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Monday, June 06, 2005


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First of all, don't feel that you have to force yourself into reading "good" literature right out of college. You just graduated, n'est-ce pas? By all means, read good books, but don't worry if your thirst for heavy literature takes a while to return. I had great fun reading mostly fluff after I graduated from my heavy-duty liberal arts college, and I continued reading mostly fluff for several years. Then, slowly, the hunger for more enriching fare returned, and I've now achieved a nice balance of 1 fluff followed by 1 important literary work followed by 1 historical/sociological work. I also subscribe to First Things, which keeps me well fed on matters spiritual and ethical for most of the year. :-) The diet works for me.

Anyway. Good literature. Read "War and Peace"? It's huge, but it's a surprisingly quick read, given the immense size (but perhaps you're burned out on Tolstoy). Read much Mark Twain? He's not all fluff, that one, especially not his bio of Joan of Arc. George MacDonald's fairy tales? "Watership Down"? That last is so enjoyable as to almost be candy, but it's good writing too. I like Evelyn Waugh (esp. "The Power and the Glory" and "The End of the Affair"). "Kristin Lavransdatter"? How about "Democracy in America" by Tocqueville? I'm still trying to make it through that one -- Tocqueville was a prophet, but oof, the book is long... I could go on like this for a long time, so I'll stop now. :-)

My suggestion is by no means a classic or heavy literature (which may be what you're looking for?) but, have you read any of the Richard Paul Evans books? They are very light reading and nice heart-warming stories. The Christmas Box Collection, The Carousel, The Locket, and A Perfect Day are all very good.

Oh, do I know what you mean! If only all the "great books" were as much fun as Austen..

Based on the similarity of our tastes I'd suggest you have a look at Marly Youmans. She's an author who used to live in my town, still not very well-known but gaining in popularity. Everything I've read by her was great, particularly Catherwood.

As for true literature, I'll get back to you once I've started improving my own fiction-reading habits!

Right now I'm in my Edith Warton phase. Her stories remind me of Jane Austen - stories of emotion and manners, but set in "old New York". I think I've read all of her major novels and am almost finished with a two volume set of her short stories.

Every few years I reread Frank Herbert's Dune. His rendering of a complete universe down to the ecology is one that you can completely immerse yourself in. The themes of politics, religion and ecology are as relevant now as when he penned them some 30 years ago. I liked the two sequels "Dune Messiah" and "Children of Dune", but I felt the books after that were weird and tiresome. The new prequels by his son are cringingly bad and I won't read anymore of them!

I'm a huge fan of the little known Chelsea Quinn Yarbro for her books about the vampire St. Germain. The better vampire stories are about the human condition, and Yarbro's Count yearns not for the blood but for the bond he forms with his willing partners. Each book is set in a different historical period, worth the read if only for her meticulously research. Her books are hard to find and often out of print.

Next up: Anthony Trollope, because Miss Manners recommends him.

try A Tree Grows in all time fav.

I think the post-degree fluffiness is nothing to be ashamed of - I certainly did it! :) Your reading list sounds a lot like mine - it's really hard to find truly comic novels after Wodehouse, or so I've found - there's something about starting off with the best that makes that difficult.

First off, I'd like to second Hoo's suggestion of Edith Wharton; until graduation, the only experience I'd had of her was "Ethan Frome." If you're feeling lighter, start off with her short stories - "Old New York" is a good long-short story collection, and she also has a collection of ghost stories. "The Age of Innocence" and "The Custom of the Country" I also enjoyed very much - starting off slow, but they pulled me so much that by the end I was sorry to finish them. "The House of Mirth" is excellent, but very depressing; you've definitely got to be in the mood.

For a break - mysteries: have you read Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael series? The first seven or eight are by far the best - after that I think she just ran out of plots and got really formulaic - but those first seven or eight are really good reads. I think it was Peters who started the whole medieval-religious-as-detective trend that seems to be out there, and she's head and shoulders above the rest of them.

