Tag: Haruki Murakami

Best Books Read in 2012

I didn’t read enough books to make a 2012 only list, so these will be all the books I read last year, old and new. And listed in order from worst to best. Find me on Goodreads and follow along as I try to read 40 books this year. I got through 34 last year, so I’m rounding up to the nearest ten.

30. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

“No one in the world gets what they want and that is beautiful”

I really didn’t care for this one at all. Too many references and not enough character. It’s kind of a silly story about a guy so famous and rich people study his favorite books and movies to find clues to winning his inheritance. There are some fun sequences, and the virtual reality world has some interesting concepts to it, but I just didn’t care about any of the characters and their silly preoccupations with this rich guy and their own minor flaws. There’s nothing a few words with a therapist couldn’t fix here. Silly.

29. Batman: Hush – Jeph Loeb

This one suffered from comparisons to the Arkham City game I played just before I read it. It tries to cram a bunch of the characters and villains into a big conspiracy or something and it just ends up feeling like a visit to each person’s area in a videogame with a boss fight and then a few words about not knowing what’s going on. And the new villain is pretty dumb, I thought. Just play the game, it’s got a better story and a better sense of how to use these characters. I don’t know what all the fuss is about.

28. The Fall – Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

“Power revealed is power sacrificed. The truly powerful exert their influence in ways unseen, unfelt. Some would say that a thing visible is a thing vulnerable.”

The second book in this vampire series continues to build the mythology but I mostly didn’t care about it. There are a few scary scenes but it just didn’t mean anything to me. It’s just so rote. Not enough GdT in this collaboration.

27. The Map of Time – Felix J. Palma

“Merrick belonged to that class of reader who was able to forget with amazing ease the hand moving the characters behind the scenes of the novel.”

This book kept almost being really great. It would peak during the middle of each of the three stories set in Victorian London when things looked like they would be going in one direction. But then they would turn to something less interesting and less exciting. I get what Palma’s going for (I don’t want to spoil what is a fun if frustrating read), I just didn’t really care about it. It’s unfortunate. A book with Jack the Ripper, time travel, and H.G. Wells should be great. This is mostly missed potential.

26. The Infernals – John Connolly

“Why is there always one bloke in these boy bands who looks like he came to fix the boiler and somehow got bullied into joining the group?”

The followup to a really great book (The Gates), this one also disappointed. It got better once everybody got into Hell and there was some nice fairy-tale qualities there, especially in the torture forest scene. All the characters from the first book return and that’s kind of a bad move, I think. It would have done better to introduce more new characters instead of rehashing old ones in new roles. It’s still a fun and easy read, scary enough for a kids book, but again, much missed potential.

25. A Feast for Crows – George R.R. Martin

“When you smell our candles burning, what does it make you think of, my child?”
Winterfell, she might have said. I smell snow and smoke and pine needles. I smell the stables. I smell Hodor laughing, and Jon and Robb battling in the yard, and Sansa singing about some stupid lady fair. I smell the crypts where the stone kings sit. I smell hot bread baking. I smell the godswood. I smell my wolf. I smell her fur, almost as if she were still beside me.
“I don’t smell anything,” she said.”

The least of the A Song of Ice and Fire books is still a pretty good book. I understand Martin’s decision to split this book and the next in half, characterwise, but you really lose a sense of the scope when you’re only dealing with certain characters in the whole book. There are lots of memorable happenings, though, including a fantastic arc for Cersei.

24. X’ed Out – Charles Burns

I loved Black Hole, Burns’ previous graphic novel, so I thought I’d give this one a try. Mostly I’m just confused by it. It’s surreal as hell and I don’t know many of the references I’m told are contained within. I’ll finish out the series, but I’m not in any hurry to do so.

23. The Thief – Megan Whalen Turner

“They’re going to leave me. All I wanted to do was lie in the dry prickly grass with my feet in a ditch forever. I could be a convenient sort of milemarker, I thought. Get to the thief and you know you are halfway to Methana. Where ever Methana might be.”

