Tag Archives: great reads

Let’s Get Literal – The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 47/100Title: The Golden Notebook
Author: Doris Lessing
Year: 1962
Country: UK

Every now and then you come across a book that’s quite unlike anything you have ever read before. I had that not too long ago with The Sound and the Fury, but that truly pales in comparison with what Doris Lessing did with The Golden Notebook. This is one of those books that works on so many levels and, in many ways, is so clever.

At the centre of the novel is writer Anna who, after the success of her first novel, has come down with an extreme bout of writer’s block. As an aid to this, and because she feels the need to compartmentalise everything about her, she keeps a number of colour-coded notebooks (which are essentially her journals). The idea therefore of The Golden Notebook is her trying to bring these disparate parts of herself back together… with the requisite amount of psychological shock that would occur because of this.

So, in reading this book, you are reading all four of these notebooks mixed in with Free Women which is a short novel that Anna has been able to write because of her bringing herself back together and ending her writer’s block. That premise alone is interesting, but let’s not forget when this was written.

This book is not only an interesting look into the fragmentation of the psyche, but also serves as an interesting time capsule of where feminism was in the 1960s – including men’s reaction to it, women who seem to resist the breaking of gender roles and how it can all be linked back to sex. The Golden Notebook also provides a look at the decline of communism in the UK – with Anna herself being a former communist (surprise, that’s the red notebook).

However, this book isn’t without its flaws. For one thing, this is quite homophobic in many places with Anna’s derisive comments about gay men being hard to read at times. She makes a few comments negatively about lesbianism, but it’s mainly men who receive her ire (maybe because, as a highly sexual being, homosexuality is just one thing she can’t understand).

Then there is the topic of race (dealt with in, you guessed it, the black notebook) which is done during the sections where Anna describes her time living in Africa. There are some ‘interesting’ overtones in this section (i.e. racist) where she is derisive of pretty much everyone involved. The whites that she is with are drunk, privileged, completely self-absorbed and regularly ridicule the citizens of the country they’re camped out in. The African inhabitants don’t get a whole lot of fleshing out, but she is very much against racial mixing.

Ultimately The Golden Notebook is interesting because it’s one of those works where the writer takes absolutely no prisoners. Then again, that’s the character she has created. It’s incredibly complex and one of those novels that really needs to be properly digested and thought about once finished. I just wish I knew someone who’s actually read this so I could talk with them about it!


Let’s Get Literal – Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 46/100Title: Jane Eyre
Author: Charlotte Brontë
Year: 1847
Country: UK

Thanks to increasingly busy trains it took me about a month to finish this book, which sucked because I was joyfully devouring this whenever a had a chance in the morning (not on the return commute… because I usually end up taking an ill-advised nap). This is one of only four books that managed to have me tear up whilst reading; the first to do so because of joy rather than sadness.

Jane Eyre is one of those books where, thanks to watching the excellent BBC adaptation, I thought I knew all that I needed to know. Of course this is not true as there is so much more to the book than there is to the adaptation (although it was impossible to not picture Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens as Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester respectively), especially the earlier chapters about her childhood that were barely covered.

What strikes me most about Jane Eyre is the point-of-view of Jane herself. When I think of the contemporary books I’ve read (including Wuthering Heights) this is unusual in being a first-person narrative that is more than just a person recollecting the events of their life. In reading this book we get to know Jane’s own moral beliefs, thought processes and her emotional state. When I think of the last book I read and all the different minds that Faulkner let us be privy to – there is a lot to be said of the influence of Jane Eyre.

Like Little WomenJane Eyre is described by many as being an example of an early feminist novel. With Little Women I was inclined to disagree because of where all the characters end up at the end of the journey. In contrast, I can actually see how Jane Eyre is feminist (especially in the context of Victorian England). Sure she ends up on the marriage train by the close of the story, but everything she achieves is because (as Kacey Musgraves would say) follows her arrow.

Call me romantic, but even if I did not know the ending – I would be shipping Jane and Mr Rochester and would have been devastated if they had not ended up together. Given the times of the book, I can see why Jane walks way – but I’m so glad she comes back. Some have said that this ending shows her compromising her morals, but I think this ending is a way for us to have the romantic ending whilst she keeps her morals untainted. Maybe that’s just me, but it was this ending that just made me get a bit misty on the train.

