Monday, April 21, 2014

Short Reviews of the 50 Books to Read Before You Die

My friend Austin wants me to note that some of these books I "read" by listening to unabridged audiobooks. I tried to explain that you can actually get MORE out of a book by listening to it, but he still says it's not technically "reading." Anyway, here is a review of each of the 50 books on the list of "50 Books to Read Before You Die" sold in many bookstores on a bookmark. I have ranked them based on which I thought were the best, but please note that some of them I do NOT recommend reading.
  1. The Bible – The only book that is not simply a book. Perhaps this might be a good time to plug my favorite versions: 1984 translation of NIV, New King James, Holman Christian Standard Version and New American Standard. I rank these based on readability and accuracy to my limited knowledge of the original text (incorporating both word-for-word and dynamic equivalence necessary for accurate translation).
  2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – Not only the greatest American Novel, the greatest fiction work of all time. The symbolism stays carefully hidden beneath the surface at all times, letting the action drive the story. Yet, but scratch the surface, and the human problem and the Divine solution scream out at you. Content Issues: Use of profanity and discriminatory language, but this is presented as wrong.
  3. Hamlet by William Shakespeare – Though I put To Kill a Mockingbird as the greatest work of fiction, Shakespeare was the world’s greatest writer. Hamlet is my favorite of his plays, with timeless reflections on the fleeting nature of human life and the struggle of existence.
  4. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – Unfortunately, the Lord of the Rings often gets discounted as some kind of glorified fantasy novel, brought to popularity by a subculture of devoted fans. The book is actually a sophisticated look at life, truth and God through a carefully crafted mythology.
  5. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck – I think Steinbeck is one of the best writers the world has produced, and his account of the perseverance of the human spirit in the face of great trials soars. However, I do have to mention that his collectivist ideology leaks through into monologues that I feel are somewhat forced. With that said, I still rank this as the second-greatest novel written by an American – incredibly well-written and inspiring. Content Issues: Language, some sexual discussions and imagery and irreligious philosophizing
  6. Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes – There are numerous beautiful romances written in Don Quixote, the story of a noble, righteous madman in a world that has lost its understanding of what is true, what is beautiful and what is courageous. It’s long, but worth your time. Content Issues: Some mild innuendo and mild crudeness
  7. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – Tolstoy presents the devastating effects of adultery and the emptiness of self-sufficiency, as well as the hope that is found in love and in God. Content Issues: Though the sexual nature of the adultery is handled with sensitivity, it is still presented.
  8. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – Is it possible to call this book underrated? The story of Huck’s journey on the Mississippi River is an inspiring tale of one human soul’s rejection of the oppressive norms and expectations of the society surrounding him. Twain achieves wit, humor, pathos, sadness and inspiration in a way few other authors have ever done. Content Issues: Use of racial slurs, but the book is extremely anti-racist in its message.
  9. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – English was not Conrad’s first language, or his second, yet he wrote this classic work in English, detailing Marlow’s horrific discovery of the abuse perpetrated by Kurtz against natives of the Congo, and the dreadful judgment that happens as a result. This book speaks against colonialism, fix-it projects that Westerners attempt to force upon indigenous cultures, and, most importantly, against the insidious nature of evil in the human soul.
  10. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame – What a beautiful, magical, enchanting book! The adventures of Rat, Mole, Badger and the incorrigible Mr. Toad should be read by parents to children everywhere. Lessons of courage, friendship, and piety are brilliantly presented here.
  11. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas – I read this book for the first time while completing the 50 book challenge and I loved it! The book considers the idea of whether one person can become an agent of God’s vengeance on earth. A great adventure!
  12. Anne Frank – Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank – I find it interesting that this is the only non-fiction book besides the Bible on this list. While that fact may seem odd, I certainly cannot argue with its inclusion, or its representation of the memoir genre. Anne is a genius and, more important than that, she has the soul of a saint. The tragedy and warning of the book is in seeing in its pages the brutal weapon of human violence descending to crush this beautiful flower of sweetness and light. Every human life is valuable and has immortal significance.
