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What? Only five...?

5 perennial favourites

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

-- What? Look, I've been perennially rereading LOTR since I was 12. I'm not going to stop just because it's all trendy now and some junk.

Doonesbury, by Gary Trudeau

-- look, I'm serious. Forget the fact that the medium is a comic-strip. I started reading the book collections when I was about 5 years old (when I didn't get most of the jokes). Think of it as a trenchant and left-wing look at the current events of the last thirty years told through the evolving soap-opera of a large but interconnected cast of fictional characters. And I do, in fact, sit down every now and then and read it through from the beginning.

The Phoenix Guards, by Stephen Brust

-- I thought about putting Dumas on the list, but the truth is that I like the gist and ideas of Dumas better than his prose (it may be sacrilege, but I would rather rewatch the 1974/1975 films than reread the books). This book and its first sequel, set in the fantasy world that Brust created for his earlier Vlad Taltos series (also a favorite), is a purposeful and loving homage to Dumas' Musketeer books, and what Brust has managed is to capture what is great about those works, including the wonderfully overblown language, but to fashion a story that's more exuberant, moves faster, and has more intentional humor.

The Game of Kings, by Dorothy Dunnett

-- historical fiction, set in Scotland of the early 16th century, when Mary Queen of Scots was still a child being fought over by various political factions. Tells the convoluted story of a dispossessed and exiled younger song of a Scots noble family whom everyone thinks is a traitor. Even the reader remains in the dark about his motives and his goals until near the end. That description probably doesn't make it sound very compelling, but it's difficult to summarize such a complex book. It's well-researched and presented, it's anti-fluffy (it's not a hyper-romantic portrayal of Scottish history), it's action-packed, it's imaginative, the characters are compelling, and even though when I now reread it, I know how it comes out, I can still remember the first experience of reading it -- it's a mystery that kept me hooked, and I was fascinated by this protagonist who was both charismatic and repellent. (Dunnett turned this into a 6-book series, which I waded through. I can honestly say that I enjoyed the payoff that came in the last book, but frankly, the series is just too damned long and enjoys wallowing in darkness. But this first book of it stands alone, and remains on rereading a tight and gripping story.)

Foreigner, by C.J. Cherryh

-- It's not that this trilogy is necessarily the best thing she ever wrote, and it's not that it's the best science fiction book I ever read. This list is for "perennial favorites", not necessarily "bests". I love this trilogy and reread it often just because I like the world, I like the protagonist, I like the narrative style; I like the alien race and their culture; I like the complex intrigue of the plot. I like to reread it because I like to sink into and surround myself in the world again.

2 favourite childhood books

For some reason I really don't understand, I didn't read a lot of the "standard" children's works. I wonder how to define "childhood" anyway -- where's the cut-off? I went through the standard horsey period (Marguerite Henry, etc.), but the thing was, my childhood reading was always influenced by what my parents had around the house (which was a lot), not just by books intended for children. I was actually older before I ever read fantasy classics like Narnia or Lloyd Alexander.

The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norman Juster

-- bizarre, hip, smart post-modern "fairy tale", I guess you would call it.

Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

-- yeah, yeah, trite, whatever. I always liked the second one better, actually.

Funniest book

Notes from a Small Island, by Bill Bryson

-- Tough choice, but...there are a lot of things that make me smirk or snicker. There are few things I've read that make me laugh so hard that I wheeze and tears roll down my face. I would have put a Dave Barry book in this category, but those are essay collections, whereas this is a full book. This also intersects with my vast interest in travelogues. I love everything by Bryson, but this was the first of his travel books I read.

Saddest book

The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, by Farley Mowat

-- This was also a really tough choice, because as a rule I'm not into sad books, and books don't generally have the power to make me sad, I remain too detached from them. I'm sure I've read something sadder than this, but if so, I've excised it from my memory; but this one sticks. By the author of the more-famous Never Cry Wolf (itself both funny and ultimately sad), this is an autobiographical work about an extraordinary dog Mowat grew up with, that behaved in some very un-dog-like ways. What got me, of course, is that the dog dies in the end, and the thing is, the inevitable loss of loved ones makes me weep. Seriously -- I'm tearing up right now just typing this, and I have not even read the damned book in years.

Dammit. I know that I read something relatively recently where I think I was crying for most of the last chapter, and I would list that, but I can't seem to remember what it was. My brain seems to be hiding that information from me. I hate that.

Scariest book

I don't generally seek out scary books. But I did go through an ill-advised period in junior high when I read a bunch of Stephen King stuff that scared the freakin' pants off me. Like, lying awake at night convinced that horrible things were lurking in the closet type stuff. And that is probably why I no longer seek out scary books, because I am all-too susceptible to them.

Book you like in spite of yourself

I think that I am required here to list The Dragonriders of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey. Because...dude. It's embarassing, and even the excuse that I first read them when I was 12 doesn't really hold water when you consider the subsequent 20-year involvement in Pern fandom.

</b>Book you recommend everyone to read</b>

Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen

-- a caustic and informative look at the horrible job that high-school textbooks do when it comes to teaching American History. In each chapter, Loewen takes some topic (such as: Columbus; Woodrow Wilson vs. Helen Keller; Reconstruction and carpetbaggers; etc.), then surveys how the topic is treated in the 12 textbooks he surveys, and presents key details and viewpoints that they leave out. His argument is basically that textbooks, in trying to appeal to too many masters, dumb down history and leave out controversy and struggle, in the process making themselves bland and uninteresting. The correlation to the argument is that while textbooks try to be cheerleaders for American history and civic pride, they wind up alienating their audience and creating uninformed, and disinterested citizens. Loewen's point of view is unapologetically liberal, and many have accused the book of being little more than PC revisionism. Since his viewpoint pretty much coincides with my own, I find it difficult to critique the book objectively, but I did find the details contained in each chapter's look at its topic fascinating (I certainly had no idea that Helen Keller went on to become a prominent activist for socialism/communism). Even though I myself always loved the study of history (probably because I gleaned as much from books my parents had, and from passionate teachers, as I did just from textbooks), I learned a lot from reading this book about certain topics that my education had always glossed over and that I didn't even think to look for more information on (such as the history of organized labor, or the racist and segregationist agenda of the Wilson administration). I also think the writing-style is engaging (there's quite a degree of schadenfreude in watching a writer thorougly lambaste textbooks). I think that if you like history, you'll still find some interesting stuff in here; and if you never liked the study of history, this book might even explain to you why it turned you off, and why that's such a tragedy. Read it with a grain of salt, taking into account the writer's own political agenda.



( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
May. 28th, 2004 09:11 am (UTC)
Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen.

That was a marvelous book. I loved the bit about Helen Keller. Have you read "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap" by Stephanie Coontz? It's a great book, along the same lines. Explains how the "good old days" and the traditional family never really existed. I highly recommend it.

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )