Top Ten: De Profundis

Category : top 10

De Profundis; Oscar Wilde

“[Christ] does not really teach one anything, but by being brought into his presence one becomes something. And everybody is predestined to his presence.”

Welcome to our final discussion of the top ten, and the one that most recently found its spot on my list. And, if I actually put them in order, would be somewhere near the top. Because I cried reading this book, and when I finished it I clutched it in my arms and wanted to start over instantly.

What was it that made me love this letter? Because that’s what it is–a letter Wilde wrote in prison to his “friend,” one who helped put him in prison, who he both loathed and loved. My entire review is found here, somewhere among the rest of my Oscar Wilde gushing.

I liked Wilde up until that point. He was fun and quirky, a little self-centered, sort of what you expected. But de Profundis stirred emotions within me that I never feel while reading. And trust me, reading gives me a lot of emotions. It’s love and bitterness and jealousy; heck, it’s everything. Somehow, Wilde managed to cram everything into this letter.

I resisted immediately reading it over again. But I still have the desire, desperately.

“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone elses opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

Top Ten: Anna Karenina

Category : top 10

Anna Karenina; Leo Tolstoy

“There are no conditions to which a person cannot grow accustomed, especially if he sees that everyone around him lives in the same way.”

I don’t pretend to be a master of Russian literature. In fact, throughout my entire reading of this book, I was pronouncing Karenina wrong in my head. I’m no expert. But I know when a story is good, and this one is good.

It’s not just the story—that’s been told before. A married woman’s affair, her inner struggles, the failed attempt to not think of him. But we feel everything. We understand Anna’s inner turmoil. She becomes a part of us.

My original intent was for this to prepare me for Tolstoy, to work my way up to my eventual reading of War & Peace. But this book is no mere stepping stone. It stands on its own. It helped me to love Russian literature.

“‘What am I coming for?’ he repeated, looking straight into her eyes. ‘You know that I have come to be where you are,’ he said; ‘I can’t help it.’”

Top Ten: Everything is Illuminated

Category : top 10

Everything is Illuminated; Jonathan Safran Foer

“I am doing something I hate for you. This is what it means to be in love.”

We have another brief review by myself for this book, as I oh-so-eloquently penned in 2008:

He works with prose in ways I’ve never read, creating characters you love (and some you love to hate) in a beautiful & horrifying story. You’ve got to pay attention reading this one.

(I should really start thinking of a new word to use in reviews rather than “beautiful.”)

Here is another novel on my list that has an impressive number of awards, and it’s no mistake. The narrator—who is, conveniently, named Jonathan Safran Foer—is loveable. All he wants is to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He travels through his family history, digging up clues and visiting locales where they previously lived.

But beyond the story is the style. Yes, I’ve seen the movie version as well, and it’s good. It’s hilarious. But nothing beats the style of Foer [the author]; the inner monologues of Foer [the narrator] are so fantastic and unbelievable at times. He travels with a Ukrainian translator, who does a pretty poor job at translating. All these little details are what ties the entire story together, and earning itself a position in my top ten.

I highly recommend Foer’s other novels as well.

“She was like a drowning person, flailing, reaching for anything that might save her. Her life was an urgent, desperate struggle to justify her life.”

Top Ten: She’s Come Undone

Category : top 10

She’s Come Undone; Wally Lamb

“I think . . . the secret is to just settle for the shape of your life takes . . . Instead of, you know, always waiting and wishing for what might make you happy.”

I distinctly recall discussing this book in the middle school band room, where the same copy circulated through the entire flute section. I don’t even know whose copy it was. But it was the greatest thing all of us had read, and we didn’t even have to say anything—just, “You’ve read She’s Come Undone, right?” and you would smile and sigh and say, “Of course.”

I read it again years later, to see if I felt the same way. Of course I did. When a book has that much impact on an integral part of your life—that is, middle school—it will always stay in your mind. Wally Lamb doesn’t publish often, but what he publishes is good. This was the start of a glorious author/reader relationship.

