Tuesday, September 13, 2011

v2, d415: WOF2, #4: Top 7

Well, the time is finally at hand when all Borders stores everywhere are closing their doors forever.  (I can't tell you exactly when, but I know it's some time in the next few days)  As a hopeful writer and a fairly new reader, I'm really saddened by this.  Unfortunately, I have to admit that there is a portion of my life where books and reading were really quite low on the priority scale. A few years ago, however, I started reading again, and I regret those years that I put it down for the sake of...whatever it was I did with my spare time in college. (See, I had so much required reading that I never wanted to do any recreational reading...but that's another blog for another day)  That to say, I'm probably not the best person to express exactly why the end of Borders is such a sad thing, so I'll pass that responsibility off into the very capable hands of the Librarian's Daughter

Regardless of my recent history, literature is now a very big part of who I am and what I'm passionate about, so it's after great reflection and many revisions that I'm finally confident enough in my selections to present my Top 7 Favorite Books (not including the Bible).  Most of these books I've already read more than once.  The ones that I haven't, I've severely wanted to and likely will in within the year.  These are all books I either own or plan to own.  They are books I can see myself reading several times over the course of my life.  They are books I am always ready to discuss.  Usually, the act of thinking about one of these books is enough to make me want to reread it.  Because there's no concrete, scientific evaluation process for this sort of thing, I can't guarantee that these seven are may seven favorites every single day or that they don't shuffle around in order from time to time.  I'm pretty sure, however, that this is at least a pretty dang close approximation of my Top 7 Favorite Books.


Blood Feud: Detroit Red Wings v. Colorado Avalanche.  The Inside Story of Pro Sports' Nastiest and Best Rivalry of its Era by Adrian Dater

I know, I know.  I'm starting this list off with some high literature, aren't I?  But this is one of the most fun books that I've ever read.  Yes, I have the bias that I am an Avalanche fan and that I still remember many of the more memorable clashes between the Avs and Wings in the late 1990s/early 2000s, but the fact is this book is written well enough that you can't help get into the story.  While the Avs and Wings never got the publicity of the Yankees/Red Sox or the Lakers/Celtics, the aggressive, emotional nature of hockey escalated this rivalry into something so consistently nasty that I've never seen anything like it in any sport in the twenty years that I've been a sports fan. Most sports rivalries are perpetuated primarily by the fans.  Somehow, the epic clash of the Wings and Avs was a personal affair for everybody involved.  Players, coaches, reporters, beat writers, trainers.  It was flat-out insane.  What made it even better, however, is that these were two of the best teams in the league from 1996 through 2002, so in addition to the passionate insanity of rivalry, fans were also treated to some of the best hockey games any of us will ever see.

The reason this book works so well is not that the rivalry itself was so great, it's that Dater does a fantastic job of taking eight years of incidents and people and weaving them into a cohesive story that starts with Claude Lemieux ramming Kris Draper from behind in a playoff game in 1996 and ends with the Wings clobbering the hobbling Avs in game seven of the conference final in 2002.  He brings out the stories of the men who made this madhouse so dang entertaining.  He evenly portrays every perspective into each anarchic playoff series, every behind-the-scenes shouting match, every ejected coach and goalie fight, and the reader really gets a sense of what a roller coaster ride this rivalry was.  It was as if the players knew at the time that what they were involved in was something that doesn't come along every day, and Dater's thrilling account makes a fairly exclusive rivalry in a niche sport into a story about people, pride, and passion.  If you can manage the hockey player's vernacular, I'd recommend this to anybody with a mild interest in sports or real-life character studies.  It's sort of the literary equivalent to a summer blockbuster.  But there ain't nothing wrong with that.


 Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie
There's a reason that there are dozens of film, stage, television, picture book, comic book, ballet, and just about anything else adaptations of this story. Not to mention all the spinoffs, unofficial sequels, unofficial prequels, and the one official sequel. Peter Pan rocks.  It is absolutely off the wall.  It is the essence of a boyhood adventure tale.  The story is wildly imaginative, the prose is delightful, the tone alternates between dark, innocent, whimsical, mischievous, sentimental, and playful, the characters are unforgettable...this is just an amazing book all around.  It's child's play at its most serious, consistent within its own realm but unhindered by adult rationality.  There are several moments that are laugh-out-loud funny (such as the Darlings' sitting on the bed with their pocketbook to determine whether or not they can afford to keep their own baby, or Mr. Smee's attempts at fierce piracy which only end up making him look lovable) and some parts of the story that are actually pretty scary as well.  While every adaptation I've seen tends to make Neverland a physical place (albeit a magical one that doesn't show up on the map), Barrie's Neverland is more the place where fantasy becomes reality, another realm where every child's imagination becomes real.

