Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Rewrite Reads

The NEA 100 Great Reads List, 5 posts down, recommends a bunch of books I would't. It also wastes space listing multiple titles by the same author.
So, I'm revising it.

(This is a highly subjective undertaking, as you can imagine.)

For my Rewrite Reads, I start with replacing the entries that duplicate authors. The authors are great, mostly, but why waste the places? I tried to choose one representative book and then match the others, sometimes very roughly, with a book with a similar theme.

Cut 4 of the 5 books by Charles Dickens.

I’d choose Christmas Carol as good, representative, and blessedly short.

Replace Great Expectations with Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote (right).

Both books are about young men coming of age in swampy places, where people lurk in dim rooms. But so different. I like Dickens’s stories, but his paid-by-the-word prose makes me want to scream, “Get on with it.”
Capote’s condensed prose hits the solar plexus.

Replace Bleak House with The Golden Bowl by Henry James, which Sister describes as a tale of “paranoia and sexual neurosis.”

Maybe not exactly Dickensian, but I had to squeeze James in here somewhere, even though I never got through anything of his longer than Turn of the Screw (terrifying!).
Sister, who loves 19th century novels, occasionally quotes one of his gorgeous sentences and I wilt with appreciation.

Replace A Tale Of Two Cities with The Periodic Table by Primo Levi.
Levi was an Italian Jewish chemist, better known for his writings about Auschwitz.
In this book, Levi matches qualities of Earth's elements with people and events in his life. His chapter on iron tells a tale of personal sacrifice in WWII Italy as good as Sydney Carton’s in the French Revolution. And it’s real.

Replace David Copperfield (one of my favorite books from childhood, and Dickens’s favorite child, he said) with the Dido Twite series, which starts with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, for young adults, by Joan Aiken.

[Aiken got lucky: Edward Gorey illustrated the Yearling editions (left).]

Aiken’s Dido Twite is a scrappy/sad girl urchin who grows into self-awareness, along with her friend Simon, in the midst of the power struggles of 19th century England.

She probably crossed paths one London day with David Copperfield.

Replace 3 of the 4 titles by Jane Austen.

They’re all close enough to perfect as makes no difference.
More or less at random, I'll keep Pride and Prejudice as representative.

(*clears throat* I may be influenced by how sexy Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy looks in his wet shirt, right, sideburns and dopey look notwithstanding, in the PBS version—a totally gratuitous scene, and one which I approve entirely.)

Replace Emma with Excellent Women by Barbara Pym (1913—1980).

Pym, named by Philip Larkin as one of the most underrated authors of the 20th century, captures with a pen as wicked funny and insightful as Austen’s the restrictions of English women’s lives. Like Austen, to whom she is often compared, she published only six books. This is the best of them.

Replace Persuasion with “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda.
Stands to reason, right? If Austen had been a Latin American man, the smothered eroticism of “Persuasion” might have sounded something like Neruda’s lush poems.

Replace Sense and Sensibility with Persepolis, volumes I and II, by Marjane Satrapi.

Nothing on the surface connects these books, except the variation on the name “Marianne.” But Satrapi’s graphic-novelization of her coming of age in Iran during the Iranian revolution of 1979 and after, in the West, captures a young woman making her way in a restricted world, trying out different options, and I think she and Austen would have a lot to say to each other.

End of Empire

Double-up Tolstoy: put War and Peace as one entry with Anna Karenina.

Not a true parallel, but use the space saved for Waiting for the Barbarians, by white South African J. M. Coetzee—a tale of a man ensnared by his own power as a representative of an empire under attack, and the way this mutilates his ability to love.

Oooh—follow that with the complementary The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene, for another imperialist in Africa (Sierra Leone), at the End of Empire--and another man trying to be good caught in the tangle of forces way beyond him.

HOTM could replace Animal Farm, by George Orwell [another double-listed author], which is also about how easily naïve good intentions get warped by power.