I’m assured that the rest of this series gets really good and I believe it because the book gets better as it goes along and by the end I really liked the world and the characters. It’s kind of typical genre fare for the majority of the story and even though it’s told in first person you don’t get any sense of the main character until the end. That’s all on purpose, though, so it’s not as bad as it seems at first glance. I’m excited to keep reading this year.

22. This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It – David Wong

“There are two types of people on planet Earth, Batman and Iron Man. Batman has a secret identity, right? So Bruce Wayne has to walk around every second of every day knowing that if somebody finds out his secret, his family is dead, his friends are dead, everyone he loves gets tortured to death by costumed supervillains. And he has to live with the weight of that secret every day. But not Tony Stark, he’s open about who he is. He tells the world he’s Iron Man, he doesn’t give a shit. He doesn’t have that shadow hanging over him, he doesn’t have to spend energy building up those walls of lies around himself. You’re one or the other – either you’re one of those people who has to hide your real self because it would ruin you if it came out, because of your secret fetishes or addictions or crimes, or you’re not one of those people. And the two groups aren’t even living in the same universe.”

Jason Pargin writes the second in his comedy/horror series under the pseudonym of his main character. The first book in the series is higher on the list. This one is less inventive and not as fun, but I seem to be one of the few with that opinion. It’s still a fun read. Again some scary parts but I would have preferred more.

21. The Wise Man’s Fear – Patrick Rothfuss

“I swear I’ve never met a man who has your knack for lack of social grace. If you weren’t naturally charming, someone would have stabbed you by now.”

Another followup in a fantasy series. When will they end? I can’t deny the cleverness on display here and I never hated my time reading. Everything just feels so drawn out. There’s a part in the middle that feels interminable. I liked the first book a lot better and I will again continue the series, this one didn’t do much for me, though.

20. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater – Kurt Vonnegut

“I love you sons of bitches. You’re all I read any more. You’re the only ones who’ll talk all about the really terrific changes going on, the only ones crazy enough to know that life is a space voyage, and not a short one, either, but one that’ll last for billions of years. You’re the only ones with guts enough to really care about the future, who really notice what machines do to us, what wars do to us, what cities do to us, what big, simple ideas do to us, what tremendous misunderstanding, mistakes, accidents, catastrophes do to us. You’re the only ones zany enough to agonize over time and distance without limit, over mysteries that will never die, over the fact that we are right now determining whether the space voyage for the next billion years or so is going to be Heaven or Hell.”

This was a re-read for me of the second Vonnegut book I ever read. I remember liking it more than I did this time. Now I recognize the almost comical single-minded focus of the satire. Yes, rich people are silly and care about silly things. It’s good, it just isn’t as good as I remembered.

19. Red Seas Under Red Skies – Scott Lynch

“Mew,” the kitten retorted, locking gazes with him. It had the expression common to all kittens, that of a tyrant in the becoming. ‘I was comfortable, and you dared to move,’ those jade eyes said. ‘For that you must die.’ When it became apparent to the cat that its two or three pounds of mass were insufficient to break Locke’s neck with one mighty snap, it put its paws on his shoulders and began sharing its drool-covered nose with his lips. He recoiled.”

Here’s another second in a fantasy series with a higher previous entry on this list. Heh. Anyways, our master theif and his musclebound best friend go to the high seas and infiltrate a pirate ship in the pseudo-Italian fantasy world. Lynch has created a fantastic group of characters and an excellent world, but this one was a little too scattershot, especially when compared to the first in the series.

18. Mistborn: The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson

“What? Is that boy crazy?”
“Most young men his age are somewhat crazy, I think,” Sazed said with a smile. “However, this is hardly unexpected. Haven’t you noticed how he stares at you when you enter a room?”
“I thought he was just creepy.”

Look at that, another fantasy novel. I guess I like those. Another great group of characters and a very interesting magic system based on burning metals to attract or propel things and do other stuff. And the toppling of the evil emperor is always a fun goal.

