50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Family (page 1 of 2)


Hello again, class.

World War I and World War II are often lumped together as a collective global stain of history. They are so linked that WWII is usually seen as an extension of WWI, and it’s hard to talk about one without the other. It’s easy to forget that at the time, WWI was its own devastating conflict, worse than anything that had come before it and unimaginably tragic on its own.

That seems to be the driving motive behind author Sebastian Faulks’ novel Birdsong. In lumping together both World Wars, the identity of the first Great War gets lost in the past—Birdsong is about bringing that past to the forefront, lending focus to the social and cultural atmosphere at the time of WWI. The story is in its own way about uncovering history, using it to guide our present and plan our future while appreciating it for what it is, regardless of what happens next.

Poster for the stage adaptation of Birdsong (2010)

Faulks wouldn’t be able to accomplish this without a supportive story, and good characters to populate it. It’s safe to say that Stephen Wraysford is Birdsong‘s main character—he is a man with a complicated upbringing coupled with a melodramatic love affair in his early 20s, who is thrust into the Great War. His relationships with other men in the war help to humanize the conflict, though with all the violence he sees, he is always questioning humanity and its destiny. He seems fairly determined to hide his past, though he isn’t ashamed of it, and his love affair plays an important role in his future.

Fast-forward to the 1970s, where we meet a woman who is presumably his granddaughter—Elizabeth Benson, who shares some of the responsibility as main character. This 38-year old woman, having an affair of her own, is contemplating her place in life and decides to unearth her ancestral history. The novel jumps back and forth between Stephen’s perspective and Elizabeth’s, merging both points of view to appropriately assess the events of the war.

Author Sebastian Faulks

Birdsong is historical fiction—not a dramatization of real events. A based-on-a-true-story approach might have worked just as well for the sake of realism, but Faulks isn’t interested in detailing who did what where. He created fictional characters to fill them with the spirit of the people involved. Birdsong is a human drama, not a war epic or a nonfiction account—those things would be about the war itself, which is just another conflict in our history. Birdsong instead tells a story about individuals, who bear the weight of a larger catastrophe and question their place in it all.

If it were boiled down to one thing, Birdsong is a story about the best and worst of human nature. Stephen constantly asks himself how far the people in this war are willing to go, and nothing he sees lets him rest easy. But humanity has its moments of redemption in the way individuals treat each other: the way soldiers treat fellow soldiers, the way Stephen treats those he loves, and the way Elizabeth is able to find love amidst the war of her past. Humanity can be a cannibalistic hunger, a vain and selfish ambition that threatens its own existence, but it can also be warm and compassionate, full of love and hope. Birdsong makes the list for portraying humanity at its ugliest and at its most beautiful.

I liked reading Birdsong a lot, which has maybe contributed to my distaste for the next book on the list—a novel by Martin Amis called Money: A Suicide Note. I know why it made the list, but all the same I haven’t enjoyed it at all . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself. More on that next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: Romeo and Juliet

Welcome back, class.

I’ve been back and forth on this one—there have been times when I couldn’t stand this play. But no matter if I like it or not, this Romeo and Juliet really deserves to be read by everyone, if only for the lesson it teaches—don’t let yourself be carried away by the passions of youth. That’s absolutely why we all read it in high school: so that our English teachers could remind us not to throw our lives away on “young love” and hurt others in the process.

Thankfully, the story is more than that—it is Shakespeare, after all.

It’s a story old as time—two teenagers, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, become instantly infatuated with each other at first sight, even though their families are involved in an ongoing feud. They decide to get married, and in a complicated plot to get their families to stop fighting, Romeo kills a man and is banished, Juliet pretends to die to get away from her family, Romeo thinks Juliet is really dead and kills himself, and Juliet kills herself shortly after. Tragedy abounds.

People like to call Romeo and Juliet the greatest love story of all time, but the main characters are senseless, hasty, and melodramatic in their so-called love. It is an infatuation between two teenagers, built on feelings alone—not dependability, companionship, compatibility, rationality, or forethought.

Shakespeare makes them sound much less one-dimensional than my analysis, so the story is much better than that. His writing throughout Romeo and Juliet is romantic and beautiful, which helped Romeo and Juliet stand the test of time. But I also bet Shakespeare new exactly how dumb his main characters were, as they took their own lives for each other for the sake of what looked like love, but was actually a crush.

