Classic Literature Challenge

classicsI’ve been inspired.  Which isn’t exactly a rarity where reading is concerned.  I recently read about a reading challenge on a fellow blogger and lover of literature’s website and have decided to embark on one of my very own, though I am scaling it down a bit only because there isn’t enough time in one person’s life to read ALL the things.

Here’s the scoop: my challenge is to make a list of 10 classics, not necessarily American classics – just any book generally considered a classic in literature.  The source of my inspiration allows for books you’ve previously read but I am limiting myself to ones I’ve never gotten to and some I’ve even dreaded reading but feel I owe it to myself as a literature enthusiast to read.  (It is a challenge, after all.)  As soon as I’m finished with the book I’m currently reading (Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond, if you must know), I will embark on reading every title on this list, hopefully with no more than a week or two devoted to each selection.

So, here’s my list:

  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  • The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
  • Silas Marner by George Eliot

Wow.  Looking at it now, I realize there is only one book by a female author on it.  (George Eliot is the pen name of female British author Mary Ann Evans.)  Before you judge me, allow me to say it’s only because I’ve already read every book by Jane Austen, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Secret Garden, The House of Mirth and The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, which are, collectively, the most popular and famous classics by women.  I guess it’s time I give the men their fair shake.

For anyone else up to the challenge, make your list and share it in the comments.  And get ready… in a few weeks, the games will begin!

~Nikki

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Eyes On Fire – Nikki’s 2012 Book List (Part 2)

As promised, here’s part two:

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – Typically I try to read the book before seeing the movie but occasionally, it happens the other way around, which was the case here.  I saw the flick and thought it was a good idea but too heavy-handed in its execution.  After reading a couple of glowing reviews of the book, I thought I’d give it a look in the hopes that it succeeded where the film failed.  Sadly, I did not find that to be the case.  It’s a dark and sad tale set in the not-so-distant future wherein people who have the available funds can buy rights to clones of themselves.  At any point, if they need a kidney or a lung or any other vital organ, they’ll have a perfect match on hand.  Never Let Me Go tells the story of the doomed clones as they grow up in a boarding school, aware of their inescapable fate and still somehow trying to find some joy in life.  The writing is JaneEyrebeautiful and the story is not without merit but some passages just try too hard to convey the sense of loss that would come through much better without Ishiguro’s forcing it.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – I don’t know why it took me 30 years to read this but upon doing so, it immediately became a treasured favorite.  Bronte’s Jane Eyre offers a narrative that’s warm and personal without ever being trite and the story itself is as much about a young woman coming into her own and finding a way to assert her own independent spirit over the course of her life as it is a dark and intoxicating love story.

War Dances by Sherman Alexie – Alexie’s greatest skill as a storyteller is to make the stories of utterly ordinary lives feel extraordinarily tragic and simultaneously funny.  This collection of short stories deals with many of today’s pertinent issues – love, marriage, divorce, parenthood, racial conflict, substance/alcohol abuse, 9/11 and the War On Terror.  It isn’t Alexie’s best (for me, that’s still The Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven) but it certainly is worth a read.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold – I’m not sure what finally got me reading this.  It was different than I expected, more about the emotional aftermath for this poor dead child’s family than the capture of her killer.  The writing itself is good and the characters very real and fully developed but I never got totally sucked in.  There is no plot and at times, the story seems to just spin out in tangents.  For those of who love a good character study, I recommend it.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Yes, I read this in anticipation of the upcoming film adaptation by Baz Luhrman.  You know I’m a sucker for the classics so I’m sure I would have gotten to it eventually, anyway.  I had no expectations going in, really knew nothing of the story other than it’s set in or around the roaring ’20s.  It centers around a young man fairly new to New York and its high society.  He happens to be neighbors with a man called Gatsby, who is infamously mysterious as well as exceedingly wealthy.  He eventually witnesses Gatsby’s downfall along with the disintegration of the small circle of socialites that he briefly became a part of.  Hailed for capturing the essence of an era, it belongs on everyone’s book list.

A Simple Plan by Scott Smith – Two brothers find an abandoned crashed plane and in it, a duffel bag full of money.  Over $4 million, it turns out.  Should they disappear with it?  Is it marked or otherwise sought after by the police… drug lords… the FBI?  Such is the premise for A Simple Plan and it sounds promising enough.  Smith develops a fairly good story but the writing – the actual sentence by sentence writing of it isn’t good enough to make it great.  There are a few plot holes, nothing monumental, but made more obvious by the overly descriptive explanation of events surrounding them.  The action and every thought behind it were given too thorough a description, taking any semblance of nuance out of the work.  I hear they made a movie some years ago but I doubt I’ll see it.  Once through this story is enough.

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens – These 100 pages are a compilation of the very last writings of Mr. Hitchens, all written during the last 18 months of his life between his diagnosis with esophageal cancer and his untimely death.  They contain some of his most personal work and his most poignant.  By turns philosophical and musing, he never lost his ability to write with penetrating intelligence and unmatched grace.

Salem’s Lot by Stephen King – This was the second book King published and I’d venture to say that at the time of its writing, he hadn’t fully found his voice yet.  Some passages went on far too long while others felt cut short.  Still, it contains a few of those slow-to-reveal moments that King does so well, the kind that creep up on you and make you shiver with delight at the suspenseful, scary images you know are coming but still somehow feel fresh and surprising.  In 1975, King may not have yet mastered his craft but he was already well on his way.

The Wettest County In The World by Matt Bondurant – This novel formed the basis for the film Lawless, easily one of 2012’s best flicks.  The wettest county is Franklin county (Virginia) and during Prohibition, it spawned what would later be called The Franklin County Moonshine Conspiracy involving the Bondurant brothers and a deputy called Charley Rakes.  That much (along with some other details) is true.  But much more of the book is fictionalized.  It centers around the Bondurant boys and rightly so; they are the stars of this story and my interest in the details of their lives is what got me to buy the book.  It drags a bit in the beginning but stick with it – it’s worth it.

Blink, The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell – I enjoyed Outliers so much, I thought I’d go back and read this earlier work by Gladwell that studies the idea of “thin-slicing” – selecting the few most relevant factors from any number of variables in the first few open bookseconds’ reaction to something – and how it affects our decision-making.  Gladwell examines a psychologist who can predict a couple’s chance of divorce with shocking accuracy by listening to them talk for a mere few minutes, a museum curator’s ability to judge the authenticity of a piece of art within moments of gazing upon it and the tennis coach who knows the player will double-fault before he even finishes his serve.  Gladwell also gives some examples of decisions made by those whose instincts lead to disastrous consequences and explains the difference between them.  Each case study is well explained and thought-provoking, exploring the successes and failures of rapid cognition.

50 Shades of Grey, 50 Shades Darker and 50 Shades Freed – Yes, I read them and no, I did not particularly enjoy them.  The first in the series is by far the best of the three (in the way that the time you broke your finger was a more enjoyable experience than when you fractured your skull) and the best thing I can say for them is that they weren’t quite as awful as I had expected.  The writing itself, while not anything I’d call good, isn’t the worst I’ve read but the characters are lifeless and underdeveloped and there is no story to speak of, just one pitifully contrived set of circumstances after another during which the girl worries she’s not enough for the boy and the boy worries she’s going to leave him and then they argue and make up and have kinky sex, some of which is mildly hot but not nearly enough to justify the time spent reading this schlock.  I read them because I felt guilty about hating all over a series I hadn’t actually read.  So I gave them a shot.  And now I can knowingly say they’re a waste of paper.

Can’t wait to see what literary treasures 2013 will bring.

~Nikki

So Take A Look, It’s In a Book – Nikki’s Book List 2012

booksMy goal for 2012 was to read at least 24 books throughout the year – that’s two a month.  Surprisingly, I surpassed that meager goal with ease and read a whopping 39 books!  (My goal for 2013 is 52 books!  I’m already two down – take that, books!)  Since the list is quite long, I’ve decided to break up their reviews into two posts for your reading convenience.  (For those whose review I’ve already written and posted, I’ve conveniently linked them for you below.)  Here is part one:

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins – As the title suggests, The God Delusion argues that the idea of God (and religion) is fictitious.  Written by one of the world’s leaders in evolutionary biology, it is a scientific examination of religious ideas (most of them founded in either Judaism or Christianity) and the very notion of God.  Dawkins, as well as being expertly knowledgeable of evolution and natural selection, writes with an unbiased, clinical kind of honesty, simply presenting the evidence without his (or others’) personal feelings to obscure it.

Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens – This memoir by the late writer/journalist Christopher Hitchens sometimes reads like an autobiography and at others, like a personal essay.  It’s pretty typical Hitchens: poetic, honest, intelligent and written with extreme grace.  My only complaint is that he glosses over some of the more personal aspects of his life (like fatherhood) and didn’t talk much at all of either of his marriages.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

Outliers, The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell – An excellent, easy to read but very thorough look at the many contributing factors that lead “outliers” the likes of Bill Gates, The Beatles or even Albert Einstein to their atypical, extreme success.  Many people like to think it’s nothing more than hard work and determination but the truth is, while those are essential, they are far from the only things needed.  A faithful support system, the right opportunities (sometimes nothing more than being in the right place at the right time), a culture that encourages and allows for such success and plain old luck all play significant roles.

The Necessity Of Certain Behaviors by Shannon Cain – A collection of short stories, all different but each having themes revolving around sexuality, these are a light and easy read.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett – In all honesty, I’m a bit worn out on stories set in the Old South.  I decided to read this mostly just because it was wildly popular and seemingly inescapable.  I particularly liked that it was told from several different narratives rather than being limited to one point of view.  For anyone who enjoys historical fiction or simply a good Southern story, you can’t go wrong here.

I Am Number Four and The Power of Six by Pittacus Lore – These are the first two in a four-part series (the third of which just came out and no, I haven’t read it yet) about the last nine members of an alien race hiding on Earth from a different alien race out to wipe them from existence.  It’s light, exciting fantasy, loaded with action and quickly paced.  Fantasy and sci-fi fans will almost certainly enjoy.

Untouchable by Scott O’Connor – I bought this book at Powell’s in Portland (Oregon) after reading the jacket.  It tells the tale of a man and his son as they try with difficulty to deal with the sudden death of their wife/mom.  The kid is bullied at school and I admire O’Connor’s relentless dedication to honesty in these passages.  They’re so real, they’re often painful to read.  His characters are very real and the prose is well-written, but the story is slowly paced and lacking in depth of plot.  In fact, there really isn’t much plot to speak of.  Overall, an elegant, albeit slow read.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – Amazingly, I had never read this classic until last spring.  Its gothic imagery and dark themes sucked me in right from the start.  For those of you who may not know, this is a haunting tale of a fierce and unnatural love between an orphaned young man and the daughter of his adopted father.  The writing is engaging and poignant; the main characters, Catherine and Heathcliff, both wicked, selfish creatures devoured by their intense love of one another and the madness it inspires.  My only complaint is the narrative.  The story is told second-hand through the memories of a housemaid as she tells it to a man who has rented Heathcliff’s property.  I would have felt more connected to the characters and more invested in the story were it told by Heathcliff, or perhaps in third person narrative.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Crimes In Southern Indiana by Frank Bill – Though I usually enjoy dark and gritty tales, the writing here is too heavy-handed for my taste.  Rife with abstract metaphors and overly wordy descriptions, the writing actually masks the action in the stories and takes the pleasure out of reading.

One For The Money through Lean Mean Thirteen of the Stephanie Plum series by Janet Evanovich – Anyone looking for an introspective or socially relevant book will be disappointed here.  Evanovich’s prose is light-hearted and easy to read, fast-paced and fun, but there’s nothing deeply intricate or nuanced about it.  These are escapism, nothing more.  Twelve Sharp is my favorite of the series so far.

To Kill The Irishman: The War That Crippled The Mafia by Rick Porrello – I am from Youngstown and grew up on stories about the Youngstown/Cleveland/Pittsburgh mafia, so the subject matter was of particular interest to me.  Author Rick Porrello is a police officer by trade, not a writer, and it shows.  It reads more like text, listing events and facts rather than a narrative.  He clearly did his homework, though, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading about true crime, history and/or mob stories.

