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2012 Year In Review: Fiction

Top Ten

1. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Now that I’ve finally read this, I can’t help but recommend it to every single person who crosses my path. It is at once a gut-wrenching morality play, a brilliant psychological study, and a gripping crime thriller (not to mention a stunning refutation of Frederic Nietzche’s “Superman”). It’s dark and heavy, yes, but also shot through with hope; a story that affirms both the lostness of the human condition and the power of Christ to save.
This acclaimed novel is ostensibly a courtroom drama, but such a description does not really do this profound and multifaceted book justice. Through the eyes of a child, Lee explores the evils of racial prejudice with subtlety and power, gracing her story with an elegance so unspectacular it’s spectacular. More than once, I had to pause and read passages aloud, just for the pleasure of rolling them off my tongue. Full review
3. ENDER’S GAME by Orson Scott Card
As far as science fiction goes, Ender’s Game isn’t good, nor is it great – it’s brilliant. Winner of the Hugo and the Nebula awards, this bestselling novel by Orson Scott Card is a stellar fusion of action and ideas; a story as intellectually challenging as it is relentlessly entertaining. (The sequel, Speaker for the Dead, is also terrific). Full review
This is not a novel, nor a memoir, nor a short story collection: it is, instead, an exquisite combination of all three. Through this unique but effective merging of fact and fiction, the author paints a picture of his life (and the lives of his fellow soldiers) before, during, and after the Vietnam war. And what a picture it is. Full review
5. THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald
It’s either one of the best novels I’ve ever read… or it’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read. They call ‘em classics for a reason, and this one is no exception. Beautiful writing, thought-provoking story.
Continue reading 2012 Year In Review: Fiction

Book Review: Flowers for Algernon

Following doctor’s orders, slow-witted Charlie Gordon begins to record his story through a series of “progris riports.” He wants to better himself – to “get smart” – but with an IQ of 68, he’s not even capable of beating Algernon, the lab mouse, at maze-solving.

But Algernon is no ordinary mouse. Thanks to an experimental brain operation that artificially boosts intelligence, he’s far cleverer than others of his species. So far, this operation has only been performed on animals. Now Charlie volunteers to be the first human subject. “If your smart,” he writes, “you can have lots of frends to talk to and you never get lonley by yourself all the time.”

Slowly, ever so slowly, the effects of Charlie’s operation begin to show, and his reports improve. But getting smarter brings with it some stinging shocks – like when Charlie figures out that many of his “friends” haven’t been laughing with him, but at him. As his IQ continues to increase, he rises past the human average to genius level and beyond. The irony, of course, is that he’s now just as intellectually alone as the old Charlie ever was – and cruelly aware of the fact. The people who once mocked him for his idiocy now hate him for his brilliance.

It had been all right as long as they could laugh at me and appear clever at my expense, but now they were feeling inferior to the moron. I began to see that by my astonishing growth I had made them shrink and emphasized their inadequacies.

That’s when the lab mouse Algernon begins to deteriorate. And as everyone starts to realize that the effects of the operation might not be permanent after all, Charlie is left wondering how long he has before his own deterioration begins.

Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon was first published in 1959 as work of short fiction, and was soon after expanded into a full-length novel. It went on to garner the prestigious Nebula award, and has since been regarded as somewhat of a classic. With good reason.

There’s a lot going on in this novel. The first progress reports have a simple, disarming appeal to them, but as Charlie begins to grow as a character, the story grows with him, gaining considerable depth and complexity. It’s about joy, pain, betrayal, friendship, beauty, wonder, and loss. It’s about the conflict between intellect and emotion; about what is true and what we desire to be true. It’s about one man’s craving for love and human companionship.

Intelligence is one of the the greatest human gifts. But all too often, a search for knowledge drives out the search for love. This is something else I’ve discovered for myself very recently. I present it to you as a hypothesis: Intelligence without the ability to give and receive affection leads to moral breakdown, to neurosis, and possibly even psychosis. And I say that the mind absorbed in and involved in itself as a self-centered end, to the exclusion of human relationships, can onlly lead to violence and pain.

In the end, Charlie’s intelligence is his own worst enemy. Whether great or small, it distances him emotionally and psychologically from the people he wants to be close to.

Flowers for Algernon also struggles with the question of what it means to be human. Charlie comes to resent the fact that his doctors view him as one of their creations – an experiment who owes everything, even his humanity, to the great god of science.

It may sound like ingratitude, but that is one of the things I hate here – the attitude that I am a guinea pig. Nemur’s constant references to having made me what I am, or that someday there will be others like me who will become real human beings. How can I make him understand that he did not create me?

Part of the brilliance of the book lies in the writing. And the brilliance of the writing is that it evolves with Charlie’s character, developing (as his understanding increases) from barely literate scribbles into full-fledged epistles. It’s a fascinating and effective technique that lends even greater weight to an already weighty book.

Yet as much as I appreciated Flowers for Algernon, it’s hard to say I enjoyed it. It’s a compelling read, yes, but also a haunting one, with a terrifically painful emotional impact. Charlie’s story isn’t the kind you merely think about; it’s a story you feel.

And oh, how you feel it.

(By way of warning, this book is not for younger readers. Mature themes and sexual content make it something I’d only recommend for ages 17 and up. At least.)

On the Bookshelf VIII

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
“The classic story of a mentally disabled man whose experimental quest for intelligence mirrors that of Algernon, an extraordinary lab mouse.” This one looks like a fascinating departure from your more typical sci-fi fare. It’s been highly praised by numerous reviewers (and recommended to me by a good friend), so I’m looking forward to reading it.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
I finished this only yesterday, and I give it my hearty recommendation. Part memoir, part novel, and part short story collection, it’s a haunting and brilliantly-written piece of storytelling. Not for the faint of heart, but well worth the time of older readers in search of quality literature on the American war in Vietnam. Here’s one of my favorite quotes: “A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.”
The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom
“How higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students.” If I remember correctly, I ran across this title while reading one of Mark Steyn’s books. It looks like pretty weighty stuff, but I’m always up for a challenge. So… let the intellectual workout begin!
Eyes Wide Open by Steve DeWitt
Leland Ryken said of this book, “As a starting point for why and how Christians should value beauty, [Eyes Wide Open] is the gold standard.” I’m only about thirty pages in, but so far it’s excellent – a wise, winsome, and thought-provoking read.
Our Town: A Play in Three Acts by Thornton Wilder
Another title recommended to me by a friend. “Considered enormously innovative for its lack of props and scenery and revered for its sentimental but at bottom realistic depictions of middle-class America, Our Town soon became a staple of American theater.” I’m enjoying this one quite a bit, particularly for its well-written dialogue and quirky characters.

What’s on your bookshelf right now?