October 20, 2017

My Five Favorite Novels

Ok, so I am answering a question you didn’t ask. For some reason I think you want to know this anyway. You have been sitting there thinking, What is Jeff Dunn’s favorite fiction title of all time? What else would he recommend? And if you haven’t been thinking that, now you are. So I am now obligated to answer your question. Glad to do so.

(By the way, each of these books are available by clicking on the links below and ordering through Amazon. When you do, you help support InternetMonk.com. Or you can also visit our resource center, iMonkPublishing. Thanks for your help!)

A couple of honorary mentions before we get to my top five. And, yes, I am going to cheat by lumping some books together as a series and calling them one book. Why? Well, why would you read only one book in a series? Besides, this is my list.

The entire Harry Potter series is fantastic. Yes, you can see the Gospel clearly if you are looking for it. Or you can settle for simply the issue of good vs. evil. The virtue of loyalty is on display in every book. Or you can simply read them to see how simple prose can be made to sing and soar. Jo Rowling does not waste a single word, at least not until she gets to books six and seven. And even those, while somewhat uneven compared to the rest of the series, are better than 99% of everything else you will find on store shelves these days.

Please put down your Twilight series books. If you want to read vampire lore and have already read Dracula five times, move on to The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. It is the search for Dracula who happens to be very much alive. The first time I read it I slept with the lights on for a night.

The other honorable mention is Edward Abbey’s Brave Cowboy. This was made into the movie Lonely are the Brave staring Kirk Douglas, who said it was his favorite role of all time. The hero is a cowboy who refuses to enter into the modern era. Set in the 1960s, Jack Burns refuses to accept modernity, instead holding onto the life of a roaming cowboy. I can’t tell you some deep lesson I learned from this (message books are, for the most part, poor reads. If you want to send a message, call Western Union. Great fiction relies on a great story, not trying to preach a message.), but the characters will stay with you for a long time.

Ok, now to the top five in reverse order:

5. Death Comes for the Archbishop (Virago Modern Classics)by Willa Cather. This is not what won her the Pulitizer (that was One Of Ours) or her most famous work (My Antonia). But I would say it is her best by far. The simple tale of the very real first bishop of the New Mexico territory, this is as relaxing and enjoyable a read as you will find. Definitely hammock material. Don’t go looking for some involved plot. It is more a series of vignettes strung together. If you want to read the real story of this bishop, you can check out Lamy of Santa Fe by Paul Horgan.

4. C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength). Again, you cannot read just one of these books. And yes, you need to read them in order. Otherwise the character growth you see in Elwin Ransom doesn’t make sense. At first, Ransom was patterned after J.R.R. Tolkien. But by the end of the series, Lewis has in mind Charles Williams as his model for Ransom. Lewis was a huge fan of both space and time travel literature. He was not pleased with the first and third books in this trilogy, but he considered Perelandra one of his best efforts. Warning: I love the final book in the series above all, but I have never recommended it without that person coming back and saying “I don’t get it.” Just so you know.

3. Ok, I am going to break my little rule on a series of books. Karla’s Trilogy (John LeCarre’) is made up of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; and Smiley’s People. Skip book two. It is long and pondering and laborious. The ending is not worth the work it will take to get you there. And it is not needed in the least for the other two books to take hold. That said, TTSS and Smiley’s People are the best spy novels ever written. Don’t bother debating that–just take my word for it. LeCarre’ spent time in the British Secret Service in the late 50s/early 60s. When he first read Ian Flemming’s James Bond books, he thought, “What a crock! This is nothing like real spy work.” So he set out to create the anti-Bond. George Smiley is one of my favorite literary characters. There are no fancy gadgets, no car chases, no beautiful babes. There is a lot of thinking, of reading of files, of putting two and two together to come up with “purple.” If you think it sounds boring, then go back to your Bond books. Or more likely, your Bond movies. If you want to enjoy a journey you will want to take again and again, get TTSS and Smiley’s People. I read each of these books once a year just because.

2. Back to Lewis. Chronicles of Narnia (Books 1 to 7), This is not children’s literature. Don’t let anyone fool you. It is some of the deepest theology you will ever tackle. You could read each of these books 20 times or more (as I have) and not get close to plumbing the depths. If you think, “I saw the movies. I don’t need to read the books,” then turn in your iMonk decoder ring as you leave. Get this series. Read them. Read them to your children. Read them to your grandchildren. There is not a bad book in the bunch, not even a good book. There are only levels of greatness. I personally think The Last Battle is 1) the best view of Heaven we will have on this side of life, and 2) perhaps Lewis’s greatest literary effort.

