Monday, March 17, 2008

Top Five: Books

  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: The funny thing is that I never actually knew much about Raymond Chandler until the re-release of the movie classic based on this book. When the film came out of DVD, I was fascinated by this prototypical portrayal of the private detective and the dark world he travels in. That lead to me tracking down the novel and the inevitable inclusion on this list. Before the pulp era, fiction had grown florid and overwrought. Then at the beginning of the twentieth century, the authors of the new genre fiction market began paring down their prose to a keen edge. The master of these was Raymond Chandler. Chandler's power was in the precise way he used language to not only tell you what was happening but also how the main character felt about it. The sad thing is that so many people ape the style without understanding the purpose in his craft. The Big Sleep was my first exposure to Chandler's finely honed prose and will long be a favorite.

  • H Is For Homicide by Sue Grafton: While my favorite pulp author may be the master himself, my favorite crafter of modern crime fiction is Sue Grafton. Beyond continuing the legacy left by Hammett, Chandler, and MacDonald, Grafton made her mark by presenting a fully realized character in Kinsey Millhone. In the hands of a lesser writer, the minutia of everyday life recited in these novels would be grating and monotonous. Grafton, instead, uses these details to ground her heroine and the very human dangers she faces. While it is almost stupid to pick out a favorite among the series of books, H stands out as the turning point in the series where Grafton has said all she can with standard mystery and starts to elaborate on the form. Although I'm singling this book out, I encourage you to take the journey starting from A Is For Alibi and enjoy the journey with Kinsey.

  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke: As a writer, if there was ever a book that I wish I had written, this would be it. In truth, this is an idea so genius that I very well may steal it for my own purposes. JS&MN is the story of two magicians in 19th century England who's actions bring about the return of English magic to the world. Only that one line summary tells you as much about the book as dipping your foot in the shallow end tells you how a swimming pool feels. Clarke has realized an entire world that is so detailed that one is left wondering whether she is telling a truth the rest of us have been overlooking. She is able to juggle multiple plot threads, lets them cross one another in natural ways, and resolve them in fantastic fashion. All of her characters, from the stars to the supporting cast to the bit players, have rich personalities and fascinating contributions to make to the narrative. (A favorite is Jonathan Strange's wife, Arabella, who becomes such a full and interesting character that when she becomes imperiled, one can't help but become invested in her rescue.) Her prose is evocative of the period's style while maintaining the readability of a modern novel. If I had one complaint to level at the author it is that Clarke needs to write more books. Seriously, Susanna, if you're reading this instead of writing I'm going to be very cross with you.

  • The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul by Douglas Adams: Out of all of Douglas Adams' books, you might be surprised that I did not pick one of his Hitch-hiker's novels. That would not be the case if you read this book. The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul is, Adams' exploitation of the detective novel to discuss the consequences of myth and belief. It is also one of the most tightly wound and intricately plotted books I have read. I have read this book numerous times to savor the care that went into proving Dirk Gently's belief in the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. I doubt a novel of its like will ever be written again.

  • Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein: I began reading Heinlein at the insistence of my maternal grandfather. He handed me a copy of Farmer In The Sky, sure in the knowledge that I would enjoy the book as much as he had. Thus began my life long affection for science fiction in general and Robert A. Heinlein in particular. My favorite of these is Starship Troopers, written in the transitional period between his juvenile works and his latter novels. In many ways it shares the best of both spheres, combining the action-driven plots of the earlier books with the mature themes he would soon be exploring. What makes this book stand out for me is Heinlein's ability to make science fiction not just about the advances in technology, but about the changes in humanity. I've read in many places about the fascist agenda this novel forwards. That is patently false. The agenda forwarded here is that humanity is a resilient species with the ability to adapt to their situation. That a military government was the solution to their problems was not a prescription for us, it was a description of our ability solve societal problems. That so many people dismiss Robert Heinlein's work for the surface elements without regard for the deeper writing structures he was constructing is one of the great tragedies of literature.


  1. Even though I have long been a fan of Douglas Adams, it was only recently that I read the first of the Dirk Gently books. I loved it so much that I immediately mooched a copy of "The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul", and after reading what you had to say about it I am fighting the urge to drop what I'm currently reading and start it immediately. The consequences of myth and belief. I think I'm going to love this book.

  2. Thanks for the response, Nymeth. I'm not used to getting comments, so this was a long time coming.

    I can't say enough good about TLDTTOTS. I really think it was Adams' high water mark. Hope you enjoy it.