A Portrait of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare also gives his main characters a little credit when it comes to their families, which are pure chaos. The Montagues and Capulets are little more than rival gangs (hence the adaptation with a twist, the musical West Side Story), and they give Romeo and Juliet little choice but to marry in secret. Even the Friar that marries them has an ulterior motive—to unite the families through this marriage, end the feud, and stop the constant violence in the streets. The lesson to learn from Romeo and Juliet isn’t just for the children, but for the rest of the Montagues and Capulets that let passion guide their hearts towards violence.

That lesson—don’t let passion carry you away, for the sake of love, violence, etc.—is important in its own right, but I’ll admit it can diminish the story too. It’s easy to talk about Romeo and Juliet now, having read it almost 10 years ago, but no matter how much I made fun of it or hated reading it, it was one of the first real tragedies I’d ever read. The two main characters are partly at fault for their fate, but so are their families. This is a story about two people who committed suicide when there were so many other options available . . . all because they had dedicated their lives to a person they had known for less than a week. It’s infuriating and depressing, and a careful reminder of how far our reckless hearts can force us to go. In some twisted, backwards, cynical way, I think that makes Romeo and Juliet required reading for everyone.

Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio in Romeo + Juliet (1996)

But if that’s not a good enough reason for you, I’ve got at least one more—Romeo and Juliet is everywhere. There are references to it in so many books, movies, TV shows, short stories, and poems that everyone deserves the chance to read it just to pick up on the subtleties of half of all art. Since teenagers with crushes is one of the most universal human stories in history, it’s applicable in every medium. On the list of the 50 Books alone, Romeo and Juliet is featured in one major form or another in Wuthering HeightsThe Great GatsbyBrave New WorldThe Way We Live NowHuckleberry Finn . . . just to name a few. Romeo and Juliet pervaded the cultural landscape and staked it’s claim on teenagers with feelings, and everything that came after is a reflection of the original Shakespeare.

All in all, I may not like Romeo and Juliet all that much, but that makes it no less important. It deserves to be on the list of 50 Books to Read Before You Die, and there are several books worth kicking off to make room.

I’m finishing up Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, which I’ll write about next. Romeo and Juliet may be a better “love story,” but Birdsong is, in its way, a better story about love. There isn’t as much warning against runaway passion, but Birdsong seems more dedicated to the idea of love bringing people together, even in ways society looks down upon. Had Romeo and Juliet been stronger characters, it’s possible their long lives would have looked like the tortured lovers’ lives of Birdsong—but I’m getting ahead of myself. More on Birdsong next time.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: The Metamorphosis

Good morning, class.

I’ve made it clear that my favorite eras of literature are modernism and postmodernism, mostly because they break the rules. I’m not a natural rule breaker in real life, but I love rule-breaking when it comes to literature—I want my novels weird, thought-provoking, discomforting, and rebellious. That’s why my favorite novels from the list include Ulysses and The Great Gatsby, and that’s why I think novels like To the LighthouseAs I Lay Dying, and All the King’s Men should be included on the list of books everyone should read before they die. The same goes for the German novel The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, one of the weirdest and most challenging novels I’ve ever read.

The plot is half of what makes The Metamorphosis good—Gregor Samsa, an average man trying to support his parents and younger sister, wakes up one morning to discover he has transformed into a giant bug. There’s no explanation, no meaning (no rules) . . . just the terrible event itself is enough to propel the story forward. Gregor’s first impulses are to think about his job and how he will continue to support his family, and how to adjust to this sudden ailment. He doesn’t give himself time to think about much else—he doesn’t have time to waste.

Gregor can’t communicate with his family (or his employer), and the members of the Samsa family are all forced to adjust to Gregor’s metamorphosis, too. This includes feeding Gregor, who now only likes rotten things like spoiled meat or old fruit. Cleaning becomes quite an issue, because Gregor can no longer clean his room in his current state; Gregor’s sister Grete becomes accustomed to cleaning while he hides under the bed, worried about scaring her by showing himself. Of course, the hardest adjustments involve the family getting by without Gregor working. Mr. Samsa’s old age and Mrs. Samsa’s asthma are obstacles to overcome in order to get jobs, while Grete at 17 years old can only do so much.