1. Susanna Clarke is a cookbook editor living in England. Her first–and to date, only–full-length novel was released in 2004, making it the newest book on this list. (The first Harry Potter book was released in 1999.) Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the history of English magic and the two men who restore it to England. Set in the early 1800s, it helps to know a bit about the Napoleonic wars going on in Europe at the time, but that is not a requirement. I don’t know much about Clarke other than her father was a Methodist pastor in England, but after reading this book at least four times, and listening to it on audio at least that many times, I am fully convinced she must be a believer. This is the most “Christian” novel I have ever read. (You will not find it in the Christian section of your local store. It is filed under science fiction/fantasy.) By the fourth paragraph I knew just what she was writing about. (“In short, he wondered why there was no more magic done in England.” Read that and tell me what she means.) Read this book, then let’s discuss just who Gilbert Norrell and Jonathan Strange each represent. And for bonus points, who is the Raven King?

Ok. There’s your list. Hit the library, or order online to have them delivered to your door. Yes, I know I left off this list your absolute favorite. But that’s what the comment section is for below.

Happy reading!

Comments

  1. Hmm. I may be a day late and a dollar short here, but let me offer my two cents. Then I’ll just be 98 cents short, plus one day’s interest.

    ‘Phantastes,’ George MacDonald: A book that has changed my entire existence. I have little idea why.

    I really liked Amy Tan’s ‘Joy Luck Club.’

    Thomas Mann considered his book ‘Joseph and his Brothers’ to be his masterpiece. I agree; from a technical standpoint, that is the best book I have ever read. As a writer, I sit with mouth agape after nearly every page. Often I have no idea how he accomplishes it all. And it’s a Bible story!
    The 70-page novella he wrote about Moses as an epilogue may be a good way to test the waters here; the book is very dense, and runs over 1500 pages.

    Aaand…let me spout a bit of something about Narnia, since it seems such a popular topic here. A Lewis scholar named Michael Ward recently wrote a book called Planet Narnia that has changed the way I look at the whole series. He discovered an underlying pattern to the books that explains beautifully the apparent haphazardness of the stories, and their themes. Lewis accomplished something greater than most realize. There is a constant thread from Medieval philosophy, to Medieval astrology, to the Space Trilogy, to Narnia.

    Did you think it was a coincidence that there were seven in the Narniad?

    I was very skeptical at first. I didn’t even want to read what I thought would be a bunch of nonsense from some fellow out to make a name for himself. But darn it if it doesn’t fit neater every time I think about it. It passes Lewis’s own test that a literary theory should enrich rather than destroy the efficacy of a work.

    I am shocked to find that I have never heard a single mention of this theory. Not one. This should be everywhere. Has someone – anyone – else read the book?

    • Oh, in case you’re trying to puzzle it out, I left out what the theory actually is. I’m being cryptic, you see.

      • I know Ward’s theory–that each of the seven Narnia books are tied to a specific planet. Just haven’t been intrigued enough to explore it further. Maybe someday…

        The Narnia books are so rich in themselves that I see no need to speculate on what else they could mean. Kind of like the Bible Code nonsense. Just read and absorb Scripture instead of trying to make it more than it is.

        But I would be glad to hear your thoughts on Ward’s ideas, Lukas…

        • Well, to follow your analogy, Jeff, let’s make a quick distinction. When you ‘just read and absorb Scripture,’ isn’t it helpful to learn about and understand the context the words were written in, considerations of genre, and so on? That isn’t making it more than it is, as Bible Code speculations are. It’s understanding the ground and center from which the texts emerge, rather than tacking on some eleventh-hour schemata.

          Now, if Ward is correct, the link between Narnia and the seven planets isn’t something superficial or tacked on; it is something that comprises the very ground and purpose of the books. Lewis believed that the planets were, in his own words, ‘permanent spiritual symbols’ of great value. He lamented the loss of most of them – Jupiter in particular – and was discouraged that most modern literature followed the pattern of Saturn (that is, it largely addressed themes of mortality, calamity, corruption and death). It’s all, if memory serves, in his book ‘The Discarded Image.’

          He explored these themes throughout his literary life. Most explicitly in the Space Trilogy, where the planets, under different names, are actual characters and correspond to the medieval ideas about them. They are, as Ransom discovered, where the ideas of the gods and the astrological planets came from.

          In ‘The LIon, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,’ Lewis decided to address the lack of Jovial literature in the modern canon. His purpose for writing the book was to convey the mostly-forgotten concept of Jupiter that he felt was so valuable – the idea as he put in in his poem ‘The Planets,’ of ‘winter past, and guilt forgiven.’ (As I mention in a comment below, this is basically the plot of ‘Wardrobe’ in a nutshell.) In time the project expanded to encompass the other six planets as well, though he saved his least favorite for last.

