Sunday, April 09, 2006

Fiction Top 10

10. Stephen King: Misery

Considering the books that comprise the rest of my list, this may seem a bit out of place. Fact of the matter is there are a number of reasons to read a book, and on one of those rare occasions when I decided to read something that would freak me out, this book delivered. The great thing about it is that it did so without the gore, the exorcisms and the other worldly creatures that are general fare for the horror genre. This book is scary precisely because it is so down to earth, and the characters so real, you end up feeling like you are in the house and you can't get out and there is something about it that made me love every minute of it. I think what makes it enjoyable is that you know its not real, but King does a good job of convincing every fibre of your being that it is. Like many books this one is also a movie, and in this case I actually saw the movie before I read the book. But the funny thing is that the movie didn't ruin it for me at all! Not for the faint of heart, but if you are in the mood for a relatively "innocent" thriller, I can't recommend anything more.

9. John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath

This book is artful and poignant at the same time. It is very human; like humanity the story seems to rise up from the dust of the earth itself. One moment Steinbeck has you enraptured by the short travel of a turtle across a path and the next he has you with a group of people travelling across the highway ... and you feel for both because they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. And it makes you realize that the capitalistic democracy we enjoy, for all its good points, comes with its negatives too. In that regard this book opened my eyes to the pitfalls of our Western "utopia" like nothing had ever done for me before. I became much more sympathetic for the shoulders upon which our society has been built and much more aware of the opression that can still go on in our very midst, even if it isn't quite as obvious or cut and dry as the seeminly more blatant opression that we are so quick to critcize in other lands. This is a good read too. Very well written. A gripping tale. Whether he meant to or not, Steinbeck gave me a glimpse of the reality that no kingdom of man can really ever be what we need.

8. Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Idiot

I love a story with a "Christ figure," and to me this is the best one by far. Many Christ figures are very simplistic, and that's okay, but Dostoevsky's is so complex in his simplicity that it is too difficult to describe in a short review. You really have to read it, and I think you really have to read the New Testament as well, in order to get a sense of the aspect of Chris't character that Doestoevsky is trying to portray. Unfortunately I think a good deal of the significance of his Christ figure's approach to life is lost in the translation (Doestoevsky is Russion, in case you hadn't guessed), but the discerning reader will get it, and I think be very moved by the life that it offers. Again, while I'm commenting mainly on the meaning of the book, this is a masterpiece of fiction in its own right to boot.

7. CS Lewis: The Great Divorce

Again, a story with some incredibly profound truths that seem best communicated through fiction than they might otherwise have been. This dreamy tale reads like an after death experience, and unlike the claims of people on hospital beds who have "seen a great light" and therefore conclude everything is okay, this one turns everything on its head and suggest that maybe everything isn't okay. And when the author brings us back to earth we find that his fiction is true to life, and begin to suspect that perhaps there is more to this story than mere story. It is a window to the Grand Story, and holds some very good keys to getting our chapter right. If this book had come from any other author I would have much less hesitation in calling it their masterpiece, but with Lewis such a claim would be shortsighted, even if you only took into consideration his fiction. His fiction is at the same time incredibly imaginative and wise, and here is the perfect example.

6. Alexandre Dumas: The Count of Monte Cristo

Okay, now if you're saying, "Spare me all the profundity and just give me a good epic," well, here you go. I do think there are layers of meaning and morals of the story to be found in Monte Cristo, don't get me wrong, but for me this book was just pure fun. It took me away. Every time I put the book down I felt like I had experienced something new. It really does have everything. Passion, intrigue, great characters, mystery, thickening plots, conspiracy, adventure, romance, world travel, piracy, treasure, duels, tricky life dilemmas and navigation of the high seas--it's all there. It may take several months to read this monster, but it's quite a ride. Dumas weaves a fine tale. A pleasure.

5. Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov

Dostoevsky is a master at depicting the human nature. I think I read that somewhere, and if I didn't, well then, I'm saying it myself. I don't think he ever quite learned to master his own human nature, but he sure knows how to describe it. If you have any self-awareness or humility at all you are bound to find yourself in one or several of his characters. Often times you'll be reading along and wondering how he could know you so well to get inside your head and have his characters think like you do. And you find you have more in common with sinners, as well as saints, than perhaps you would have been led to believe. Karamazov is an epic of a total different stripe than Monte Cristo. Whereas Dumas' epic paints a breathtaking adventure and boils up a harrowing plot, Dostoevsky's epic is almost all dialogue. In fact I wonder if you took away the conversations and thoughts if you'd even have 50 pages. This may sound boring, but if you are interested in people and how we tick and talk and think then you'll really enjoy this book. Again, it is well worth the investment of time.