The story doesn’t waver from this approach. The Metamorphosis is the most absurd family drama ever written, about how a family deals with the weight of their dutiful Gregor’s untimely transformation. Any truly fantasy narrative would capitalize on the strangeness of the fantasy, but instead, Kafka makes his story about the regular struggles of everyday life—just with an added wrinkle. Few novels can pull this off well, so for that alone, The Metamorphosis deserves to be on the list.

(Side note: the use of fantasy elements combined with the mundane realities of life is a literary technique called magical realism. Most fantasy stories are about escape—fantasy as a way to abandon the struggles of everyday life—and magical realism is the exact opposite. Magical realism happens when you are magically transformed into a bug and still have to pay your bills, for instance. It’s an amazing storytelling sub-genre and is one of the hallmarks of modern and postmodern literature.)

Author Franz Kafka

The other half of what makes The Metamorphosis so good is how Kafka manages to take an absurdly mundane plot to show intimate and vulnerable truths about humanity and loneliness. Gregor’s transformation and the events that follow are sometimes funny and sometimes horrifying; Kafka toes the line between those extremes in order to convince us how sad Gregor’s story is. His transformation may or may not have stripped him of his humanity, as he simultaneously thinks with the instincts of a bug and with the care and concern of a brother and son. Without the ability to communicate, he suffers alone and watches his family suffer, too. It’s not much of a spoiler to see that The Metamorphosis has barely a shred of a happy ending.

So, The Metamorphosis becomes this concoction of strange and boring, with a dash of depressing. No, it’s not a delightful story, but it never set out to be and never needs to be. Instead, The Metamorphosis is a story born out of a very human place about a seemingly inhuman creature, and it’s absolutely worth reading by everyone.

Next time, we’ll jump into my experience of reading Ernest Hemingway’s short story collection, Men Without Women. I’ll discuss my complicated experiences with Hemingway, as well as what I liked and didn’t like about his short stories—I can only promise you that I’m biased, and that my next lecture won’t be so typical.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“Jack poured one for me and another big one for himself.

‘You know,’ he said, ‘I missed a lot, boxing.’

‘You made plenty of money.’

‘Sure, that’s what I’m after. You know I miss a lot, Jerry.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘Well,’ he says, ‘like about the wife. And being away from home so much. It don’t do my girls any good. “Who’s your old man?” some of those society kids’ll say to them. “My old man’s Jack Brennan.” That don’t do them any good.’

‘Hell,” I said, ‘all that makes a difference is if they got dough.’

‘Well,’ says Jack, ‘I got the dough for them all right.’

He poured out another drink. The bottle was about empty.

—from “Fifty Grand” by Ernest Hemingway

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

—from Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Missing From the List: The Shining

Good morning, class.

The 50-books list doesn’t provide a lot in the realm of horror. Sure, there’s Frankenstein and Hamlet, which both at least count, and even my current book The War of the Worlds portrays the horror element of classic sci-fi. But still, I don’t see much that’s horror, first and foremost.

There could be a good reason for that . . . horror is usually low quality; cheap thrills, shallow characters, bad storytelling. But there are exceptions to the genre, and Stephen King proves that with The Shining—so much so that it deserves a place on the list of books you should read before you die.

The story: a small, struggling family watches over the Overlook Hotel through the winter, as supernatural forces try to tear them apart. The father’s alcoholism leaves him vulnerable to the violent spirits in the hotel, and he becomes monstrously abusive. His wife tries to protect their little boy, who just happens to have the ability to communicate with the spirits around them—an ability called shining.

It’s a bad situation . . . and bad becomes worse. They are trapped by the snowstorm in a maze of a building that is crawling with fear, paranoia, rage, and evil. Of course, with Stephen King as the writer, tension smothers every page.

King’s novels are not high literature, in my opinion . . . but this is more compliment than complaint. Of the handful that I’ve read, his novels don’t have that air of pretentiousness found in most English-class pieces of literature. He is an entertainer, and he performs really well with tools like horror and suspense.

