In her response to my post about “good” movies, Terry asked for a list of “good” books. I’m working on that, but in the meantime, here’s what I read over the break:
- Go Tell it on the Mountain (James Baldwin.) I have a funny history with this book. When I took the Praxis test before beginning grad school, I glanced over the reading list and discovered, in distress, that I was missing quite a few modern classics. (Is that an oxymoron? Well, anyway.) I subsequently read Things Fall Apart, which I loved; The House on Mango Street, which I loathed; and about four or five others. I ordered this book too, but it never came, so I applied for reimbursement by Half.com, my standard go-to for used books. Then, a few months later, cleaning out my basement … I found it, still in the package. Oops! (Thankfully, the reimbursement request never went through.) So I had literally no background about this book, other than that I “needed” to read it. I was immediately sucked in by the story of a poor preacher’s family in Harlem and the spiritual / mental / emotional burdens they carry. It’s gripping, raw and haunting storytelling. What I like best about it (Rob read it too, and echoed this) is that although the author obviously has a lot of familiarity with the Pentecostal faith about which he writes, it’s never clear whether he buys into it or not. That fine line between doubt and faith makes him human, which makes the story that much more compelling.
- The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway.) Maybe I’m the only American alive who managed to make it to almost-30 without reading Hemingway, but I’m mentioning it without embarrassment just in case there’s someone else like me out there. If you’re at all dithering, turn off your computer and go read it. NOW. The story of an old fisherman, down on his luck, is beautifully told: suspenseful yet thoughtful, a portrait of latent friendship and borderline existentialism. And it’s short enough to read in an afternoon — most fittingly on the beach, but in a pinch, in your living room.
- The Sound and the Fury (William Faulkner.) Seriously? That’s all I could say after about a hundred pages. Here’s how it begins:
Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.
AFTER about a hundred pages, I figured out that the narrator was mentally retarded, “they” were playing golf, and Luster was looking for a quarter he’d dropped earlier because he needed it to go to a show. Good God, this novel is confusing. I actually didn’t finish it; I got about halfway through, but at that point I wasn’t interested enough in the story or the characters to continue.
- This Side of Paradise (F. Scott Fitzgerald.) Yes, I was on an American author kick, partially because my American Literature students are gearing up to start their term papers soon, and I’ve only read about half the books they’re going to write about. I was so unimpressed with this one that I convinced the student who had selected it to choose a different book; I’ve never been a huge fan of Great Gatsby, and this book focuses even more on the pompous pretensions of the American nouveau riche. Again, I quit about halfway through, and again, it was because I just didn’t care enough to keep reading. This is highly unusual for me, although you might not guess it by the list.
- The Chronicles of Narnia (C.S. Lewis.) Okay, so I’ve mentioned them many times before, but what I haven’t mentioned is this unbelievably excellent set of audiobooks. Just about every well-respected British actor reads one: Patrick Stewart, Kenneth Branaugh (swoon!), Michael York, Derek Jacobi, Lynn Redgrave … and all use different voices during the characters, a feat that’s impressive in any novel, but absolutely staggering in the Magician’s Nephew scene where Aslan creates talking animals for the first time. If you have children, buy this. If you can’t, I’ll buy it for you (it appeared under several trees this year.) In fact, buy it even if you don’t have children; I’m about halfway through and already looking forward to starting it over. And there is something utterly satisfying about hearing faintly, behind the story of the Dawn Treader, the crashing of the surf just a few feet away.