50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Perspective

Frankenstein

Good morning, class.

I’ve made it to the final book on the list—Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. There are parts I like and parts I don’t like, but one thing continues to stand out to me: Frankenstein is considered by many as the birthplace of science fiction. The genre has a reputation for being male-dominated—as though Star Wars and Jurassic Park are only meant for men—and yet, science fiction seems to be established by a woman. It’s a reputation perpetuated by sexism and confounded by Frankenstein‘s very existence.


The blueprint of the story is well-known, even though the details have been undone and remade over two centuries of reinvention. An ordinary man, Victor Frankenstein, sets himself to the extraordinary task of creating life, and in a way, conquering death. He becomes a now-stereotypical mad scientist, unrivaled in determination and unthinking of consequences; and his creation is much more monstrous than he anticipated. The monster, sympathetic as he is, rampages through Frankenstein’s life until a devastating climax, and we readers are meant to learn our lesson: mindless ambition, even for the right reasons, can cause serious harm.

The original story is much more literary than it’s several reimaginings. It’s framed in a handful of narratives and allows for different perspectives on morality, fault, religion, and science. Most importantly, the monster himself is a fleshed-out character—thinking, learning, and speaking monologues on par with Frankenstein himself. It may not be realistic, but it’s the key to understanding who this creature is, what he wants, and why he acts the way he does.

The monster may be terrifying, but he is equally a victim of humanity’s abuse and hatred. It’s made very clear that the monster’s villainy exists because he has known nothing but misery—he was never loved, and that makes him as evil as he is. He is rejected and feared by all, and to defend himself, he quickly learns to fight back against those who mean him harm. He learns the ways of violence and revenge to survive, and the blame is traced back directly to his creator.


It’s a fantastic story, and a revolutionary concept. But it isn’t my taste—it drags on quite a bit, with Frankenstein’s inner turmoil egregiously taking up most of the story. The middle of the story—about 7 chapters—is told from the monster’s perspective, and while I appreciate the narrative need for this section, it’s just so tedious. I want the storytelling approach to be different, so it’s hard to enjoy the book, even with so much to like.

Author Mary Shelley

But after all this, there so much it does that redefines science fiction. My favorite interpretation of Frankenstein portrays Victor as a sexist (and knowing that Mary Shelley’s mother is Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, this holds up well). Victor’s approach to creating life removed any female presence, as though in his eyes, creating life should be a male enterprise. The resulting monster is one made without female influence, and it’s Victor’s manly actions that continue to antagonize the creature, the consequences of which are irreparable. With Frankenstein, Shelley defined sexism through a male lens (as a story told by a man) and she proved that the simple act of excluding women results in disaster.

It’s clear why Frankenstein makes the 50-books list. It’s Gothic literature at its core, and science fiction before science fiction existed. It’s a story that stood the test of time and continues to affect its genre. And no matter my taste, it is a good story—one worth reading at least once.


That’s 50 books! This blog is nearing its end, and I’ve got to more posts to write—my definitive ranking of all 50 books, from least favorite to favorite, and one final review of my experience as a whole. And that’ll be it!

Thanks for reading,

Prof. Jeffrey

Catch-22 did not exist, he was positive of that, but it made no difference. What did matter was that everyone thought it existed, and that was much worse, for there was no object or text to ridicule or refute, to accuse, criticize, attack, amend, hate, revile, spit at, rip to shreds, trample upon or burn up.”

—from Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

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

Birdsong

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

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

“As a historian, I have always regarded memoirs as source material. A memoir provides a record not so much of the memoirist as of the memoirist’s world. It must differ from biography in that a memoirist can never achieve the perspective that a biographer possesses as a matter of course. Autobiography, if there really is such a thing, is like asking a rabbit to tell us what he looks like hopping through the grasses of the field. How would he know? If we want to hear about the field, on the other hand, no one is in a better circumstance to tell us—so long as we keep in mind that we are missing all those things the rabbit was in no position to observe.”

—from the “Translator’s Note” prefacing Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden