Among the few bright spots in 2016 was the fact that I ended the year by finally finishing Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. It was the last book assigned in one of my first semester classes of graduate school and I have been struggling to finish it ever since. A large part of my frustration with this book stems from the circumstances of its assignment; there was no way we were ever going to be able to finish the book at that point in the semester, especially when there were several dubiously long papers due in a short period of time, in that class and others. When I graduated, Tristram Shandy was one of a few books that had been assigned that I hadn’t finished during the school year but as I gradually finished the others, Tristram Shandy remained the most difficult one to get into enough to actually finish (the fact that there’s so much jumping around in the story and so many meaningless diversions didn’t help with the whole attention span thing). I finally made myself a promise that I wouldn’t let myself start reading the Song of Ice and Fire series until I had finished Tristram Shandy. So now I get to finally begin Game of Thrones!
Since reading Atonement, I’ve read and enjoyed a number of Ian McEwan’s novels. But with the exception of Atonement, they all seem to have one aspect that pushes things that last step too far and Amsterdam, while one of his more lauded works (and a book that gets me back to working on my 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, which I’ve fallen behind on this year) is no exception. Its explorations of morality, mortality, and friendship are incredible but the way those thematic lines culminate as far as the plot is concerned don’t quite work for me.
One funeral brings together a woman’s three former lovers and her husband. Two of the former lovers happen to be good friends, Clive and Vernon, and Molly’s drawn out deterioration due to dementia and eventual death has the two men wondering what they would want if they found themselves in her shoes; ultimately they agree they would want someone to end it for them. But Molly’s death also brings some compromising photos of a politician (the third of her former lovers whom neither of the two friends like) to light. Vernon, a newspaper editor, seeks to publish; Clive, a composer, sees things differently and the men’s friendship is tested as news of the photos’ content begins to catch the public attention.
I’ve been working my way through some of the “classic” science fiction books to see and understand more of the genre’s origins and how it’s evolved. The science fiction titles on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list feel like a good way to kill two birds with one stone. What I knew about Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey before reading it was mostly just two things strongly connected to the film—the music from Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra and the bit of dialogue referencing the pod bay doors—and neither of which turns out to have given much of anything away from the story at hand.
Beginning with the early education of mankind as he evolved from man-apes, 2001: A Space Odyssey follows a rather disjointed structure that makes pinning down the main plot a bit difficult. Some sort of extra-terrestrial force arrive in the African plains and study and educate those early ancestors of mankind in part one. By part two, man had already established working colonies on the Moon and made an unexpected discovery while exploring and excavating the Moon’s surface—a monolith that dates back to the days before mankind had fully evolved. A clear indication that intelligent life has or continues to exist in the greater universe, the rest of the book is much more focused on the mission to make contact—though who knows about the discovery and the true nature of the mission is kept pretty quiet. Dr. David Bowman and Dr. Frank Poole are the two active crew-members as the ship Discovery—with the assistance of a supercomputer, HAL—embark for Jupiter while their three companions wait in suspension to be reawakened upon arrival when they will conduct their experiments. Before they can reach Jupiter, however, the secrets of the “true mission” begin to cause problems with the HAL computer system. Continue reading
Unlike when I started reading The Shining, I have seen the film adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather—in fact, it was part of an assignment back in my high school psychology class (I no longer remember or care what we had to do for the assignment but it remains one of my favorites). Though it’s been a few years since I saw the movie, they did a fantastic job of remaining true to the book and the characters—The Godfather is one of those instances of book to screen adaptations where both are genuine masterpieces. Even if I hadn’t already seen the quintessential mafia movie, Puzo’s prose provides a crystal clear picture for every scene.
On his daughter’s wedding day, Don Vito Corleone has meetings with several men who seek favors. His youngest son, Michael, attends the wedding with his WASP girlfriend, Kay Adams, trying to make light to her what the family business is and why so many people revere and fear Don Corleone. Michael insists to her—and anyone who knows him is already aware—that he has not part in the family business and has no intention of ever getting involved in it. But a short time later, Don Corleone’s polite refusal of a business deal is taken the wrong way and he is attacked, putting the fate of the Corleone family at risk and Michael realizes staying out of things is easier said than done. Continue reading
Mrs. Dalloway is a novel I’ve been tentatively meaning to read since I first saw and then read The Hours. After picking it up at my library’s annual book sale a few weeks ago, I finally got around to doing just that—of course, now I’ll have to go back and rewatch The Hours to refresh my memory of that but even from my vague memories of the story there, I can tell that it did a fantastic job of incorporating this source text through the three stories that novel interwove. I was surprised, however, to find that it isn’t a favorite of the handful of Virginia Woolf works that I’ve read so far.
Clarissa Dalloway is giving a party and she has some last minute preparations to take care of before everyone arrives in the evening. Through the course of her day, she glimpses other people going about their days and the narrative flits from her perspective to theirs. One of the most significant occurrences during her day is the reappearance of Peter Walsh, a man who had proposed to her shortly before she met and married her husband and with whom she had been in love. Memories of their younger selves and their impressions of each other, then and now, create an intriguing tension as the evening builds. Continue reading
“A trusty comrade is always of use; and a chronicler still more so.” – Arthur Conan Doyle
When I was applying to grad school and preparing for the GREs I knocked off a few of the titles from this 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list… but nowhere near enough of them. It felt like for every book I read that did appear on the exam there were six that I missed and two that I didn’t need to have read at all. There are so many compiled lists of recommended reading for those kinds of exams, it’s impossible to get to everything in time—I much prefer this list where I can take as much time as I want, where the deadline is not completely in my hands. Okay, that was a bit more morbid than I meant it to sound.
