Five Star Literature

It must seem that judge books too harshly, since I am so grudging to give out a five star award. But I want to reserve that lofty ranking for books that I truly consider to be the best of the best. I will include books that I feel ARE the best. These are only mini-reviews, I don't have photos of the book covers to upload. Some of these books were read quite a while ago, and if I went back at reread them today, perhaps my opinion would change. But as I remember them, these books are classics and highly recommended.

Shogun; James Clavell

Shogun is a gigantic book (1000+ pages!), a sprawling story about medieval Japan. The hero is a Blackthorne, a pilot (navigator) of an ship that is blown off course and lands in Japan, a nation which the English know nothing about. Blackthorne is captured by the local warlord, and gradually learns about their customs and their language, and he becomes involved in the politics and intrigue. With such a gigantic tale, Clavell has plenty of time to develop the characters and intrigue, but this isn't meant to imply that the story is slow. There is danger for Blackthorne at every turn, he doesn't understand the culture where everyone is so clean and civilized, yet beheadings can happen with the sudden stroke of samurai's blade. Shogun was a terrific read. I also enjoyed Tai-Pan and King Rat by Clavell, but Noble House has one of the most infuriating endings ever, and I strongly recommend avoiding that book.

The Princess Bride; William Goldman

Is there a rule that says five star literature can't be fun? William Goldman's The Princess Bride is a lighthearted romp through a "Hot Fairy Tale". Buttercup is the loveliest woman on the planet, and she discovers she loves Westley, the simple farm boy, but instead the evil Prince Humperdink spots her beauty and decides he must marry her. The book is genuinely funny. It also contains some of the best scenes of derring-do ever written - the sword fight on the top of the Cliffs of Insanity is terrific, and so is the Zoo of Death. I am not saying the movie was bad, I am saying the book is 10x better. The stories of Fezzik and Inigo Montoya are wonderful. This book has adventure, humor and True Love. ps: Goldman invented the whole thing: there never was an S. Morgenstern, the childhood story Goldman relates at the beginning of the Princess Bride is complete fiction.

Catch 22; Joseph Heller

I seem to recall reading a book review where the interviewer complained to Joseph Heller that it had been 20 years since he had written Catch-22, and he hadn't produced anything that good since then. Heller replied: "Neither has anyone else." Yep, Catch-22 - the best book written in 20 years. It is laugh out loud funny. It is cry your eyes out sad. It is completely confusing ("there was only one catch, and that was Catch-22") and seemingly out of sequence, as if Heller took the chapters of the finished manuscript and shuffled them into a random order. This is the story of Yossarian, a bomber pilot flying against the Germans over Italy during World War 2. It frightens Yossarian that hundreds of people he has never met are trying to kill him. Yossarian tries to get discharged from the airforce, but the only way to be discharged is to be certified as crazy, and anyone who wants to stop flying bombing missions because it is too dangerous is obviously very sane. The book is populated with a great cast: Milo Minderbinder, who can make a profit on any deal; Major Major - who loves parades, and whom the airforce promptly promotes to the rank of Major. Orr, who has a crazy escape plan. This book is really really good!

Winter's Tale; Mark Helprin

How can Helprin write so wonderfully? He writes a terrific story, entertaining and endearing. Helprin also writes like a magical wordsmith. Normally, I am not so interested in writers with amazing vocabulary, who are able to describe things with deathless prose, because all too often the beautiful prose completely obscures the story, until you can't see the plot beyond the gilded words. But despite the wonderous prose, the story of Winter's Tale is great. I laughed out aloud at several points. It is the story of a thief called Peter Lake, who rides a magical white horse around old time New York. It is also the story of his love, who is dying of consumption. Helprin also wrote A Soldier of the Great War, which is also a 5 star classic. Why did Helprin stop writing novels so he could write speeches for Bob Dole to butcher in his futile run for president? Helprin now writes editorial columns for the Wall Street Journal from the Claremont Institute. What a disappointment. At least he left us these magnificent novels before focusing on other stuff.

The World According to Garp; John Irving

The strangest things happened to T.S. Garp during his life, and the people he interacts with all have strange eccentricities and weird fates await them all. Yet this is what makes all the characters seem so human. This is book is the life story of Garp, from the moment of his unusual conception to his sad death. Garp is a novelist, and his story strange though it is, seems biographical. Irving has written some great stuff here, his writing style is very entertaining. Irving loves foreshadowing, he often tells you something is going to happen chapters before the events actually occur in the narrative, but rather than spoiling the story, it adds anticipation. Garp maintains his exuberance for life despite tragedies. It is hard to describe the plot, except that Garp's life is unique, yet it seems genuinely authentic. I was disappointed with some of Irving's other books, but A Prayer for Owen Meaney is almost as good as Garp. I haven't yet read A Widow for One Year.

Lonesome Dove; Larry McMurtry

This is a gigantic book, you will be reading and reading for hours, and at the end you will be disappointed that the tale is over. Lonesome Dove is a western. It is the story of two ex-Texas Rangers - Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, who decide that Montana would be the ideal place for cattle ranching. So they steal some horses and cattle from Mexico, round up all their old buddies (who are hanging out in the town of Lonesome Dove) and start an epic cattle drive. There are Indians, settlers, natural obstacles - it is a chock full of description of the West. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986. Three other books followed this one: two prequels: Dead Man's Walk and Comanche Moon, and a sequel: Streets of Laredo, but while they are interesting reading, only Lonesome Dove seems to perfectly capture the characters, plot and prose into a great book.

Sophie's Choice; William Styron

I didn't see the movie. I didn't know what this book was about, except that it was highly regarded. So when I finally got the part (it is a big book, 500 pages+) where I found out why Sophie is so distraught, what her choice was, it was devastating. Wow, what a moving story. It starts off kind of slow, with the hero hanging around with Nathan and a Sophie, the beautiful Polish woman, in the city of New York just after World War 2. This is not a happy book, but it is emotionally powerful.

Mila 18; Leon Uris

This is the story of the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto during Nazi rule in World War 2. At the start of the occupation, the Jews are herded into a closed section of the city. They are treated worse and worse and time goes by, and ultimately the Germans decide to exterminate them. The Jews fight back with little more than ferocity and will power. Of course, it is a tragic losing cause, but riveting tale nevertheless. I think it is based upon true events, even though the characters are fictional. I liked this book better than Exodus, even though that book by Uris gets all the acclaim.

Slaughterhouse Five; Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut has an amazing talent for pulling the reader into a story. You read a page, it seems to simple yet interesting, surely you can turn the page and read the next one too, and then the next one - and the pages fly by, you are helpless to resist, you can stop reading until the entire book is complete. How does Vonnegut do it? Slaughterhouse Five is his acknowledged masterpiece, but other books of his are also interesting. Slaughterhouse Five is the story of Billy Pilgrim, an American POW who is being held prisoner in a Slaughterhouse when he witnesses the firebombing of Dresden. Apparently, this really happened to Vonnegut during WW2. Dresden had no military targets, but 70,000+ people died in the firebombing. This is an anti-war novel, just like Catch-22. It is well worth reading.