17. The Passage – Justin Cronin

“Rust, corrosion, wind, rain. The nibbling teeth of mice and the acrid droppings of insects and the devouring jaws of years. The was of nature upon machines, of the planet’s chaotic forces upon the works of humankind. The energy that man had pulled from the earth was being inexorably pulled back into it, sucked like water down a drain. Before long, if it hadn’t happened already, not a single high-tension pole would be left standing on the earth.

Mankind had built a world that would take a hundred years to die. A century for the last light to go out.”

What a weird vampire book. The opening is so intense and then it turns into a strange soap opera for a few hundred pages. And then it becomes a road novel. And then it becomes The Walking Dead. And it’s also pretty damn well written for a vampire book. I’m excited to read the follow up to see if Cronin can keep up the weirdness.

16. John Dies at the End – David Wong

“And watch out for Molly. See if she does anything unusual. There’s something I don’t trust about the way she exploded and then came back from the dead like that.”

The book before This Book is Full of Spiders, it serves as an introduction to a totally crazy world full of drugs that give you magic powers and meat monsters and alternate dimensions. It’s totally nuts. And funny, and even scary a few times.

15. Locke and Key (Vols. 1-4) – Joe Hill

Comic books! Horror! Pun titles! The Locke kids move back to their family mansion after their father is killed in a horrible event. They find keys that have helped the Locke kids throughout the ages fight evil. The best is the key that goes into the base of the head and opens up the mind. You can put a book in and know all of the knowledge contained within, or take out your fear. It’s a great concept and the generational storytelling is pretty awesome. I’m excited to see it wrap up this year.

14. Wonderstruck – Brian Selznick

“Ben remembered reading about curators in “Wonderstruck”, and thought about what id meant to curate your own life, as his dad had done here. What would it be like to pick and choose the objects and stories that would go in your own cabinet? How would Ben curate his own life? And then, thinking about his museum box, and his house, and his books, and the secret room, he realized he’d already begun doing it. Maybe, thought Ben, we are all cabinets of wonders.”

A fun dual tale of a young deaf woman and a boy who loses his mother. It really is a fun book, despite that description. The girl’s story happens all in pictures and the boy’s in prose and when they cross over it’s glorious. The pencil drawings a really beautiful and they accent the nice writing. I hope this follows in Hugo’s path.

13. The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch

“I’ve got kids that enjoy stealing. I’ve got kids that don’t think about stealing one way or the other, and I’ve got kids that just tolerate stealing because they know they’ve got nothing else to do. But nobody–and I mean nobody–has ever been hungry for it like this boy. If he had a bloody gash across his throat and a physiker was trying to sew it up, Lamora would steal the needle and thread and die laughing. He…steals too much.”

I kind of loved this. It helped that I read it while on vacation to Italy as it takes place in a pseudo-Renaissance-Venice. Lynch just gets so much out of his characters and plot and setting. It’s such a fun romp. If you liked Ocean’s 11 and you can handle some fantasy stuff, give it a shot.

12. Ragnarok: The End of the Gods – A.S. Byatt

“He was beautiful, that was always affirmed, but his beauty was hard to fix or to see, for he was always glimmering, flickering, melting, mixing, he was the shape of a shapeless flame, he was the eddying thread of needle-shapes in the shapeless mass of the waterfall. He was the invisible wind that hurried the clouds in billows and ribbons. You could see a bare tree on the skyline bent by the wind, holding up twisted branches and bent twigs, and suddenly its formless form would resolve itself into that of the trickster.”

A little book, but not small. It’s the Norse myths combined with some autobiographical WWII stuff. Byatt gets nature and the nature of humanity and it’s all on display in this one little work.

11. A Dance with Dragons – George R.R. Martin

“An admiral without ships, a hand without fingers, in service of a king without a throne. Is this a knight who comes before us, or the answer to a child’s riddle?”

Martin does what he does. Nothing can match the greatness of the third entry to the series, but this one does a good job of getting back to what made the series work. It gets bogged down in Dany running the city and all that crap but the rest is so good. Some amazing scenes on display.

10. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon

“Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them.”

I read this all in one sitting. Haddon gets into the mind of the autistic main character so well that you see the world differently for the rest of the day. It’s inventive and even a little scary. A truly moving book.

9. Swamplandia! – Karen Russell

“A single note, held in an amber suspension of time, like a charcoal drawing of Icarus falling. It was sad and fierce all at once, alive with a lonely purity. It went on and on, until my own lungs were burning.
“What bird are you calling?” I asked finally, when I couldn’t stand it any longer.
The Bird Man stopped whistling. He grinned, so that I could see all his pebbly teeth.

“You.”

What a debut novel. It’s everything that Beasts of the Southern Wild should have been. The tale of a family in the Everglades that runs a gator show/park which gets thrown into chaos after the mother dies. It’s a fairy tale, a journey into hell, an account of working at a low-rent Sea World. It’s magical realism and I loved it.

8. Cosmicomics – Italo Calvino

“To fall in the void as I fell: none of you knows what that means… I went down into the void, to the most absolute bottom conceivable, and once there I saw that the extreme limit must have been much, much farther below, very remote, and I went on falling, to reach it.”

I just love the combination of science and humor and inventiveness that Calvino displays here. There are all kinds of great short stories that take a scientific concept and turn them into really fantastic little fairy tales. The moon one in particular is fantastic.

7. The Wind Through the Keyhole – Stephen King

“There’s nothing like stories on a windy night when folks have found a warm place in a cold world.”

King revisits his Dark Tower world for a bit of an origin story with a fairy tale at it’s core. It’s three framing stories deep, which is fun, but the meat of the story is where all the magic is. It’s a wonderful addition to the mythos King has so lovingly curated.

6. American Gods – Neil Gaiman

“People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghost, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.”

I read the majority of this years ago but never finished it. It’s big, sometimes unwieldy, and I love it. The concept alone is enough to get it a top 10 spot. Shadow is a great character and all the gods he gets to visit are well-realized.

5. A Storm of Swords – George R.R. Martin

“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.”

Holy wow! So much stuff! Deaths! Deaths! Deaths! This is where the ASOIAF series really takes off. I can’t wait for the TV show to take it on.

4. Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

“Do you think I’m wonderful? she asked him one day as they leaned against the trunk of a petrified maple. No, he said. Why? Because so many girls are wonderful. I imagine hundreds of men have called their loves wonderful today, and it’s only noon. You couldn’t be something that hundreds of others are.”

This might have the best writing on this whole list. It’s beautiful throughout. Check out my full review.

3. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

“Kumiko and I felt something for each other from the beginning. It was not one of those strong, impulsive feelings that can hit two people like an electric shock when they first meet, but something quieter and gentler, like two tiny lights traveling in tandem through a vast darkness and drawing imperceptibly closer to each other as they go. As our meetings grew more frequent, I felt not so much that I had met someone new as that I had chanced upon a dear old friend.”

I don’t know why it took me so long to read what is considered on of Murakami’s best works. I haven’t been disappointed by him yet, and the craziness on display here is why I keep going back. Magical realism at its best, and since that’s the best genre of literature… Read my full review.

2. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers

“Pain comes at me and I take it, chew it for a few minutes, and spit it back out. It’s just not my thing anymore.”

There’s a lot of parent-loss on this list. Make of that what you will. This one is mostly autobiographical, from what I can tell, and it contains a lot of humor and pathos that you kind of expect from a situation like this. Inventive in its literary ambition, it’s a fantastic book. Full review here.

1. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

“Power, time, gravity, love. The forces that really kick ass are all invisible.”

It’s a rare book that has an innovative form to go along with a spectacular story. Cloud Atlas is a book of halves and it’s really cool. I love all of the different styles of writing on display here, and the characters are outstanding creations. It’s so so good.

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.

