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bookends

 
 
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Classics worth reading

Much Ado About Nothing/Romeo and Juliet/Othello, by William Shakespeare

Okay, so this might be cheating, since I’ve lumped three together – but I can defend it, I promise!


Anybody who knows me knows that I am, easily, one of History’s Top Shakespeare Nerds. I absolutely adore Shakespeare. I do not have enough words to express how much I love Shakespeare. But the reason is very simple – think of a human emotion. Any human emotion. The first one off the top of your head.


It’s in Shakespeare. The whole spectrum of what people are capable of feeling is in Shakespeare, in the sonnets or in the plays or in his long-form poetry. He put words to every single feeling that a human being has ever felt, made that feeling a character, and that character was fully-fledged, and nuanced, and real. Othello is jealousy, Juliet is passion, Puck is mischief, Brutus is guilt, Cleopatra is fear of ageing, Falstaff is recklessness, Constance is grief, Prince Hal is guile, Benedick is fear of commitment, Lady Macbeth is thwarted ambition, Mercutio is whatever the adjective form of devil-may-care is. And all of that feeling, all of that emotion, the entirety of the human experience made flesh and blood and manifest, is written in the most beautiful poetry the English language has ever produced.


So, yeah, I couldn’t pick which Shakespeare play to recommend as the one worth reading – because in my opinion, they’re all worth reading (except maybe Henry VIII. We can argue about that somewhere else). So I’ve gone ahead and picked the three that I think most wholly encapsulate the one thing that all humans can agree on, and have at some point felt: love. Romeo and Juliet is the most potent piece of artwork that speaks to the all-encompassing, overwhelming, obsessive power of first love; Much Ado About Nothing is the mature, hopeful, enthusiastic way adults can fall back in love with each other and come back together again when the time is right; and Othello is the terrible price you pay when that mad, manic, massive love turns destructive. I do recommend reading them rather than finding an adaptation – because, and I’m aware of the type of person that I am when I say this, a Shakespeare adaptation says a lot more about the opinion of the director than it does about Shakespeare’s original text.


That’s another great thing about Shakespeare – he leaves so much space for you to project your own thoughts and emotions and experience onto his characters and his plays, you can lose yourself in him more than you can in just about any other playwright or poet.


And don’t anybody come at me with the ‘Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare!’ conspiracies. I love conspiracy theories as much as the next gal (JFK was not killed by Harvey Lee Oswald and I will die on this grassy knoll), but not that one. Take that one to another blog.


And yet I wish but for the thing I have:

My bounty is as endless as the sea,

My love as deep: the more I give to thee,

The more I have, for both are infinite.”


Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

You knew this book would be on here, didn’t you? It is, after all, my favourite book of all time. If anybody is wondering why Jane Austen is worth reading, let me recommend a book to you that does a way, way, way better job of explaining why she’s an important author to keep revisiting than I ever could: Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly. She does a very good job of explaining how Pride and Prejudice is, for all intents and purposes, a fairy tale: but oh, what a fairy tale.


An intelligent, witty, independent-minded and strong-willed young woman who falls in love with a man who is rich, handsome, and intelligent. He is also reserved, cold, afraid of commitment, standoffish, and an absolute dickwad until he softens for Lizzy Bennet because he loves her. And, more importantly, he falls in love with her because of her mind. And he loves her in spite of all of the MASSIVE amount of brainwashing and conditioning he has grown up believing, and his position in society, which has been rammed down his throat by some frankly appalling relatives since he was a very small child. And Lizzy and Fitzwilliam Darcy both overcome some problematic family situations to fall in love with each other and be happy with each other! They build a partnership based on mutual respect of each others’ abilities, and love each other because of those, and the sexual attraction and chemistry is an added bonus! Who wouldn’t want that???? NOT ME!!!! I WANT A FITZWILLIAM DARCY!!! I WANT TO BE LIZZY BENNET !!!!!


