50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Violence

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

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

Missing From the List: The Secret Agent

Author Joseph Conrad

Hello again class.

The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad is something of an espionage thriller—it’s not James Bond, though. It’s more mundane than your average blockbuster hit. On the surface, anyway.

Before I started The Secret Agent, the professor assigning it hooked me by saying that Conrad’s novel predicted acts of terrorism like the 9/11 attack, almost one hundred years beforehand. That’s not exactly true—not in the way I expected. But the way the book follows a terrorist attack out of sequence (the suicide bombing of an observatory, linked to a group of radical anarchists) makes that fictional event thematically linked to the events of 9/11. The novel’s approach to radicalism, government, corruption, and ideology paints the portrait of an act of terrorism in a modern world. That’s a world we’re familiar with now—not only because of 9/11, but because of the normalcy of violence done by terrorists with easy-to-buy weapons and misguided ideologies. Conrad didn’t predict 9/11 itself, but he predicted the world in which it happened.


The Secret Agent takes place in the late 1800’s (right before the era of modernism in literature began to pick up speed). In it, we follow the agent Adolf Verloc, stationed in London on behalf of a foreign government. He owns a pornographic shop and lives with his wife and her family, and on the side he participates in an illegal anarchist group and reports back to his own government on their actions.

Just as we start to understand this setup, the novel jumps forward and backward in time. A set of characters begin solving the mystery behind the bombing at the observatory, marveling at the horror and “beauty” of it each in their own way. Then we go back to solve the mystery ourselves, and the twist is surprising enough for a novel like this, especially of it’s time.


Part of what makes The Secret Agent special is it’s treatment of time. The movement back and forth outside of chronology was not a standard like it is in today’s film and TV—it was an experimental way to tell this story to its greatest benefit, not done for thrills (not only for thrills, at least). The same thing happens when Conrad’s characters focus on the nature of the explosion, and the people who experienced it—the moment it happened must have lasted an eternity, while the eternity of life breezes by in a moment. Conrad’s point seems to be that time isn’t as stable a structure as we like to imagine—time is in flux, and our misguided perceptions of time only widen the discrepancies between perception and reality.

The characters of The Secret Agent are trapped in this revolving plot, fated to the doom of this explosion and its aftermath. There’s a sense that the explosion is relived when we jump back in time, and the memory of it helps us to do that. In that way, it’s related to the 9/11 attacks. While those directly affected by it suffered so much more, we all deal with a kind of global trauma from that day. Through our memories of the event we relive the experience, and those moments get played out again as if for an eternity. One second is not equal to another—the handful of seconds on that day, when billions of lives changed, had more of a cost than most of the insignificant seconds that make up the day-to-day.


What really makes the novel work is Conrad’s writing, which is difficult and beautiful. His total understanding of his characters and the political action they take are matched by his style. That style may not be for everyone, but for those willing to put in the time and effort, it’s incredibly rewarding. That same style earned Conrad plenty of acclaim with his novel Heart of Darkness, and we’ll go into more detail when that blog post comes along.

As for The Secret Agent . . . while it sounds like it’s inclined to glorify terrorism, I can assure you it doesn’t. The Secret Agent has lasted so long because it shows terrorism for what it is: misguided violence with unbelievable consequences, even beyond the lives lost. Conrad uses ideas like this to criticize radical thinking as well as government inefficiency, both of which our world still suffers from as much as acts of terrorism. It’s worth reading because of its continued relevancy, and that’s why it should have made the list.


I’m still working through Gulliver’s Travels again, and it’s special in its own way. If I had to choose, something like The Secret Agent would be on the list instead of Gulliver’s Travels, but I know which one has affected the world of literature more. The Secret Agent has had little impact beyond it’s own area of literature, but Gulliver’s Travels has a uniqueness that has affected everything after it. More on that next time.

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: The Hunger Games Trilogy

Hello again, class.

The youngest book on the 50 Books to Read Before You Die list is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, published in the summer of 2007. By that time the series was 10 years old, and it had already established a lasting impact on the world. The 50-books list, made in 2011, could see that impact and the quality of the novels, so the series was made required reading for everyone.

The Hunger Games Trilogy didn’t get the same advantage—the first installment was published in 2008, and the final installment in 2010, a year before the official list was released. If the list had been made later, I honestly believe this series would have been included. But, as always, let’s talk about why.


The story is popular enough by now, but for those who need the cliff notes: the main character, Katniss Everdeen, is a teenager swept up in the political slaughter of children disguised as an annual “game,” where 24 children are forced into an arena to fight against each other for their lives. The personal aspects of Katniss’s life get swept up, too; as soon as children are chosen for this sentence, they live entirely in the spotlight. From the opening chapters of the first novel, Katniss is being filmed and interviewed, giving the public every moment of the emotional roller coaster she’s experiencing.

That includes the intricate difficulties of the family she’s supporting, as well as the love triangle she so desperately wants no part of. And suddenly, her attitude, fashion sense, love life, and ability to survive become the absurd center of attention of an entire nation of oppressed people. How she reacts to her situation is a part of a larger political game she’s also forced to play, which is even more difficult to survive.


Katniss’s journey is only partially about her survival, and what she sacrifices to have it (her humanity, her future, her family). On that point, it’s a dystopian sci-fi action-thriller—interesting futuristic technology and fight sequences that rival war movies. I’d call it entertaining if it wasn’t so brutal, but we are talking about children fighting for their lives.

Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games trilogy

And that’s the problem—the teenagers killing each other is broadcast to the whole corrupt nation as entertainment. The Hunger Games trilogy is a scathing criticism of our society privileging and promoting violence as entertainment, with upfront proof that children always pay the price. The society Katniss lives in has such a skewed perspective that it doesn’t see violence and death for what it is: raw, painful, and terrifying. The same could be said of our world, with action movies and violent news stories filling up every void in our daily lives.

The series does have a lot in common with 1984—another reason it might not have made the list, being too similar to an already featured classic. But the fact that The Hunger Games is the teen-fiction version of a great sci-fi classic means it’s even more worthy of being on the list; it’s such a layered and accessible view of societal dangers that it should be required reading for everyone.


It’s especially worth mentioning that The Hunger Games has a strong female lead in an action-based book series. Even at the time of the first book’s release (and even today) that can be hard to find. I definitely believe our society privileges men in stories like this, and it’s good to see a figure like Katniss Everdeen flaunt our societal expectations. But Katniss isn’t a through-and-through warrior either—she’s a teenager with a very messed up life, making mistakes and not knowing who to trust in a world of liars and politicians. Many current novels still fail to treat female characters as well as this, so author Suzanne Collins deserves props.


As I continue to read Jane Eyre, treatment of female characters is on the front of my mind. I’m really impressed with Jane as a character so far—but I’ll update you next week, students.

Enjoy your week!

Prof. Jeffrey