Friday, 10 August 2007

Books I Think People Should Read

This is a list of (fiction) books that I think people should read. I will add to it as I think of others.

EDIT: I screwed up and put some non-fiction in here by accident. Sorry.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky: This book was recommended to me by a friend at one point, and I made a mental note of it. I was in Indigo a few days later, and couldn't find Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, so I bought this on impulse. It's an epistolary coming-of-age novel, and is quite insightful. In ways it reminds me of the movie Garden State.

It by Stephen King: I'm a King fan, let's be clear on that. I also don't expect others to like King as much as me. Regardless, read this book. Its characterization is magnificent and I know people who found it King's most terrifying book. It certainly draws you in, it has a full and real fantastic cosmology in the vein of Tolkein (only without the elves), and is also insightful. (I've also heard that you oughtn't bother with the movie.)

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: In ways this book is profoundly disgusting, but it's also fascinating. When I think of the way it is written, the only word that comes to mind is 'delicious.' Nabokov's power over words is incredible. Of course, you have to be able to handle some seriously controversial subject matter.

Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis: I'm not about to say that I agree with everything Lewis says. I'm not about to say that he isn't profound, either. Overall, this is a thought-provoking book that makes some interesting claims for the behaviour of a practicing Christian and an intriguing attempt at an incontrovertible reason to be a practicing Christian. Even if you aren't religious, you should maybe read it to see what's going on and why some people would believe something you can't fathom. If you are religious, it's a positive must.

The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis: Everything I said about Mere Christianity applies to this as well. The difference is that this is written in the form of letters from the devil Screwtape giving advice to his nephew Wormwood, who is in charge of the corruption, and damnation, of an ordinary man. The satire is very good, and there are some great lines.

The His Dark Materials series by Philip Pulman: These books are very heretical, but if this bothers you, I'd just do what I did and think of it all as mythology. It is mythology, after all. These are some of the most original fantasy books since Tolkein, and lack the cliche many books exude. The heroine is charming, the worlds are beautiful, and the story is heart-wrenching.

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire: This is probably the other most original fantasy since Tolkein. It takes place in Oz, and gives the story of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. However, it revizes the story in remarkable and surprising ways, fleshing out her character and creating a cohesive, dynamic, and realistic Oz, while keeping with Dorothy's story so that we can understand how the people of Oz would believe what we think of as Dorothy's story is the truth and yet knowing that the Witch's is equally true. The sequel, Son of a Witch, is also engaging, and I hear that a third, A Cowardly War, is also coming out.
Edit Dec 1 2009: A Lion Among Men, originally titled A Cowardly War, was pretty good, better, I think, than A Son of A Witch. For those who disliked the ending of Wicked but liked the overall style, I'd encourage you to push through Son so you can get to Lion. You have to be able to handle weird sex scenes, though. (On a more literary note, I think I am detecting a tragedy-irony-comedy pattern in these three. If one more book came out in this series and it had a romance trajectory, I would not be at all surprised.)
Edit April 21 2013: I was right. Out of Oz is a romance, or at least as much of one as I'd expect Maguire to  write.

The Bone books: These are comics or graphic novels. I am up to the third one. I don't know what to say about them. They're kiddie lit, I suppose, but still good.
Edit Jan 15 2008: I have finished the entire series, and we're talking about Lord of the Rings or His Dark Materials greatness here. I mean, this is incredible.

The Truth about Stories by Thomas King: Thomas King is a Cherokee-Greek author who examines the relationship between the stories we tell and our world-views. Only it isn't boring, like that sounds. The style is very interesting, too. I'm currently reading his Green Grass Running Water, which has an even more irregular style. I now want to de(in)form my writing as King does, but in my own way.

Cell by Stephen King: So this isn't exactly capital-L Literature, but I still liked it. This is King weighing in on the zombie genre, and doing well at it. These really are zombies as you've never seen them, and the ending is pure, classic King. Of course, if a revision of the zombie convention and the total melt-down of society are not elements you're interested in, maybe you'll be right to pass. It doesn't have the stylistic genius of some of his other works, notably It.

Edit Aug 25, 2008: The Grapes of Wrath: If I had to define one excellent book of the summer, it would be this. While obviously written for a time and place, it has gives insight into human suffering and is relevant to any society struggling with the knowledge that their wealth is another's poverty. It was very hard to get into, but once I muscled through the beginning, an excellent read.

EDIT Aug 30, 2009: Many Waters: Madeline L'Engle's YA novels are generally good, original fantasy. I think, like the Narnia books, there are things about them that would be more interesting to Christian than non-Christian readers, but I also think that no non-Christian reader would feel alienated or pressed upon by these books, as some feel when reading The Chronicles (which I think is an absurd readerly response, but not everyone can be expected to read properly when schools don't teach you that sort of thing). My particular favourite is Many Waters, in which Dennis and Sandy, the twins, go back to the time of Noah, and get hopelessly mixed up--both historically and emotionally--in the local community, angelic politics, and the history of mankind. There's sexual and brotherly tension, shape-shifting and beautiful angels (both of the fallen and of the loyal varieties), unicorns and mammoths, and science.

