Friday, November 14, 2014

MY TOP FIVE: Fiction Novels

I may have just announced this the other day, but I couldn't wait to post the first one! I figured I should have installment #1 of my "Top Five" series focus on something that doesn't tend to change too often. Favorite works of fiction!

Before compiling this list and writing the brief little comments on each, I didn't realize that my tastes aren't too varied. On the surface, all these look pretty different, but they're actually pretty similar in theme. Love and tragedy and a bit of comedy. All my favorite things. :)

Read below and see what made the top of my list—and be sure to tell me your thoughts, and what you'd put on your Top Five!

5. THE SIRENS OF TITAN — Kurt Vonnegut

“The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anyone.” 

I read this book 6 years ago, and it was the first of Vonnegut's that I had ever read (I know, I can't believe it took me so long, either). My sister was really affected by it, and she demanded I begin reading it immediately—so I did.

Written in 1959, Sirens tells the story of Malachi Constant, the richest man on a post-modern Earth, and his extraordinary luck. In the blink of an eye, Malachi is traveling from Earth through the solar system, where he finds himself embroiled in a Martian War. The sequences of events that follow affect his life in shocking ways (at least, shocking to us) and unfold without hesitation or care for the audience's sensitivities.

I don't want to spoil too many details of Malachi's exploits, as I feel that the non-nonchalance in which Vonnegut tells this tale is both humorous and tragic. Time passes in jumps, emotional connections are acknowledged and then pushed aside, and all the while, you are traveling towards a revelation with little to no idea where you'll end up. Vonnegut speaks with a curt poetry—as he does in all his novels, really—and explores science fiction in a unique and powerful way.

4. THE WELL OF LONELINESS — Radclyffe Hall

“Our love may be faithful even unto death and beyond–yet the world will call it unclean."

This book was required reading in a Gay & Lesbian Lit class I took in college. All the books were good in their own ways, but The Well of Loneliness stood out as the most riveting and endearing of the bunch. Originally banned upon its 1928 release in England for describing "unnatural practices between women," Well tells the story of Stephen Gordon, a wealthy young woman who has exhibited 'traits' since she was a child that her proclivities may not be what society considers normal.

Today, we would just say she's a lesbian—modern studies might even suggest transgender, though that wasn't even a concept when the book was written. Radclyffe Hall weaves Stephen into Hall's own familiar world; a world with no information for anyone suffering, confused, or stricken with this 'illness.' What resonates most for me was Stephen's relationship with her father, who sees not illness in her, but a natural evolution. And her friendship with her childhood horse may have caused me to shed more tears than I've ever shed in my life (I'm lying; see #2).

I find Stephen to be a powerful character; she struggles with self-hatred, with defiance, and with acceptance. The world may not have been ready for a novel like this, but it paved the way for other books like The Price of Salt and Rubyfruit Jungle. Why isn't this a movie yet? I'll never know.

3. THE VIRGIN SUICIDES — Jeffrey Eugenides

“In the end, the tortures tearing the Lisbon girls pointed to a simple reasoned refusal to accept the world as it was handed down to them, so full of flaws.”

In high school, I read Virgin Suicides probably three times. It was pure poetry to me. My middle school equivalent might have been Perks of Being a Wallflower, and this isn't too far a stretch from that.

Suicides focuses on the lives of the five Lisbon sisters in 1970s Michigan. They are angelic in beauty, and mysteriously tormented. The story is told from the perspective of an anonymous narrator, someone who appears to be a neighborhood boy fascinated by their existence. The disease of suicide seems inescapable for these girls, as they struggle to appear normal on the outside, unable to shake what haunts them.

It sounds like a particularly dark story, but the beauty of it is that it's not. Eugenides uses the voice of his narrator to offer a naive, hopeful, and empathetic perspective on tragic circumstances. The Lisbon sisters are a puzzle that our narrator is trying to solve, and as a reader, you are trying to solve it alongside him. The movie adaptation that was made in 1999 is an almost perfect copy of the book. Aside from some necessary exclusions for time, the script is nearly word for word taken from Eugenides. One of my all time favorites, I would recommend this book to anyone.

2. THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE — Audrey Niffenegger

"I'm at a loss because I am in love with a man who is standing before me with no memories of me at all."

Can we all just take a moment to think about the perfection of this book? It has this unique combination of qualities. It is complicated and trying. It is romantic and tragic; and it is truly brilliant. It also throws in time travel, which is my favorite thing.

Henry DeTamble is a simple librarian. He also happens to suffer from a genetic condition that causes him to travel unintentionally through time. During one of these jumps, he meets Clare Abshire, a young girl who will, many years later, become his wife. Or rather, she meets him and then many years later, he meets her. This book tells the story of their insane, overwhelming, and strangely normal love.

The book takes about 40-50 pages to truly get a handle on what's happening. Niffenegger doesn't sugar coat anything, and she certainly doesn't waste precious time trying to spoon feed you how it all works (unlike the terrible movie adaptation). The POV shifts between Henry and Claire, each shift telling you exactly where and when in time each character is. Clare, Age 16; Henry, Age 42... Henry, Age 24, Clare, Age 22. It is a fervent and human maze. I love these two people like they are my family, and I've never, ever cried as hard as when I finished this book one morning at 5 AM. It fundamentally changed me.

and finally, drum roll...

1. FRANKENSTEIN — Mary Shelley

“There is love in me the likes of which you've never seen. There is rage in me the likes of which should never escape. If I am not satisfied in the one, I will indulge the other.” 

The book I've read more than any other. Maybe it's because Hollywood has so brutally destroyed this story in every adaptation ever, but the classic story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein and the Monster he creates can really only be understood on the page. Mine is marked up to all hell with notes!

Obviously, the starkest difference between the book and almost every movie about it is the Creature himself, who becomes a very educated man. Tortured, yes, and full of rage, but his ability to grow and learn can't be overlooked. Dr. Frankenstein is a despicable person; a man so full of hubris and childish delusions, he casts out his creation the instant he gives him life.

I love that he's never named. The monster's anguish at being unnameable is at the core of the novel. I also marvel and the subtle sexual and Sado-masochistic themes Shelley worked into her story. Considering she straddled the liberal and conservative eras in London, it's no shocker. It might be required reading for many classrooms, but there's a reason. READ THIS BOOK. It should be a requirement for life.

That's it! Now it's your turn. :)

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