My Favorite, 5-Star Books

July 23, 2012

Anyone watching my ongoing Goodreads.com log of books that I’ve read, which you can view through a widget on my biography page, will notice I rarely, if ever, give any book a 5-star review.

The reason for this is simple.  In my mind, a 5-star book should be perfect or especially profound — something I expect to think about for many years.  So, by definition, a 5-star rating should be almost impossible to achieve.

Books I really like, but which aren’t quite as mind-blowing, receive 4 stars.  These books are really, really good, but they just didn’t affect me as deeply as the 5-star ones.  To get a 4-star rating from me is still a great compliment, however.  I think I’ve given all of Joe Hill’s creations that I’ve read so far a 4-star rating.  His father Stephen King’s most recent book, The Wind Through the Keyhole, I also gave 4.

So, why should you give a shit?  Because I’m going to tell you about the only 5-star books I’ve read since I began the Goodreads record in late 2008.  I think you should read them, too, if you haven’t already.  Immediately.

Replay by Ken Grimwood

This novel taps into a secret fantasy I think we all share.  What if we could change our own, personal histories?  Sure, the mistakes we made in the past have all contributed to the person we are today — yadda, yadda — but that’s just a mantra we recite to make ourselves feel good about ourselves and to let the past go.  As for me, I would give my eye teeth to relive a particular day in the fifth grade so I could beat the absolute, living shit out of a class bully.  I might land in juvie hall as a result, but man, it would be worth it.

So in Replay, that’s what happens to Jeff Winston, a middle-aged prick who dies of a heart attack.  He wakes up 25 years in his past, in his college dorm room — and now the future is wide open to him again.  He can become rich on the stock market, knowing everything that will happen for the next two decades.  He can correct past mistakes or make all new ones.  And so he does — until he reaches the same point in his life when he died before, and he dies again of a heart attack.

And again, he time travels to his own past.  But instead of waking up in his old dorm room, he wakes up in his own body a few years after college.  Still in his past, but not quite as far back.  Everything he did during the second run-through of his life has been erased, so he can do it all again.  What path will he follow this time?

Like any good story, this one has a character with a great character arc, and Jeff Winston eventually becomes less of an asshole.  That’s what this story is about: his evolution as a person, what he learns on the way.  As a bonus, the end of the novel is a complete mind fuck.  I loved it, and I think about this story often.

Fireflies by David Morrell

I read this book soon after meeting David Morrell, “the father of Rambo,” as he likes to call himself.  Finding him to be a very personable, cerebral person and an insightful writer, I was interested to learn more about his life.  So when I came across this memoir about the death of his son Matthew, I was immediately interested.

I wasn’t prepared for what it would do to me emotionally.  I was standing on a train in the DC Metro system, on my way to work.  I cracked open the first chapter, and it was like taking the lid off a jar of nitro glycerin and burning my face off.  Pure, concentrated pain and grief.  They say there is no greater pain than the death of your own child.  Now that I’m a father, I have a better understanding of that statement.  So, there I was, hanging onto the subway car’s ceiling bar as it swayed through underground tunnels in Northern Virginia, in a sardine can of human bodies, and I started crying.  I was going to attract undue attention, so I had to put the book away until my lunch break.  I cried many more times as I continued with it.

What David Morrell did in this book, rather than just tell me what it was like to experience that pain, was to show it to me.  It’s a dramatic, step-by-tortuous-step retelling of how his 15-year-old son died of cancer.  At one point, he even engages in a what-if fantasy — as I imagine all parents of dead children do — in which he writes an alternate history of Matthew’s sickness.  What if his son received the proper treatment?  Would he still have died?

It’s been seven years since I read this book, and there’s one scene in particular that can still choke me up, just thinking about it.  David dramatizes the graveside service, when they interred Matthew’s ashes in a columbarium.  While the doors of the vault were open, a white bird flew inside and became trapped, disrupting the service.  David entered the building and brought the bird back outside, cupped in his hands.  As he released it into the sky, he said something like, “And now I will set Matthew free.”

Talk about opening a vein to write a book.  He actually did more than that.  Immediately after his son died, David ripped his own, beating heart out of his chest, and put it on paper.  All those years later, when I opened Fireflies to the first page, he reached through the book and stuffed that heart down my throat, still warm.  I’ve never read anything so devastating.

It’s been a while since I saw him in person.  I think it was at the Stoker awards banquet in 2011.  Nanci Kalanta, my wife, and I had lunch with him.  The topic of Fireflies came up, and I told him how profoundly the book affected me.  It might have been on his thoughts, too, because his 14-year-old granddaughter had died the previous year of the same rare bone cancer that took his son.  I told him my impression was that when he wrote the book, his very sanity was at stake — he was writing just to keep his head together, so he could go on living.  He nodded and said that I was correct.

Yes, my name is Matthew, too, and we were about the same age.  David is old enough to be my father, and it’s no secret my own father left a mile-wide hole in my psyche.  I might even go so far as to say I wish David were my father.  I realize all that might have a little to do with my personal experience reading Fireflies. 

Even so, I know I’m not alone in recognizing this book is filled with a raw, terrible power.  For that reason, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read — and it’s also one I hope never to read again.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes

This is another non-fiction title, but its high-quality mind fucketry earns it a permanent spot on my list of favorite books.  Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’m going to reprint my September 2006 Horror World column’s description of this outstanding book:

No one is quite sure what causes schizophrenia, but one leading theory is that it’s genetic.

