Reading with... Brian O'Hare

photo: G. Joshua Sliwa

Brian O'Hare, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a former Marine Corps officer, is a writer and filmmaker. His work has appeared in War, Literature & the Arts, Hobart and SFWP (Santa Fe Writers Project), among others. He has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes. O'Hare won the 2021 Veterans Writing Award from Syracuse University Press for Surrender (November 1, 2022), his book of short stories that explore the mythos of American manhood. He's currently at work on his debut novel.

Handsell readers your book in approximately 25 words or less:

A Marine journeys into the heart of the American hero myth--from football fields to battlefields and beyond--demythologizing what it means to be a man.

On your nightstand now:

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad; Battledore by L.J. Sysko; Slide to Unlock by Julie E. Bloemeke; Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko.

Favorite book when you were a child:

The Elephant Who Liked to Smash Small Cars by Jean Merrill and Ronni Solbert. The story of an elephant with a passionate commitment to felony vandalism. Spare, strangely disturbing drawings accompany this utterly demented tale.

Your top five authors:

James Baldwin. To simply describe Baldwin as "great" is slanderous. His genius--whether in Giovanni's Room or Another Country, my personal favorites--is otherworldly. And, like Vasily Grossman, Baldwin's compassion for humanity, for those who wrong his blood and the world, is absolute. Religions have been started with less.

Vasily Grossman. Baldwin's only competition for Best Ever status. But while Baldwin flirts with prophecy, Grossman is very much of the Earth. Nobody elevates the suffering of humanity like Grossman--or reaffirms that, despite all, humanity is inextinguishable. Profound.

Zora Neale Hurston. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a revelation. Another book rooted in the rich red dirt of humanity. But Hurston's work is touched with a kind of romanticism, a magical quality, that transforms her characters and books into the divine. Janie and Tea Cake are the ultimate star-cross'd lovers. Hurston is transformative.

Emily Dickinson. A writer of staggering power and simplicity. Revealing the secrets of the soul--like a great scientist, committed to her work, despite the cost to her own well-being--her work is timeless.

Dantiel W. Moniz. I first read Moniz's work in the Paris Review--her story "The Loss of Heaven" blew me away. And then Milk Blood Heat, her book of short stories, absolutely fried my brain. Moniz is an extraordinary writer. No other voice is like hers. The future of American literature.

Book you've faked reading:

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. It's all downhill after Ishmael discovers himself in bed with Queequeg. Chapter 32: "Cetology"? Kill me now, please. Ahab chasing Moby? C'mon, you two! Get a room!

Book you're an evangelist for:

Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, arguably the greatest book ever written and described as a "Soviet War and Peace." Grossman's account of the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II is monumental not only for its depiction of the battle and its brutality, but also for the staggering compassion Grossman displays for his characters, both Russian and German. Despite epic bloodshed, Life and Fate radiates with a profound humanity. Hugely inspiring, almost like a religious text.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs. It's a second edition from 1959 with the name "Joe Shannon" scrawled inside in ballpoint. The cover resembles the Kennedy assassination, but with robots instead of humans, as seen in a bad dream, an explosion of wires and switches and diodes flaring black and gold. An X-ray of anxiety. Disturbing and utterly perfect. Appropriately, the book was not bought but stolen--from the old Bethesda Naval Hospital "Crew Library" when the librarian announced that my father had died. A fitting souvenir of that day.

Book you hid from your parents:

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. It was '70s suburban Pittsburgh. The book was hidden for obvious reasons. (I'm sure I wasn't the only one.)

Book that changed your life:

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Obvious, yeah. But this was the book that turned me on to the idea of serious literature--that books had power beyond mere words. I read it in the back of my parents' Chevy Suburban on the way to football camp as a 12-year-old, and howled at Holden's sarcasm. But as I read it again--and again and again--I realized there was more going on. That it wasn't funny at all. This was the book that made me want to be a writer. To have that kind of impact on a reader.

Favorite lines from a book:

"Archer reddened to the temples, but dared not move or speak: it was as if her words had been some rare butterfly that the least motion might drive off on startled wings, but that might gather a flock about it if it were left undisturbed." --The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

"Unable are the Loved to die/ For Love is Immortality." --Emily Dickinson

Books you'll never part with:

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. Another Country by James Baldwin. Like great religious texts, you can open either of these books to any page and discover salvation.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. A book of profound small moments. I carried it with me in my flak jacket during the Gulf War. Francie and Neeley helped keep me sane.

Ask the Dust by John Fante. It's often said that Los Angeles is an intellectual desert and that it possesses no culture or literature. This book single-handedly obliterates that tired cliché with its devastating dreamer's poetry.

If He Hollers Let Him Go by Chester Himes. A ticking bomb of a book. The greatest, most damning Los Angeles--and, therefore, American--book of all. Profound and still relevant today.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. A love story to rival Romeo and Juliet. Shattering.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Atticus Finch will forever be the gold standard for fatherhood. I read it to my children when they were very young. (I have a daughter and a son, paralleling Scout and Jem.) Now, as teenagers and young adults, they still talk about that experience with awe and reverence. What a book.

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