Friday, September 27, 2013

American Literature That Doesn’t Suck

Last week I did a post on classic British literature that doesn’t suck, so this week it’s classic American literature that doesn’t suck.  Once again, this isn’t a complete list.  I tried to pick books that are not too difficult to understand, had an impact on modern culture, and influenced many modern writers.  I borrowed the book summaries from Goodreads.  I also picked a few short story collections because there are so many talented American short story writers.  Someday, I’ll make a post about short story collections that don’t suck.

My Antonia – Willa Cather – First published in 1918.

The story of Antonia Shimerda is told by one of her friends from childhood, Jim Burden, an orphaned boy from Virginia. Though he leaves the prairie, Jim never forgets the Bohemian girl who so profoundly influenced his life. An immigrant child of immigrant parents, Antonia's girlhood is spent working to help her parents wrest a living from the untamed land. Though in later years she suffers betrayal and desertion, through all the hardships of her life she preserves a valor of spirit that no hardship can daunt or break. When Jim Burden sees her again after many years, he finds her "a rich mine of life," a figure who has turned adversity into a particular kind of triumph in the true spirit of the pioneer.

Why I don’t think it sucks: realistic characters and vivid settings.


In Our Time – Ernest Hemingway – First published in 1925.

When In Our Time was published in 1925, it was praised by Ford Madox Ford, John Dos Passos, and F. Scott Fitzgerald for its simple and precise use of language to convey a wide range of complex emotions, and it earned Hemingway a place beside Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein among the most promising American writers of that period. In Our Time contains several early Hemingway classics, including the famous Nick Adams stories "Indian Camp," "The Doctor and the Doctor's Wife," "The Three Day Blow," and "The Battler," and introduces readers to the hallmarks of the Hemingway style: a lean, tough prose -- enlivened by an ear for the colloquial and an eye for the realistic that suggests, through the simplest of statements, a sense of moral value and a clarity of heart.
Now recognized as one of the most original short story collections in twentieth-century literature, In Our Time provides a key to Hemingway's later works.

Why I don’t think it sucks: Hemingway can say a lot with very few words.  This is one of my favorite books ever.


The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe – Edgar Allan Poe – First published in 1927.

This single volume brings together all of Poe's stories and poems, and illuminates the diverse and multifaceted genius of one of the greatest and most influential figures in American literary history.

Why I don’t think it sucks: creepiness.


Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck – First published in 1937.

The tragic story of the complex bond between two migrant laborers in Central California. They are George Milton and Lennie Small, itinerant ranch hands who dream of one day owning a small farm. George acts as a father figure to Lennie, who is a very large, simple-minded man, calming him and helping to rein in his immense physical strength.

Why I don’t think it sucks: memorable characters and a memorable ending.  Even if you’ve never read the book, you might recognize the characters.  They’ve almost become stereotypes, especially in children’s cartoons.


A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole – First published in 1980.


A Confederacy of Dunces is an American comic masterpiece. John Kennedy Toole's hero is one Ignatius J. Reilly, "huge, obese, fractious, fastidious, a latter-day Gargantua, a Don Quixote of the French Quarter. His story bursts with wholly original characters, denizens of New Orleans' lower depths, incredibly true-to-life dialogue, and the zaniest series of high and low comic adventures."

Why I don’t think it sucks: I know that a lot of people wouldn’t consider a book from 1980 a classic, but this is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.  I couldn’t make this list without including it.






Friday, September 20, 2013

British Literature That Doesn’t Suck

Remember that Brit Lit class you took in college?  If yours was anything like mine, you spent a lot of time staring blankly at your professor and reading Sparknotes chapter summaries.  Then, all of the books you read that semester blurred in to one long, boring dinner party scene the second you got the final exam in your hand.  When it was all over, you never wanted to read anything classified as “Brit Lit” again.

