50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Characters

The Way We Live Now

Good morning, class.

Money: A Suicide Note and The Way We Live Now are a lot alike. Both are about greed and corruption, individually and globally. Both focus on terrible people—those who have decided on a certain lifestyle that hurts themselves and others. Both criticize the world and the poor choices people make to hold on to money or to get it by any means.

But I can’t stress this enough—I hated Money: A Suicide Note. For all it did to successfully criticize the corrupt and greedy world of the late 20th century, I couldn’t enjoy it and I couldn’t wait to be done with it. That wasn’t the case with The Way We Live Now, which wasn’t my favorite book of all time, but it was definitely more enjoyable. The Way We Live Now did for the 19th century what Martin Amis’ Money did for the 20th—portrayed a society that was as successful and wealthy as it was deplorable, with all the humor, darkness, and drama that comes with the territory.


Unlike with Money, which told everything from one biased perspective, The Way We Live Now is about the lives of a full cast of characters and shifts focus between different intersecting plots. A few main threads keep everything together and keep things moving, such as the love-life drama of Paul Montague (blatant Romeo and Juliet reference), the upcoming election for a seat in British Parliament, and the repeatedly disastrous behaviors of Sir Felix Carbury.

Author Anthony Trollope

Sir Felix is a spoiled son of reasonable wealth—except that he spends all his time and money gambling. His mother, too afraid of driving him away, enables him by giving him money she doesn’t have, despite what it does to her unmarried daughter, who is far less spoiled and yet far less appreciated. But Sir Felix’s spendthrift ways are nothing compared to his commitments to two different women, both of whom he cares very little for, except that they might be able to provide him with more wealth if he plays his cards right. He is the story’s source of carelessness and insincerity—the purest example of insatiable greed and the path it can lead one to.

But honestly, Sir Felix is redeemable, unlike the novel’s true villain—Augustus Melmotte, a man new to the area running for a seat in Parliament, and doing anything he can to get it. He is a typical political evil—a careful liar, a corporate-level thief, a two-faced celebrity, and a cultural phase that brings out the worst in people on a worldly scale. He steals and attempts to cover it up, abuses people close to him that would traditionally be loved ones, and refuses to accept anything that doesn’t go his way. Melmotte is a smiling, charming criminal, and is everything Sir Felix is but worse. Sir Felix is always just out of reach of being his better self, but Melmotte is nowhere near being redeemable.

Paul Montague’s story is the novel’s redemptive quality. His story is about his attempts to remain a good gentleman in the midst of his chaotic love-life—he no longer loves a woman he is intended for, and he loves someone that his closest friend hopes to marry. He makes some serious missteps, but his intentions are never unclear—he means to be a good person no matter what. He juggles his relationships to find the perfect balance, so that he can maintain his friendship, sincerely end his old engagement, and begin anew with the woman he cares for.

An illustration from The Way We Live Now, featuring Winifred Hurtle and Paul Montague

Then, the threads intersect—Montague’s love is Henrietta Carbury, Sir Felix’s sister; Sir Felix is in a threadbare relationship with Marie Melmotte, Augustus’ daughter, and Augustus disapproves of the relationship; Sir Felix is in an even more threadbare relationship with a girl named Ruby, who, after being kicked out of the house for being involved with Felix, finds herself in the same establishment as the woman Paul is trying to disengage with—an American woman named Winifred Hurtle; Melmotte, Paul, and Felix, as well as several other wealthy people, are involved on the governing board of a North American railway company. Every chapter is like a roll of the dice, and no one knows what social, political, or romantic disaster might happen next—and that does make it an exciting read.


Shifting from character to character is a strength—one that author Anthony Trollope uses to his advantage. Trollope sometimes writes from Paul’s perspective and shows Felix as deplorable as he seems, but then he writes from Felix’s perspective, without changing Felix’s actions or motivations, and makes him sympathetic (or we get to hear from the perspective of his mother or sister, to make things that much more complicated). This is a bolder move than it seems, especially for the time—the novel shows its age by having an overly helpful narrator, referring to us as the reader and guiding us on this journey. There’s some of that throughout the story—a balance between the traditional and the changing future, between the conservative and the progressive. It’s a story as time-tested as Shakespeare, and as experimental as Money.

And for all that, the reason it made the list is in the title—The Way We Live Now. This is a snapshot of English culture in the later half of the 19th century, an era more modern than it used to be and not as modern as today. Trollope’s goal was to point out how greed and corruption were plaguing English society, and with this novel, he does that with as much intrigue as balance. By focusing on that theme in its entirety, The Way We Live Now tackled a wide scope of ideas and truly reflected the world at the time, and with good writing to boot, it’s no wonder it made the list.