Anyway, thinking back on the GREs and the literature test in particular, what I remember most are the few who woefully underestimated how intense the exam was going to be: the students who chose not to go to the restroom before the three hour testing period began; the one who looked about ready to cry by the end of the exam and proclaimed that she’d taken the MTELs and they were so much easier; the ones who made no marks for the first ten minutes because they were still trying to wrap their minds around the idea of 300 questions on an exam that only lasted for 180 minutes. I still remember the point in the session when I chose to skip through to the end and move backwards, passing over anything related to poetry entirely (poetry always was the bane of my academic existence). I remember that my best friend and I had signed up for the same test center and went to lunch afterwards where we quietly compared notes, consoling ourselves over the ordeal by celebrating each answer we knew we got correct.
Even now almost five years later, I still believe the GRE test for literature was the biggest waste of time and money and a completely inaccurate way to judge a literature student’s knowledge after graduating college—you can’t have an evaluative test like that without and essay component (and yet… they did/do). But, the GRE had to be endured in order to apply and attend graduate school—where I read way more of the titles from this list and which are going to be rounding out most of the rest of these recaps. Continue reading
Anyone who’s read my blog for a while should know by now that I’m a fan of Edith Wharton. In working my way through the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, I love that I have an excuse to discover the less-famous works of authors I already love. This works out better for my opinions of some authors rather than others—Edith Wharton is one of the former. The Glimpses of the Moon is not a novel of hers that I have heard discussed much as far as what gets recommended when Wharton’s work is brought up—but it should be.
Susy Branch, like many Wharton heroines, has been born and raised in the wealthiest circles of society and struggles to maintain her place there though much of her family’s fortune is gone. She sustains herself through the kindness—and favors—of her female friends. Accepting their castoffs and presents comes with a price and while Susy may occasionally despise her position, she doesn’t see any way out of it. When she meets Nick Lansing, he shares a similar place in their circle and they are able to commiserate and find themselves drawn each other. With the way their set sees marriage, Susy proposes that they go ahead and marry each other using the generosity of their friends’ gifts—checks, jewelry, offers of a few weeks or a month at various vacation houses around Europe—to sustain themselves for a year. At the end of that year when their funds dry up, they would release each other (a.k.a. divorce) so that they could then make more profitable though less personally desirable matches. They embark on marriage in agreement over the theory but putting it into practice proves a greater challenge as personal feelings, principles, and simply being around their “set” begins to affect how they each view themselves, each other, and the dictates of their arrangement.
Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer was one of the last books from my graduate school list of required readings that I hadn’t finished by the time I finished. I had to read it for my gothic literature seminar but we went in knowing there wouldn’t be enough time to finish so I put more effort into my final paper. Melmoth the Wanderer is largely a critique of the Catholic Church and religious institutions in general and the Inquisition in particular. Heavy religious themes encased in a number of embedded narratives—so many narratives and embedded at different levels to the point where I had completely lost the early threads of the original characters and premise long before I reached the end. There are plenty of gothic themes and motifs but I stopped caring about them a long time ago. I just wanted it to end and I’m glad it’s over. Melmoth the Wanderer was not my cup of tea.
I missed the phase in elementary school where everyone seemed to be reading Stephen King. I was busy with other books – Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights to be exact. I have never been a fan of horror movies and so I wasn’t too interested in pursuing a genre when it came to reading either. I have often played with tackling The Shining because it features so wonderfully in my favorite episode of Friends (it’s not technically the title of the episode but I always think of it as The One Where Rachel Reads The Shining and Joey Reads Little Women). So when I noticed that The Shining was on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, it quickly became one of the ones I pushed myself to read sooner rather than later (though the prospect was still intimidating) and I am so glad I did.
Jack Torrance reluctantly accepts a job as winter caretaker at the Overlook, a remote luxury hotel in the mountains of Colorado, because it’s the best he can get while he works to finish the play that will restore the promising career that’s been slowly slipping away. His struggle with alcoholism and anger issues contributed to him getting fired from his job as an English teacher at a prestigious prep school and nearly destroyed his marriage. But he’s determined to make the new job a turning point for him and his family. Though he knows the hotel has a mysterious past, it isn’t until he and his family arrive that ghosts from their pasts mingle and clash with the Overlook’s. Danny, Jack’s son with his wife, Wendy, has always been gifted. Dick Hallorann, the hotel’s cook spots Danny’s telepathic gift, which he refers to as a “shining,” right away and does what he can to prepare and reassure the young boy. But nothing could prepare any of them for what the hotel has planned for Danny and his family. Continue reading
“A bookshelf is as particular to its owner as are his or her clothes; a personality is stamped on a library just as a shoe is shaped by the foot.” – Alan Bennett
There are so many studies that tout the importance of establishing good reading habits in children as early as possible. Personally, I can’t imagine a world where I don’t have time to read – I’ve often been in a position where I didn’t necessarily have the time to read for fun but reading has become such a fundamental part of my routine. If there’s a day where I don’t read, it’s like I’ve missed a meal (like a mental meal or an emotional meal). I will say that a huge part of getting into those habits (which I thoroughly believe helped me with all my subjects in school, not just English) was my parents. Beyond bedtime stories and teaching me to read, they surrounded me with books. I might have seven or eight bookcases in my bedroom on my own but I acquired those over many years. We had four or five overloaded bookcases spread throughout the house growing up including one that was full of just kid’s books. We were never at a loss for reading material in my house and my parents never really told me what I could or could not read so I was reading some of the same books as my parents as early as fourth and fifth grade (mostly mysteries like Agatha Christie or the Murder, She Wrote series). Continue reading
“You can spin stories out of the ways people understand and misunderstand each other.” – Ian McEwan
The more of Ian McEwan’s work that I read, the more convinced I become that when I started with Atonement, I started with his best work. The Comfort of Strangers took me two tries a year apart to get past the first chapter. Colin and Mary are on vacation in an unspecified ancient city and don’t appear to be enjoying themselves too much. They’re not quite connecting. They keep getting lost on their wanderings and the frustration is building with more than a week left of their holiday. One night a local man named Robert helps the lost pair, taking them to his bar where he tells them stories about his childhood. Coming across them again the next day, he invites them to dinner at his home with his wife, Caroline. Though Mary and Colin aren’t quite sure what to make of Robert and Caroline, they politely accept the couple’s hospitality. The experience seems to open the flow of communication between Mary and Colin for the rest of their vacation. Of course, in the end it turns out those odd, uncomfortable feelings were more than justified.
