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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25 Years of Pulitzer Winners and Me

In a rare turn of events, no Pulitzer for fiction was awarded this year.  That got me to thinking about my own history with that award.  Here are my notes on the last quarter century of Pulitzer winners.

  1. 2011 A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.     Sounds interesting, but I’m not really that excited by it.  Probably won’t read it.
  2. 2010 Tinkers by Paul Harding.     Read it.  Really enjoyed it.  Gave it an 8/10.  Review here.
  3. 2009 Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.     Read it.  Moderately enjoyed it.  Gave it a 7/10.  Review here.
  4. 2008 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz.     Not familiar with it.  The title alone is enticing, but is it enough so that I’ll look into it?  Honestly, if it’s not already on the priority list, chances are it won’t claw its way in anytime soon.
  5. 2007 The Road by Cormac McCarthy.     Read it.  Loved it.  Gave it a 10/10.  No review necessary–what could I possibly add?
  6. Continue reading

Words and Music

A fascinating and wonderful article ran in the Guardian last week.  The author eloquently ruminates over the parallel evolution of literature and music in the 19th century, and laments a perceived divergence since the 20th.  His descriptions of the intertwined nature of the two media are divine:

To read Molly Bloom’s great gush of resigned affirmation with which Ulysses ends and then set it beside the equally self-actualising fatalism in which the final adagio movement of Mahler’s ninth symphony (marked on the score “very slowly and held back”) culminates, is to feel yourself in the presence of artistic twins whose birth is separated by only a few years.

That’s beautiful. 

However, I’m inclined to disagree with his thesis.  I don’t think novels stagnated with modernism.  The author does a disservice not only to postmodernism, which took literature to its boundaries far more so than the atonal experiments of modern classical music have done, but he seems to neglect anything in recent literature that doesn’t fall neatly into his categories.  If literature stopped evolving with, as he asserts, Joyce’s Ulysses, then what are we to make of, for example, the magic realism of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude?  Isn’t that a rich literary experiment representing a bold break with the status quo? 

Literary fiction also seems far more responsive to the nuances of genre than serious music is, though I admit I’m far less literate in music than in prose.  Still, what modern symphonies can equal, say, the quality and variety represented by the range between Slaughterhouse-Five, Lonesome Dove, and Herzog

And this is to say nothing of the comic novel.  Where in the musical pantheon is the equivalent landmark to A Confederacy of Dunces

This is not to belittle the greatness of music, including contemporary music, but I still feel that this article fails to do the depth of innovation in recent literature justice.