Reading List: A Journey Through World Literature

Have you ever contemplated embarking on a reading journey through literature’s most celebrated novels?  If you’re interested in getting lost in some of the greatest books of all time, then this reading list is for you.

The first half of this list comes from the undergrad Lit Department of the San Jose State University and offers you one noteworthy fiction novel per author.  The second half of the list comes from the Princeton undergrad Lit Department and offers a few novels per author. Take your pick.  The Princeton list does have some books in common with the San Jose list but also offers a lot more novels from notable authors from around the world as opposed to mainly from the US and UK.  Included in this list are just the novels but for more genres; Epics, Dramas, Non Fiction, please follow the links at the end of each list for further reading.

Continue reading Reading List: A Journey Through World Literature

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Review: The Stranger by Albert Camus

The Stranger is a short novel published in 1942 by famous French author Albert Camus.  Camus was born in Algeria in 1913 and became a philosopher, author, and journalist.  He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957.

The Stranger was Camus’ first novel and Claire the-stranger-by-albert-camusMessud writes in A New ‘L’Étranger’ that it is “one of the most widely read French novels of the twentieth century…”

This is my first Camus novel which I chose because many speak so highly of it.  I enjoyed the story and I found the character Meursault to be interestingly different.

This book was originally written in French and I happened to read Stuart Gilbert’s translation.  There were parts of the story where the English didn’t feel right to me and I became conscious that it was a translation which I don’t think should happen.  This version left me feeling that I might have been better off reading Matthew Ward or Sandra Smith’s translation.  It doesn’t always happen this way but with this particular novel the translation version you read will definitely affect how you perceive this story and ultimately that is the key to The Stranger.

When you read what others have written about this book you will undoubtedly come across descriptions like wikipedia’s: “Its theme and outlook are often cited as examples of Camus’s philosophy of the absurd and existentialism, though Camus personally rejected the latter label”.  I am not going to pretend to know anything about any of that.

What I can tell you is that the main character, Meursault, comes across as a bit strange.  Throughout the story you get the distinct impression that he does not conform.  He does not follow the norms set out by society about how we should be.  He didn’t seem to me as a bad guy but he didn’t seem to have a moral compass and passed absolutely no judgement on what the rest of society might well deem worthy of judgement.  What I found incredibly interesting about this is the way Camus wrote him.  While he does not subscribe to society’s moral code he did not come across as a bad person but rather a different person.  How society, and you the reader, would deal with a person like this seems to me to be the crux of this story.  And indeed, according to David Carroll in his book Albert Camus the Algerian: Colonialism, Terrorism, Justice, Camus himself wrote in January 1955:

“I summarized The Stranger a long time ago, with a remark I admit was highly paradoxical: ‘In our society any man who does not weep at his mother’s funeral runs the risk of being sentenced to death.’ I only meant that the hero of my book is condemned because he does not play the game.”

The title of the book points to this also.  Unfortunately, in English the title doesn’t carry across all the meanings as it does in the French L’Étranger.  I don’t speak French but as a foreigner in a Portuguese speaking country I learned early on that ‘estrangeiro’ (and the French ‘Étranger’) means a foreigner, a stranger, and an outsider.  The context determines which meaning is implied.  The story reminded me of this throughout because Meursault is all three; a foreigner in Algeria, an outsider to society, and a bit of a stranger to those around him.

My sentiments are echoed in Sandra Smith’s introduction to her new translation of The Stranger the title of which she has altered to The Outsider:

“In French, étranger can be translated as “outsider,” “stranger” or “foreigner.” Our protagonist, Meursault, is all three, and the concept of an outsider encapsulates all these possible meanings: Meursault is a stranger to himself, an outsider to society and a foreigner because he is a Frenchman in Algeria.”

This quote was taken from Claire Messud’s article A New ‘L’Étranger’ which is well worth reading after you read the book.  Another article that I enjoyed is Lost in Translation by Ryan Bloom which shows how important a good translation is to fully appreciating these seemingly ‘simple’ novels of the past.

I enjoyed reading this short book but choose your translation wisely.

lilolia review rating 4 stars great

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Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a 1984 novel hailed by many as a modern classic.  It is set in the Spring Prague period of 1968  and what the characters in the novel describe as a time of Russian occupation of Prague and the Czech Republic as a whole.the unbearable lightness of being by milan kundera

Reading the reviews on GoodReads there seems to be a consensus that the plot and characters in the novel are underdeveloped and that the purpose of this novel is a philosophical one.  I would agree that the plot was lacking but I found the characters and the setting quite interesting.  That’s the part of the book I enjoyed.

What annoyed me was in fact the attempts to make this novel a philosophical one whereby a narrator reflecting on the characters and their circumstances inserted itself into the story and ultimately, for me, just detracted from the parts that made the book enjoyable.  The references to  Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence were boring and out of place.  I think if you’re going to use a novel to expound your philosophical ideas then write the story, plot, and characters so that they show us this idea instead of interrupting it to try to squash the idea into it.

