Tag: Richard Adams

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.

Watership Down on page and screen

You know how you let yourself think that everything will be all right if you can only get to a certain place or do a certain thing. But when you get there you find it’s not that simple.

Everybody knows what Watership Down is. It’s that one with the bunnies. The cute little creatures that hop around and eat grass. Those that know a little more about Watership Down know that it was first a book by Richard Adams and then an animated film, both of which are well regarded in their fields. If you watched Watership Down as a child you might remember that it’s a pretty traumatic film. Adams doesn’t hold back when it comes to the perils a rabbit faces on a daily basis, nor does the film adaptation of his book. There’s a lot more blood and terrifying images present in Watership Down than you would expect from a story about bunnies, and that’s great, but it’s not the only thing Watership Down has going for it. At least in its written incarnation it is a complex and deep story full of mythology and adventure and philosophy. And bunnies.

The Book

Watership Down is nearly 500 pages long. It has a made up language and a map of the world the rabbits live in. There are various races with which alliances are made to persevere. There are several stories told of the first rabbit and the tricks it played on the other animals. There’s a great journey and a war. If this book wasn’t about rabbits nobody would call it a book for kids. It’s not, really. It’s a book for everybody. The prose isn’t too complicated nor are the ideas too adult for a kid to read, and although the characters have names like Hazel and Big Wig and there’s a friendly seagull that squawks in an oddly Russian version of English the book isn’t nearly as childish as it might seem at the outset. Adams deftly rides the line between these two worlds and makes a book that everybody should be able to appreciate. Sure, the kids might not get all of the allusions to trickster gods and Homer’s Odyssey (that Lotus Eater warren is a fantastic set-piece, one of the spookiest things) and the plotting might be a little on the simple side for some adult readers (it’s funny that they only realize there’re no does a few days after they arrive at the titular rabbit haven, just in time to start up the next bit of the book), but everybody should be able to appreciate the depth of character and theme that Adams weaves throughout the tale. This is a big journey for such small creatures to undertake and as they do so we learn a lot about rabbit culture and the mythology they use to bolster spirits in their times of desperation.

A scene from the film's version of the origin of rabbits.

I really liked this book. It’s part Lord of the Rings, part Odyssey, part rabbit nature study but wholly its own thing. There’s a large cast of characters and each is written with such detail and specificity that they are really their own person rabbit. Big Wig is the heavy with a soft side, Hazel is the regular joe that develops into a strong leader, General Woundwart is the misguided warlord. They’re among the best group of characters I’ve ever read. I particularly enjoyed any point in the story when they asked for a story of the first rabbit to be told. It always came at a time when the group needed to be reminded that they were rabbits and rabbits always get out of tough situations. Particularly memorable is the story of the first rabbit’s trip to the rabbit underworld and a meeting with the Black Rabbit that meets all bunnies at the end of their lives. It is, of course, reminiscent of those journeys to hell in the Odyssey and those stories that play on that one and it is suitably creepy and moody. The whole book is, really. There are quite a few scenes that are really scary and few moments of pure joy. It’s certainly not a saccharine book.

The Movie

I know a lot of people really like this movie. I was excited to see it after reading the excellent book. The film is often mentioned among the few good page-to-screen adaptations. I didn’t like it much. In fact, only the beautiful watercolor backgrounds and Keehar, the lovable Russian-tinged seagull were of any note here. The animation felt too choppy, like there weren’t enough frames to get a fluid sense of motion for the running rabbits. And everything else moved too quickly, too. The film abandoned everything but the general plot elements of the book. There was nothing for me to latch onto. I only knew who these rabbits were because I had read the book. I got no sense of the characters outside what I brought to them. And though at times the rabbits seemed very rabbit-ish there were other times when the things they did felt rushed. I recall one scene where they stop under a wagon for a night and they all just run right under it and then close their eyes the moment they stop moving. This doesn’t gel at all with the way Adams writes about rabbits. They always worry about the creatures that want to eat them and the humans that don’t care about the natural world and destroy it through sheer ignorance. But not these little animated bunnies. They go right to sleep. Not a care in the world.

And because everything is rushed through you lose what makes the book so great. The first four minutes tell the story of the first rabbit (and does so quite well, in a clean line on white background style that works for such mythic storytelling) but that aspect never reappears. Every situation is entered so quickly and dispatched with even quicker. The lotus eater warren lasts for about a minute. You only sense that the rabbits are strange because Fiver, the psychic brother of Hazel, tells you so. Ugh. Such wasted potential.

You don't have to look at me like that just because I didn't like your movie.

In conclusion, read the book, look at the pretty stills from the film, and move on.