Hello again readers!
Mark here with the second installment of my 100-Book Challenge. One of the (many) motivations for this undertaking was to get to those novels I felt embarrassed not to have read yet, so books 11-20 bring us some literary heavy-hitters like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Austen, Morrison and more. That said, I do not intend my reviews as scholarly commentary, just the opposite; I want to give general readers a quick impression of each work and how much it lends itself to an enjoyable and fulfilling read. Of course, you could teach a full college semester on many of these novels, but we’re not here for that! We’re here to get some pages under our belts. So here we go:
- A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway: I am generally a fan of Hemingway, and many of you already know that his journalistic style makes him more accessible than some of the other so-deemed “greats.” But I have to say this is my least favorite of his works. The story of an American ambulance driver in WWI defecting with his lover to Switzerland, the novel cannot be ignored for its disenchanted view of The Great War and for its influence on American Literature…however, it’s quite a rough read toward the end, and has one of the most pessimistic conclusions I’ve ever encountered. While I completely understand such pessimism from the generation that saw one of the most destructive wars in history, I’d still suggest starting with For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises, and Old Man and Sea.
- Diamond are Forever – Ian Fleming: check out our James Bond: Here and There podcast for a closer look at all of the Bond books!
- The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison: TOP PICK! Perhaps the greatest benefit of this challenge so far has been my introduction to Toni Morrison. Much of her work explores the profound and painful subject of slavery and race in America’s past and present, but she does so in a way that beautifully and achingly transcends mere social messages. I highly suggest this book, but warn you that there is some disturbing content which may take you out of your comfort zone.
- Lorca – Three Tragedies – Frederico Garcia Lorca: This collection of plays was a quick read for me. All three deal heavily with gender and class in rural Spain, and I enjoyed Lorca’s use of allegory and symbolism over realism. The kind of literature that’s accessible enough on a first read, but that you could peel apart layer by layer and never get to the bottom.
- This is Portland – Alexander Barrett: Okay, this is one of my cheater books. My wife and I took a trip to Portland, Oregon, and this was in the property we rented. You can read it in 20 minutes. But I justified counting it because I also read The Grapes of Wrath, and I feel they equal out to at least two books. This was a neat, funny little portrayal of Portland and I recommend it to anyone visiting or living in the area.
- Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen: A classic and a must-read, but I was really hoping I’d like it more…I know, I know, I know. I can feel the hot wrath coming off of some of you out there, but hey, it just didn’t arrest me. I loved the opening portrayal of protagonist Elizabeth Bennett when, quite against social expectations and the good sense of a lady, she marches three miles in the mud to watch over her sister who has conveniently become sick while visiting a male suitor. This tenacity sparked my interest (and even startled me a bit in the context of a book written in the early 1800s) but alas, the novel did not maintain an iron grip on my interest.
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass – Frederick Douglass: I believe I was assigned this book twice in high school and neglected to read it both times, much to my own detriment. This short account of Douglass’s life as a slave and his escape to the North was fascinating both for its biographical content, and for how he chose to fashion it as a story and an artifact for social change. (Also, make sure you read the introduction to this one.)
- The Blank Slate – Steven Pinker: Alright, here’s the thing. The two books of Pinker’s I’ve read are the kind of books I think everyone should read. The problem is that almost nobody will because they’re so long. The Blank Slate comes in at 525 pages, and explores (in-depth) the debate between nature and nurture, making the point that society does not give appropriate credence to fact that much of human nature is innate and unable to be conditioned. It has changed the way I see the world, but probably not a good choice if you’re trying to get in 100 books in a year. (I had already started it on audio-book before I began my challenge). His other book was even more influential and even longer: The Better Angles of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined at over 800 pages, but so good y’all…seriously. I kept thinking I’d lose interest but never did. Check both of them out maybe next year.
- The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane. Another short work, this book was one of the early depictions of war (The Civil War) to do away celebrating honor and bravery and instead look at the gritty brutality of it all. Crane’s narrative voice was perfectly suited to the subject matter, but I sometimes had a hard time placing myself visually in the story. I’d still give it a look; it’s short and profound.
- This Side of Paradise – F. Scott Fitzgerald: This seemed like a book suited largely (dare I say only?) for Fitzgerald scholars and English majors. Heavily autobiographical, it chronicles a writer’s intellectual journey through college and into adulthood. It had its moments, but felt mostly like reading Fitzgerald’s disconnected diary entries. Also there was lot of horn-tooting when it came to how intelligent he is.
Okay, there you have it. Hope you’re finding your own gems out there. Feel free to mention them in the comments when you do!