Ten Favorite Books: Fiction

This week a friend posited this exercise for a list: our ten favorite works of fiction. I then realized that I had never made such a list before. I scoured my record of everything I’ve read, considered only the perfect-ten A-plusses, and came up with these:

10. Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full

A tour de force of satire, and an absolutely perfect portrait of late 20th century us. A huge achievement in making us look at our warts in the mirror and laugh our heads off at them. By far the best American novel of the 90s.

9. Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomson, The Rule of Four

Incredibly fun puzzle mystery, without being ponderous or pandering. A flawlessly fun read.

8. P.G. Wodehouse, Code of the Woosters

The first Jeeves and Wooster book I ever read, and still the best. We all type LOL every day, it seems, but how often does something actually make us laugh out loud? This book did, many times.

7. James Clavell, Noble House

I didn’t think a 1000 page novel about a British business executive in Hong Kong in the 60s could be the most exciting, engrossing adventure story I’d ever read, but here we are.

6. James Joyce, Dubliners

A phenomenal achievement of the mind, this little collection of stories has history’s greatest difference between the simplicity of the narratives and the depth of the ideas.

5. Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

The bleak setting, the haunted and violent saga, the elegantly complex plot and style: this is the greatest novel from 19th century England, which is saying a lot.

4. Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

A surprise, just like Noble House. Who would have thought a long, rambling Western would also be the most humane, exciting, passionate celebration of life I’d ever see between two covers? I wish I could read it again for the first time.

3. Frank Herbert, Dune

The cover of the current paperback edition calls it “science fiction’s supreme masterpiece,” and if anything, that’s playing it safe. This majestic epic broke all the rules, and in doing so, wrote the ones we’ve been following ever since.

2. John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

The one and only truly counter cultural book I’ve ever seen–a story so bogglingly original that it has endless surprises and challenges for everybody…and is genuinely funny on every single page.

1. Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

It’s difficult to even begin describing the wonders of this super masterpiece. Let just one bit of praise suffice: this grand work has the best rendering of life’s very largest dramas and its very smallest details. One or the other would be enough to put it on this list, but it has both. Amazing.

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Notes on Best American Short Stories of the Century

I cleared 50 old books off my shelves last week, including this one, which I was really just keeping because of these notes I’d made.

Digitization is the declutterer’s best friend.

The most important thing is the mark next to each title. It’s the classic, simple teacher cheat: a check minus means I didn’t like it, a check plus means I loved it, a mere check means it was average.

It’s hard to read my scribbled reaction to each story, but that’s OK–it was hard to read them in the actual book, as well.

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Cute Coincidence On Today’s Puzzle Page

The syndicated New York Times crossword today is from July 4 (hence the theme, if you see it), but what really struck me was this odd bit of synchronicity: what are the odds that the crossword and one of the cartoons next to it would both use the word “sauté?”

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My mistake at 37 across is because the clue “Country singer Tillis” initially made me think of 90s star Pam, she of “Maybe It Was Memphis.” But this made the answers going through it wrong, so I had to look it up. Turns out her father, Mel, was also a country singer. So I learned something today!

Some Quotes From Orwell’s 1984

Evergreen insights into the nature of the Left, labelled with current concerns.

 

ON MILLENNIAL SOCIAL JUSTICE WARRIORS:

With those children, he thought, that wretched woman must lead a life of terror. Another year, two years, and they would be watching her night and day for symptoms of unorthodoxy. Nearly all children nowadays were horrible. What was worst of all was that by means of such organizations as the Spies they were systematically turned into ungovernable little savages, and yet this produced in them no tendency whatever to rebel against the discipline of the Party. On the contrary, they adored the Party and everything connected with it. The songs, the processions, the banners, the hiking, the drilling with dummy rifles, the yelling of slogans, the worship of Big Brother — it was all a sort of glorious game to them. All their ferocity was turned outwards, against the enemies of the State, against foreigners, traitors, saboteurs, thought-criminals. It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children.

–Part I, chapter 2

 

ON THE UNCRITICAL WORSHIP OF EDGY INNOVATION

Anything old, and for that matter anything beautiful, was always vaguely suspect.

–Part I, chapter 8

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Quote About Reading Great Books, From a Great Book I Once Read

Winston stopped reading for a moment. Somewhere in remote distance a rocket bomb thundered. The blissful feeling of being alone with the forbidden book, in a room with no telescreen, had not worn off. Solitude and safety were physical sensations, mixed up somehow with the tiredness of his body, the softness of the chair, the touch of the faint breeze from the window that played upon his cheek. The book fascinated him, or more exactly it reassured him. In a sense it told him nothing that was new, but that was part of the attraction. It said what he would have said, if it had been possible for him to set his scattered thoughts in order. It was the product of a mind similar to his own, but enormously more powerful, more systematic, less fear-ridden. The best books, he perceived, are those that tell you what you know already.

