6 book recommendations from Bruce McCall
The illustrator and humorist recommends works by Gustave Flaubert, Alice Munro, and more
Bruce McCall's new memoir, How Did I Get Here?, revisits his Ontario childhood and varied career as a onetime ad man who became an illustrator and humorist for National Lampoon, The New Yorker, and, briefly, the original Saturday Night Live.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1856).
The gaps in my formal education led to more than a few gaps in my tally of the classics. At age 40, I had never read Madame Bovary. My wife, Polly, rightly insisted that I right this wrong. The book is romantic as hell, and just as tragic.
Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (2010).
I once accompanied Ron on research expeditions to Princeton and Valley Forge, talking nonstop (mostly me asking him questions and listening). I was relatively new to American history before reading Washington, at least to the particulars of the first phase of the American experiment under Washington and others. Chernow is a master storyteller — end of story.
The Only Way to Cross by John Maxtone-Graham (1972).
The history — or "saga," more fittingly — of the great transatlantic ocean liners. The book's vivid details and many anecdotes are matched in their capacity to produce pleasure by the design and technical profiles of the ships. Shortly after reading this book, I painted my R.M.S. Tyrannic series for National Lampoon, and it's one of best things I ever published, so I owe a debt of gratitude to Maxtone-Graham.
Open Secrets by Alice Munro (1994).
As a fellow southwestern Ontarian, I can attest to the stinging veracity of Munro's depictions of a conformist, rigidly Calvinist world of modest lives and even more modest expectations, where shame inevitably gnaws and one's personal discontent is hidden or denied. All of this was rich territory for a scholar of everyday despair. Munro is also funny and, again, Canadian. What more could you want?
The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov (1938).
A wonderful story: the age-old love between a guy and a gal, made unique because everything Nabokov did was unique. All of Nabokov's books could have a place on my list, but The Gift is the one that I keep at hand.
The White Nile by Alan Moorehead (1960).
I hadn't read much, if any, travel literature when this came out. Moorehead was an intelligent writer and a serious student of the regions he covered — not a given in travel writing, I would discover. I've never traveled to Africa myself, so I thank Moorehead for the next best thing.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.