This book is pure joy from beginning to end, and it has been entirely too long since I read it last.


 Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling
The seven-book Harry Potter saga is amazing.  It's just an incredibly story that is almost perfectly crafted.  Its themes are positive and universally true.  J. K. Rowling has created some of the most memorable characters in modern fiction and there's a reason so many people all over the English-speaking world just can't let go of this story.

As for myself, I didn't really start getting into the series until this book.  I liked bits and pieces of the first two novels, but they really didn't hook me.  Now, by the time I'd started reading, I'd already seen this movie and Goblet of Fire, so I knew things were going to pick up and get a lot better.  Otherwise I may have dropped the series after the second installment.  But Prisoner of Azkaban was the story that got me hooked, and even now that the rest of the series is over it remains my favorite.  Because I find the whole of the series to be far greater than the sum of its parts, I turn to this book as the volume in which THE story really starts to pick up.  The first two books are pretty similar.  Harry goes to school, Harry and his friends have adventures, something really creepy involving Harry's ultimate enemy happens, Harry goes home for the summer.  Azkaban is the story where you start getting some answers about Harry's mysterious past and Voldemort starts to show his hand.  From this point on, every story thrusts these two closer toward their penultimate confrontation and the battle between the armies of good and evil.

I don't just love this book because it's the one that really gets the story moving, however.  The novel, even as a stand-alone, is fantastic!  Almost everything that happens in this book is cool.  The dementors are cool.  The patronuses are cool.  The werewolf element is cool.  The Marauder's Map is cool.  The plot twists are amazing!  The Whomping Willow!  Azkaban!  Sirius!  Lupin!  Even the hippogriff is cool!  I'm not kidding, virtually everything that is in this book is fun, engaging, intriguing, exciting, or otherwise dynamic.  I enjoyed all of the books after this one quite a bit, but I will always love Prisoner of Azkaban above all the others.


 The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
I promise, I do read grown-up books, too.  I first read Winnie-the-Pooh last year when I played the silly old bear in our children's theatre production of, well, Winnie-the-Pooh.  I'd never really gotten into the Pooh cartoons as a kid, though I could recall some of them pretty well and I wasn't altogether unfamiliar with the characters. (Does anybody else remember the live-action Winnie-the-Pooh show on Disney Channel?)  When I read the book, which includes both Pooh collections, I was blown away.

The first thing that surprised me was how funny the book was.  I expected a fairly gentle and bland little series of friendship tales, because that was what I remembered of Pooh.  Instead, I remember several times I had to chase down my wife to read aloud to her the passage I'd just read.  Fortunately, it was even funnier when read aloud.  The second characteristic I came to associate with Pooh was "feel-good."  This book really just leaves you feeling good.  Like Peter Pan, it harkens back to a more innocent time in all our lives, but whereas Pan is a love song to high adventure, Pooh is a surprisingly profound examination of the simple and good things in our lives.  Home, friendship, music and poetry, exercise, pleasant weather, adventures, accomplishment.  Just about the only times Pooh is ever discontent is when he notices one of his friends is upset.  And, good-natured guy that he is, Pooh always refuses to rest until he has made things right for whoever happens to be feeling down.  Even if it's Eeyore, who seems to rather prefer being gloomy.

Man, how much better would life be if we were all a little more like Winnie-the-Pooh?

In addition to Pooh, the supporting cast is memorable and lovable, but it's the story's central character that really holds this world together and gives it such a lasting place in my heart.


 The Stand: Complete And Uncut by Stephen King
Here's yet another book I didn't expect to enjoy nearly as much as I did.  This extended version of one of Stephen King's best-known works clocks in at around 1200 pages.  I remembered seeing commercials for the TV miniseries when it came out back when I was a kid, and all I took from those commercials was that a Superflu wiped out most of the people on earth, so I assumed that this was a book about an unstoppable disease killing everybody.

Au contraire!  