And there's always that YA literature - hey, L.M. Montgomery's a classic, and I think I read pretty much her entire output last year. E. Nesbit is another one who's very comforting.

And don't worry about fluff literature if that's what you feel like right now - I went through a spell last year when I was such an emotional mess that all I could take in were chick lit novels. As literature? Not worth a hell of a lot. As a mental bon-bon? Priceless. So if you feel tempted by "Something Borrowed" or similar, feel free. Also, Marian Keyes writes novels which are basically a step above chick-lit but also very, very funny - I think you'd enjoy them. (They're all good - "Angels" was the first one I read, it's not her best, but she wrote very well about the main character's little, um, medical problem that I think a lot of people here would understand).

I feel I must pay you back for praising Anne of Green Gables, a book with which I just spent a lovely and consoling weekend (it's been a long time since I've had such a comforting read--simply oozing goodness), so here are my recommendations.

I, too, love Tolkien, Lewis (especially Till We Have Faces), and Jane Austen. I confess I also like Chaucer (but then again, I study the Middle Ages professionally, *and* I have a taste for low humour :)

That being said, I definitely second the recommendation of War and Peace. I found it extremely entertaining. (If you can find it, the new edition of Constance Garnett's translation is particularly good.) It seemed to me very much like Jane Austen--except with the war stuff that happens on the fringes of Austen novels taking centre stage along with the romance and comedy bits. It also has very, very lovable characters, and delightfully quirky big families. C. S. Lewis loved it.

Another recommendation is Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South, another big fat nineteenth century novel with a kind-hearted, idealistic, resourceful young woman as its main character. Like War and Peace, the book provides what Chaucer calls "doctryn and solas", moral edification and entertainment/comfort. I've just begun to re-read it myself.



These are strictly good books and not great literature ... China Court or In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. Silver Pigs by Lindsey Davis (set in ancient Rome but with a detective who feels modern but not out of place). One for the Money by Janet Evanovich (great series about a woman bounty hunter and is very light). It's summer! Relax! :-)

Two Words: Paul Zindel

His writing is some very very weird stuff, written mostly to a teen/young adult audience, but it's entertaining and most of his books are quick reads. I'd suggest starting with The Pigman. It'll be a good break for your brain.

I would have to second Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. I couldn't get enough of it.

I like George Elliot and Thomas Hardy almost as much as I like Jane Austen.

As far as mysteries - have you read The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins? Fabulous!

Lilith by George McDonald and the novels of Charles Williams.

I'm going to second (or third?) what others have said about allowing yourself more time to "decompress" after graduating. I know a month seems like plenty of time off, but you worked REALLY hard, and it can take a while for your brain to get back in the groove of hungering after even MORE knowledge. This may be too much time, but you may even want to take the summer off. Pretend you're on summer vacation, and read "easier" books or brain candy stuff (if you can make yourself) until August, or whenever you'd normally head back to school. And THEN jump back in. You just might find that the anticipation of waiting to read some great literature will really get you ready to tackle it with enthusiasm and excitement.

That being said, I agree that you'll probably have to set time aside, and be a bit disciplined about the whole thing. I was an English and Spanish major, and after doing nothing but reeeaaading for four years, I was really burned out (even though I had LOVED studying). It took me a long time to rekindle my love for good books.

As for recommendations, some of my favorite books ever are "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver, "Beloved" and "Song of Solomon" by Toni Morrison and "Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neal Hurston. Especially the first two books. As strange as this may sound, these books CHANGED me. I go back to them over and over again, and love them more each time I do.

Well-written, restful, but absorbing books sound just the ticket. I recommend Anthony Trollope (the 'Palliser series' books centre around 19th century political/social intrigue - the titles alone are tempting - 'He Knew He Was Right', 'Can You Forgive Her?', 'The Eustace Diamonds. Or The Barchester Chronicles are about Victorian ecclesiastical and parochial life - just absolutely engrossing).