There wasn’t much I found to really hold onto in this story. Mary is an overt feminist and those few conversations where women’s rights arise were the parts I found most engaging. The twist at the end didn’t feel particularly genuine; Mary and Colin are impulsive but I can’t help feeling that some of their behavior was tweaked according to the laws of horror films (in which everyone does the exact thing any real person would know instinctively not to do). I wasn’t sorry for this book to end. I have higher hopes for the other McEwan novels on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list.
(And I just found out it was adapted into a film with Christopher Walken, Helen Mirren, Natasha Richardson, and Rupert Everett in the early 90s; not sure what to make of this new information.)
“In my reviews, I feel it’s good to make it clear that I”m not proposing objective truth, but subjective reactions; a review should reflect the immediate experience.” — Roger Ebert
Or in my case, what I remember of my immediate experience. Reading is as much about reactions to the material as it is about absorbing and taking it in. It’s one of my favorite things about the way history and literature interact (and why I wrote about it so much for both literature and history classes in college). What we read can change the way we think about ourselves, others, and the world we inhabit. What we think affects how we act and how we act can change the way the world and the people we interact with are. Which then inspires people to write new things for the rest of us to read and the cycle begins again.
By reading books from different periods of history, from different regions of the world, books that have become part of the literary canon (or have been removed from the literary canon) — like many of the books on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list — we get a glimpse into how people thought and acted at different points in the past. Sometimes the impact a book has cannot be clearly seen until after the dust settles; then we see whether the world has changed or whether everything remains the same.
Anyway. Enough of my philosophizing. On to the recap. Continue reading
The more I read of Margaret Atwood the higher she climbs on my list of favorite writers. Some of this is because she writes in two of my favorite genres (science/speculative fiction and historic fiction). Though I had mixed feelings about The Blind Assassin, I thoroughly enjoyed the next of her works to appear on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, Alias Grace. Inspired by a true story, the questions of truth, justice, and how to define either as a woman in the nineteenth century are at the heart of Alias Grace.
Grace Marks was only a teenager when she was working as a servant in the household of Mr. Thomas Kinnear. When her fellow servant, James McDermott, murdered the housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, as well as Mr. Kinnear, Grace was caught up in the storm, the only question was in what capacity. McDermott claimed she not only egged him on but that the whole thing was her idea and that she had promised herself to him in exchange for his doing the deed. Grace claimed little or no memory of events at various points during that fateful day and there were many who believed her to be either too dimwitted or too young to have actively participated, that she might have gone along with McDermott because she was too scared to do otherwise. While both were convicted of murder and sentenced to death, Grace’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Almost twenty years later, a committee working to petition the government for her release engages the services of Dr. Simon Jordan who specializes in mental illness to meet with Grace, evaluate her condition, and determine her likely guilt or innocence at the time of the murders.
This was yet another case of “there’s a movie adaptation of this book coming out… I should read the book first.” There’s something about the prettiness of period pieces and film adaptations of classic novels that gives me that final push when it comes to picking up a book that’s been on my To Read list for ages. Reading Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd has put me in the, “I’ll be waiting for it to come out on DVD so I can rent it” category. While I enjoyed it more than Tess of the D’Urbervilles, I’m not particularly looking forward to reading more of his novels as I work my way through the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list.
Bathsheba Everdene enjoys her independence and an unexpected inheritance makes it easier for her to put off marrying and the restrictions of the institution. Even so, there are several young men in the neighborhood of her late uncle’s farm who find themselves falling for the non-traditional young woman. Gabriel Oak actually met Bathsheba before she inherited her uncle’s farm. When his own circumstances falter, she hires him as a shepherd on her farm, despite the initial awkwardness from her having rejected his suit. Mr. Boldwood wouldn’t have looked twice at Bathsheba if it weren’t for an ill-advised joke but having noticed her, he goes to extraordinary lengths to secure her for himself. Then there’s dashing Francis Troy, a sergeant who catches Bathsheba’s eye. Continue reading
“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” – Lewis Carroll
I’ve reached the point in my recaps when I began writing book reviews of some of the books I was reading from the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list. The recaps for these will generally be shorter as a longer analysis is available elsewhere (and I will have additional links to those longer reviews) and they will generally focus on why I chose to read a certain book or what I was looking forward to about it (beyond crossing it off the list, though admittedly, that’s the only thing that I look forward to with some of them).
