Wednesday, September 1, 2010

My Top 10 Books of All Time

There is no doubt that some of the below novels and plays will seem out of order.  Who can deny that Hamlet is far superior than some of the works that appear after it? These are works of fiction that have warmed my heart for many years, crafted cities and villages and islands that I have returned to time and again in mind imagination long after I've put the book away.  I hope you might find something that sounds interesting and inspires you to check it out. If you do, or if you've read one of them already and feel strongly about it, please comment and let me know.

I want to begin with a few honorable mentions that I won't describe, just throw out there in case you're interested:

Honorable Mention 1:  The Kushiel Legacy by Jacqueline Carey-In a world where the Fallen Angels remained on earth and spawned half-human children, the Angeline, and live at the mercy of the whims and dispositions of their angelic ancestors.  A young girl who must feel pain to feel fulfilled finds herself drawn into continuous courtly intrigues.

Honorable Mention 2:  Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub-A fairy tale of a boy and his friend who travel through worlds to save a dying Queen.

Honorable Mention 3:  Swan Song by Robert McCammon-In a post-apocolyptic wasteland, a young girl who is the key to restoring humanity fights a growing evil.

On with the show.....

 Mystery by Peter Straub

   Probably my favorite modern author, Peter Straub has the undeniable ability to bring tears to my eyes, make my heart race, and shock me into shrieking aloud.  This is the beautifully worded story of a young man on an island community who falls head over heels into a deadly mystery that takes him deeper into the identities of himself and all those around him.  A fine work of art, scary and thrilling and warm and familiar.  Peter Straub is more intelligent, more poetic, and more eloquent than any other writer of the horror genre alive today.


Hamlet by William Shakespeare

   I consider Hamlet the single greatest story ever written.  The imagery, the individual words, the well constructed ideals all paint a portrait of a life that could be lived in any country, in any time period one could dream up.  Of course, Shakespeare is the wordsmith, and this tale is the best showcase of his craft that exists.


Weaveworld by Clive Barker

   No doubt Clive Barker can scare the pants of anyone, but I prefer his more fairy tale-ish wares.  Weaveworld, which I read as a teenager for the first time, is a magnificent story of a not-so-far-away land in peril.  The language is poetic and the suspense seems very real.  Not really a fantasy so much as an adventure, Weaveworld blends some of the best words into some of the most beautiful sentences I've read in all my literary life.

   "Nothing ever begins. There is no first moment; no single word or place from which this or any story springs.
The threads can always be traced back to some earlier tale, and the tales that preceded that; though as the narrator's voice recedes the connections will seem to grow more tenuous, for each age will want the tale told as if it were of its own making." 

 Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

   I wish more people would give the classics a chance.  The language and imagery in the written play of Oedipus is breathtaking and very modern for having been written in 429 B.C. The story is not the titilating love between a mother and son as the name has come to mean over the centuries. It is the anguished story of a good man and king who sees the suffering of his people and seeks wisdom and help from the gods in ending their pain. In his search for answers, he discovers the truth about his identity that ultimately distroys everyone he holds dear.  The poetry and depth and strenth of emotion is expressed in a short play in such a way as most authors cannot express in 1,000 pages of a novel.


Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier

   I first fell in love with the movie when I was around six or seven years old when it came on PBS at least once a year.  That was in the days before VCRs.  I read the book when I was in my early teens and performed the opening monologue for a speech class contest once, which I won, incidentally. The most intriguing thing about this story for me was the lack of naming of the main, narrative character.  This single, almost off-hand decision on the author's part was so fascinating, forcing the reader to follow the journey and the bizarre triangle of Mr. deWinter and the 2 Mrs. deWinters, that the past and present seem to gently collide into one another in a heady collage of images, emotions, and sensations.


To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

   My father began reading this to me every autumn when I was five years old.  We began around the middle of August and he would read a few pages a night, pacing it just so, so we would finish on Halloween week, when Jem and Scout finally meet Boo Radley.  I read it to my daughter when she was 9 and we both lay on the bed sobbing together when it was over, then I allowed her to watch the movie.  Both transport me back in time to when I was a young Southern girl full of imagination and ideas to change the world.  When I pick it up occassionally and begin to read, I still hear my father's voice, soothing in the warm fall nights, counting the days until Halloween when I would hear my father read those magnificent words, "Thank you, Arthur, for my children."


