Welcome to The B Word!

We hope you enjoy your stay.

To add a new blog click here and select 'Add a Post' under B Heard and get blogging!

Friday, 6 March 2009

My Favorite Books (at least for now) - Dan Wells

Last week I talked about the books I read growing up, and how they shaped my reading and writing tastes. Today I’m going to talk about the five “Favorite Books” listed in my bio on my website, www.fearfulsymmetry.net:

Dune, Frank Herbert
Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
Perfume, Patrick Suskind
American Gods, Neil Gaiman
Taran Wanderer, Lloyd Alexander

Dune, Frank Herbert
I have read Dune more times than any other book. It’s a brilliant blend of SF, fantasy, politics, ecology, and military strategy. I love the world Herbert created—not just the planet of Arrakis, but the entire universe of feudal lords, semi-human space pilots, mystical witches, and giant sandworms. The Butlerian Jihad, outlawing all thinking machines, was a masterstroke, and really gives the book (and the rest of the series) a unique flavor. What I like most about Dune, though, is the intrigue; every scene, every sentence, every word in the book is rich with layer after layer of schemes, counter schemes, and plots within plots. The dinner party when Paul’s family first arrives on Arrakis is one of the tensest, most fascinating scenes I’ve ever read—and it’s a dinner party, for crying out loud! My favorite scene in the book is Feyd’s knife fight in the Harkonnen arena, where every attack, every step, every choice is part of a complex plot (or plots) to gain, shift, or consolidate power. It’s an absolutely stunning book.

Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
I read Les Miserables because, like most people who read it these days, I heard the musical and thought it was kind of cool. I was in high school at the time, on summer break with nothing else to read, so I decided to take a shot at the unabridged version; people warned me against it, telling tales of gigantic tangents and non-fiction essays, but I was undaunted. I made the right choice. The unabridged Les Miserables is an epic so vast and so…well, epic, that it has become the measuring stick against which I compare any other epic I read. What I love about it is the vast range of human emotion and experience—the book contains some of the most vile, depraved people in all of literature, right next to some of the best and most righteous, and includes the full spectrum between. In some cases, people will actually move from one category to the other, and because the book slows down and takes its time you can really feel the transition. And I loved the wacky tangents: the section on quicksand was harrowing; the detailed description of Waterloo was a gruesome depiction of hell on Earth; and even the essay on sewer systems was a joy to read, believe it or not, simply because Hugo’s mastery of language makes anything worth reading, regardless of topic. Obviously this will depend on the skill of your translation (I did not read the original French), but find a good one and give it a shot.

Perfume, Patrick Suskind
Another book I read in translation, Perfume is the only horror-ish book on the list. It’s the story of a man in 18th century France who has no human emotion whatsoever, but possesses instead the most incredible sense of smell ever seen in human history. This premise establishes not only a tense thriller but a fascinating historical novel with an uncanny power for descriptive language. Jean-Baptiste, the “hero,” becomes a perfumer obsessed with capturing the scents of beautiful women, and as he plots and murders his way through French society he describes the various smells so perfectly that you can almost smell them, right in your room reading them. It’s phenomenal on many levels.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman
Gaiman is one of my favorite authors, and American Gods is my favorite of his books. It’s the ultimate story of immigration, and as such becomes the ultimate story of America itself; these are not all-powerful deities, but strangers in a strange land doing their best to survive. The great demon Chernobog lives in a brownstone apartment with the Three Sisters (one of Gaiman’s favorite archetypes), eating cabbage and playing checkers. The god of the Internet eats at McDonalds, and burns his fingers on the hot apple pie. More than anything else this book is about setting—it’s about the simple lives of everyday Americans, mortal or otherwise, simply trying to get by the best they can. It’s also a wonderful love story and a grand-scale con job. American Gods is Gaiman’s most awarded book, but it deserves it all.

Taran Wanderer, Lloyd Alexander
When I grew up reading fantasy, it was all about dragons and heroes and wars and all the other stuff that little boys love. So when I got to book 4 of the Prydain Chronicles, Taran Wanderer, I didn’t know what to make of it—instead of high adventure the small, weather-beaten story of a young man trying to become an adult. There’s a line early in the book, spoken by one of the witches, which establishes the whole thing (I paraphrase): “The little chicken wants to soar with the eagles, but first let’s see if he can scratch for his own worms.” In other words, growing up and becoming a useful, responsible person is not only more important, but far more difficult, than slaying a dragon and saving a kingdom. The villain Taran faces is not an evil wizard but an arrogant jerk, and he defeats him not with an ancient sword of power but with an ugly, sturdy sword that he made himself. In everything I write, and in everything I do, I try to remember the lessons I learned from this book: that a hero must first be a person, and that the most important challenges are usually the most personal.

Next week we'll take a similar look at my favorite movies.

3 comments:

The Book Girl said...

I nominated your blog for an award :-) Check out my latest post!

Amy said...

i'll have to check out neil gaimans book-he's a fantastic storyteller. stardust is another great one.
-amy
btw:how on earth did you manage to read les misrebles? it's gigantic!:)

Fellfrosch said...

A deep love of reading was a good start, but a long boring summer job clinched the deal. I've always wanted to go back and read Les Miserables again, but outside of that situation I've never been able to find the time.