Top 50 Books List (2012 edition): 15-1

We’ve arrived at the end of our journey. These are my top 15 books of all time, and as such, they deserve a little more love. I’ll include not one but two whole quotes for each book, because they deserve it. As always, series count as only one entry, and any book that I have reviewed here have links to those reviews in the title of the book. Enjoy.

15. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

“Three or four times only in my youth did I glimpse the Joyous Isles, before they were lost to fogs, depressions, cold fronts, ill winds, and contrary tides… I mistook them for adulthood. Assuming they were a fixed feature in my life’s voyage, I neglected to record their latitude, their longitude, their approach. Young ruddy fool. What wouldn’t I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds.”

“As many truths as men. Occasionally, I glimpse a truer Truth, hiding in imperfect simulacrums of itself, but as I approach, it bestirs itself & moves deeper into the thorny swamp of dissent.”

This book is so new to this list that I hadn’t finished it yet when I added it. By the time I’ve gotten around to doing a write up here, though, I have finished it and it is glorious. The structure is great, the first half of six stories, each interrupting the one before it and interrupted by the one after it, followed by the back halves in reverse order. And each story is remarkably different in style. From nautical journal to post-WWI letters from one friend to another, a 70’s style pulp novel, then a prison break-out short, then a strange corpo-future, and finally a post apocalypse oral history. It’s a huge book in it’s scope and Mitchell pulls it off beautifully. His prose is wonderful to read, and his themes are diverse and well developed.

14. Bone – Jeff Smith

“CONTROL MYSELF?!! I’m a MONSTER! Monsters don’t control themselves! That’s the whole IDEA!”

“Here’s your problem Fone Bone! We’re off the map! Get a bigger map!”

Bone is an odd duck. It starts off as a total kids book (or series of books), full of slapstick and over-the-top-ness. But as it goes along it turns epic (the collected book is massive) and despairing. It’s an anti-war book and a journey to save a land. It’s a great demonstration of what comic books can do, and the black and white art is real pretty.

13.  Macbeth – William Shakespeare

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”

“I am in blood
Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o’er.”

Such a bloody play! I love the violence on display here, it really heightens the mood. It’s a horror story, really, full of ghosts and witches and moving forests. Macbeth is a man whose insanity is matched only by that of his wife. When the bodies start to pile up, they continue to break down. I love the connection between the rulers and the state of nature, to the point where it even uproots itself to rid the land of the contaminated king.

12. Slaughterhouse V – Kurt Vonnegut

“And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.”

“There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.”

How did a sci-fi book about a man taken to be in an alien zoo alongside a B-movie actress. As he lives on exhibit he becomes unstuck in time, able to see all points of his life at once. This forms the structure of the novel, as the story jumps around between his time on the alien planet and the rest of his life, including his time at Dresden during WWII as a POW before the city was fire-bombed. It’s not exactly anti-war, though. The thesis here is that everything that happens happens, the best thing to do is to go along with it. That’s kinda nice.

11. Blankets – Craig Thompson

“On my first visit to the public library, I was like a kid at a candy store where all the candy was free.

I gorged myself until my tummy ached.”

“And slowly the snow began to melt. First, doing a number on children’s constructions; Then retreating to the foundations of barns and other buildings. Mangy grass poked through the receding snow. Patches of white were swallowed up in the till of the fields. New shapes emerged. Areas of the forest became INACCESSIBLE now that the snow no longer weighed down the weeds and brier. …Nothing fits together anymore.”

Blankets is a memoir disguised as a comic book. It tells the story of Thompson’s adolescence, his first love, and his loss of religion. It’s a deeply heartfelt book, often dealing with very straightforward topics in very straightforward language. It can do that, though, because what he’s saying is so true, and the images he matches the words to so beautiful (again black and white only) that they elevate to true art.

10. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Haruki Murakami

“Unclose your mind. You are not a prisoner. You are a bird in fight, searching the skies for dreams.”

