#1 – Middlemarch by George Eliot

I’ve been putting off this post for weeks. Why? Well, I’ve been really busy. Also, maybe I didn’t want this blog to end. I love telling people what to read so much, why should I shut down this opportunity? 🙂

Nevertheless, the time has come to end my reading recommendations with that greatest of all books to read in your twenties, the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

Virginia Woolf’s words, not mine.

Middlemarch. Where do I begin?

Perhaps with a piece of advice I got from Cheri Larsen Hoeckley, in whose “Women Writers” class I first read this book. Write down all the characters’ names in a list as you meet them. Then use that list to keep track of all the people in the book. It was immesurably helpful and took away a great deal of the trepidation I felt when facing the hefty tome.

Really, I think the book is animated by two simple questions:

Who am I?

What should I do with my life?

If you are asking those questions, you should read this book. And there are all kinds of related questions that are illuminated in this novel as well. For instance: What does it mean to be a good person? Are we morally obligated to live up to our potential? What happens when we don’t live up to others’ expectations? What does “greatness” look like in ordinary life?

And of course, there’s the wonderful question that opens the book’s Prelude:

“Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand- in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors?”

Who indeed.

As Dorothea, Lydgate, Fred, and others try to figure out the answer to those questions through careers, marriages, and so on, their struggles take place within a shifting society. Middlemarch is a world in a little village, a microcosm. Not only that, there are family secrets to be uncovered, forbidden love affairs,* faux-quotation epigraphs that Eliot didn’t attribute to herself (to make the book seem even more literary), and all kinds of other awesome stuff.**

This post hardly does justice to this magnificent work of literature. The only real way to do justice to it is to read it again. So I think I may just do that. What better way to start my 30s?

Note: You could read an e-text for free, but I find a bit of notes and apparatus helpful while reading old books, which is why I linked to the Oxford World’s Classics edition. Or just ask a Victorianist. I am sure he or she has a favorite edition.

*Will Ladislaw = Byronically hot, yet not a (total) jerk.

**Dorothea’s blushing neck!

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#3 – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a re-read. I read it as a teenager and then again a couple of years ago.

It is another Bildungsroman!

It’s also classified, often, as “young adult.” But I got much more out of reading it as a grown-up than I did as a “young adult.”

This is not your Catcher in the Rye or Bell Jar progress of a troubled young soul type of book. It’s about a family trying to survive in grinding poverty and the indomitable human spirit. Or something.

Anyway it’s magical.

#4 – Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

Crossing to Safety was actually the first book I read after college.

Erin Sells, a true California girl at heart (in the best sense of the term, though she is now a California expatriate), recommended this true California writer (in the best sense of the term) to me.

This is a beautiful grown-up book about marriage and fidelity. Which is more unusual in the world of American fiction than you’d think.

Before I read this book, all I knew about Stegner was the famous fellowship named after him which is sometimes given to really awesome people.

But this and Angle of Repose are definitely worth reading, out there in the “Great American Novel” category.

#7 – Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

I vacillated a lot on this one. I wanted to include some sort of big fat contemporary novel by an author who gets a lot of attention. At the same time, I didn’t want to include too many of these types of books because I wanted to leave room for some of the older and more obscure books I enjoy.

Other novels I considered: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Atonement, Winter’s Tale, Bel Canto, Olive Kitteridge (really, a short story cycle), Animal Dreams (a bit older but Kingsolver is still very popular).

Eventually, Middlesex won out. Why?

Jeffrey Eugenides makes Detroit seem like a place full of wonder and magic. None of those other books do that. Also, he makes Callie/Cal, the protagonist, such a vivid and compelling character. With a transgender narrator, this book could easily have been a novel about gender “issues.” There’s nothing that irritates me more than a novel that’s trying to hit you over the head with “issues.”*

 

*unless it’s by Steinbeck, in which case the beautiful prose wins me over.

#8 – Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers

Gaudy Night has EVERYTHING I like in it. To name a few:

1. Mystery

2. Academic regalia

3. Romance

4. Quotations from John Donne

5. Feminism

6. Early 20th-century British prose

7. Bach

8. Ornate chess pieces

9. Awkward alumni events

10. University campuses in the summertime*

Which is probably why I re-read it, say, once a year. This book might be the book I have re-read the most times. So good.

*They really are one of my favorite things.

#10 – The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I realize this selection is a bit more low-brow than some of the others. I am okay with that if you are.

Like many of the so-called young adult books I’ve read over the course of the past few years, the Hunger Games trilogy is fast-paced and exciting. But what made these books have a bit more staying power after the last page-turny page was turned?

For me, it’s the fact that the stories delve into the problems around our comfortable spectator approach to violence. Children are forced to kill in order to entertain the wealthy. And though the heroine is forced to kill to survive, she doesn’t remain untouched by the violent acts she’s had to commit. I feel like this book is a good starting point for discussion, and while it mirrors contemporary social problems (as do many dystopian novels) it doesn’t treat them in a heavy-handed way (hellooooooo Handmaid’s Tale).

And if the astonishing Jennifer Lawrence is going to be in the movie, it can’t be that bad, right? Right?

Hat tip to Deanne Liu, who first recommended The Hunger Games to me.