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Favorite Books

Favorite books? Well, this is a no-brainer for me. My favorite book is David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. I’ve read it seven times, pathetic, I know. I am obviously a Dickens fan–no doubt I’ll blather on about him at some point. I do think Dickens middle writing years were his best. Anyway, my honor roll of favorite books includes Jane Eyre, The Grapes of Wrath, Lonesome Dove, My Antonia, and Bleak House (another Dickens). Well, I might as well throw in Oliver Twist and Tale of Two Cities.

Some other favorites include: really anything by Cather, Steinbeck, or Hemingway; everything by Amy Tan, especially The Bonesetter’s Daughter; Portrait of a Lady by Henry James; anything by John Irving; The Shipping News and short stories by Annie Proulx; Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray; and anything by Jane Austen, Richard Russo, Toni Morrison, or Thomas Hardy. How’s that for a diverse group? And then there’s The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, The March by E.L. Doctorow (also an American Civil War story, but with conventional quotation marks), the Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe, and Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence.

My nomination for the Great American Novel–Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s an important chapter in America, yet it also contains universal themes, such as the horror of racism and good vs. evil.

Of course, you now wonder what my favorite two vampire works written in different centuries would be. That’s easy–Dracula by Bram Stoker and The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.

Favorite multi-works? How about J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (and you can throw in the Hobbit, though the first chapter is a snoozer). Anne Perry’s WWI series is excellent (I’d tell you the titles, but I’m taking a break from italics). Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove series (two prequels and a sequel) are you-don’t-want-them-to-end gripping. And then there’s J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter seven-book series that I enjoy. Like Tolkien, Rowling displays amazing creativity. I do think dementors may be inspired by Tolkien’s barrow wights.

Oh, and for favorite depression-era memoirs about families with an alcoholic father, it’s hard to beat A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (while it’s listed as fiction, it’s actually a memoir), and Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt; even though the former gives us a few uplifting moments, the latter goes from bad to worse and makes me I’m glad I’m not an Irish Catholic living in Ireland during that time. I’m not a big fan of memoirs–I’ll certainly never write one, except for medicinal purposes–it would be a great cure for insomnia.

In the Fun-To-Read category, Agatha Christie tops my list. Sue Grafton’s books sizzle, and I do hope she makes it to Z. As for classics, Edgar Allan Poe (lots of stories about catacombs and moments that are “phantasmagoric”), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Who hasn’t heard of Sherlock Holmes? (Well, besides children under the age of five, and people in North Korea–they don’t hear about anything.)

On the flip-side are authors that while I appreciate their skill, I don’t find enjoyable to read: William Faulkner, Philip Roth, and John Updike. I’m glad I’ve read their novels, but no more, thank you–well, except for Faulkner short stories that don’t involve stream of consciousness. Virginia Woolf is an incredible wordsmith, but let’s face it, Dostoevsky is more fun. Though I’ve enjoyed some of the short stories of Franz Kafka, The Trial was good, but, well, a trial to finish. I thought Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was compelling, but I just kept thinking–damn it, woman! Get a hobby!

As for best new books, like a zillion others, I enjoyed Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. Man, I’m tired of italics. Typing is hard enough. But I must mention The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer, which tells the story of three brothers, their lives and families, set in Paris and Budapest as WWII approaches then ravages Europe. It’s powerful, engrossing, sweeping, yet detailed. I found finishing the book so unbearable that I reread the last third, for I knew I’d be unable to read another book while it still held me in its grasp. Yeah, it’s that good. Other recent good titles include the Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, and The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.

Now for most-overrated book I’d pick War and Peace. I just found it long, though I have enjoyed other Tolstoy novels and short stories. Good long books include Bleak House, which manages to be a page-turner even though it’s 1000 pages long (once you get past the description of Lady Dedlock’s boredom). Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is excellent, though he does spend a painful amount of time detailing the sewer system of ancient Paris. Like geometry, I find that information hard to use in daily living.

