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 . . .
November 22, 2005
The Top Fifty, Part III
Watership Down (Richard Adams) - Set in the once idyllic rural landscape of the south of England, this is a powerful saga of courage, leadership, and survival. An epic tale of a hardy band of Berkshire rabbits forced to flee the destruction of their fragile community. Led by the doughty Hazel and his oracular friend Fiver, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing dangers posed by predators, hostile warrens, and worse, to a mysterious promised land known to them only as Watership Down. From their travails, they forge a more perfect society, made stronger by the vision that drives them.
When I was (I think) 13, almost 14, I heard of this book and decided to read it, but didn't find a copy handy right away. That summer we visited an old lady friend of my parents' who lived in Waco, and stayed in her large, ancient house. It was rather a creepy house, deathly silent but for the creaking noises made by the wooden floor when we walked around in it. It was the sort of house I could spend a great deal of time carefully exploring, and still be certain of missing some secret panel or passageway, but the almost total lack of air conditioning made one too lethargic for exploring.
In one of the guest bedrooms, however, I discovered a copy of Watership Down: a bulky, hardcover version without the dust jacket. Everyone thought I was reading a book about submarines as I carted it around with me to restaurants, church potlucks, and the like. My parents always have a lot of visiting to get done in Waco, and it has always been my philosophy to bring along a hefty chunk of "boredom insurance" in the hopes of finding a quiet corner to tuck myself into.
Well, as immersed as I was in the story of Watership Down (which offers an unforgettable portrait of Adams's made-up rabbit culture, including a language and complex folklore, in addition to page-turning excitement), between one thing and another I didn't quite finish the book before we had to leave. I was terribly disappointed, but I received a shiny new paperback copy for my birthday not long after, and all was well. When the sequel, an anthology entitled Tales from Watership Down, came out a few years later, I snapped it up and devoured it, too. These books are not to be missed.
The Rescuers (Margery Sharp) - The Prisoners' Aid Society, run entirely by mice, strives to help cheer and aid a variety of human prisoners held around the world. When the society learns that a Norwegian poet has been wrongly imprisoned in the legendary (and much feared) Black Castle, home to a number of terrible dangers (including the dreaded Mameluke, a monstrous cat belonging to the prison warden), the mice waste no time in formulating a plan for his release. Bernard, a stolid brown mouse, is dispatched to enlist the aid of Miss Bianca, a white mouse who has always lived in the lap of luxury. If Bernard can convince Miss Bianca to locate a brave Norwegian rodent for their cause, the prisoner may stand a chance. Being a bit of a spoiled pet, Miss Bianca initially shies away from Bernard's pleas, but his good heart and her better nature prevail and soon she too is involved in the world of intrigue and heroic rescues.
The Rescuers and its eight sequels are, much to my dismay, long out of print, and I had a heck of a time even finding a picture of the cover. For all I know, they may have already been out of print when I first checked them out from the CAG library and read them years ago. This is a shame because any one of the first three (which are the only ones our library had, and are still the only ones I've read) could eviscerate either Disney animated version in a fair fight. The first book remains my favorite for a variety of reasons. The mission undertaken by Bernard, Miss Bianca, and Nils is just so ridiculously impossible at the outset that their ultimate success is all the more exhilerating in the end.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (Mark Twain) - Vibrates with slapstick comedy and serious social commentary. While Hank Morgan, Twain's time-displaced Yankee traveler, keeps up a steady stream of flippancies, founding the first tabloid, the Camelot Weekly Hosannah and Literary Volcano, and organizing a game of baseball between armor-clad knights, he also keeps up a steady commentary on the social mores of King Arthur's court, criticizing the hereditary social classes and state church still strong in the Victorian England of Twain's own day, and championing women's suffrage and union labor organization.
This may seem like a bit of an odd pick to some, considering Twain's other great works. Huck Finn is, of course, widely regarded as his best (and by some as the best) novel. Personally, my difficulty was more in deciding between this one and Tom Sawyer, and in the end I may not be able to adequately justify why, with my love of the South and Southern literature, I picked a book about a Yankee set in legendary Arthurian Britain. My fascination with Arthurian legend aside, it probably boils down to the fact that my favorite element of Twain is his humor, and this is (in my opinion) by far his funniest book. Connecticut Yankee made me laugh. A lot. And at this point I'd probably have to re-read it in order to make my analysis any deeper than that.