Since these recaps will be shorter, I will include more of them on a post when they occur. I have never read exclusively for my book reviews, so there are some books here and there that I read without the intent of writing an extensive review (in fact, some of the posts I continue to write for this reading challenge are on the shorter side rather than full reviews). Additionally, I had to take a break from my blog during the whirlwind year that was graduate school and working towards my MA degree. That proved to be particularly helpful in my progress on this reading challenge as many required reading titles showed up on the 1001 Books list. Basically, the recap posts from here on out will be less like what’s come before. It also means I’m getting closer to the end of these recap posts and soon my posts on my 1001 Books reading challenge will only be reading updates. Hooray for making progress. Continue reading
“The final test for a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends, and of anything else which we cannot define.” – E. M. Forster
I’m getting closer to the end of these recap posts, catching up to the books for which I wrote and posted more formal reviews, and it has me reflecting on these reflections. It helps that I find myself discussing with my friends these overlapping memories of the books’ content with the circumstances under which I read them. I have found, more than I ever would have guessed in the beginning, that so much of what I read that I enjoy comes as much from the mindset (and personal circumstances outside of reading) as it does from the novel’s actual content. There are more books that I remember enjoying, but I can’t quite remember the exact details regarding what you’d think are major aspects: characters, plot, the style in which it was written. Instead what I remember most are my reactions to it or to parts of it (even though I don’t remember what it was that caused those reactions).
I’ve been earmarking many of them for a second reading, hoping that in re-reading them the same reaction might be triggered and the connection between the specifics of the material and the emotion will strengthen – or it’ll inspire a completely different reaction. I know that there are so many aspects of stories I once loathed that speak to me very differently not that several years have passed (my eternal apologies to My Ántonia for all the horrible things I said about you in high school). There’s also the risk that I’ll have lost the tolerance I had for something I once loved… or maybe I’ll finally be able to see the layers of meaning I missed before… I’m torn. I want to read as much as possible that I haven’t read before but there’re so many things I can learn about myself through re-reading.
Watchmen by Alan Moore and David Gibbons
Most of my friends and roommates in college were big comic book and graphic novel fans (in part because so many of them were illustration majors). There was more than one occasion where I was dragged to the movies in order to watch superhero movies or other similar adaptations. They began planning for Watchmen a few months before the film actually came out and it gave me a chance to actually read the graphic novel first. I enjoyed it thought graphic novels are not something I actively seek out. I liked the film better if only because it “fixed” a number of the issues I had reading the graphic novel (the shipwreck subplot in the kid’s comic book and the whole reason behind why Ozymandias’ role). I could have gone either way on the artwork in the novel itself, but seeing how they managed to capture and adapt certain frames in the film made having read the graphic novel worth it.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
I read Jane Eyre a year or two before I read Wuthering Heights, and while I appreciated Charlotte Brontë’s style and story, there were aspects of her plot that, to this day, bother me. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up her sister’s equally famous, Wuthering Heights, but it certainly wasn’t what I read – in a very good way. Though it took me a while to get used to the way the narratives are embedded (with second and third hand accounts of major characters and events), the central characters of Catherine and Heathcliff are a force of nature beyond the circumstances of the story. There’s so much going on with both of them psychologically that is compelling even as it proves self-destructive. They’re a couple who could have and would have had a wonderfully healthy relationship if they could only remove themselves from society and the influence of the world around them – which is, of course, the tragic impossibility that causes them to sabotage themselves, those around them, and those who come after them. I’ve only ever found one film adaptation that I feel comes anywhere close to achieving a true sense of the novel and its characters and even that falls a bit short.
A Room with a View by E. M. Forster
I began reading A Room with a View while on a charter bus taking my college art history class into New York City for what proved to be a disastrous trip to MOMA – because of an accident that delayed us for hours rather than anything wrong with the museum itself. I was less perturbed than many of my classmates because of the friends I had with me, and the fact that I had a book to help kill time. Beyond simply enjoying E. M. Forster’s examination of a young woman’s burgeoning sexuality during a time when – especially publically and for young women – sex wasn’t talked about. Of course, Lucy’s enlightenment goes beyond the surface subject matter and delves into the rejection and push to changes in society and its values among the different classes. I also found that regardless of the subject matter, characters, or plot, there is something about E. M. Forster’s prose that is almost mesmerizing. It isn’t a prose style that I find inherently frustrating (which is proving to be my continuing problem with Thomas Hardy), but rather relaxing.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
I was probably one of the few students who didn’t have to read A Tale of Two Cities in high school. I was already familiar with the story thanks to Great Illustrated Classics and good old Wishbone. I did eventually read it on my own (after being disappointed that it wasn’t on the syllabus for my Dickens seminar in college either) and it was everything I had always expected it to be. It completely lived up to the hype and my expectations going in, but then, there’s always something to enjoy about Dickens and his writing style. I remember mentioning to one of my friends that I’d finally gotten around to reading it and listening to almost an hour of gushing over the character of Sydney Carton (who, I must agree, deserves a bit of gushing and to be ranked among the likes of Mr. Darcy, Heathcliff, and Mr. Thornton). Perhaps my most recent memory of the book is a poster that hung in the grad student lounge that was the entire first paragraph of the novel in different complementary typesets to emphasize all the contradictions. A part of me still wants that poster.
