50 Books to Read Before You Die

words to inspire before you expire

Tag: Women (page 1 of 2)

Men Without Women

Welcome back class.

I haven’t read a lot of Ernest Hemingway’s work—he is well-known for novels like For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea, both of which I haven’t read yet. I have read several of his short stories and only one of his novels: The Sun Also Rises. So when I saw Hemingway’s name on the 50-books list, I wasn’t surprised. But when I saw the book of his that was chosen—his short story collection Men Without Women—I was baffled, because I’d never heard of it before.

I typically refer to Hemingway as an author I don’t like, though I can understand why his works are studied and praised. But if I’m honest, Hemingway intimidates me like no other author. His stories are deceptively plain, and a fast reader will breeze past all of the subtleties of his work in search of the story. On the surface, his stories are almost boring; but in the smallest of details he hides the things that make his stories great. This can make a novel like The Sun Also Rises exhausting, because if you read too quickly, you can fly through the whole book having learned nothing at all. But in a four-page short story, once you reach the end and wonder exactly what happened, you have more of an opportunity to go back to the beginning and find what you missed—the small detail that changed everything.

That’s what I discovered with Men Without Women, and I enjoyed reading it much more than I thought I would. I won’t say it was my favorite read, or even close, but I earned something out of it. That’s more than I could have hoped for.

Charles McGraw and William Conrad in a 1946 adaptation of Hemingway’s story “The Killers”

It’s much harder to review a collection of short stories, because there are no broad strokes. Some stories stand out compared to others—“Ten Indians”, the story of a boy’s first heartbreak, is one I’d read before in high school, and things jumped out at me much more this time than 6 years ago. I’ve noticed the story “The Killers” has been turned into a movie several times, and I know why—the story is about two men taking hostages in a restaurant waiting to kill a man on arrival, and so many details are left out that it’s only natural for a variety of filmmakers to fill in the gaps.

Most of the stories are under ten pages, but two of the stories are closer to 30 pages: “The Undefeated,” which opens the book, is a story about an aging bullfighter proving his worth in a new era of the sport; and “Fifty Grand,” taking up the exact middle of the book, is the story of a boxer who fixes his own match to get a payout. I think both of these stories function as a foundation for the other stories—Hemingway’s method of building an interconnecting structure between stories that are otherwise isolated.

Two stories are hardly stories at all, which fits right in with the modernist writings of the era. “Today is Friday” is a script, following a group of Roman soldiers on Good Friday after Jesus is executed, and the cherry on top is that these soldiers speak in colloquial, Hemingway English. Then there’s “Banal Story,” which is either a nonfiction piece or a stream-of-consciousness experiment that lays out storytelling rules and then breaks them, and it ends by throwing in a cameo appearance from the protagonist of “The Undefeated,” dying in a hospital after his bullfighting days are over.

Author Ernest Hemingway

No one story is my favorite, nor would I call any the most shocking or most powerful. Hemingway’s balance as a writer is strong, and from that balance comes the common theme: even though there are technically women in several stories, each story focuses on men separately from women, or Hemingway’s trademark obsession with masculinity.

Hemingway’s stories are about athletes and soldiers (in a time before it was common for women to be either); his stories are about husbands and bachelors, and about boys becoming men; his stories are maybe even about sexuality and its unspeakable deviations; and more than anything, his stories are about how internally, men rarely if ever admit to themselves that there’s something going on under the surface of their stoic, frozen masculinity. Hemingway finds clever and creative ways for his stories to celebrate the masculinity he upheld until his dying day, while also subverting it in the details of those stories, and through that lens, it’s no wonder that Hemingway made the list.

And that explains, too, how Men Without Women made the list over his novels. Hemingway’s novels might have gained more popularity than his short stories over the years, but they are no less masterpieces. What better way to capture Hemingway’s perfect understanding of men, internally, culturally, and broadly, than to include a collection of stories diverse enough to do what a novel can’t?