Even though my Brit Lit classes generally sucked, I think that reading classics—even the British ones—is good for you.  If you’re looking to get back in to reading Brit Lit, here are a few books that don’t suck to get you started.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë – First published in 1847.
Wuthering Heights is a wild, passionate story of the intense and almost demonic love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, a foundling adopted by Catherine's father. After Mr. Earnshaw's death, Heathcliff is bullied and humiliated by Catherine's brother, Hindley, and wrongly believing that his love for Catherine is not reciprocated, leaves Wuthering Heights, only to return years later as a wealthy and polished man. He proceeds to exact a terrible revenge for his former miseries. The action of the story is chaotic and unremittingly violent, but the accomplished handling of a complex structure, the evocative descriptions of the lonely moorland setting and the poetic grandeur of vision combine to make this unique novel a masterpiece of English literature.

Why I don’t think it sucks: memorable characters and violence.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass – Lewis Carroll – First published in 1865.

Weary of her storybook, one "without pictures or conversations," the young and imaginative Alice follows a hasty hare underground--to come face-to-face with some of the strangest adventures and most fantastic characters in all of literature.

The Ugly Duchess, the Mad Hatter, the weeping Mock Turtle, the diabolical Queen of Hearts, the Cheshire Cat--each more eccentric than the last--could only have come from that master of sublime nonsense, Lewis Carroll.

Why I don’t think it sucks: clever, funny, still relevant in modern time, and the book is much better than the movies.

The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde – First published in 1890.

Written in his distinctively dazzling manner, Oscar Wilde’s story of a fashionable young man who sells his soul for eternal youth and beauty is the author’s most popular work. The tale of Dorian Gray’s moral disintegration caused a scandal when it first appeared in 1890, but though Wilde was attacked for the novel’s corrupting influence, he responded that there is, in fact, “a terrible moral in Dorian Gray.” Just a few years later, the book and the aesthetic/moral dilemma it presented became issues in the trials occasioned by Wilde’s homosexual liaisons, which resulted in his imprisonment. Of Dorian Gray’s relationship to autobiography, Wilde noted in a letter, “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.”

Why I don’t think it sucks: creepy and easier than many classics to understand.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy – First published in 1891.

The chance discovery by a young peasant woman that she is a descendant of the noble family of d'Urbervilles is to change the course of her life. Tess Durbeyfield leaves home on the first of her fateful journeys, and meets the ruthless Alec d'Urberville. Thomas Hardy's impassioned story tells of hope and disappointment, rejection and enduring love.

Why I don’t think it sucks: you’ll never forget how this one ends.
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley – First published in 1932.
Far in the future, the World Controllers have finally created the ideal society. In laboratories worldwide, genetic science has brought the human race to perfection. From the Alpha-Plus mandarin class to the Epsilon-Minus Semi-Morons, designed to perform menial tasks, man is bred and educated to be blissfully content with his pre-destined role.

But, in the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, Bernard Marx is unhappy. Harbouring an unnatural desire for solitude, feeling only distaste for the endless pleasures of compulsory promiscuity, Bernard has an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations where the old, imperfect life still continues, may be the cure for his distress. . .

A fantasy of the future that sheds a blazing critical light on the present--considered to be Aldous Huxley's most enduring masterpiece.

Why I don’t think it sucks: still relevant in modern time and a memorable plot.

Please note that this is not a complete list of British Literature that doesn’t suck.  These are just a few of my favorites.  Also, please note that I stole the book summaries from GoodReads because I’m at a writing conference and didn’t have time to write my own.



Friday, September 13, 2013

15 Reasons Why You Should Read Classic Literature

I really try not to be mean to books on this blog, but you have to admit that this is amusing.

Two years ago I found a list of 200 classic books that everyone should read, and I’ve been working my way through it.  Some of the books have been interesting.  I loved Willa Cather’s My Antonia and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  Some of the others have been an absolute slog that I struggled to finish, but I still think that everyone should read classics.

Here’s why:

1.        To understand human culture.


These books are considered classics for a reason.  Reading them will help you see what humanity values and what we think should represent our culture.


2.       To be entertained.


The main reason that I read anything is to be entertained.  I want to hear a good story.  There are a lot of entertaining classics, just like there are a lot of entertaining modern books.  Don’t assume that all classics are boring and hard to understand.  Keep reading, and you’ll eventually find some that you like.