Author Stephen King

He’s said that his ideas are situational; the what-ifs inspire the story. “What if . . . a family is trapped in a haunted hotel?” Everything stems from that. So his characters are like pawns in a chess game, and we wait to find out who wins, who is sacrificed, and who makes a narrow escape. One of the reasons King’s stories are so well-received is because his approach is both the key to successful suspense and the essence of storytelling: the question “what happens next?”

If there’s any reason The Shining shouldn’t be on the list, it’s because horror isn’t for everyone. I might agree, if it wasn’t an amazing novel. The Shining handles fear in a way that is important to experience—fear of people who we think love us; fear of people who are under something else’s control; fear of large and imposing forces, and conquering that fear not through blindness or ignorance, but through courage and accepting fear.

Because The Shining handles fear better than any other book I’ve ever read.

It is important to mention that the abusive father character is spending most of his time trying to write a novel, and meanwhile Stephen King has suffered from alcohol abuse. So King isn’t approaching these characters by glorifying a real social problem. In fact, he’s pouring out his soul. That might be the one common denominator between all great works of literature. Food for thought.

See you next time.

Prof. Jeffrey

“Being the third son of the family and not bred to any trade, my head began to be filled very early with rambling thoughts . . . I would be satisfied with nothing but going to sea, and my inclination to this led me so strongly against the will, nay, the commands of my father, and against all the entreaties and persuasions of my mother and other friends, that there seemed to be something fatal in that propensity of nature tending directly to the life of misery which was to befall me.”

—from Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

“‘It is wonderful,’ replied Wickham, ‘for almost all [Mr. Darcy’s] actions may be traced to pride; and pride had often been his best friend. It has connected him nearer with virtue than with any other feeling. But we are none of us consistent, and in his behavior to me there were stronger impulses even than pride.’

‘Can such abominable pride as his have ever done him good?’

‘Yes. It has often led him to be liberal and generous, to give his money freely, to display hospitality, to assist his tenants, and relieve the poor. Family pride, and filial pride—for he is very proud of what his father was—have done this. Not to appear to disgrace his family, to degenerate from the popular qualities, or lose the influence of the Pemberley House, is a powerful motive.'”

—from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

A Christmas Carol

Merry Christmas, class!

Celebrate with me—I’ve made it through four months, 10 books, and 50 posts! The finish line may not be exactly close, but I must profess (haha) that I’m having fun. I hope you are as well, students.

A Christmas Carol is one of those classics that everyone sort of knows. Charles Dickens’ novel helped define modern Christmas traditions in Western cultures, and the story and characters are instantly recognizable—especially Ebenezer Scrooge, the 19th Century Grinch who loves money and hates people.

Ebenezer Scrooge and Marley’s Ghost

The fantasy elements—Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, as well as Marley’s Ghost—are grounded by religious themes and societal struggles. Dickens isn’t afraid to get dark—he portrays hunger, poverty, disability, grief, and greed in the Christmas season. A Christmas Carol doesn’t let the joy of Christmas diminish the needs of society, but uses Christmas to represent joy with societal needs in mind…all while redeeming the grumpy old Scrooge.

Scrooge isn’t as much of a “scrooge” as society makes him—he isn’t a stereotype. For one thing, it’s clear from the beginning why he dislikes Christmas: his friend and business partner Marley died at Christmas-time several years ago. He used to enjoy Christmas, but by the beginning of the story, Christmas is nothing but hardship for him, and he has no patience for generosity.

Generosity just happens to be his problem—he plays by the rules of money and capitalism, and giving away money goes against the rules. If everyone fended for themselves, it would be a better world for him. In fact, he could have lived out his days that way, storing up his treasures on earth, had it not been for Marley’s Ghost.

Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (2009)

The intrusive spirit does Scrooge a favor and shows him the true meanings of Christmas—love, family, friendship, giving, joy. Scrooge is shown what Christmas used to be, what Christmas could be if he doesn’t change, and what Christmas is to the people he claims to hate. Scrooge learns the lesson and is reborn, and (spoiler alert) finds a happy ending.

A Christmas Carol is a transparently humble story—it doesn’t claim to be anything more than what it is. It’s as short as it is humble, and it’s separated into staves (musical sections) rather than chapters, making it more “carol” than “novel.” Dickens’ writing style is particularly unique—long sentences that build up to important points, bleak form and bleak content, etc.—but it rarely sounds dull or dated. Reading the novel feels simultaneously familiar and fresh; it bursts at the seams with originality, but always resembles the ghost of a song we already know.

