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My Ten Great Reads
Everyone seems to have their list of ten favorite books, so why shouldn't I inflict mine on the world? I decided not to worry overmuch about the rules of my book list, except one: there would be ten entries-- ten great reads. That way I could actually include 18 books, because apparently I like book series. I also decided not to expend any brain cells ranking them and listed them in roughly the order I read them, from teenager to the older, wiser man I am perceived to be. These books enlightened and entertained me greatly. I've read them all at least twice.
Foundation Trilogy (3 Books) by Isaac Asimov
The three books of the original trilogy are “Foundation”, “Foundation and Empire” and “Second Foundation”. It has since grown to seven volumes but it was the original three I read as a teenager that stick in my mind. It is a sprawling saga of a future human race spanning the galaxy-- quadrillions of people living on millions of planets over hundreds of years. Most science fiction then was like cowboys in space, shoot-em-ups with rockets. This was different. It had a depth to it I hadn't read before in science fiction-- not that I was that sophisticated. It wasn't just worlds warring against worlds-- there was an ebb and flow to the rise and fall of different civilizations. Economies were important (somehow, Asimov made even economics fun). It had interesting characters and ideas, the main one being phychohistory manipulating human activities with the aim of shortening the coming dark ages from 30,000 years to a millennium. There was also the mystery brought up, every now and then, about the origin of mankind. Somewhere, it was theorized, humans originated from one planet but which one was lost to history. Earth is never mentioned (until later volumes), but, for some reason, this unfulfilled tease worked. It made me think that I may be living in a civilization that could be lost to the far future. Would that mean our lives are meaningless?
The Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit (4 Books) by J. R. R. Tolkien
The three books in the trilogy, to anyone who has been living under a rock, are “The Fellowship of the Ring”, “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King”. I never thought any movie would do justice to the books, but I was wrong. On the other hand, reading the books for the first time (read The Hobbit first) is a magical experience, especially if you haven't already read any of the knock-offs that have filled the shelves for decades. I read them in the Sixties when hippies (some as dreamy and lazy as hobbits) dreamt of a magical, nobler time. There was nothing to really compare these works to at the time. Although Tolkien denied that he was trying to make a statement about his experiences in the First World War, it is hard to fathom those horrors weren't a huge influence on the wars of Middle Earth. He also denied that he was writing about the industrialization of the English countryside-- especially during the scouring of the Shire. I admit, a small part of my fascination with his work is due to the fact that I was born in Hall Green where Tolkien lived as a child, so I've also seen a little of the beauty and despoliation first-hand.
The Arms of Krupp by William Manchester
This is the history of a dynasty, a family business inextricably entwined with a country's fortunes and misfortunes. Manchester has made the rise of the Krupp family and how they became the main armorer to Germany for two World Wars a compelling read. Part of the attraction for me was reading the history of those on the “other” side of World War One and Two. The Krupps were ruthless as well as progressive. While the family accepted their exalted position as no more than their due, they introduced social welfare programs for their workers. This was a fascinating glimpse of capitalism, the armaments industry and the countries they arm. None escape guilt.
1984 by George Orwell
This well-known novel is dark and brooding, with its depressing prophecy of life under Big Brother and how nearly every individual can be broken to serve. The real problem is that it becomes more relevant as the years pass. Granted, our consumerism and manically cheerful advertisements aren't foreseen, but what's behind the mask is. Enough said. Read it and weep.
The Last Lion (2 Books) by William Manchester
These two volumes (Volume 1: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932 and Volume 2: Alone, 1932-1940) cover Winston Churchill's life from birth to the start of World War II. He was a fascinating figure, whether on the world stage or laying bricks at Chartwell, his private estate. It is all too easy to think of him as a hero or, perhaps a villain, depending on your viewpoint. He was an extremely complex man who accomplished more than most men in history-- and who suffered defeats that would have driven lesser men from public life. William Manchester has been criticized for his “pedestrian” biographies, perhaps almost pandering to the masses. Whatever. I found them eminently readable and full of interesting information. Manchester died before he could completely finish the third and final volume, but Paul Reid is working on it and it may be published soon.
Books of Blood (3 Books) By Clive Barker
I'd never read horror like the stories in the American editions of Barker's short stories. You try making a string of knots terrifying-- it ain't easy. Every story was like nothing I'd read before. They aren't all great; some are even so-so, and perhaps, after the real and imagined horrors of the past quarter century, perhaps some of the zing has faded. But I've savored every story at least three times. You have to wonder what fevered imagination could conceive such things. Reading Clive Barker is a whole 'nother thang than seeing the movies. On a side note, I've always felt a kinship with Mr. Barker because we are the same age and were born less than 90 miles apart (he in Liverpool, me in Birmingham). I sometimes think it unfair that he went on to fame and fortune... but my mind just doesn't work that way. On a related note, see Notes From a Small Island below.
Weaveworld by Clive Barker
Another Clive Barker work, one of his first full-length novels. Once again, unimaginable goings-on-- this time a carpet that provides a way into a fantastic world. The world of the Fugue and the life and death struggles of different races spills over into the ordinary British countryside. The juxtaposition of the mundane and the fantastic serve to amplify the horrors and evils Clive has summoned onto these pages. Like his other early works, it's also a pleasure to just read his poetic prose.
Imajica by Clive Barker
Imajica is the most sweeping, fantastic, dark epic I've ever read. This is a long, long story of over 800 pages about the five dominions (parallel worlds) which were all connected once until Earth, one of the dominions, was separated from the other four. Imajica is about the reconciliation of Earth with the others. There is plenty going on here and lots of memorable characters-- characters only Barker could come up with, like Pie-oh-Pah, a being of both sexes and neither, John Furie Zacharias, also known as Gentle, an amnesiac and central to the story. There are fantastic lands, peoples and customs. There is God and everything between. Nothing is sacred. I must admit, the middle is a bit slow, but part of the reason is because you're exhausted. Be warned, this is not for the sexually squeamish and it's not for those who are sensitive about their religion-- whichever that religion is.
Children of Men by P.D. James
The book is so much better than the movie. In the near future, children stop being born around the world and civilization, after 20 years, is near collapse. In Britain, the Warden, reigns supreme. A cousin of his, Theo, is approached to talk to the Warden about various reforms and Theo reluctantly gets involved in the various intrigues and rebellions and anarchy threatening to boil over into absolute chaos. This is very well-written and a departure for Ms. James, who is well-known for her mysteries. It is a dark, dystopian novel and a great read if you like that kind of stuff.
Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson
This is about the funniest book I've ever read. American author Bill Bryson writes about the British and nails it. From his American viewpoint of these strange people, their quirks, mannerisms, history and institutions are held up and magnified into heroic proportions and I found myself laughing out loud throughout the book. But in doing so, he cleverly exposes the hilarity of Americans' bewildered notions of civilization. Though funny, it's not mean and it is obvious Mr. Bryson has more than a soft spot for his subjects. As a matter of fact, the British have declared that Notes From a Small Island best sums up British identity and the state of the nation. The last I heard, he was Chancellor of Durham University. Not bad for an Iowa boy. Which leads me to a this: you see, Bill Bryson stole my life. We are the same age. I live in Cedar Rapids, Iowa; he lived in Des Moines, Iowa. I landed in England in June 1973; he landed on the English shore in May 1973. I had a fantastic six months there before I returned to Iowa; he had and is having a fantastic life and is a renowned author and scholar. I wanted to write, but he stole my life.
So there's my list. Apparently, I'm into dark fiction and history with some comic relief, all with strong British overtones. Huh.