Top 15 Favourite Books

This is a list of my 15 favourite books (as of July 2018). I would have made a top 10 list, but I found myself unable to cut out five more books. I didn’t want to attempt to rank these by preference, so they’re listed alphabetically by author.

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself   by Sean Carroll

img —————————————— Even though I read a fair bit of non-fiction, this is the only non-fiction book to make my list. This book has it all: cosmology, biology, philosophy, history, an explanation of why telekinetic powers definitely don’t exist… But my real reason for including it is that this is the best attempt I’ve seen to construct a philosophical worldview that’s informed by science.

Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee

img —————————————— Shout-out to my Ph.D. supervisor for introducing me to Coetzee! He (Coetzee, not my supervisor) won the Nobel Prize for literature, and Disgrace won the Booker Prize. This book is about a South African literature professor who gets fired from his university after having an affair with a student. It’s a story simultaneously beautiful and horrifying, where the protagonist starts as a selfish exploiter and is then redeemed…ish (this book is too subtle to feature an obvious “redemption scene”).

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

img —————————————— Man, if you thought Tess of the d’Urbervilles was bleak… This book was poorly received on publication, and was apparently called “Jude the Obscene” by at least one reviewer. But it’s an incredibly powerful (if depressing) novel. It centers around the life of a poor man named Jude Fawley in Victorian England who dreams of being a scholar, but (spoiler alert) has a bunch of awful stuff happen to him instead.

The Stand by Stephen King

img —————————————— M-O-O-N, that spells “this book rocks!” Okay, so not everything I read is great literature. Every now and then, you need a good post-apocalyptic horror story. In this book, a pandemic wipes out 99% of the population and society collapses. Then ensues an epic battle between good and evil. If you’re going to read this, I recommend the longer, uncut version, which is about 1,100 pages long and features some extra scenes and characters that didn’t make the original book.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

img —————————————— This book centers around a missionary family’s time in the 1950s’ Belgian Congo. The story is narrated from the points of view of the five female family members (the mother and four daughters), and each of their stories is compelling and vivid. I read this book in high school and was fascinated with Africa at the time, so I found this book enchanting. It does a great job of capturing the setting and culture of the Congolese village.

Remembrance of Earth’s Past: The Three-Body Trilogy by Liu Cixin

img —————————————— Like many people, I read these books because Barack Obama said they were good. The president did not lead me astray: this series is a brilliant take on the old “first contact with aliens” story. Reading it was an interesting experience – I found myself not wanting to put the book down because I was eagerly awaiting this novel’s proposed answers to some of the universe’s greatest mysteries. They’re intriguing, and not entirely implausible (at least not to me with my non-expert knowledge).

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

img —————————————— If you like magical, multi-generational stories and don’t mind the confusion that inevitably follows from having a whole bunch of characters sharing the same three names, then you’ll enjoy this book! It tells the story of a fictional Colombian town and has the feeling of a piece of mythology. García Márquez won the Nobel Prize for literature, and One Hundred Years is considered of the most influential Latin American texts of all time.

Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie Macdonald

img —————————————— Here’s another multi-generational family saga, this time focusing on the Piper family of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. The story starts in the 19th century and goes through World War I and the jazz scene in New York City. It’s a beautiful and fascinating literary take on a seriously dysfunctional family.

The Source by James Michener

img —————————————— I’m a fan of epic historical fiction novels, and this one sets a high bar: it tells the story of Israel and the Jewish people from the paleolithic era to shortly after the founding of the modern state of Israel. Spanning 12,000 years of history in over 1,000 pages, it’s a long read but a fascinating story. Well, actually, it’s more of a collection of fascinating stories presented as vignettes. I also learned a lot about history, religion, and Middle Eastern politics.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

img —————————————— If I had to pick a favourite author, it would be Toni Morrison. I love Toni Morrison. I’ve read (almost) all of her novels, but Beloved was the first and it remains my favourite. Part historical fiction, part ghost story (because slavery is a tragically good basis for a horror story), this book is incredible. I was asked recently what exactly I liked about it (by someone who read it and wasn’t fond of the frequent unannounced changes in time and perspective), and it’s one of those books where I can’t explain exactly why I like it – I just know that I do.

The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

img —————————————— Nostalgia factors heavily into this choice. One of my fondest childhood memories is from a family vacation in the Okanagan when I was about seven. My parents had picked up the first (and possibly second) book in the series and were reading it to me and my sister at night, even though I was old enough to read it myself at that point. We were able to stay up well past our bedtime those evenings because we kept on asking for “just one more chapter!” Our parents obliged because they had also been sucked into the story and wanted to see what happened.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

img —————————————— This book takes place mostly in a graveyard and is narrated by spirits stuck in the “bardo” – something like purgatory. Saunders was apparently inspired to write it by stories of Abraham Lincoln visiting his dead son Willie’s crypt at night to hold the body. This is a beautiful, compassionate, and strangely told story that was different from anything I’ve ever read.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

img —————————————— John Steinbeck declared this book his “magnum opus,” and I’m inclined to agree (though I also quite liked The Grapes of Wrath). It’s inspired by the Biblical story of Genesis, and is quite explicit in its parallels with the story of Cain and Abel in particular. It’s an interesting mélange of family saga, American history, political commentary, and Biblical study, all told with Steinbeck’s trademark empathy that made The Grapes of Wrath so compelling.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

img —————————————— This was my first experience with the behemoth Russian novels, and I absolutely loved it. Few other books have left me so interested in the inner lives of their characters. There’s also quite a bit of philosophy worked into this book, which, I must confess, I don’t really remember, as it’s been about twelve years since I read it. If I were to re-read any of the books I have on this list, it would be this one.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

img —————————————— Woolf’s writing style is not for everyone. These books don’t really have a plot, in the conventional sense of the word. Even I wasn’t enthralled by it when I read Mrs. Dalloway (a book in which a woman prepares for a party), but nonetheless decided to have a go at To the Lighthouse (a book in which a family plans, but ultimately cancels, a trip to a lighthouse). The narrative style of switching between different characters’ viewpoints makes this book like a kaleidoscope, and reveals a vast, beautiful web of stories hidden behind a relatively uninteresting day.

Honourable mentions: The Color Purple by Alice Walker; The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien; Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison; The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas; Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell; The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck; The Dark Tower series by Stephen King.

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