And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie) - Ten complete strangers, apparently with nothing in common, are lured to an island mansion off the coast of Devon. Once there, all of them are accused of murder and sentenced to die. One by one the members of the party are killed off, and tension mounts as, cut off from the mainland, the dwindling survivors realize that the killer must be one of them.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've actually read more books by Agatha Christie than by any other single author (a fact which quite surprised me when I discovered it). I never got into any of her detectives except Hercule Poirot, and I read everyone of his mysteries I could lay my hands on. I remember burrowing my way through a thick tome of five Poirot mysteries at a fairly young age, lugging it around everywhere I went.
Christie has the uncanny ability of throwing me so totally off the scent in her mysteries that, not only is the killer not the most likely suspect, they are not even the least likely suspect. With almost no exceptions, Christie reveals the killer to have been the one character who was not a suspect at all, who hadn't even entered into your reckoning when you formed your list. I remember one mystery where the murderer was the policeman investigating the case, and another where the murderer was the person narrating the story.
Neither of those refers to this particular book, which is one of perhaps three non-Poirot Christie's that I have read. It does not feature any of her regular detective characters, or any detective at all for that matter. Relying more on suspense than investigation to keep the reader glued, the ending is, of course, a complete surprise. I've seen a couple of movie versions and have been thoroughly disgusted both times with the adaptation. Moviemakers can be such weenies sometimes, and in this case seem thoroughly incapable of following the original plot through to reach Christie's brilliant, dark ending.
King Solomon's Mines (H. Rider Haggard) - Three men trek to the remote African interior in search of a lost friend. At the end of a perilous journey they reach an unknown land cut off from the world and inhabited by a lost civilization which stands on the brink of savage civil war, where terrible dangers threaten anyone who dares to venture near the spectacular diamond mines of King Solomon.
King Solomon's Mines stands out in my mind as the most action-packed, adrenaline-pumping, rip-roaring adventure novel I have ever read. I bought it on a whim from a tiny bookstore in a mall in Guatemala and devoured it shortly thereafter. This is the quintessential African adventure of the British Imperialist period. It has pretty much everything: danger, suspense, men being ripped in half by stampeding elephants, bizarre encounters with the natives, an epic, day-long battle with tens of thousands of warriors savaging each other in hand-to-hand combat, our mighty, larger-than-life heroes emerging victorious, bathed in blood, wealth beyond measure surrounded by booby-traps . . . I'm telling you, it's all in here. Just thinking about that battle scene makes me want to go read the whole thing again.
To be continued . . .
November 19, 2005
The Top Fifty, Part II
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (Robert C. O'Brian) - There's something very strange about the rats living under the rosebush at the Fitzgibbon farm. But Mrs. Frisby, a widowed mouse with a sick child, is in dire straits and must turn to these exceptional creatures for assistance. Soon she finds herself flying on the back of a crow, slipping sleeping powder into a ferocious cat's dinner dish, and helping 108 brilliant, laboratory-enhanced rats escape to a utopian civilization of their own design, no longer to live "on the edge of somebody else's, like fleas on a dog's back."
Genius lab rats who plot and scheme and build utopias . . . this concept is so much fun! This was one of the first books I read where the story kept intriguing details hidden from the reader for a time while dropping tantalizing hints about them. Sometimes the revelation doesn't happen (a nearly unforgivable sin, if done improperly), and sometimes it's just underwhelming (which is even worse). In this case, though, I loved the backstory of the rats of NIMH. The rest of the book generated a good deal of tension and suspense as well, and I remember it being a very exciting read. My most vivid memory is of an escape through air ducts, and of the horror of uncertainty as to the fate of those who were swept away by the rush of blowing air. Air ducts . . . brrr . . .
