some notes on good books

Two hours ago I had written a post about how there was no way in hell I would manage to finish Pauline Hopkins’ Hagar’s Daughter, which I had not even begun, in time for class tomorrow, but immediately afterwards I sat down and read it all. Pretty bad book, but it is a class of bad books, that’s the point — popular fiction, the anti-literature class. At least I finished it, though I can think of little to nothing to say about it.

I’ve read thirty books so far this year, doing exactly ten a month. This is strange to me — I feel like I am reading very little, like I spend all of my time smoking or navel-gazing, but at this rate I will exceed my number of books read last year, which was — 92? 94? I can’t remember exactly. I could be reading so much more; I am constantly tortured by how much more I should be reading. How wasteful I am with my time!

I’ve given very high ratings to nine of the books, which is pretty great — that’s almost 1/3rd at this point. The books that have rated very highly are:

Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner
I really love Quentin as a character, which is why this and The Sound and the Fury are my two favourite Faulkners. Quentin haunts me, really, as does his brother Benjy. I am sure there were characters in 2006 that impacted me as much as him, but I can’t think of them easily — Pnin? Mick of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter? Perhaps. But I think often of Quentin as I would of a deceased friend.

I won’t say anymore because this could quickly devolve into rapture about Faulkner’s brilliance and that would (I hope) be unnecessary.

Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackery
Fun fun fun. The shrewd and smart Becky Sharpe is one of my new literary heroines — for weeks after we read this for class my friend E. and I evoked her in our dinnertable literary gossip sessions. Lots of exclamations of “What would Becky do?” or “That is so something that Becky would say!” We love her. This book reigns as my favourite that I’ve read for class so far. I would recommend it to anyone — it’s delicious. Must-read for any aspiring social climber.

Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell
I was surprised how much this book affected me — I didn’t expect it to at all from the beginning. It’s another that I read for my 19th C British Novel class, about a young seamstress who is seduced and impregnated by a wealthy aristocrat. “Fallen woman” stories are pretty common in 18th and 19th C novels, but I feel that Gaskell handles it very well, more interestingly than Eliot in Adam Bede. There is certainly a moral agenda to the book — almost all of the novels written in the school of Realism as Eliot &c. defined it at the time do — but it is not as blatant as, say, Dickens. Or even Eliot. Also, it’s quite beautifully written. I am probably going to be writing a long paper about this book.

Selected Poems of John Donne
My favourite class is my English Renaissance Poetry course. I will admit to having a raging crush on the instructor. We ended up expanding our study of John Donne from one class to three. I really love Donne, but the first two classes were pretty torturous — my professor is BRILLIANT, but add his wonderful eccentric ADD smartness to Donne’s depth and you get a lot of heady abstract concepts that just left me staring in silence. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt so stupid in a class. Last class was better, though, bordering on wonderful — teacherman loved me, I loved him, Donne was praised and adored by all — very good. Cannot separate poems from class now, and so dear Donne gets two upwards arrows and a heart in my book notebook.

Fiction in the Age of Photography, Nancy Armstrong
Yeah, I’m including a nonfiction analysis of realism and photography in 19th Century Britain as one of the best reads of the year so far. This is the book that almost killed our presentation. It’s really intelligent and vast and sometimes difficult. I’m fascinated by her arguments about the impact of photography on the widely held epistemology of the British at the time.

Madness and Civilization, Michel Foucault
Oh, I don’t know. I can’t say anything about Foucault without sounding stupid and pretentiously academic. But I like him. I almost like him more for his prose than for his ideas — and the ideas in this particular book fall safely in one of my areas of fascination.

A Question of Power, Bessie Head
I actually didn’t even finish this book because it terrified me so much. It is one of the most accurate and chilling depictions of going mad that I have ever encountered in literature. Reading it made me feel as if I was losing hold on reality. I’m not sure how it ends, but it tells a story very similar to Bessie Head’s own — a South African woman, illegitimate daughter of a rich white woman and a poor black man, moves or is exiled to another African country — Botswana, I think? — where she proceeds to go slowly and excruciatingly crazy. Devastating. A line that bothered me for weeks afterward: “Evil is a complexity so monumental that everything else becomes a tangle of lies.”

I feel like that a lot.

Sporting with Amaryllis, Paul West
Partially a fictional book about young John Milton meeting his muse for the first time, but also just a wonderful reflection on the nature of inspiration and of writing. I read this book in one sitting, and wrote down tons of passages — I have one on my sidebar right now. I expect I will think of it often.

Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson
“A novel in verse” about Geryon, a photographer-boy who is also a red-winged monster. Sometimes the descriptions were over-the-top and silly, but for the most part it was beautiful. What I wrote in my reading book: “Lovely, odd, whimsical, heartbreaking.” I recommend it highly — it’s a quick read (took me maybe an hour at the most) and quite worth it.

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~ by Not Alice on March 28, 2007.

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