Top 50 Books List (2012 edition): 30-16

You’ve seen my 50-31 books of all time, now it’s time for the next 15. Get ready for 30-16. Remember, series only count as one spot. Click on the titles that are links for fuller reviews.

30. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

“It’s like when you put instant rice pudding mix in a bowl in the microwave and push the button, and you take the cover off when it rings, and there you’ve got ricing pudding. I mean, what happens in between the time when you push the switch and when the microwave rings? You can’t tell what’s going on under the cover. Maybe the instant rice pudding first turns into macaroni gratin in the darkness when nobody’s looking and only then turns back into rice pudding. We think it’s only natural to get rice pudding after we put rice pudding mix in the microwave and the bell rings, but to me, that is just a presumption. I would be kind of relieved if, every once in a while, after you put rice pudding mix in the microwave and it rang and you opened the top, you got macaroni gratin. I suppose I’d be shocked, of course, but I don’t know, I think I’d be kind of relieved too. Or at least I think I wouldn’t be so upset, because that would feel, in some ways, a whole lot more real.”

I reviewed this book a few weeks ago and it won’t even be the most recent entry onto this list. Just go read that review to find out why this books is so awesome.

29. The Commitments – Roddy Doyle

“Soul is the music people understand. Sure it’s basic and it’s simple. But it’s something else ’cause, ’cause, ’cause it’s honest, that’s it. Its honest. There’s no fuckin’ bullshit. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart. Sure there’s a lot of different music you can get off on but soul is more than that. It takes you somewhere else. It grabs you by the balls and lifts you above the shite.”

A hilarious novel about trying to form a soul band in northern Dublin. Doyle writes music better than anybody else I’ve seen. It’s hard to do but he pulls it off.

28. Danny the Champion of the World – Roald Dahl

“I was glad my father was an eye-smiler. It meant he never gave me a fake smile because it’s impossible to make your eyes twinkle if you aren’t feeling twinkly yourself. A mouth-smile is different. You can fake a mouth-smile any time you want, simply by moving your lips. I’ve also learned that a real mouth-smile always has an eye-smile to go with it. So watch out, I say, when someone smiles at you but his eyes stay the same. It’s sure to be a phony.”

This story is the definition of ‘wonderful’. Roald Dahl is one of the best kid-lit authors there ever was, and this charming tale of a boy and his dad and their pheasant-snatching escapade is top notch Dahl.

27. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke

“I mean that two of any thing is a most uncomfortable number. One may do as he pleases. Six may get along well enough. But two must always struggle for mastery. Two must always watch each other. The eyes of all the world will be on two, uncertain which of them to follow.”

This, like the Magician series in the previous post, came out after the Harry Potter boom. It deals with magic and magicians, although in a completely different manner. It takes place during the Napoleonic Wars and it is written to emulate the literary style of the time. There are two magicians with wildly differing points of view on how magic can be used to beat the short Frenchman which, of course, builds to an epic rivalry. It’s a large book but completely worth the length.

26. Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut

“People have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order so they’ll have good voice boxes in case there’s ever anything really meaningful to say.”

What starts off as a man on a quest to write about the invention of the atomic bomb becomes the funniest post-apocalypse story you’ll ever read. Vonnegut does the sci-fi and the humor perfectly, as always. And the Koans of Bokonon, some guy who made up his own religion, are delightfully insightful while also making fun of the idea of religious living.

25. The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis

“A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. It was hardly a tune. But it was beyond comparison, the most beautiful sound he had ever heard.”

I first heard this series as my father read it to me every night before bed. Then, when I got older, I read it myself. I went back and reread it again semi-recently and it was just as good. Lewis’s Narnia is a vast and intriguing universe with all kinds of different stories to be told within it.

24. Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories – Dr. Seuss

“And the turtles, of course…all the turtles are free, as turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.”

This is basically a stand-in for all Dr. Seuss books. They formed such an important part of my childhood that they must have a place on this list. His felicity with the English language is something all writers should strive for.