Matilda (Roald Dahl) - At age five-and-a-half, Matilda is knocking off double-digit multiplication problems and blitz-reading Dickens. Once she begins school, her classmates love her even though she's a super-nerd and the teacher's pet. But everything is not perfect in Matilda's world. For starters she has two of the most idiotic, self-centered parents who ever lived. Then there's the school principal, Mrs. ("The") Trunchbull, a former hammer-throwing monster of a woman who now flings children instead. Fortunately for Matilda, she has the inner resources to deal with such annoyances: astonishing intelligence, saintly patience, and an innate predilection for revenge.
To my thinking, it would simply be a crime not to have a book by Roald Dahl on this list. All of his books are an absolute joy to read. I have fond memories, for instance, of the time when I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory aloud to my brothers in a single sitting because they didn't want me to stop. There was a bit of a struggle as to which one to pick . . . I love so many of his (especially the second half of his autobiography, entitled Going Solo).
In the end, though, I picked the book about a bookworm who scores some sweet, sweet revenge on the Philistines in her life. It just doesn't get any better than that. I received this book as a present for my 13th birthday, a very memorable occasion which also netted me a week-long trip State-side (beginning and ending the journey with a plane ride was only part of the joy of the experience, at the time). There are lots of memorable parts in Matilda, most involving The Trunchbull and her punishment system. I recall a small girl whirled about by her hair and flung a few hundred yards . . . A small boy forced to eat an entire enormous chocolate cake in front of the whole school until he nearly splits open . . . And, of course, the hilarity that results from a pitcher of water, telekinesis, and a common garden newt.
The Land I Lost (Huynh Quang Nhuong) - "The land I love was lost to me forever. These stories are my memories." Huynh Quang Nhuong grew up in the highlands of Vietnam, next to the jungle teeming with wildlife. Encounters with tigers, wild hogs, and deadly snakes were as much a part of his life as tending the rice fields while on the back of his pet water buffalo, Tank. Here are fifteen tales that will transport you into a world of lush beauty and terrible danger -- and a way of life that is gone forever.
I can't for the life of me remember why this book affected me as much as it did. The stories are fascinating, often involving strange and dangerous encounters with the jungle. Some are funny, some are intense, some are tragic, but all are quite poignant. The cumulative effect is both moving and lasting. I can only clearly remember fragments about snakes, monkeys, crocodiles, and water buffalo, as well as snatches about the devastating effects of war. As I consider further, I think it was the bittersweet quality of the book which touched me the most. It is an excellent read, all the more so because the stories are true.
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) - An enrapturing coming-of-age story told from the point of view of six-year-old Scout Finch. Growing up in pre-Civil Rights Movement Alabama, Scout and her older brother, Jem, witness the transformations that take place in their small town during a controversial trial in which her lawyer father, Atticus, agrees to defend a black man who is wrongly accused of raping a white woman. To Kill a Mockingbird captures small-town Southern life in the middle of the twentieth century, and so much of what makes up a Southern childhood, without over-glorifying them.
This is one of those few books that I can (and do) pick up at random and read from cover to cover just because I happen to spot it sitting on the shelf. If I had to pick a single favorite, it would be a very strong contender. I think I first read it in sixth grade, and I've re-read it in whole or in part several dozen times since then (one of very few books I've re-read at all). I have also, through sheer force of will, browbeaten several people into picking it up and reading it.
Because it has been so ubiquitous for several years, I'd have a hard time attaching specific memories to it. And almost every scene in the book is memorable . . . I couldn't pick just a few. I am, however, fairly certain of one thing: To Kill a Mockingbird is the most prominent factor in my affinity for Southern history, literature, and culture. That makes it also responsible for my paper topic in Intellectual History and for my specially requested independent study in Southern History next semester. It is responsible for a few other books on this list, as well. And, in all likelihood, it will one day have been responsible for what I study in graduate school. How's that for influential?
The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame) - When shy Mole climbs out of his hole and into the fresh spring air, he meets Ratty. The two set off for a day on the river, and thus begins this classic tale of deep friendship and adventure as Mole, Rat, and Badger try to reform their rather wild friend, Mr. Toad (of Toad Hall). When Toad's obssession with motor cars and reckless driving land him in prison, Toad Hall is taken over by fiendish weasels and the four friends face the complications of a daring prison break and a climactic battle for the mansion in the most thrilling adventure of all.