  13. Lord of the Flies by William Goldman – The Lord of the Flies has a lot of detractors, because it is a brutal book often forced on unsuspecting school children. When I read it, I was amazed at its popularity in the secular world because it clearly endorses a Biblical view of human sinfulness. Goldman brilliantly illustrates the depravity of human nature, in dialogue, dramatic action and even sophisticated incorporation of religious and mythical allegories. Content Issues: Extremely dark book, violence and some mild language.
  14. Life of Pi by Yann Martel – This book’s account of a young boy’s spiritual journey through life and the Pacific Ocean may be the greatest novel of the 21st Century so far. Martel brilliantly presents the complicated relationship between faith and doubt, and does so with humor, sadness, joy and empathy. Content Issues: Some dark imagery and a certain level of religious pluralism here should be read with careful discernment.
  15. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – This book gets my vote for the best fiction account of romance, as we see strong femininity and strong masculinity interacting to create a beautiful, self-giving love that results in a marriage that has delighted and inspired generations of readers. Admittedly, it MAY be more of a book aimed for girls than guys, but guys should at least read it so they can better understand women.
  16. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – Although I adore the Christmas Carol, I would have chosen one of Dickens’ other classics over it for this list. However, the Christmas Carol is shorter and is a story of redemption that gets at the heart of Christmas as no other work of fiction has.
  17. 1984 by George Orwell – Orwell unflinchingly demolishes the totalitarian edifice in this brutal book. I suppose we get tired of hearing one party or another being called totalitarians, but I think this book illustrates the importance of ensuring individual freedom from government control. The government exists to protect our rights, not give us the rights it wants us to have. Content Issues – Mild language and brief, non-explicit sexual content.
  18. The Stranger by Albert Camus – Existentialist literature is usually a synonym for “depressing read,” and such is certainly the case here. However, Camus has a strange sympathy for the despairing plight of his subjects, and his existentialism leaves one hoping for more, and looking for the answer, an answer which is only found in Jesus. Content Issues: Some language, mild sexual imagery, and disturbing events.
  19. War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells – In a groundbreaking effort that still defines science fiction to this day, Wells describes the invasion of the earth by aliens, and ends up presenting a moving tribute to the triumph of human nature and the goodness of the world on which we live.
  20. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – As most know, Wilde’s lived a troubled life, and I believe you can see his struggle with the ravaging effects of sin on a person’s life and heart in this book. Human sexuality, love and lust, selflessness and selfishness are beautifully and tastefully portrayed here. Whatever else may be said about Wilde, he was a great writer. Content Issues – Dark imagery, mild language, some innuendo.
  21. Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway – You either love or hate Hemingway, and I love him. How he can use such spare, manly language to evoke emotion and offer great insight on life, love and the human experience is beyond me, but I appreciate it, nonetheless. Content Issues – Mild language
  22. The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope – A social satire of England in the 19th Century, this book is long, but worth the read if you enjoy this genre. Trollope follows an aristocratic English family falling is social graces, cleverly pointing out the value of hard work and selfless love along the way. Sardonic, yet also delightful in tone.
  23. The Quiet American by Graham Greene – Greene does a masterful job of portraying the desolation caused by unjust war, violence taken against the innocent. Greene is a moralist (a refreshing change from many books listed below) and you can see his longing for a higher ground of truth and morality on which humans can relate to each other.
  24. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – Another dystopian classic, Huxley imagines the totalitarian government which is the opposite of Orwell’s. Whereas Orwell’s government is modeled more closely after the totalitarianism of the far right, Huxley’s is modeled after the friendly, yet still just as destructive, oppression of the far left. Huxley’s vision is brilliant, and especially chilling as we look at abuses common in modern government. Content Issues – Some language and sexual content (not explicit)
  25. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger – I wanted to dislike this book, but I can’t help but enjoy it and appreciate what it does. Salinger creates one of the iconic outsider in Holden Caufield, whose heart is bursting with a love and care that he simply does not have the emotional or social tools to express. I would also like to note that Holden, while claiming to be an atheist in the book, shows an amazingly accurate insight into the character and person of Jesus. Content Issues – Constant swearing and some sexual content (none explicit)
  26. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – The Bronte sisters each present their own picture of romance gone awry, though Emily’s version is bleaker and more philosophically deep. I don’t particularly enjoy reading this book, because it’s frankly dismal, but I do think it is important in exposing the subtle oppression that women have often undergone in society. I just wish it was somehow easier to read, but I guess that’s the nature of the problem.
