Friday, April 8, 2016

Culture Countdown: Top 10 Classic books

Apologies again for the delay in posting. Nature seems to be against it for some reason. First, an electrical storm fried our modem, then I threw my back out and had to be on bedrest virtually immobile for several days.

When one is laid up with nothing else to do, one finds oneself with a significant amount of free reading time. If you so happen to be in that position, have I got a list for you! While there are many, many, MANY modern authors that have written fantastic books over the last 50 years or so, there's nothing quite like a literary classic. A dusty old book that simply smells of adventure. So grab your library card and prepare for a journey through my favorite books/series that are currently considered "classics".

10.Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

In addition to being a big fan of the musical (again, another review for another time), I actually read the entire unabridged version of this book (all 1500+ pages of it) in high school. Because I felt like it. Yeah, I was that kid. If you don't have that kind of time (or fortitude), you can settle for the abridged version (a scant 300-ish pages) but a lot of the nuance will be lost.

In his tale of the life and trials of one Jean Valjean, a convict freed from prison, Hugo weaves a fantastic tale of one man's journey to redemption and forgiveness, first of himself, and then to others. Along the way, a neatly interwoven group of people come in and out of his life, all of them very much connected with one another...whether they realize it or not. There's also, to be honest, a LOT of historical exposition, so if you've ever wanted a history lesson on the Napoleonic Wars, this is probably a good place to start. Oh, and propaganda. Lots and lots of propaganda. But that's kind of what Hugo was famous for anyway. I mean, have you read Notre Dame de Paris? Yikes.

Political leanings aside, though, it's still a fantastic book, with descriptions so realistic, you'll feel as though you are actually there. Rumor has it that when Hugo sent the book to his publisher, he followed up with a telegram asking what the publisher thought of it. But he was short on cash at the time and so condensed his telegram to a single "?". The publisher responded only with "!". And that single punctuation pretty much says it all. 

9.The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

I picked up my copy of The Count of Monte Cristo at a library sale for a nickel. The cover was half missing and the pages were dog-eared. Best 5 cents I ever spent. That book kept me entertained for a whole summer.

Alexandre Dumas (yeah, the same guy who wrote The Three Musketeers) tells a brilliant story of Edmond Dantes. Like Valjean in Les Miserables, Dantes also goes to prison, but unlike Valjean, he is a complete innocent betrayed by his best friend so as to steal Edmond's fiancee. He eventually escapes prison, uncovers a fortune in buried treasure, and starts life under a new name. Dantes uses his wealth and power to exact revenge on the men involved in the conspiracy to imprison him. But when his revenge goes too far, Dantes must atone for his sins and use his position and power to help others while at the same time learning to let go of the past.

The book is filled with so many memorable characters, twists, turns, and subplots, it's sure to keep you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end.

8.Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan

Written by a man in prison (I'm starting to notice a theme, here), Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory that chronicles the life of Christian as he journeys from the City of Destruction to The Celestial City. It starts with him receiving the gospel, seeking to know more, and finding his way to salvation. But the story doesn't end in salvation, particularly in real life. The Christian life is one of trials, temptations, and tribulations. And just as we do daily, Christian faces Despair, Vanity, Wordly Wisdom, Demons, and even Death itself among many other troubles.

It's a bit difficult of a read because a large portion of it uses archaic language. If you can find an study version, it usually has footnotes and definitions of words and phrases we no longer use to help you get a better sense of context. But I can almost certainly guarantee that it has something for everyone, no matter what you're currently going through in your life.

7.Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

Another story of a man wrongfully imprisoned (maybe I should have just called this the Top 10 List of Prison Books?), Judah Ben-Hur is a one-time Jewish prince betrayed by his childhood friend, the Roman Masala. After his assets are seized and his family is imprisoned, Judah is sent to work as a slave on a Roman warship. Eventually, his fortunes change, he becomes the adopted son of a wealthy Roman, and learns the arts of fighting, business, and chariot racing. He uses his newfound situation to learn the fates of his mother and sister and get revenge on Masala. But along the way, he meets a very particular Man. They cross paths several times during Judah's life. But it is their final meeting that really changes everything and helps Judah discover that if a man is to forgive his bitterest enemy, he's going to need a little (or a lot) of Heavenly help.

This is a book you really want to read. Don't just cop out and watch the movie (excellent though it may be, but that's another review for another day; and since they're remaking it, will probably be a Take Two review) but actually sit down, read, absorb, and digest this one. The very act of writing it changed the author's life. Who knows what it can do for you?