To be continued…

~Nikki

If Only My Eyes Were Not Pinned To Your Page

Being the intense fan of the horror genre (in either visual or literary form) that I am, I’ve recently decided to read a Stephen King novel in honor of the upcoming, most hallowed of contrived holidays.  I’ve actually only read two and a half of King’s works: Pet Sematary (one of my favorite books, EVER), Under The Dome and half of The Stand.  I’ve always wanted to read countless more but the list of books I plan to read is ever growing and his novels just seem to continuously get pushed to the side.  But not this October!  I’ve endeavored to read Salem’s Lot and now, slightly more than half-way through it, I know I’ve made one damned fine choice.

Not only have I not read Salem’s Lot before now, but I’ve never seen the film on which it’s based and haven’t really heard anything about the story except that it involves vampires.  Not the wimpy pseudo-vampires of Twilight fame but real, dangerous, predatory, blood-sucking, life-taking creatures of the dark.  As they were meant to be written.

What stands out more than anything, though, and no doubt what has made King the iconic author that he is, is King’s ability to slowly weave together a story.  His sense of timing – the pacing of the tale’s unraveling is sheer perfection.  It is damn hard to make words on a page scary but King has had no trouble.  He times it perfectly, giving enough suspense, enough eagerness, enough slow-burning interest to ignite your imagination and immerse you into the scene.  I’ve read a few books in recent years that made me wonder how the hell their author ever got published, let alone gained enough momentum to make a buck or two.  Never do I wonder such a thing while reading a Stephen King book.  Whether his work is for you or not, there is no question of talent.

I’d love to know which of his many, many novels is your favorite.  It’s too soon to tell how Salem’s Lot will rank on my short list, which means Pet Sematary is still number one for me.  What’s yours?

~N.

Will I Never Tire Of You

Confession: I have read Pride and Prejudice literally dozens of times.  I’ve seen the BBC mini-series starring the dashing Colin Firth a couple of times and the 2005 film version with Keira Knightley probably hundreds of times (not joking) and yet, even now, I can pick up the classic published back in 1813 at any given time, begin reading from any given page, and still become, instantly, captivated.

I marvel at the character development and the funny, heartfelt, yet simultaneously satirical social interactions between the characters.  To be a good storyteller, one needs a certain way with words and a good grasp of plot, indeed, but also, I think, an excellent understanding of human nature and behavior, something Jane Austen had in spades.  Her stories (the earliest of romantic comedies) are the tales after which almost every successful romantic comedy since has been modeled.  But more than that, they were social satires as well, remarking on the folly of human beings, our self-assigned importance and the absurdity of certain forms of etiquette.  Austen lived in 19th century England, a time where social norms were revered practically as law, and her novels clearly reveal just how useless she found many of them to be.

I’m assuming most of you know the story: young, spirited Elizabeth Bennet is thrown into the company of wealthy and seemingly arrogant Mr. Darcy who snubs her upon their first meeting.  After spending some time together, however, Mr. Darcy falls for Elizabeth and is shocked when she rebuffs his offer of marriage.  She has come to regard him as the coldest, most condescending bore she’s ever known, mostly from a certain affection she’s developed for a charming young man who has gone out of his way to falsely defame Darcy’s integrity and because of Darcy’s own prideful behavior.  After several months and many revealing circumstances, both learn to overcome their own pride and ill-conceived prejudices and realize that they are exceedingly compatible and rather passionately in love.

The love story is perfectly paced, fully developed and told in suspenseful and bewitching language.  What makes this classic a classic, though, is the effective use of the side characters and subplots not just to complicate and propel forward the central plot, but make very poignant, often hilarious, sometimes biting social commentary.  We humans are prone to insecurity, pomp and nonsense and Austen expertly maneuvered her sharp observations into this light-hearted, charming and very funny love story.

I’m always on the lookout for a new book to love and I have a particular soft spot for the classics.  Leave a comment and tell me which of your favorites I should read next.

