Thursday, July 11, 2013

Top Ten Books That You Really Must Read Before You Die (Part 1)

As promised, here's the post on at least 5 of the 10 books that I really liked (to counter the negativity from my rant against Twilight), and how I believe these books embody "good" writing. (Along with, as usually accompanies my recommendations, some warnings when warranted, just so you know a bit about what you're getting into for certain books) Since I would recommend every item equally, they are in no particular order.

Dramatic Omissions: You might notice that the list holds very few "classics," most notably the Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the Chronicles of Narnia series. Don't get me wrong; those are fantastic books and I love them very much. Unfortunately, I had to limit myself to ten, and since those books are basically a "given" as far as "Books You Ought To Read", I figured that most of you might have done so already, anyway, and so I have listed books that I read and enjoyed so much that you might not have ever heard of.

The Inkheart Trilogy--Cornelia Funke

I confess I watched the movie first, but only because the first book was on hold longer than the rest, so the second and third came before I had ever read the first. (The movie was well-done, and--I don't say this very often, but I will now, though I can't really explain why without spoiling--I think this is one of the few books where watching the movie would give you a good foundation for the various characters before you go and read the books)
The Story: The trilogy centers around a bookbinder and his family. The bookbinder, Mo, has a special gift called "Silvertongue" which allows him to speak characters and objects in and out of books. There's a trade that happens, though: for something to come out, something else must go in. The starting crux of the series is the fact that Mo, when his daughter was very young, accidentally read a villain out of the book Inkheart, written by an Italian author named Fenoglio--and the villain escaped with the only copy of Inkheart before Mo realizes that his wife had been traded. So Mo takes the opportunity with his job as a bookbinder to tour antique bookstores in search of another copy so that he can find his wife, whom his daughter has always believed was dead.

What I liked: This series absolutely magnified my imagination on creating fantasy worlds and characters. Throughout the trilogy there is a lot of that "trading" happening, where characters from our world enter and must deal with the "Inkworld" (as it's called), and "Inkworld" characters are transported to our world and must deal with the circumstances beyond the magical fantasy world they've always known. I related to it very much as a writer, especially when the author Fenoglio must deal with the characters he invented, and the ramifications of his power over them and their world as The Writer. One of my favorite characters would have to be Mo's feisty Aunt Elinor (portrayed in the movie by the indomitable Helen Mirren).

Warnings: In any fantasy adventure, magic comes into play, and along with it, a dubious moral philosophy. I don't recall it being emphasized that much, but in a sense, a writer almost functions like a "mini-god" in a world invented by him. If you take pains to avoid reading anything less than a theistic moral philosophy, you might not want to read this book. (But then again, if you're that type of person, you might not read fantasy, anyway). This book is definitely for fantasy-lovers!

The Princess Bride, a Tale of High Adventure and True Love by S. Morgenstern--William Goldman
The Story: Who hasn't seen the movie, really? So the story of the book is basically the movie (young peasant girl of incomparable beauty fell in love with the farmhand before he decided to leave and seek his fortune, a wicked prince wants to marry her only to murder her as an excuse to start a war with a neighboring country, the plot thickens with the appearance of a swashbuckling Man In Black, etc.)--

But wait! There is SO MUCH MORE. 

What I liked: William Goldman is the SOLE author of both the book and the movie--and yet he writes as if he has abridged "S. Morgenstern"'s tale down to the "good parts version" that his dad read to him. In case you were wondering, the sick boy in the film is supposed to represent young Willie, listening to the "original" story read to him; the "commentary" from the boy is just a taste of the "commentary" included in the book. Each character comes with a full back-story: Fezzik, Innigo, and Buttercup. We get to discover exactly how Fezzik ended up with a big black Holocaust cloak in his tunic, and the full extent of the Pit of Despair--more than just a hovel in a tree. All of this, with William Goldman butting into his own story to tell us how grateful we should be that we didn't have to read the hundreds of pages on Florin history and culture that Morgenstern "originally wrote"--which is not true at all. I laugh every time somebody says they want to read the "original, unedited version." Newsflash: IT DOESN'T EXIST! The whole thing is one long punchline. I have never laughed so hard at a book that takes its own humor so seriously. (When you get this book, turn to Chapter Four; you'll see what I mean)

The Book Thief--Marcus Zusak
Last summer, when I decided to start reading secular novels that were not classics and had nothing to do with the books I'd been reading for school all the previous year, this was one of the first books I picked up from the library, on a recommendation from a friend. It blew my mind with regards to writing style.

The Story: It's called "The Book Thief", but this is by no means the central plot. The book is set in Germany during WWII, and revolves around a German girl and her parents and her close friend--and a Jew they agree to hide in their basement. The Nazis start confiscating and burning books, so the girl begins sneaking into houses and stealing books, meanwhile developing a friendship with the Jew and learning lessons about the world around her from him.

What I liked: The story, quite unexpectedly, is told from the perspective of Death. Therefore, the reader is treated to a narrative like no other. The descriptions are poignant and ethereal in quality, and every so often, Death breaks away to visit someone, only to return and continue to watch the girl and the Jew. There are also breaks in the narrative which involve no rhyme or reason at all; either they are explanations for terms or scenes used, and contain no dialogue; or they are conversations between two characters, exclusively dialogue; the narrative resumes, and the story moves forward.
Death, it might be noted, (according to Zusak's portrayal), has a unique perspective on color, using various shades (or the lack thereof) to describe sensations of sound and smell or touch, not necessarily sight. Normally I would be very annoyed with any kind of unorthodoxy; but I found the style of The Book Thief very enchanting.

