Friday, August 27, 2010
The Best of My Library
Of course tastes differ, and you might hate everything on the list, but pick and choose from the types of books you like to read and chances are good you’ll find a new favorite or two (and, if so, write me and tell me what you liked).
A. The Classics
Shakespeare is the greatest writer the world has produced to date. His plays are best appreciated when seen (or, for the sonnets, read aloud), but they can be happily read and gleaned for the treasures they possess. I came to Charles Dickens late in life, but that man is also a genius, and his books are terrific reads. If you don’t know Dickens, start with his masterpiece: “David Copperfield” (there’s a very good audio recording, unabridged, read by the multi-voiced Frederick Davidson). Perhaps my favorite novel of all time is Alexandre Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo,” the best revenge tale ever penned. And if you’ve never read the original Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” do so and scare yourself good.
So much depends on your interests, but here are the books that have fascinated me the most. Two by Walter Lord: “A Night to Remember” (the first, 1955, and still greatest of books about the sinking of the Titanic), and “Incredible Victory” (a jaw-dropping account of the WWII Battle of Midway). Dr. Lewis Thomas, one of a long line of splendid medical authors, explores the human race’s progress on this rock flying through space in one of his many beautifully written books, “The Fragile Species.” In a similar vein is “On Human Nature,” the 1976 groundbreaking study by the much-defamed Edward O. Wilson, and also there’s Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate.” They all weigh in heavily on the “nature” side of the "nature/nurture" debate, where I also lurk. “The Killer Angels,” by Michael Shaara, which won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize, though a novel, is a first-rate re-creation of the Battle of Gettysburg that will make you very glad you weren’t there. For an amazing book about the life of a doctor from India who moves to Johnson City, Tennessee, to practice medicine just as the AIDs epidemic erupts, read “My Own Country” by Abraham Verghese (who also wrote a wonderful recent novel: “Cutting For Stone”). Finally, I recommend the definitive biography of Joseph Smith as he works his way from early fraud to the creation of the Mormon religion, see Fawn M. Brodie’s “No Man Knows My History,” which is eye-opening, to say the least.
C. General Fiction.
I’ve just finished reading an impressive book: “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” by David Mitchell, a tale of the Dutch trying to trade with the Japanese in 1799, a fascinating story where the page turning goes fast enough to hurt fingers. If you like really good historical fiction, almost no one is better than Thomas B. Costain. There are arguments about which of his books is the best (“Below the Salt” and “The Black Rose” are often debated), but I plump for his gigantic tale spanning generations called “The Tontine.” A tontine is a wager in which rich families contribute a lot of money to a pool, which then generates interest through an investment account, and the resulting sum is paid to the last surviving member of the contributing families (leading to major troubles as the survivors narrow down). One of the best reads of my life is Pat Conroy’s “The Prince of Tides” (ignore the dreadful movie, which spoils this terrific tale), and basketball fans among you might enjoy his terrifying true story about playing that sport, with his very sadistic father looking over his shoulder: “My Losing Season.” Another favorite read, but certainly not for everyone, is “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” by Lionel Shriver (a woman, in spite of her name), about what it would be like to be the mother of a Columbine-type killer. If you can take the bizarre subject matter, “Kevin” is beautifully written, paragraph by paragraph, and ensnares the reader in an incredible story that will have you reading all night. I’m also a big fan of Nelson Demille. Not all of his novels are terrific reads, but these, at least, are: “The Charm School” (haunting), “By the Rivers of Babylon,” (thrilling) and two books that should be read together: “The Lion’s Game” and “The Lion,” (over-the-top action and funny too) in that order. Similar fun can be had by reading Ken Follett's "Night Over Water" and "A Dangerous Fortune."
Next we come to the Hornblower and Flashman historical novels. Read them all.
C. S Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series takes place around the time the British navy was battling Napoleon, and, read in chronological order (a good idea) takes our hero from “Midshipman Hornblower” to “Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies.” I’ve devoured the entire series three times in my life, loving it anew each read-through.