6.Silas Marner by George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans)

I'm not gonna lie. When I first started reading this book, I hated it. I was forced to read it for my high school literature class, and it was boring, boring, boring! And then, somewhere around chapter six, it got better. A lot better. A whole lot better. Once I finished reading all the way through, I went back and reread the first 5 chapters, and they suddenly made a lot more sense.

Silas Marner is a weaver in the small town of Raveloe. He's a loner and a miser, with his golden guineas as his only friend. Betrayed by his former religious order, he has taken to shunning everyone, marginally satisfied to live out his life in solitude, weaving and selling his fabric by day and counting his gold at night. But when a series of circumstances force him to become more familiar with the local townspeople, he finds the love of friends and a family that he never thought he would have. If you can muscle your way through the first 6 chapters or so, I promise, you won't be disappointed. It's a book you'll want to read again and again.

5.A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Speaking of misers, if there any miser more famous than Ebenezer Scrooge? I'll keep this one short because I've already said so much about it in the two reviews I've done of the movie versions. But nothing beats the original. The novel is very short, so it wouldn't take long to read in a single sitting. If you've seen the many movie versions but never actually sat down to read the book, you're missing out. A lot of the best parts of the story are actually in Dickens' quaint and quirky descriptions and asides.

4.The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Although it was originally meant to be a book for children, I think there's quite a bit for adults in The Secret Garden. The story is as much about Lord Craven and his inability to deal with his grief as it is about Mary Lennox and her quest to open the titular garden.

After a terrible disease leaves her orphaned, Mistress Mary is forced to leave her home in British-occupied India and seek a home at Misslethwaite Manor (the home of her uncle Archibald Craven) in the moorlands of Yorkshire. There she discovers secret after secret. There are things (and people) that the servants aren't meant to talk about. But Mary is a stubborn child used to having her own way, and if they won't tell her what's going on, she'll find out for herself.

As interesting as the main character is, my favorite characters are actually Mary's servant Martha Sowerby and her mother. They are just two plain and simple Yorkshire women who teach Mary much about life, God, and the simple joys of being a child (something that grave and dour Mary knows nothing about), but their impact on Mary is earth shattering. While Mary is used to the luxurious, exotic finery that the British elite experienced in India, Martha teaches her to be content with simple pleasures like sewing, gardening, and skipping rope. It's also a wonderful book for encouraging young children to get outside and play. In an age where kids reportedly don't get enough exercise, I think that alone makes it worth the read.

3.Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Another book I've already talked about in the movie review, I'll keep this one short as well. As I said, it's often overshadowed by its author's more popular book, Pride and Prejudice, but I think Sense and Sensibility is equally as good if not superior. Whether you're a hopeless romantic or more reserved in your emotions, you'll identify with either of the two protagonist sisters.

2.The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

What is better than a mystery? Why a dozen of them, of course! While I could have gone with Doyle's original novel A Study in Scarlet, I decided on his first anthology of Sherlock Holmes short stories for this list. Scarlet has some pacing issues that I didn't care for, and the sequel The Sign of Four was just all over the place in terms of plot. So...Doyle wasn't the greatest novelist. But he was a master of the short story (much like Leo Tolstoy, but that's another post) and none of his collections quite shines like his first. 

Whether he's matching wits with Irene Adler in "A Scandal in Bohemia", battling wild animals in "The Speckled Band", or solving a Christmas mystery in "The Blue Carbuncle", Sherlock Holmes is always on the case! With his faithful friend and chronicler Dr. Watson at his side, there's no mystery he can't solve, no case he can't crack, and so suspect he can't catch (well, maybe one...). So grab a copy and a cup of tea and take a trip back to Victorian London. (And just imagine it's Benedict Cumberbatch, if you must.)

1.The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis

I know, I'm kind of cheating because this is a whole series and not just one book, but I can't help it. I can never, ever say enough good things about this series. If you're going to read them (and I know purists will give me hell for this) I suggest reading them in chronological order (the order Lewis preferred) rather than the order in which they were published. This means reading The Magician's Nephew before The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Suck it up, buttercup. You'll be ok. 

These books are simply magic. I go back and reread them every year or so, and I always get something new out of them. From Narnia's creation to its very last day, there is wonder, excitement, and adventure to be had. A little myth, a little magic, and a whole lot of awesome make this book series a true escape to another world. I still cry every time I read the last page of The Last Battle because it gives us such hope of the Kingdom that is to come, so clearly you can almost see it with your own eyes. Read them with your kids, read them by yourself, however you choose, just read them. Over and over and over again.

And that's my list of my 10 favorite classic novels. Were there any you felt should be on the list? Let me know in the comments. Maybe I;ll review them in future. Besides, I'm always looking for a good book to read!


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