Here are a few of my favorite things...(there's a bunch; picking a favorite book is like picking a favorite Meatloaf song. There's so many good ones...) I’ll put them up in batches of 4, so as not to overwhelm anyone. There are pictures of my personal copies of these titles at the top, up against a variety of attractive backgrounds such as my kitchen table, my son's alphabet mat and the carpet in the basement. The pics are at the beginning of the post because I fail at figuring out how to intersperse pictures with texts on Blogger.
The Persian Boy (Mary Renault)
I am pretty certain that if everyone in the world read this book, there would be no more homophobia. It's about two men: Alexander, conqueror of the world, the Great King, who wants to be loved by everyone; and Bagoas, former slave of the Persian king Darius, now Alexander's servant and consort, who wants only to be loved by one man.
The Persian Boy has been accused of glorifying Alexander the Great, whose ambition might have bordered on psychopathy, but it's excusable because the novel is written in first person, from Bagoas' point of view, after Alexander's death. It's an elegant, painful book that won't leave your brain for a long time after you finish it. The wealth of detail in Renault's imagined ancient world is fascinating.
Note: technically The Persian Boy is the second in Renault's trilogy The Alexandriad, but the three books – Fire From Heaven, The Persian Boy, and Funeral Games- can be read in any order. Fire From Heaven was shortlisted for the 'lost' 1970 Man Booker Prize in 2008, but while all three books are worth your time, The Persian Boy is my favorite.
The Last Unicorn (Peter S. Beagle)
Like a lot of people my age, I was introduced to Beagle's delicate fantasy through the 1982 film version by Ralph Bakshi (to this day it remains my favorite movie ever made in the history of...ever). The premise is deceptively simple: the last known unicorn searches the world for others of her kind, and finds they may be imprisoned by a bitter old king. Yet The Last Unicorn is a deeply affecting tale of love and regret, carried through with gentle humor and simple, graceful prose.
Note: I met Beagle a few years ago at Dragoncon, and he signed my battered copy of his most famous book. He said his wife's name is also Patricia. Rock! Also, the Bakshi movie is being re-released into theaters in 2012-2013, so I am definitely keeping an eagle eye out.
Note II: An awesome and wonderful friend sent me a beautiful graphic novel version of this book today. It looks like it follows the novel even closer than the movie and the art is gorgeous, I can't wait to read it!
The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
I love Dumas. I have this image of him as this jolly, vulgar, goofy uncle sort of man who tells wonderful stories. And his stories are wonderful: sword fights, justice, loyalty, camaraderie, romance, intrigue- there's a little of everything in his swashbuckling tales. And none is better than The Count of Monte Cristo.
The various film versions I've seen of this novel never do it justice: invariably, Dantes exacts his revenge on the men who had him falsely imprisoned with violence, plain and simple. In Dumas' tale, Dantes is far more cunning than that; he knows these men, as they were once good friends, and he uses this knowledge of their flaws and weaknesses to encourage them subtly to destroy themselves. It's a brilliantly labyrinthine novel that keeps you on the edge of your seat and, improbably, ends happily for almost everyone involved- the ones who matter, anyway.
It took me 3 weeks to read The Count of Monte Cristo, and it was worth every minute. And I was even moving then.
Note: There's apparently a French miniseries with Gerard Depardieu that's really good, but I'm too lazy to look it up. Someone get on that for me, please.
The Word for World is Forest (Ursula K. LeGuin)
While I love Earthsea more than life itself (if our son had been a daughter, I was going to fight tooth and nail to name her Tenar), this little gem doesn't get nearly enough love (and since it is currently out of print for the foreseeable future, it probably won't get much love anytime soon). The real-life parallels are obvious- humans colonize a planet and force the inhabitants, who they think are inferior beasts, to work for them- but instead of beating you over the head with the metaphor, LeGuin crafts a tale of rebellion in which you're rooting against your own species.
It's a short little book written in LeGuin's early, spare style. It's a quick, compelling read and if you ever find a copy somewhere, buy it and read it! I command you!
Note: LeGuin is the goddess at whose altar I worship.
Black Beauty (Anna Sewell)
Just one look at my poor, battered, beloved copy of Black Beauty should tell you exactly how I feel about it. I was one of those horse girls (still am, I worked on a thoroughbred farm in college) so Black Beauty was pretty much required reading for me. It's a book that yanks at your heartstrings almost constantly. It would almost be ridiculous except for the fact that there is nothing calculated about it, nothing manipulative; you can practically see Anna Sewell weeping as she wrote it, outraged at the sorry plight of animals in Victorian England.
I told my husband that we have to read Black beauty to our son when he is old enough, but he has to read the chapter where Ginger dies because I'd be crying too hard.
Note: Anna Sewell was an invalid who had to take carriages everywhere because she wasn't strong enough to walk. Because of this she was exposed to horses more than most young ladies of the time and saw how they were treated firsthand. She died five months after Black Beauty, her only novel, was published.