The Wind in the Willows glows with a special luminescence all its own. Its characters are sheer magic, and their various adventures are enchanting as well as entertaining. I have many emotions connected to specific scenes: the relief of Mole stumbling into Badger's den when he is lost in the forest, the excitement of Toad's wild escape from prison, the serenity of a day on the river with Rat, and the sheer exhiliration of the storming of Toad Hall. None of these scenes, however, equal the transcendent awe of Mole and Rat's unexplained encounter with the pipe-playing, God-like being they meet one night. This powerful scene, perhaps even more than anything in C. S. Lewis, is the strongest and most lasting image I possess of an encounter with Deity. I have re-read that one portion of the book more times than I remember.
To be continued . . .
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 . . .
November 15, 2005
Reflections on 1000 Books
Tonight is something of a momentous occasion for me. It is a night that I have been anticipating for over nine years, and that I originally expected to arrive four or five years ago. On July 1st, 1996, when I was 12 years old (nearly two months shy of 13) and about to enter 7th grade, I set out for the umpteenth time to see how quickly I could read The Chronicles of Narnia all the way through.
Before I was even halfway done with them, I had already decided to see how many fantasy books in general I could read over the course of one month. And shortly after that, I just decided that I'd keep a record of every book I read, beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, from then until the end of time. I've kept a "Booklist" in a Microsoft Excel or Works spreadsheet ever since (okay, actually I started in Word, but my dad recommended the switch, then helped me make it, before the first year was out).
For the past nine years I've celebrated the New Year twice. As January 1st approaches, I enjoy the Christmas holiday, consider what I have accomplished in the past year, and think about what the next 365 days will bring. As July 1st approaches, I begin to read furiously (I can generally do that in the midst of the summer with no trouble) so that I will have as many books as possible "logged" for that year of reading. I take a look at my reading progress for the past year, and resolve to read even more next year. Usually I have my eye on a number of books that I'd like to have read by then, as well. The tradition changes the way my entire midsummer works.
Tonight, November 15th, 2005, at age 22 and well into my senior year of college, I completed The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, which is the thousandth book on my list (specially selected from half a dozen candidates to fill that particular role). I have a vague idea that this was the number I was aiming at back in '96. I have no idea what I intended to do once I'd reached it . . . I think I just wanted to see how fast I could get there. Well, now I know. But I've been reading fewer books every year, and so presumably I couldn't do it that fast again.
Anyway, I know what to do with it now: Tuck it away and set out for the second thousand. Maybe I'll see how long it takes me to catch up to the present year AD or something. Then, at least, I'd have some kind of representation in terms of reading material for every year since the time of Christ. Because if there's one thing I've realized with the completion of every book I've ever read, it's the fact of how many I haven't. No one warned me, at the tender age of four when I first began to read, or at any point after that, that reading is a Lernean hydra. You can't read a book without having thirty you haven't read thrust rudely into your conscious awareness.
This may come as a nasty shock to Rachel, who earlier wondered aloud whether, perhaps, I might be able to "stop" now, but as far as I'm concerned, I'll never be well-read, but I'll always be trying to be.
Meanwhile, now that I have reached the magic number 1000, and found it to be (as I have suspected for quite some time now) inadequate even as a bare beginning, I can at least launch a special project here on my blog which I have been planning ever since the arrival of the thousandth book became a tangible reality rather than a mere concept. Beginning very soon and continuing over the course of the next few weeks, I will post a listing of my 50 favorite books (the top 5%) off of my Booklist in small, bite-size chunks.
The list has been mostly assembled (though, of course, always subject to change) for some time now, after I had reflected extensively on how best to compile and present such a list. First, I had to decide which books belonged on the list.
Of course, my Booklist itself is by no means populated exclusively by "good literature." For example, over 5% of the list is made up of Hardy Boys mysteries. Star Wars novels comprise nearly 10% of the list. However, the top five most represented authors (not counting Franklin W. Dixon, of course, as that is a pen name used by numerous authors), are as follows: Agatha Christie (32), William Shakespeare (25), Beverly Cleary (20), Sigmund Brouwer (18), and Isaac Asimov and C. S. Lewis (both 17).
