Sunday, March 12, 2006

Twenty One Great Reads

A friend recently asked me to list my five favorite novels. I couldn't do it because, although I'm not much of a novel reader, I've read too many that have either moved me, instructed me, challenged me, or just entertained me to limit myself to only five. Instead, I gave him a list of twenty one, and I still had to leave some out that I should have included.

Herewith is the list, in no particular order, with a sentence or two of explanation:

The Gulag Archipelago (Aleksander Solzhenitsyn): a powerful indictment of the Soviet state and, by implication, it's leftist apologists in the West.

The Stranger (Albert Camus): Camus' mesmerizing vision of the post-modern nihilistic man for whom nothing really matters.

The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevsky): A powerful tale of innocence and faith, evil and skepticism. The chapter titled The Grand Inquisitor is a stand-alone classic.

1984 (George Orwell): Orwell's j'accuse of the totalitarian state.

Bonfire of the Vanities (Tom Wolfe): Wolfe is an excellent writer and deft social satirist. His image of the "social x-ray," the anorexic dowagers of the Manhatten social elite, has been imprinted indelibly on my mind.

Uncle Tom's Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe): A wonderful narrative of the misery and horrors of slavery. Every high school student should read it, but sadly few do.

Roots (Alex Haley): This book inspired me to begin a study of my own family's history, a pursuit which has led me overseas and which has been sometimes exciting and always satisfying.

To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee): A warm tale of family and moral heroism in the face of the banality of evil.

Angela's Ashes (Frank McCourt): A delightful account, full of humor and pathos, of one man's struggle to rise out of the grinding poverty of his childhood in 1950's Ireland and make something of his life here in America.

Complete Short Stories of Flannery O'Connor (Flannery O'Connor): Not a single work, of course, but I have to include this ouvre because O'Connor is just wizard with words, and her ability to skewer liberal pieties appeals to anyone cynical about the doctrine of the inherent goodness of human beings.

Moby Dick (Herman Melville): Melville captures the self-destructive nature of human vengeance, pride and obsessiveness and along the way offers a fairly complete course in whaling and cetology.

Billy Budd (Herman Melville): A marvelous work of human psychology. A good and innocent man is put to death and Melville almost has you thinking that it was the right thing to do.

Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkein): A tour de force of the imagination. It is astounding that one man could have conjured up this fabulous tale. Tolkein is in a class with Homer.

In the Heart of the Sea (Nathaniel Philbrick): This is not a novel, but it reads like one. It's actually a true story of amazing human endurance and survival at sea in the 19th century.

Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck): Classic tale of the dislocations and misery of Oklahomans during the depression-era "dust-bowl."

Les Miserables (Victor Hugo): Perhaps my very favorite novel. Hugo weaves so many threads through this story that you're tempted to focus on just a few, but then, in a stroke of literary brilliance, he ties them all together at the end. Read the unabridged version.

Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens): Another great writer tells an epic narrative of altruism and love. The image of Madame DeFarge knitting while victims of the terror are losing their heads is unforgettable.

I Am Charlotte Simmons (Tom Wolfe): A sleazy, lubricious story of big time university basketball and campus life served up in masterful prose. I haven't read all of Wolfe's works but of what I've read, this is, in my opinion, his best. It's not for children, but it is must reading for every parent sending his/her child off to college.

A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry) : A tragic and compelling tale of growing up poor in India in the fifties. Powerful.

The DaVinci Code (Dan Brown): A page turner of a novel full, unfortunately, of theological axe-grinding and historical flummery. Despite Brown's anti-Catholic, anti-Christian agenda, his book was an exciting read.

The Great Divorce (C.S. Lewis): Lewis packs more deep theological insight and wisdom about human nature into this little volume than one might think possible. Your view of hell, and heaven, will never be the same after you've read it.

Self-Destructive Paranoia

The New York Times has a fascinating article by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, based on their new book titled Cobra II, which highlights the strategic thinking in Baghdad prior to the war, and how Saddam's fear of internal coup made defending his country virtually impossible. It also raises the very important point that even Saddam's military leaders thought Iraq had WMD until just a few months before the war started, and that they were stunned to learn that "the cupboard was bare." Some of them even said that after Saddam told them that there were no weapons they still found Colin Powell's case at the U.N. persuasive and thought that maybe the U.S. knew more than they themselves did.

It is a terrible irony that Saddam's attempts to remove all traces of earlier WMD programs, so as not to give weapons inspectors reason to believe that the programs were still ongoing, actually caused the U.S. to think that he was trying to hide those very programs. Saddam tried to deny having the weapons without actually allowing inspectors to prove he didn't have them because he didn't want to appear weak. His ambiguity left the U.S. with no choice but to assume that he did indeed have them.

Those who were so quick to accuse George Bush of lying to get us into war in those days should be chastened by this revelation, but, of course, they won't be.