~Nikki

And My Heart Is The Heart Of Life

The Bell Jar is a novel about a college aged girl approaching, going through, and eventually recovering from a nervous breakdown.  Its author, poet Sylvia Plath, first published it in England, hoping it would never reach the United States (where she was born and had lived most of her life).  She later admitted the book was semi-autobiographical and didn’t want anyone in her life to recognize themselves in some of the characters in it.  Plath experienced a similar breakdown fresh out of college and sunk into a deep depression.  She spent some time in an asylum, receiving counseling and electric shock therapy.  Her novel received critical praise and seemed bound for success right from the start.  Despite its promising success and the success of her poetry, despite the love of her husband and two children and many friends and family, Plath ended her life only one month after seeing The Bell Jar published.  She left no note but some of what she wrote in her one and only published novel seems to explain clearly enough: “How did I know that someday…the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”

What astonished me while reading this book is something that has astonished me many times before: how similar we human beings are to the ones who lived (and wrote) 50 years ago, 100 years ago, 150 years ago, and probably more.  Some of the thoughts expressed in The Bell Jar could have been plucked from my own mind or the mind of any woman living her life right now, in 2012.  I experienced this exact same phenomenon while reading The Awakening and Jane Eyre and Austen’s novels and Dickens’ and many others.  What it leads me to believe is that despite the great changes the world has undergone in the past couple hundred years, despite the many advances in technology and medicine and the ways in which we communicate, the ways in which we conduct our lives, the way we perceive, feel and interpret life has not changed.

I’ve expressed before that while I am happily married, I have reservations about becoming a mother.  I only bring this up as an example to illustrate the kind of connection referenced above, how surprised I was while reading The Bell Jar to learn that a woman who reached adulthood in the 1950s, a time when women choosing not to marry or have children was nearly unheard of, expressed feelings so similar to my own.  Esther Greenwood, the story’s protagonist, is a 21 year-old aspiring poet and writer who’s nearly finished obtaining her degree and finds that even well-educated women are expected to marry, raise children and stay home after finishing college.  A prospective suitor even tells her that after she has children she’ll feel differently, she won’t want to write poems anymore.  Esther observes: “Maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.”

I wouldn’t liken marriage and parenthood to being brainwashed but I do feel that choosing certain paths in life limits your choices for others and I’ve never read a better description of that idea than in Plath’s novel:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree…From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor…and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.  I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.  I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

I know some folks don’t like to read the classics because they were written in such a different time, they feel they can’t understand or connect with the characters or stories.  I feel the exact opposite.  Part of the fun of reading is discovering new worlds and learning about other cultures and walks of life, but more often than not, after reading a book, I feel the gap between myself and others has shrunk.  There’s a certain comfort to be had in knowing that my thoughts and perceptions and ideas are the same thoughts and ideas that people have had for centuries.  That despite all the changes the world has undergone, there are some things innate to the human condition that have never changed.

~Nikki

You Look Inside My Wild Mind

George RR Martin at the Comicon

George RR Martin at the Comicon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I read something today that filled me with the most wonderful, affirming, goosebumpy, brain-gasm rush of-“YES!! SOMEBODY GETS IT!”-feelings I’d experienced in quite a while. The current issue of Rolling Stone has the terribly interesting and affecting Peter Dinklage on the cover, and features a fantastic interview with the actor, along with a smaller piece on George R.R. Martin – the man who created the character Dinklage has personified, Tyrion Lannister, in the fantastic series of books, A Song of Fire and Ice, upon which the current kick-ass HBO series, A Game of Thrones, is based. I highly recommend picking up the issue and reading both pieces. Basically, everything Martin said was fascinating and rich and struck chords in my soul, but his final paragraph nestled inside my heart like a snuggly baby kitten who had found a bed of warm fleece blankets and a saucer of milk:

“I never saw the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock or the parties on Gatsby’s lawn, but they seemed more vivid than things I actually lived. If we are the sum of our experiences, as I believe we are, then books are a more important part of my life than my actual life. That’s what I try to do with my own fiction: Fill the stories with imaginary people who will become more real to my readers than the people in their lives.”                         George R.R. Martin, Rolling Stone                                  

To this, sir, I say: Thank you for hitting the nail on the head regarding how lots of us feel about things that are not, quote, “real,” and also, your mission has most definitely been accomplished.

~Annie