Wednesday, August 19, 2009

15 books in more than 15 minutes (Part Three)

In the first two installments I covered books from my youth and young adulthood. In this last installment I'll cover some of the more memorable books from my more "grownup" (I don't dare say "mature") years.

11. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen: I've confessed before that I wasn't one of those girls who read the covers off the complete works of Austen by the age of sixteen. So when I really got down to reading all of Austen, sometime in my early thirties, I fell hard. Although it's hard to pick a favorite—the quiet desperation of Persuasion? the outrageously funny literary satire of Northanger Abbey?—Pride and Prejudice is the quintessential Austen. The witty heroine, the handsome and brooding hero, the pursuit of love and marriage and happiness; all the things I love about Austen are overflowing in this novel. Plus, I get the added bonus of picturing Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy every time I read it. :)

12. Barrayar, by Lois McMaster Bujold: Bujold is my favorite sci fi author, maybe my favorite author bar none. Although she has written several very enjoyable fantasy novels, I absolutely adore her Vorkosigan Universe series, currently at 14 volumes (but soon to be 15, a new novel coming out next year, woohoo!). The main character is a hyperactive, hyperintelligent scion of a military family who happens to be less than five feet tall. The way Bujold puts him in horrible scrapes, makes them more complicated, and then resolves them, puts her books at the pinnacle of space adventure. Add in memorable, complicated characters, witty writing, and deep and human themes, and you have a series that I re-read every year as a special treat. I can't remember when I first discovered Bujold's work—probably sometime in my late twenties or early thirties—but I always enjoy revisiting it, especially Barrayar, a novel that involves a civil war, a daring escape, and an even more daring rescue, but at the end is about the cost of becoming a parent. It won a Hugo for best novel, one of several Bujold has garnered.

13. His Dark Materials, by Philip Pullman: I read other fantasy writers and enjoy their work; I read this trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass) and I get jealous. The underlying conceit is brilliant: in an alternate Oxford, human souls take the form of animals, called daemons. While children are young, their daemons can change shape; when they become adults, daemons settle on a permanent form that reflects their person's personality. This change, and the science behind it, sparks a plot that involves extreme travel—not just to the Arctic, but to alternate universes and even the land of the dead. To those who might scoff at a grownup for reading "children's books," I'll just point out that the final volume in the series, The Amber Spyglass, won Britain's Whitbread Book of the Year award—a kind of super-Pulitzer, in which they choose the best book from the top books in each category. I've always thought that Pullman is categorized as a "children's writer" because his protagonists are children, even though his work is as rich and rewarding as any "adult" writer's. This series, a reworking of Milton's Paradise Lost, is very enjoyable proof of that.

14. Galileo's Daughter, by Dava Sobel: This was the last book I put on my list; I wanted to choose a work of nonfiction, because I do enjoy it and I read a fairly wide variety. Maybe I should have picked Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks (the British radio/tv comedian, not the skateboarder), because it would have represented my years living in England, but I decided on this work by the author of Longitude instead. It combines a lot of the things that interest me: science (especially astronomy), medieval times, history, and the role of women. The book details the relationship between pioneering Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei and the eldest of his three illegitmate children, a daughter named Maria Celeste who became a nun. It's wonderfully written and endlessly fascinating, but I think the main reason I put it on the list is the memorable ending. Any nonfiction work that can leave me with tears in my eyes ... well, that's a book that deserves a spot on my list.

15. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J. K. Rowling: I remember when I first heard about the Harry Potter series, back in 1998 when it had first been acquired for publication in the U.S. They were predicting great things, and I saw it get more and more popular, but I didn't pick it up until around the time the fourth volume was published. By the time volume 5 came out in 2003, Boy and I were attending midnight parties to pick up the latest volume and hitting the theaters on opening day for each of the movies. Besides being the defining pop-culture phenomenon of the past decade, the Harry Potter books are a textbook example of fantasy world-building. From the slightest detail—especially the wonderful attention to names of all kinds—Rowling creates a completely believable magical version of our world. While I think the third volume, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, is the most perfectly plotted of the series, the final book, Hallows, is an epic culmination of the thousands of pages that came before. While the resolution of the battle against Voldemort is exactly what you'd expect (without being predictable), it's Harry's emotional journey that makes this finale so satisfying. I can't wait to see what Alan Rickman does with Snape's character in the last film.

So there you have it: fifteen books in considerably more than fifteen minutes. It's pretty clear that I have an affinity for sci fi and fantasy, and that I really enjoy works that are targeted towards children. (Since I spend a lot of time writing for that audience, that's a good thing.) There are so many other works I could have listed for my fifteen—heck, I could've done 15 books from my childhood alone, I devoured so many. But I think these are a pretty good representation of what I like to read and what stays with me the most. Now, what are some of your most memorable books?

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