November 28, 2005

The Top Fifty, Part IV


Little Women (Louisa May Alcott) - Meet the March sisters: talented and tomboyish Jo, beautiful Meg, shy Beth, and temperamental Amy . . . This book presents a lively portrait of their joys, hardships, and adventures as they grow up in Civil War New England, separated by the war from their father and beloved mother, "Marmee." Jo searches for her writer's voice . . . Meg prepares for marriage and a family . . . Beth reaches out to the less fortunate, tragically . . . and Amy travels to Europe to become a painter.

Yeah, yeah . . . I know what you're probably thinking. At least, I know what certain other people have said when I have mentioned off-hand that this is one of my favorite books. It's been quite some time since I last read it, and I daresay it's probably very sappy indeed in some way. But that doesn't change the fact that I enjoyed the book, its characters, its anecdotal nature, and overarching plot . . . And the autobiographical element of the thing always fascinated me. It's a good, long, uplifting sort of a read. And it's not as though I put up with things that attempt to shove gratuitous warm fuzzies off on one. This is a good book, regardless.


The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle) - There are 60 mysteries starring the legendary Sherlock Holmes, arguably the world's best-known detective, all chronicled by the unassuming Dr. John Watson, former military surgeon. Watson is introduced to Holmes's eccentricities as well as his uncanny ability to deduce information about his fellow beings and a lifelong literary friendship is born. Residing together at 221B Baker Street, they collaborate in solving and recording mystery after mystery in Victorian London.

I hardly know where to begin with Sherlock Holmes . . . absolutely one of my favorite literary idols of all time. I vividly remember the first Holmes story I ever heard: The Adventure of the Speckled Band, which was read aloud to me in 4th grade at CAG by Mr. Ulrich. That story stills sends chills up and down my spine. It was sometime later, after I had read several more of his adventures here and there, that I stumbled across an enormous red tome in the CAG library, with a faded "Complete Sherlock Holmes" inscribed on the tattered spine. I took it home with me and stayed up most of the night reading A Study in Scarlet, but it was the short stories I liked (and still like) best.

I can remember lots of them . . . and there are many more I can't remember. That's grand, as far as I'm concerned, since it means that I can go back and reread them someday. Most of my favorites are in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, where so many unique things happen: vampires, a case told in the third-person, and the only case related by Holmes himself. But His Last Bow, with Holmes as a spy during World War I, is grand as well. And, of course, I still love all of the earlier collections that set up the character, kill him off, and bring him back again: The Adventures, The Memoirs (with the climactic "Final Problem"), and The Return.

It would be impossible to pick a single Sherlock Holmes story or collection . . . it has to be the whole thing: every word ever written about the character by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is a magnificent body of work.


The Once and Future King (T. H. White) - The Once and Future King defies classification, encompassing poetry and farce, comedy and tragedy -and sudden flights of schoolboy humor. White's "footnote to Malory" (his own phrase) resulted in the last major retelling of the Arthurian cycle of legends. This is the magical epic of King Arthur and his shining Camelot, of Merlyn and Guinevere, of beasts who talk and men who fly, of wizardry and war. It is the book of all things lost and wonderful and sad.

I was initially sucked into the work by the laugh-out-loud look at medieval Britain in The Sword in the Stone, quite on par with, or better than, Connecticut Yankee. But, more than just the humor, the really captivating element of what I consider to be the quintessential version of the Arthur legend (this is it for me), is the tragic, bittersweet failure of Arthur's dream. The Once and Future King, despite its often tongue-in-cheek style captures the humanity of its characters in a way the dry prose of Malory, or high, cold verse of Tennyson never could. What makes the tragedy of Arthur's fate (along with Guinevere, Lancelot, and the rest) is that the story didn't have to turn out that way but for a series of very slight, very understandable, very human errors. And we sit and read and watch disaster unfold before us . . . but not without the hope of ultimate redemption, too. It is masterfully, beautifully done.


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith) - From 1902 until 1919 the Nolans live in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn. Francie Nolan, avid reader, penny-candy connoisseur, and adroit observer of human nature, has much to ponder in colorful, turn-of-the-century Brooklyn. She grows up with a sweet, tragic father, a severely realistic mother, and an aunt who gives her love too freely--to men, and to a brother who will always be the favored child. Francie learns early the meaning of hunger and the value of a penny. She is her father's child--romantic and hungry for beauty. But she is her mother's child, too--deeply practical and in constant need of truth. Like the Tree of Heaven that grows out of cement or through cellar gratings, resourceful Francie struggles against all odds to survive and thrive.

I guess I'm just a sucker for coming-of-age stories . . . in fact, I know I am. Here's another book that I remember reading largely in the space of a long night (or perhaps two). I remember just enough about it to want to read it again to refresh my memory. Francie Nolan, as I recall, is a hero the reader can really root for with no trouble, and her story (and that of her family) fascinated me. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn provides one of those rare, very clear glimpses into a world that is completely different from any that I've experienced, and it also provided me with an early glimpse of what it is like to look back on childhood at the cusp of adulthood. For that reason alone, I ought to reread it very soon.


The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper) -
"When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back,
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone."

With these mysterious words, Will Stanton discovers on his 11th birthday that he is no mere boy. He is the Sign-Seeker, last of the immortal Old Ones, destined to battle the powers of evil that trouble the land. His task is monumental: he must find and guard the six great Signs of the Light, which, when joined, will create a force strong enough to match and perhaps overcome that of the Dark. Embarking on this endeavor is dangerous as well as deeply rewarding; Will must work within a continuum of time and space much broader than he ever imagined.

The Dark is Rising is actuall book two of a five-book series, but it mostly stands alone. It introduces a completely different set of characters from book one, and the two sets join forces in book three and proceed from there. The series draws very heavily on Welsh and Celtic elements, and takes place almost entirely in that small area of Great Britain. This was, obviously, my favorite of the five (but they're all pretty good). The material Cooper draws on is rich and satisfying, and she knows how to spin a real nail-biter . . . excellent writing. I'll admit that the book loses a little if one doesn't read the others in the series, but rules are rules, and I could only pick one of them. It's still a compelling read.

To be continued . . .

Posted by Jared at November 28, 2005 11:59 PM | TrackBack