*****

Feb. 7, 2012: Happy 200th Birthday to my favorite author, Charles Dickens, “The Inimitable.” His books and characters have stood the test of time–who, in the western world, hasn’t heard of Oliver Twist or Ebenezer Scrooge? And by the way, Uriah Heep was a villain in David Copperfield long before it was a British rock band. Dickens was accessible and beloved by readers of his day, Queens and commoners alike. He transformed the culture of novel writing, furthering the careers of many writers, including Elizabeth Gaskell and Wilkie Collins, as the editor of two weekly periodicals. He also championed the rights of authors–fighting successfully for tougher copyright laws that benefit writers to this day. And, of course, he wrote some damn good books. His works have also inspired movie adaptations (I will discuss some of these films in Movies 3), attracting the attention of directors as varied as David Lean and Roman Polanski. I bet A Christmas Carol has been adapted over a dozen times (even the Muppets did a good version). Beyond his role as a great novelist, he worked hard to improve social conditions in the England of his day by exposing the terrible conditions for the poor and orphaned in Oliver Twist; by creating awareness of the abusive Yorkshire schools in Nicholas Nickleby; and by bringing attention to the ridiculous and cruel debtors prisons in David Copperfield and Little Dorrit.

Okay, I’ll go along with the big criticism of his writing–he couldn’t write pretty women and girls with any convincing depth. And he never really overcame this problem; Lucy in A Tale of Two Cities, one of his later works, is a flat, uninteresting person. Saintly characters rarely rise above boring. In David Copperfield, we know Agnes is a woman of quality, but again, too perfect–unlike other DC women, such as Mrs. Micawber, Peggotty, Mrs. Gummidge, Miss Mowcher and the best of all–Betsy Trotwood, that intimidating pillar of strength, who also displays kindness, quirkiness, and vulnerability. Still, he’s such an engaging storyteller that even this fault is easily dismissed. If you’ve never read a Dickens novel, know that you must savor every page and recognize that his stories are vivid journeys, not quick-fix thrillers; his tales will delight, amuse, engage, horrify, and thrill you with twists and turns that reward the patient modern reader.

 

I admit I encountered a few uninspiring books this last year; however, I reread Tale of Two Cities and Hard Times by Dickens and regained my love of reading.  I greatly enjoyed Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James. (If I need to tell you what Pemberley refers to, then you wouldn’t be interested.) The author managed to respect and accurately portray the Austen characters, yet deliver a good mystery with a particularly clever twist at the end. April 2012–I just finished Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd. It was excellent (and the only one of his five major novels I hadn’t read). Here’s a good test for fiction: Is the novel still in print a century after it was written? Another good test–is the BBC or Masterpiece creating a new movie version? Oh, and plea to movie makers: please go back and subtitle your older movies. It can be difficult to catch all the dialogue when British actors mumble, speak in a heavy accents, or use archaic slang (or when your autistic son insists on singing during the film). Please and thank you. Oh, and Far From the Madding Crowd has recently been made into a movie with Carey Mulligan.

6/5/2012: Sad news. Ray Bradbury died today. He was 91. I’m not a big science fiction reader, but the Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 were special. Though he was known for his novels, he also wrote screenplays and poetry. He received both an honorary Pulitzer and an honorary National Book Award. Along with another pioneer of sci-fi, Arthur C. Clarke, Mr. Bradbury combined great storytelling with social commentary. RIP.

Yes, I know I haven’t posted anything new here for a while. The truth is, when I’m writing my own novels, I don’t read other books. When I’m writing that first draft, it’s all I want to do day and night. Check out my Voices in the Wind post. I’m currently writing sequels. Both Voices in the Wind and Death Steppe have been published. Alone in the Wind is due in October 2015. You can read my novella, Black Summer, on this blog for free.

Last night I did something extraordinary–I threw a book in the trash (my recycling company doesn’t take hardcover books). I’d decided not to read Go Set a Watchman anyway because I learned that the book portrayed Atticus Finch as a cranky old racist. This is a book Harper Lee said she never wanted published, which is why it reads like a first draft. But then I read a review that said if you read this book, it will forever ruin To Kill a Mockingbird for you. Well, that did it. I love that book and that movie, so off to the landfill it goes.

 

Copyright Judy Bruce and Hey Joood 2017. Duplication of this material is strictly prohibited.

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