I don’t have anything against the philosophical novel but I really need it to be well woven into the story otherwise you might as well write a non fiction piece.  Show me, don’t tell me.  That’s why I read fiction.

The setting and the characters were definitely unique and I enjoyed the perspective.  On a whole I gave the book 2 stars though because upon reading the last page I just felt it could have been done better.  I would love to hear what others thought of this book so if you’ve read it please share your thoughts.

 

lilolia review rating 2 stars ok

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Review: 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel G Marquez

Like so many people I read this book because it is hailed as a classic of South American literature and the master work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  The other draw for me was the magical realism element.  In short, this novel recounts the lives of generations of a founding family of the isolated town of Macondo as well as its weird and wonderful visitors and ongoings.100 years of solitude

While the writing was good enough to keep me going and the character details quite a work of art I can’t say I enjoyed this novel all that much.  I can appreciate the writing and the work that went into creating these living breathing characters but the story was a bit boring and the magical realism element really was not all that present except for the one flying carpet incident.

You feel you should like the book and so throughout my reading I felt like I was really missing something.  I kept thinking; “This is One Hundred Years of Solitude?”  A lot of people mention the repetitive use of slight variations of just three names over generations of the family as annoying and confusing.  I personally didn’t have trouble following the lineage and I came to think that the repetition of the names was a device to show the repeated nature of certain people within the family.  What really did get to me in the end was the rampant incest of the family.  I have no idea what that was supposed to mean.  The book is quite well crafted so you really do think you’ve missed some hidden insight which was the case with the incest element for me.

I didn’t really enjoy One Hundred Years of Solitude but I am certainly not done with Marquez.  He is without doubt a talented writer and I believe it is simply a matter of finding the right novel of his which I endeavour to do.  I’d love to hear what others thought of this book.

 

lilolia review rating 2 stars ok

 

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Review: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day published in 1989 is Kazuo Ishiguro’s third novel and the 1989 Man Booker Prize winner.

“A contemporary classic, The Remains of the Day is Kazuo Ishiguro’s beautiful and haunting evocation of life between the wars in a Great English House.
In 1956, Stevens, a long-serving butler at Darlington Hall, decides to take a motoring trip through the West Country. The six-day excursion becomes a journey into the past of Stevens and England, a past that takes in fascism, two world wars, and an unrealised love between the butler and his housekeeper. Ishiguro’s dazzling novel is a sad and humorous love story, a meditation on the condition of modern man, and an elegy for England at a time of acute change.” (GoodReads)

The novel starts out a bit slowly as you meet Darlington Hall’s long time butler, Stevens, and see his current working situation which he describes as being very different from the remains of the day ishigurodays he served Lord Darlington.  As you join Stevens on his road trip to see Miss Kenton you also join him on a trip back into the past as he recounts his time at Darlington Hall, the events held there, the famous and esteemed people who came to Darlington, and the day to day of a butler at such a highly regarded manor.  As he progresses through the past you begin to get a clear idea of just how different things had been for Stevens and how he is himself coming to grips with this new phase in his own life.

Stevens is a very well spoken man and the diction of the book consistently matches this which I enjoyed.  I felt it was the most important element of character development in this book as it conveys the real extent of how old school Stevens really is.  People describe this book as being part love story but in all honesty I didn’t really feel this way.  My understanding of the themes of this book were about a man coming to grips with moving into a new age, learning to be relevant in this new time with new ways of being.  Indeed Stevens goes on the journey to see Miss Kenton but it is much more about a man who goes on a journey of introspection to gain perspective on his life and sort through his feelings about where he is in his life now and how he will move forward.

Upon arriving at his final destination before his trip back to Darlington, Stevens decides to take in the sea view one late afternoon sitting on a pier bench waiting for the pier lights to be switched on.  Stevens is lost in his own thoughts until a man seated beside him says, “Sea air does you a lot of good.”  As they got to talking Stevens learns this man was a footman in the old days and he confides in him about his feelings of the old days being over and his doubts of what was to come.  To which the man responds:

“You’ve got to enjoy yourself. The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it. That’s how I look at it. Ask anybody, they’ll all tell you. The evening’s the best part of the day.”

This is Stevens’ ultimate realisation in the face of all his thoughts, good and bad, about the past.  It is the past and he must decide what to do for the remains of the day.

“Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day.” 

I enjoyed this book because this is a message that will remain relevant for us all no matter the times.  It just so happens that this message is especially well illustrated when placed in the context of a time that really is vastly different from the times we live in today.  A good read.

lilolia review rating 4 stars great

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The Makings of a Literature Classic

Many of us have a few classic books on our TBR lists.  Some of us are taking on reading challenges to get really stuck into the classics.  The classics are the creme of the crop, the monuments of literature that weather the passing of time, and so they are a goal toward which many a reader aspires.  But what really defines a classic?  Just what is it that makes a classic a classic?  I, too, have goals of getting through a few classics but at the same time I have, what is to me, an equally important goal of only reading what I enjoy reading.  Life’s too short to waste on books I don’t find personally satisfying.

