Studies suggest that fewer and fewer people are reading books in any form, shape, or size. Maybe you are one of the growing number of non-readers who wants to jump into the wonderful world or reading. Don’t know where to start? Phill and I have come up with a few great fiction recommendations to get you started on your lifelong quest. We don’t want to overwhelm you with a jungle of books, so we have put together a list of five fiction recommendations to read this summer—or anytime, really. But lazy hazy summer breaks are a great time for this kind of thing. So sip a cold glass of lemonade, sit out on that porch, and enjoy the reading ride!
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True Grit by Charles Portis
Review by Benjamin Plunkett
I did not go into the public library on that fateful day this past February looking for True Grit. I do not really remember what I was looking for. Whatever it was I could not find it, but True Grit found me. What a happy twist of fate! Admission: Although I enjoy it to some degree, I am not a huge fan of the 1969 movie adaptation. I consider the 2010 adaptation one of my all-time favorites. While a decent and accurate telling of the story, the 1969 movie fails to capture the spirit of the book—or any spirit aside for John Wayne’s great acting for that matter. On the other hand, the 2010 True Grit while (maybe) slightly less full of book story details, captures the living soul and spirit of the book completely. I know, I know, this is not a review about movies. However, I say all of this because the 2010 True Grit movie—even if it has more changes to and omission of details than the 1969 version—is possibly the best adaptation of a book that I’ve ever seen in film. You want to know what the book is like? Watch the 2010 True Grit. It captures the wonderful spirit and mix of comedy, drama, adventure, and western authenticity. Although the Coen brother’s very accurately and superbly portrayed this spirit on the screen, it was all a true creation of the great Charles Portis. Throughout, goodly portions of the movie dialogue are exactly similar contractionless word for contractionless word to what is in the book. So if you happen to find yourself in a bookstore or library or on Amazon or wherever looking for a non-True Grit novel, forget about that novel. Put it on the backburner and get True Grit instead. If you are like me, you will recognize it as one of the best reading decisions you ever made. Go now, enjoy a comedic, dramatic, adventurous, and very authentically western quest with 14-year-old Mattie Ross, the rugged Rooster Cogburn, and the hilariously vain Texas Ranger, Labeouf (Damon was a perfect casting choice and portrayed him to equal perfection) as they hunt down the murderous Tom Chaney.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Review by Phill Lytle
It is the most uplifting and life affirming post-apocalyptic book I have ever read. I realize that those things seem contradictory. You are just going to have to trust me on this one. McCarthy sets the story in a world that has suffered a great, unexplained calamity. Crops are gone. Food is scarce. Life is incomprehensibly hard. Most of the population is dead and many that are still alive have turned to savagery and cannibalism. It is in this bleak landscape we find our protagonists: The man and his son. They are never named. Their history is clouded and thinly sketched. Those things are not important. We travel with them. We walk with them. We watch them survive in what can best be described as hell on earth. We hear them talk, furtively at first, but with more depth and intensity as the story progresses. The bond between father and son is strong. Stronger than the death that surrounds them. To say more of the plot would be a disservice to any that might read it.
McCarthy uses words in ways that defy explanation. The truncated and choppy phrasing should not work. It does. The lack of narrative exposition should make the story difficult to follow. It doesn’t. The marked sense of dread and sadness should drown out all hope. It cannot. Every page is poetry; words doing things those words cannot possibly be intended to do. Every truth is inspired; our God-bearing humanity sublimely illustrated in the form of a flame. The Road breaks and mends hearts all at once. It has “my whole heart. It always did.”
Watership Down by Richard Adams
Review by Benjamin Plunkett
I have been a rabid (not rabbit) reader since Dad taught me how to read from good old Fun With Dick and Jane. But I still didn’t get around to reading the masterpiece that is Watership Down until I was 35. I had always figured a book that is just a book about rabbits couldn’t be all that great and it was surely just one of those books that was famous because it was famous. It was probably Sawyer of Lost fame that sent me over the edge with the beach-bound bibliophile seen reading the book in multiple episodes of the show. That Sawyer, he steered me in the right direction. This superbly written novel may be “just a book about rabbits,” but Moby Dick is just about a whale and The Grapes of Wrath is just about some people looking for a job. Like these others, Watership Down is so much more than such a brief description. The story is set in the countryside of England where sits a happy and very well organized warren of rabbits. One day the prophetic young rabbit, Fiver, has a vision of encroaching construction promising to destroy their home. Together with his older brother, the courageous Hazel, Fiver leads a small band of followers to a promised land that Fiver has also seen in a vision. Along the way, they encounter adventure after misadventure. Watership Down is truly one of the greatest novels I have ever read and will probably ever read. Thank you, Sawyer!
Byzantium by Stephen R. Lawhead
Review by Phill Lytle
Spanning years and continents, languages and cultures, kingdoms and religions, Byzantium is an epic by any definition. It is a story of faith, loss, hope, suffering, and restoration. Lawhead weaves a story that is one part Homer’s Odyssey and an equal part the book of Job. Firmly rooted in history, Byzantium tells the hero’s quest of Aidan, a ninth century Irish monk, tasked with delivering The Book of Kells to the Holy Roman Emperor, a world away. The journey does not go as planned. If it did, there would not be a story worth telling. Instead, we are gifted a profound exploration of faith and doubt. The journey is riddled with danger; death waiting at every turn. Aidan’s simple faith at the outset of the story is tested time and again. Our faith is tested as we take the journey with him. Lawhead writes with an amazing mixture of poetry and simplicity. His words paint a beautiful picture but never take the focus off the story and the characters. There are moments of pure delight and moments of complete despair. Heart breaking sacrifices and rapturous transcendence. Byzantium will break you and leave you stronger for it.
The Dubliners by James Joyce
Review by Benjamin Plunkett
I don’t think it’s uncalled for for me to say The Dubliners is quite possibly the greatest book of short stories ever written. My love affair with this classic began in a college literature class with a reading and analysis of the short story, The Araby. I have long respected the short story art. Short stories are honed works that usually drive toward epiphanies, realizations. Every story in The Dubliners certainly does and serves to complement an overarching theme of the entire work. Although all the stories are deeply connected in their very essence, it is best to just take each separate story by each separate story. They deserve it.
Do not expect the same things a popular novel has to offer. Don’t expect a nail-biting story with adventurous, meandering plots. Focus on the perfect writing, symbolism, and the revelations. Marvel in the seemingly endless layers. I see another answer every time (or series of times) I read the book. The greatest works of literature have new treasures and new depths that reveal themselves upon every reading. It is also the mark of a great author that every word of every sentence packs a wallop. And James Joyce was a world-class boxer in this regard. Nearly every single sentence is packed with maximum meat and meaning. What some writers take an entire chapter to say, he says in one sentence. And what he says is way more than simply for the sake of a good description—although there is definitely that a million-fold. Everything, everyone, and every dialog throughout mean something.
There are 15 spectacular stories in The Dubliners and there is so, so, so much more I could praise about it. I wish there were space to say more. “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” Kidding, I didn’t really. That’s the last line of The Araby and the awesomeness you’re missing by not reading The Dubliners.