–George Orwell, 1984, Part II, chapter 9

 

Strategies For Reading and Relationships

In relationships, never give up on people. Stick it out, make it work.

In reading…just the opposite. A book should always be a perfect ten. If your connection to a book ever cools off, feel free to kick it to the curb and find another one. Plenty of fish in the sea, plenty of books in the library. Life is short and you deserve the best.

Just don’t get these two ideas confused. Your life will be fun for others to watch, but frustrating for you.

Huston’s Guide to Teenage Slang: “Extra”

EXTRA (adjective): describes any act as having been done with any degree of quality or style at all, as opposed to rock bottom apathy.

Example:

*student does a project to the bare minimum expectations, with a minor flicker of creative investment*

Other student: What?! Why do you have to be so extra?

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Combining Shakespeare and Tolkien

In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a character calls a short young woman he doesn’t like a “dwarf.” One enterprising summer school student, doing a creative writing review of the play, took this quite literally.

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Parsing the Longest Sentence in the Book of Mormon

3 Nephi 21:1-7 is the longest sentence in the Book of Mormon, clocking in at 392 words.

It’s an odd section anyway, or so I thought when I first read it. Here we have none other than the resurrected Jesus Christ teaching the righteous survivors of an apocalyptic destruction. After a declaration of basic doctrines, a version of the Sermon on the Mount, and some beautiful healing and angelic ministering miracles, most of the rest of 3 Nephi focuses on the not-terribly-exciting subject of the gathering of Israel.

I used to find that anti-climactic. No parables, no conflict, no drama at all, really–most of the famous visit to the New World is a dry lesson on one aspect of the future.

And this sentence may be the weirdest part. Jesus tries to make a simple point, but seems to keep getting distracted and going back to start over. It’s easy to get lost in the jungle of syntax here.

I broke the passage up by highlighting some key repetitions and setting off parenthetical details, using colors and indenting. I think the major point comes across more clearly this way.

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The Prophet Option: A Mormon Review of The Benedict Option

41QY+zZAzfL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_If you’re an active Latter-day Saint with any interest in The Benedict Option, I have good news for you: you’re pretty much already living it.

Rod Dreher’s bestseller isn’t actually a tirade against American society–that’s too far gone to even really bother with at this point–it’s a call to arms to rescue what’s left of Christianity in the West. We do this, Dreher says, by ignoring the mainstream and living our religion fully.

Dreher is an excellent writer; his observations, anecdotes, and advice are all solid. Still, the formula he gives is surprisingly basic. The fact that this pattern is supposed to be a rebellious throwback to the seriousness of medieval monks is an even better illustration of how far we’ve gone astray than any gloom and doom statistic.

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Comparing Three Translations of Les Miserables

I recently started reading Les Miserables. I’m up to Part III and–no surprise–it’s amazing so far.

It had a rocky start, though. I researched translations and couldn’t find one that stood out, so I figured I’d just try the old original standard translation from the 19th century, the Wilbour translation.

I only got a few pages in before getting tired of the pretentious contortion of it all. I decided to find a copy of Denny’s translation from the 70’s. My local library district actually didn’t have that one, but do you know who did? The library at the school where I work! How great is that?

And from page one I loved it. I don’t know how well it reflects the French, but this English version hums and sings for me with pitch-perfect tone.

Here are two passages I really like so far, compared between three popular versions: Wilbour’s, Denny’s, and the recent Julie Rose translation.

This is the end of Part II, chapter 8:

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New Video: All 38 of Shakespeare’s Plays Ranked

Since putting it up here over two years ago, my post grading and ranking the plays of Shakespeare has become by far the most popular thing I’ve ever written. It’s been the #1 post here almost every day since then.

Last week, I got an email from a guy who said that he’d recently turned 60 and set a goal of reading all of Shakespeare’s plays. He looked online for guidance, found my post, and wanted to tell me that following it was genuinely helpful.

So, making a video version is overdue.

A lot of people have told me that I’m too fast and hyper when I narrate videos, so I purposely made this one slow and mellow. I’m not super happy with the result, but let’s see what the world thinks.

Enjoy!

Two Nice Student Notes

One class recently finished a unit on Romanticism. After a couple of days on Transcendentalism, I sent them out into our quad to take notes on as much “nature” as they could find there, with directions to imitate the style of Thoreau. The last section of the notes focused on drawing life lessons from these observations, like Thoreau did in Walden.

One girl turned in her notes with this awesome little addendum at the end. Clearly, she got the point. I drew the smiley face.

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Another girl turned hers in with this attachment:

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