What I got instead was a massive tale of good versus evil, a story using ordinary men and women as champions fighting literally on the sides of God and Satan.  Turns out, the Superflu was just the setup for the story.  The Stand is really about the survivors of Captain Tripps disease as they are almost mystically drawn to two settlements--one in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and the other in Sin City itself, Las Vegas.  The settlement in Colorado is headed up by an old black woman named Abigail, a devout Christian who speaks often of prayer and visions.  The Las Vegas community is headed up by a character who goes by the name of Flagg.  He usually appears to be pretty human, but throughout the book there are instances that show that there's something supernatural, even demonic, about this character.

What makes this book scary, however, is not its demonic antagonist.  The real terror comes from the realistic portrayal of evil in the hearts of the human characters.  There's actually quite a bit of sound theology in the pages of this book.  (In fact, I think King has a better understanding of some of these biblical principles than some Christian writers I've read)  Each of Flagg's people are tempted by their own desires into sin, and that's how they eventually find their way into his camp.  This story has some realistic depictions of hideously evil acts--and in most cases you can understand why the person committing the evil made the choices they did.  King's villains are never excused for their choices, but it is made very clear that they are regular men and women, and that the possibility for that sort of evil exists in each of us.  Of course, there are equally heroic acts, and that's why I think this book is so great.  It's a story that's biblical in proportion of both God and Satan using flawed people to impact the world around them.  It's scary.  It's heartwarming.  It's surprising.  And it's amazing.

Granted, I did feel like there was some unnecessary moralizing about the evils of civilization at times, and there were two particular sections that I thought dragged on a bit longer than necessary, and there was one small side-story that I wish hadn't existed at all.  Nevertheless, there are few books that impacted me as powerfully at Stephen King's The Stand: Complete and Uncut Edition.


 Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
No, this book isn't on the list solely because I love the musical.  It's here because this is one of the most beautiful stories of redemption I have ever read.  Admittedly, it has been a long time since I've read this book, and a thorough re-read is my tentative November reading project (though it may get pushed back to January, depending on NaNoWriMo), but I remember the story and the characters fairly vividly.  I can't imagine creating a work of this much depth and breadth with so many powerful moments.  This story touches every corner of your soul.  There are almost no pitiless characters.  I feel for each in his or her struggle.  For a story called The Miserable, I'm amazed at how much hope shines through the pages.  Of course, I'm usually looking for light in dark places, and that's probably why I found this book so appealing.  Yes, Victor Hugo is wordy.  Yes, he gets majorly sidetracked at times.  Yes, he likes to talk about Napolean in stories that have nothing to do with Napolean.  But I can let it slide, because this book is just beautiful.  I can't choose a favorite character, I can't pick a favorite storyline, I can't point to a handful of favorite scenes.  It was the first book I ever read that I felt completely satisfied upon finishing it. And whether it comes in November or January, I have been anticipating this re-read for several years now.  Welcome back, old friend.


 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
I can't say enough good things about this book.  I first read it five years ago while Kim was pregnant with Robbie.  I read it again this past January, a father of three and a half years.  Each reading gave me a different story.  The book is a journal written by an aging preacher in the 1950s to his five-year-old son.  Because the preacher married his second wife so late in life, he will likely be dead before his boy's sixth birthday, so he's writing these memoirs as a way of giving his son something to know him by.  Most of the book is written in short, loosely-related passages.  This book is heartbreaking.  This book is hysterical.  It's melancholy and wistful, it's hopeful and jubilant.  I was surprised it so recently won a Pulitzer, because it's ultimately an uplifting tale that uses a lot of Christian scripture.  There are so many great passages in this book, you could flip it open to just about anywhere and read for a few pages and you'd probably find something you want to circle, copy down, or memorize.  I recently let my friend Sherri borrow this book, and since she brought it back a couple of weeks ago I've come close to picking it up for another read at least three times.  I will probably never get enough of Gilead, and it's one of very, very few books that I would recommend to absolutely anybody.

So there you have it.  My top seven books.  A heartwarming father-son memoir; a wordy, epic work of historical fiction; a dark fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic reality; a lovable bear with very little brain, a riveting adventure for young adults; the original riveting adventure for children; and a nonfiction account of my favorite hockey team.  If you're wondering what some of the titles that just missed out are, I thought long and hard about including The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, The Silver Chair, The Magician's Nephew, The Silver Chair, and That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Don Miller, 1984 by George Orwell, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, and The Game by Ken Dryden.