Or Hardy's early more pastoral novels - Tess of the D'Urbervilles, The Woodlanders, Far From The Madding Crowd,. Arragh - now I'm cross that I've already read them, they were so fun the first time round!

Or how about Wilkie Collins. The first real detective/mystery writer. If you haven't already - go and get The Woman in White. Now! No no - go and get it! Honestly - BEST. PLOT. EVER.

Apologies if you've already read all of these by the way. And sorry for anonymous email - I only have a company one!

Check out _Possession_ by A. S. Byatt. It's a wonderful cross between scholarly book-larnin' literature and modern fiction.

Unfortunately, the rest of Byatt's oevre doesn't quite live up to that book, as I learned to my disappointment last summer, when I read every book of hers I could get my hands on.

Oh dear, I have to jump in with one more book: "A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter Miller. My first love in literature-for-enjoyment is sci-fi, but unfortunately most sci-fi doesn't fall into the category of great literature. Technically, neither does "Canticle", but it is a fascinating book for other reasons. At the time of its writing, the author was a newly converted Catholic, and his love and reverence for the Church shines through. The theology in the book isn't all entirely sound, but for the most part it's decent, and waaaay better than we normally ever see in the sci-fi genre. Plus, if you happen to like translating your own Latin, there's a ton of it in there! :-) So, I give it a conditional but very enthusiastic thumbs-up.

Have you read The Lord of the Rings (joking - I know you have!)? (I'm actually half-watching my copy of Return of the King at this very instant. Frodo and Sam are in Mordor and down to their last drop of water...)

Seriously, if you're looking for literature, don't make it all serious stuff. Light and fluffy has its place. I try to keep my reading material at a certain level though, of course. But I read constantly - I don't know how to stop reading!

But then right now I'm re-reading Nancy Drew before allowing my daughter to have my old books. Not exactly Tolkien, is it.

As for genuine recommendations... I'm too asleep just now to come up with one. If I think of one, I'll write you!

I have had the same problem lately... so instead of literature, I checked out a bunch of random non-fiction about topics that seemed interesting, and some French tapes and a dictionary from the library... *shrug*

A very interesting book, which you might love or hate I'm not sure, is the book "John Knox" by Rosalind K. Marshall. Reformation, I know, but it is an interesting read.

First off, I totally get where you're coming from. When I hit high school, I felt like there was sort of no were to go from YA and sci fi/fantasy/Tolkien/Lewis except either the classics (many of which are dull and depressing) and what we'd pretty much now call Oprah books, which are almost all dull and depressing and what's worse, sort of bored with themselves. Those are still not my cup of tea. I don't know why it's hard to find books for adults who love life and retain a sense of wonder, but there you go. No wonder Harry Potter is the biggest literary sensation of our age!
There are lots of good things here - Possession (the only one of A.s. byatt's books that it's necessary to read, but completely amazing), The End of the Affair (which is by Graham Greene - I liked The Quiet American as well as The Power and The Glory), Middlemarch, E. Nesbit and George MacDonald and The Moonstone among them.
So what can I add - hmm. Have you ever read Thornton Wilder? His plays are interesting (obviously Our Town is the best known but The Skin of Our Teeth is fascinating, though very much of its time), as is his one novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. I feel like I know you read Madeline L'Engle, even though she isn't listed, so there isn't any need to recommend her, right? Diana Wynn Jones is enjoyable (and my sister tells me the new Miyazaki movie made of Howl's Castle is pretty terrific). Have you read The Prydain Chronicles? LLoyd Alexander has other good books, too, but that series is his best in my opinion, dreadful Disney movie not withstanding. Jan Karon's Mitford series is mostly light and not a little cliched, but cute, not to mention filled with lots of great quotes from really great books. Robin McKinley writes some nice fairy tale retellings, but I think her best is still her completely original stuff, particularly the Newbury award winner, The Blue Sword. It's YA fantasy and marvelous. Okay, and this is totally kids stuff, but wonderful - did you read The Borrowers? I wonder if you're still reading these responses, because I bet I'm going to be thinking about this all day. ;)

