they had ever seen – and it proudly displayed antlers so intricate, ornate, and majestic they rivaled the finest candelabra adorning the palaces of kings. But what truly made the beast spectacular was its coat, which was as white as the snow cloaking the forest floor.
For the villagers, the appearance of the white stag was magical; a myth come to life right before their eyes. They stared at it in awe. The sight of the entire Red Army charging toward them led by Stalin himself would not have impressed them as much. The beast looked at the villagers with its large black eyes and snorted a series of misty exhalations. After a moment, it shifted its gaze to the cabin. It stared at the cabin for a while as if in a trance, then, without warning, it scraped the snowy ground with its monstrous left hoof, snorted again, reared up on its hind legs and, with one terrific bound, leaped back into the thicket, and disappeared from view.
“I thought those things only existed in fairy tales,” one of the men said after a minute had passed, his voice puncturing the silence the white stag had left.
“It’s a sign!” the blacksmith said.
“It’s a sign from God!” the priest said. He snatched the flask from the blacksmith’s hand, took a long drink, wiped his mouth with his coat sleeve, and then added, “A blessing! Think of St. Eustace. Think of St. Hubertus.” He turned to Anna Drixler. “Your grandson has been blessed!”
Anna Drixler and the other villagers bowed their heads and crossed themselves as the diminishing light of the late afternoon darkened the forest around them. When they filed back into the cabin, they all stared at the newborn infant Gertrude cradled in her arms as she lay in the corner upon one of the cabin’s two beds. The women quickly strung up a makeshift curtain to afford the new mother and child some privacy. After the curtain – made of aprons and undershirts tied together – was up, Gertrude, weak, exhausted, throbbing from the pain of her delivery, leaned close to her mother-in-law and asked why the villagers had all looked at her and her son so oddly. Anna Drixler quietly described the appearance of the white stag.
“Father Ebner said your son has been blessed by God.”
Gertrude did not know how to respond. She moved her baby to her breast and leaned her head on Anna Drixler’s shoulder. In the end, all she could think to say was, “I’m hungry.”
The next day before dawn, two men from the cabin carefully made their way down to the edge of the forest to survey the village. They returned after dawn and informed their fellow villagers that the Russian soldiers had left Altfreidorf. The priest insisted there was a divine connection between the white stag’s appearance and the soldiers’ departure.
“A blessing! A sign from God!” he repeated over and over again.
Many of the villagers did not care if the stag’s appearance had any direct correlation to the soldiers’ departure – they were simply relieved the soldiers were gone. They waited in the cabin for a few hours just to be safe, then made their way back to Altfreidorf, trickling down the wooded hillside like a human rivulet. Villagers who had hidden in other parts of the forest also returned. For a few brief moments, there was happiness – as if the white stag had blessed them all just as the priest claimed. But when they set foot on the village’s only road and listened to the eerie silence, their joy dispersed in the cold winter air.
Most of the hundred souls who had refused or had been unable to flee the village had disappeared. Among the missing was Anna Drixler’s husband, Johann Drixler, the patriarch of the family who had defiantly chosen to remain in the village to protect his house and property from the soldiers.
“They marched him away. They took them all,” Mrs. Schwartz, an octogenarian who was blind in one eye lamented. Before she broke down in tears, she pointed her skeletal finger at the ten elderly villagers and pack of small children nearby. “They left only us.”
It was true – the soldiers had left the very young and the very old, but very little else. They had ransacked every house. The cold cellars were empty; the pantries, pilfered; the wine barrels, drained. The animals had become dried pools of blood and heaps of bone and fur. Jewelry, clothing, footwear, tools, silverware, paintings, and countless other items had vanished. The most commonly looted items were timepieces. Reinhardt Drixler’s first days of life were measured out by hunger and the sun’s movement across the sky.
Francis Berger was born in New York City in 1971. Recently, he completed a six year stretch as a high school teacher in the Bronx and Queens in New York City. He has published some short stories, most notably in The Toronto Star. The City of Earthly Desire is his first novel. He currently lives near Toronto, Canada with his wife and young son.