水曜日, 7月 28, 2004

Favorite Books in Adulthood - General Fiction

    The line between this and my science fiction list is perhaps a little blurry, since I'm putting 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale on here even though they're about future dystopias; on the other hand, I put Under the Skin on the SF list because of the aliens. So let's say for the sake of clarity that some of my favorites on the list below are speculative fiction that are sometimes considered science fiction, but are usually in the General section of the bookstore or library, and you can tell the difference because these books have no aliens.
    I'm going to save my favorite Japanese novels for a future list, otherwise several Japanese novels I read in English translation (The Tale of Genji, The Makioka Sisters, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World) would definitely be in there. But it would make the list too long, so I'll do a separate one later.
    If the title is hyperlinked, click on the link to read it online.
   Let me know if you have any problems with the links, or more general comments.

1) Great Expectations
    Charles Dickens

    Brilliant, brilliant, and best of all, DARK. As a disillusioned young adult in a dark time, I related to it, and I thought the writing was perfect.

2) The Rainbow
   D.H. Lawrence

    This book touched my soul when I read it 10 years or so ago, giving me a great fondness for D.H. Lawrence. Unlike most of the books on this list, I didn't like it because it was clever or funny or insightfully well-written. It was more of a subliminal pull into a deep ocean of feeling.

    I love D.H. Lawrence's luxurious, sensuous prose. His fiction is full of characters with fluid, transgressive sexual identities, questioning their place in the world, religion, love, human relationships. The "rainbow" of the title is the rainbow bridging the gap between men and women.

3) The Handmaid's Tale
    Margaret Atwood

A feminist classic.

4) 1984
    George Orwell

    A classic for anyone, worth re-reading every 10 years or so; Orwell's concepts are so painfully true. I did feel depressed at the end, unable to sleep pondering his conclusions about human nature. After some thought, I decided that perhaps Orwell underestimated human nature too much; particularly the outcome of Winston and Julia's love affair, permanently altered by the events of the torture chamber, did not ring true for me.

5) Steppenwolf
    Hermann Hesse

"Welcome to the Magic Theater. For madmen only. Price of admission: your mind."

6) The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

    I love Sherlock. Especially the drug references. Not really. I love his old-fashioned detective mind.
    To be honest I should have put this on my adolescent list, since I went through my Sherlock Holmes phase in high school, but I forgot to list it. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles, etc. are also all excellent.
    Why is Arthur Conan Doyle known as "Conan Doyle" in Japan? It annoys me that they inexplicably dropped the "Arthur". First names are NOT dispensable. This is who the kid detective cartoon character "Conan" is named after (not Conan the Barbarian, the first "Conan" reference that springs to my mind), together with Edogawa Ranpo (whose pseudonym is itself a Japanization of "Edgar Allen Poe"). I'm interested in Edogawa Ranpo, an influential writer of popular fiction, but I think he's to blame for the supremacy of the mystery novel in Japan over other forms of genre fiction. I would prefer that science fiction was more popular. But Edogawa left a legacy of mystery fans instead, and the Japanese SF writers were not so influential.

7) Mystical Paths
   Susan Howatch

    My favorite of Susan Howatch's curiously readable Church of England series. The main character of this one, Nick Darrow, is the most fascinating and charming of Howatch's creations. The plot concerns his suspenseful investigation of a friend's mysterious death.

8) Lady Chatterley's Lover
D.H. Lawrence

9) The Magus
    John Fowles

    Fowles is a skilled postmodernist writer. This cryptic, ambiguous novel is one of his earlier works. The protagonist reluctantly agrees to a job teaching English on a remote Greek island. There he meets a mysterious old man who tells him a fascinating blend of truth and fiction about his involvement in World War I and the identity of a beautiful young woman in his employ. The protagonist must search the very depths of his soul to discover what is true in this hall of mirrors. My favorite part is the fable "The Prince and the Magician," which is a simplification of the larger novel and appears near the end, by which time it seems very mysterious and resonant.

Click here to read the story "The Prince and the Magician," if that link doesn't work, click here.

    There are some John Fowles discussion groups on Yahoo, even one pretentiously named "The Magus Discussion," but to my disappointment these groups were inactive when I joined. The messages in the archives were mostly of the variety of "hello...is anyone there?"

10) The French Lieutenant's Woman
    John Fowles

    I also read The Collector and it's a bit hard to say which I liked better, but I'll go with this one since it has more characters and more substance to ponder over. The Collector is great, but after all it only has two characters. I read The French Lieutenant's Woman (afterwards referred to as the FLW) after reading Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White, and the FLW was by far the better novel. The Crimson Petal had a promising premise but left me with an AWFUL taste in my mouth at the end. The ending was so icky I could no longer respect the characters. I think the Crimson Petal may have been inspired by the FLW, because the FLW is the classic postmodern out-of-context take on Victorian mores. The downside is that you can't really believe too much in the characters of either novel--the presence of the author is too intrusive--but once you get used to that, it's a dense, interesting, thoughtfully arranged masterpiece.