The same is true of the Harry Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser. The first book of this series was simply called “Flashman,” and George MacDonald Fraser presented it as if it were the actual memoirs of a British officer during the Victorian era. Supposedly Harry Flashman was the only survivor of the Battle of Khartoum in 1885. The book was taken seriously (in spite of its improbabilities), mainly because Fraser was a renown historian. But it was soon revealed to be a novel after all, and subsequently there are 15 or so in the series. Flashman is a scoundrel, a liar, a ladies man, a charmer, and by one coincidence after another he turns up at all the famous events of the period: the Crimean War (where, unwillingly, he's part of the Charge of the Light Brigade), John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, the Boxer Rebellion, the American Civil War (where Abraham Lincoln talks him into fighting first on one side then the other), Custard's Last Stand, etc. At all of these, in spite of his being a major coward, Harry Flashman ends up covered in glory. The footnotes are amazing reading, so don't skip them as they appear, one by one. I recommend you start with “Flashman and the Dragon,” which will give you the appropriate flavor of the whole series.
D. Mysteries and Science Fiction
Sherlock Holmes, of course, is the brilliant creation of Arthur Conan Doyle, and the four novels (start with the first one: “A Study in Scarlet”) and many short stories are worth being read and re-read throughout life. [For a very funny spoof of Holmes see Robert L. Fish’s “The Memoirs of Schlock Homes.”] Heir apparent to the mantle of best mysteries ever are the many adventures of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin so wonderfully told by Rex Stout, a genius himself; if you don’t know these books, you should—start with “Gambit.”
For science fiction I recommend the haunting book by Walter M. Miller Jr., “The Canticle For Leibowitz,” and the both troubling and amusing “Memoirs of an Invisible Man” by H. F. Saint (alas, the movie made from the book is only interesting for the first half, and then it goes disastrously off on its own unhappy way, causing me to howl in the theater—there were some comments about this from those around me).
E. Children’s books
I love the Freddy the Pig books by Walter R. Brooks (and so did my son when I read them to him). With wonderful illustrations they tell the story of farm animals in upper state New York who for some unexplained reason can talk, and who have amazing adventures, led by the poet/magician/newspaper publisher/detective Freddy the Pig. Start with “Freddy and the Bean Home News.” Very intelligently written, exciting, and funny—even adults will like them. I see that they're all available on eBay.
Just for fun:
Dean Koontz is a very uneven writer, but “Watchers” is a masterpiece (made into four bad movies—why don’t they just film the book?). Edge of your seat all the way through. If you like that, try “Dark Rivers of the Heart,” another good read.
The Stephanie Plum books by Janet Evanovich are a hoot. They’re nominally mysteries/thrillers about a female bounty hunter in Trenton, New Jersey, but really these are some of the funniest books ever written. Listening to the audiobook version of one of them (voiced by the amazing Lorelei King), I got to laughing so hard while driving that I missed my exit. The books are numbered, with “One For the Money” being the first, and the series getting weaker (but still enjoyable) now that the numbers are well into the teens (numbers eight and nine were the best).
Like funny science fiction/fantasy? No one is better than Terry Pratchett (where, once again, the audiobooks are terrific). He creates a world all its own in book after book, and keeps you laughing from the first paragraph on. Start with “Going Postal.” I’m also a fan of Christopher Moore’s books, see “Practical Demonkeeping” and “Lamb” (the early life of Jesus, told quite reverently, if with a large dollop of humor).
Carl Hiaasen (a Miami newspaperman writing wicked satires on the misdeeds of those idiots destroying Florida) pleases his readers with humorous novels exposing the foibles of evil capitalists and others. I think his best book is the first one: “Tourist Season.” In that one someone is killing tourists, one by one, so the “season” of the title refers to hunting. It’s over-the-top fun.
I’ve written elsewhere in the blog recommending books on atheism (see “How To Become an Atheist,” May 16, 2010). For gay books I suggest the classic “Gay American History” by Jonathan Katx, and the two terrific re-creations of the events of the 1969 Stonewall riots that started the modern gay movement, both called “Stonewall,” one by Martin Duberman and the other by David Carter. For gay fiction you can’t go wrong with James Kirkwood (who wrote “A Chorus Line”)—see “P.S. Your Cat Is Dead” and “Some Kind of Hero.”
As soon as I post this blog entry, I’m sure to start slapping my head and thinking of wonderful books I should have recommended, but enough for now . . . with one final exception. I can't seem to resist adding that if you’re a reader of this blog who thinks I sometimes manage to tell an interesting tale, I refer you to my novel, “Imaginary Friend,” (Amazon.com, $15.00; see my post of June 22, 2010, describing this work of genius in some detail). What can I say? It's a great read.
"Some Cartoons I've Saved," October 20, 2010
"Doug's Favorite Jokes," November 13, 2010
"Five Movies I Watch Again and Again," March 20, 2011
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013