“Once, when I was younger, I thought I could be someone else. I’d move to Casablanca, open a bar, and I’d meet Ingrid Bergman. Or more realistically – whether actually more realistic or not – I’d tune in on a better life, something more suited to my true self. Toward that end, I had to undergo training. I read The Greening of America, and I saw Easy Rider three times. But like a boat with a twisted rudder, I kept coming back to the same place. I wasn’t anywhere. I was myself, waiting on the shore for me to return.”

Half sci-fi adventure, half fantasy mystery, this book is all great. Murakami is distinctly Japanese, but writes with an impeccable sense of American pop culture. It’s two disparate stories that might not be so disparate as they seem. It’s magical realism, my favorite genre, and it’s the best of what Murakami can do.

9. The Giver – Lois Lowry

“For the first time, he heard something that he knew to be music. He heard people singing. Behind him, across vast distances of space and time, from the place he had left, he thought he heard music too. But perhaps, it was only an echo.”

“Always in the dream, it seemed as if there were a destination: a something–he could not grasp what-that lay beyond the place where the thickness of snow brought the sled to a stop. He was left, upon awakening, with the feeling that he wanted, even somehow needed, to reach the something that waited in the distance. The feeling that it was good. That it was welcoming. That it was significant. But he did not know how to get there.”

I was assigned this book to read in middle school and I took it home and finished it in one night. It’s a beautiful book, a utopia that isn’t quite what it seems. There’s no color, and no lying, and no history. Jonas is picked to be the receiver of memories. As he is given these memories of love and death and war and music and color, he discovers how much the rest of his community is missing. It’s a great book, the best of the YA dystopias.

8. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

“Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop”

“Do you think I’ve gone round the bend?”
“I’m afraid so. You’re mad, bonkers, completely off your head. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”

Alice is one of literature’s greatest characters. She navigates the insanity of Wonderland, taking all of the oddness in stride. What happens when people mean what they say and say what they mean? It’s a book about language and logic and learning and growing up and it’s devilishly funny. Talk about subversive!

7. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer

“I like to see people reunited, I like to see people run to each other, I like the kissing and the crying, I like the impatience, the stories that the mouth can’t tell fast enough, the ears that aren’t big enough, the eyes that can’t take in all of the change, I like the hugging, the bringing together, the end of missing someone.”

“What about little microphones? What if everyone swallowed them, and they played the sounds of our hearts through little speakers, which could be in the pouches of our overalls? When you skateboarded down the street at night you could hear everyone’s heartbeat, and they could hear yours, sort of like sonar. One weird thing is, I wonder if everyone’s hearts would start to beat at the same time, like how women who live together have their menstrual periods at the same time, which I know about, but don’t really want to know about. That would be so weird, except that the place in the hospital where babies are born would sound like a crystal chandelier in a houseboat, because the babies wouldn’t have had time to match up their heartbeats yet. And at the finish line at the end of the New York City Marathon it would sound like war.”

A family history told in three parts by three different characters, this book is a deeply emotional work about love and loss. It incorporates 9/11 without exploiting it, the main story is of young Oskar’s search for the hole which is unlocked by a key left behind by his father, who died that horrible day. Foer weaves in the terror of WWII and the breakdown of a long marriage as well. It’s a huge book crammed into a relatively small number of pages, messy and all over the place. And that’s why I love it.

6. The Sandman series – Neil Gaiman

“Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.”

“October knew, of course, that the action of turning a page, of ending a chapter or of shutting a book, did not end a tale. Having admitted that, he would also avow that happy endings were never difficult to find: “It is simply a matter,” he explained to April, “of finding a sunny place in a garden, where the light is golden and the grass is soft; somewhere to rest, to stop reading, and to be content.”

The Sandman series follows the titular character, one of 7 Endless who each reign over a different aspect of the human condition. There’s Death and Destiny and Destruction and Despair and Desire and Delirium and Dream. Dream is the master of stories, and the series often deals in metafiction, stories about storytelling. It’s a huge work, complete with gorgeous artwork and some of the most beautiful writing I’ve read. There’s nothing like it.

5. As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

“That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn’t care whether there was a word for it or not. I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride.”

“That’s the one trouble with this country: everything, weather, all, hangs on too long. Like our rivers, our land: opaque, slow, violent; shaping and creating the life of man in its implacable and brooding image.”