I have read a number of books that really impacted me, left me thinking about the world or myself, or opened my eyes to something in life.  Some of these are classics and some are not classified as mainstream classics.  But does that mean that they can’t be classics to me?  I went in search of answers and what I found confirmed my own hunches; there are criteria for what constitutes a classic but there is great debate around this and what constitutes a classic is largely subjective.  why read the classics italo calvino

The best explanation of defining classics I found with which I agreed was this quote from the Brain Picking’s post What Makes a Classic? Lessons from the Chinese Book of Changes on Richard J. Smith’s The “I Ching”: A Biography wherein a classic is defined:

“First, the work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them. Second, it must address these fundamental issues in ‘beautiful, moving, and memorable ways,’ with ‘stimulating and inviting images.’ Third, it must be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound, requiring careful and repeated study in order to yield its deepest secrets and greatest wisdom. One might add that precisely because of these characteristics, a classic has great staying power across both time and space.”

However, readers also play an important role in what gets to be called a classic since we are the ones buying books.  This interesting article in the Salon What Makes A Book A Classic by Laura Miller points to that fact that what is deemed a classic is extremely subjective and it is in bookshops where we see the conundrum of categorising which books go where.  Essentially books are shelved where they believe readers will go looking for them and this must shift the definition of the classic away from the scholarly toward the reader.  As the Salon article points out for example; JRR Tolkein’s books are classics to his fans and not to others.  Times change, readers change, and how we view books changes.

What makes a classic is then an ever-changing mythical beast.  I think what constitutes a classic is a less important question than why read the classics.  So why read the classics?  For that answer seek Italo Calvino’s book Why Read the Classics.  In this book Calvino offers 14 definitions of what he thinks makes a classic, which you can read in this Brain Pickings post, my favourite of the definitions and my answer to why I want to read the classics is no. 11:

“‘Your classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.”

A few years ago a came across an extract on the internet from a letter that Franz Kafka is said to have written to his schoolmate Oskar Pollak in 1904 which I think is also the definition of a classic.  Kafka writes that we should only read the kinds of books he describes in this extract but I would not be so limiting…different times call for different kinds of books.  That said, it does seem to fall in line with what I would hope a ‘classic’ would evoke in me:

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us.  If the book we are reading does not wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?  So that it will make us happy, as you write? […] A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.  That is my belief.”

If it moves you, speaks to you, calls to be reread, then it is a classic to you.  What books are classics to you?  What are your thoughts on the criteria for what constitutes a classic?  Should the books that were classified as classics in the past continue to be classified as such in the future or can we (should we) review this status?

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Review: Marta Oulie by Sigrid Undset

Marta Oulie is a novel I chose on Netgalley and was provided to me courtesy of the publisher.  This is an English version of the 1907 Norwegian novel by Nobel Prize winning author Sigrid Undset.

“I have been unfaithful to my husband.” Marta Oulie’s opening line scandalized Norwegian readers in 1907. And yet, Sigrid Undset had a gift for depicting modern women “sympathetically but with merciless truthfulness,” as the Swedish Academy Marta Oulie: A Novel of Betrayalnoted in awarding her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. At the time she was one of the youngest recipients and only the third woman so honored. It was Undset’s honest story of a young woman’s love life—“the immoral kind,” as she herself bluntly put it—that made her first novel an instant sensation in Norway.  Marta Oulie, written in the form of a diary, intimately documents the inner life of a young woman disappointed and constrained by the conventions of marriage as she longs for an all-consuming passion. Set in Kristiania (now Oslo) at the beginning of the twentieth century, Undset’s book is an incomparable psychological portrait of a woman whose destiny is defined by the changing mores of her day—as she descends, inevitably, into an ever-darker reckoning. Remarkably, though Undset’s other works have attracted generations of readers, Marta Oulie has never before appeared in English translation. Tiina Nunnally, whose award-winning translation of Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter captured the author’s beautifully clear style, conveys the voice of Marta Oulie with all the stark poignancy of the original Norwegian.  (read more on GoodReads)

 I was intrigued by this novel although I feared that it would come across as dated because it was written in 1907.  However, it felt timeless.  The writing was wonderful and simple.  I think that’s the main feeling that I got from this novel – that it is a timeless short story about a woman’s experience in life and love that is felt by woman even today, simply written because the message was so real that it needed no embellishments.

I enjoyed it, I read it easily and quickly.  I connected with some of the things she talked about concerning people.  They say in the blurb that the opening line is the great line of this book.  But it is one of a few great lines in my opinion.  I found the ending lines as captivating as the opening line.  I won’t share it here because it has an impact on you after having read the whole story.  But one line I’ll share here that won’t spoil anything is “Life is about people.”  It may not sound like much but in the context it made me stop and think a bit about the real truth in that.  I also enjoyed the setting and the details Undset gives about life in Norway and I was pleased that that too was not at all dated.  I have a Swedish friend who described her childhood picking berries in the forest very similarly.  It was a lovely read. I recommend this book to all those intrigued by it.

 

lilolia review rating 4 stars great