So even though it had its faults, and it certainly isn’t my favorite, Men Without Women has left a mark where I didn’t imagine it could. Masculinity is not the kind of content I want to focus on; we live in an age of toxic masculinity, where culturally, men are often deservedly—I’ll say it again, DESERVEDLY—the bad guy. Hemingway seems to have known all the sides of masculinity, toxicity included, but he praised it’s healthy parts as well and took masculinity as the social force it is, warts and all. The result is a collection of good stories that I recommend.

There is one other thing I picked up from Hemingway about writing, and it’s one of my favorite metaphors. A good story will act like an iceberg—icebergs hide a silent majority of their mass under water, and less than half of its mass is all that can be seen. A good story shows only a small portion of its content—the rest is hidden under the surface, and though you can’t always see it, the rest of the story is absolutely hiding there, waiting to be discovered.

Next up is Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, just as much a masculinity-infused novel. And just like Hemingway, I have my problems with it, but it’s so well written I can forgive what I don’t like. It’s hard to pull off such an epic story in a mental ward, and Kesey manages just fine.

But more on that next time,

Prof. Jeffrey

“‘Americans make the best husbands,’ the American lady said to my wife. I was getting down the bags. ‘American men are the only men in the world to marry.'”

—from “A Canary For One” by Ernest Hemingway

“Temperance, industry, exercise, and cleanliness, are the lessons equally enjoined to the young ones of both sexes: and my master thought it monstrous in us, to give the females a different kind of education from the males, except in some articles of domestic management; whereby, as he truly observed, one half of our natives were good for nothing but bringing children into the world; and to trust the care of our children to such useless animals, he said, was yet a greater instance of brutality.”

—from Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

Missing From the List: The Awakening

Welcome back class.

My impression is that most people don’t know what The Awakening by Kate Chopin is—I definitely didn’t when I read it for the first time for a college class. It’s a novella, 39 short chapters, focusing on a woman’s deterioration and transformation (a lot like The Bell Jar and Anna Kareninaprobably why it didn’t make the list, since it made less of an impact than two other well-known and similar novels).

But The Awakening sets itself apart—what looks like the deterioration of a character may actually be a kind of empowerment. Where Anna Karenina depicts a woman who succumbs to her own loneliness, and The Bell Jar features a woman who attempting to conquer depression, The Awakening focuses on a woman who, above all, breaks free. To the other characters in her life, it looks like hysteria or psychosis. But there may be something more to her predicament.

Protagonist Edna Pontellier is a caged woman—a mother and wife living at the turn-of-the-century in New Orleans. Her cage is her husband, her children, even her own mind’s tiredness . . . she is asleep, in more ways than one. A series of small emotional prods begin to “wake her up” and clue her in to the nature of her life, which she realizes she doesn’t want. Her happiness has been set aside for the sake of who she is supposed to be, but it’s never a life she wanted.

A woman in Edna’s life named Adèle helps her realize her caged-ness, which upends life for Mr. Pontellier and their children. She begins to abandon them and all other “obligations.” But she isn’t searching for her own happiness anymore—that’s too cheap a thing to sacrifice a family for, even one she doesn’t want. Edna abandons the things that she’s supposed to be tethered to by Nature’s command. Societal restraints, emotional attachments, marital vows, human instinct . . . she eventually abandons all of these attachments, even her body’s attachment to life. For Edna, this is what it means to be awake: to break free of the cage Nature has put us in.

There’s no doubt that The Awakening is controversial. It seems to champion suicidal behavior in a way that even The Bell Jar couldn’t boast of. Edna’s decision to abandon her children is sorrowful at best, deplorable at worst. Even seeing Edna’s actions as a kind of awakening is controversial—her choices easily indicate a disturbed mind.