Keep Orwell's 1984. Squeeze in the same entry “Why I Write”, a classic essay about politics, literature, and the limits of ego, by the same author:
"Looking back through the last page or two, I see that I have made it appear as though my motives in writing were wholly public-spirited. I don't want to leave that as the final impression. All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand."

Mix and Match

Keep Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, of course, and add as a companion Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys.

“Wide” tells the story of Rochester’s first wife Antoinette/Bertha Mason--the madwoman Jane Eyre discovers in his attic—when he met her in the Caribbean (where the Welsh/white Creole Rhys was born).

Analysts of postcolonial literature point out that Rhys's Jamaican-born Antoinette represents the female sensuality and race issues (though she's white, there's a warm wildness to her) Rochester and his patriarchal colonial culture fear, which is why he locked her up.
You could also say it's just a damn good, well-written story that rings true.

Another entry that cries for a trim and a match:
The Bible. Do we really need to read all those books of lists? Let’s be more specific. A quick tour:
Genesis. Book of Isaiah. The Psalms. Song of Solomon. The Gospels. Book of Revelation.

Add as complementary The Bagavad Gita, the Hindu classic which is a surprisingly good read, and surprisingly familiar. Probably because like most Westerners I knew who Ghandi was before I knew who Krishna was.

Skip Some Shakespeare

Speaking of a trim, replace the “Complete Works” of Shakespeare with:
a comedy (I vote “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” because I saw a version of Peter Brook’s swinging-‘60s staging of it when I was a kid. Oh my. Double checking the date, I see that Patrick Stewart—Captain Picard of Star Trek--was in Brook’s RSC 1970 production);
a tragedy (“Hamlet”? “King Lear”?);
a history (“Richard III,” “Julius Caesar”);
and the sonnets.

All That Wanders Is Not Worthy

Save an entry, and put The Hobbit together with The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien.

For a nice bit of compare and contrast, give the open place to Call of the Wild, by Jack London, for another astonishing journey.
Where Bilbo the hobbit takes a jolly romp "there and back again," Frodo in LOTR and Buck the dog in COTW find "you can't go home again" after their journey out into the wilds.

Replace the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling with A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.
I would have loved Harry Potter when I was ten, but as an adult I find it overly simplistic and predictable—and rather dead-ended. (What would it lead you to study or explore further, I wonder?)
“A Wrinkle,” however, opens up the universe of physics.

Replace The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis with Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis.
That is, replace sexist, humorless Oxbridge with sexist, hysterically funny Redbrick.
I'll forgive almost anything if it's extremely funny. And I am unanimous in that.

Different Fruits and Spices

Supplement Little Women by Louisa May Alcott with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (left, with a library card catalog*), or Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown.

Winterson (English) & Brown (American) both write funny, gritty coming of age stories about young women. Both protagonists come to realize they are lesbian, but that’s almost incidental. I mean, there’s always something a girl has to claim as her own, in defiance of her family and the world.

Replace that old chestnut Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier, with The Translator (1999), by Leila Aboulela.

Both are schlocky romantic fantasies about fairly passive, traditional women who move into worlds they don’t fully understand, where they long for the man of their dreams to see and accept them as themselves.

A big difference is that Aboulela’s heroine is a Sudanese Muslim woman working as an Arabic translator in Scotland, waiting for the Scottish professor of Islamic studies who loves her to wake up and get with the program: There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.

There’s no mystery in The Translator, as in Rebecca, but it’s a good swap as the intrigue of how to survive in Scotland is mysterious in its own way, such as, for instance, when the heroine has to figure out where to find green cardamom.

(An aside--Rebecca is one of those books that is better as a movie, I think.
Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 film is better, anyway.
Not least because of Judith Anderson as creepy housekeeper Mrs. Danvers.
And I'm not just saying that because she played the Vulcan High Priestess--left--in Star Trek III, The Search for Spock.)

You've Got to Be Kidding

Most of the books I'm replacing are fine books; I just prefer others or am making space. Not so the following three.

