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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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.

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:

Denny 1

Denny

Wilbour 1

Wilbour

Rose 1

Rose

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Literacy Victories!

One of the best things I get to be part of as a teacher is introducing young people to great books they love. Granted, 99% of what I do in this department falls on deaf ears, but those glorious moments of success–few and far between though they are–really do make it all worth it.

Here are a few recent ones:

Last semester for a book project, one girl chose to read The Handmaid’s Tale from a list of options I gave. She loved it and, when they all had to do presentations on their books, she was overjoyed to learn that it’s being made into a series on Hulu.

Cormac McCarthy is always a safe bet. I often recommend his books to students, and they tend to love him. So many kids read his various books last semester that some classes had spontaneous compare/contrast discussions where they picked up on stylistic and thematic trends across his works. They did this on their own.

Earlier this month I had classes take notes on a documentary about Moby Dick. At the end of class when they turned their notes in, one girl was so excited about it that she had already put the ebook on her phone and said that she’d start reading it that weekend. This wasn’t assigned–she just wanted to read Moby Dick on her own. For fun.

Symbolic Book Titles

I just had the idea to list books where the title is also the book’s chief symbol. So far I have:

  1. The Catcher in the Rye
  2. Lord of the Flies
  3. Ulysses
  4. The Bluest Eye
  5. The Bell Jar
  6. The Color Purple
  7. The Maltese Falcon

Please add more in the comments.

I’d also like to make lists of books where the title is an allusion (The Grapes of Wrath, The Sound and the Fury) and where the title is a complete sentence (Death Comes For the Archbishop, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter).

My Year in Books: 2016

I finished 37 books in 2016. For variety and quality, it was one of my best years for reading: nine “A plusses” this year, more than ever before!

1. Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers, Patrick Kavanaugh (1/12, music, religion)–A+

2. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (2/6, literature, Garnett trans.)–A+

3. Pity the Beautiful, Dana Gioia (2/9, poetry)–B

4. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo (2/28, self-improvement)–F

5. Buried Alive, Gloria Skurzynski (3/1, young adult)–C

6. Thomas Cole, Earl A. Powell (3/1, art, biography)–B

7. The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius (3/9, classics, Watts trans.)–C

8. Albert Bierstadt, Tom Robotham (3/12, art, biography)–C

9. Redshirts, John Scalzi, (3/19, science fiction, comedy)–B

10. Rendezvous With Rama, Arthur C. Clarke (3/26, science fiction)–A

11. The Fifth Gospel, Ian Caldwell (4/30, mystery)–A

12. Browsings, Michael Dirda (5/10, memoir, reading)–A+

13. The Lord and His Prayer, N.T. Wright (5/12, religion)–A

14. The Last Good Kiss, James Crumley (5/14, mystery)–B

15. The Anchoress, Robyn Cadwallader (5/19, historical fiction)–C

16. The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope (5/26, adventure)–B

17. The World’s Strongest Librarian, Josh Hanagarne (5/28, memoir, humor, reading)–A+

18. The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester (6/13, science fiction)–B

19. We Are Called to Rise, Laura McBride (6/17, literature)–A+

20. Fair Isn’t Always Equal, Rick Wormeli (6/28, education)–D

21. Mockingbird, Walter Tevis (6/30, science fiction)–A+

22. The Libation Bearers, Aeschylus (7/1, Greek drama, Lattimore trans.)–C

23. Never Go Back, Lee Child (7/12, mystery)–B

24. Death in Venice, Thomas Mann (7/15, literature, Lowe-Porter trans.)–C

25. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Monique Morris (7/20, sociology)–F

26. The Taking, Dean Koontz (7/28, horror)–A

27. Fluent in 3 Months, Benny Lewis (8/3, language/self-improvement)–A

28. The Knight of the Swords, Michael Moorcock (8/4, fantasy)–A

29. How to Be Perfect, Daniel Harrell (8/9, scripture study, religion)—B

30. The Eumenides, Aeschylus (8/9, Greek drama, Lattimore trans.)—C

31. Zion: The Long Road to Sanctification, Larry Barkdull (8/17, religion)—B

32. Inferno, Dante (8/26, poetry, classics, Anthony Esolen trans.)—A+

33. Submission, Michel Houellebecq (9/3, fiction, translated from French)—C

34. The Aeneid, Virgil (10/28, classics, Robert Fagles trans.)—A+

35.  A Winter Haunting, Dan Simmons (11/1, suspense)—B

36. To the Rescue: The Biography of Thomas S. Monson, Heidi Swinton (11/13, religion, biography)—A+

37. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (12/29, literature, Maude trans.)—A

The Best Used Book Store In Las Vegas

Dead Poet Books closed last year, but as great as it was, it wasn’t the best spot in town to find cheap used books. It’s not the also-awesome Amber Unicorn, either, or any of the few other decent such stores.

It’s Savers, the thrift store. Yes, most thrift stores are full of junk and the used book section is a waste of time (I’m looking at you, Goodwill), but Savers gets the job done.