23. Maus – Art Spiegelman

“Sometimes I don’t feel like a functioning adult”

This book (or pair of books) is a memoir and a family history of the author’s father and mother and their fight to stay alive during the Holocaust. Also, they’re all mice. The device of making each nationality a different species is the hook, but the meat is probably the best Holocaust story I’ve ever encountered in any medium.

22. The Lieutenant of Inishmore – Martin McDonagh

Martin McDonagh is growing his talent. He started by writing plays, then he moved on to short films (he won an Oscar for Six Shooter), and this year he’s releasing his second feature film, Seven Psychopaths. All of his stories, regardless of medium, share a dark sense of humor and a distinct sense of place. There’s also a surprising amount of heart in each of his stories. It’s quite a feat to get so dirty and then pull out an emotional climax.

21. Watership Down – Richard Adams

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.”

This is the story of talking rabbits. It should not, however, be confused with kid-lit. It is a very adult book, full of allusions and philosophical musings. It’s a road book and a settling book and a war book and an escape book. It’s a book about talking rabbits that is as profound as anything else on this list.

20. Hamlet – William Shakespeare

“Lord Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
Lord Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?
Hamlet: Between who?
Lord Polonius: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.”

Shakespeare is a funny guy. Even his tragedies have wordplay and clever little exchanges like the one quoted above. I don’t know why, then, I don’t like his comedies all that much. He’s a master of tragedy (historical or not), but the comedies never come together for me. Give me Hamlet’s sarcasm any day of the week. Also, ghosts.

19. Cosmicomics – Italo Calvino

“I could distinguish the shape of her bosom, her arms, her thighs, just as I remember them now, just as now, when the Moon has become that flat, remote circle, I still look for her as soon as the first sliver appears in the sky, and the more it waxes, the more clearly I imagine I can see her, her or something of her, but only her, in a hundred, a thousand different vistas, she who makes the Moon the Moon and, whenever she is full, sets the dogs to howling all night long, and me with them.”

Here’s a strange book. A collection of short stories, some with an idea of a recurring character, though he takes different shapes depending on the story that is being told. Each story takes on a scientific concept and extrapolates it out into a kind of fairy-tale. Calvino’s mixture of science and fiction is unlike any other sci-fi you’ll read.

18. Winnie-the-Pooh – A.A. Milne

“What I like doing best is Nothing.”

“How do you do Nothing,” asked Pooh after he had wondered for a long time.

“Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?’ and you say, ‘Oh, Nothing,’ and then you go and do it.

It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

“Oh!” said Pooh.”

Pooh is a bear of very little brain. That doesn’t make him useless. He’s a vital part of our cultural heritage and the world would be a better place if everybody read this collection of short stories every five years. Sometimes it’s important to remember how things really work, and how to have fun, and what’s important, truly. Pooh, despite his very little brain, remembers.

17. Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

“When I was a girl, my life was music that was always getting louder.
Everything moved me. A dog following a stranger. That made me feel so much. A calendar that showed the wrong month. I could have cried over it. I did. Where the smoke from a chimney ended. How an overturned bottle rested at the edge of a table.
I spent my life learning to feel less.
Every day I felt less.
Is that growing old? Or is it something worse?
You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.”

Both of Foer’s fiction works have been adapted into films. Both films lose large chunks of the story in order to fit everything into a two hour package. It is those missing chunks that are vital to the power of his stories. They are about everything. Love and loss, happiness and sadness, history and family. This book incorporates two timelines, a diary, a fictionalized version of the author, and a magical realist book that tells the history of a small town in Eastern Europe. It’s beautiful.

16. The Dark Tower Series – Stephen King

“Jake went in, aware that he had, for the first time in three weeks, opened a door without hoping madly to find another world on the other side. A bell jingled overhead. The mild, spicy smell of old books hit him, and the smell was somehow like coming home.”

I could have just as easily picked another quote from this series to stand in for all seven books worth of writing: Go, then, there are other worlds than these. It is a eulogy of sorts in the book, but it gets at the overriding idea of the series. It connects most of King’s works into a grand universe unparalleled in fiction. It’s a huge series, full of pulp and profundity, like all of King’s works.