And through it all, Jane Austen is a brilliant satirist, who writes with a razor-sharp witty edge. Her observations are rich, nuanced, detailed, and poignant. Even though Pride and Prejudice is a delightful fairy tale, it’s also an absolutely scathing indictment of the society she lives in and the position it forces women into. This a love story for all ages, and I reread it religiously every year. And I swoon multiple times, despite the fact that I know it almost by heart. And I love it so much and I really want all of you to read it so we can all gush about how much of a babe Fitzwilliam Darcy, of Pemberley in Derbyshire, is together.


Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez is, I think, one of the best modern writers – if not the best. The way he writes is nothing short of staggeringly beautiful, and that applies even in translation (although one of the best decisions I’ve ever made was when I worked my way through Love in the Time of Cholera in the original Spanish, with a dictionary and a translation guide very close by). What García Márquez does with language is simply magnificent. He paints landscapes and narratives and pictures that are equivalent to the works of the great Italian masters using words, and I’m in such awe of his facility with language that I can’t even adequately express it.


Plus, the story of Love in the Time of Cholera is just lovely. It’s about two people who meet when they are young and then go their separate ways, but never stop loving each other and come back to each other in their ‘golden years’ and build a partnership for themselves using their experience as well as the idealized images they have of each other when they were young. The real joy you get out of this novel, though, is the incredibly rich and detailed inner life and internal monologues of the three main characters, Florentino, Fermina and Juvenal. Each character is sketched so fully and so lovingly, you really can sink into their independent thoughts and lives and minds without ever being blind to their flaws and their, sometimes, catastrophically stupid decisions. Even the false notes in the story, which mainly occur because of characters’ choices, are well-rendered, and impactful, and full of import and nuance and pomp. It’s very obvious that García Márquez has weighed every single possible word choice before selecting the one he thinks is going to get exactly what he means across, and that means that the characters’ dialogue, and the setting, and the plot all carry that same precise, exact meaning.


And yet, through it all, you still get the unspeakably beautiful writing and a love story that, even while it goes up and down and enters dormancy before sparking back to life, never feels hopeless or abandoned – but nor is it idealized and rosy. And the two main characters are people who love each other despite the fact that they are deeply flawed people who long lost the rosy picture they had of each other and of their love story. As far as adult, mature romances go, it’s a surprisingly realistic yet hopeful one.


Les Liaisons dangereuses, by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

I’m not a big fan of the epistolary novel (a novel that is written entirely in the form of letters exchanged between the characters), but I make an exception for Les Liaisons dangereuses. This is one of those books that you get something new out of every time you read it (at least I do). The depths of depravity that the two main characters, the marquise de Merteuil and the vicomte de Valmont, sink into is hilariously delightful and I get great joy out of watching them out-manipulate, out-deceive, and out-trick each other and everyone in their social circle. Les Liaisons dangereuses is, in my opinion, the forerunner to all the anti-hero novels, movies and television series before the anti-hero trope was a thing. You’re not supposed to root for the marquise de Merteuil and the vicomte de Valmont – they are truly despicable people – but they are so much smarter than everyone else who surrounds them, and the sheer delight that they get out of turning everyone they know into their own personal playthings out of boredom is both hilarious to watch and also completely chilling.

The novel was meant to satirize the mores of the aristocracy under the Ancien Régime, and it definitely does that. The plot is a bit trite – the marquise wants the vicomte to seduce a young debutante as revenge for her lover wanting to marry that young debutante and abandoning her; the vicomte wants to seduce a beautiful but chaste friend of the marquise; and then they all start seducing each other out of spite and a desire for vengeance. What makes this story so much fun is the way the characters allow their malice and their desire for payback destroy them. It reads a bit like a morality tale by the end of it – payback causes you more pain than it does the person you’re trying to get back at, kids! – but the plots are so much fun to follow because of how convoluted they get. Plus, there is no better form of schadenfreude than watching two very smart people try to outsmart each other until they both lose.


Plus – it’s an incisively written, hilarious novel. The jabs and the witticisms remain funny, even 250+ years after they were written and published. The sexual tension between the two main characters absolutely leaps off the page, even couched in polite, aristocratic writing. And, despite being 400 pages long, the fact that it’s an epistolary novel makes it a very fast, almost easy read. The language has also aged very well – you can follow along with the letters and the plots without needing to work too hard at it, as it’s by no means archaic. In fact, it’s such a dark, twisted romp that I might make this my second exception to my no-rereads in 2020 rule.


That’s why I think it’s a classic worth reading – of all the pre-twentieth century ones on this list, it’s the one that has aged the best and that lends itself the easiest to a modern reader and to modern-day interpretations.


To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

I had to read this book in my ninth grade literature class, and while most books that I had to read in high school literature classes I ended up hating (mostly thanks to my truly weird tenth- and twelfth-grade literature teacher, Mrs. Spicer); To Kill a Mockingbird I loved on first read and have only loved more and more every time I have revisited it, especially as an adult. It was published in 1960 and immediately became wildly successful; Harper Lee won the Pulitzer for it and it was almost immediately adopted into school curriculums.


The story of TKAM follows multiple plot lines, but the one that it’s mainly famous for is the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man, who has been accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. Oh, yes, important context: TKAM takes place in 1930s Alabama. Tom Robinson is defended at his trial by Atticus Finch, a well-respected white lawyer who has been widowed and is raising his two young children, Jeremy and Jean Louise. Jean Louise, nicknamed Scout, is the novel’s narrator and we see the entirety of the novel develop through her viewpoint, which means that all of the story’s messaging and morals are filtered through the lens of a six-year-old who both worships and is slightly embarrassed by her middle-aged, scholastic, lawyer father. There is also a narrative thread around Boo Radley, the children’s recluse and almost mythical neighbor. I can’t really describe anything else about the plot without giving it away, but it’s one of the few American novels that I think are easily exportable to other countries and places because every society everywhere, both in the 30s and now, is grappling with the main narrative threads of racism, power imbalances, inequality between the classes, crumbling economic and societal structures, bias and discrimination and inequality inherent and persistent in the justice system, deep suspicion and misunderstanding of those who suffer from mental health issues, gender norms that hurt both men and women, fear of the unknown, fear of change, and the power of intergenerational, familial, and geographic trauma and grief.


Scout is an adult narrator in a child’s body – Harper Lee is a brilliant writer, and her writing in this novel is crisp, beautifully narrated, and the voice is just the right sort of ambiguous where you can feel the reflection rising out of the story without being taken out of the main action of the book. There are also moments in the book that are laugh-out-loud funny. The laughter serves to illustrate the deeper-lying horror of the shockingly regressive society Scout is growing up in, both about questions of gender and race.


This is a classic worth reading both because it is still relevant to modern times, but also because of the quality of the writing, and the joy Harper Lee very clearly got in writing her characters (especially Scout), and the nuanced, complex, heroic treatment of Atticus Finch himself. The story is complicated, both in its premise and its resolution, but by no means difficult to read, and this book remains one of the most remarkable I have ever read. The final scene of the book is so intensely gripping that every time I re-read it, even though I know what happens, I am so pulled in and so absorbed in the way the action is unfolding that I routinely – and I mean routinely – can’t hear people calling my name, miss my stop on the train, etc. The scene where Atticus Finch shoots the rabid dog is imprinted on my memory in a way that very few other passages of writing have ever been able to achieve. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.


Just never, ever, ever read Go Set a Watchman.


“Atticus Finch was the deadest shot in Maycomb County in his time. One-Shot Finch, we called him…”


Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

Nobody, and I mean nobody, does a tome like the Russians. And Anna Karenina is, in my opinion, the best one from the best of the classical Russian authors (that would be Leo Tolstoy). The main plot of the book is the doomed love (and scandalously extramarital) affair between Countess Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky. It’s a 1,000-page long exploration of how unforgiving society is towards the perceived moral and sexual failings of women, and also explores infidelity (obviously), family dynamics, the importance given to religion in politics and culture, the impact and cost of progress, and the power and the limitations of love. It asks a perennial question of most great works of art and literature: how far love can take you, and what love is powerless to change. The main takeaway from Anna Karenina is, unsurprisingly, pretty typically Russian bleakness: love can’t overcome the obstacles that a greater force has put in your way; and if you’re a woman who’s in love with someone that’s not your husband, the only way to make that situation is to throw yourself under a train.