  27. A Passage to India by E.M. Forster – Many of the books on this list focus on the plight of the minority, the outsider, and I believe this is one of the best to attempt to do so. Additionally, the portrayal of the English presence in India speaks a powerful message against the abuses inherent in colonialism.
  28. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – The other Bronte book, this one is a little easier to read, though still heavy with oppression and societal chains. This is one I recommend getting on audio book to appreciate fully the poetry inherent in Bronte’s pose.
  29. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath – The most eerie book on the list, as Plath described the mental breakdown and recovery of her main character here just shortly before the author killed herself. I find the book to be important because of its unparalleled insight into the diseased mind, and its revelation of the humanity and brilliance of the life found there. Content Issues: Some language and some sexual content (somewhat explicit)
  30. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri – I found this work to be slightly repetitive, but Dante’s trip through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven is rich with religious symbolism and brilliant reflections on the nature of life, of humanity, of God and of evil. Definitely worth reading, though if we were choosing poems written over 200 years ago, I would prefer a Milton selection over Dante.
  31. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe – The classic shipwreck story, Crusoe displays great endurance and the story presents a compelling argument for the brotherhood of all humans.
  32. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Fitzgerald can write extremely well, and he presents a classically bleak portrayal of the emergence of post-modernism in the early twentieth century in this novel. My issue with Fitzgerald is that he often times comes off as too self-aware and arrogant in his writing. Content Issues: The novel revolves around an extra-marital affair, but it is not explicit.
  33. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – There should be a special place in all our hearts for writers who can be silly and brilliant, hilarious and tragic, nonsensical and lyrical at the same time. Few do it better than Carroll here!
  34. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling – Rowling has violated some basic principles of being an author in my opinion (i.e. adding information about her characters that was not revealed in the novel after the fact) but she crafted a story here that speaks eloquently to the true nature of love and nobility. The character of Severus Snape is especially memorable. The last book, in particular, displays Rowling’s bent towards a Christian worldview. Content Issues: Some mild language. I do not find that Rowling encourages witchcraft at all, but certainly someone with a sensitive conscience in that regard would do well to avoid these books.
  35. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier – I highly enjoyed this mystery tinged with elements of horror. It has a bold ending, and presents the terrifying idea that evil forces can indeed conquer and oppress the forces of love. Is anyone truly who we think they are?
  36. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley – The fact that Frankenstein is so low on this list is more of an indication of the greatness of the novels above it than an indication of failures on its part. This novel explores the experience of otherness and the dangers of scientific advancement made without the careful oversight of conscience. Shelley’s prose is overdone, at times, however, and preachy in its promotion of some na├»ve beliefs in the goodness of human nature. Content Issues: Violent at times.
  37. Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon – Haddon writes brilliantly from the perspective of an autistic teen, and evokes sympathy on the part of the reader for those who are marginalized and misunderstood in their midst. The book functions well as a mystery and a family drama, but it is an emotionally difficult read at several points. Content Issues: Strong language, and the main character ridicules belief in God.
  38. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift – A book of clever social satire presented mostly in allegorical entanglements in which Gulliver finds himself. The book does not speak much to the universal themes important to every person, but it is very well-written and entertaining. Content Issues: Some bathroom humor and mild innuendo.
  39. Moby Dick by Herman Melville – Moby Dick is a long, wordy book, but it is incredibly well-written. However, when the theme of the novel is uncovered, we find that Melville believed God to be a capricious, uncaring being, and the whale functions, at least at one level, as an avatar for his twisted image of the Creator. It’s a blasphemous book, but reading it makes you thankful to know the real God, revealed in Jesus.
