Austin McMulin is one of those people who stopped me dead in my tracks the first time he commented on my blog, and I had to get to know him. Have a look in his voracious mind and past here, as he shares some of his favorite books on my Saturday guest post series, Anthony’s Navel. Follow him here.
by Austin McMulin
Think I musta been hooked by the 8th grade. I remember sitting there on the busted faux-leather green couch in the ancient living room after school and just tearing through To Kill A Mocking Bird, probably assigned through the school and ignored until that moment. Mom was just separated from Joe, my step-Dad, and this was the crappy house we lived in now. In the mix and the chaos of divorce, I must have related to Scout, and how degenerate her world seemed. It was deeper than that though, it was the feeling of escape, that the well constructed book offered. Here was a practice like meditation that could totally distort space and time. I wouldn’t have been able to articulate all that then, but I felt it then for sure.
My Mom loves to read. My Dad isn’t a big reader, but has good tastes. Think I stole Kafka’s In The Penal Colony from him. He told me when he was young he loved to write stories. But then a teacher told him his talking animals were ridiculous, so he stopped. I remember right before the step-Dad divorce, at the house with the pool, I wrote my first story on one of our first computers. It was a true crime, mafia type short story. I think I had just watched the movie A Bronx Tale. In mine, the main bad guy delivered this line, fifty years after waiting for his revenge and it was like, “you didn’t remember me, but now you’ll never forget me!”
I remember reading a lot of heavy, radical books early on, like Alex Haley’s biography of Malcolm X, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Underboss by Peter Mass about Sammy the Bull Gravano, Monster by Kody Scott; all these gangster books are quite alarming in retrospect. My Mom has an appetite for the sensational as well, so I remember reading books like A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer and Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, right as they came out. Thanks to Oprah’s Book Club, I hear Jodi Picoult is phenomenal. I remember taking down a couple V.C. Andrews books early on, and Flowers in the Attic haunts me still. Also I was attracted toward weird Catholic remnants like The Confessions of Saint Augustine and the Left Behind series. And basically every other scandalous or headline making book, like Howard Stern’s Private Parts, that came out during the late 80s and 90s .
I loved libraries from the beginning too. Wandering their endless aisles, eyeing the endless specimens. All the different sections you could explore. The card catalogue which laid it all out, easy for you. And now that I think about it more, I was hooked way before Harper Lee. As a kid, I loved reading the Sideways Stories from Wayside School series (this one explains everything), a lot of RL Stein Goosebumps books, Choose Your Own Adventure books, Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, and The Indian in the Cupboard, among others.
My Dad kept this tape of me reading in kindergarten. I remember making that tape. He came to visit the school and got it. We sat after school in his old car, big old couch seats of the seventies, so it felt like we’re in a living room, and he remarked how well I read. He’s kept it this whole time, showed it to me years later. Probably still has it. He also told me in my twenties one time he thought I may have took the whole reading thing “a little too far.” A comment the rebellious youth took in equal parts love and hate, but now with middle age understanding settling in, I appreciate as more or less true.
Books call to you from the shelves. East of Eden by John Steinbeck was like that. Got it, and for about a decade couldn’t get into it, but knew deep down it was going to get me one day. The day comes, I pick it up and can’t put it down. It screams at me. Paints a picture and story directly paralleling and exemplifying, my developing understanding and experience. Read it in several days. Hooked. That’s the deep secret of books, they help the soul evolve. They are programs.
All right, so some of my key favorites, Stephen King is huge, he gets a couple nods with The Dark Tower and Salem’s Lot, but really anything by him. He’s the book equivalent of my favorite pair of jeans. Anytime I can’t find something to read I just go with him. My other go-to favorite is The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and the accompanying biography The Black Count by Tom Reiss. Dumas, his stories and life are real life fairy tales. Mark Twain is a great character himself, and prolific, so anything by him is worthwhile.
My high-brow nod to the literati would be The Postman Always Rings Twice & Other Stories by James McCain. Of course Tolkien, I’ve done the Silmarillion, and C.S. Lewis, you should see his science-fiction Space Trilogy. Humans of robust blood should definitely read Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov. I just recently read and highly recommend Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity, a book which makes time-travel plain. And Ray Bradbury, always the Bradbury, Something Wicked This way Comes, The Illustrated Man, A Medicine For Melancholy, The October Country.
I forgot all about the non-fiction which is just as exciting. A decade ago I went full deep space cowboy in the Conspiracy Theory and Occult genres, so that shades a lot of these recommendations. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a master-piece. Lefties should read Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelot. It will ruin the Kennedys for you. Conservatives should read Russ Baker’s Family of Secrets, and realize they need to repent if they ever voted Bush. David Ovason’s The Secret Architecture of our Nation’s Capital will confuse and amaze. Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States should be mandatory American reading, along with Woody Guthrie’s Bound For Glory. The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson felt haunted and I had to kick it out of the house. And for nightmares read Was Jonestown a CIA Experiment? by Michael Meira or Ultimate Evil: The Truth About The Cult Murders: Son of Sam and Beyond by Maury Terry. And to cleanse your pallet of all that nastiness, go back to fiction and read anything by Tom Robbins, I suggest Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
My kids got it too. We go to the library once a week and get a new stash of books. My six year old is an exceptional reader and writer, and has already started writing his own stories. He makes little comics, booklets, and does his own art. I knew he had it bad like me when he started taking books from my shelf and hiding them beside his bed. Felt so much Fatherly pride when I saw he had taken Fellowship of The Ring, and was acting like he could read it. In his mind, as he likes to point out. Already shooting high above his pay grade, I thought, just like his old man.
Austin McMulin is a Writer/Stay-At-Home Dad in the hinterland of Iowa. He posts his writings at draftworkshopblog.wordpress.com