November 16, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part I


The Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien) - In ancient times Sauron, The Dark Lord, forged the One Ring, filling it with his own power so that he could rule all others. But the One Ring was lost, and fell, by chance, into the hands of the hobbit, Frodo Baggins. The Lord of the Rings tells of the great quest undertaken by Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring: Gandalf the Wizard, Merry, Pippin, and Sam, Gimli the Dwarf, Legolas the Elf, Boromir of Gondor, and a tall, mysterious stranger called Strider. Together they will journey across Middle-earth, deep into the shadow of the Dark Lord, and destroy the Ring by casting it into the Cracks of Doom

I discovered the trilogy as a 4th grader in late '93. Already a fan of Narnia since '88 or '89, I reached Fellowship through The Hobbit, based on the awed recommendations of a few classmates. The latter I re-read over a dozen times (several of them nearly consecutively), to the point where my mother asked whether I shouldn't try something new for a change. It was, in some small part, that encouragement not to re-read the same few books over and over again that prompted me to begin keeping a record, and I do not often re-read entire books these days.

As for the trilogy, its impact on me was profound for many years, as it fueled and drove my search for fantasy and science fiction that could equal the joy I derived from reading it. Narnia alone probably could not have sustained my interest in fantasy, but the discovery of Middle Earth made my continued interest a certainty. I have very vivid memories of reading those frightening opening chapters aloud to my younger brothers by the dim glow of a flickering nightlight as we shivered in the bottom bunk, cut off from the rest of the room by walls of blankets draped over the top bunk. I remember reading an enormous chunk of the trilogy perched in various trees, and ignoring cries of "Un mono! (A monkey!)" from below. Additionally, the first time I read The Return of the King, I listened to a George Gershwin CD over and over and over. "Rhapsody in Blue" now forever brings to mind the spectacle of Frodo and Sam toiling wearily up the slopes of Mount Doom.

When word of a new movie version began to circulate, I was, of course, very excited. But by then the full peak of my Hobbitmania had come and gone, and it was my younger brother Micah who got caught up in the magic of the thing most violently. I have experiencing vicariously his enthusiasm for the subject in addition to my own. I am quite pleased that Lord of the Rings was the first of these that appears on my Booklist, because this gives me the chance to get it out of the way up front. Yes, it is on my list. Moving on . . .


The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster) - This ingenious fantasy centers around Milo, a chronically bored ten-year-old who comes home one afternoon to find a large toy tollbooth sitting in his room. Driving through the tollbooth's gates in his toy car, Milo journeys into The Lands Beyond with the companions he finds along the way: the watchdog, Tock, and the foolish but lovable Humbug. Faintly Macabre, the not-so-wicked "Which," gives Milo the impossible mission of rescuing the lost princesses, Rhyme and Reason, from the Castle in the Air in the midst of the dreaded Mountains of Ignorance and restoring them to the Kingdom of Wisdom. With his faithful companions in tow, he sets out to accomplish the task, visiting places like the Word Market in Dictionopolis, and encountering colorful characters like King Azaz the Unabridged along the way.

For sheer fun and frivolity, Tollbooth is hard to beat. This book was not directly responsible for my love of learning, perhaps, but it certainly shows how much cooler knowledge is than ignorance, low culture theory notwithstanding. Tollbooth is a surefire cure for boredom, and contains quite a few good laughs as well. The characters and situations are unforgettable (my favorite scene was always Milo's encounter with the Mathemagician, but really, it's all pretty great). Everyone should have this read once before they hit middle school, again before high school, before college, and at least once after.


A Wrinkle in Time (Madeline L'Engle) - World-renowned physicist Dr. Murray is experimenting with tesseracts (fifth-dimension travel) when he mysteriously disappears without a trace. Several months later, his children - warm, awkward Meg and gifted, eccentric Charles Wallace - have still had no news of their father. Then, quite suddenly, they and their neighbor, Calvin O`Keefe, embark on a perilous quest to other worlds to find their father. Guided by three celestial beings - Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which - they must survive a myriad of unexpected dangers to reunite their family.