I’ve also gone through three different copies of this book, because they were lost to the black hole of “loaning to friends.” No more, though—my most recent copy is signed.

“That time we separated was my idea. I thought, well, I’m fifty years old and there might be someone else out there. People waste their happiness—that’s what makes me sad. Everyone’s so scared to be happy.”

Top Ten: Ender’s Game

Category : top 10

Ender’s Game; Orson Scott Card

“I don’t care if I pass your test, I don’t care if I follow your rules. If you can cheat, so can I. I won’t let you beat me unfairly—I’ll beat you unfairly first.”

It’s almost embarrassing how long it took me to read this book. It had been on my “to read” list for years. And when I finally acquired a copy . . . I wondered what took me so long.

“Ender Wiggin” is one of those names that, once you read this book, will always stay with you. It’s like a long-lost friend, or a child you want to protect. It breaks your heart, because here are children that are taught to be military professionals, and it’s a game to them. There’s not a moment that I was bored while reading his story.

From my review:

Unknown to him, he’s being trained as a commander from the start. The rules are broken, and the school pushes him to his limits. And because he’s a genius, he prevails. But he is mentally and physically exhausted; he is isolated from his peers and misses his family terribly. It’s his inner monologue that reminds you that he’s a just a child. No one at the school talks about family, but he thinks of his often. And at night, when he’s alone, is when he allows himself to cry.

There is a reason that Orson Scott Card is the name in Science Fiction. Even if Ender’s Game was the only book he wrote, he would still deserve the endless praise that he receives. (Needless to say, he’s made it to my list of “favorite authors” as well.)

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves. And then, in that very moment when I love them . . . I destroy them.”

Top Ten: Middlesex

Category : top 10

Middlesex; Jeffrey Eugenides

“Everyone struggles against despair, but it always wins in the end. It has to. It’s the thing that lets us say goodbye.”

Middlesex is one of the most recently-published on my top ten list, from 2002, and well worth its position on the list.

My goodreads review contains just one simple phrase: (This was before my days of lengthy reviews.)

There have been few books that I anticipate the next moment I can pick it up again continue reading.

I knew it was a good book from the start. A brother and sister fall in love, and they get on a boat to America pretending they’re married to start a new life together. And even though incest is gross and makes everyone squeamish, you want them to live happily ever after. And our main character, one of their descendents, is a hermaphrodite. I could go on, or you can just read the book yourself and experience all these wondrous things yourself.

There’s nothing normal about it. It’s a fantastic twist on coming-of-age, of finding yourself. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking. Whenever someone even mentions this book, I start gushing. It’s definitely deserving of all the awards and lists it has appeared on.

“The mind self-edits. The mind airbrushes. It’s a different thing to be inside a body than outside. From outside, you can look, inspect, compare. From inside there is no comparison.”

Top Ten: The World According to Garp

Category : top 10

The World According to Garp; John Irving

“They were involved in that awkward procedure of getting to unknow each other.”

It’s a strict process for an author to become one of my favorites. It’s not based on just one book; it has to do with the author himself. He needs a good grasp of language, and I must read more than one of his works. The list is never-ending. But as I absorbed The World According to Garp, my first Irving novel, I knew he would be a favorite for life.

If I had selected another of his books to read first, that one may have found its way on my top 10 instead. But because this was the basis for my love for Irving, it is the one that will always appear on this list.

So maybe Garp is a favorite only because of the author. So what? I vaguely remember the plot; I read it nearly ten years ago. But the fact that I recall Jenny and her son who lives within the walls of the infirmary should be proof enough that this is something fantastic. Who remembers details after so long?

My edition is also signed, because John Irving happened to be in my office and I happened to have a copy of the book in my purse. (What? Too convenient for a coincidence?) And somehow, I missed the fact it was turned into a movie in the 80′s. I’ll add that one to my queue.

