Tuesday, March 5, 2013

My Top Five Books

                 Normally I would eschew these kinds of lists, as it's kind of hard to distill what I like about books into a simple five-point list or something, but I realize I've talked about the books I love and these five in particular without really naming them. So, since I'm getting a year older today, and this is technically my hundredth post (minus the one about my internet going down), I decided maybe I'd be a little self-indulgent and talk about the five books that, while my tastes may change a lot, have stayed my all-time favorites and will probably remain so for the rest of my life. I certainly hope so. Full list after the jump.

5. Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

           I first found this in a corner of the Hilton Branch Library back when I lived in Maplewood. Before that, my only experience with it was the movie, a movie which I only remembered in fits and starts. But I was a fan of Ray Bradbury and his work (My dad used to read us stories from A Medicine for the Melancholy, among others), and while Fahrenheit 451 failed to engage me, when I started to read Something Wicked This Way Comes, I loved it. 

           The story is of Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, two boys on the verge of turning fourteen, who discover a strange carnival is coming to town. While at first the carnival just seems innocuous and slightly eerie, it soon turns sinister, and Will and Jim must fight against the evil forces of Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Carnival and Shadow Show (Yup, totally innocuous name) with the help of Will's librarian father. The story deals a lot with coming of age, the power of laughter and optimism in turning the dark away, and indeed the nature of life itself, all within a story about a soul-stealing carnival and its eerie inhabitants. (At one point they have a funeral for a balloon. It's that kind of strange.)

          It trades almost entirely on atmosphere...the scares are more creeping than shocking, the threats seem real because the atmosphere of the story stacks the deck in favor of the eerie carnival and the freaks. Which also makes the story a lot more powerful when the heroes begin to fight back: It's uncertain whether or not they'll win, and while the type of story may code things a different way, it's still amazing to see how it turns out. And while the book is overall a bittersweet story of adolescence and growing older in a small town, those sweet moments are made all the sweeter because of how they occur and because the nature of the story allows them to occur. This is a book where laughter is as deadly a weapon as a bullet, where imagination is one of the most powerful forces anyone can wield, and all of it makes sense.

           The other reason I like it so much is that when I read it, I hadn't ever read anything this dark. The books I read had some dark times, certainly (lookin' at you, The Neverending Story), but they all seemed...a little less threatening than Cooger and Dark, the hulking muscle man and his quietly menacing showman partner. And a little less effective. I knew the good guys would win, because they had to, right? I wasn't so sure with this one. There were times when I found myself gripping the book a little tightly. But there are few books as satisfying to me to read, and even though I know the story, I still find myself enthralled by it.

Number of times read: 3

4. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick


       This was one I came about through rather roundabout means. I had been browsing the library's audiobook section when I came upon a copy of the audiobook of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a production for two voices. Since it was said to be the inspiration for Blade Runner, a movie I still had yet to see due to parental restrictions on the movies I could watch, I immediately rushed home with it and listened to it. I didn't quite get the ending, and the dirty heads on my tape player weren't helping the issue, so when I later found a paperback copy of the book (the edition pictured above, with introduction by another favorite author of mine, Roger Zelazny), I jumped at the chance to re-read it. And then later on, when I was given a copy, I allowed myself to read it again. And while I still don't fully get the ending, I do know this: I love this book.

           The book tells a story many people who read this site probably already know: Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter sent to kill several Nexus-6 "replicant" androids, who are so advanced they can pass for human. The only way to detect them is a "Voigt-Kampff exam", a test that measures empathy and reaction time. Androids, you see, have no empathy towards living creatures and faking it would require a minor hesitation or some other kind of response. So Deckard sets off on the biggest bounty he's ever undertaken with the help of mysterious femme fatale Rachael Rosen to destroy the six androids and come back in one piece. But the story isn't so simple, and the Nexus-6s always stay one step ahead of him...and meanwhile, a messiah figure must climb a hill of bones towards an uncertain goal, watched by a religious cult through something called an "empathy box".

           And I'd like to say it all comes together, but in the end, the truth is a lot more ambiguous. Like most of Philip K. Dick's books, this one plays a lot with the nature of perception and reality, whirling them around. The human characters and the androids can be just as brutal at times, and even then, the question of empathy is in doubt. It's that moral ambiguity that makes me like the story. I'm a fan of film noir, I like my heroes sorta tarnished, and Do Androids Dream... delivers on all fronts. It's a well-plotted story with some nice twists and turns, and in the end, it leaves me unsure if the ending I wanted is really the best ending. And it's that uncertainty that makes it wonderful.