  40. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller – A funny yet perverse book (I do not find the book funny when it is perverse). When it avoids the lower levels of humor, it is devastating in its critique of the machinations of war. There are several scenes and quotes that effectively portray the struggle for meaning in a world that seems to have gone mad.Content Issues: Language, sexual situations (some explicit) and rude humor.
  41. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey – An exhilarating exploration of the spaces that exist between madness and sanity, between totalitarianism and anarchy, between sexual aggression and sterility, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has redeeming qualities, but it is a very difficult read, psychologically speaking. Also, it does not always present sin as sin. Content Issues: Some sexual content (not explicit) and some strong language
  42. Ulysses by James Joyce – Ulysses brilliantly alternates between free verse poetry, drama, question and answer, narrative, stream of consciousness and point of view writing to describe a day in the life of an Irishman and his wife. I thought the best written portion was actually Penelope’s (Molly Bloom) at the end. Joyce is clearly a genius, but his novel, as G.K. Chesterton pointed out, seems written to satisfy himself and illustrate his powers. The lasting significance of its themes is unclear, and it is often times crude, confusing and inexplicable. Content Issues: Sporadically strong sexual content and some language. Very crude at times.
  43. On the Road by Jack Kerouac – This book offers a glimpse into an interesting period of American history as beatniks travel the country in the late 40’s and 50’s. Kerouac has an admirable appreciation for the variety of personality and spirituality inherent in human existence, and I believe you can clearly see his awareness of spiritual longing among his characters. However, the book clearly diminishes the disastrous effects of sin at some points, and, in terms of form, often seems repetitive.Content Issues: Strong language and pervasive sexual content (while not explicitly described)
  44. Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer – While the poetry is excellent in form, and there are many interesting insights into life in Chaucer’s time period, I feel this collection of tales is highly overrated, and functions better as a joke than as a serious work of literature. Content Issues: Several moments of crude content and innuendo
  45. A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul – The story deals with the resistance of oppression by an African village, also illustrating the dangers of colonialism and imperialism. However, the book lacks sophistication and seems wordy and dull at several points. Also, the adulterous affair held between two main characters is disgusting and holds no value for the consideration of readers. Content issues:Some sexual content and language. I do not recommend this book.
  46. The Color Purple by Alice Walker – I struggle with this book. The book clearly presents some sinful behavior as normal, and the writer’s bizarre religious and political beliefs emerge awkwardly now and then. However, there are some moments of great triumph in this book that illustrate the humanity and value intrinsic to every human belief, and speak against the evil of oppression everywhere. Content Issues: Sporadic strong sexual content (explicit) and sporadic strong language. I do not recommend this book.
  47. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden – Perhaps the greatest achievement of this book is the attempt by an American male to put himself in the place of an oppressed, Asian woman living half a century before him. In some places, he carries the effort off brilliantly, and in others, it seems confused and self-congratulating. Content Issues:Sexual content (explicit) and some language. I do not recommend this book.
  48. Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks – This may be the oddest of all the books, as, in many places, this book seems simply a glorified romance novel. The dialogue is obviously subpar, in my opinion. However, with that said, Faulks makes some profound points about the destruction wrought in human life by strife, conflict and fear, and some of his symbolism is beautifully managed. Content Issues: Strong, very explicit sexual content in several places and some strong language. I do not recommend this book. I would say this is the only book on this list that presents sexual content with the purpose of titillating its readers, so please know I do not approve of this.
  49. Money by Martin Amis – While this is a crude and disgusting book (the main character is trying to make a pornographic film) that I would never own, nor read again, I do believe that Amis, ultimately, presents the emptiness of a hedonistic lifestyle and the futility of a selfish existence. And, his thoughts about the destructive nature of our society’s focus on money rings true in many places. Content Issues:Pervasive strong language and explicit sexual content throughout. I do not recommend this book.
  50. His Dark Materials Series by Philip Pullman – This book is fairly well-written, though preachy at times. The story is exciting, engaging and original. However, Pullman is practically a Satanist in his orientation in this story. The books are incredibly dark and literally present evil as good. Perhaps most disturbingly, these books were marketed for children. Content Issues: Demonic nature is glorified. Mild language and some sexual overtones. I do not recommend these books.