Friday, March 5, 2010

AOK Top 25 Books

For kicks, because people sometimes ask and because I have a kind of compulsive nature, I have been working on a list of my top 100 books of all time. It's tough. One hundred is a lot of books, and I've been reading so many great ones lately that my list is constantly shifting. Perhaps at the end of the calendar year I'll post the full 100; in the mean time, the top 25.

1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky's masterpiece, and my favorite book of all time. It's why I love the Russians, and Dostoevsky first among them. Murder, love, dysfunctional families, the devil... Dostoevsky knows how to tell a compelling tale.

2. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. The Devil comes to Moscow and all hell breaks loose. Full review here.

3. Beloved by Toni Morrison. Powerful, horrifying and beautiful story of slavery and its aftermath. Full review.

4. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. A poetic portrait of English aristocracy, a highly personal examination of the Catholic church, and an insightful dive into personal relationships. Full review.

5. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Epic story of the Bolkonsky and Rostov families during the Napoleonic Wars. Full review.

6. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. The most difficult book on my list, hands down. Faulkner is a difficult read under the best of circumstances; throw in one narrator with severe mental retardation and others who are unreliable and you're up for a challenge. In this case, though, it is worth the effort. This story of a tragic Southern family showcases the extraordinary talent one of the country's greatest writers.

7. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Ambitious and captivating, Murakami blends dreams and reality in this story about a Tokyo house-husband's search for his missing cat. Full review.

8. Emma by Jane Austen. Flawed and self-delusional but charming and witty, Emma takes Harriet Smith, a sweet girl from a lesser societal rank, under her wing and commences matchmaking. Full review.

9. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Another doorstop of a book at over 1100 pages, Infinite Jest is certainly a commitment. Alternating between a halfway house and an exclusive tennis school, Wallace weaves together numerous sub-plots, zany characters and political satire in the near-future Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (calendar years now having corporate sponsors). Also notable for its prodigious use of acronyms and end notes.

10. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The book follows the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of Rodion Raskolnikov after he commits a gruesome crime. Can murder ever be justified? Is true punishment that which is handed out by the authorities, or the self-flagellation of regret?

11. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The best one hit wonder of American literature, this high school required reading gave birth to some of literature's greatest characters: Atticus Finch, Scout and Boo Radley. The book is funny and warm, even while examining the serious issues of rape and racial inequality.

12. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I don't buy into this being one of the best love stories ever written, but this story of Humbert Humbert's obsession with a prepubescent girl is shocking and disturbing and wonderfully written.

13. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. In the deranged world of Mark Renton and his so-called friends, heroin addiction is the prevailing force. It is a tale of greed, crime, Scottish identity, sexual morality and betrayal. The movie is excellent and bit disturbing; the book is really excellent and really disturbing.

14. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy in a sweet, witty and classic nineteenth century love story.

15. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March grow up amid love and laughter. It was the first book I truly adored. I still cry more when Jo finds out that Amy married Laurie than I do when Beth dies. Full review.

16. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. Textbook Faulkner: the epic decline and fall of a Southern family. Brilliantly written, memorable characters and the longest sentence ever published in a novel.

17. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey. Randle P. McMurphy enters an insane asylum to finish out a prison term as the "bull goose loony." He torments old Nurse Ratched and urges his fellow patients to assert themselves.

18. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Frodo Baggins saves Middle Earth; saga provides inspiration for generations of fantasy/sci-fi geeks.

19. Sula by Toni Morrison. Short but complex, Sula explores relationships, sex, love, guilt and the difference between good and evil. Morrison captures the difficulty of post-emancipation life in the midwest, and breaks your heart several times while she does it. Full review.

20. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Surprisingly modern, gossipy and easy to read.

21. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The glamor of the Roaring '20s thinly disguises a society riddled with materialism and a lack of morality.

22. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Fat, lazy Ignatius J. Reilly on a quest to find a job in New Orleans' French Quarter. Hilarius.

23. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol. One of the most prominent 19th century Russian works, the novel follows a man's puzzling efforts to purchase "dead souls" (serfs who have died, but on whom the landowner still pays taxes) from local townspeople.

24. Girl in Landscape by Jonathan Lethem. Space-western fantasy novel by one of my favorite contemporary authors. Full review.

25. The Child in Time by Ian McEwan. Powerful prose and raw emotion fill this novel; central themes include the fluidity of time. The book is about memory, childhood, depression, and about the real possibility of moving on. Full review.

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