Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Five million words you’ve just gotta read

Upon reaching an entirely meaningless and inaccurate milestone on Goodreads, I've been inspired to put together a list of my favorite 50 books of all time. Ask me next week and it'll be different.

I reluctantly limited each author to only one book, otherwise I could never have winnowed the list down to just 50 entries. The books are in no particular order, but those marked with an asterisk are the ones I would, gun to my head and for highly varied reasons, call my top ten. (At this particular juncture in time.)

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* Big Sur (Jack Kerouac)
One of Kerouac's later works, Big Sur chronicles the author's terrifying, thinly fictionalized descent into desperate paranoia following his sudden celebrity after the publication of the generation-defining novel On the Road. Other Kerouac works that should be on this list: Tristessa, The Dharma Bums.
   
Whiteman (Tony D'Souza)
A fiercely written, deeply felt novel of Cote d'Ivoire. Recommended by a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer; it came out of nowhere to become one of my favorite books in years.
   
* The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri)
Poetic, gruesome, gorgeous, unapologetically political, repugnantly zealous. One of the most amazing achievements in the history of literature. And yes, you should read beyond Inferno.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (David Mitchell)
The story of a Dutch clerk on Dejima, the tiny island that is Japan's only outlet into the greater world as the 19th century dawns. Other Mitchell works that should be on this list: Cloud Atlas.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Katherine Boo)
An unaffected look into a modern Mumbai slum. Boo's reporting is more compulsively readable than most novels.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (5 books) (Douglas Adams)
The Hitchhiker's Guide pentalogy is a perfect example of absurdist humor working. (The recent film adaptation is a perfect example of it not.) Adams' writing is perfectly pitched—except in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, when he apparently forgot that he was writing humor at all.

Salvage the Bones (Jesmyn Ward)
Ward's narrator is a teenaged Mississippi girl with a struggling family, a baby on the way, and Hurricane Katrina looming on the horizon. Cuts through the sentimental nonsense that so often passes for tragedy lit.

* Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami)
Murakami's most affecting and intimate novel. Set in 1960s Japan, the book's narrator faces early-adulthood ennui while juggling relationships with two memorable women. A decent film based on the book was released in the US earlier this year, but it marginalizes Reiko, the book's best character. Other Murakami works that should be on this list: South of the Border, West of the Sun.
   
Memories of My Melancholy Whores (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
I'm tempted to go with Garcia Marquez's epic magical-realist novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, but in the end, this simple novella of an old man and his recollections is the work I'm more likely to re-read. Other Garcia Marquez works that should be on this list: One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera.

* The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Michael Chabon)
I fell in love with one character and wanted to be another. Fits my image (if not necessarily the reality) of World War II-era New York City perfectly.
    
The Lord of the Rings (3 books) (J.R.R. Tolkien)
It's hard to envision Tolkien's Middle Earth now without conjuring up images of Peter Jackson's creations, but there was a time when mere words on a page, plus a few sketchy maps, painted an entire world filled with fantastic creatures, epic adventures and the simple bravery of a few little halflings. Other Tolkien works that should be on this list: The Hobbit.
   
* A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess)
Burgess's work is not just comically brutal and linguistically brilliant, it's a tightly-wound story about state ethics versus personal freedom. Other Burgess works that should be on this list: Honey for the Bears.

The Odyssey (Homer)
Set the template for epic poems centuries down the road, but Odysseus's sojourns around ancient Greece were first and best. Other Homer works that should be on this list: The Iliad.

Candide (Voltaire)
"It is the last day!" Crude, irreverent and bluntly hilarious, Voltaire's send-up of blind optimism still bites.

The White Tiger (Aravind Adiga)
Scathing and hilarious madcap commentary on modern India from one of the most memorable narrators I've ever read.

King Lear (William Shakespeare)
Has some of Shakespeare's most perfectly written scenes and thunderously resonant language. Other Shakespeare works that should be on this list: The Tempest, A Midsummer Night's Dream.
   
* A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway)
Hemingway's somber meditation on making and escaping war has both starkly beautiful prose and crushing conclusions about our fragile human creations. I've read the book on my own time, studied it for classes, and written my senior thesis on it, and I've only come to appreciate it more with the repetition. Other Hemingway works that should be on this list: The Old Man and the Sea, The Green Hills of Africa.

The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
It's impossible not to be charmed by the slapdash illustrations and fantastical characters in The Little Prince, or to be moved by the book's philosophical themes of kindness, dedication, and a sense of home.

* 1984 (George Orwell)
Few works have been more referenced and less heeded than Orwell's dystopian masterpiece. It was a tough choice between this and Orwell's nonfiction, which reveals even more clearly his strong humanism and political depth. Other Orwell works that should be on this list: Homage to Catalonia, Animal Farm, Burmese Days.
   
* East of Eden (John Steinbeck)
More often than any other work, East of Eden is what I tell people who ask me for my favorite book. The synthesis of Steinbeck's entire body of work, and yet one that can be summarized in one word: timshel. Other Steinbeck works that should be on this list: Cannery Row, Travels with Charley, The Grapes of Wrath, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, The Moon Is Down.

Breakfast of Champions (Kurt Vonnegut)
Vonnegut makes it onto the list more on the strength of his oeuvre than on the brilliance of any particular book, but Breakfast of Champions is him at his cynical (yet humane) best. Other Vonnegut works that should be on this list: Cat's Cradle.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson)
Wonderfully manic and surpassingly erudite, all at once. A book about everything your sense of shame normally keeps you from doing.
   
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (Dai Sijie)
An evocative, intimate story of re-education during Mao's Cultural Revolution.

* Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
Quite possibly the most hilariously clever book I've ever read. Milo the cook's antics alone warrant Catch-22 a slot in this list.

The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath)
Everyone is at least a little bit crazy in Plath's exploration of big-city neuroses. Her narrator Esther, who chafes under the strictures of male-dominated mid-century New York, may actually be the sanest among them.
   
Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)
Nabokov's brilliance was in his depiction of the new world—the United States—under siege by the stale, corrupting influence of old Europe. The pedophilia is just a sideshow; the real timelessness of Lolita is its razor-sharp portrait of robust, postwar America. Other Nabokov works that should be on this list: Speak, Memory.

Song of Solomon (Toni Morrison)
Though I was disappointed by her thin (in every sense) newest novel Home, few can match Morrison's prose when she's at her best. The richness of the writing in Song of Solomon almost makes the actual story superfluous.

The Sound of Waves (Yukio Mishima)
Everything about Mishima was epic, from his literary reputation to his death by seppuku after the completion of his final novel. But it's The Sound of Waves, one of his most austere and personal works, that captures Japan and its natural (and sometimes misleading) beauty best. Other Mishima works that should be on this list: The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, Spring Snow.

River Town (Peter Hessler)
The Peace Corps memoir to rule them all. Hessler's snapshot of modern China caught in the oscillations of constant rebirth is already a travel lit classic.

Riding the Iron Rooster (Paul Theroux)
Theroux's curmudgeonly attitude and dark humor hit their perfect pitch in his travels through China. Neither as self-conscious as The Great Railway Bazaar nor as tortuous some of his fiction. Other Theroux works that should be on this list: The Lower River, The Pillars of Hercules.
   
I, Claudius, Claudius the God (2 books) (Robert Graves)
A wildly entertaining fictional romp through the world of one of ancient Rome's many oddball emperors. Narrator Claudius is perfectly poised between reason and insanity.
   
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight (Alexandra Fuller)
Fuller's memoir is the story of living in an Africa without Africa—a place carved out from native land to emulate Western normalcy, even though Fuller's family is anything but normal.

The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner)
A complex and frightening story about a traditional Southern family's fall into ruin. Manages to be psychologically compelling even today—a testament to Faulkner's ability to explore the depths of the human mind.

The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky)
A good old Russian epic with all the trimmings: convoluted characters, political intrigue, and familial tragedy. Other Dostoevsky works that should be on this list: Notes from the Underground.

My Ántonia (Willa Cather)
The book's slender plot hardly matters, because Cather's prose shimmers like the grasses on Ántonia's Nebraska prairies. One of the most achingly gorgeous books I've ever read.

Junky (William S. Burroughs)
Heroin days in Greenwich Village. Published years before Naked Lunch and the cut-up style that became his trademark, Burroughs' straightforward tales of being down and out in New York City still manage to be more compelling than his later work.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz)
The book that finally bridged the gap between Dominican despots and Lord of the Rings. Oscar Wao hums along on the strength of its main narrator, Yunior, whose slangy explanations of political intrigue and science fiction are equally interesting.

Tropic of Cancer (Henry Miller)
Famously profane, alternately hilarious and astonishingly intelligent, Miller's Tropic of Cancer follows a semi-autobiographical narrator as he explores Paris in the early 1930s, begging for cash, pursuing women and putting off his writing career. Other Miller works that should be on this list: Tropic of Capricorn, just for completeness.
   
Salt: A World History (Mark Kurlansky)
Kurlansky can write about anything and make it interesting, but salt's ancient importance is a natural catalyst for his curiosity. The story of the mineral that moved the world is as fascinating a biography as that of any human. Other Kurlansky works that should be on this list: Cod.

The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie (3 books) (Agota Kristof)
A hazy narrative about disconnection in wartime, each book in Kristof's trilogy is defiantly unbeholden to its antecedent. Events are revisited and revised, characters morph, and the reader is never quite sure that Kristof has laid out the definitive version of events.

* The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Tom Wolfe)
Ignore his most recent novel, the old-man-yelling-at-the-kids travesty that was I Am Charlotte Simmons. A few decades ago, Wolfe was a sharp-eyed chronicler of American culture, and no work fit his idiosyncratic prose style better than this expose on Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters. Other Wolfe works that should be on this list: The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, The Right Stuff.

The White Album (Joan Didion)
Didion's collection of essays captures the loopiness of California, particularly at the close of the 60s. Her piece "Quiet Days in Malibu," though written decades before I lived there, still captures the town's odd duality of being buzzwordly famous and yet almost normal.

Ask the Dust (John Fante)
A struggling Los Angeles writer falls for a Mexican waitress. We've all been there—Fante just happened to write the definitive, 1930s-flavored version.

Last Exit to Brooklyn (Hubert Selby Jr.)
Less a story than a mosaic of hard-boiled New York, written in Brooklynese and gushing with grotesque, amusing and poignant portraiture. Selby's vision is at times nightmarish—and entirely counter to today's locally-sourced, defiantly conformist borough. Other Selby works that should be on this list: Requiem for a Dream.
   
Cosmicomics (Italo Calvino)
Usually I excoriate fiction authors for writing ideas rather than stories, but Calvino's characters (mathematical formulae, celestial formations) are clever and funny enough to work without an overarching narrative. Calvino’s the master of literary whimsy. Other Calvino works that should be on this list: Invisible Cities.

The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Gatsby is the emblematic novel of the Jazz Age for good reason—no other book captures the era’s cultural changes and spiritual malaise quite as well. Other Fitzgerald works that should be on this list: This Side of Paradise, The Love of the Last Tycoon.

The Things They Carried (Tim O'Brien)
A collection of powerful Vietnam vignettes that reach far beyond the usual horrors of war literature. O'Brien's scenes are so sharply written that the book reads like a terrifying memoir.

Moby-Dick (Herman Melville)
Skip the whaling parts, your teacher said—but the whaling’s at least half the fun. Other Melville works that should be on this list: Typee.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Ken Kesey)
If Kafka'd had a perverse sense of humor, he might have written Cuckoo's Nest. Kesey's mental patients are stuck in a world controlled by both immediate and unseen forces, until newcomer McMurphy shows them how they'd fit in just fine with the insane world beyond their hospital walls.

Lord of the Flies (William Golding)
A cautionary fable about pretty much everything—the baseness of human nature, divisionary politics, rancid pork, and nuclear warfare. It also contains what is, I think, one of the most shocking deaths in modern literature—and it's not the one at the end of the story.

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