4. CS Lewis: The Narnia Series

I'm not going to bother breaking this series up into its seven books because it wouldn't leave much room in my top 10 for much else. These are children's stories, but I only read them once in my childhood and have probably tripled that since then. What can you say about them? Simple and yet profound, a mythical representation of the very real Story we find ourselves in. I think the new Disney movie was fine, but don't let it rob you (or your kids) of the pure delight of reading this series. It is worth it on so many levels. It is enjoyable and enlightening. With Christian literature like this around I can't fathom how anyone can find our biblical faith stodgy and confining. Narnia gives us a reflection of our own struggle between good and evil, with a wonderful emphasis on what is good about existence, and it throws in what I'd call a taste of heaven as well. And since this is a top 10 list, let me give you the book titles in order of my preference, from least favourite to most (but they're all good): Prince Caspian; The Silver Chair; The Last Battle; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy; The Magician's Nephew; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

3. CS Lewis: The Science Fiction Trilogy

Yes, I'm not quite done with CS Lewis. And as a bit of a cheat again I'm including a whole series as one. This trilogy is wild, but is often overlooked for a few reasons I think: by Christian readers because it is science fiction and can therefore carry an unfortunate taboo; by those outside of the Christian faith because of who it comes from; and by anyone at all simply because the third and final installment of the series is so weird and ridiculous and so unlike the other two. But if you are a serious reader of fiction you can't afford to miss these books. The first in the series, Out of the Silent Planet, is for me the 2001 of sci-fi literature. It takes you away to another world without asking you to buy a whole lot of telaportation devices and tricorders that magically tell you anything you need to know, making space travel way too easy and almost boring. The second book in the series, Voyage to Venus (or Perelandra), takes you away to another world without disappointing you by how earth-like that other world ends up being. I think the fifth chapter of this book was the greatest chapter of fiction I've ever read. My jaw dropped. My head was swimming. The final installment of the series, That Hideous Strength, I'll be honest, is a big let down (like one might expect from return to earth) -- but don't let that deprive you the enjoyement of the other two.

2. JRR Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings

What more can be said about this series? The movies did them great justice and I loved them, but it also makes me sad that the films may end up replacing the literature for many people. Its just the kind of thing you have to read in your lifetime. I guess you don't have to, but you'll be glad you did. I had heard this a lot, and when the movies were coming out I knew this was my last chance to have the reading experience pure, and so along with many others I took the project on. Years previous I had given up on page 100 or so and thought I may never go back, but am I ever glad I stuck with it this time. This is what God gave us an imagination for folks. What a joy. And for the record, The Two Towers made me cry at the end, and this is the biggest failing point of the movie format: that they couldn't leave audiences hanging quite like that. But if I had to choose a favourite of the three, that would be it. (If you are totally unfamiliar with this series, part one is The Fellowship of the Ring and part three is The Return of the King)

1. GK Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday

Not many of you will like this I'm afraid. But I have to be honest. I doubt any work of fiction will ever do for me what this story does, nor replace it atop my list. Although I guess you never know. It just strikes a chord with me on a personal and spiritual level that I find very difficult to describe. In it I feel like I face God, or at least the back of Him, and while there is so much I don't understand and even a lot that I question, I know I just can't turn away. Life is a nightmare of sorts, but the nightmare is also life, and for that we can be grateful, and though there is mystery and wonder and doubt and faith, somehow there is a sense of Sovereignty that is comforting and sublime. I hate trying to describe this book actually. Even Chesterton in his dedication said that probably only his friend Belloc would really get it. And I'm not sure I can claim that I totally "get it", but I love it, and it is a part of me nonetheless.

Honourable Mentions:
William Golding: Lord of the Flies
Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird
Stephen King: The Green Mile
Franklin W. Dixon: Hardy Boys Casefile #10: Hostages of Hate
GK Chesterton: Manalive
Gerd Theissen: Shadow of the Galilean