11) Chronicle of a Death Foretold
    Gabriel Garcia Marquez

    I only read this once and it was some time ago, but I remember it as being really good. And I recently got a copy from somewhere so I'll re-read it. Very cool. I should also read his other books.

12) Arrowsmith
    Sinclair Lewis

    Sinclair Lewis is one of my mother's favorite writers. He was almost the Dickens of American literature in his day, and now it's surprising how little his works are read. He was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
    All of his main novels (Main Street, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, and Arrowsmith) are good, but Arrowsmith is the least cynical of his creations. It is an inspiring story about a doctor named Martin Arrowsmith.

13) Babbitt
    Sinclair Lewis

   This 1920s satire of the vacuousness of our American popular culture still rings true in many ways. I am sure there are some biting quotes in this that would impress you with their applicability to the stupidity of our times, but it's been a good eight years since I read it, so you'll have to see for yourself. I read some readers' reviews on Amazon though and found that a lot of Amazon readers really don't like Sinclair Lewis, especially high schoolers who had to read this one for English class.

    The Wikipedia article on this influential satire suggests that Babbitt is rumored to be the source word for Tolkien's hobbit.

14) The Name of the Rose
   Umberto Eco

    This is an important modern novel, and the most accessible of Eco's works. It's a murder mystery set in a medieval abbey, but the plot is heavily weighted with philosophical and literary references, making it more dense with meaning than the average mystery. It's been about 8 years since I read it--I should probably read it again too.

15) Jane Eyre
    Charlotte Bronte

   I'm not really a Bronte or Austin fan --AT ALL-- but this is the one out of all of them that I actually thought was pretty good. I couldn't get through Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice, and I really don't know what all the fuss is about those, but you don't have to be a romantic heroine fan to like Jane Eyre because it has a good plot and interesting writing, and the character of Jane is more realistic than romantic. Perhaps for that reason, I had no trouble sympathizing with her throughout her adventures.

16) David Copperfield
    Charles Dickens

   I liked this classic bildungsroman for the scope and variety of the characters and the amusing portrait of 19th-century life. I felt the most kinship with Mr. Wilkins Micawber, a minor character who was perpetually in debt. I read this when I was very poor myself and worried about perpetual enslavement to my student loan debt, so I was really amused by some of the things he said. Here is one of my favorite quotes ever:

"The victim, from my cradle, of pecuniary liabilities to which I have been unable to respond, I have ever been the sport and toy of debasing circumstances."

-Mr. Micawber, David Copperfield
    Although there are many other characters in the book with many more speaking lines than Mr. Micawber, you will find that when the word "pecuniary" is used, he is always either the speaker or the subject of the sentence. Thus you can easily find the utterances of Mr. Micawber in an online text by searching for the word "pecuniary". Just for fun, we have:

pecuniary difficulties
pecuniary obligations
pecuniary liability
embarrassments of a pecuniary nature
a victim to pecuniary involvements of a complicated nature
Mr. Micawber's pecuniary affairs
pecuniary difficulties
pecuniary difficulties
pressure of pecuniary liabilities
the pecuniary part of this obligation
the pressure of pecuniary embarrassments
the pecuniary means of meeting our expenses
pecuniary nature
pecuniary liabilities
pecuniary liabilities
pecuniary liabilities
pecuniary advances
pecuniary aggrandisement
with respect to the pecuniary assistance enabling us to launch our frail canoe on the ocean of enterprise

(this is towards the end; as you can see we are nearing a resolution of his pecuniary difficulties)

pecuniary accomodation
'Mr. Micawber being now on the eve of casting off the pecuniary
shackles that have so long enthralled him'
pecuniary emolument
pecuniary liabilities
pecuniary liabilities

    Yes, there were 24 instances of the word "pecuniary" in this novel, and, bound by the pecuniary shackles that have so long enthralled me, I enjoyed every one of them. It's great when literature allows me to laugh at my own misfortune.

    Another unforgettable minor character is Uriah Heep, whose secret weapon is his bogus humility. This was hilarious and I think it would be especially funny to read again after coming to Japan.