I realise that this summary might not be doing a great job of explaining why Anna Karenina is worth reading. I promise you it is, though: the novel is beautifully well-written, and thanks to some excellent translations, you get a lot of the sweeping, overwhelming, naturalistic beauty of the writing (I’m sure it is better in the original Russian, but I, tragically, cannot read all the languages I’d like to). And the social commentary is incisive even while it’s bleak. Plus, Anna and Count Vronsky are such achingly lovely, everlasting tragic characters: there’s something really beautiful about watching these two (attractive, as they are described) young, hopeful, optimistic people fall together and then seeing them unravel and bring out the worst in each other, even as they can’t quit each other. Not all the world’s great love stories are happy love stories – in fact, some of the most beautiful love stories are the tragic ones. And Anna Karenina is, in my opinion, the best of the long-death love stories (Romeo and Juliet, while my favourite love story, does take place over a four-day period so doesn’t really compare).


And even though the ending is bleak, I carry from the novel a bit of hope – because Anna’s brother saves his marriage from falling apart, and the other main male character does successfully marry the love of his life and they manage to build a very happy, stable partnership together, based on shared values and mutual respect and, most importantly, open, honest communication about what they can feasibly bring to the other person. Both those successful love stories stand in sharp contrast to Anna and Vronsky’s doomed love, and only makes their end sadder – but you still get the message that love can be dramatic, and powerful, and overwhelming, and messy; but that if you choose wisely, you can love with all your heart and soul, and not end up under a train. Globally, that’s a pretty important message to get out of what some consider to be the world’s most perfect novel, isn’t it?


East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

I hesitated for a long time before including this one, because Steinbeck – and especially East of Eden – is one of those ‘love it or hate it’ novels, and I absolutely loved it for some very subjective reasons (although, to be fair, this entire blog is subjective. Reading is an entirely subjective activity). This is one of those books that is completely dependent on its setting, time period, and the narrative space that the author gives to those things – the first several chapters are dedicated to a description of the Salinas Valley, the stretch of farmland northern California where the vast majority of the novel takes place (incidentally, my grandfather also grew up on a farm in the Salinas Valley), between the end of the nineteenth century and World War I.


The main characters of the novel are, however, a truly, mind-bogglingly, incredibly fucked up family. The Trasks are the fucking dictionary definition of dysfunctional. Adam Trask is a Civil War veteran who is abused constantly by his father and younger-but-stronger half-brother, and then there’s a parallel story of Cathy Ames, an absolutely psychopathic woman who gets her kicks out of manipulating, tormenting and destroying people. She is introduced to the story as a young woman who burns down her family house and kills both her parents. Of course, Adam and Cathy make babies – and thus come into the world Aron and Caleb, two twins who are carrying an awful lot – and I mean, an awful fucking lot – of familial trauma and grief.


And this entire novel unfolds in the way the twins are dealing with the fact that their father only loves one of them, neither of them know who their mother is, and they’re being raised by a cook who is pretty relentlessly racially abused by the town and their father for being Chinese. Every other book on this list I’ve referred to as ‘beautiful’, but this isn’t a beautiful book at all – it’s about ugly (inside) people making horrid decisions and being absolutely awful to each other. But that also makes it a very powerful novel about redemption, and the power of choice and forgiveness, and the things that people do that are beyond the gift of ever being redeemed. This book is a hard, sad, grim read that also happens to be spectacularly well-written. Steinbeck, for all his flaws as a human being, sure knew how to work the English language, and the parallels to Biblical stories in this novel are crafted incredibly well without ever being grating, or beat-you-over-the-head-with-them. Steinbeck spoke of East of Eden as his magnum opus, and I can see why.

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About

I’m Amélie, I love books and reading, and I also love talking about them.

I’m incredibly lucky to be bilingual, so I read books in both French and English, and will talk about both of those on here – although I will do more in English, since I know that’s probably what the majority of the people who ever find this blog will be interested in!

I also like history, traveling, Shakespeare, coffee, cheese, musicals, Italian Baroque art, the ballet, Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You, flowers, makeup, high heels, and baking. Yes, I’m a walking cliché. I am aware.

Please do tweet at me with any suggestions/book recommendations/thoughts.

In case you’re curious – yes, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book of all time.