So my great plan to blog every day during my unemployment hit a happy snag when I received a job offer shortly after I started the project. But, I’d still like to write more (and more broadly) than has been my habit the past few years. One of the few nice things about this protracted job hunt has been the time it has provided me to read. In honour of that, I thought I’d quickly review my ten favorite novels. This not a list of “the BEST” ten novels, but a list of my personal favorites and is judged on purely subjective and inconsistent criteria.
Honorable Mention: The Brothers K by David James Duncan: I wanted so badly for this book to make the top 10, but in the end, I found there was simply not enough room for it. If you like baseball, family, faith, politics, or any combination of the above, please read this book. You will laugh, you will cry, you will think, and you will not be disappointed.
10. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: This is rightly a classic of twentieth-century literature: a gloomy exploration of a dystopian future written as a biting critique of the direction of Western society and the progressivism and optimism of its educated classes. It is valuable not only as a brilliant work of science fiction, and not only as social commentary, but also as a deeply challenging examination of the potential costs of human happiness and the nature of humanity itself. (Bonus: If you find the edition published by Vintage (2007), you will be treated to a thoughtful introduction by Margaret Atwood.)
9. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles: Set in New York City in the 1930s, the leaner shadow of the non-stop glamour of the 1920s, this is a wonderful, engaging, and humorous story of love, identity, and the complexities of human life. It features lively characters, a profound and original sense of time and place, and witty reflections on urban life, with a few genuine surprises along the way.
8. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer: This book is on this list because it is a pure joy to read. If it did not tackle such serious and fascinating (and under-reported) material, I might consider it a ‘guilty pleasure’, but as it stands, this epistolary novel about a writer and her new friends in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation of Guernsey in the Second World War is a pleasure that is anything but guilty. It is a rare literary achievement that is a funny, delightful, and easy read — perfect for a hot summer’s day at the beach — without being vapid and meaningless.
7. Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis: While much of C.S. Lewis’s fiction betrays his Christian worldview in ways that annoy many readers (and his good friend J.R.R. Tolkien), Till We Have Faces bears none of this overt piety. This retelling of the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche does, however, offer a profound reflection on faith, doubt, divine justice, and the nature of sacrifice, jealousy, and love. Where Brave New World is on the list because it made me think, Rules of Civility because it is so sharp, and Guernsey… because it is so delightful, Till We Have Faces made my list because it is beautiful, containing some of the richest prose I have seen in English.
6.The Fault in our Stars by John Green: This is the newest and trendiest title on my list. I first read it shortly after its release and I had no idea it would become a hit-movie-inspiring phenomenon. In fact, its success has come as a shock to me. I encouraged my friends and family to read it because of its humour and its tragedy but primarily because of its honesty. As someone who has been through times of deep sorrow and pain, I appreciated the unrelenting lack of sentimentality in this tale of young cancer patients who fall in love. For me, it stands as a needed and even prophetic reaction against the easy platitudes with which our society tries to brush away or explain suffering.
5. Astonishing the Gods by Ben Okri: I’m surprised this book is as high on this list as it is, and I think the reason is that, despite its faults, Astonishing the Gods has stayed with me in a way few books have. It is the story of a mysterious young man searching for the secret of visibility and, in the decade since I first encountered it, the cryptic wisdom of this story has returned and illumined time and time again. In fact, there are at least two thoughts from this book that have remained shining lights amongst the many deep Truths in my heart.
4. Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors (The Sarantine Mosaic) by Guy Gavriel Kay: These two books tell a sprawling narrative of politics, intrigue, religion, and art set in a fictional world deeply reminiscent of the Byzantine Empire at its peak. I don’t have a lot to say about this book in terms of its wisdom or effects or beauty: It’s simply an exceptional story told exceptionally well. I cannot recommend it more highly.
3. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky: Despite its lofty position on this list, I have a lot of problems with this book. It is too long, has too many characters of little consequence, and its ending falls very flat for me (in Dostoevsky’s defense, the book was intended to be the first part of a longer work). That said, it is a book which is, I believe, an unparalleled psychological, philosophical, and moral achievement. It is said the three brothers represent the author at various stages in his life and whether or not this is true, they have rightfully become archetypes of the passionate romantic, the moral, atheistic rationalist, and the questing man of faith respectively. It contains some of the most powerful and lasting critiques of belief in God and of the Church, yet these rest alongside some of the deepest and most beautiful expressions of Christian faith in literature. Even within the reflections on Christianity there is a juxtaposition of opposites, a theology of light and open-heartedness set next to one of suspicion and harshness. All this diversity of psychology and belief is laid out in characters and situations that are all too human, with little in the way of commentary or judgment. It is this unsettling refusal to have a “moral of the story” that makes Brothers Karamazov such a brilliant book: in the story as in life, we are offered a buffet of healthy, rich, or poisoned platters and it is left to us to discern which are which.
2. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides: If this book were simply a story of the decisions people make in desperation, or the story of three generations of a Greek immigrant family, or a story about the rise and fall of Detroit, or a story of what it means to be ‘other’ in a binary world, it would be wonderful. The fact that it is all four — and excels in all four — is a great testimony to Eugenides’ great skill as an author and to the brilliance of this Pulitzer-prize-winning creation. Deeply moving and slightly troubling, it is a story that offers up life’s messiness without apology or defense but as fact. The story may haunt you, but in the best possible way.
1. The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell: I was skeptical when I picked up The Sparrow but was absolutely blown away by it. It is the story of a failed Jesuit mission to a neighboring planet and the trials of its lone known survivor. It is the most profound and unflinching story of divine abandonment and theodicy I have encountered (Job included) and would have been high on this list even without its superb second installment. (The author conceived of it as one story, so I am comfortable discussing both here, though The Sparrow stands on its own.) Children of God picks up on these themes, while weaving in reflections on the meaning of time and perspective, and the need to suspend judgment. Obviously the science fiction genre will pose difficulties for some readers and I found both books a little slow to start, but this is a truly beautiful and humbling story, which I have found meaningful in my own life and will not hesitate to recommend whole-heartedly to anyone.