1001 Books to Read Before You Die (Sort Of) Challenge: 81-85

“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.

9781494307493_p0_v1_s260x420 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 9780060786502_p0_v3_s260x420

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).

9780895987525_p0_v1_s260x420 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 9781593082079_p0_v4_s260x420

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).

sound_and_the_fury 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.


1001 Books to Read Before You Die (Sort Of) Challenge: 71-75

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.” — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

So, I’m still a few away from achieving my New Year’s Resolution goal of 160 books on the list, but that’s the only one where I’ve come up short. Room to improve for next year, I guess. I will be finishing these recap posts before too long (then I really won’t have any excuses for not making more progress with this self-imposed reading challenge). For now, onto the recap.

9781909399051_p0_v2_s260x420 The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The first version of this story that I ever encountered was the Wishbone version (I owe so much of my love for the classics to that show). It’s the only Sherlock Holmes story I have a second copy of, having bought one of the Dover Thrift editions before acquiring my copy of the Complete Sherlock Holmes (which is something everyone with any affection for mystery stories should have along with a healthy helping of Agatha Christie books). I don’t remember much about when I read the story itself other than being frustrated that my second hand copy had so many ridiculous notes written in the margins. Sometimes used copies with notes are full of interesting insights or humorous comments; other times they only underline and note the obvious.

The Hours by Michael Cunningham9780312243029_p0_v3_s260x420

I had seen the film adaptation a few years before I had this book assigned in one of my undergraduate lit courses. My enjoyment of the book was (unusual for me) a mirror to how I’d enjoyed the film. I loved the Clarissa and Virginia Woolf portions of the story but had little patience for the Laura storyline. Can’t really pinpoint why. I did enjoy it enough to look forward to reading the other Michael Cunningham books that appear on this 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list, but not enough to go out and read them simply for their own sake.

9781593081539_p0_v1_s260x420 The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

This might be my favorite Edith Wharton novel (which, given its rather depressing subject matter is perhaps a little sad). Where I have never had much patience for Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, there’s something about Lily Bart that demands to be listened to. It might just be that I’m more attuned to the way Wharton uses Lily to emphasize the injustices of women’s places in society, regardless of the level they inhabit. The story told is not altogether unlike Carrie and George in Sister Carrie, but there’s a level of authenticity and believability that make Lily’s plight more readable and sympathetic. Wharton captured the way that set functioned so much better on the page than Dreiser did (at least, in my strong opinion).

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne9781593082314_p0_v1_s260x420

One of my favorite things to do in college was twist assignments in such a way that I could use books I’d been meaning to read for ages into part of my homework. The House of the Seven Gables was one of those books. In my junior year of college when I decided to add history as a double major, I had a required history class that was designed to teach us about how to write. As an English major already, I walked in dreading what sounded like it would be a boring class on something I was already rather adept at. While that aspect of the class was as basic and unnecessary as it sounded, the professor and his approach were fantastic. He decided that we would do the writing assignments and approach the required text through a very specific subject in history: witch trials. For my final assignment, I examined transcripts of historic witch trials and compared them to later romanticized novelizations of those same trials, including The House of the Seven Gables as part of the texts I used for material. One of my favorite college assignments ever.

9780156012195_p0_v3_s260x420 The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I must admit, I don’t remember much about this classic story (I should probably re-read it at some point). What I remember vividly is my third grade teacher reading it to us. She was one of my all-time favorite teachers and introduced me to many wonderful stories. She read aloud to us for a little while almost every day. If we behaved well, we would get to watch an hour of a movie on Fridays. She loved the Oz books (there was a complete set in our classroom and she let those of us interested borrow them whenever we wanted) and our class created a large map of Oz. She also was the first to introduce me to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I remember that when we began The Little Prince she had taken time to recreate the cover in chalk on the blackboard so that we could all see it. Best teacher ever.