It’s time for me to get back to comics for a little while – a perfect time to do so as I’m not sure what novel could top my experience with Jane Eyre.

Let’s Get Literal – The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 45/100Title: The Sound And The Fury
Author: William Faulkner
Year: 1929
Country: USA

With three entries on the book list, it was about time that I got around to my first William Faulkner. This book also continues me along my adventures in the world of the literature of the American South. Seriously, there are an awful lot of books on this list that delve into this area of the world after the American Civil War. I guess it shows how much can be mined from this period in time and, equally, how US focused this list is in places.

For The Sound And The Fury we spend four chapters (each with their own viewpoint) examining the lives of the white Compson family as they fall further into ruin and disrepute. It’s not an easy read and, for the first half of the novel, it’s a bit difficult to untangle what is happening. Things do come together with the final two (more straightforward) chapters as we move from the less mentally stable characters to the more put together ones.

What makes this an interesting (and sometimes confusing) read is how the first two viewpoints are written as a stream-of-consciousness. The first viewpoint (Benji) is the most confusing as this is a man who has some sort of mental disability (think Lenny in Of Mice and Men) which means that his thoughts are all out of order. It gives an interesting look at what live might be like inside his head, but I did need assurance from people online that this was a book really worth finishing.

The answer is that, yes, it is. Faulkner uses four very different personalities to paint how this family fell into ruin. The second chapter demonstrates extreme stress and the encroaching darkness of depression; the third takes on greed and anger whereas the final one (narrated by one of the black servants) is the most grounded and focuses on family, duty and endurance.

It’s difficult to say that I enjoyed this book, but I definitely got something out of it that I had never really read before in a book. I do wish there had been an additional point of view chapter from the daughter (or granddaughter) in the place of the appendix, but I think that would need to be the penultimate one as Dilsey’s really is the chapter worth ending on.

Whilst I am not even half way through this list, I am looking to the future. Will I add a new book list to my blog after completing this Top 100? Or will I take the time to get really far ahead on the comics list? Not sure, but for now I am going back into the world of written fiction and choose one of the many remaining books that were written by a female author.

Let’s Get Literal – Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 44/100Title: Gulliver’s Travels
Author: Jonathan Swift
Year: 1726
Country: Ireland

It’s a bit bad that it’s been over two months since I last read an actual book. I guess that a mixture of post-Middlemarch fatigue and a lot of manga reading helped to fill in this gap… but it just shows how quickly time passes.

Like most people going into Gulliver’s Travels, I have seen pictures of the lead character being trapped by the little people of Lilliput. Honestly I thought that the entire book would be him shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe style, but on an island of little people. Turns out that this was just a quarter of the book and, in fact, Gulliver’s Travels is about his encountering of four very different societies as he finds increasingly violent ways to find himself abandoned on remote islands.

In order, he visits Lilliput (full of little people), Brobdingnag (full of giants), the various islands overseen by the floating castle of Laputa and, finally, an island full of talking horses that have enslaved primitive humans. All this makes for a really varied series of tales, all told through the somewhat gullible and subservient eyes of Gulliver.

The whole point of this novel is to act as social commentary and satire. Some of it is pretty obvious (like the horses and humans in the final section being a critique on the British Empire enslaving humans) whilst others have become less obvious seeing how this book is nearly 300 years old.

What is still evident, however, is how cutting he could be towards the leaders of the day. Also, it shows a lot of what prevailing opinion was at the time in terms of philosophy and social attitudes. There’s a whole wealth of literature out there about the misogyny of Gulliver’s Travels which pretty much boils down to this book being an example of how men treated women at the time.

The social criticism aside, Gulliver’s Travels is interesting because it is both a time capsule of the early 1700s and a very imaginative piece of literature. I mean, in this book we find one of the earliest descriptions of a machine that we would later identify as a computer. Similarly, he is able to really paint a picture of the scale of these places (the best of these being in the first Lilliput section), which is no mean feat seeing just how alien these far flung islands are.