    The airhead Dora Spenlow turned out to be an amusing character also, especially after David married her and expected her to know something about housekeeping, or cooking, or anything, despite her sheltered upbringing, but her vapid dialogue revealed that she was as clueless as a newborn infant.
    Observe her behavior in this passage. Jip is her little dog. David had just given her a cookbook with the hope that she might learn to do something useful for a change.
    But the cookery-book made Dora's head ache, and the figures made her cry. They wouldn't add up, she said. So she rubbed them out, and drew little nosegays and likenesses of me and Jip, all over the tablets.
    Then I playfully tried verbal instruction in domestic matters, as
we walked about on a Saturday afternoon. Sometimes, for example, when we passed a butcher's shop, I would say:
    'Now suppose, my pet, that we were married, and you were going to buy a shoulder of mutton for dinner, would you know how to buy it?'
    My pretty little Dora's face would fall, and she would make her
mouth into a bud again, as if she would very much prefer to shut
mine with a kiss.
    'Would you know how to buy it, my darling?' I would repeat,
perhaps, if I were very inflexible.
    Dora would think a little, and then reply, perhaps, with great
    'Why, the butcher would know how to sell it, and what need I know?
Oh, you silly boy!'
    So, when I once asked Dora, with an eye to the cookery-book, what she would do, if we were married, and I were to say I should like
a nice Irish stew, she replied that she would tell the servant to
make it; and then clapped her little hands together across my arm,
and laughed in such a charming manner that she was more delightful
than ever.
    Consequently, the principal use to which the cookery-book was
devoted, was being put down in the corner for Jip to stand upon.

    Dora's character was relaxing to me, making me think "Thank God I'm not an idiot."
    With Mr. Micawber and Dora, the book was a good self-esteem boost, making me feel like my own life wasn't so bad. The character that almost ruined it all for me though was Little Em'ly. I liked Em'ly at the beginning, which made her undeserved fate all the more bitter for me. Em'ly was the pretty, intelligent childhood friend of the eponymous David. Gifted with a skill for languages and a hunger to see the world, her potential was stunted in a small fishing town where she was expected to marry her cousin, a homely imbecile named Ham. She does what I would certainly do in her situation, run off with a dastardly rake, in this case David's sketchy friend Steerforth. Here is where things go horribly wrong. In a modern novel, I'm pretty sure she would be rewarded for her choice; who wouldn't prefer traveling around Europe with a scoundrel to an arranged marriage with your idiot cousin? She would have been better off throwing herself off a cliff than wasting her days in that inbred hick town. But Dickens didn't see it that way. He really had it in for poor Em'ly. Her reputation ruined, she returned home begging for forgiveness from her devastated family, but they still considered her a fallen woman, and the story came to a tragic end. As far as I'm concerned, she had absolutely nothing to apologize for. The life she left behind was no kind of life for her. Times have changed for women, and I guess I should be glad for the reminder, but I was disappointed in Dickens for taking the wrong side.
    The French Lieutenant's Woman takes up this same "scarlet letter" issue with some interesting twists, not all of them flattering to women either, but at least Fowles gave the woman in question the power to decide her own fate and assign meaning to her life as she chose. That's one difference between the 1960s when Fowles wrote the FLW and the 1840s when Dickens wrote DC, although both novels were set in roughly the same period.

17) The Edible Woman
    Margaret Atwood

    I'm fond of this amusing, surreal depiction of a young woman who suffers an identity crisis when she becomes engaged. It's one of Atwood's earliest works (besides her poetry) and it comes off rather dated, but it's enjoyable for the characters and dialogue.

18) The Sins of the Fathers
   Susan Howatch

    You often see this title as a big old hardback book for sale at a cheap price in used bookstores (I think I saw it the other day here in Kobe, in fact, either at Manyo or Wantage). If you do see it and you're in the mood for a long, character-centered novel, you should give it a chance. It kind of looks like an old romance novel sitting there in its faded glory, but it's more than it pretends to be. It's the story of a family told from the perspective of four different characters. The narration is masterfully shaded to bring out nuances of meaning in the characters' behavior. The use of T.S. Eliot's "Four Seasons" poem is well done. I've remembered this one fondly for many years.

19) The Cider House Rules
    John Irvine

    A good book (I haven't seen the movie) but depressing.

20) A Man in Full
    Tom Wolfe

   I'm not as crazy about this novel as my mother. The only favorite books we can agree on are Arrowsmith and Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis; Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky; Mystical Paths by Susan Howatch, and this one. Otherwise, our reading taste is markedly different, as she doesn't like science fiction, fantasy, books about talking rabbits, or postmodernism. This is not destined to be a classic read for generations to come, but the character of Conrad is really good, and for contemporary realistic fiction I admit it's well done.

    Was interrupted in writing this post (granted I have been working on it for HOURS now, even forgetting to eat lunch) by Mr. Y., a teacher asking me if I wanted to play shogi. He is truly a fearsome player. And I'm...a novice who has never won a game. So I feel very tense when I play shogi with him. Nevertheless I agreed. Now, after losing both games of course, I'm trying to regain my previous carefree blogging frame of mind. Where was I? Shogi is an awful drain of mental effort for me, almost unpleasantly difficult, but perhaps if I let him teach me there will come a time when I can play shogi competently. I'm lucky any teacher wants to play any game with me, of course, but if only it was a game I had some chance of winning!

    After the game I had to polish up the list a little and renumber it, so I delayed publishing it for another day. I can't believe how much time it took to do this list. I worked on it most of yesterday and today at school, in between shogi and paperwork chores for my school. Sorry for the length and the many digressions. Thanks for reading.