Howards End by E. M. Forster
I enjoyed A Room with a View so much that I followed up with Howards End pretty quickly. This one had more slow parts but it was also longer. I don’t know that I was completely sold on the relationship between Margaret and Henry and was much more invested in Helen’s storyline. That said, I found the novel’s prominent themes well handled and progressive for the time it was written (though, having learned more about E. M. Forster and his involvement in the Bloomsbury Group, it’s less surprising). His prose style was just as relaxed and engaging as my first impressions. It took me a while to find a copy of A Passage to India that I liked but I do plan on reading that one before the year is out.
My favorite aspect of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath was the way he took frequent breaks from the Joads’ journey to offer glimpses at the lives and characters of those they met along the way from Oklahoma to California (I was one of those who understood and appreciated the turtle). While Cannery Row doesn’t fall into quite the same every-other-chapter pattern for those tangential character sketches, they help to create a more complex portrait of a community comprised of social outcasts.
Cannery Row is home to a brothel, a country store of sorts, a warehouse inhabited by a small community of vagrants, and Doc with his laboratory where he collects and ships specimens for dissection and experimentation across the country. The only thing everyone seems to agree upon is that Doc is a great guy but when Mac and the others living in the ware-less warehouse decide they want to do something for Doc, their ideas never seem to go as planned with destructive if not disastrous results. Continue reading
“Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.” – Chinua Achebe
One of my favorite things that can happen while I read is when time ceases to have meaning. I imagine it’s like that mental place surgeons go that allows them to focus, perform, endure through a surgery that lasts for ten hours or more. I stop feeling hungry and miss meals; I stop feeling tired and read through the night; I don’t notice that the sun has gone down and I’m squinting at the page until someone else comes in the room and flicks the light on overhead. It doesn’t happen very often, mostly because I don’t let it. I know that it’s pretty unhealthy but every once in a while it’s fun to indulge the impulse.
Now, I carefully plan when and why if I want to get completely swept away. If there’s a new release I’m really looking forward to or another special occasion, I’ll make sure the time is reserved in my schedule and warn people that it’s coming so they know better than to interrupt me. I do these things because I will never get tired of the rush I felt when I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows at two o’clock in the morning or the frustration of being interrupted forty pages into Mockingjay (only to learn the phone call was from my friend to tell me how much she loved her mother who’d bought the book and delivered it to her at work for her lunch break). The vicarious adrenaline, anxiety, and embarrassment are more potent when the rest of the world has been adequately banished to the other side of a closed door.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
I have fond memories of this book in part because it was the subject of one of my favorite papers I wrote in college (an essay that won a small contest and publication on campus). It also shows how small the steps we take towards irreparable change can be. Before we realize where we’re headed, it becomes impossible to turn back or fight. I also remember reading several essays of Achebe’s as part of my criticism classes but precisely which, I can’t recall. Looking forward to Arrow of God, which is also included on this 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I don’t know that I’ve ever heard someone say that they didn’t like To Kill a Mockingbird. It is such an iconic piece of American literature and can be read by just about anyone at any age and they will find something valuable in it. I first read it in middle school when my classmates and I were close in age to Scout, so many of the heavier themes and messages might have gone over our heads but by the time we watched the film in high school, we all understood not just how well written the book was but how important it was too. For so long it was Harper Lee’s only novel. Now with the prospect of a second book from her, I will undoubtedly join the ranks of those rereading To Kill a Mockingbird in anticipation and preparation (though I haven’t preordered my copy of Go Set a Watchman just yet).
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
From a young age, I was never one to shy away from books that have been traditionally directed at boys. I didn’t care whether the main character was male or female and I always enjoyed adventure stories. I bought and read Treasure Island somewhere along the way (though my first introduction to the story was, once again, Wishbone, my favorite version will always be Muppet Treasure Island). In college I took a history class called Piracy in the Atlantic that, for the purposes of sounding official, was meant to focus on the economic impact to the colonies and Europe. In practice it was even cooler than a college course of pirates sounds. My friends and I affectionately refer to that class as Pirate Story Hour. Treasure Island was the first book on our syllabus and the first (optional) assignment was to rewrite the Gettysburg Address as Long John Silver addressing his crew (then there was a bonus option for those who chose to perform any of the versions students in the class wrote; it was the best first week of a class ever). The class was also offered only in the fall and Talk Like A Pirate Day coincided with one of our earliest classes.
Unless by Carol Shields
Unless is a book I doubt I ever would have noticed if I didn’t have to read it for one of my Lit courses in college. I don’t remember much about the story at all (in fact, what little I do remember has started to blend together with the events and characters from another novel I had to read in that class, Three Junes). I do remember that I really didn’t care for it at all. I don’t remember my specific complaints, only that I was relieved the day we finally finished and moved on to The Poisonwood Bible.
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
I have read bits and pieces of Walden for almost the entirety of my academic career from high school through college. I’m pretty sure I read the entirety of the book in one of my undergrad classes but the parts that stick in my memory the most are the ants fighting with each other and Thoreau’s thoughts on the trains and technology creeping in on the landscape. Walden is probably one of my least favorite books. It’s up there on that list of “glad I read it cause it’s referenced/alluded to so often but really I hate it” with Moby Dick. That said, I love Walden Pond. It is beautiful and relaxing, even though the solitude has been broken by a multitude of people lounging around on its beaches, swimming in its waters, and hiking the trails around the pond. I completely understand the impulse and inspiration behind Walden and I agree with many of the sentiments he expresses, I find the manner of his expression tedious at times (I much prefer his essay on civil disobedience).
