For the August installment of Favorite Books, Sebastian invited Oliver Zarandi, author of Soft Fruit In The Sun (Hexus Press), to tell us about his top six reads. Oliver's work has appeared in Prototype, iD, The Quietus, Hotel, Vol. 1, Brooklyn, and Hobart. Below are his favorite books.
The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor
A lot of people think Wise Blood is O’Connor’s best book. Maybe even her short stories. They’re great, but I still think this one is her best.
It’s a far more difficult read than her other books. The story is slightly knotted and if you try to lay this out like a treatment for a screenplay—which I did—you’ll find yourself going back and forth seeing who did what, who said what, and so on.
But I think that’s the beauty of it. And let’s not label it grotesque, either, something O’Connor wrote about in her essays: “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”
Orphaned Francis Marion Tarwater, having escaped the farm he was raised on in some sort of isolation by his uncle, travels to the city for the first time to see his cousin Rayber and fulfill the prophecy of his uncle: to baptize Rayber’s son, Bishop.
What we have is a battle over Bishop’s soul, with Francis and Rayber haunted by the shadow of their uncle and the “stinking mad shadow of Jesus.”
I think it may have one of the most disturbing endings to a book ever. It’s stuck with me for years and still makes me shiver in some sort of disgust.
Walking Through Clear Water in A Pool Painted Black by Cookie Mueller
I got this one at Dog Eared Books in the Castro. I’d shaved my hair real short and bleached it blonde. I think I was going through what can only be described as a life crisis. I think the only thing I imbibed was lemonade, too.
This book was with all the other Semiotext(e) books near the counter and I quietly leafed through it. It was so thin. A lean book, I thought. I like lean books. Sure, some fat books are good, but you’ll notice with all the picks here that they’re short.
I like a book to hit me right in the face, most of the time, and this one did. Look, even the story titles are blunt: “Two People—Baltimore—1964”; “Abduction and Rape—Highway 31 Elkton, Maryland—1969”; “Pink Flamingoes.” People, places, years.
I love the book’s complete lack of pretension. “He didn’t look too good in there, all yellow in a murky blue private room,” Cookie writes in the first story. Or how about what it was like to work on Pink Flamingos? “We’d all eat shit, catch on fire, fuck chickens, but we wouldn’t do close-up crotch shots.”
And overanalyzing Cookie’s writing is probably no good either. Don’t do it. It feels like she’s there with you on every page. It’s vulgar and tender, funny and sad. A fun read.
Enormous Changes at The Last Minute by Grace Paley
It was 2017. I was in NY and it was freezing cold and I’d gone through a bit of a tough time. I went to NY to just enjoy myself and had very little money. I stayed in this little room on the Lower East Side. An older woman rented it out to me. I slept in the back room, behind a beaded curtain, kind of like the one in that brothel in Taxi Driver. And I felt directionless and didn’t think writing or reading mattered at all. Books? Fuck them. But then I went to McNally Jackson and picked this one up. I just liked the title. I sat down and fell in love with the first lines of the first story:
I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.
Hello, my life, I said. We had been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.
He said, What? What life? No life of mine.
I bought it and read it straight away. I even went back to that apartment and wrote a whole new story called “Idiots.” I was completely inspired. Paley’s language is great, but that dialogue—it’s gold. It’ll go from characters speaking to the inside of their head. It’s all so cutting and bodily and political.
You sheltered yourself, said Jerry Cook. My sister says to him, Marv. You look like a pig half the time. You look like a punk, you don't look like an auctioneer. What do you look like? Name it. Schlep, he says. Laughs. Right-o. Schlep. Listen, Marv, give me this warehouse for 70,000. I'll slip you back 7 and an Olds. Beautiful car, like a horse, she says. I know your wife's a creep, she don't put out. I'll fix you up nice. You don't deserve to look such a burn. Right away he's grateful. Hahahah, breathes hard. He thinks he's getting laid. What? My sister? Anna Marie. Not her. No. She wouldn't do that. Never. Still, that's what he thinks.
Paley’s book helped me fall in love with writing again. I think we all have those books that come along and just blow you away. Amelia Gray’s Gutshot also did this. And Lydia Davis’s Break It Down. I’d say these three are my favorite short story collections.
Hollywood by Charles Bukowski
Say what you want about Bukowski’s work, but Hollywood is a very, very funny book. He doesn’t even try and hide the people he’s writing about. Francis Ford Lopolla. Luc Modard. Wenner Zergog. It’s a great book if you want to see how a writer keeps shit moving. It’s like a shark, just moving forward constantly.
It’s a great Los Angeles book, too, up there with Bukowski’s other stuff, Eve Babitz and Fante’s Ask the Dust or The Road to Los Angeles. But Hollywood is the one that makes me laugh. And for that simple reason, I’ll keep going back to it.
Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter
I was taken by surprise by this book. It’s a revelation. It defies definition, too. A crime novel? I don’t think so.
But it has all those tropes, sure. A bunch of teenagers jacking cars, shooting pool, and fucking in hotels. But just when you think you’re comfortable—oh, I know this world, I’ve read this kind of shit before—Carpenter completely wrong foots you.
It’s a book that takes ideas of what it is to be a “man” during the 1960s and flips it on its head. It’s a shocking and tender book. I can’t say much more than that without ruining this one, but it’s one of those books that I wish I could’ve written. If I could write a book as good as this, I’d be happy.
The Halfway House by Guillermo Rosales
It’s a tiny book, so you can read it in a few hours. I found it purely by chance in Codex off Bleeker Street. It was described as the “frightening, nihilistic cousin of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” I can’t put it better than that. It’s a terrifying book, but still manages to make you laugh. You can see echoes of this in Ottessa Moshfegh's best work—her short stories, or McGlue.
"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.