“The World According to Garp” – John Irving
If you are familiar with Irving’s work, you know that in each one of his novels, there always are at least two prostitutes and a high chance of at least one trans-sexual or at least one bear or both, plus the treatment of several socially sensitive subjects like, for instance, sexism, racism, war, rape, and cheating on spouses. Now, in Irving’s fourth novel “The World According to Garp” you have ALL of the above, and the magic of John Irving is that he manages to treat the worst things imaginable with a sense of dark humor and an eye for the absurd that has yet to find an adequate match. Reading of the entire life of author T.S. Garp and his family, you will laugh and you will cry and you will never want this novel to end.
“Cider House Rules” – John Irving
Speaking of Irving’s treatment of socially sensitive subjects, this book deals with abortion, one thing that politicians and religions and generally every person on the planet has thought about and formed an opinion on. The story of orphans, birth control and the treatment of Afro-Americans is beautiful, realistic and shocking, and because this is Irving we are talking about, it is also hysterically funny and absurd and littered with historical observations of the early 20th century America and its societal structures. Sure, it is a thick book, but seeing it through to the end is not only rewarding, it’s an experience you will not want to miss.
“The Help” – Kathryn Stockett
Yet another anti-racist novel has made it onto my list. Never have I been able to understand the pain that black women went through in the 1960’s in the Southern States as well as when I read this beautiful story about civil courage and standing up against oppression. The novel by Stockett is relevant, but also heart-warming and, at times, extremely funny, without ever getting sentimental. An absolute must in every bookshelf.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” – Lionel Shriver
This story about a teenager who stages a massacre at his school is anything but funny. It is uncomfortable, it is harsh and gruesome, and it talks about a subject that is so touchy I have rarely (if ever) seen it dealt with so consciously and out in the open: Kevin’s mother Eva hates her son and has always felt estranged towards him. The novel is composed in letters that Eva writes to her husband, and in these letters she spreads out her guilt, her confusion, her hurt, her hate. And even though the story is told in a loosely chronological order and culminates with what you already know (said massacre), you need to read it from beginning to end, because the finale is so surprising and painful to read it will stay with you for a long time.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” – John Le Carré
I am aware that British spy novels are not everybody’s cup of tea, but you need to give this masterpiece a chance to let it drag you into a dark, hostile world of post-WWII Great Britain and the inner workings of their Secret Service MI6. What I love so much about le Carré is that his writing challenges me. Let your attention slip for a minute, and suddenly you have missed an important detail and you need to re-read the last five pages to catch up again. It makes your reading experience of this story, told through a maze of flash-backs and conversations, gratifying, intense and exciting.
“Millenium Trilogy” – Stieg Larsson
Swedish crime novels have been widely successful and popular for a long time (look at Henning Mankell and Håkan Nesser) because of their gloomy atmosphere and unadorned depiction of violence and the dark recesses of human minds. But I did not get the hang of it until I read Stieg Larsson’s trilogy about Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. It must have something to do with the fact that, while the first installment “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is a very dark and gruesome tale of murder and revenge with a nice spin, parts 2 “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and 3 “The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest” develop more and more into a legal and political thriller while still maintaining the dark and hostile atmosphere established in the first part. A must for thriller fans.
“It” – Stephen King
It is no secret that many literary critics have torn King apart, for his works are – allegedly – free of any content safe for the means to shock. Now, while that very well may be true for some of his short stories, it is not for this monumental novel about the evil in the world. “It” is not just the clown Pennywise, it’s the cruelty and hate that every being holds in its deepest secret primal form. The story is told on so many levels of time and space it is hard, if not impossible, to be grasped on film. Of course it is a horror story, and it’s shocking, but the most shocking thing is how true it is at times. Advice from me: do not read while you are home alone.
“The Mists of Avalon” – Marion Zimmer Bradley
As someone who is anything but a fan of fantasy stories, I am as surprised as you might be that this novel made it onto my list of all-time favorites, but this telling of the Arthurian legend is so perfect and gripping and epic that it has reached a somewhat Bible-like status for me. Furthermore, my mother was recommended to read this book when she was at college because it is a realistic depiction of what life had been like for educated women in the Middle Ages. The descriptions of Avalon are so intricate I can see it before my inner eye as if I had actually been there myself.
“The Lost World” Michael Crichton
It has to be the second installment of his Jurassic Park novels that is my favorite work of Crichton. The story, deviating entirely from the second movie (which was terrible), concentrates on fighting for survival in a hostile environment, the dinosaurs who pose the biggest threat in this environment, and, as is typical for Crichton’s works, the scientific background that put these dinosaurs there. The pages of discussion about chaos theory and natural selection are fascinating, but they can easily be skipped to delve right into an amazing action adventure.
“The Talented Mr.Ripley” – Patricia Highsmith
We have all seen TV shows like “Dexter” or “Breaking Bad”, so we know that there is something in these characters on the wrong side of the law that has us rooting for them. We can’t pin down what it is, but we do not want them to get caught. And that is in essence what this story about a 1950’s con artist who involuntarily turns into a murderer is about. Tom Ripley does terrible things, but the reader cannot help but like him, understand him, make excuses for him. The sequels are a satisfying read, as well, but the first installment of Ripley has got to be singled out as the best one in the series.
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