Next up, I’m working my way through Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier—another novel that serves as a snapshot of the era, the early 20th century. More on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Anna Karenina

Hello again, class.

The first thing you notice about Anna Karenina is how long it is. Hopefully, the second thing you notice is how short the chapters are—all of them, two or three pages a pop. It’s really easy to read a chapter a day, and most chapters pick up in the exact spot where you left off last—that’s why, for the past 15 books I’ve written about for this blog, I’ve been reading Anna Karenina on the side. It’s hardly made a dent in my time, even though it took several months to read.

I’ve heard that Anna Karenina is the best novel ever written. Though my vote for that spot is still Ulysses, I can see why Tolstoy’s novel is preferable—Anna Karenina uses a large cast of characters and their diverse inner thoughts to tell the kind of story you can’t look away from, where passion leads to terrible decisions and societal systems punish everyone, without regard to right or wrong. For that, Anna Karenina makes the list of books to read before you die.


Actress Greta Garbo as Anna in one of the several movie adaptations of Anna Karenina.

The novel follows two major stories that intersect and branch out from each other. One story is focused on Anna, a married woman who falls in love with another man and begins an affair, setting in motion the events of the novel. The other story focuses on the landowner Konstantin Levin and his relationship and eventual marriage with the noble Katerina (Kitty). It’s almost like reading two different novels, except for the moments when one story affects the other.

In Anna’s story, her life falls apart almost immediately—once she meets Alexis Vronsky, the man who becomes her lover, her marriage collapses like wet paper. Her attachments to her extended family, her love for her son, her standing in Russian society . . . all are kindling for the fire that consumes her life. Levin’s story is more traditional—he pines for Kitty, learns to live without her, happily regains his relationship with her, and, once married to her, begins the life expected of a husband. But the subtleties of his story reveal contradictions ingrained in marital expectations.

If the entire novel could be boiled down into one thought, that’s it: Anna Karenina is about the flaws of marriage, and in other systems that society puts so much importance on. More than anything, Tolstoy seems determined to point out how complicated and convoluted the ideas and expectations of marriage are, and to condemn it as part of the problem.


Author Leo Tolstoy

The novel is praised for realism, but be warned: I don’t mean present day realism, I mean 1800’s realism (which means that Tolstoy doesn’t linger on the gory details, but they’re still there). Anna Karenina has that same quality that Modernism abides by—the need to break down traditions and widely held values for the sake of shifty truths. Tolstoy does this in a way that shows off every character and their uniquely flawed perspectives, warts and all. No one character has a complete picture of the events, so it’s up to the reader to decide what the truth is, despite any one character’s beliefs or morals.

Tolstoy’s determination makes Anna Karenina challenging and important. It doesn’t hold back anything—that’s the kind of realism it brands itself with, which works to the novel’s credit.


Next up, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Of what I’ve read so far, there could be several comparisons between the protagonist Esther and Tolstoy’s Anna—I can’t share more detail without spoiling either novel, but suffice it to say that mental illness in women is misrepresented in most literature, and that what Tolstoy didn’t get right in Anna Karenina is sure to be corrected by Plath’s personal experience. I don’t look forward to a happy ending with The Bell Jar. And that’s okay.

Until next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

Off-Topic: Favorite Characters From the List (so far)

Good morning class.

Now that I’m over halfway through the 50-books list, I’ve seen quite a set of characters that stand out. So I’ve chosen my favorites of the bunch. Characters that shock me, make me wonder, thrill me to the bone, terrify me, make me weep, show me how to be myself . . . they’re all here, in alphabetical order (by last name, because after all, this is a class).


  • Lyra Belacqua from His Dark Materials Trilogy

I’m almost cheating here—I’ve only finished books one and two of this trilogy, The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife (blog post pending). But those two books have been enough to show me how amazing this 12-year old girl is. She can lie through her teeth without second guessing herself, fooling every adult enemy that crosses her path, and she is fierce, determined, and brave in every dangerous situation she approaches. She isn’t perfect, though, and her sense of morality is far too black and white (at least at first) to help her make difficult choices. But even when she takes things too far, I can’t help but admire her no-holds-barred heroism against more competent enemies and her unending kindness toward her friends.

Actor Milo O’Shea as Leopold Bloom in the movie version of “Ulysses” (1967)

With the way I gush about Ulysses, I’m sure this entry doesn’t surprise any of you. As much as I would have liked to have chosen the rambling and coarse Molly Bloom or the moody and literary Stephen Dedalus, my favorite character from Ulysses is the thoughtful, scientific, compassionate Leopold Bloom. He loves animals, embraces his feminine side, and changes the world by acts of kindness. He is a hero—not an ancient hero of physical strength and battle-readiness, but a modern hero of artistic subtlety and active love. The world would be a lot better with men like this.