There’s a location near the school where I work, and I drop in sometimes to check in on the inventory. It rotates pretty quickly–a good sign. I could tell about plenty of great finds there, but here’s the most recent one:

Last week I went in with three things in mind: I’ve wanted to read Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth for years, but it’s long enough that I would want to own a copy so I could take my time. Ditto for James Michener’s Alaska, which I started three years ago and really liked, but couldn’t finish before I had to take it back to the library. Also, I’ve wanted to read Edward Rutherford’s London ever since it came out when I was in college. I’ve been keeping an eye out for good used copies of each for a long time, and they were all on my mind when I stopped in there last week. I decided ahead of time to buy a copy if I should see one of them.

They had all three. Six bucks well spent!

Here’s another example: a couple of years ago, when the Dragon Tattoo trilogy was super popular, I went looking for them in paperback for a friend. Found all three of those there, too.

Yes, it’s also full of Dean Koontz and John Grisham stuff, but the variety and quality of books there has never disappointed me.

 

 

The Aeneid

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The Aeneid

I liked the rest of The Odyssey more than the part with all the monsters; I liked The Iliad more than The Odyssey; and I liked The Aeneid even more than The Iliad. In fact, I love how The Aeneid is clearly structured as a condensed complement to the earlier epics:

chaisticstructure.png

I’ve now read all three in the excellent recent translations by Robert Fagles (I like that he produced these works in chronological order, but The Aeneid was the last major translation of his long and storied career; he died only two years after publishing it, in 2008). My overall reactions to The Aeneid fall under three headings:

Fathers and sons

The first thing that struck me about The Aeneid is its focus on duty and family–themes that resonate strongly with me. I posted about one such passage on another blog.

At the end of book 2, Aeneas faces a choice–take revenge on the villainous Helen, or rescue his family from the crumbling, flaming ruin of Troy? In cinematic fashion, the scene cuts from his enraged face struggling with this decision to him running through the bowels of the city, young son in his hand and elderly father on his back.

In fact, I see another structure here: the first half of the book focuses mostly on his loyalty to his father, looking to the past, and the second half focuses on his loyalty to his son, looking to the future.

Indeed, the end of book 6–his visit to his father in the underworld, and the unveiling of his divine new shield, with its illustration of his people’s glorious destiny–is the perfect transition between the two. The quote below comes right at the midpoint of the tale, and gives me goosebumps.

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Book 8, lines 854-858

Of course, the little boy from the beginning of the story grows up over the years, and by the great battle at the end, he is a young man fighting at his father’s side.

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Some Dark Humor in The Aeneid

I’m in book 10 of The Aeneid–a major battle scene–and I just came across this lovely bit:

aeneid

Ha! “There were these two identical twins…at least, they were identical twins until one got his hand cut off and the other got decapitated. NOW we can tell them apart just fine!”

What President Monson Is Reading

512ktnfwjelIn President Monson’s brief remarks at this month’s General Conference, perhaps the thing that struck me most was in the priesthood session when he said, “Recently I read the true account of a dramatic manifestation concerning these promises.” Most of the talk, in fact, is a summary of a story from the book. That right there is already pretty high praise for a book, to have a prophet mention it and cite from it as the core of an address to the world.

It’s great to know what the prophet has been reading. He’s still working full time as CEO of a global organization, he’s several years a widower now, and his strength is starting to decline, but he still reads, and this is what he reads: a book about the inspiring experiences of Latter-day Saints during World War II. As far as I know, there isn’t a team of research interns doing any behind-the-scenes lifting in preparing anybody’s conference talks; when the prophet says he’s been reading this book lately, it’s really something he chose to pick up and spend time with.

Maybe we would do well to follow the prophet in his priorities, his habits, and even in his specific choices in reading. The book he mentions, Saints at War: Experiences of Latter-Day Saints in World War II, isn’t on Google Books, but it’s on sale at Amazon for as low as 14 cents a copy.

14 cents, to do what the prophet does.

You know what would be great? A “Prophets Book Club,” where people read books mentioned by prophets and apostles in General Conference.

At the end of the citation for this book in the published version of President Monson’s talk, a note says, “used by permission.” That’s wonderful: the prophet (or maybe his secretary) reached out to the author to ask if it was OK to refer to the book in General Conference. What a sweet conversation I bet that was.

 

Top 5 Most Frightening Scenes In Stephen King Books

 

Be ye warned, Constant Reader: here there be spoilers.

5. The Dark Tower VII: “The Thing Under the Castle”

This is the most recent entry on this list; the only one from the 21st century, but it works because it so strongly harkens back to classic King style: that combination of simple, elemental storytelling with detailed, psychological exposition.

Roland and Susanna are, as the chapter title implies, fleeing some unknown thing in the winding, dark passages under a ruined, ancient castle. At first, there’s just a slight noise in the distance, but then, over the course of several pages, the noises get clearer and closer, and that primitive instinct we all have warns of an approaching predator.

The pace increases to one of sheer panic as they first jog, then run, then sprint with terror-fueled energy away from the mysterious thing. Susanna, whose wheelchair has been lost, rides on Roland’s back and can see behind them into the darkness at what’s coming. As it finally comes within biting distance…

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