Replace Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell with Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Scarlett O’Hara is an astonishing character—a formidable survivor—the sort of woman who’d kill her baby to save it from slavery, just like the heroine of “Beloved” does. But I can’t believe anyone would recommend GWTW, with its vile, “We always fed our boys well and they were grateful/Mammy is so wonderful” [even if she has no name] apologies for slavery.

Another book I can’t believe made the list is The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, which is so full of factual errors, I couldn’t stand it.
My father, on the other hand, had great fun pointing out all the Parisian geographical mistakes--“You can’t get there from there, it’s a one-way street’—that can be fun because you get to feel so superior and in-the-know.
Replace with a historical religious mystery that is erudite and still a ripping good read, The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco.

Maybe this is just plain old mean of me, but let's put Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil in the ring with Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet In Heaven.

It would be ugly, but it would be brief.

OK to All These

13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
22 The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
25 The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll

More to come.

* I chose the Winterson photo, which isn't the best of her, because of the card catalog.
I worked in an art college library from 1989 to 2001. The director refused for reasons of her own to put the catalog on line. Toward the end of my time there, students would walk in the library and ask how to look up books. When I'd point them to the card catalog, they'd say, "What's that?"


momo said...

First of all, I am so overwhelmed with back to school tasks and a sudden financial surprise that I cannot possibly do justice to this genius post, except to say:
1) this is what I get to do when I advise my graduate students on their reading lists for their PhD prelim exams, where they are supposed to come up with 30 works, but NOT repeat authors, so I am on board with your general starting principle: representative works, not multiples by the same author.
2) YES Wide Sargasso Sea must be read as the companion to Jane Eyre 3) I just reread Winterson's Oranges are not the only fruit and she it absolutely must be on this list 4) Madeleine L'Engle belongs on this list, but I'd replace both Harry Potter and the Narnia books with the Prydain chronicles, 5) if I had to choose one white South African writer it would be Nadine Gordimer, and Burger's Daughter is one of my favorite books by her.
OK, I see this is way too much fun and I must get back to work! but I would love nothing better than to join you in this discussion later!

fresca said...

OOoooh, Mom:
I wish you had hours and hours to do this with me!
Join in any time.

Guess what?
I DO have the Prydain Chronicles coming up --as a replacement for His Dark Materials. (I just can't get into these Oxbridge boys.).

My sister loves Gordimer--for some reason I haven't really read her, so now I must.
Sorta along those lines, I hope to squeeze Doris Lessing in here, coming up.

I can't get "Waiting for the Barbarians" out of my head, though, and I read it twenty years ago--and that's the best recommendation I could give--and pretty much my criterium for selection on this lists, as I admit I haven't read most of these books recently.

Speaking of work, I've been putting off writing an index on the Russian Revolution all day, which means I will be up half the night.
Ah, but literature is worth it!
I'm glad you enjoyed my efforts to far.

As Sherman Alexie (also coming up) books should give you a "boner"--I guess I'd say, books should make you wet.

fresca said...

Um, that's "Momo", not "Mom."
Proofread? Who, me?

deanna said...

I'm intrigued. Glad you added Call of the Wild, one of my great favorites. I did like Little Women, though, in seventh grade...but I didn't make my daughter read it. I looked up The Periodic Table and promptly ordered it. Can't wait. This is all to say thanks for the list work.

ddip said...

So glad you added Beloved. I think you can count that as a replacement for both GWTW and The Color Purple, which--dare I say it--is pablum compared to Morrison's ravaging tale of the scourge of slavery.

This book list is almost as much fun as your movie posts! Maybe you could do a theme-based set next....the best romances, the best science, the best French, the best fantasy....

momo said...

I can't remember what grade I was in, but made a shoebox diorama based on Call of the Wild with Buck made out of clay pulling a sled with white cotton ball snow.

Manfred Allseasons said...

While Lucky Jim is wonderful (bought another copy of it last week) the best redbrick novel must surely be The History Man by Malcolm Bradbury...

No Somerset Maugham? Best short stories in the language, I think...

Excellent post, by the way!