          And so this theory, if true, is not a matter of indifference for those who want to understand Lewis. Or Narnia, for that matter. There was always a lot that didn’t really make sense to me before I began to consider it in light of Ward’s theory. I don’t suppose it is, in any respect, essential – Lewis himself evidently didn’t think so – but understanding this theory has, for me, greatly increased what I get out of the series. It has also raised my literary estimation of it a great deal, for whatever that may be worth.

    • Yes, read Michael Ward’s book, our CS Lewis group had him as a speaker, we discussed the book another month, none of us were convinced. Interesting ideas, but doesn’t hold up very well. Our leader is a Lewis scholar and has written 3 books on Lewis, the last one about the spiritual themes in Narnia. Check out http://www.willvaus.com

      • Ah, so we have disagreement rather than ignorance. That’s good.

        I would be very interested to know why you find the theory lacking. For me, it seems to answer so much about why the books have so much inconsistency in tone and theme and literary style. It does take a bit of an intuitive knowledge of Medieval ideas, but I honestly have difficulty seeing how ‘Voyage of the Dawn Treader’ and ‘The Silver Chair’ could not have something to do with the sun and moon, respectively. Just for example; those seem to me the clearest examples. And the link between Lewis’ poetic treatment of the planets and Narnia is at times very clear. Think of Jupiter: “Winter past, and guilt forgiven.” That’s ‘Wardrobe’ perfectly described in a single line.

        But now I’m just citing arguments you are no doubt familiar with. Again, I’d be interested to hear why they don’t convince you.

        • Sorry, I didn’t see this question until this evening- I would suggest you follow the suggested link to http://www.willvaus.com and ask him the question- he is so much better informed about this than I am. Agree there are many, many references to various mythologies about the planets, sun and moon, which is understandable as Lewis loved all the classics. The issue is whether, as Ward suggests, each of the Narnia chronicles is deliberately modeled on or influenced by a particular planet or celestial body and the mythology associated with it. A careful reading of each book, as well as what Lewis himself said about the influences and how they came to be written, does not seem to suggest such a deliberate pattern. In fact, his good friend JRR Tolkien criticized the series for its jumbled mix of this and that myth throughout the books. Talk to Will Vaus!!

  2. textjunkie says:

    I posted an initial reply but it apparently got lost… So now having read all the other comments, I am amused at the similarity of responses on this thread! I was surprised by the similarity of our tastes (Le Carre on the same list with Jonathan Strange and That Hideous Strength?? I thought no one would do that but me!) but apparently there are a lot of folks out there who fall in that category. 🙂

    And props to the other suggestions–I’d put ‘Til we have Faces above the Narnia series, but that’s my bias. But A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Count of Monte Cristo, Canticle for Leibowitz, the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, Watership Down–y’all are singing my song. 🙂

    Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was one of the best books I read in 2005, but it lost out to The Left Hand of Darkness and the Gormenghast trilogy. I, however, did not see anything Christian about it, and I found the Raven King character to be unpleasant and dangerous. But I was reading it really fast by the end…

  3. Cedric Klein says:

    1.) C.S. Lewis- NARNIA- esp LION and LAST BATTLE.
    2.) Ayn Rand- ATLAS SHRUGGED- an epic of creative individual liberty against parasitic collectivism.
    3.) Taylor Caldwell- DEAR AND GLORIOUS PHYSICIAN- Luke wars against God by giving aid & comfort to His victims, and on the way discovers God has become the Ultimate Victim.
    4.) Aldous Huxley- BRAVE NEW WORLD- Less horrifying than 1984 but far more unsettling because its “Big Brother”, His Fordship Mustapha Mond, is just so very nice.
    5.) Mary Shelley- FRANKENSTEIN- Man plays God & his Adam can’t surrender to Christ & so abandons itself to become a mournful Lucifer.

    Honorable mention to-

    Stephen King THE STAND- the best Apocalypse novel ever
    Walker Percy THE SECOND COMING- An aging man looking for Apocalyptic signs finds the Real Presence is a slightly crazy, extremely practical young woman.
    WP- LOVE IN THE RUINS- predicted the Culture War of the Religious Republican Right vs. the Secular Democratic Left.
    Bram Stoker- DRACULA- Onward Christian soldiers!

    • I read 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 in a row when I was in middle school. I’ve since re-read all of them. The three distopias felt like three of the ways that the current culture could fall. After the fall of the USSR, 1984 fell off the list, but I’d heartily recommend Fahrenheit 451 as a companion to brave new world (or vice versa).

  4. what about louis l’amour?

  5. one more Mike says:

    One passing reference to Faulkner? Read everything he ever wrote and you’ll realize that sometimes God puts a talent on this earth just to show off.

  6. So many great books mentioned here! Zipping through them, I don’t think I saw these mentioned as well:

    One Hundred Years of Solitude and also Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez and Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. I haven’t yet read any of Anne Lamott’s novels, but I have read two of her non-fiction books and I am hoping her novels are just as good.