As a literature major I read a lot, mostly because I’m going to be assessed on it. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t love most of the books. Between ENGL1800 & ENGL1500, UQ’s first year Lit courses, the reading list includes Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Tony Morrison’s Beloved, Beowulf, and Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice. These are all fine pieces of work that I will have the pleasure of studying over the next semester. Looking to my personal collection I’ve read a lot of different genres from many different eras, from Conrad’s post-colonial world to the dystopian future of Huxley. Here I have compiled five books that I have loved and read over and over, and now would like to suggest that you too fall in love with. Of course you may hate them, or like them, or even love them more than I do, the point is to read them. Absorb some of the wisdom, the creativity and the characters that personify the era in which the novel is set. Most of all, enjoy.
1. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
Sometimes Sylvia Plath gets a bad wrap: too depressing, too dark etc. Some people can’t look past the whole oven thing. But what you have to understand about her is that she was a creative woman in a time where women were expected to be wives and mothers. She was oppressed creatively by her husband, likely jealous of her talent. It is this oppression that makes her work beautiful. In every line you can feel her pain, her passion. The Bell Jar is a semi-autobiographical novel about a college-aged woman named Esther and her year “in the bell jar”. Esther is an English student who finds herself increasingly anxious about her career, men, and life itself leading to her inability to sleep, read or write properly. She seeks psychiatric help, only to find that the treatment makes her even more unstable and this results in a suicide attempt. From here she ends up in a psychiatric facility. The Bell Jar is told from Esther’s point of view and thus we as readers know her every thought. It is a fascinating read that reflects Plath’s view of herself and her life, revealing the overall theme of most her work that there is this constant need to reconcile the competing demands of domestic and artistic life. A deep read, but a worthy one.
2. The Handmaid’s Tail – Margaret Atwood
A wonderful example of the dystopian novel, set in a future where women’s freedom is restricted and they are at the mercy of their commander. Offred is a handmaiden in the totalitarian state of Gilead where, due to low reproduction rates, she is assigned to bear children for powerful couples of the state. Dissenters are hanged or sent out to die of radiation poisoning.Despite training that instructs the handmaidens to be subservient to men and be solely concerned with bearing children, Offred learns of a rebellion quietly gaining strength from another handmaiden. Though she knows she should help gather information, she instead engages in a forbidden relationship with her commander, seeing him outside of scheduled times without his wife present. She also engages in a passionate affair with Nick, a guard. Throughout the book Offred has flashbacks which allow one to put together the events that lead to the fall of the United States and the uprising of the totalitarian state. It takes the best of two brilliant novels; the control of Orwell’s 1984 and the unquestioned sexual acts of Huxley’s Brave New World. In Atwood’s dystopian society there is none of Huxley’s conditioning that allows citizens to accept their fate, meaning Offred’s thoughts lie constantly with “what if” making it that much more interesting. The constant questions on our lips are “will she get caught?”, “is the other handmaiden actually a spy?”. A great read for fans of Huxley and Orwell.
3. Skinny – Ibi Kaslik
One of the most intimate stories of a young woman with an eating disorder you will ever read. The story is told from the perspective of Giselle and Holly Vasco, two sisters. Giselle is a 22-year-old functioning anorexic who has just been released from an eating disorders treatment clinic. A medical student, Giselle’s story is punctuated with excerpts from medical textbooks that oddly personify her feelings and/or life situation. She is haunted by the lack of affection and love she received from her late father, also a doctor, as he blatantly favoured her younger sister Holly. As the story unfolds we learn details about her parents life that may provide explanation for this. We see Giselle’s toxic thoughts take the form of an unnamed person who perpetuates her anorexic behaviour always telling her that she’s stuck with them: You leave when I leave. Holly is a high school athlete who gets into trouble a lot from her daredevil behaviour. She sees her father on the track before and after she races, supposedly as a ghost. Holly wishes she could help Giselle, but fears she will only end up hurting her and eventually does when Giselle’s boyfriend takes an interest in Holly. Holly was born deaf in one ear and Giselle helped her to learn words as an infant, in hopes of seeking her father’s approval; his love for Holly only grows. This is a common source of conflict for the girls. The story is raw and emotional, with great insight into the mindset of someone imprisoned by their own thoughts. Giselle’s story is very real for many people.
4. Change of Heart – Jodi Picoult
An author who’s work is sometimes written off as chick-lit, usually by people who have never read it. Picoult’s Change of Heart is an amazing story encompassing law, medicine and love. Told from multiple perspectives, it tells the story of Isaiah “Shay” Borne a death row inmate convicted of killing a police officer and a little girl. Claire, the girl’s sister is waiting for a heart transplant to cure her cardiomyopathy. As his execution date gets closer, Shae reveals his desire to save Claire by donating his heart to her. Maggie Bloom, a champion of the first amendment for the ACLU helps him build a stunning legal case that will allow him to be executed by hanging in order to preserve his organs so that Claire may use them. Meanwhile, within the prison Shay begins to be connected to a number of strange occurrences that leads the other inmates and outsiders to think he could be the Messiah. This book literally has everything for me. A great legal case, interesting medicine, religion, and so many twists and turns that keep you engaged. I read this book again and again. One of Picoult’s best novels.
5. The Reader – Bernhard Schlink
Translated from the original German, The Reader is a Holocaust novel with a difference. Set post-war and revolving around the war crimes tribunals that held those who perpetrated the shocking events of the war to account, it tells the story of a young man who begins an affair with an older women named Hanna. Hanna requests that he reads to her, and this becomes their tradition. One day Hanna disappears and the man continues with his life despite his confusion about why she would leave him so suddenly. When he is in law school some years later, he begins attending the trial of the guards responsible for a devastating church fire that killed a number of Jewish women and children. Here he finds that Hanna is on trial. As events unfold he makes a number of connections from their past relationship that reveals Hanna may not have done what she was accused of. This book is a beautiful read. From the romance to the history, to the revelations that unfold it captures you. One can see the connections from the book’s beginnings to the story much later and the excitement of figuring it out before the main character does is addictive. Bernhard Schlink is a beautiful writer and his descriptions of the German landscape creates beautiful imagery.