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 . . .

Posted by Jared at November 19, 2005 11:59 PM | TrackBack