The List to Start and Finish: The Best Fiction I’ve Read So Far

So, if you read the piece I just wrote for RelevantMagazine.com, consider this post the practical follow-up. It was a piece called “Why Christians Should Read More Fiction,” and if you haven’t read it, go ahead and check it out. If you already read fiction, than you probably have your own favorite novels and you have no need for my recommendations. But if you, like many people I know, haven’t seriously picked up a piece of fiction since you finished the last book of Harry Potter with tears in your eyes, or since you decided once and for all in High School that Spark Notes was, well, just better for your busy schedule as a 15-year old, I hope you give these titles a shot. Please, I’m not trying to guilt-trip you. I’m more doing that thing where, say, your friend comes back from a fun, activity filled day at the beach or in the city or at a Golden Retriever Festival, a day when you decided you’d rather stay home and catch up on Mad Men, and unashamedly bludgeons you with how unforgettable the day was. It’s kind of like that. But wait, there’s still hope, because these books aren’t going anywhere.

But the catch is that you actually have to commit to reading them, and as you’ll see with some of them, this is no small task. But the quicker you get reading, the quicker you’ll meet the characters who you’ll carry with you forever, the quicker you’ll find yourself entrenched in these character’s worlds, and the quicker you’ll be blown away. I can’t say for sure if you will be blown away in the exact way that I was, but that’s why I chose these books. Because they all have that blow-away quality about them.

This is the top 5 in a semi-particular order, but you should realize that these are all my “desert island books,” so to say. Starting from 5, I’ll work my way to my favorite book of all time. And you may be surprised by the lack of classics on the list. When I first started reading novels, I would just go to the bookstore and look for names that I’d heard of on the shelves. The thing is, the only names I’d ever heard of were the old heroes. So, I started with the Classics, and occasionally found something that really roused me. But after studying those books for three years in college and long before that in high school, I decided somewhere along the way that I would give the new guys a shot. And there’s this tendency to think that all the good writing has already been done. But I can assure you, that is absolutely not the case. You should certainly read the classics, but they’re the easy ones to find. This list should set you off on a path to explore different avenues of contemporary fiction, whether it’s with each of these author’s entire canons, or with comparable writers.

5. The Things They Carried: Tim O’Brien TOB001_2

It’s been a while since I’ve read this book, and unlike every author on this list, it’s the only book of his that I’ve read. And that doesn’t mean that I read this book and had no further interest in reading his others. Actually, the opposite. It means that I read it once and was convinced that this was one of the most beautiful books I’d ever encountered. The book is a fictional account of Tim O’Brien’s real-life experiences in Vietnam, and the way he pieces the stories together, which dance back and forth between life before, during, and after the war, give the whole book a dream-like quality, where you find yourself wondering what’s real, what’s PTSD nightmare, and what’s plain made up. If you don’t like war books, then I suggest you compromise and read just this one war book. You can be finished after that if you so please. Here’s a beautiful quote. It’s one among thousands.

 And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.

4. Let The Great World Spin: Colum McCannartistic-book-cover

If you’re the type who likes reading and I’ve spoken to you at any point in the last year, I’ve probably recommended this book to you. Colum McCann writes poetically about the chaos that is New York City in the 70’s, and though he’s a born and bred Dubliner, you’d think he’s actually a ghost who’s wandered NYC for the last 50 years. In my piece about fiction, I mentioned the empathy that it can inspire. I mostly had this guy in mind. McCann embodies what can be called Shakespearean Conciousness, which is the ability to explore, on a level of immense depth, the psychological experiences of total strangers. It’s called that because Shakespeare did it first—and possibly still, best—but when you see the range of characters that McCann brings alive, you might have second thoughts. A mother-daughter pair of prostitutes, a 30-something Irish ascetic monk living in the projects, the District Attorney, a Puerto Rican graffiti artist, and a French tight rope walker who saunters casually between the Twin Towers, to name a few. And may I add that the prose, ah the prose, is beyond gorgeous. There are moments of pure poetry. Like this:

 The core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air. New things were possible with the human form. It went beyond equilibrium. He felt for a moment uncreated. Another kind of awake.

Go get it. Now.

3. The Road: Cormac McCarthyThe-Road-cover

Don’t even get me started on this one. This book sent me on a 6-month long journey down the rabbit hole of McCarthy’s mesmerizing work,  and it’s been a hell of a ride. McCarthy’s actually quite scary, in a way, I have to say. At first look, he has that monotonous drawl of Hemingway, but then at the same time, he’s Faulkner, doting the journalistic descriptions with images of mind-bending beauty. But for some reason, you keep on trusting him. I can’t really explain why, but, well, just trust me.

Everything in this novel is stripped. The prose is void of all punctuation, and the scarred, post-apocalyptic American landscape is somehow more desolate. All that really matters is a father and son and the fire that they carry.