 The Wicked, Wicked Ladies in the Haunted House by Mary Chase

   Originally titled The Wicked Pigeon Ladies in the Garden, this book still haunts me today.  I read it very often as a preteen and teenager and found a copy recently for my daughter, whose different tastes did not include a love for this book.  It is the story of a young girl who is quite unruly, always getting into trouble, who runs into the grounds of a long-abandoned Victorian house near her neighborhood to escape punishment.  There she finds the seven daughters from the old paintings on the stairwell are not only alive, but that she has been transported back in time to Victorian elegance in the midst of a mystery involving charms, lost children, and crime and punishment.  


The Blackwater Saga by Michael McDowell
   My father started reading these books to me when I was around 2nd or 3rd grade.  We read them a few times as a family. I remember we would sit in the living room when the summer storms would knock the power out, the back sliding glass doors onto the veranda open, ran falling in great gray curtains and splattering from the eaves.  It was poetically appropriate.  Blackwater is a series of six books telling the epic tale of the Caskey family beginning in 1919.  The Caskeys were a deep south monied family who, upon encountering a young, mysterious school teacher stranded in a flood, were tossed into turmoil involving ghosts, monsters, murder, scheming, and more mayhem and plots than you can shake a broom at.  Written with McDowell's eloquent grasp on Southern language and sensibilities, Blackwater is a series of books that defines my personal literary culture.

The Ghost in the Swing by Janet Patton Smith

   I believe I was in fourth grade and it was summer the first time my mother and I found this book in the library.  We took turns reading it aloud to each other and were finished by August, in time for my dad and I to begin To Kill a Mockingbird.  We fell in love with the book and I spent years looking for a copy when I thought my retired library copy was lost.  Very hard to find and the only ones in existance are old library copies that begin around $100. Fortunately I found mine a few years ago.  It is the story of a young teenaged girl who is sent to live with an aunt for a summer and is haunted by the ghost of a relative she never knew who sends her on a quest to look for her body and tell her story.  We read this book every summer for about six or seven years and now and again I pick it up once more and relive those carefree summer days when I was a young girl, haunted by a gothic daydream.

Harry Potter Books by J.K. Rowling

   Of course, anyone who knows me could tell you that I am a Slytherin and that Harry Potter is not only my favorite set of movies but also my favorite set of books.  Magic, friendship, secrets, broken alliances, evil wizards.  What more could you ask for! The first book, while on the childish side, is just the beginning.  As the children age, so does the age level and appeal of the books.  Can't say anything more without gushing.


  1. My views of "Hamlet" were revolutionized a few years ago when I heard a radio story about a production of the play in a maximum-security prison. The guy playing Horatio was a hardcore gangbanger who was in for gunning down several rivals. He was a sociopath, but I was stunned by the cogency of his analysis. He summed up the whole play in four words: "Hamlet was a punk."

    Initially I laughed at his idea, but he explained it very well and very convincingly. Quickly I became convinced that the tragedy of Hamlet was not that he couldn't make up his mind, it was that he was a coward.

    Hamlet comes home after his father's death and encounters the ghost of his father, who tells him he was murdered by Hamlet's uncle and was now in Hell while the uncle was currently king and banging Hamlet's mother. He ordered vengeance. Now, there was no doubt the ghost was real -- other people saw it too. As the convict said, when your dad's ghost comes back from Hell to tell you this, you KNOW you're going to kill your uncle. It's not a question. You KNOW. You have no choice. Maybe you or I would go the cops, but the convict wouldn't, and Hamlet wouldn't; both the convict and Hamlet come from worlds where violence is the answer to violence, and also the answer to a slight on honor.

    So, knowing he must kill Claudius, Hamlet could simply have gone and stabbed him to death then and there. Sure he'd probably have died, but that's what a MAN would have done. Instead he perseverates, hesitates, and invents an endless series of excuses not to take the step that will cost his life. His gutlessness leaves at least eight people dead instead of two, leaves Denmark in the hands of Fortinbras, and he STILL doesn't survive.

    Far from being a philosopher prince caught on the horns of a dilemma, Hamlet appears instead as a simple poltroon who tries fruitlessly -- and without heed to the dreadful consequences to all around him -- to wriggle off the hook fate has prepared for him.