Book Review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

“I’m going to take you out of here … I’m going to take you home, to the world where you belong, where cats with bent tails live, and there are little backyards, and alarm clocks ring in the morning.”

This is a book about a missing cat. It is also about the properties, magical and otherwise, of water. It’s about the dangerous, violent nature of Japan’s military history. It’s about the modern battle for Japan’s soul. It’s about a normal man and the many weird women that he meets. It’s about depression and the act of story telling. It’s about all these things, and it is about them in the most interesting way. I’ve read two other books by Haruki Murakami, both of which used the same magical realism devices that this book uses. I may end up liking Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World better than The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but I think this book is probably the greater achievement. It’s a powerful, whimsical, terrifying, and supremely odd book that is about practically everything you can write a book about.

Toru Okada is married to Kumiko. They have a happy life, but their cat is missing and Toru is out of work. And he’s getting these weird calls from a mysterious woman who claims to know him. When an enigmatic young woman named Malta Kano contacts Toru and tells him that she’s on the case of the missing cat, Toru suspects something else is on her mind. He’s right. It turns out that Malta’s sister, Creta once worked as a prostitute and was raped, metaphysically, by Toru’s brother-in-law, and up and coming economist and politician. And that’s the first hundred pages. Later, he meets a neighbor girl who counts bald people for a wig company and might be developing a crush on him. And then there’s a fashion designer turned psychic healer and her mute son. And an old military man who spent some time in a Mongolian well. The cast is diverse and they all have interesting stories to tell. In fact, Murakami often takes time away from the main plot of the book to relate a story from one or another of these people’s lives. It gives the story room to breathe and grow, and we get to know the side characters more intimately. There are letters and computer chats and newspaper articles. Murakami spares no expense and it shows. It’s all there on the page.

“The point is, not to resist the flow. You go up when you’re supposed to go up and down when you’re supposed to go down. When you’re supposed to go up, find the highest tower and climb to the top. When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom. When there’s no flow, stay still. If you resist the flow, everything dries up. If everything dries up, the world is darkness.”

The book is about all those things that I listed up there in the first paragraph, but it’s not really about them. The book is, I think, about depression. Several characters describe having some dark thing inside of them, or a feeling of having nothing inside of them. There’s an abandoned house that has a history of violence. The house is Japan in a nutshell. You can live there for a few years but there will always be some kind of tragedy in the end. It’s called ‘The Hanging House’ in the newspapers and it serves as the location for much of the second half of the book. It’s a haunted house and its dark history echoes Japan’s mid-century attempts at military expansionism. I had no idea that Japan tried to invade Russia from a stronghold in Mongolia, a plan that failed miserably. It forms the historical backbone of the story and supplies much of the horror. There are three memorable vignettes from this dark time in Japan’s history that will stick with me for a long time. And Murakami deftly mixes them in with the modern day story so they echo and reflect on each other. He makes the case that Japan’s previous moral lapses have long shadows. Shadows that are deep and unyielding. You get the sense that these characters are trying to raise themselves out of the muck and the mire but they can’t. It takes going down into a dry well to separate Toru’s mind from his body and going on a dream-quest to destroy the blackness. The climax of the book is a wonderfully surreal scene played out entirely in darkness. Things happen, but you really don’t know what they are or to whom they happen. It’s a visual idea that works wonderfully on the page thanks to Murakami’s fantastic prose.

I’ll end on a bit of a down note, though it’s nothing that should keep you from reading this marvelous book. The translation by Jay Rubin is really good throughout the book except for one repeated word that doesn’t work at all. Rubin uses “finally” instead of “ultimately” or “in the end” often. It ruins the flow every time, and it’s an unfortunate mar on the otherwise excellent translation.

“Of course, they’re not clowning around trying to make me laugh. They’re doing their best to live very serious lives, and they just happen to fall down sometimes. I think that’s cool.”