Ten of My The Princess Bride Novels: The Twelve Book Edition (Part One)
Book lists are important for writers and readers. They make us justify and clarify our reasons for loving the works we love, even if we only compile them for ourselves. It’s easy to say “Oh, I loved that book,” but it takes introspection and commitment to articulate precisely why you love it. If you’re like me, it may even make you want to re-read the book.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about what draws me to certain stories and, most importantly, what draws me back to them repeatedly, inspiring me to spend valuable time re-reading them when I could be devouring new books.
One of the standards I have for a “favorite” novel is that when I finish it, I sit in stunned silence, unable to speak, to even utter what I’m thinking: “What did I just finish reading?” Every one of the books in this list meets that standard.
My most important requirement for favorite novel-ness, however, is that it must pass what I call the The Princess Bride Test, which is the book version of my tendency to stop and watch the film The Princess Bride any time I run across it on television. No matter what time it is, what I’m doing, or where I’m supposed to be, down I sit, waiting patiently for six-fingered Count Rugen, the Rodents of Unusual Size, True Love, and that final “As you wish.”
All the books in this list have passed The Princess Bride Test. They’re listed in no particular order other than that the first one had to be at the top. Consider every other installment as being in second place, and you’ll be right on target.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
I first read this book over the span of two days, both of which I spent on jury duty. I’d already read Chabon’s Sherlock Holmes novel, The Final Solution, which I’d enjoyed, and I’d been wanting to read Kavalier & Clay for a long time, but I had no idea what I was in for.
So what’s this novel about? It’s a story set in the early years of the comic book industry, so there’s that. It’s a story about an immigrant, Joe Kavalier, the artist half of the titular duo. It’s a story about refusing to compromise one’s art. But it’s about much more than any one of those things, and, yes, it’s more than the sum of them as well.
Michael Chabon is a master of so many literary talents that it’s sometimes easy to forget how much fun he seems to be having when he’s in the middle of a story. It’s only possible to forget this, though, when you’re not in the middle of reading one of those stories. When you’re inside his world, you’re living it, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is his best.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Every now and then, I’ll go back and re-read the last chapter of A Prayer for Owen Meany, just because it’s one of my favorite passages of literature. But it’s the opening line that always gets me:
I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice–not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.
How’s that for an audacious first line? This book is full of passages of that caliber, too. Just pick it up and turn to any page.
Another amazing thing about this novel is the way Irving tells it in fragments, shuttling back and forth from John Wheelright’s present, as an adult living in Canada, to his past as a young man in New Hampshire, when he was friends with Owen Meany. Irving does this masterfully enough that once you’re done, you’d swear it was told in one long narrative.
But the most powerful element of this story is Owen Meany, possibly one of the funniest, complex, and heartbreaking characters you’ll ever read. Just as Johnny’s grandmother could never quite forget Owen, he continues to live with the reader long after the book is through, with his wrecked voice, tiny body, and wry observations on the world.
And speaking of powerful lines, don’t get me started on the last one in the novel.
Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
In Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon breaks one of the rules handed down to MFA students everywhere: Don’t write about a writer. In fact, Chabon takes it even further, breaking the second, often unspoken part of that rule: If you’re going to write about a writer, for the love of God, don’t write about a writer with writer’s block. No one wants to read about that.
Not only is Wonder Boys about a blocked writer, Grady Tripp, but he’s a college professor (another MFA no-no), his wife has left him, he smokes too much weed and is having an affair with his chancellor’s wife, and he’s involved in a weird vintage-collectible-related crime with one of his writing students. Not exactly the most appealing protagonist, right? But as he always does, Chabon makes it work.
Wonder Boys is also interesting in that it’s such a non-conventional narrative. You’re never quite sure where the story is headed, and there are lots of digressions and detours—much like in Tripp’s 2,611-page meandering manuscript for The Land Downstairs—but the ride is what’s most important in this story, not the destination.
The film version of Wonder Boys, by the way, is largely faithful to the book, with excellent performances by Michael Douglas and Tobey McGuire, but it settles for a more conventional ending, attempting to make Grady more sympathetic, more like a normal guy. Compared to the novel, it seems like a cop out.
Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut
This choice surprises some people, not because it’s a Vonnegut book, but because it’s not Slaughterhouse Five. Don’t get me wrong. Slaughterhouse Five is a fine novel, and it’s arguably Vonnegut’s most personal work, but Mother Night has always been my favorite.
Howard W. Campbell is an American playwright living in Hitler’s Germany near the beginning of World War II. Campbell is approached by a U.S. intelligence operative—a person he comes to call his Fairy Godmother—and asked to remain in Germany and write and deliver coded propaganda messages through the medium of German radio. Eventually, he agrees and goes at it full force, becoming one of the war’s most famous Nazi apologists.
This is where it all begins, but the story continues after the war ends. Although Campbell is eventually released into anonymity in America, the U.S. government promises to deny any wartime involvement with him. If he’s caught by Nazi hunters, they tell him, he’s on his own. The thing is, Campbell is starting to believe that he is actually guilty of all the things he’s been accused of doing.
In Vonnegut’s introduction to the novel, he writes one of his most often repeated lines: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Good advice.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer
Like Mother Night, this choice also surprises people, here because they’ve never heard of the book. When I read it a few years ago for a book club my wife and I were a part of, it knocked me out.
Beginning with a chance communication between two people over a name in a book, the stories in this novel contain some of the most memorable people, places and tales I’ve ever read. It deals primarily with the happenings on the channel island of Guernsey during its German occupation during World War II.
This one is an epistolary novel–one written in letters–but don’t let that put you off. While that kind of structure can sometimes be a liability, in this case it works to the author’s advantage. Every character practically leaps off the page and demands attention, so much so that I found it impossible to quit.
The Stand by Stephen King
If Stephen King had only ever written one book, and if that book were The Stand, he’d still be one of the premier writers of our time. He’s written other books, some of them amazing, some merely good, others not as much so. To be fair, though, considering his output, the ratio is still stacked heavily in favor of good to excellent.
The Stand, though, that’s a story with some staying power. King has said he was inspired to write it in part by both George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides and the 1974 SLA kidnapping of Patty Hearst. On the surface, the first connection is easy to see, the second one not so much. It all begins with the release of a superflu virus, Captain Trips, but being King’s work, of course there’s a supernatural element, and it comes down to nothing less than the ultimate fight between good and evil in the ashes of civilization, in Las Vegas.
On top of its jaw-dropping premise, The Stand is also an epic story, in every sense of the word. It covers lots of geography, lots of time, and the cast of characters is one of the largest and best managed of any novel this side of Leo Tolstoy. In turn, The Stand has inspired other excellent apocalyptic novels like Robert McCammon’s Swan Song and Justin Cronin’s The Passage.
Come back next week for the next six books in my list of The Princess Bride novels.