A month or so ago, motivated by yet another mournful discussion amongst friends regarding the end of Stephen King's Dark Tower Series, I wrote a blog post entitled "The Six Most Disappointing Books of All Time." It's true; those books were horrible disappointments and best set aside for kindling in the event that we find ourselves having to huddle around fires for heat. However, for every disappointing book, there are at least three that leave me either curled on the couch in the bliss of time spent in good company, or turning back to the beginning in a voracious attempt for more. In fact, it has been scientifically proven* that were I to generate a compendium of books that I've loved it would stretch around the Earth 4 and 4/5th times. I have read everything to picture books to tomes whose weight nearly gave me carpal tunnel, from lauded pieces to Lit-Er-A-Tooooooore to mass-produced, hastily written, formulaic brain candy and have thoroughly enjoyed them all. Even so, there are some that were able to achieve the Trifecta (Win: Wordsmithing, Place: Plot, Show: Characters) that leaves them walking from the Literary Derby with their purse strings bulging. (Can you tell I spent last weekend in Louisville?) They are, in no particular order:
Madame Margot: by John Bennett
I found this tiny gem in an equally tiny bookstore in Charleston, South Carolina, easily one of my favorite places in the world. It was under a hand-lettered sign that read "Local Works," and from the first line I was enraptured. "Much has been said of Old Charleston," it reads, "of its antique beauty, patrician arrogance, and courtly hospitality, much written, in praise and blame, both false and true, and the warm charm of the commonplace harped on until frayed threadbare." Delicious. By the time the titular character had given into a soulless madness I was unable to tear myself from the page. The rhythm and beauty of the language is hypnotic and the millinery based allegory is among the best I've read. I hope to return to Charleston very soon for a sweet grass basket, some she-crab soup, a pint at the Blind Tiger, and another trip to that bookstore.
Watership Down by Richard Adams
To create a civilization and everything that goes with it; the language, the mythology, the social structures and rituals, takes an astute and creative mind. to do so with a commonplace and incredibly familiar creature, in this case rabbits, and to do so with so deft a hand that the rabbits don't seem human but you start to feel like some woodland creature, is phenomenal. Add to that Bigwig, one of the best literary characters ever created, and this is a masterpiece.
Flowers For Algernon by Daniel Keyes
I first read this book as a preteen, and have revisited it often in the decades that have passed since. It has a different effect on my every time I read. I am always mad at the scientists; sometimes I am mad at Charley. Sometimes I cry; sometimes I am nauseous at the horror that his knowledge must have brought about. It is often hard for me to read nowadays, as I parent a child who is aware enough to know that he is different but unable to figure out how to change. As I struggle with depression and the feeling of being pulled in myriad directions I understand more how his situation affected his intimate desires. I think as science progresses and the ability for human interaction is further degraded this book will become more and more relevant.
'Til We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis
This novel was Jack's last, and is a retelling of the story of Cupid and Psyche from the perspective of Psyche's older sister. The emotions described and shown in this book are so familiar to each of us and are described in such a way that I found myself cheering, nodding, and hanging my head in shame. The language is all Lewis, but a mature and uninhibited Lewis that we rarely see in his works of fiction.
Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck
I love Steinbeck. I love what he has to say and how he uses rich but simple characters to say it. They stop just short of caricature, and it is this restraint that makes them so effective. However, I have never enjoyed a tale more than from the eyes and mouth of the ultimate character, Steinbeck himself, as he travels with his faithful companion. I find especially interesting the predictions he made and seeing how very true they are in our world today.
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
I have to admit that I enjoyed this book more before I spent as long immersed in Armed Forces protocol as I now have. I find myself getting frustrated with the Lieutenant in this book to a degree that it distracts from my ability to enjoy the story. That being said, this book is the most brilliant example of meta fiction I have ever read. It also eloquently expresses so many of the things that were wrong with our country and the way the Vietnam War was handled, and brings to light some of the uncommon horrors and effects of a guerrilla war situation.
A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa May Alcott
Again, the words in this novel are absolutely gorgeous and the twist on a familiar tale is haunting. This novel was not released until long after Alcott's death, as it was considered far too scandalous for the times in which it was written. It is, in fact, scandalous, with deceit, fornication, death, lust, and rage all fighting with one another. Still it is a beautiful, intriguing piece that I think is far above that which was deemed suitable.
What are your favorites?