Ten of My The Princess Bride Novels: The Twelve Book Edition (Part Two)
Two weeks ago, I started a list of my top ten The Princess Bride novels, books I can always return to, pick up, and read. Each one of these novels changed the way I thought about reading, writing, and the way I saw the world. Here are installments seven through twelve.
Straight Man by Richard Russo
The day I graduated college with a bachelor’s degree in English, ready to begin grad school three weeks later, one of my mentors, a favorite professor of mine, walked up and handed me a copy of Richard Russo’s Straight Man, and said, “Welcome to the business, kid.”
Probably one of the most consistently-funny books I’ve ever read, Straight Man, like Chabon’s Wonder Boys, takes on a taboo topic–taboo to writers, anyway–the college English professor who’s in the throes of a mid-life crisis and trying to finish a novel. William Henry Devereaux is the interim English chair at a small Pennsylvania university. He tells his story in a first-person, present tense narrative that defies the reader to put it down. If I open Straight Man to a page—any page—I will find a line that makes me laugh.
Straight Man is, among other things, an homage to Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, another funny novel about academia. (In fact, one of Devereaux’s nicknames is “Lucky Hank.”) It’s also an example of why I love to read, and of why I wanted to become a writer. Russo manages to make this one of the funniest-and-most-moving-novels-about-people-I-shouldn’t-care-about that I’ve ever read.
Watership Down by Richard Adams
“Tharn animals.” This was a phrase I was unaware of until I read Stephen King’s The Stand (see part one of this list), in which he referenced both it and its literary source, Watership Down.
Once you get past the idea that you’re reading about rabbits–not that there’s anything wrong with that, anyway–Richard Adams pulls you into a world in which these creatures have their own language, mythology, poetry, and culture.
Led by the brave rabbits Hazel, Fiver, and Pipkin, and antagonized by the terrible General Woundwort, the rabbits escape the destruction of their own warren and seek a new home at Watership Down. Read this book and you’ll never see a rabbit the same way again. Ever.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
This novel follows Tommy, Ruth, and Kathy, three students at an English boarding school called Hailsham. As children, they are constantly told that they are special, that it is vitally important that they maintain their health. Soon, it soon becomes clear that is no ordinary school, and these are not normal students.
Ishiguro has been criticized for many things regarding Never Let Me Go, one of the most prevalent being the passivity of his characters. Why don’t they just walk away from their lots in life? That’s what makes this story so heatbreaking, though, so unique. We expect our heroes to assert themselves, to fight against unreasonable authority, not resign themselves to it. But while the reader suspects that these children–these adults–could perhaps escape the fate laid out for them, it never even occurs to Tommy, Kathy, or Ruth that this might be the case.
The book is divided into three sections, each dealing with a part of the main characters’ lives: childhood, adulthood, and their ultimate fates. The novel is certainly dystopian, it’s haunting, and it’s also something of a horror novel, but most of all it’s a coming of age story about children discovering their roles in the world and learning to accept them.
Tenth of December by George Saunders
I haven’t met anyone who wasn’t at least intrigued by this collection of short stories. That’s not to say those folks aren’t out there, because I’m sure they are. After all, Saunder’s Tenth of December is weird, challenging, and risky, and it’s probably not for everyone.
To me, it was a joy to read. It occasionally had me turning back a few pages to make sure what I thought was happening was actually happening, asking myself, “Did I just read what I think I read?” Saunders’ gift for language, telling, unique details, and understated humor reminds me of Vonnegut, and, in case you don’t know me, that’s steep praise.
Saunders stays with you. I always enjoy hearing fellow Saunders readers saying “Remember that story where (unusual character) did (unusual thing)?” or “Remember the one about that (weird guy)?” And everyone who’s read the book just nods and smiles.
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
I’ll say the same thing about Trainspotting as I did The Commitments–if not for the film, I probably wouldn’t have picked up the book, and what a mistake that would have been.
The novel details the lives of heroin addicts in 1980s Edinburgh: Rent, Sick Boy, Spud, and assorted other characters. But the true horror is their friend Begbie–brought to terrifying life in the film version by Robert Carlyle–a man whose only positive attribute is probably that he doesn’t use heroin. Other than that, he’s ruthless, cruel, and violent, even to those he supposedly likes.
Trainspotting is raw, horrific, nasty, and disgusting, but it’s also beautiful and moving. The dialect can be difficult to break into at first, but it’s well worth it. In fact, although I sometimes grow weary of authors who write in dialect, I can’t imagine Trainspotting being written in any other way. Once you get past a couple of chapters, the individual voices begin to sing as the characters tell their stories.
To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
Since 2010, Connie Willis has been my obsession. Well, I’ve been obsessed with her writing, anyway. A number of her novels revolve around the time traveling history department at Oxford University: Doomsday Book, Blackout, All Clear, and To Say Nothing of the Dog.
To Say Nothing of the Dog was one of those novels I’d heard of thousands of times but never managed to pick up. Here, Willis somehow manages to incorporate time travel, romance, history, a cat, and a dog, all with a P.G. Wodehouse approach to social interaction. It’s smart and genuinely funny, in a sophisticated way. It’s also a beautiful example of genre writing that stands alongside the best works serious literature has to offer.