3.        To improve your writing ability.


While you read, you unconsciously absorb the style of the writer.  I’ve heard a lot of authors say that if they spend too much time reading books by one author, they start to write like that author.  Classics are books that were written by great or innovative authors.  Why not absorb the style of the best?


4.        To improve your reading ability.


Let’s face it—some of these books are extremely difficult to understand.  They expose you to new words, new ideas, and new writing styles.  If you don’t understand the book, you can find chapter summaries online.  If you stick with the book for long enough, you’ll get used to the author’s style, and the book will get easier to understand.  Getting used to difficult writing styles will make you less intimidated by difficult reading material in the future.


5.        To improve your vocabulary.


You’ll find words in classic literature that are rarely used in modern time (Lineament?  Viand?).  Even if you never use these words in day-to-day life, it can’t hurt to know what they mean, especially if you’re planning on taking the GRE or many of the other college-entrance tests. 


6.       To learn history.


Many authors of history books weren’t alive during the historical period that they’re writing about.  It’s different with classics.  Many authors of classics were alive during the time period that they wrote about.  This makes their books historically accurate and often more detailed than history books.


7.        To learn geography.


You can learn a lot about a place by reading about it.  I can’t afford to leave the United States, but I can learn about the rest of the world through reading.  Reading might not teach me as much as traveling, but it’s better than being totally ignorant.  Classics can also teach you about places that no longer exist.


8.        To understand that some things stay the same.


It’s interesting to read a book that was written hundreds of years ago and find something familiar.  It makes you understand the ancientness of certain parts of the world.  Cities such as Athens, Rome, London, and Paris were created long before you were born and will be around long after you’re gone (unless there’s a massive earthquake or zombie apocalypse or something else that destroys cities).  You also realize that human emotion hasn’t changed.  People have been loving and losing each other for all of human history.


9.        To understand that some things change.


Especially culture.  Modern parents aren’t in a hurry to marry off their fifteen-year-old daughters, doctors usually don’t make house calls, women have rights, most people have never gone ballroom dancing after an elegant dinner, and falling in love with your first cousin is . . . kind of disturbing.


10.    To understand modern literature.


Modern authors are often influenced by authors who came before them.  If you read closely, you can sometimes see how one author influenced another.  Recognizing and understanding this influence can give you a deeper understanding of the modern book.  I once had a professor tell me to read The Bible because a lot of modern society—and modern literature—can trace its ideas back to that book.


11.    To think about new ideas.


A book can’t be written in a cultural or intellectual vacuum.  Books, even the fictional ones, are reflections of the values, problems, and ideas of the author’s culture or of the culture that the author is writing about.  Modern books reflect modern culture, and older books reflect older cultures.  There are values, problems, and ideas in these older books that are still worth exploring.  We’ve just forgotten about some of them because times have changed.


12.    To be part of the crowd.


Millions of people have read these books.  Maybe your parents or grandparents read the same books in high school that you read in high school.  Classics create connections between people.  I’ll always remember having a weirdly-fascinating conversation with a random stranger in my college advisor’s waiting room.  The conversation was about the homoerotic undertones in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.  The random stranger sat next to me, saw me reading the book, and said, “Hey, I’ve read that.”


13.    To save money.


Classics are cheap.  You can find the complete text of some of them for free on the internet.  I don’t have a Kindle, but I’ve heard that you can often get the classics for free.  You can also find a ton of cheap classics at library sales and used bookstores.    


14.    To have a sense of accomplishment.


What was my favorite part of Atlas Shrugged?  The part where it was over, and I said, “Holy crap, I just finished a 1,170-page book!”


15.    To appear smarter.


By reading classics, you understand humanity, improve your writing and reading ability, increase your vocabulary, learn about history and geography, and think about new ideas.  If anyone says, “Have you read this book?” you can say, “Yes.”  This makes you appear smarter than the people around you.





I told you that I’d update you about All The Things:

All The Things = 19 books.

I’m currently reading Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald.