The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams (1978)
Don’t Panic. These are the comforting words written on the cover to the guidebook – “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”. Still, these words provide relatively little comfort to Arther Dent who is having a very bad day indeed. The book opens with an everyday morning for Mr. Dent, brushing his teeth, getting dressed, etc. Then, out of the corner of his eye he notices a bull-dozer about to knock down his house. This leads to one of my favorite scenes in a novel, the recollection of his discovering the permit to destroy his house (for a high-way, must make way for progress) despite it being hidden in a locked filing cabinet, in the basement of the development office, where the light is broken, and the stairs are out….
Soon his house is moot as his friend Ford Prefect (really an alien who failed in his attempt to pick a normal sounding name) whisks him off to outer space. And then the fun really begins. This is the first in a series of five novels, each slightly more absurd then the last, following different characters at different times, but always intersecting back again, as the characters bounce around various galaxies, guided by their own mischief, and Ford’s book (now available on a machine and the original got too big – possibly the first e-reader!) – The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galexy. As an example of the whole project, according to wikipedia, the series was described as “a trilogy in five parts” because it was described as a trilogy on the release of the third book, and then a “trilogy in four parts” on the release of the fourth book. Beautifully absurd – you can’t really argue with the logic, and yet you are left with the feeling that something is not quite right.
One of my all time favorite books – I had the book on CD and spent a LOT of time listening to it while driving to/from college because it was the only book on CD I had – its light, amusing, a great read and a part of pop-culture.
July’s People, by Nadine Gordimer (1981)
A (fictional) civil war in South Africans overturn apartheid forces a liberal white family to flee Johannesburg to the home village of July, their black servant. Racial and class tensions follow the family, and are aggravated by the new situation of the family now being entirely dependent on the former servants family. The book follows the family as they fall apart.
Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1985, translated to English in 1988)
Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza are young lovers, but her father breaks them up and soon Fermina is married to Juvenal Urbino, a medical doctor and a perfect man on paper. They have a long marriage, but at his passing Florentino reappears professing his love, having waited more then 50 years for his second opportunity.
Although Gabriel Garcia Marquez won the nobel prize for his earlier book, 100 Years of Solitude, I preferred this one. I had seen the book around, and decided to give it a try even though I wasn’t interested in anything too heavy, or a sappy love story. I was soon swept up in the plot and characters, and very much enjoying the writing style (or at least the translation there of)!
The Trial, by Franz Kafka (1925)
On his 30th birthday, Josef K, a bank clerk, is unexpectedly arrested. He is not told which authority is arresting him, and stranger still, he is not told what his alleged crime is. This question looms over the whole novel – despite the initial proceedings and hearings (during which he remains free), appearances before the court – and is never answered. Initially calm, Josef becomes concerned with his situation, seeking legal counsel, and the sympathy of those who have friends in high places. There are some smaller mysteries – a room that is trashed is restored overnight, suggesting either Josef imagining things, or a very powerful entity (perhaps the government itself). A slightly confusing book that makes you appreciate our legal system, which although not perfect, strives for transparency.
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck (1939).
A combination of the Great Depression and the drought (the Dust Bowl) drove the Joad family to leave their home in Oklahoma and, in the true American fashion, head west in search of a better life. As their difficult journey progresses they realize thousands of other Oakies are also on the same journey, and tales that California is not all that was promised circulate. With no other option however, the family presses on. On arrival they find that a lack of rights and surplus of desperate labor has driven down wages and laborers are expected to endure intolerable conditions – the family becomes increasingly desperate.
Somehow I missed reading this book in high school, but I happened to pick up a copy recently and found it to be an engaging (if heart-wrenching) story. Tom Joad desperation springs not only from his own needs, but from watching his family suffer at the hands of greedy capitalists. While there may something appropriate about reading this book during the great recession, its also a bit of a comfort to realize how good things really are these days, despite the economic environment.
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving (1989)
The book is narrated by John Wheelwright, but is really about growing up in the 50′s and 60′s in New Hampshire with his best friend, Owen Meany. Owen is a strange boy, he is rather small, he TALKS LIKE THIS, and believes that he is an instrument of God, but is very clever and has ways of convincing people to do what he wants. Owen comes from a strange working-class family, and essentially becomes a member of John’s upper-class family, spending as much time as possible at his house where John lives with his mother (his un-wed mother caused a scandal by refusing to name the father).
Many other plots lines unfold, and I don’t want to give too much away, but I will just say that somehow Mr. Irving has the talent of making the unbelievable totally accepted, and the result is a stunning book. Funny and sad, the characters feel real, but aren’t overdone – this is one of those books where although you are looking at words on a page, it feels like you are watching a movie unfold. This is (possibly) the only book that makes me cry every time I have read it. This is a real story, in the best sense of the word (the word being story).
The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver (1998)
In 1959 the Price family moves from Georgia to the village of Kilanga in the Belgian Congo to serve as missionaries. Nathan Price, his wife Orelanna and their four daughters have no idea what to expect, and I particularly enjoyed the first half of the book, watching them prepare for their jounery, and settle into their new home. While the women were able to adapt, Nathan refused to grow and accept the people of his new land. The growing tensions lead to a series of misfortunes, culminating with a death.
The second half of the book explores what happened to the family members next, which personally I could have done without. The first half of the book is a great story, but the second half is more of an analysis of the characters, which plot line seems especially pale compared to the adventure of the first half.