    Just my $0.02. I mean, it's still the best thing ever written in the English language. :-D

  2. I get what you're saying, and while Hamlet and gangbanger both came from worlds where the only way a man could be a man was by sword, Hamlet and the gangbanger have totally different situations in life. Beliefs and temperament have to come into play. One is not a creature of nurture alone.

    Hamlet is morose by nature, spoiled and angry, an emo, if you will. He shows this long before he is told by his father's ghost that Claudius killed him. He mentions his "customery" black garments, which I took to mean that he was going through this adolscent stage where he was being a bit peevish. Also, he was very angry that his mother had remarried, when rules for Kings and Queens are different. Denmark was ruled by a King, and as long as no King was on the the thrown, there was danger. He was old enough to understand that and part of him should have expected it. It was not the same thing as we would see it today when one was allowed a mourning period for the death of a spouse.

    While I don't believe that Hamlet was in this moral delimma that some argue he was going through, I do believe that he was ill prepared to make such decisions as much as he was ill prepared to be King of Denmark. He was a boy and rather distraught and the best thing that ever happened to him was the exile.

    When he returns from exile, he is less contemplative and mopey and more steadfast. He shows purpose and rationality. After the many deaths he has to face, and coming upon the ruins of Ophelia after losing (at his own round-about hand) both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his new-found sense of reality was shaken again.

    Yes, he was a coward, by that point, but the farce that was the assassination had the same childish, fearful desperation to it that the production of the players had. He had hoped that exposing Claudius before the court would accomplish....what? He did not think it through. But like all children, his desperation sent him to action. He was also fueled by the fearsome visage of the ghost of his much revered father and his growing paranoia that no one could be trusted.

    He should have known that as well, however. What King, Queen, Prince, or Duke across history has not lived in such isolation? Elizabeth, alone with no husband and her family turning against her (despite the fact she was the daughter of one of the most hated women in Britain), understood that she had the responsiblity to go it alone.

    Hamlet had a romantic outlook on life, much like his mother and probably fueled by more time around her than around his father. Had he been more in control and in command as a Prince should have been , at his age, he would have stepped in and seen to the arrangements rather than allowing his mother to go off on a romantic notion and make her own decision.


  3. (continued from previous) So rather than directly call him a punk or a coward, I find him a dreamer, caught up in his own head and not realizing that he has missed out on the essential lessons of his station until it was too late. He was indulged. All around him plots were being devised and carried out and he was oblivious. He was rather simple-minded in some respects and could not see beyond his immediate desires, which consisted chiefly of Ophelia and his friends.

    The blame can almost be said to fall on his father who should have been preparing the boy to take his place from birth. A king faced threat of uprising and assassination daily. What preparations did the king have for such an incident, and at his age? He should have had the next King prepared, either his son or another person to take his wife.

    Oedipus, by killing the king in his story, had the right to the king's wife. No one challenged him over it, not even the queen herself. So looking at it that way, one could say that Claudius had a right to the woman and the title, had he killed the king more openly. Hamlet did not even consider the fate of his country when he began to formulate his plan. What would happen to Denmark if he secretly killed Claudius? What would happen to Denmark if he challenged Claudius or killed him openly? What would happen if he and Claudius both died or if he just left things alone and did not kill Claudius at all?

    So, ill-prepared (not his fault), left to fulfill his whims (not his fault), pasisonate and spontaneous (nature that was not reined in), and spoiled (not his fault). I don't think he was a punk or a coward, just a boy who had not been taken in hand in time to prepare him for manhood.

  4. Well said. One of the things about Shakespeare at his best is that he's the most translucent of writers -- it's impossible to look at any interpretation of one of his complex characters and not see the reader/audience (and the performer, if it's being acted rather than read). There's no RIGHT or WRONG, unlike with lesser authors (which includes...well, pretty much everyone not named William Shakespeare); instead there is basis for projection and interpretation.

    I would argue that Hamlet was not a boy when the story is happening -- not in age, anyway. In temperament and maturity possibly, but he was definitely of an age where he would be considered a man at the time: old enough to know the demands of honor and act upon them, in other words. He had to know what his duty was when the ghost of his father tells him the score. There can have been no doubt in his mind at that point. Can being a mopey pussy by nature justify his not doing his duty as the corpses pile up? I would argue no.