Whilst a lot of the bit has been lost to time, the weirdness hasn’t. In fact I think the final chapter with the talking horses has probably become more bizarre over time. Just goes to show that books needn’t be discounted just because they’re very old.

Let’s Get Literal – Middlemarch by George Eliot

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 43/100Title: Middlemarch
Author: George Eliot
Year: 1871-72
Country: UK

There are books that you start reading because it reminds you of books you’ve read in the past that you’ve enjoyed. For Middlemarch, I thought that I would enjoy it because of books like Pride and Prejudice and Little Women, i.e. an older book written about women which have since been adapted into a “bonnet drama”.

However, there was one thing that I didn’t quite think abut. Where I enjoyed the other books for being a female-centric dramas, Middlemarch touches the entire community… with a majority of the time being spent on the men in the town of Middlemarch. So yes, this wasn’t quite what I expected.

Whilst there are a lot of story threads involving most members of the village, there are 4 main threads… one of which just bored me. It was this storyline (about the downfall of the local town banker) that made me fall asleep on the train home. Now, I know I am someone who has trouble staying awake when I’m being transported – but I nearly dropped my Kindle. There is also the rather sad storyline of Doctor Lydgate and Rosamond… which failed to interest me.

The best of the stories is the one surrounding Dorothy (known as Dodo) and her two marriages. From the first few chapters this is not what I expected to be reading… although the moment she meets Will on her honeymoon it suddenly all became clear what might end up happening (although when I think of Anna Karenina you can never be sure of what will happen to your heroines).

As much as I like a  big world in my books (I mean just think how big War and Peace and Lord of the Rings are) I do wonder if I would have enjoyed Middlemarch more if it had focused more on the Dorothy/Will and Fred/Mary storylines. It would have been a shorter book, but we could just excise a lot of the business talk that failed to engage me.

This is yet another of the really long books taken care of. An interesting one and slightly frustrating in that there was a lot here that should have made me love it, but too many flaws. Well at least for me, some people think this is the best British book every written.

I might be taking some time to catch up on a bit of the JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure manga so I can finish off the final anime season. I can’t wait.

Let’s Get Literal – The Tin Drum by Günter Grass

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 42/100Title: The Tin Drum 
Author: Günter Grass
Year: 1959
Country: Germany

So… how do you talk about The Tin Drum? It’s not like any novel that I have read before and, given the challenge I have set myself here, that’s really saying something. I picked up this book for the simple reason that I wanted to read this before I got around to the film adaptation for my 1001 movie watchthrough.

We begin the book in a psychiatric facility where Oskar is writing his memoirs of his life in Danzig (modern-day Gdansk). He has a drum fixation, to the point that he can completely destroy a drum in about a week because of how often and how fervently he drums. With the exception of this and the names of key people in Oskar’s life it is best to take everything you read with a pinch of salt. You see, Oskar is an incredible liar.

As a book The Tin Drum meanders around Oskar’s life as he regales us with various and conflicting episodes in his life. At the age of 3 he supposedly decided to stop growing and instead focus on his drumming. As such he lives his life as a midget… who can shatter glass with his voice and has achieved all matter of weird success because of his superior intellect.

This is also a man where there is a high chance that he has played a large part in the deaths of many people around him who have filled in roles as parental figures. Then again, it’s hard to know this for sure as the story keeps changing all the time.

It is the unreliability of the narrator that really keeps you on your toes and make sure that there is always an interesting yarn in each chapter. I mean, there’s a chapter where the conclusion is a man who is seemingly killed by a haunted ship’s figurehead after trying to have sex with it. We also have a nightclub where people cut onions in order to get through their PTSD and all-seeing and all-knowing dwarves.

The issue I had with this, ultimately, is that it takes Oskar an awfully long time to get to any point. Also, the reason for him ending up in the mental institution feels, ultimately unsatisfying. I was hoping for there to be some sort of murder spree or something at least on that level, but instead it’s a false murder charge with Oskar pretending to be Jesus in order to escape prison.

I can’t imagine that I’ll ever read another book quite like this one and, on that alone, it’s a book that should at least be attempted. Or maybe watch the movie to get a flavour. I don’t know when I’ll get around to it, but hopefully it won’t be too far in the future. Feels like I have some unfinished business with this book.

Let’s Get Literal – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 41/100Title: Slaughterhouse-Five
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Year: 1969
Country: USA

Right, so I ended up for a completely different book after finishing David Copperfield. It got to a point where I had a few days between finishing my last volume of Great Teacher Onizuka and jetting off to Sweden (eek so excited) so I needed a shorter book. I picked this book nearly at random to plug a hole and was left with something that ranks as one of the best novels I have ever read.

Slaughterhouse-Five is one of those books that appears to defy genre. It’s part sci-fi, part war, part irreverent comedy and all a bit off kilter. Also, it plays with the concept of time travel with the central character, Billy Pilgrim, veering between different points in his own timeline. Did I mention the aliens or the Dresden firebombing? Yes, all of this in one coherent book.

The main thing I was thinking about when reading Slaughterhouse-Five is how impressive it was that Vonnegut managed to construct a proper narrative like this whilst also flitting about in time. Yet he does. Within the book there are some clear through-lines with all the different timelines working with each other. At one time there are probably 7-8 different points in time that we could suddenly be transported to – which is where so much of the fun lays.

This whole novel would just fall apart if it wasn’t for it being written as this irreverent black comedy. There is a point of view present about life and death which is very disarming, that everything is as it is and will always be in the fullness of time. The phrase ‘so it goes’ becomes both a punchline and a piece of punctuation which occurs within the book with incredible frequency due to the constant presence of death.

I can see why some people might be against this book as it comes off as a bit flippant at times. Then again, if you buy into Billy Pilgrim actually believing his philosophy and this is just how he sees the world… well you can breeze past that and enjoy the book. However, it is finding humour in an uncomfortable place at times. Then again, if you can’t try to make someone chuckle to alleviate the tension then what’s the point.

Honestly, I find it hard to put this book into words since it is such an unusual book. The particular brand of unusual, however, is what made me love this book and will be driver to my eventual re-reading of it within the next decade. Similarly, I now have a bunch of his other books on my wishlist as I want to know if this is someone who’ll one day overtake Douglas Coupland as my favourite author of fiction.

Let’s Get Literal – David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 40/100Title: David Copperfield
Author: Charles Dickens
Year: 1849-50
Country: UK

Here we are again Mr. Dickens. Of the three books of his on the list David Copperfield is the only one where I haven’t seen any sort of adaptation. It made for a different read since, with Bleak HouseI could retreat into thinking of Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson or Burn Gorman. It was a different experience to try and do my own internal world-building with a Dickens novel.

Now what do I want to say about David Copperfield? One thing that I read before I started on this book is that it is partially autobiographical. It becomes apparent very quickly that David is Dickens.

I know this is a classic and all that jazz, but David Copperfield really does fall into that autobiographical trap of making the character of David Copperfield whiter than white. I mean, Dickens can create some amazing characters but David is too honourable, too nice and just a bit of a wet blanket. Honestly, when I got to long passages of David’s train of thought I just skim read in order to get to something a bit more interesting.

And here’s the thing, David Copperfield is an incredibly interesting and varied book. It takes a look at the life of a man who overcame quite a lot (albeit not as much as the average Victorian) and ends up with true love, true friends and a good position in life.

It just bugs me that one of the main reasons for him finally making his way through is down to having a relative with money. Sure, some of the big leaps are down to Copperfield’s attention and social skills, but the only reason he doesn’t end up dying in a workhouse is thanks to his aunt. Don’t get me wrong I love his aunt; she’s spunky, outspoken and very defensive when donkeys attack her patch of green…  but it rang false that he was able to walk to her house in Kent despite never actually meeting her. Artistic license I guess.

Being a Dickens novel he really does deal with the societal darkness of his time. People going to prison to debt, domestic abuse, drownings, all types of death and major characters emigrating to Australia because that’s all they can hope for.  And yes despite the incredible darkness at the hands of Mr Murdstone and Uriah Heep, David Copperfield is ultimately an uplifting read. It’s hard not to smile when characters like Mr Dick and Miss Mowcher are around.

