1001 Books to Read Before You Die (Sort Of) Challenge: 91-95

“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.

9780385474542_p0_v1_s260x420 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 9780446310789_p0_v6_s260x420

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).

9781593082475_p0_v4_s260x420 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 9780060874407_p0_v2_s260x420

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.

9781593082086_p0_v1_s260x420 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).


1001 Books to Read Before You Die (Sort Of) Challenge: 86-90

“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.

9781593081317_p0_v3_s260x420 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 9780743297332_p0_v1_s260x420

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).

9780618706419_p0_v1_s260x420 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 9780312428815_p0_v1_s260x420

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.

9780060838676_p0_v6_s260x420 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).