Manfred Allseasons said...

oh wait, The History Man is probably plate glass rather than redbrick, thinking about it...

fresca said...

Deanna: Oh, I think you will love the "Periodic Table"--writing about struggle and compassion, cheeck by jowl.
I'm glad the post intrigued you. I have been loving pulling it and its upcoming second halftogether.

Sister: I wondered too about replacing "Color Purple," since it's fluffy compared to "Beloved," but I liked it a lot when I read it many years ago...
Thanks for the ideas for more lists, but I haven't even finished with the rewrite of this list!
Maybe On My Plate could do a book feature?

Momo: That's hysterical! Just like the girl in Oranges, who makes that diorama--wasn't it "The summer is over and we are not yet saved?" : )
God that was a funny book!
I have a small worry: it's been soooooo many years since I read iCall of the Wild," I can't honestly recall if London's treatment of Native Americans is really awful. Do you?

Manfred: Thanks. I tried but couldn't get into "The History Man." Can you say more about it? Is it funny?
(I did like "The History Boys," by Alan ...I'm drawing a blank...the guy who wrote "Madness of King George III."
DId you know that when that was made into a movie, in the USA they dropped the "III" because they worried--probably rightly--that people might think it meant "Part III," like Star Trek III.

Oh, Maugham... I'm only putting on books I really like, and while I think he's a good writer, his short stories fatigue me---Too often he resolves the character's pain (grimy, everpresent pain, this guy reeks of it) with suicide (really, count 'em up), which is a bit of a cheat for a writer--kind of a psychological deus ex machina.

fresca said...

Bennett! Alan Bennett.
I also like David Lodge quite a lot.

Upon reflection, I realize I don't love all the books I list, I just can't stomach Maugham. I wonder if its his own everyday repression that peoples his stories with such mean-spirited, trapped people.
Do you see it differently?

deanna said...

Recently I reread Call of the Wild and Whitefang (I also downloaded them for fun from free sites). Though the stories are far from politically correct, they don't take pains to make Native Americans look silly or bad. London was more interested, I think, in portraying the stupidity of "soft" white people surging to the arctic for gold without a clue about that environment and the cultures therein.

fresca said...

Whew--thanks, Deanna!
I am going to the library tomorrow to check out a couple of these books. I've read everything I recommend, except the Henry James (pick up from Sister, whom I trust), but some of them,'s been a long time. (I'm afraid that means high school in the case of Call of the Wild.)

Manfred Allseasons said...

Yes, erm, I'm not really qualified, but...The History Man is about how an essentially corrupt person can use the political, social and sexual mores of the day - the left in Higher Education in the 70's, in this case - to dominate the lives of those around him and pursue a grab for power and fame/notoriety...and because that era was already past and the subject of ridicule by the early eighties (Lady Thatcher...)the book was literally about recent History, as well as about the always fascinating theme of a man on the make (Room At The Top did this for a slightly earlier era) so its not as funny as Lucky Jim, its actually quite horrifying in parts, but is it a great read? Yes!!

(they made a TV series of this in the UK, and at the end of the last episode added a line of text - Howard Kirk voted Conservative in 1979. Just to ram the point home for the TV audience...!)

I just love Maugham, not so much for his novels though, just the short stories....and as for mean spirited trapped people - those folks teem from the pages of Green, but I love them too...

Maybe its Schadenfreude!!!

...... but I hope not!

I think you are right about Orwell...he was a better essayist than novelist - Keep The Aspidistra Flying makes me cringe with embarrassment!

fresca said...

Thanks, Manfred!
I'll give History Man another try--though I think the trouble was that I'm not intimately familiar enough with the culture to get it.

Both Greene and Maugham's people suffer from damp and mold all right, but I don't agree that Greene's characters are mean-spirited. I find them--at least the protaganist of "Heart of the Matter"-- to be too small for circumstances they get themselves into, but that's different.
I can see liking Maugham-he's good.
I just don't myself.

Orwell's novels are really political essays in disguise, which makes them good teaching tools, maybe, but not good novels.