Author Kate Chopin

Chopin keeps it complicated. If we as readers are to really believe Edna’s motivations as a true awakening of self, we have to attribute some sense to her actions. But I wouldn’t say Chopin’s goal is to get us to sympathize with Edna’s frame of mind—I think that Chopin’s goal in writing The Awakening was to make us question our motives as human beings, and to question the characteristics humanity lends itself to, like parenthood, desire, loyalty, and even love. What if love is some kind of evolutionary imperative that keeps the species alive? Are we trapped in a cage, like Edna, because of our “obligation” to emotions like love, or concepts like humanity?

To make people ask questions like that is enough reason to put The Awakening on the list of 50 books to read before you die—as it should have been.

I’m still finishing up The Diary of Anne Frank. It’s a complete leap from The Awakening—I’m getting a little whiplash thinking about both at once. Chopin’s fictional story lets me question the flaws in human nature, but Anne Frank’s story will restore my faith in it, even with the stakes she faced.

I look forward to sharing my thoughts on her story next time.

Prof. Jeffrey

The Bell Jar

Good morning class.

If The Bell Jar is any indication as to what Sylvia Plath’s life was like, she was surrounded by tragedy. She wasn’t a typical tortured artist, if there is such a thing—I imagine that her art would have thrived fantastically without her mental illness. As it is, I believe her art thrived in spite of her troubled mind, not because of it. Even in my own limited experience with mental illness, I’ve never seen psychological turmoil as a gateway to impactful creativity . . . I only see it as a hindrance.

That might be reason enough to read The Bell Jar, which subverts misconceptions about mental illness, women, and the American dream without hesitation. Plath holds nothing back, and it’s painful, powerful reading.

The story follows Esther Greenwood, a young woman with a bright future who begins to suffer from depression. At first it’s mild—inconvenient distresses that affect her life here and there—but it develops into suicidal thoughts and actions. One almost-forgettable moment stands out to me: she sleeps in one morning, innocently enough, because she feels like there’s nothing to look forward to if she gets up. The light from the window shines in, but she buries herself in her sheets and under her pillow, back into the darkness. It’s subtle, but it’s a clear sign of her illness affecting her every moment.

After a suicide attempt, Esther is committed to an institution, where she goes through medication and shock therapy. She describes her condition as being trapped under a bell jar, breathing in the same toxic air every moment of every day, no matter where she is or who she’s with—the bell jar is always there.

The extra layer of her struggle is being a woman in 1950’s America. She goes on dates with men of differing levels of ingrained misogyny. She sees other women around her as reflections of her two extreme options—the perfect do-good lady and the rule-breaker—and only she seems to belong in between. Several people, including her mother, pressure her towards finding a man, settling down, beginning a family . . . and everyone cautions her against sex before marriage, despite the obvious double standard. Esther’s life seems to be one hardship after another, and the 1950’s do her no favors.

Author Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar is not light reading. Several times, over multiple chapters, Esther does more than consider suicide in a passing thought. She analyzes the best way to kill herself, and goes through the motions before being interrupted or facing an insurmountable obstacle. At one point, she remarks that her body has “little tricks” that keep her from killing herself, like an internal instinct she has no say over—but if she had the whole say, she’d be dead already. When she actually conquers this instinct, the suicide attempt portrayed on the page is simple and disturbing.

But as graphic as The Bell Jar can be, that’s not the reason to read it—the reason to read it is because of what Plath gets right in the details. The subtleties of depression are portrayed with honesty, and with no grand presentation. To read The Bell Jar is to get a nuanced depiction of a troubled mind.

Next up, I’m reading The Diary of Anne Frank—similarly not-light reading. But I’m excited because I know that it’s no portrayal; her diary, her actual thoughts, convey her life as a young woman in a strange kind of captivity. Her diary did as much for understanding young women as The Bell Jar did, if not more. It’s also not a graphic portrayal of a tragedy; it’s the ups and downs of her life, come as they may, and it’s even more honest than The Bell Jar could hope to be.

But more on that next time.

Prof. Jeffrey

Missing From the List: To the Lighthouse

Welcome back, class.

I’ll start with the concerning fact that Virginia Woolf doesn’t have a single work on the list. And, to follow up: out of 50 titles on the list, ten are composed by women. So today is about Virginia Woolf’s 1927 novel, To the Lighthouse.