A genetic cause makes sense if you consider that the illness’s most prevalent symptom, auditory hallucinations, might be an evolutionary throwback. This is the challenging hypothesis of one of the most controversial books of recent decades, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. I dare say this book may prove as influential as Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species.

The late author, a psychology professor at Yale, derived his theory from a wide range of disciplines: anthropology, archeology, linguistics, psychiatry—even literature. He said that humans of just three millennia ago had two active Wernicke’s areas of the brain instead of just one. The Wernicke’s area is a small portion of the brain’s left temporal lobe associated with written and spoken language comprehension.

Jaynes hypothesized that a second Wernicke’s area, located in ancient man’s right hemisphere, often communicated with the one on the left—an experience perceived as “hearing” voices. This was similar to the hallucinated voices of modern schizophrenics, especially in how these voices were admonitory.

Relying on a substantial body of convincing evidence, Jaynes said that ancient men believed these voices were those of dead ancestors, kings—and finally, of gods. The auditory hallucinations were aided by the construction of elaborate monuments and statues. He suggested that these hallucinations were the original causes of religious belief. When the “bicameral” neurology broke down due to a combination of sociological and Darwinian pressures, new religious models evolved from it.

I subscribe to the newsletter of the Julian Jaynes Society, and I recently devoured The Julian Jaynes Collection, which collects Jaynes’s other articles, lectures, and interviews.  And I still think he was a visionary.  Are there some holes in his theory?  Sure.  But what’s cool is that Jaynes, being a scientist — and, by all accounts, a gentleman — actually welcomed criticism.  He recognized that a good scientific theory is one that can evolve in the face of criticism and further discovery.

Even so, it may be a while before his theory gains wider acceptance.  Jaynes did no less than turn conventional psychology on its ear, and he basically alleged that all human religion is nothing more than an artifact of an earlier biology.  There’s naturally going to be some resistance to that.

But Jaynes just has a way of drawing you in and challenging your basic assumptions about the definition of consciousness and how it began.  He begins with one domino of logic — that human consciousness is dependent on human language — and examines it until you agree that he is probably correct.  And if you accept that one item, then the next domino falls over: if consciousness is language-based, then humans must not have been “conscious” until language was invented.  And if that’s true, then you can date the advent of human consciousness to sometime within the past few thousand years.  And if you agree that’s true . . .

Well, let’s just say this book has one major Holy Shit factor going for it, one strong enough to keep you up at night with existentialist thoughts.  I can’t recommend it enough.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Matrix meets Harry Potter meets Back to the Future.

It’s 2044, and in this dystopian future, the world is a shitty, poverty-striken place.  The OASIS is a Second Life-like, immersive Internet world.  Folks strap on their virtual-realty visors and data gloves, select an identity for themselves, and log in to a collaborative, simulated universe of private planets, interstellar space ships, and magic.  High school student Wade Watts is one of its users.  From the book description:

Wade dreams of being the one to discover the ultimate lottery ticket that lies concealed within this virtual world. For somewhere inside this giant networked playground, OASIS creator James Halliday has hidden a series of fiendish puzzles that will yield massive fortune—and remarkable power—to whoever can unlock them.

For years, millions have struggled fruitlessly to attain this prize, knowing only that Halliday’s riddles are based in the pop culture he loved—that of the late twentieth century. And for years, millions have found in this quest another means of escape, retreating into happy, obsessive study of Halliday’s icons. Like many of his contemporaries, Wade is as comfortable debating the finer points of John Hughes’s oeuvre, playing Pac-Man, or reciting Devo lyrics as he is scrounging power to run his OASIS rig.

And then Wade stumbles upon the first puzzle.

For someone like me, who grew up in the 1980s, it was cool to read a book full of nostalgia I can appreciate — rather than to read or watch some story about the 1950s or 60s and wonder how much cooler it would be if I had experienced its pop culture references myself.  It helps that author Ernest Cline, his character James Halliday, and I are all about the same age.  I remember playing Tempest, Pac-Man, and all the old arcade games that figure so prominently in the story.   I also grew up on the movies that play crucial roles in the plot, like WarGames and Back to the Future.  And I spent a far amount of time playing games on an Atari 2600 and the early text-based MMORPGs (on my dial-up, 2400-baud modem) that make appearances in this novel.

Moreover, the story is suspenseful, the characters are interesting and distinctive, and the book ultimately has something meaningful to say about the nature of reality and personal identity.  I read it in about three days, and during that time I was agitated and distracted — simply because I couldn’t wait to power my Kindle back on so I could read more.  I can’t be a good writer unless I cultivate my love of stories — but because I am a writer, it’s easier to see the seams in someone else’s work and become jaded.  So it was nice to get really excited about reading something.  This is a book I wish I had written, and that’s about the highest compliment I can pay it.

The real test of whether something retains its 5-star rating with me is if I keep thinking about it.  I’m certainly excited from the recent experience of reading this one.  Will I feel that way a few years from now?  The Crimson Labyrinth, by Yusuke Kishi, had a 5-star rating on my Goodreads log until this morning, when I realized I couldn’t remember what it was about.  This means it proved to be more of a chocolate cake than a nourishing, juicy steak.  We’ll see which one Ready Player One turns out to be.  Today, at least, I think Ernest Cline is the shit.

Go forth, read these books, and enjoy!