Sunday, February 21, 2010

Favorite Fiction

I promised my sister Jen that I would make a book list to match my movie list of a few weeks back. While that list covered only the previous decade, I decided not to limit this one, and it includes all my favorites. I realize it is heavily slanted to the nineteenth century, but this is unapologetically a list of my favorites and not intended to represent any kind of impartial judgment.

10. Crime and Punishment, by Feodor Dostoevsky. Dark—overwhelmingly dark, a book that can get you inside the mind of a cold-blooded murderer and make his act seem not only possible, but disturbingly familiar: reading it was like living through a nightmare where you find yourself committing an unthinkable act. One of many nineteenth century novels where the main male character is haunted by the legacy of Napoleon.

9. Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell. The plot and characters echo Austen: marriageable daughters, an extraordinarily self-centered step-mother, local gossip threatening to turn a respectable girl's innocent act into a scandal; cads, fools, and disapproving parents muck up chances for the couple you know should be together. But where Austen holds up a mirror to society and invites her reader to laugh, Gaskell illicits sympathy, repeatedly asking “what if?”: What if a man had recognized how silly and shallow a woman was before marrying her as a replacement mother for his child, what if a woman reacted to her own daughter with more maternal instincts and less selfishness and jealousy, what if a man realized the pain and distress he caused his wife by erupting into bursts of temper before her untimely death? There is no going back in such cases, but the tragedy of poor choices is apparent.

8. The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco. A twisting plot, misleading certainty, and an ending both satisfying and fraught with ambiguity characterize this thinking person’s Da Vinci Code. The story opens as a mystery—monks are dying in morbid fashion—with “William of Baskerville” and his Watson-like apprentice, Adso, being brought in to solve the mystery. Weird, surprising, and filled with literary in-jokes (there is a character modeled and even named after Jorge de Borges, author of Labyrinths, listed below).

7. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. As a general rule, I am not such a fan of Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and Tortilla Flat though beautiful, sometimes funny, and powerful, I found too bleak to be riveting. East of Eden has its flaws, but it is such a rich tale and so simlutaneously compassionate and unflinching in its portrayal of humankind—but infused with great love and hope—that I felt a huge sadness when I finished reading it. Recommended to me by my mother, I read this book my freshman year in high school, making it the first book I completed on this list. As such, it holds special emotional value.

6. Labyrinths, by Jorge Luis Borges. This is not actually a novel but a collection of short stories and essays. Weird, science-fiction-esque, and so utterly imaginative and unexpected that reading it was thrilling and exciting; its intelligence also made it satisfying. I have never read anything quite like it, and it was extraordinarily fun.

5. Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James. Bravo to Henry James for the construction of one of the most interesting women in fiction, Isabel Archer. She is beautiful, intelligent, and fascinating. She acts from a desire for freedom and independence, and one senses a desire not to be pigeon-holed, or passive in the course of her life, only to end up married to a man who wants to keep her and control her as if she were a painting in his collection. Social mores limit her freedom to escape, but she likewise refuses to reject society and accept another suitor’s offer of scandalous escape—what would that be, after all, except another sort of prison and dependence?

4. Smilla’s Sense of Snow, by Peter Hoeg. What exactly is this book? Conspiracy thriller? Mystery? Science fiction? The title character is bluntly rude and direct to the point of being anti-social, and she is fantastic. She routinely shocks with her brutality, both in cutting through the niceties to expose hidden agendas, and in her unexpected physical capabilities. No one in the book is quite who they seem, everyone has a hidden agenda, and Smilla herself has a history that makes her both complicit with and sharply antagonistic to the establishment.

3. Middlemarch, by George Eliot. In terms of sheer emotional connection, this is probably my favorite book. The title refers to an entire village and follows the lives of many of the villagers, so like East of Eden it is grand in scope. While I love the character of Dorothy, the closest the book comes to a central heroine, I am equally fascinated by Doctor Lydgate, a brilliant and well-intentioned local doctor who finds his ambitions cut short by his marriage to a beautiful, charming, and utterly vapid and self-centered woman. This is the nineteenth century before divorce was considered a viable option, and it is never even really implied that he has ceased to love her: it is more that his professional and personal ideals are irreconcilable with what attracts him in women.

2. Persuasion, by Jane Austen. I am annoyed by how Austen has been appropriated by the chick lit crowd. If people like her stuff, why should I care what their reason is? Those who crave Austen only for the romance only are missing what makes her so brilliant: her sharp wit and good-natured eye for what makes people universally ridiculous. Her observations, while very centered in the world of the early 19th century British upper classes, are completely hilarious for how timeless they are. My copy of Persuasion is currently lent out, but I can drop in a favorite excerpt from Emma: “One accompaniment to her song took her agreeably by surprize (sic) –a second, slightly but correctly taken by Frank Churchill. Her pardon was duly begged at the close of the song, and every thing usual followed. He was accused of having a delightful voice, and perfect knowledge of music; which was properly denied; and that he nothing of the matter, and had no voice at all, roundly asserted.” Besides the social commentary, her prose is brilliant: rhythmical, and somehow both acerbic and gentle. No one but Austen would write a line like that.

1. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. As in the likewise brilliant but often rambling War and Peace, Tolstoy succeeds in creating scenes and characters that are not only realistic but true. There are passages, dialogues, and even internal monologues that so perfectly capture what it is to be human that I am in awe of Tolstoy’s powers. How can a man possibly portray a young woman in her late teens with such astonishing accuracy? And then he depicts interactions between people in a manner so painfully convincing that, were it not that the sheer number of such events in his books makes it unlikely, the only explanation seems to be that he must have lived through many similar moments himself. A book enjoyable, moving, and wonderfully executed.

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