If you have time this holiday season, I recommend reading it. It’s a quick read and a timeless classic. In our time, when Christmas seems too rushed or commercialized, having fallen prey to money and capitalism, A Christmas Carol is a good way to remind us what this sacred time is really for.

I’ve already started my next read, Life of Pi by Yann Martel, which is one of my favorites. Unlike A Christmas Carol, which lightly reminds readers of religious themes and topics, Life of Pi hits religious topics with full force. Post #51, here we come!

Until then, enjoy your holidays,

Prof. Jeffrey

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath Book Cover

The Grapes of Wrath Book Cover

Welcome back, class.

The Grapes of Wrath is not a popular book. Very few people I know like it—it’s just too weird. The story is interrupted by short, confusing chapters that have nothing to do with the main characters. Steinbeck’s writing style has this odd repetition to it, which easily annoys anyone already confused. The ending is anticlimactic, detached, morbid, and vague. I have no solution for these issues, because they are issues of taste. If you have to read it, get over it.

If you can do that, what you’ll find is a powerful, moving portrayal of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. In my opinion, that’s the reason it made the list.

While I hated The Grapes of Wrath in high school (it lost me as early as the third chapter), the reread showed me two reasons to appreciate it—its connections to The Odyssey, and its carefully created characters.

Apparently, remaking The Odyssey is a common practice in literature. The journey home, the monsters and obstacles on the way, the gods dooming the quest…there are so many ways to adapt the fundamental story, and Steinbeck holds very little back adapting it here. Our hero is Tom Joad, skilled in all ways of contending, recently released from prison. He and his family load up the truck and head west, in search of a new home.

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

The adaptations of each Odyssean episode are fun to pick out (fun being a relative term). The immature man selling parts, mumbling about his dire situation and his missing eye, is the Cyclops trying to trap the Joad family in his childish pessimism. Another character, complaining about what the country’s coming to, is one of the sirens—Tom says he’s just “singing a kind of song,” and doing nothing about it. Their new home, California, is ripe with dangers like cops trying to push them out and other wanderers taking what scarce employment remains, just like the suitors Odysseus faces when he finally makes it home to Ithaca.

But Steinbeck doesn’t just recycle The OdysseyThe Grapes of Wrath is also an anti-Odyssey, which makes it just as interesting to find connections. Poseidon, god of the sea, tried to destroy Odysseus, but the Joad family faces the Dust Bowl—there is no sea, no water, no replenishment for the Joads. The search for home is just as twisted—the Joads had a home, and they were kicked out. They spend the last half of the novel looking for work, not home. Odysseus’ reunion with his family is mocked here, as the Joad family slowly falls apart from the strain of the quest. The ambiguous ending either supports the Joad’s strength to carry on, or shows a family blown apart by the hardships of 1930s America. This is not the same journey Odysseus faced.

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

The story works without noticing the Odyssey connections as well (it’s less fun, but it works), all because of Steinbeck’s realism with the characters. Tom’s grandparents bicker and fumble around like any loving couple would, but are never stereotypes. The children, Ruthie and Winfield, see the world as only children would—they reveal family secrets out of pride for knowing them, make fun of their uncle’s alcoholism by pretending to be drunk, and can’t understand death except as the absence of a person they loved.

Without a doubt, the core relationship in the novel is between Tom and his mother. She is the matriarch keeping the family together, and he is her strength. She’s always loved how he copes with the world, and he is beyond her understanding, but he always comes back. Tom loves her like any son would, and as much as the world pulls him away, she anchors him to what matters. Their final scene finally breaks the family’s quest, and whether or not the Joad family has truly found home is up to the reader to decide.

The Grapes of Wrath is hard to read, and I don’t recommend it for high school students—it’s too confusing, even for adults. But if you have help, reading this book can reveal 1930s American life with stark clarity. It’s messages make sense today, as we face the same sociopolitical problems—homelessness, class discrimination, police brutality, racism, and the flaws of capitalism. It’s a novel worth studying.

In the spirit of the holidays, I’ll get scrooged and read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens next. Have a good week!

Prof. Jeffrey

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