“You speak like a heroine,’ said Montoni, contemptuously; ‘we shall see whether you can suffer like one.” – Ann Radcliffe The Mysteries of Udolpho
Finishing Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho crosses it off not only my 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list but also knocks another book off of the list of books I started in grad school that I haven’t finished yet (only three more to go). I actually bought the book years ago after reading Northanger Abbey (for the second time, I think). Thanks to my Gothic lit class, I actually got around to starting the book. While one of my earlier professors reading the elaborate descriptions aloud to our class for comedic effect will always be one of my favorite memories of college, I was surprised at how much I actually had to say about it in my Gothic lit seminar (I wrote extensively about the violence of sleep; characters are violently woken from sleep or their shocked so badly they faint).
Though I ran out of time during grad school, I have been plugging away, chapter by chapter, since and finally completed the novel. As far as the story goes, it is very repetitive, not only in the descriptions but in certain scenes themselves (Emily’s reservations and emotional turmoil over any number of events in the book come to mind; she laments the circumstance, endeavors to overcome them, and succumbs to grief but maintains her virtuous resolve). There is plenty of build up throughout the novel: the eerie nocturnal music, the black veil and what lies behind it, the mysterious death of the Marchioness. But they’re all drawn out just a little too long and while the explanations are obviously not going to actually be supernatural, they’re not average or logical enough to really pack a punch. They make a certain kind of sense but are still ridiculous (but in a humdrum way rather than a memorable way). All of this is underscored by the fact that the reader knows exactly how the central characters will wind up by the novel’s conclusion; one must simply endure it. In a time when there were fewer forms of personal entertainment (no movies, television, or radio) and where fewer people were able to travel as much or as far as in modern times, something like The Mysteries of Udolpho would have been exciting and engaging.
“You cannot open a book without learning something.” – Confucius
I was lucky when it came to reading books for school. Having always loved reading, I had no aversion to reading for English classes in middle or high school. If anything, I became frustrated with the slow pacing at which some of the books were covered. I finished them quickly and took up a second book for fun. In some cases, this meant that I, albeit unintentionally, read books for school ahead of when we actually read them in school (and sometimes I regretted it like when I had to read Where the Red Fern Grows twice in about four months and wound up crying like a baby both times; what is it with middle school curriculum and sad books about dogs?).
Letting go of that fun reading was the hardest thing about college. I simply didn’t have the time though I could sometimes get away with reading a chapter of a guilty pleasure book between major assignments. Graduate school I had too much trouble keeping up with the workload to even think about fun reading. Thank God I don’t suffer from motion sickness and have always been able to read in the car (or on a bus or on the subway); my commute into the city was at least two hours each way on public transportation. I also found that getting audio books for some of the titles helped keep my attention focused so I didn’t fall behind.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
I was familiar with this story long before I ever read the actual novella. Both times I’ve read the actual text were for classes. For undergrad, I read it in my fantasy lit class but we ran out of time for actually discussing it. I enjoyed the story both times but the discussion we had in my graduate Gothic lit class was a large part of why I will probably reread it again. The complexities of the writing as well as the themes addressed are difficult to fully appreciate alone. It is a story that requires discussion and critical thinking for complete enjoyment. Though it is also pretty cool and creepy entirely on its own.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
This is another book that I read twice, once for undergrad and once for graduate school. I enjoyed it equally both times. It’s a wonderful example of Hemingway’s writing style: the clipped sentences, the lack of adjectives when it comes to telling who is saying what, and, of course, the subtle power dynamics of the male/female relationships. There are probably more pages of literary critics debating whether or not Hemingway was a rampant misogynist and to what degree his misogyny extended than there are pages Hemingway wrote. And while it is an important conversation to be had, I hope it doesn’t detract from the stories being told and the characters themselves. There is more to the novel and more to Hemingway than just the question of sexual politics (and more and more I find people shaming one another for the things they like, conflating a problematic element with the work as a whole and using someone’s enjoyment of the work as a whole to put them down; okay, mini-rant over).
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
I tend to have a difficult time with watching anything graphic. I could only watch MASH when the color on our television started to go turning the blood purple. I can’t watch most horror films. But the kinds of things I can’t watch, I can read. And I’m a history nerd. Thus, I have an odd fascination with books about wars. Usually I gravitate towards the American Civil War since that’s a particular period of history that I enjoy learning about, but I also have a number of other novels centered around twentieth century wars lining my shelves. The Things They Carried was one I read during high school. I was so engaged in the text I went out and bought my own copy and now it sits with copies of All Quiet on the Western Front and Johnny Got His Gun.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
This is one time where I saw the movie first. It was on Lifetime or Hallmark or one of the other stations like those late one night when I was babysitting and the kids were in bed (I also saw Seven that way and couldn’t make myself go to sleep when I got home; not always a good way to watch unfamiliar movies). I was mesmerized by the film and a short time later, I bought and read the book. I don’t remember too much about my initial impressions except that I found it all… well, mesmerizing. I’d probably have stronger opinions if I went back and read it again having a much firmer grasp of things like the male gaze and the objectification of women; I don’t think it glamorized suicide though I can see why some people would think so. I do think it demonstrated, in an indirect way, the impact and lingering effects of such events on teens though it is also rather subdued, building to the titular suicides. There’s a tendency to put narrative distance with that kind of traumatic event; the narrator is years removed and reflecting rather than displaying the immediate reactions, the confusing emotions. Part of that, I think, stems from the fact that there’s so much already confusing about being a teenager that it is only with time that some sense can be found; but I almost wish there were more books that focused on those moments themselves, the chaos that must be endured instead of showing things only from the other side.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
When I first read this book in high school I remember my classmates getting caught up on the characters’ names (Teacake in particular) and missing a lot of the story. I enjoyed it far more than the TV movie adaptation we only ever got halfway through during a class on one of the last days of school. The discussion was more active and more relevant when I had to reread it in graduate school. More than the novel, I find the author interesting. I need to go back and read more of Zora Neale Hurston’s writing (I know I have some of her shorter pieces and excerpts of her work in my anthologies from college).