Virginia Woolf is one of those hallmark authors who stand out by reputation alone, regardless of sex as a qualifier, while still being one of the clearer representatives of feminism known in literature. The fact that she has no novel on the 50-books list highlights the fact that so many other women are left off of it, too.

So either the creators of this list actually tried and failed to find an appropriate amount of female authors, which hints at incompetence (hence, my Missing From the List posts); or, even worse, they deliberately chose all books by male authors and decided in retrospect to throw a bone toward diversity, and the female authors they did choose are featured simply to meet a diversity quotient (and that’s just considering female authors—for authors of racial and other minorities, you’ll have to hear this rant in a separate post).

Either way, the misogyny is strong with this one.

After such a rant, though, I have to admit I’ve only read one of Woolf’s works—but it was really good! To the Lighthouse is a beautiful work of modernist fiction that is special not because of the story, but because of its meaning and the way it’s told. For more on what modernism is, look at my previous post on it.

The Isle of Skye, where the action of To the Lighthouse takes place.

The novel is separated into three parts. Part 1, “The Window,” takes place on one evening in 1910, while the Ramsay family visits their vacation home on the Isle of Skye. We meet the characters and understand their complicated dynamics. Then there’s part 2, “Time Passes,” which is a fluid and ambiguous portrayal of ten years of time, encompassing World War I and the deaths of many major characters in the family. Finally, part 3, “The Lighthouse,” takes place on another evening in 1920, when the family returns to their vacation home as almost completely new people.

The story’s strength is it’s symbolism. The lighthouse represents an unreachable goal, and the terrible weather is the natural world that attacks and hinders humanity’s endeavors. The link between the two evenings, separated by ten years of time, is portrayed through the painting one character works on for those ten years, incomplete without the passage of time—just like the novel itself, incomplete without the strangeness of part 2, loosely stringing together the beginning and the end of Woolf’s novel. Through such symbolism, To the Lighthouse is careful, artistic, experimental, and wonderfully strange, and belongs on the list simply because of what it’s able to do.

Something I tend to forget about modernism is its obsession with time. Novelists from this period liked to portray the unreliability of time by reorganizing chronological order, speeding up and slowing down the story, and confusing a single moment with an eternity. Virginia Woolf fit right in with these modernists—entire chapters in parts 1 and 3 of To the Lighthouse take place in seconds, while part 2 speeds through ten years in no time at all. The action of parts 1 and 3 is also mostly internal, letting stream-of-consciousness explain characters and their motivations—something modernism all but invented.

Which brings me to a complicated point. In a lot of ways, this novel reminds me of Ulysses—need I remind you, one of my favorite novels ever. To the Lighthouse may never match Ulysses in my eyes, but it comes closer than most novels because it does everything Ulysses does (challenges convention, scrambles time, uses stream-of-consciousness to tell a better story, etc.), to the point that if I wanted someone to try Ulysses, I might have them read To the Lighthouse first.

And if To the Lighthouse accomplishes what Ulysses does, and it’s easier on the brain to boot, maybe To the Lighthouse should be on the list INSTEAD of Ulysses (which hurts me to write, I assure you). I’m noticing that there are works on the list that shouldn’t be read—studied or made aware of, absolutely, but not “cozy-up-with-on-the-couch” read. The BibleThe Divine ComedyThe Canterbury Tales, and Ulysses are each books on the list that make more sense as references and less sense as cover-to-cover reading challenges.

Author Virginia Woolf

On a list called “50 Books to Read Before You Die,” there should be books that readers can gain something from. Books like Ulysses fly a little to close to the sun for readers to enjoy, whereas a book like To the Lighthouse (while in no way an easy novel) allows readers the chance to fly as well.

To bring it back to feminism, and the lack of it featured on the list, here’s a post I made back in March (National Women’s History Month) on the great women writers I know.

