My Favorite Fiction Books: The Runners-Up

A few weeks ago I posted a list of my five favorite fiction books.  They are:

1.  “The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien

2.  “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac

3.  “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller

4.  “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert A. Heinlein

5.  “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” by James Tiptree, Jr.

At that time I promised to follow up with a list of books that did not make the top five but were among my favorite fiction books of all time.  The five books above I put more or less in order, but the books below are presented alphabetically to show that I don’t necessarily prefer one above another; all are unique in their own way.  So here’s the list:

“American Pastoral” by Philip Roth.  This devastating look at the American dream gone wrong is elegantly written, and once begun is very hard to put down.  The character known as “The Swede” has a seemingly flawless middle-class lifestyle and then things begin to unravel, exposing the ugly reality underneath.  The awards and accolades this book received were well-deserved.

“Fictions” by Jorge Luis Borges.  Borges is a master of the puzzle, the maze, the conundrum, and is also a virtuoso stylist.  This book is a compilation of several of his shorter fiction books.  They are presented chronologically, and from the beginning to the end the stories are marvelous.  Many of the best are fables of the surreal that leave contemporary fantasy writers in the dust.  It’s a wonderful book.

“Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri.  I had never heard of this writer when a librarian I knew pointed the book out to me and said she thought I might be interested in it.  And indeed I was.  The stories speak of the Bengali/American experience; they juxtapose the two cultures and accentuate the alienation and culture shock of moving from one to the other, but at the same time the characters are starkly human, real and emotional and empathetic.  Having lived in West Bengal myself, I was deeply sympathetic to the plight of the immigrants to America Lahiri describes and their difficulties in adjusting to such a profoundly different culture.

“Kim” by Rudyard Kipling.  Okay, okay, I’ve heard all the arguments about Kipling being an imperialist and so on, but all that does not detract from the fact that his masterpiece, “Kim”, is a terrific book.  It plunges you into the heart of the India of the late 1800s with such exquisite detail and description that you feel you are actually there.  I have traveled extensively in India and I relished the reading experience.  It is a book written by a man who knew and deeply loved the land and its people.  Some of Kipling’s other work I find dated and trivial by today’s standards, but this book is different.  It’s a terrific read and a great adventure.

“Matterhorn” by Karl Marlantes.  This is the newest, most recently written book on this list, and in fact I have written a review of it elsewhere on this website, but I wanted to include it here as one of my favorite books of all time because I had been searching for so long for a truly great work of fiction on the Vietnam War, and in this book I found it.

“The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway.  I could read this book over and over.  There’s not a word out of place.  It is precise and elegant and poetic and plain all at the same time.  The relationship between the old man and the boy is beautifully rendered, and at the end when the boy finds the exhausted old man sleeping in his hut and bursts into tears, invariably so do I.  It’s one of the most perfect stories I have ever read.  Its deceptive simplicity hides great depth.

“Phases of the Moon” by Robert Silverberg.  This is a collection of some of Silverberg’s best stories.  All of my favorites are here, like “Sundance” and “Passengers” and “Good News From the Vatican”.  To top it off, each story has an accompanying essay in which Silverberg writes about how he came to write it and what was happening in his life when he did.  Silverberg is a master of the science fiction short story, and the level of ingenuity and craftsmanship these stories display has seldom been equaled since.  

“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy.  In a post-apocalyptic landscape beset with cannibals a father and his son struggle to survive.  This short book, once begun, is very difficult to put down.  The language is both spare and poetic.  The relationship between the father and son is deeply touching.  McCarthy manages, in his prose, to create great beauty out of a situation beset with despair.  There is a movie based on the book which follows the basic plot quite closely, but though it is touching in parts it is a pale imitation.  Read the book.

“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig.  This is another father and son story, this time of a motorcycle journey across the States.  On the way the father explores his personal study of philosophy and the thoughts that led to his nervous breakdown and recovery.  It alternates between the father/son story and a detailed description of various philosophical theories, but it manages somehow to make it all seem like a great intellectual adventure.

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