13 December, 2013

Forty Favorite Fictions

Under the assumptions that everybody loves lists and that the holidays have set off a frenzy of gift-buying, I’m sharing this list of some of my favorite novels and short-story collections. Maybe it will help you pick a book or two for the fiction-lover in your life (although, I hope there’s more than just one). More likely, it will give you something to peruse at work, while you’re being paid to do other, presumably more important things.

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 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, is easily the finest-ever blending of science fiction and humor. It’s also the first title in what became a galaxy-spanning five-, maybe six-part (depending on how you count) trilogy. Don’t bother with the math, just grab your towel and enjoy the ride.

Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness reads like a Kubrick plot as channeled by Kafka — haunting and beautiful in its uncertainty.

There are many reasons Jorge Luis Borges is revered in literary circles. As translated by Andrew Hurley, his Collected Fictions make them all evident.

Kevin Brockmeier treats the fantastic with a light touch in The Illumination, a novel-in-stories about pain and the human condition.

If anyone has written about this material more plausibly and affectingly, I want to read it. Forget the movie, just read Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, the standard-bearer for mainstream zombie fiction.

Anthony Burgess reportedly disavowed A Clockwork Orange in his later years; however, its depiction of crime and revenge, plus a bit of the old in-out and ultraviolence, is real horrorshow.

The way Michael Chabon handles the story of two brothers making their way in post-World War Two New York, in his critically acclaimed and multiply-awarded The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay assure it a place among the great twenty-first-century novels.

White Noise, by Don De Lillo, is an incandescent comedy of horrors — an absolute must-read.

I’ve heard that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was adapted into a graphic novel not long after its publication. This is fitting, given that Junot Díaz’s protagonist is a serious comic-book nerd, but the author’s vibrant language and literary verve are capable of bringing to life all the goings-on in this funny and heartbreaking work.

Philip K. Dick is the thinking man’s preferred sci-fi writer. His later books, in particular, grapple with big questions — about the subjectivity of reality, sanity, religion.... Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is regarded by some as the quintessential PKD novel; it deals with all of these themes at once, against a backdrop as bleak as that of the movie Blade Runner.

Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love offers a sympathetic and endearingly outlandish tale of one circus family’s rise and fall. I’m a sucker for a good freak show; how can something so ugly be so beautiful?

What happens to us after we die? Neurophysicist David Eagleman answers this question in forty marvelous ways, in Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives.

A lovely novel about the unlovely happenings in the lives of an Argentinian Jewish family, The Ministry of Special Cases, by Nathan Englander, occupies a unique place in literature, somewhere between Kafka’s The Trial and Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.

Mixing typographical tricks, video stills, and black-and-white photography with moving prose, Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about a precocious little boy coming to terms with his father’s death in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, strikes a powerful emotional chord.

People, young boys in particular, are cruel, as William Golding knew. There is good reason that his Lord of the Flies appears on so many high school English classes’ reading lists.

An autistic boy witnesses the suspicious burial of a neighbor’s dog and is driven to solve the mystery of its death. His investigation, so vividly depicted, makes The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time an impressive debut by Mark Haddon, whose work with autistic youth inspired this novel.

Khaled Hosseini’s tale of a reluctant Afghani homecoming is by turns brutal and beautiful, exploring the many ways that places and people we leave behind remain an ineluctable part of us. The Kite Runner is a book to steal your breath away.

A friend once told me that classics are books that everyone talks about but no one ever reads. Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, may be one such novel, known best as a Disney-fied musical and discussed as though it’s nothing more than the story of a deformed bell-ringer, when it is, if anything, an ecstatic love letter to the immortal city of Paris.

Love and friendship made bittersweet by the certainty of early death are at the heart of this lyrical Kazuo Ishiguro novel, Never Let Me Go.

More know the film, starring Jack Nicholson as the incorrigible convict who enlivens life in Nurse Ratched’s mental ward, but the original, print version of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey, is more nuanced, more satisfying, for being told from within the mind of the mute observer, Big Chief.

I’ve often said that if there were a pill I could take to turn myself into an imbecile, unable to even remember my own name, I’d swallow it without a second thought. Being intelligent is vastly overrated; ignorance, true bliss. Daniel Keyes makes this point clear in Flowers for Algernon, a straightforward but compelling twentieth-century classic.

The eccentric doings of one Mr. Perkus Tooth, in Johnathan Lethem’s lightly surreal Chronic City, are as amusing as the rest of the book is affecting.

Zachary Mason retells portions of classic myth in The Lost Books of the Odyssey

Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann, may be the finest piece of post-September eleventh literature — a paean to the city of New York and the everyday magic that takes place there.

China Miéville departs from his usual realm, contemporary fantasy, to tell a noirish detective procedural that unfolds in two distinct cities that just happen to overlap one another in physical space, in The City & The City.

Sumptuous imagery brings to life Erin Morgenstern’s debut novel, The Night Circus — a lovely fantasy set in the nineteenth century.

Haruki Murakami is contemporary Japan’s answer to Franz Kafka. After the Quake, a collection of Murakami’s stories, puts the man’s uncanny brilliance on full display.

The New Yorker named Téa Obreht one of its favorite contemporary writers under forty years old. Obreht’s first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, spins two simultaneous yarns — one a travelogue, one a fable — and leaves no doubt of the young author’s talent.

The unforgettable dystopian novel that introduced the world to Big Brother, 1984. In it, George Orwell gave us the quote, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”

Ayn Rand may not have been an elegant writer, but the central idea of Anthem — that individualism must be cherished — makes it a work of speculative fiction that deserves a long future in circulation.

Salman Rushdie is best recognized for his incendiary Satanic Verses (or, since the release of a Midnight’s Children film, with that), but his deconstruction of the Orpheus-and-Eurydice myth, in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, is what I consider his best novel.

The one-time face of astronomy, Carl Sagan, dramatizes the conflict between scientific rigor and religious faith in Contact, a plausible sci-fi novel with sincere heart. (Do I even need to mention what an atrocity the film version is?)

Your life is missing something terribly important if you aren’t familiar with Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s gentle fable, The Little Prince.

Yet another classic of English literature, Mary Shelley’s gothic novel, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, the meanings of which are largely ignored by later reimaginings.

Loneliness meets opportunistic verve in Super Sad True Love Story, a bleeding-edge quasi-romance by Gary Shteyngart. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll consider the social value of your credit rating. (And, according to Wired, Bill Gates regards it as a valuable cautionary tale about invasive technology.)

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned for eight years in a Soviet gulag after criticizing Stalin in a letter. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich distills that harrowing experience into a slim, yet potent, novel.

A very good film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was released in the mid-’90s, but the novel is without compare.

What makes Ignatius such a likable protagonist, when he’s so gross, rude, and arrogant? Probably that there’s a little of him in each of us. John Kennedy Toole’s renowned A Confederacy of Dunces is grade-A satire.

Slaughterhouse-Five is the book that cemented Kurt Vonnegut’s reputation as a satirist par excellence. I reread it every five years or so.

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