Tag: Italo Calvino

If on a winter’s night a traveler – Italo Calvino

“You have with you the book you were reading in the cafe, which you are eager to continue, so that you can then hand it on to her, to communicate again with her through the channel dug by others’ words, which, as they are uttered by an alien voice, by the voice of that silent nobody made of ink and typographical spacing, can become yours and hers, a language, a code between the two of you, a means to exchange signals and recognize each other.”

I could start this blog post with a cleverly meta reference to Italo Calvino’s book If on a winter’s night a traveler. Firstly, it’d have to start in the second person because that’s how about half of the book is told. It’s kind of a marvel that such a strange storytelling device works outside of Choose Your Own Adventure books. There’s a reason why most books are written in the first and third person, and that reason is because it’s super tough to write in the second without sounding weird all the time. But Calvino manages it because he’s amazing. Moving swiftly on, I’d then have to start the review of the book but it wouldn’t be the review, it’d be a description of you reading the review, and your thoughts about the review as you read it. And then it’d end abruptly and we’d go back to the second person portion of the show for a while while we introduce another Blog Reader of the opposite sex to move the plot forward. I’d go back to the review part again but this time it would be a review for something else entirely, maybe the new Iron Man movie or whatever. And you’d get invested in that review, hanging on my every word, hoping to find out just what I thought of Tony Stark’s latest adventure. And then it’d stop and we’d have a new mystery on our hands. Why am I only writing the beginning of the reviews, and who is this other Reader?

Luckily for you and me, I’m not doing that. Just that paragraph up there was hard enough to write, and I’m sure somebody else has already taken that tack when it comes to talking about this astounding novel. Instead, I’m just going to tell you why the book is amazing. And to go in a completely opposite direction I’m going to do it in a bulleted list format.

  • As mentioned above, about half the book is written in the second person. It’s a way to make “you” a character in the story, which is really cool. It’s also a way to make you connect with the ideas Calvino presents throughout about what literature means to us, the readers. Who has the final say on what a book means. Is the author at all important? Would a computer generated novel that exactly mimics an author be an atrocity to art? Do references and stolen scenes detract or add to our appreciation of a work? How do we form our likes and our dislikes, and how do we pick which book to read next when there are innumerable options? All these questions and more are brought up throughout the novel and Calvino wisely answers few of them, preferring instead to let us come to our own conclusions. If every you’ve been captivated by a novel, this is one that you must read because it makes you question yourself and discovery why reading means so much to you.
  • The other half of the book is ten opening chapters of ten wildly different fictional books. This was the perfect thing for me to read at the perfect time. I hadn’t read anything truly spectacular for a long time, at least the beginning of the year, and I had picked up the troubling habit of starting and stopping several books at a time. Nothing was grabbing my interest. Here comes Italo Calvino (an author I already knew I liked thanks to the Top-50-worthy Cosmicomics) with a book seemingly tailor made for my predicament. I couldn’t read past those tantalizing opening pages by design. And what opening pages they were! Almost every one was interesting in one way or another. The first, a spy caper gone provincial (?) was fascinating in Calvino’s ability to evoke a mood and sense of place. Other highlights include the paranoid musings of a professor who thinks any phone ringing is for him (he might be right) and a sad man who might be taking part in a jailbreak plot or might just be recording scientific observations. Each section has its own style and voice and genre, an idea which delighted me in Cloud Atlas (a book for which this is a clear predecessor and influence) and continued to do so here. It was the remedy for what ailed me and I loved it.
  • The love story between the Reader and the Other Reader is a really nice throughline for a sometimes confusing plot. Always there’s “you” and her and “your” desire for her drives everything “you” do in the book. Even when things get crazy it’s always clear why this is happening. There’s a mystery (why can you only read the openings of books and why are the titles and covers all screwy?) which is fun but even that is a part of the love story because it’s what brings the two characters together.
  • Italo Calvino is a hilarious guy. There are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments and the ever increasing strangeness of the plot is funny in its own way. But more than just being funny for funny’s sake, the humor is used to undercut some of the self-serious ideas Calvino ponders/causes us to ponder. The best example of this comes during the main plot portion of the book which, at this point, takes the form of a diary by a popular mystery writer. He has dreams of being literary and invents a literary writer who has dreams of being popular. He wonders what would happen if he wrote a literary book while the other writer wrote a populist book. Would people be able to tell the difference? Would the wrong person get credit for the wrong book? Would they end up writing the same book, word for word? Would it even matter? It’s a delightfully existentialist musing portion of the book which is unlike any other part of the book. But really, no part of the book is like any other part. That’s the genius.

Alright, four’s enough. In case you haven’t guessed it, I really love this book. It vaulted instantly into my top 5 of all time. I must read others by Calvino. He’s everything I want in a writer. Also, how is there not a movie version of this yet. And I’m not talking a straight adaptation with books taking the focus. It’s pretty easy to imagine a movie about movies like this is a book about books. Movie genres are easy to differentiate, maybe even more so than books. You probably couldn’t fit all ten openings into one movie but you could do 6 or so with the rest being the story of an avid movie watcher. Get on that, Hollywood.

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): 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.