EDIT Dec 1, 2009: Jon asked me to recommend books, so I'm adding more to this list as I can think of them. I haven't been reading as much as I should be/would like to/usually do.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles: Haruki Murakami's surrealist dive into Japanese history and emotional politics, this book is unlike pretty much anything I've read before. First, of course, is the 'surrealist' part; to me it was urban fantasy, and I don't know how you'd go about constructing a definition which divides surrealism from urban fantasy. Most likely such a definition is impossible. Second, this is a translation of a truly 'foreign' book. I realize Japan is a lot like the West in many ways (it counts as the "West" in some of those break-downs), but it's still a different culture.
Anyway, this is a good book about a young man, Toru Okada (or, as the girl next door calls him, Mr. Wind-Up Bird), who is trying to rescue his wife from shadowy forces he doesn't understand or recognize. As the back describes, he "encounters a bizaree group of allies and antagonists: a psychic prostitute; a malevolent yet mediagenic politician; a cheerfully morbid sixteen-year-old-girl; and an aging war veteran who has been permanently changed by the hideous things he witnessed during Japan's forgotten campaign in Manchuria." That actually doesn't cover it.
The warning I should give is that the book is a bit soaked in weird sex and in latent sexuality. Toru spends a lot of time with strange women (as in 'odd,' not 'unknown') and notably less time strange men. Just throwing that warning out there.

Neverwhere: This may not actually be Neil Gaiman's best book, but it's the only one I have with me right now. I liked American Gods and Stardust both very much, though they're in ways quite different books. What I liked about American Gods was how well it packed in and efficiently used so many different religious traditions. What I liked about Stardust was its whimsy. Neverwhere is different again: set in the forgotten parts of London, its perhaps-spineless protagonist Richard Mayhew (in some ways a reincarnation of Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker's, but in the end he isn't) finds a bleeding girl on the sidewalk and stops to help her, unwittingly losing the life he knew in the process. He enters a world of magic and paradox, a world that has slipped between the ancient city's cracks, and he is now sitting in the middle of a conflict between an innocent girl and the shadowy forces etc. and so forth. If you've read American Gods, then you might see the end coming, actually, but other than that it's good.
For those readers who care, American Gods has a (much) higher prude rating than either of the others. They are all fun books, though.

The Travels of Sir John Mandeville: This is just plain funny. You'll need a good translation (the original was written around 1357, and in case you're sense of history is fuzzy, that's a not quite two centuries before Shakespeare, which two centuries saw the most drastic change in the English language, up to and including the changes taking place today). And I should point out that I only skimmed the first half. It's the second half, when he gets to the islands, that's just wonderful. He meets and comments on all sorts of fabulous peoples and animals and plants and cultures, such as the dog-headed men who are valiant and noble and devour their enemies' bodies on the battlefield, or the desert filled with jewels but protected by colonies of dog-sized ants which only cease patroling for one hour during the hottest part of the day, or the plants which grow miniature sheep as fruit, or the island inhabited by communist, nudist, polygamists. What's even more fun about this book is that many mediaeval readers took it to be non-fiction.

The Faerie Queene: Yes, this is pretty esoteric stuff. Spenser was hard to read in his own day (Shakespeare's), let alone now. I'm used to it, but I wouldn't expect you to be. If you can get through his verse, though, I can tell you that most of the third book is worth it, and much of the first is pretty fun too. The others are likely quality as well, but I've never read them, so would't know.

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories: This is a collection of some of H. P. Lovecraft's stuff, edited by S. T. Joshi. I suggest the short stories "Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family," "The Rats in the Walls," "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Colour Out of Space," "The Whisperer in Darkness," and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." That's not to say that the others aren't good, but I didn't enjoy them as much.
Anyway, what Lovecraft did is move away from the ghostly and toward the zombie-like or the cosmic. King's It comes direct from this line. I'll quote the back of the book again, because it's so apt: "Lovecraft reinvented the horror genre in the twentieth century, discarding ghosts and witches and envisioning instead mankind as a tiny outpost of dwindling sanity in a chaotic and malevolent universe." The interesting thing about Lovecraft's horror is that the climaxes have less to do with life- (or soul-) threatening situations but rather with dawning revelation of some horrific truth.
The prose is tough to manage, though. Not only were literary standards different in his day, I'd wager that he was more of an ideas man than a words man.

Through Black Spruce: Joseph Boyden's second (I think?) novel is a good one. Among other things, it's a Giller Prize winner, but I'll add that it's readable and engaging. It's a two-fold story: one stream follows a man in a coma, remembering the events of his life that led to that point; the second stream follows his niece as she tells her comatose uncle what happened to her in the last two years in the hopes that her voice will help bring him back. It has elements of both a drama and a mystery novel, as the niece tries to find her sister who went missing in Toronto, due likely to a bad encounter with an urban drug ring, and the uncle deals with tribal revenge spiralling out of control on the reservation. It's funny, intelligent, full of character, and full of heart. Also, Boyden is himself awesome, from what little I've seen of him.

1 comment:

Cait said...

I've read a couple of those books. I have to admit right now that I will never read It. And that I'm working my way up to reading Lolita because I know what it's about.
Have you ever read The Lovely Bones? That's a disturbing book, but it raises a lot of questions too.
Acutally Peter Jackson aquired the rights to make it into a movie. I will never see the movie - the book was enough for me. You should read it though. It's something disturbing but nevertheless thought provoking.

I think i might check out the Life of a wildflower that you suggested though.

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