My Booklist records a work's title, author, and the rating (out of 100) that I gave it. The ratings have shifted so drastically over the years, and were so totally bizzare to begin with, that they are now meaningless to everyone except (sometimes) me. I soon realized that, out of the 38 books I have given a perfect score, only a little over half of them would make it to my top 50. More deserving books have been given lower ratings in the past. Also, I realized that over 25% of all books I have read have received a rating of 90 or higher. This is clearly ridiculous. I mean, I get a great deal of pleasure out of the simple act of reading, and that is certainly a factor, but come on . . .
Then I wondered about order. At first I had them ranked from least to most favorite, but I played with them and played with them and finally realized that it was silly to try that. In the end, I dropped them all into a spreadsheet, categorized them every which way from Tuesday, and sorted them to see what worked best. I decided that I would present them in chronological order, as I read them. I think it shows best how my tastes have changed, along with how what I'm reading has changed, but also what has remained the same.
All that to say, I had a fun time of it selecting my 50 favorite books of all time and listing them off. There are four things to keep in mind as I post them in the days ahead:
-I limited myself to only one work per author on the list. This allows the list to reflect more of the authors I enjoy reading, so that it is implied that some of their other works are among my favorites as well, and I can keep the list more diverse. It also really helped me wittle down the candidates.
-In a few very special cases, I have counted books which were published seperately as a single work. I have tried not to let this get out of control, and only used it with the works that are available in a single-volume edition. There were certain cases where I truly felt that either a single, favorite book could not be separated from others without losing part of what makes it a favorite, or that the books must be taken together to be complete. In a few cases, I felt that a single volume was, perhaps, not a favorite, but that the whole definitely was. That's just the way it is sometimes, and my list reflects that.
-This is not a list of The Best Books I Have Ever Read. I wouldn't presume to judge that . . . I wouldn't dare. These are simply the books that I have gotten the most pleasure from reading over the years, and which I most heartily recommend to others or enjoy discussing with fellow fans. I would like to think that, in a sense, there is at least one book or author on this list for everyone. In other words, I would hope that everyone might find at least one of their own favorite authors on this list (if not their most favorite), or that (if they haven't read them all) there is at least one book or author which would number among their favorites.
-In the spirit of that last observation, I would very much relish any commentary from my audience regarding my list. Congratulate me for including a particular book. Tell me I'm crazy for including a particular book. Shake your fist at me for not including a particular book, or (as it is quite possible that I haven't read it) recommend that I go find myself a copy. But, most importantly, say something. I've had a great time pulling this together, and it exists for me, chiefly, but I love talking about this stuff with others. Let me know what you think.
November 08, 2005
Notice of a Brief Sabbatical
Some time has passed since my thoughts surfaced here,
And more time still must pass ere I return.
For heavy still weigh loads of work so drear.
'Tis far I am from done howe'er I yearn.
The academic stress is almost tidal:
Calling for my attention undivided
(Thinking on't makes me feel suicidal)
Still papers (three) and journals (ten) are wanted.
Yet due dates come and due dates go, as always,
Quite unlike fun which waits 'round every corner.
It follows me through Liberal Arts hallways,
And during times with friends I'll keep forever.
Reader, please, keep coming back to visit.
When stuff happens, you'll certes hear all about it.
November 01, 2005
Yes, of course, but can it be done?
This is the reply that leaps unbidden to mind when I ask myself, "Do I really want to attempt to produce a deconstructive analysis of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita in (ostensibly) seven pages or less for presentation at the Student Literary Conference in early December worth 20% of my Literary Criticism grade?" This way madness seems to lie.
And yet, I rather believe that this is something which I must undertake. I am at a critical point in my education: just knowledgeable enough to have the capacity to produce such a paper, and just dumb enough to apply that critical theory to this novel. Only now do I possess together the essential tools I am required to employ and the lack of academic face to lose. I want to do a good job with this paper.