Christopher is the most unique character from any novel I’ve read—not because of his autism, but because of the way his autism is portrayed. We don’t look at him from the outside . . . we look at the rest of the world through his eyes. He shows us how life is like prime numbers, and how animals somehow speak a universal language, and how love is a very tricky thing to define. His life can be difficult to watch, especially when his disability puts his safety in jeopardy, but his story is an amazing one that wouldn’t be half as great without him.

Most people who look at The Great Gatsby would be more impressed by Jay Gatsby himself . . . but every time I read this novel I am more and more enamored by Daisy Buchanan. As the love Gatsby is always chasing, and as a close family member of the narrator, she is almost entirely painted in a positive light, and it makes it that much harder to see how terrible she is. She is far too wrapped up in her own rich lifestyle, cares nothing for her daughter, and eventually stoops to murder to punish her husband for his affair, while the murder ultimately gets pinned on Gatsby. But I end up sympathetic to her, for reasons I can’t explain—she is pushed around by the men in her life who care more about their own passions, and she is trapped by the money she married into. I rarely feel so much anger, pain, curiosity, and pity toward a single character.

First Lines and an Illustration

Holden is another character I don’t really like—that is, if I met him in person, I would be near him for long. But reading about him is one of the more incredible experiences I’ve had reading a novel, because he is a force to be reckoned with. One never knows what he’ll say next, or what he’ll think in his twisted mind, forcing himself to be an outsider surrounded by “phonies.” But it’s not simply interesting to read his story—his angst is far too relatable, and his compassion (which he does a good job of hiding from readers) is far too powerful. Holden is a scary mirror to look into, but he’s also a touching and comforting hero on the search for happiness like we all are.

Again, most people would probably say Atticus Finch, Scout’s father, is their favorite character from this novel; there’s nothing wrong with that, because Atticus is perfect. Even a little too perfect. Scout, on the other hand, is a beautiful mess. She loves reading and hates school, gets in fights to defend her father, and always finds interesting ways to get into trouble. I love watching her transform from a free-spirited, sometimes bratty little girl into someone older . . . not quite an adult, but still someone who gains one of the most mature qualities a person can have: empathy. Her childhood is honest and hilarious to witness, making her easily one of my favorite characters from any novel.

Samwise Gamgee, portrayed by actor Sean Astin in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Among all the serious and somber heroes from this trilogy, Samwise is the goofy friend and sidekick, and it makes him stand out. But if he was only a fool, he would be no different from Merry and Pippin, who are just as goofy; but Samwise is more than that. Samwise is loyal to Frodo and, in his own comic way, wiser than everyone they meet on their journey. As much as what he does makes me laugh, he does just as much that warms my heart and makes me cheer. Every fantasy story I’ve read or watched since The Lord of the Rings has needed a hero like Frodo and a friend like Sam, or it couldn’t even compare, and I think that says a lot about Samwise himself.

Emma Watson as Hermione Granger

Speaking of other fantasy stories, I’ll always have a place in my heart for Harry Potter, and I think Harry himself is an amazing hero to lead the series—on par with Frodo. Harry has Ron in the same way Frodo has Samwise, but more importantly, Harry has Hermione. She is brilliant, supportive, and headstrong in their small group of friends. It wasn’t until I grew up and reread the series that I realized how much Hermione did for her friends, and how important she was to the series—not just for the plot, but for feminism and its reputation in fantasy. I can trace my current feminist beliefs back to my first encounters with Hermione, her toughness, her cleverness, and her emotional arc over seven amazing books.

And last but not least is a unique character from a peculiar story. Pi of Life of Pi is hard to describe—he is a heavily religious 16 year-old boy from India, who has an incredible love for stories. It’s possible that his love of stories is what drives him to create a fiction about being trapped on a lifeboat with a tiger, after his entire family dies on a sinking ship in the Pacific. There is no proof that the story is false, though the much more believable story is that he survived without taming a tiger alone on the open sea, so the adult Pi telling this story asks the audacious question: which is the better story? And it’s those that pick the story with the tiger that are the real believers, the real story-tellers, who live a more fulfilled life. For that, Pi’s story is one of my favorites, and Pi is one of my favorite characters because of it.


And that’s my list! I’m still reading Brave New World, so show up for class next time to hear my thoughts.

Until then, enjoy your week!

Prof. Jeffrey