For the June installment of Favorite Books, Sebastian invited Mark Leidner to share his top three reads. Mark's most recent book is the short story collection Under the Sea (Tyrant Books, 2018), called “virtuosic” by the New York Times. He is also the author of two books of poetry, including Returning the Sword to the Stone (Fonograf Editions, forthcoming 2021) and Beauty Was the Case that They Gave Me (Factory Hollow, 2011), the book of aphorisms The Angel in the Dream of Our Hangover (Sator, 2011), and several feature films. His latest film Empathy, Inc. (2019), a sci-fi fantasy, earned raves in Variety, The Verge, and the A.V. Club and is currently viewable on iTunes, Amazon, and Shudder. Below are Mark's favorite books.
The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth
For a long time, The Sot-Weed Factor was my favorite book about poetry, despite it being a long novel. The story follows an upper-class British moron living in the 1700s who comes to the Americas with the dubious aim to be an epic poet. He has (or thinks he has) inherited a vast tobacco estate in Maryland, and his desire is to claim that estate, run it, and write a Marylandiad (in the vein of the Iliad), an epic to glorify what he misperceives as a new land in need of glorification. "Sot-weed" is a term for tobacco, and "factor" is a term for "manufacturer," so the title is essentially "The Tobacco Farmer." The story is full of such verbal ironies: very stupid things endlessly dressed up in loftier and loftier language. In tone and theme, The Sot-Weed Factor is a cousin to Don Quixote.
The vision of poetry this book projects is an art through which learned buffoons delude themselves into towering self-importance, but which ultimately humbles them and, in some bitter and broken way, saves them from a vast solipsism. This felt profound to me at the time when I read it, which happened to be near the beginning of my own attempt to learn how to write poetry. I was lucky to read it then, as I didn't have a model yet for what being a poet meant. The first time I read it I felt like a lightning rod that had never before been hit by lightning, finally being hit by it.
Barth's narration is almost annoyingly relentless in its satire of poetry, sexuality, masculinity, intellectualism, imperialism, ambitions of all types, Americans and Europeans of all types, and storytelling itself—but if you're into that sort of thing it can be quite funny. It wasn't until I read Chelsea Minnis' poetry later that I found a similarly scathing and ironic (and to me spiritually resonant) view of literary arts.
Zirconia by Chelsey Minnis
This was the first book of poetry I read that truly plumbed the shallowness of lyrical poetry and in so doing revealed an unpromised depth. Reading it validated many pathways of thought I had tried and failed to exorcise. In the title "Zirconia" you get a window into the fake glamour that art confers upon the artist. That fake glamor is the only glamor that is real, however, since even a "real" diamond's value is an illusion conferred by arbitrary historical, political, chemical, and market circumstances. Perhaps a poet must find a language they love that is not considered "real" enough and celebrate it until it becomes realer than inherited alternatives. My takeaway may not even be close to what Minnis intends, but Zirconia nonetheless vaulted me into my own self as a poet by helping me stop trying so hard to remove the "contaminants" of naked vapidity, of ugly pleasure, of moronic spectacle, of satirical pantomime—and instead accept them as a valid foundation upon which to dream new layers of meaning.
The Berlin Trilogy by Philip Kerr
Before he died last year, Philip Kerr was my favorite living novelist. The Berlin Trilogy comprise the first three books of a 14-book series of hard-boiled detective stories narrated by the protagonist Bernie Gunther—a foul-mouthed, barely heroic detective in Berlin before, during, and after the rise of the Nazis. In these stories, Bernie tries to save his own skin, solve murders, and stand against the century's most egregious wrongs—almost always in that order. This is escapist fiction in which plot, character, and setting are there to make you want to turn the page, but Kerr's seamlessly interwoven research and lyrical and philosophically bleak reflections elevate these stories above similar mysteries. As Bernie tries to solve stomach-turning crimes often committed by the very Nazis who hire him to "solve" them for politically insincere reasons, he relentlessly grapples with humanity's bottomless greed and evil, and his own complicity in it. He ultimately, reluctantly, tries to do the right thing at great personal cost.
Most good hard-boiled detective stories serve up such themes, but since these are drenched in the horrors of Nazi Europe, there's an extra torque to the brutal turns in the plot, and an extra beauty to the blisteringly cynical narration of Bernie Gunther, who acidly insults everyone, even the good guys, all the time. So the books are funny in addition to terrifying. While these stories are, in some sense, no more than fairy tales, they do feel "true" to me about history, about power, about evil, about guilt, and about the faint but inextinguishable flame of heroism that can still burn even when the world is the worst that it has ever been, even when the bearer bears the burden of complicity.
"Favorite Books with Sebastian Castillo" is our monthly column in which previous contributors and friends of Peach Mag are invited to share the works of literature that have made the biggest impacts on their reading and writing lives. Sebastian is the author of Not I and 49 Venezuelan Novels. Read previous installments of Favorite Books here.