At this point, I had composed a lengthy examination of the problems I foresaw with the writing of such a paper, and the solutions I expected to encounter. But that was really boring, and all I really wanted, I think, was an excuse (however tenuous) to reproduce two very interesting pieces of poetry composed by Humbert Humbert within Lolita. I believe, however, that they are excuse enough by themselves. They are below the fold. Make of them what you will.
The first is written in the fit of madness suffered by H. H. directly after Dolores is spirited away by "McFate." It is tragically sweet on one level, but the rhyme and rhythm give it an air of pathetic comedy, and the context creates a total effect that is simply haunting. The reader struggles between sympathy and revulsion. H. H. himself refers to it as "a maniac's masterpiece" (257).
The second is the poem which H. H. forces "McFate" (avoiding possible spoilers by not naming names) to read aloud when he finally catches up to him. The critical work I am consulting calls this poem a parody of T. S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday," and earlier explains that Nabokov wasn't particularly impressed with Eliot's poetry. It's most interesting feature is the way in which McFate's snide interjections seem to be part of the poem even as they tear apart the dramatic effect of the thing.
Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze.
Hair: brown. Lips: scarlet.
Age: five thousand three hundred days.
Profession: none, or "starlet."
Where are you hiding, Dolores Haze?
Why are you hiding, darling?
(I talk in a daze, I walk in a maze,
I cannot get out, said the starling).
Where are you riding, Dolores Haze?
What make is the magic carpet?
Is a Cream Cougar the present craze?
And where are you parked, my car pet?
Who is your hero, Dolores Haze?
Still one of those blue-caped star-men?
Oh the balmy days and the palmy bays,
And the cars, and the bars, my Carmen!
Oh Dolores, that juke-box hurts!
Are you still dancin', darlin'?
(Both in worn levis, both in torn T-shirts,
And I, in my corner, snarlin').
Happy, happy is gnarled McFate
Touring the States with a child wife,
Plowing his Molly in every State
Among the protected wild life.
My Dolly, my folly! Her eyes were vair,
And never closed when I kissed her.
Know an old perfume called Soleil Vert?
Are you from Paris, mister?
L'autre soir un air froid d'opéra m'alita:
Son félé - bien fol est qui s'y fie!
Il neige, le décor s'écroule, Lolita!
Lolita, qu'ai-je fait de ta vie?
Dying, dying, Lolita Haze,
Of hate and remorse, I'm dying.
And again my hairy fist I raise,
And again I hear you crying.
Officer, officer, there they go -
In the rain, where that lighted store is!
And her socks are white, and I love her so,
And her name is Haze, Dolores.
Officer, officer, there they are -
Dolores Haze and her lover!
Whip out your gun and follow that car.
Now tumble out, and take cover.
Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze.
Her dream-gray gaze never flinches.
Ninety pounds is all she weighs
With a height of sixty inches.
My car is limping, Dolores Haze,
And the last long lap is the hardest,
And I shall be dumped where the weed decays,
And the rest is rust and stardust.
Here goes. I see it's in verse.
Because you took advantage of a sinner
because you took advantage
because you took
because you took advantage of my disadvantage . . .
That's good, you know. That's damned good.
. . .when I stood Adam-naked
before a federal law and all its stinging stars
Oh, grand stuff!
Because you took advantage of a sin
when I was helpless moulting moist and tender
hoping for the best
dreaming of marriage in a mountain state
aye of a litter of Lolitas . . .
Didn't get that.
Because you took advantage of my inner
because you cheated me -
A little repetitious, what? Where was I?
Because you cheated me of my redemption
because you took
her at the age when lads
play with erector sets
Getting smutty, eh?
a little downy girl still wearing poppies
still eating popcorn in the colored gloam
where tawny Indians took paid croppers
because you stole her
from her wax-browed and dignified protector
spitting into his heavy-lidded eye
ripping his flavid toga and at dawn
leaving the hog to roll upon his new discomfort
the awfulness of love and violets
remorse depair while you
took a dull doll to pieces
and threw its head away
because of all you did
because of all I did not
you have to die
Well, sir, this is certainly a fine poem. Your best as far as I'm concerned.