Sunday, August 3, 2014

My Top 5 Favorite Novels

It's hard to say what the best five novels I've ever read are. In fact, I generally think that it's dumb to talk about the best novel or best song - just like its dumb to talk about a best color. Yes, novels and songs are art. Colors, in and of themselves, are not - except when "created" by companies. However, who's to say, out of all the great novels that have been written, which one is superior to the rest? It's like asking, Who's the most beautiful woman in the world? Once you reach a certain level of beauty, it doesn't really matter. It's about personal taste or mood. Along these lines, I'd like to use the term "favorite" instead of "best."

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

This is the first Murakami novel I read. I don't know if that had anything to do with the massive effect this book had on me. I also thought that it was autobiographical, which, as it turns out, it wasn't, except for some minor details about the school and so on. This book seriously made me depressed and toward the end, when Watanabe is helpless to assist an ever-worsening Naoko, I cried a little. Really, I was just thinking about it, not while reading, and maybe it connected with something in my life, how we are completely helpless in aiding others, not just from death but from pain. I read the English translation by Jay Rubin (2000). (I prefer Birnbaum as Murakami translator.) I've heard Murakami isn't as good in Japanese. Anyway, I'm still somewhat afraid of the book, knowing I'll read it again someday. If you don't mind unbearable sadness, if you're a bit of a loner, if you contemplate death more than the average Joe or Jane, then this novel is perfect for you. Although this is Murakami's only non-speculative novel, it's  not too dissimilar to his other novels, sharing themes. It isn't as funny, though. (I did a more detailed review of the novel, which you can read by clicking here.)

So good I bought the film (2010), which is in Japanese. Not as good as the book. Some good, affecting parts. Good actors. But, and I won't do a review here but, it just, to me, doesn't capture certain elements from the book, such as the long, helpless nature of watching Naoko die. And it depicts this overally dramatic shot of Watanabe crying his eyes out, which is so antithetical to the book, which omits any direct expressions of his sadness. And then there's the ending, totally not the right mood of the book, which celebrates Naoko's life, if done so by having Watanabe have sex with Reiko, several times, who was the closest person to her. I hope someone makes another version.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Embarrassingly, I first read this in grad school. I didn't have a great high school education growing up in the Bronx to poor parents. Didn't really learn to appreciate literature for a while. But at least I read it when I could. The character of Gatsby, his climax, his end is all powerfully affecting, and the way the story is so compact, concise, and coherent. It's easy to identify with Gatsby. He wants something he can't have, so he endeavors to attain it. He pretends to be someone else. He's forced to realize that he's not, and that he can't control time, no one can. Really spoke to me because of my unrequited desires, but that's as much as I'll get into with that.

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

I first read this as an undergrad at Fordham U, for a course on Thomas Hardy. I signed up because I had heard a few cool things about him, that his heart and body were buried in two different locations, which was true, and that he committed suicide, which wasn't - perhaps I was thinking of Plath? I didn't appreciate it much then because of all the work, being a full-time student, and Hardy novels are long! But reading his works on my own allowed me to better appreciate Hardy. Yes, he can be verbose and sensational, but, man, can the guy be sad - and this is a sad, sad book. It's about a stonemason who has big dreams of being one of those smart academicians in the big city. He falls for his beautiful cousin, but fate, working via a religious society that condemns human nature, keeps them miserable and married to other people. I'm really not doing justice to this novel - it's better than it sounds. (To read more about the novel, click here for my review.)

Silence by Shusako Endo

Another translation (1969). I read this book as an undergrad at Fordham U, and I'll never forget it. I'm not a religious guy, and even though the central story has to do with Catholic Portuguese missionaries in seventeenth century Japan, it had a powerful effect on me, informing my future understanding of good literature. I remember mostly the rain, the cicadas, the violence against the Christians, the Christians' resilience and faith, and the interactions between the Japanese and the Westerners, two peoples who had never seen each other before trying to relate to each other as human beings despite their vastly different cultures. We're all human. I also related very much to the theme of God's silence amid so much suffering. Perhaps that's the number one reason people leave their faith.

Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

This book is just honest and unpretentious. When Holden talks to you, you feel there's a real person. It's the protagonist's youth and inexperience that makes him so fit to be narrator. If he knew any better, he wouldn't make the mistakes he does and he wouldn't care so much about telling his parents about his leaving the school or where the ducks go in the winter. He would make better decisions and not try to run away from  home. It's in these mistakes that we, those of us older than Holden, revisit our own mistakes. These mistakes are unavoidable and vital in how we grow to be the men and women we are today. A very fun read. The prostitute scene is hilarious! All the sudden she's like, "Oh, you're kinda cute."

I actually still have a lot to read, as I still consider myself somewhat under-read because of my lackluster early education. So this list is certainly not definitive. I might do one every five to ten years. What are some of your favorite novels?

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