“You know, everybody dies. My parents died. Your father died. Everybody dies. I’m going to die too. So will you. The thing is, to have a life before we die. It can be a real adventure having a life.”

Top Ten: Atlas Shrugged

Category : top 10

Atlas Shrugged; Ayn Rand

“I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

It’s no secret that I prefer books that make you think. And no one makes you think quite like Ayn Rand. Where do you stand in society? Who are you working for? Is it even worth it?

From my review:

If she were a real person, Dagny Taggert would be my hero. The person I’d shy away from, yet admire. I’d love her as much as humanly possible. Because her persistence never failed in the midst of a crumbling society, even when those she loved & admired told her to give up.

There are few literary characters I remember distinctly. I will always remember Dagny. I’ll love Hank. Resent James. You spend so long with these characters and know what’s in their heads that they become a part of you.

I own a Liberty Bracelet, which is modeled after the one Hank Rearden created in the novel. I also saw part 1 of the movie the day it was released, as I plan to do with the rest when they come out.

Sure, I don’t agree with absolutely everything in this book. I can’t; much of it contradicts Christianity. But for someone who worked so hard to make other people happy for much of her life, it practically slapped me in the face. What about me? Who’s going to work for me, if not myself? This book stayed with me for a long, long time.

“to cheat your way into a job bigger than your mind can handle is to become a fear-corroded ape on borrowed motions and borrowed time, and to settle down into a job that requires less than your mind’s full capacity is to cut your motor and sentence yourself to another kind of motion: decay. (Full quote here, because I adore it so.)

Top Ten: On the Road

Category : top 10

On the Road; Jack Kerouac

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”

After reading Kerouac, you fall into one of two categories: You either hate him completely, or he changes your life. I, obviously, fell into the latter.

I couldn’t tell you any specifics now about this book—I read it in high school. But it has stuck with me since. You don’t know half of what Kerouac is talking about. Kerouac didn’t know half of what he was talking about. But it was this book that piqued my interest in the beat generation, and I simply had to gorge on everything they all wrote.

I saw the actual scroll when it was on display at the New York Public Library, and it blew me away. Maybe that was my original intrigue—that he wrote it on this scroll, taping together pages so he could write uninterrupted on his typewriter. It wasn’t just a book for me. It was the lifestyle, the need to be free, and the fellow writers he surrounded himself with. I immediately became drawn to them all.

“I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”

Top Ten: Moby Dick

Category : top 10

Since I’m in the midst of reading War & Peace, I will obviously have no other upcoming reviews and probably not a whole lot of time to pay attention to the world of books. So for the next two weeks, I’ll be discussing my top ten (in no particular order), one title a day. Let the fun begin!

Moby Dick; Herman Melville

“and Heaven have mercy on us all—Presbyterians and Pagans alike—for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending.”

This book was my monstrosity of 2010. Who in their right mind would want to read a book about whaling? Isn’t that boring?
Not at all.
There is something about the way Melville writes that makes you pay attention. Ishmael is charming. If he lived in modern times, he would be considered a fanboy. For whales. Sure, he goes on for pages upon pages about whaling. And different types of whales. But it’s funny. And it’s heartbreaking. It’s everything you want in a novel, and more.

“Human madness is oftentimes a cunning and most feline thing. When you think it fled, it may have but become transfigured into some still subtler form.”

A quote from my own review

How can I possibly do this novel justice? It’s brilliant, beautiful, sad, hilarious. There were moments I laughed out loud and moments nearly in tears. I loved everyone on the Pequod—Ahab, our monomaniac captain; Queequeg, the savage harpooner; Perth, the blacksmith who’s ever forging a new leg for Ahab; and especially Starbuck, first mate. Everyone on that ship has such a distinct identity and interacts with one other so well.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, and this is probably not the last time you’ll hear it from me: Don’t be intimidated by its length or subject matter. This book is well worth it.