Agatha Christie is one of the greats when it comes to mysteries and psychological thrillers. Unfortunately, I started with what I consider her all-time best, And Then There Were None. Years later, I read Murder on the Orient Express which was also fantastic and is similarly famous for its climactic reveal. I hadn’t heard much about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd but since it was on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, I figured it would have a similarly iconic twist and I was not disappointed.
One of Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is narrated by Dr. James Sheppard. Soon after the death of a local woman, Mrs. Ferrars, a local gentleman, Mr. Roger Ackroyd who had been romantically involved with Mrs. Ferrars, seeks an audience with Dr. Sheppard. Combined with the personal complications of living with his dependent sister-in-law and niece, the money problems of his stepson, and a household staff with secrets of their own, there are many issues weighing on the man’s mind. Dr. Sheppard offers what counsel he can before leaving for the evening. Several hours later, Dr. Sheppard receives a mysterious call that Mr. Ackroyd had been murdered. Arriving to find Mr. Ackroyd still shut up in his study, the door locked from the inside. Lucky for Dr. Sheppard and the local authorities, the recently retired Hercule Poirot has just moved to the neighborhood. Continue reading
“Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin.” – Barbara Kingsolver
I took an English seminar in college where the focus was on the way memory was presented in certain works of literature. It’s a subject that has always fascinated me, the ways we edit and fix things to make them better (or worse); the way we occasionally reorder things to create connections that don’t really exist and justify our actions; the impact comparing our memories of an event to those of others who were there. In many ways, all of these recap posts are memory exercises. There are undoubtedly details I’m forgetting about the circumstances under which I read the books; there are many where I only remember that I did read the book but have little memory of the plots themselves.
Maybe I’ve just been extra reflective lately because I’ve been cleaning. Whenever I go through a cleaning spurt, I wind up getting very nostalgic. But there are a few things I haven’t done, or very rarely do. 1) I very rarely read through the diaries and journals I kept when I was younger. Some of this is due to an inability to read my handwriting. In an effort to keep my brother from reading my diary, I used a coded script. Only now, I can’t remember the right way to read it. 2) My younger self wrote those letters to your future self. I can’t bring myself to open them. I remember enough of what’s in them that, even though the Open After dates are long past, I kind of want to wait to actually open them until I actually accomplish a few of the goals I set.
The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe
When I’m in the mood for something gothic but don’t want to read an entire novel, Poe (whose birthday was yesterday) is the place to go. The psychology of fear, torture, guilt; Poe does them all and one of the best is The Pit and the Pendulum. I remember reading quite a bit of Poe in high school English classes, usually because his works were short enough to cover in the fifty-minute class periods.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
I have read The Poisonwood Bible at least three times and each time I read it, I enjoy it more than the last. Aside from telling a wonderful story of four missionary’s daughters in the African Congo during the middle of the twentieth century, Kingsolver’s ability to create and switch between the different narrative voices of the sisters. Each is distinctive and immediately recognizable. The way she is able to play with language is astounding, from Adah’s obsession with palindromes to Rachel’s hilarious substitutions. This is one of my perennial Desert Island books (and is one of the books on my shelf where I recognize the way it smells).
The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes may be the more famous sleuth, but Poe and his C. Auguste Dupin came first. The Purloined Letter is probably my favorite of the Dupin stories. While the details of The Murders in the Rue Morgue with the outlandish orangutan twist are perhaps more memorable, it is The Purloined Letter that holds best to plausibility.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Who didn’t read The Scarlet Letter in high school? It was never one of my favorites but the themes it addresses are certainly ones I could go on about at length. However, when I think of the novel, I’m reminded of the high school class where our teacher told us not to bother trying to get away with just watching the film (with Demi Moore) version because of how far it strays from the source material. It was essentially the same observations made in the more recently inspired Easy A by that film’s protagonist (and if you haven’t seen Easy A, you should because it’s awesome).
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
I have a mixed relationship with Faulkner. Some of his work I absolutely love; while other works leave me exasperated or bewildered (as much as I was intrigued by As I Lay Dying, the part that will stay with me longest is “My mother is a fish”). Luckily, The Sound and the Fury is one of the ones I’m on quite good terms with. I’ve had friends who were advised to read The Sound and the Fury out of order. They were told to read Benjy’s section last because that would be when it would make the most sense. I don’t know that I would advise postponing reading that section so much as I would advise revisiting it after reading the rest of the novel. There’s something wonderful about reading that section first, thinking it complete babble, and then realizing just how much sense it does make. It was presented in that order for a reason and to jump around undermines that particular aspect of Faulkner’s message.
“Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.” – Truman Capote
I have a tendency to find classic and iconic films overrated the first time I see them. It’s something about the ways that the quotable lines and celebrated visual shots have been assimilated into popular culture to the point of being clichés. I’m too familiar with them going in and so they seem understated compared to what I go into the film expecting. It happened the first time I saw Casablanca though I later grew to greatly appreciate, if not exactly love, the film. Another film I had a similar reaction to was Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Now that I’ve read the story on which the movie is based, I understand better what the hype was about, though I still think the film is overrated (especially given how much the tale was altered in the film version).
Holly Golightly’s nonconformity is far more endearing and radical on the page. As beautifully as Audrey Hepburn portrayed her, she only minimally resembles the Holly in Capote’s original (at least as far as I’m concerned; I may need to endure rewatching the film before continuing in greater detail along that train of thought). Perhaps it’s just the passage of time and an increased awareness, but in the story itself, the ways that Holly pushes back against the ways the men in her life try to pigeonhole her or force their interpretations onto her is more prominent. While I think my favorite piece of Capote’s writing will remain/always be In Cold Blood and the way he was able to create the modern True-Crime genre, Breakfast at Tiffany’s wasn’t as insufferable to read as my experience with the film had led me to think it would be.
“There’s so much more to a book than just the reading.” – Maurice Sendak
Does anyone else suffer from book guilt? I consider it to be that feeling you get when you realize you’re not paying close enough attention to what you’re currently reading because you’re busy figuring out which one to read next. It usually strikes me when I’m forcing my way through a book that is a little disappointing or that I have to read for an assignment. Sometimes it’s just because I’m coming up on the last few chapters and the end is in sight and I don’t want it to end so I sabotage my efforts and have to go back to read passages over again. The real problem is when I give in and start a new book before I’ve actually finished the one I’ve already started. That’s how I end up reading so many books at once. Definitely something I still need to work on.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
I will admit, I did not read The Lord of the Rings until after the films came out. I had tried and failed to get through The Hobbit so I had to be talked into seeing the first movie by my very excited father. After sitting enthralled for those three hours and realizing I’d have to wait a year for the next film, I decided to give the books a chance. Since then, I’ve found that I’m not alone in preferring one so much more than the other. I’ve heard people generally enjoy one and can’t stand the other. I have read The Lord of the Rings twice now and plan to read it again a few more times in the coming years.
The Nose by Nikolay Gogol
An odd short story, it isn’t my favorite by Gogol, but it isn’t the worst. I much preferred Taras Bulba, which happened to be included in the collection of Gogol stories when I read The Nose. Still, every once in a while it’s interesting to read something from the realm of the absurd.
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
I know there are people who will never like Hemingway and who think that The Old Man and the Sea is overrated, tedious, etc. I tend to think that those are people who haven’t read Moby-Dick. I read the Melville classic before I ever read The Old Man and the Sea. Since my biggest criticism of Moby-Dick has always been that it was too long and could use some heavy editing. I like to think of The Old Man and the Sea as what Moby-Dick would have been like with a lot more editing. For that, I will always enjoy it.
The Once and Future King by T.H. White
I received this book as a gift from my parents one year for Easter many years ago. When a new King Arthur movie was announced, I began the task of reading it. I’d only ever seen the Disney version of The Sword in the Stone and knew little beyond the names of the key players (and there was a little from Monty Python as well but that doesn’t really count in the grand scheme of Arthurian legend). I was surprised at how closely Disney managed to make their adaptation. I was only part way through The Candle in the Wind when the King Arthur movie came out. Upon reading reviews, I decided it was not a movie I would be interested in after all, especially since I’d been enjoying the book so much.
The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde is always a joy to read. While his witting writing is generally comical, when he goes dark, he does so fantastically. Dorian Grey is one of those cases where he’s gone fantastically dark. Delving into the, well, gray areas of morality and desire. The descent of impressionable Dorian into his destructive selfishness is a classic for both the richness of Wilde’s language and the inherent relatability of its themes. Everyone struggles at some time in their life with wanting to do something that society and/or common moral codes say shouldn’t be done. I had to re-read it in my Gothic literature class for grad school alongside Dracula, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When placed in that company, the themes jump from the page in amazing ways that only make me love it more.
After reading Vanessa and Her Sister, I was reminded of how much I’d enjoyed The Voyage Out when I’d read it a few years ago. So I decided it was time to revisit Virginia Woolf, this time in the form of Night and Day. With a different understanding of her as a writer and with more experience and awareness of certain feminist issues, I found Night and Day an intriguing look at the way that love and marriage were presented and understood by society in Woolf’s day contrasted with the thoughts and feelings of characters that resonate with a transcendent timelessness.
Katherine Hilbery is the granddaughter of a nationally renowned poet, giving her family a certain level of prestige and putting them under added social scrutiny. Because of the literary nature of their brand of fame, Katherine is used to people making assumptions about her own poetic tendencies, though in reality, they are nonexistent. She is used to being around people who are unaware of their own false illusions of her. Katherine develops a jaded view of love and marriage but desires the freedom that marriage and a home of her own can offer. Her friends and family offer their own understandings and advice on the subject and a new acquaintance, young solicitor Ralph Denham, serve to further confuse Katherine’s feelings and beliefs. Soon all the young adults in her circle of friends find themselves asking what is love? How does one know one is in love? And if you are in love, what can you do about it? Continue reading