Part of the reason To the Lighthouse should be on the list, even in place of Ulysses, is because it’s more accessible. But more importantly, Virginia Woolf’s lifetime statement on behalf of female authors allows To the Lighthouse to have something Ulysses only hopes to have: the voice of the female artist. This is more than the idea of a diversity quotient. This is about representation of female authors, and how statements of all kinds—novels, plays, poems, paintings, stories—when represented mostly by one kind of person, are incomplete statements.

I am still reading A Passage to India by E. M. Forster, another representative of modernism and of a minority—but more on that next class.

Until then,

Prof. Jeffrey

“[Daisy] looked at me absently. ‘Listen, Nick; let me tell you what I said when she was born . . . It’ll show you how I’ve gotten to feel about—things. Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with and utterly abandoned feeling and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. “All right,” I said, “I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”‘”

—from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Jane Eyre

Good morning, class.

On April 23, 2006, the U.K. and Ireland celebrated World Book Day—a charity event focused on encouraging children to read—by making a list of the top 10 happy endings of all time (link courtesy of The Free Online Library). The top 5 are all on the 50-books list:

5. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

4. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

2. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The only one I haven’t read is Rebecca (blog post pending for both Rebecca and To Kill A Mockingbird), but I’m willing to bet something about that happy ending—there are absolutely no promises about a happy beginning or a happy middle. That’s the case with the other four novels, perhaps especially with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles as Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre (1943)

Jane Eyre’s childhood is full of abuse: she is the unloved adopted orphan of her home, attacked, terrorized, defamed, and ultimately cast aside by her family. She falls back on her resolve and determination, which may get her into trouble, but never makes her sacrifice who she is.

As she grows up and leaves school, she finds a job caring for the daughter of a rich man, Mr. Edward Rochester. Jane and Mr. Rochester discover their love for each other—but, of course, there are complications that threaten the future of the relationship. For what it’s worth, as we already know, there’s a happy ending.

Jane Eyre isn’t simply about a romance—its focus on class and gender issues help it stand out, much like Pride and Prejudice a few decades earlier. I might argue that Pride and Prejudice carries wit and wordplay, thanks to Jane Austen’s style, but it’s only an interesting comparison.

Author Charlotte Brontë

However, there is something Jane Eyre has which Pride and Prejudice lacks . . . something I did not at all expect—horror. The mansion where Jane cares for Mr. Rochester’s daughter is, for lack of a better word, haunted. Sudden fires threaten to burn the place down, and eerie laughter can be heard through the halls at random times. The secrets of Mr. Rochester’s past endanger the lives of his staff and his daughter, giving the novel a sense of urgency, foreboding, and distrust—even in the happiest of scenes.

From a feminist standpoint, I think the idea is that there’s a particular horror for women trapped in social conventions designed by men. Jane seems to live her life entirely as a rebel, if only for the sake of remaining good and true to herself. But this is Victorian England—there are consequences when you choose to unreservedly be yourself. The consequences for Jane have something of a supernatural flair, making the novel that much more interesting. (The same Gothic influences appear in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Charlotte’s sister—blog post pending.)

But, Gothic influences aside, what makes this story great is Jane herself. She is an excellent heroine, knowing and understanding who she is and what she deserves. She faces the consequences of her actions, refuses to let her emotions cloud her judgement, and defends her body, spirit, and worth in the face of anyone who hurts her. Even when it costs her everything, she does what any person is supposed to do—she respects herself.

This may make her sound too fierce, or even too heartless to develop relationships with others, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Jane is also compassionate, grateful, and caring to everyone. Her childhood hardships could have hardened her, but instead, they made her more empathetic and kind; not many others could boast the same. Jane is the epitome of a good person in charge of their destiny, which is a rare find.

It’s been a while since I enjoyed something as much as Jane Eyre (besides Ulysses, that is). It is a really good story, and at the end of the day, that is the best thing a novel can offer.

My next book is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I have read it before, so I already know what I’m getting into—a really good story.

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

“Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”

—from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

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