         This is also possibly the first cyberpunk book I'd ever read, predating both the word and its home genre by decades (predating the supposed "first cyberpunk novels"-- Dr. Adder and Neuromancer by sixteen years). All the themes-- the interplay of man and machine; the dark, noir overtones; the thought that as we give more of our lives up to machines, we become less human...all of it is there. And while the story itself is structured as a dark detective novel, the moments of beauty and humanity that are allowed to come through are striking and lovely. Also, it's a book that actually made me feel a little depressed at a scantily-clad woman pushing a sheep off a roof (It's also the kind of book where a scantily-clad woman pushing a sheep off a roof is an acceptable denouement and makes sense as an acceptable denouement). If you like your sci-fi dark and a little unhinged, and don't mind weird philosophy in the middle of it, by all means, read it.

Number of times read: 3

3. The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub

          And a pattern begins to emerge. The Talisman is another coming-of-age story, and one that came to me in a sort of interesting way: It found me. I'd been volunteering at a bookstore when I was ten, and got interested in King's Dark Tower series. However, my mother didn't want me reading Stephen King books at ten, as she was afraid I'd be freaked out and read things that would spoil my innocent nature. So when the time came that there was an argument, she worked out a nice exchange: My dad would find one of Stephen King's books that he'd written for his kids to read, and I could read that instead of The Dark Tower. So one fine fall day, my dad came home with a big, thick book with the cover seen above, and handed it to me. And moments later, I began to read. Moments after that, I began to enjoy. It was dark, creepy fantasy about a boy my age taking a journey and becoming someone more than just a boy in the process. It was tragic, beautiful, and all the things a book is supposed to be. 

                The Talisman is about Jack Sawyer, the son of a B-movie queen. The two of them check into a dilapidated hotel in New England next to an abandoned amusement park, and Jack is left to his own devices as his ailing mother waits to die of cancer. In short order, he is drafted by the old caretaker of the amusement park, drafted into a power struggle for the fate of not one, but possibly all the worlds. On the other end of the struggle is his sociopathic uncle Morgan Sloat, a man who wishes to see Jack's mother dead to also kill her doppelganger, the queen of a medieval-fantasy world known as "The Territories". Jack must travel through the Territories and our world to recover an artifact known as "The Talsiman", the only thing that could possibly heal his mother and restore balance to the worlds. Armed only with his wits and the ability to "flip" between The Territories and Earth, a power he doesn't quite understand to begin with, Jack starts out on the road. But before he reaches the terrifying black hotel where the Talisman resides, he will be tortured and tested, by dangers both real and fantastic. And if he comes back at all, he may leave something behind in the process.

               This is a book that has it all...atmosphere, scares, feats of heroism...the squicky descriptions help a lot too-- when a place in Earth is forcibly dragged into the Territories and literally goes to hell, it's described in gut-churning detail. When Jack fights monsters, the monsters are described down to the maggots living in their skulls. Some of this is, I think, King-- Straub prefers the atmospheric shocks to the nasty visceral ones-- though both leave their imprint on the work. But what works the best for it is that every page carries emotion and impact. There's a truly terrifying section where Jack gets stuck in a home for troubled youth that drives this right home, making you feel every wrenching and terrible second. There's also a section detailing what happened with Jack's friend and cousin Richard that is unnerving and a bit of a gut-punch when you understand how Richard got to be the neurotic believer in only the rational that he is now. 

              It also has a certain fairy-tale sensibility about it...Jack's journey is treated as a heroic journey where he leaps at the call to adventure and leads him through an unfortunate, traumatic but ultimately transcendent transformation from an unlikely kid into a heroic figure. Were it not for the squick, violence, and bleak sections of the book, it would be a quest fantasy. But The Talisman takes the traditional framework seen in both coming of age stories and fantasy novels, and makes it nastier. Darker. A hell of a lot bleaker/ Combined with the dark and haunting Something Wicked This Way Comes, it made a veritable one-two punch. But in a way, there was a certain optimism to the book. A certain "Hey, growing up and moving forward is torture. But at the end, it's gonna all be okay." quality to it. And in the end, it's the portions of emotion and just the vibrant world of the book as well as this quality of hope that drive everything home and make me tear up when I read the final sentences.

