Friday, May 02, 2003

Best Books, 2002-03

Looking for anything to read this summer? Try these, as usual, the best books I've read for the first time during the past year...

Angela's Ashes (Frank McCourt)

This book was first recommended to me by Jill Steffens while she was working in Brenner Library back at QU, and I finally read it last August. It tells of the author's childhood as the poor son of an alcoholic in Limerick, Ireland. The book's greatest strength is its style, which recalls the plain voice of a child telling the world through his eyes, with the innocence which suggests that his life is universal and to be taken for granted. At the same time, the mature hand behind the story fixes the emotional pacing so that the reader moves from laughing out loud to brushing back tears at the many incidents which go into the life of a rather ordinary human being. This is definitely not a book to miss!

The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)

This long novel takes the form of a murder mystery at a monastery in 13th-century Europe, a mystery which falls amidst a backdrop of that period's social change and political turmoil. For those interested in serious literature, the many discussions between Brother William and others lead to interesting thoughts further illustrated by the plot, while the thrill aspect is kept up by the continuing series of uniquely performed murders to its thrilling conclusion. To be honest, I would have had trouble following some of this book were it not for Fr. Ken's church-focused medieval history class, but that is actually part of the reason I liked it. This book can appeal to a wide variety of tastes which actually alienating none.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (J.K. Rowling)

OK, so I've finally become part of the warp. Other Harry Potter books have flashier endings and darker secrets, but you need to start with this book, because it is the one that will make you fall in love with Hogwarts, its traditions, its classes, and its people. Perhaps it is indicative that whereas the other books so far have left me interested in their plot, this one left me with a desire to wave a magic wand and say "wingardium leviosa" ... in other words, to become part of that universe. Not for kids only, pick this up and read it in a day as soon as you get the chance.

Pilgrim (Leonard Biallas)

Leonard Biallas is not a theologian, but rather a student of theology and religion. This, I think, is an important distinction that is revealed in the way Pilgrim is written. Biallas does not have a complicated system of thought to pass on or argue for; the tourist/traveller/pilgrim typology he posits is mainly a didactic technique to show different ways in which people travel, and to lead us from simple escapism to the type of spiritual engagement with creation he advocates. By including examples from his own experience, he opens windows into humanity, tempting us to go outside and experience the world for ourselves. Perhaps the most striking sign of his sincerity is how much of his focus is on the people he meets; I see many travel books as using the locations visited simply as backdrops to an individual's story.Even if you read only a few chapters, this book can enrich your entire outlook on life, much as it did mine long before I encountered it in book form.

Sundiata (Anonymous)

This is the national epic of medieval Mali, and can stand easily next to the works of Homer or Valmiki with the great epics of world history. The title figure is the first King of Mali, the son of the Buffalo Woman who overcomes the various rivals in his family who wish to make him no longer alive and with the aid of some and the opposition of others ultimately defeats the evi wizard-king through shrewdness and persistence. Literary types will also enjoy his griot Balla Fasseke and his defense of oral story-telling instead of writing. So go forth, read this, and be cultured!

The Crying of Lot 49 (Thomas Pynchon)

This book is actually in a similar vein to The Name of the Rose, in that it takes the form of a mystery, albeit a less formal one, and ultimately leads one to a similar unresolved philosophical nihilism reminiscient of modern life. Pynchon, however, tells this tale of Oedipa Maas and her sometimes surreal adventures with humor and bizarreness that only begins to truly fit together near the end. In the end, of course, the whole thing may have been a joke. This books is shorter and perhaps more accessible than the name of the rose - but it's not set in the middle ages.

The Sound of Waves (Mishima Yukio)

This book is basically a very simple, enjoyable love story which one can enjoy despite the rather questionable social and political agenda embedded in it. Set in a small Japanese fishing village, it tells of the love of the poor fisherman Shinji and Hatsue, the beautiful daughter of a rich man. Perhaps it is a tad cliche, but Mishima's beauty of expression and attention to rich scenic detail help decorate the landscape of this modern fairy tale, sucking us into its world and the myths and rituals it contains. This book proves that even in the modern world, it is still possibly to wite a pure romance novel and pull it off.

So that's that! Whatever you happen to pick up, hope you enjoy it!



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