“In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know where he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that bought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is.”

Here’s an experiment of a book. A family goes through rough times in the south following the death of the matriarch and must bring her body to a town a distance away. Each member of the family gets some chapters to narrate for themselves, including the youngest, who muses that his mother is a fish, and the mother herself, post-mortem. It’s audacious, a quality matched only by its emotional breadth and depth.

4. Dubliners – James Joyce

“It was cold autumn weather, but in spite of the cold they wandered up and down the roads of the Park for nearly three hours. They agreed to break off their intercourse; every bond, he said, is a bond to sorrow.”

“He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a verb in the past tense.”

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Short stories are too often neglected when it comes to literature. You read some in school and then you move on to more adult novels. But short stories can accomplish things just as Igreat as novels can. Joyce’s Dubliners is the ultimate example. Each story is set in the same world, though they tell very different stories. His language and sense of place is perfect. The final story in this collection, “The Dead”, is the very definition of literature. It should be given to you at birth and read every year on your birthday and then finally on your deathbed. It’s affirmation and melancholy rolled into one miniature piece of perfection.

3. Calvin and Hobbes – Bill Watterson

Calvin and Hobbes were a force throughout my childhood and into my adulthood. Watterson masterfully captures the joy of childhood, the ability to question and go along with things at will. The imagination and the limits placed on children become who we grow up, and Calvin and Hobbes is that at its best.

2. A Song of Ice and Fire series – George R.R. Martin

“You’re mine,” she whispered. “Mine, as I’m yours. And if we die, we die. All men must die, Jon Snow. But first, we’ll live.”

“It all goes back and back,” Tyrion thought, “to our mothers and fathers and theirs before them. We are puppets dancing on the strings of those who came before us, and one day our own children will take up our strings and dance in our steads.”

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,” said Jojen. “The man who never reads lives only one.”

Martin is a man of certain abilities. He can create a superbly realized world. Westeros is by far the best fantasy realm I’ve ever read. He can write with many voices. Each book is filled with numerous POV characters, some noble, some shrewd, some insane, some broken, some proud, some shameful. And more importantly, he allows each character to be a real person. They grow, change, live. And die. That’s his other ability. He kills without remorse. Nobody is safe, and that makes everything mean something, even in the fourth book, where things slow down for a time. It’s a war of good and evil when nobody is truly good or truly evil. It’s remarkably complex.

1. The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster

“Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.”

“I know one thing for certain; it is much harder to tell whether you are lost than whether you were lost, for, on many occasions, where you are going is exactly where you are. On the other hand, if you often find that where you’ve been is not at all where you should have gone, and, since it’s much more difficult to find your way back from someplace you’ve never left, I suggest you go there immediately and then decide.”

“I don’t think you understand,” said Milo timidly as the watchdog growled a warning. “We’re looking for a place to spend the night.”
“It’s not yours to spend,” the bird shrieked again, and followed it with the same horrible laugh.
“That doesn’t make any sense, you see—” he started to explain.
“Dollars or cents, it’s still not yours to spend,” the bird replied haughtily.
“But I didn’t mean—” insisted Milo.
“Of course you’re mean,” interrupted the bird, closing the eye that had been open and opening the one that had been closed. “Anyone who’d spend a night that doesn’t belong to him is very mean.”
“Well, I thought that by—” he tried again desperately.
“That’s a different story,” interjected the bird a bit more amiably. “If you want to buy, I’m sure I can arrange to sell, but with what you’re doing you’ll probably end up in a cell anyway.”
“That doesn’t seem right,” said Milo helplessly, for, with the bird taking everything the wrong way, he hardly knew what he was saying.
“Agreed,” said the bird, with a sharp click of his beak, “but neither is it left, although if I were you I would have left a long time ago.”

This was the book that made me a lifelong reader. It’s a journey through a fantasy land where Conclusions is a place you literally jump to and you must be careful to avoid The Terrible Trivium, or else you’ll spend all your time moving grains of sand from one pile to another. It’s a place where the colors and time of the day is played by an orchestra which should not be disturbed. It’s a place where a little boy bored by everything can go and be interested in anything. That’s what literature does.

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