Oh, and I wanted to ask - what's your second favorite Austen book? Mine is Persuasion. The movie version from the mid 90's is terrific, if you haven't seen it. Ther's a fascinating and flawed looking trailer up online for the new Kira Knightly P and P film, out in September. Also, if you haven't read Sayer's Gaudy Night, do - it's terrific. I'm sure you have, but if not, it's a treat.
OH - Connie Willis's To Say Nothing Of The Dog. I'm not a big fan of the rest of her stuff (Bellwether is good, but most of the rest I can just leave) but TSNOTD is amazing. Truly amazing. I would love to know, by the way - I started Kristin Lavransdottir, based on it's rep as a classic, and found that it seemed immediately like one of those books (Daisy Miller, Portrait of a Lady, pretty near anything by Thomas Hardy) where an enormous appealing protagonist is slowly destroyed, usually because she falls for the wrong guy, and you see it coming the whole time and just have to watch. I cannot deal with that sort of thing. They make me way too miseable. If anyone's peaking at these postings who has read and enjoyed it, could you tell me if it's worth going through anyhow if I don't like that sort of book? Was I wrong in my first impression of it?

Oooh - forgot to say, have you read Nancy Mitford's beautiful beautiful novels - The Pursuit of Love, Love in A Cold Climate, and The Blessing? If you like Wodehouse and Sayers you'll love them!

I will third the recommendation of mysteries, but you're already excited about Sayers and Chesterton so I needn't alert you to their excellence. Sherlock Holmes is great as well.

Kristin Lavransdatter is a great one, especially because there are some good observations about faith, sin, etc. It can be rather depressing, though. I love it because it tells about a woman who makes many mistakes but tells the *truth* about the consequences, including spiritually, without alienating her from the reader.

I'm in the middle of a 1000-page monster now which is nonetheless a great novel: The Red Horse by Eugenio Corti. He's an Italian writing about World War II and it's fascinating to hear it from a non-US perspective and particularly so infused with Catholicism.

While perhaps not old enought to fit into the "great books" category, I loved Walker Percy's "The Thanatos Syndrome," Michael O'Brien's "Father Elijah" (and the rest of the series, but Father Elijah was my favorite), and probably a million others I can't think of right now.

Thanks for asking, because I just got some great ideas for summer reading from this list!

I'll second Sarah's nomination of Evelyn Waugh. I love Brideshead Revisited. Waugh converted to RC as an adult and even wrote some papers on theological topics. Brideshead has a lovely spiritual message, if you're willing to put up with the moral failings of most of the characters for the first 4/5 of the book or so.

I am about 3/4 through "Don Quixote." I can't stand knights or anything to do with chivalric romances, but I am finding the book an easy read and pretty funny, as well. The two main characters are so ridiculous, you can't decide whether to laugh at them or feel sorry for them. I recommend the Penguin version. The book totally satirizes chivalric romances.

I got on a dystopian lit kick last summer and had a great time. A couple of girlfriends and I started a Catholic book club and read: "1984" "Utopia" "Lord of the Flies" and "Brave New World." It was really interesting looking at these books from a Catholic perspective. I also read "Fahrenheit 451" on my own, another dystopian novel. Although not every book listed in this paragraph is considered a 'great book' by scholars, they are certainly good books and say a lot about our present culture.

I am ashamed to admit I have tried reading "Pride and Prejudice" twice and had a hard time getting into it. So, my taste in books may be different than yours. I tend to like dark novels. Reading "The Metamorphosis" by Kafka is my idea of an afternoon well-spent. LOL

A book that might give you some ideas for a gameplan for reading great literature, as well as some ideas, is "Educating Your Mind" by Susan Wise Bauer. She really gets you past the "ugh" of reading great books and actually gets you enthusiastic about it. She then lists fiction, plays, biographies and philosophical works to tackle. There are also Yahoo! discussion groups that are following her plan. You might be able to find a book buddy.

Hope that helps, Maureen

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