So yea, with David Copperfield crossed off I have now read the 10 longest books of this list. I am in two minds as to whether I should continue going down the line from longest to shortest or to give myself license to jump around a bit more. I guess the question is: do I read Middlemarch, To Kill A Mockingbird or The Handmaid’s Tale next?

Let’s Get Literal – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 39/100Title: Anna Karenina
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Year: 1878
Country: Russia

Well that was a step up from UlyssesI mean, you would get pages and pages of text that didn’t deviate completely from the main plot line. Okay so that isn’t the highest bar to set when reading a book – but try reading a large tome of Russian fiction between hospital visits and unsuccessful job interviews.

Having read both War and Peace and Anna Karenina I am in the rather cool position of covering both of the big Leo Tolstoy books. Doing a rudimentary comparison between the two books I have to say that I preferred War and Peace. Why would that be?

Simply – it’s the plot lines. For a book called Anna Karenina I was surprised the more of the book wasn’t about her and her story. So much of the book gets bogged down in Levin (who is the Tolstoy surrogate) and his relationship with Kitty that my interest started to wain. In War and Peace all the main threads kept me interested – not so much here.

The thing is, this book would have worked with just the Anna and Vronsky sections – which is what I imagine most of the cinematic adaptations have done. These are the best sections, but even then the whole thing is shrouded by the spectre of punishing the woman who loses her virtue.

It’s one of those tropes that you can spot a mile off in these older books – a woman loses her virtue and she must be punished. It is infuriating. She has an affair because, much like Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, she is bored with her life to the point that she can no longer feel anything.

In the case of both Bleak House and Anna Karenina it’s not like the women have married mean or abusive husbands. It’s just that there is no passion in their lives because the men are more concerned with station and reputation. Both husbands love their wives, but the age gap is so great that the life of the still youthful wife is being wasted.

The love triangle is more sad than romantic in this book. No one ends up happy and no one gets anything they really want. You can see it coming a mile off (especially if you know about that ending), which is what made the Levin and Kitty story rankle with me.

With Levin and Kitty it is meant to be a story of marrying for love despite initial obstacles. However, their relationship isn’t that interesting despite the fact that they have their issues. We also end up with Levin going away from his atheism/agnosticism and reverting to his Christian values because of this relationship – which I know is of it’s time, but that also left a bad taste.

I think I missed something with this book and that is likely because I have not been in the right frame of mind to read something so heavy and, in places, tragic. Then again there aren’t a lot of light reads on this list, so if I want to complete this list I will need to find a way around all that.

For now it’s back to the world of comics as I follow up Hajime no Ippo with a boxing manga from the 1960s.

Let’s Get Literal – Ulysses by James Joyce

List Item: Read 100 of the greatest works of fiction
Progress: 38/100Title: Ulysses
Author: James Joyce
Year: 1922
Country: Ireland

Remember what it was like being in a literature class and talking about books in a way that you never would as an adult. Symbolism, interpretations, allusions – all things that the average person doesn’t think about when reading a book, all things that have put thousands of people off of reading fiction when they leave school.

However, there are a good number of books where discussing things like that would help. There are fewer books that have been deliberately written in a such a way as to encourage critics and literary experts to paw over them for years to follow. Then there is Ulysses – which I think defies description.

I could say that it is meant to be the definitive modernist novel, but that doesn’t mean much and I honestly enjoyed In Search of Lost Time a whole lot more. At least that had more of a story than just the day in the life of a pretty normal man.

This isn’t to say that Ulysses wasn’t an interesting read. I do wonder, however, if I should have had my Kindle in one hand and a Lett’s Guide in the other. Would have been awkward on the train, but at least I would have understood more than 3% of the references Joyce and his characters make.

However, the genre hopping and the extreme amount of the streams of consciousness in this book really did turn me off. Call me an old-fashioned troglodyte, but I kinda like to know what is happening in the book I am reading. Instead of, you know, one that veers off into a play for 10% of the book and then packs that time with hallucinations so you don’t know which way is up. Oh and then we finish with a long section of block text that has no punctuation.

So yea, the phrase ‘what was that’ comes to mind. Might have to go to some manga for a while for a bit of a reset.