Times read: Six, starting a seventh

2. The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

       I've talked about this before at great length, but I love this book. Many of you know The Neverending Story from the movies made sometime in the 80s. Read the book. Please read the book. For one thing, it's a lot different. For another, it's actually pretty dark for a story being marketed to young adults. And for a third, it's a story about reconnecting with people that despite how dark it gets, ends on a rather optimistic (if a little bittersweet) note. It addresses some very mature themes overall, and wraps it up without putting a nice, neat bow on it. 

          The Neverending Story is the story of Bastian Balthasar Bux, a young man who loves books and getting lost in a good story. Bastian steals a copy of The Neverending Story from a used bookseller and absconds to the attic of his school to read. The book is about a young man who is trying to save a fantasy world from destruction by a force called "the Nothing", essentially nonexistence itself. The book seems to be slightly aware of Bastian, leading to his eventually interacting with the world of the book and finally entering the book itself, first to save it and then to try and control it. In its own way, it's a coming of age story, but not really. It's more about a boy learning to become "human" again, learning not to hide from things and engage them directly. And also learning that spending all his time in books and losing himself is a bad idea.

        It's one of my favorite books because there's something different to it every time I read it. It's still the same melancholic story of Bastian and the book, but depending on when I read it, I see it as different things. And this is the mark of a brilliant novel. That it's different and yet familiar every time you come back to read it. There are very few books able to carry this off, and The Neverending Story is one of them. It also helps that Michael Ende and his translator blow the house down with the descriptions and characters, and while the dialogue is stilted in places and some parts are absolutely wrenching to read in their bleakness, it makes an interesting take on the mythic fantasy. I fully recommend reading it.

Times Read: Four, almost done with a fifth

1. Fool on the Hill by Matt Ruff

       I found this book by accident. I read it purely on a whim because I liked the author's other book. And out of all the books I read, it stays with me. I may not have read it often, I may not remember favorite lines the same way I do other books ("Ben Franklin...Ben Franklin says BURN IN HELL!" being the standout), but it stays with me. I made other people read it. I recommend it to everyone who likes a good story. I can't stop talking about it when the subject of my favorite books comes up. Why? Because that is exactly what it is-- a good story. Parts may be hokey and the whole thing may come off as smirking at times, but it's got a certain charm to it that can't be ignored. And shouldn't be ignored. 

         Fool on the Hill is the story of Stephen Titus George. And Aurora Borealis Smith. And a whole host of other characters on and around the College on the Hill, a place not unlike but resembling Cornell University in Ithaca. Over the course of one academic year, the forces of good and evil begin to build under the auspices of Mr. Sunshine, a "Greek original" who is writing a story about the Hill and its inhabitants. As the story begins to take shape, though, another storyteller emerges in the form of Stephen Titus George, a writer who is able to call the wind. George has the talent of "writing without paper"...a way to bring the formless into a form and cause things to happen. Before long, the two Storytellers meet and a battle of wits occurs between George, Sunshine, and the eldritch creature known only as "Rasferret the Grub", the villain of Mr. Sunshine's story. 

         It's rare that a book has its fourth wall built into the text. It's rarer still that such a book is able to carry it off so well. Fool on the Hill is well aware of the fact that it's telling a story, and in fact the protagonists actively screw with the narrative to their hearts' content. Well, those who realize they're self-aware. But on top of that, it's a lyrical magical-realist novel about a battle between good and evil, and indeed the urge to create. The urge to show people how one sees the world, and interact better through that.

         I suppose that's why I like all of these books so much...it's about people interacting with the world and learning how to do it in their own way...it's certainly not a bad idea, and one that bears taking to heart. And in the end, Fool on the Hill ends exactly the way it should. With that interaction bearing fruit. And while the story is one with its dark spots, it's ultimately a light and enjoyable story. It's just a pity Matt Ruff found more success with other books, and went on to follow them. While his later books had more emotion, certainly, they lacked a certain quality that Fool on the Hill and his dystopian science-fiction comedy Sewer, Gas, and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy had in abundance. Still, Fool is a great story. And that's really all it needs to be. Read this book. Please.

Times Read: 4.

And that's it. The five books I love the most, and a little insight into why. I hope you enjoyed this and it wasn't too self-indulgent. In any case, see you later, when we pick up with Tim Powers' Last Call

- LAST CALL by Tim Powers


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