2. East of Eden: John SteinbeckEast-of-Eden

Sometimes when I’m sitting at my desk, I look over at my worn, dog-eared copy of this book and feel a bit like Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, when he looks down at the shaking glass of water and knows that a T-Rex is right around the corner. In my own literary life, East of Eden is a T-Rex. The earth shakes when I pick it up. As far as my love for books, it started everything, and also tore everything down. It’s immensely allegorical and haunting and beautiful the whole way through. It’s nothing short of an epic, and a big commitment to get through it, but I dare you, no I triple-dog dare you not to cry when you finish. And I know that evoking an emotional response is not necessarily the point, but this book has everything. It’s structurally mesmerizing, intellectually challenging, spiritually enriching and probing, and all in all, life-changing. I can also tell you that the Mumford and Sons song “Timshel” will suddenly make a lot more sense to you after reading this book.

So go meet Samuel Hamilton and Adam Trask and Lee and Cal and Aron. I assure you, you won’t forget them.

1.The Brothers K: David James Duncan:{A537E506-06C7-4291-920A-DD0B8AB9473B}Img400

I realize at this point that my explanations are getting a little rambling, and the thought of attempting to summarize the beauty of this book is making me sweat. The story focuses on the journey of the Chance family, specifically the turbulent experiences of 4 vastly different brothers: Everett the loud-mouthed but hilarious bull-horn activist, Irwin the God-fearing, tenderhearted mountain of a man, Peter the poet-pacifist, and Kincaid the young observer of it all—and their gruff but sincere father Hugh, a washed-up pitcher with a dead thumb and alcoholic tendencies. Baseball—yes, baseball—is the thread that carries the narrative and brings them all together as they wrestle with everything from Grace to Vietnam.

A quote:

It’s incredible to me how blithely even intelligent people sometimes toss around terms like “transcendence” and “crucifixion.” The words move us on paper. They feel noble upon the tongue. But when they cease to be sounds and begin to caress the flesh and bones, when they leave the page and get physical, there is little that even the best of us woudn’t do to escape them.

And:

You, me, & your papa are 3 of the tiny percentage of souls on this miserable earth who’ve figured out that playing ball is the highest purpose God ever invented the human male body for.

These quotes are meaningless to you now, but they give me chills to type.

There’s nothing more that I can say. Go find out what a “Psalm Ball” is, and maybe later we can talk about the ones we’re trying to throw.

Enough of my rambling. Pick one of these, and go.

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9 thoughts on “The List to Start and Finish: The Best Fiction I’ve Read So Far

  1. I appreciated your Relevant article, as well as this follow up. I love reading non-fiction but fiction eludes me for some reason. Perhaps movies have made me lazy. Anyway, looking forward to your future blog posts.

  2. Read “The Road” a few weeks ago and became an instant fan of McCarthy. It twisted my guts every which way, but the writing was just too good to put down. “No Country for Old Men” was also a blast to read. I’m definitely going to have to read more of him. Thanks for recommending him to me in Italy. I probably wouldn’t have checked him out if you hadn’t.

  3. I saw your article on Relevant and then checked out this follow-up. I read 3 of those books in the last year or so (The Road, East of Eden (again) and Let the Great World Spin), so I’ll have to check out the others. May I recommend Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, based on our apparently similar book interests? It’s an incredible read.

  4. I followed your Relevant article here too, mostly because I appreciated your East of Eden reference in the article and then I felt compelled to comment because the way you described choosing books is exactly how I used to pick books. I’d wander down the aisles and pick the most famous names and just read them. I’ve read all but your #1 book and I’m guessing it’d be a good read so I just added it to my list. Thanks!

  5. I loved your article in Relevant! It is refreshing to hear a Christian voice promoting arts that aren’t necessarily “Christian.”
    I had a professor in college (I went to a Christian school) who told us fiction was a waste of time. He even told us that if we HAD to read fiction that we should burn it when we were finished. His advice shocked me. (I slowly slid my Tim O’Brien book into my backpack.)
    Tim O’Brien is one of my favorite authors, so I’m excited you have recommend him. I have read 6 of his 8, so if you want another O’Brien novel, I’d suggest “Going After Cacciato.”

    Thank you for your voice!

  6. Found your blog because of your Relevant article, which, as an avid reader and English Lit major, I very much enjoyed. Have you read any of G.K. Chesterton’s fiction?

  7. I recommend reading Jude, The Obscure by Thomas Hardy. The characters, especially Jude, reminded me of why I continue my sexual Christian morality because having babies out of wedlock is still looked down upon today. And, it reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity” about how we should not merely follow our feelings without thinking it through with logic first.

  8. Hey there, found you through the article (Why Christians Should Read More Fiction) you wrote for Relevant, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Would be delighted if you’d stop by my blog: pmstuebe.com. Don’t have a lot up right now, and just non-fiction, but I will be posting updates from my current project which is a fantasy series… Keep up the good work!
    PS-If you haven’t already, I would highly suggest reading “From Homer to Harry Potter” by Matthew Dickerson. It’s a very compelling read on the same subject as your Relevant article.

  9. I loved your article in relevant! Most of the books I read are in spanish but from english authors, however I read more now in english. I was so excited because it was as if I had written the article. You took the words of my hand (?) haha. Greetings from Paraguay!

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