A bit of an oddity, this one. It baffled and intrigued me when I was younger, trying to wrap my brain around fifth dimensions and travel by tesseract. This book may well have laid a few foundations of my anti-Utopian cynicism. Or maybe not. The story isn't strictly science fiction, but it is not fantasy either. This particular blend of the two is unique (as far as I know) to L'Engle and Ursula K. Leguin. However, what really stand out in my memory are the characters: Mrs. Whatsit, Charles Wallace, Meg . . . very special, and with a life of their own.

I remember especially images of a planet where everyone is identical, performing the same actions at the same time . . . children bouncing balls in unison, mothers making identical dinners, etc. I also remember the frustrating sensation of feeling so very close to knowing just how tesseracts work, but not quite getting it. Wrinkle is the first in a series of four stand-alones: A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly-Tilting Planet, and Many Waters. That last stars the least developed characters in the series, the blonde Murray twins, rather than the usual cast, as they wind up in the days of the antedeluvian patriarchs after messing with one of their mother's experiments.


The Gammage Cup (Carol Kendall) - Muggles is an ordinary Minnipin living in Slipper-on-the-Water as generations of Minnipins have ever since their great leader Gammage led them to this valley. But one morning, Muggles awakes to fires on the distant mountains and knows that her life is about to change dramatically. The only people who believe Muggles' story are Gummy the poet, Walter the Earl, Curley Green and Mingy, all outcasts themselves. They are not like other Minnipins--they speak their mind, they wear different colors, and they question rules. When they try to convince the rest of the town that danger is lurking, they are banished from the village. In a peaceful knoll up the river, the unlikely friends rejoice in their newfound freedom and begin a new life. But the presence of the ancient enemy of Minnipins cannot be ignored, and this group of exiles must fight to protect the very people who cast them out.

In addition to feeding the aforementioned appetite for good fantasy with a fun plot, great characters and situations, plenty of action, and a very satisfying conclusion, The Gammage Cup undoubtedly appealed to my disgust with conformity to mindless societal conventions. Like the heroes of the story, I prefer to express myself however I please, and I hate falling in line just because "it's the way things work." If something doesn't make sense to me, I openly disagree, or just try to ignore it. Of course, ridicule is usually the best outcome I can hope for in such cases. All that aside, this is a fantastic book.

There are almost too many memories to describe: the fun use of colors, the pretentious town leaders who share a common ancestry with a ridiculously lucky buffoon, the nail-biting, eerie tension of the climax, and the exhiliration of restoration to a better community . . . The only tangible memory, however, that I seem to be able to call forth in relation to my reading of it, is an auditory one: "WEEK WEEK WEEK!" (as a cry of fear and retreat).


The Second Mrs. Giaconda (E.L. Konigsburg) - Leonardo da Vinci, the greatest artist of his time . . . Salai, a wayward apprentice with a larcenous heart and an aversion to the truth . . . Beatrice d'Este, the young wife of the Duke of Milan, whose plain face belies her beautiful soul; could the complex ways these three lives intertwine hold the clue to the most famous -- and puzzling -- painting of all time? Why did da Vinci lavish three years on a painting of the second wife of an unimportant merchant when all the nobles of Europe were begging for a portrait by his hand?

I love historical fiction . . . probably more than I love actual history. And this story about (partially) the life of Leonardo da Vinci affected me very deeply for some reason. I was moved by it, and I'm really not sure why. It wasn't the first book to have done so by any means. Black Beauty caused me to weep at the tender age of . . . probably seven or so. Where the Red Fern Grows has brought me to tears on multiple occasions (blasted animal stories . . . they always suffer and die in the end, you know). Anyway, Mrs. Giaconda inspired me to a brief fascination with da Vinci, although an actual biography which I read shortly thereafter bored me terribly after the inspiration of this (partially) fictional work.

I prescribe this book as the cure for anyone who has been subjected to How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci . . . because, really you shouldn't be hating the great Leonardo. He really was an incredible genius, you know. This book is the first, but not the last, of these that I read as part of a school assignment. That was during the glorious days of Sonlight homeschool curriculum, which I used for 7th through 10th grade (beginning shortly after I began the Booklist). Sonlight is a literature-based curriculum, and it had me reading upwards of 70 books a year (most of the highest caliber) as I studied literature and history. Their catalogue, which I devoured every year as it came out, read almost like a glowing combination of my favorites and my to-reads.

To be continued . . .

Posted by Jared at November 16, 2005 11:59 PM | TrackBack