Warning: This is WWII, this is Germany--there is quite a bit of language from the characters. I only read this book once a long time ago (but its effect has stuck with me since then), so I cannot recall anything wildly inappropriate, but I am fairly certain that if there was anything too shocking, it was only a small part, and easily passed over. (Apologies in advance if you read it and find anything I seem to have forgotten; I would still recommend it, if only to experience an unorthodox writing style done superbly well, content aside!)

Farenheit 451--Ray Bradbury
The Story: In a future age, the human attention span has shrunk to only a few seconds, and the depth of understanding is only the basest, shallowest facts. Hence learning is reprehensible and "illegal." The Government determined that man's ability to read and draw insight out of what he reads is the cause of most wars and criminal behavior. Take away man's capacity for thought, and give him only entertainment all the time, and the human population will remain "safe," having no contrary urgings at all.
Against this backdrop, the book follows the epiphanies of Guy Montag, a "fireman" (re-imagined in the future as a person responsible for burning books, all of which had been banned some decades before the start of the book.) Guy meets a girl named Clarisse, who stands out from others around her in that she seems to prefer most of her time thinking about the world around her, and not just floating from one entertainment source to the other, as Guy's wife does.
Guy gets a call to burn down the house of a book-hoarder, but before they can light the house after soaking it with kerosene, the woman, rather than leave her books and leave off the "hazardous behavior" of absorbing the information they possess, produces a match herself and chooses to burn with the books. This starts Guy thinking seriously about the nature of his occupation, which Clarisse has told him used to be one of putting out fires, (or so she has read), rather than starting them.
Clarisse disappears, and Guy wakes up to the fact that society in general has become very "live-in-the-moment," attention spans are incredibly short (so short that typical blockbuster films are shortened to only five minutes, for example), and what is more, he sees an intriguing passage in one of the books he was supposed to burn, and keeps the book to find out if it's really worth burning.
He turns to an old professor for help, and the professor tells him about the value of literature, and how such value has been censored into oblivion and finally discarded as meaningless trash by a world that has lost the capacity to understand the written word.
His Chief finds out about the contraband book (having been tipped off by Guy's own wife), and Guy must make a choice: does he keep the book and try and change the course of society by understanding what he reads, thereby restoring the value of books, or does he continue in "life-as-normal," numbly burning books merely because that is what he has been told to do?

Why I Liked It: Once I got over the revulsion in my soul over the central events of the book ("THEY ARE BURNING BOOKS!!! THE HORROR!!!"), I began to notice a kind of subtle irony to Bradbury's book. Four hundred fifty-one degrees Farenheit is the temperature at which the thick paper used in books burns. This is a story about men going around burning books because of the belief that the information they contain is harmful and dangerous--and yet they are familiar enough with the content of said books to be constantly quoting it. Bradbury litters his narrative with quotes from classic works. It's almost as if the books are burning, but Bradbury's characters inadvertently preserve the information through speaking the lines aloud.
Here also is where I came across the quote that I so much love, that has meant so much to me as I read more and write more: "Good writers touch life often." It's true; the best books, to me, are the ones that strike at an aspect of society where the reader lives, they retain some aspect of reference to the reader's world. The worst books seem to disregard the real world and the reader's world entirely. (See the post, "How to Book" for more thoughts on this)

Warnings: There is some gratuitous language in this book. I loved it for its message, not it's story. I am very sad that this is the only book of Bradbury's that I can recommend, since this book was so thrilling--but it is a must-read for anyone considering becoming a writer. (And before it scares you too bad, I only came across it because it was assigned reading for my brother in junior-high; there's a bit of objection, but it's not too bad)

Fairy Tales, Re-Told--Regina Doman
The Shadow of The Bear
Black as Night
Waking Rose

The Story: It's a fairy tale--but it isn't. Regina takes the somewhat obscure tale of "Snow White and Rose Red" (the latter might be more familiar to us as Sleeping Beauty) and transports it to upstate New York, turning the two main characters into sisters, Blanche and Rose Brier, who live with their mother and attend school at a Catholic academy. The plots closely mirror the original tale (Regina even includes the excerpt from the original fairy tale at the beginning of each chapter concerning it, so that those familiar with the story can keep track of the parallels), but at the same time, they feel entirely original as the sisters deal with blackmailers, shady deals, a bedraggled hobo with a mysterious past, cruel employers who will stop at nothing to get what they want, and circumstances of the heart that any teen can relate to.

Why I liked it: This series was the inspiration behind the ReBible series. I adore fairy tales AND mysteries, and this was the best I'd seen of both-at-the-same-time. I read Black as Night in a single sitting--from 10PM to midnight. I simply had to know what was going to happen! I wasn't as familiar with the tale that inspired the first book, but the next two were definitely "Snow White" and "Sleeping Beauty", respectively--and Regina enjoys making it obvious. For example, when running from the "evil queen", Blanche (Snow) receives refuge in a downtown Manhattan monastery from seven Franciscan monks. Bravo to Ms. Doman for creating such an enthralling adventure from a simple fairy tale.

Warnings: There is basically nothing morally objectionable in these books at all. I'm pretty sure Regina Doman might be Catholic herself, because she establishes the Brier family as Catholic, and so inevitably these beliefs come out--though not forcefully, more as a matter of fact. I never felt preached at, and only Black as Night, with it's house full of monks, had any kind of constant reiteration of Catholic practices and beliefs. At the same time, though, it's not completely antithetical to Christian beliefs. One of the monks, in counseling Blanche, tells her: "God has a plan for you, and the devil knows it. Don't underestimate what God wants for you... You might think you're just a pawn, but a pawn who reaches the other side of the board becomes a queen." 
 The other books were more focused on the adventure and the mystery surrounding the characters.

Well.... At least I got through five books.... the other five will have to come later, I think I've typed long enough.

Go forth and read, my friends.