100 Books to Read Before I Die

How The Dead Live

I was a bit disappointed in this Will Self novel that was recommended to me a number of years ago, and which I have searched for for some time. It chronicles the afterlife of Lily Bloom, but is rather depressing. Lily had a sad life followed by an even more pointless death. The life of the dead is distressingly banal and somehow also quite gruesome – but there is also some colourful writing that can be enjoyed in and of itself. The world of the dead though distasteful, is imaginative , unique, creative and vividly drawn. If you read this text you will note with some horror the existence of all dead children (including miscarriages and abortions, which are attached to the unfortunate woman’s head), and all the fats lost during life come to life and blubber about in your living room.

The Chronology and structure are jumpy and difficult to understand so this is really only one I would recommend to those really interested in Self and his vision of the afterlife.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

This is a classic well-deserved of it’s reputation and replay through popular culture – although if you ask me it goes for about three pages too long.

We all know the premise  – Victor Frankenstein attempts to create life from the dead, and somehow manages to create a monster instead.  But the original novel has depths that modern slash-and-dash horror interpretations choose not to delve into.  Its interesting to look at some of the ways the monster has been depicted in popular culture – as you can see from my photos.

While Victor takes one look at the misshapen creature he had designed to be beautiful and flees, the creature is left to fend for itself in the wilderness and learn what he can of humanity – and his separation from it.  The middle chapters of the novel – told by the creature – show a beautiful and intelligent mind that learned from the cruelty and narrow-mindedness of humanity. I felt tremendous sympathy towards this creature, and very contemptuous of Victor.

The two battle right until the end of the novel, when the creature is left to mourn the loss of his creator.  But Shelley feels the need to wrap things up in a nice little bow by having the creature explain all of his motivations.  This was just a bit trite for me.  Its lovelier to show, rather than tell.

It will be a terrific text to work with in the classroom and I am interested in student perspectives.  Shelley was also clearly very interested in exploring the relationship between man and nature  as the metaphors here are pretty constant.

Some interesting set up of the narrative too – I read for a full page before realising that Victor was neither the sole nor the original narrator.  This does give us some outside perspectives on the characters – mostly flattering to Victor – and probably needed given my reaction to him.  Definitely one I will be able to get my teeth into.

Lolita

Like so many books that are so often recommended to me, there are elements of the sublime and elements of disappointment in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that Nabokov is a genius.  At times, his prose here is so exquisite that you wonder how you could possibly bear to read another author again.  Particularly at the beginning and the end of this novel, which are spellbinding.  But I found the middle sections long-winded and repetitive. 

Those looking for a sensual adventure and sensual taboo will be disappointed by the main focus of this novel.  It is obsession – an obsession that could be mainly reproduced in any sexual relationship.  It is Lolita’s age, and her reliance on the predatory Humbert as pseudo-parent that disturbs.  The level of control he is able to have over her is truly shocking.  Not that she is a quiet little soul – she struggles with all her might to find self-determination.

However, Humbert’s predilection for pre-teen girls (which he calls “nymphets”) fails to shock.  I don’t know whether this is because Lolita herself is so sexually aware, or because I am difficult to shock.

There is a lot to interest in this text, but Nabokov stretches where he should be brief, and in these parts, he fails to choose his words as carefully as he does when the novel comes to its crucial points.  But he intrigues me enough to want to read more.  I read Pale Fire at Uni… might have to revisit it or a few of his others.

Northanger Abbey

This marks the reading of only unchartered territory left in my Jane Austen experience – something that has been  long time coming.

Northanger Abbey – although published last (with Persuasion) was Austen’s first penned novel, and it shows.  It lacks the sophistication and the magic of her more famous novels.  The romance is sweet but its not the sort that will keep you awake at night, wondering if it will ever work out right!  That’s why Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion will always have my vote.

But there’s some good stuff here too.  Our heroine, Catherine Morland learns quite a few important lessons throughout the novel. We have Isabella the flirtatious friend who leaves a trail of men in her wake looking for an eligible husband, teaching Catherine  lot about real friendship and the value of true affection.    Austen also satirises trashy mystery novels by having Catherine embarass herself by expecting the abbey of the title to be dark and mysterious.  And what its not – she makes up stories in her own mind to try to create the mystery.  This foolishness could almost have cost her the love of a good man, Henry Tilney.  But fortunately Catherine learns the error of her ways, and the kind Henry forgives her over-active imagination. 

Makes me wonder what my beloved Lizzie would have done!

The Name of the Wind

Pretty sure we have our next fantasy epic series here.

Seemingly innocuous barkeep Kote, is discovered in a small village by The Chronicler, who instantly recognises him as the legendary hero of folklore, Kvothe.

Urged on my his fey companion Bast (who is far more responsible for the appearance of the Chronicler than we may first believe), Kvothe agrees to tell his story.  We get a glimpse into Kvothe’s legend here – but only small parts of it are revealed in this book, about up to his late teens.  The storytelling angle is an intriguing plot device, and one that begins a story in the present time too.

A child prodigy, Kvothe is brought up by the Edama Ruh, a tribe of performing gypsies.  He meets and is trained by an arcanist, who tells him about all the opportunities to learn in a great magical university.  Kvothe eventually makes his way there, but not before he finds his entire tribe slaughtered by mythical creatures called The Chandrian, and spending several years as a street urchin in Anilin.

At the university, Kvothe makes many enemies, as he moves so quickly through the levels of learning. He also falls in love with the beautiful but elusive Denna.

There is clearly so much more to this story, as we have just tantalising hints of an amazing man in the making.  So I will have to just hold my breath until the next one comes out.

The Princess Bride

Inconceivable!

This film has long been a favourite of mine, from childhood into adulthood.  Each time I watch it, I get something different out of it.

Reading the book finally, in audio that is, lends yet another dimension. The movie is very true to the soul of the book, although the story is framed differently.  And for once, this entry will lead me to expound the wonders of the film version.

While the book has all the wonderful moments we remember from the film – but we realise what a wonderful, lively interpretation of the book the film is.  The characterisation, casting and film-making show a remarkable insight and fondness for this charming fairytale. 

The audio I got my hands on was narrated lovingly by Rob Reiner, who directed the film version.  A great experience for real fans.

The Green Man

The Green Man by Kingsley Amis is one of those books I heard about years ago, and made note of to read at some point. Thus it is a list text – one I can finally tick off as read!

Essentially this is a ghost story. Maurice Allington, 53,  is the owner of a pub/hotel called The Green Man.  Known to be haunted, we get our first ghostly vision – the figure of a woman – in the first few chapters.   But Maurice eventually makes contact with a sinister ghoul called Thomas Underhill who worked black magic to extend his life beyond death. First, Maurice is intrigued. He seems to be discontented with his own life – he ignores his strangely wise teenage daughter Amy, spends little time with his new young wife Joyce, and mostly spends his time plotting to get Joyce to agree to a threesome with yet another hot young blonde. 

When Maurice researches his ghost – he finds out Underhill had some pretty ghastly tastes in life.  This, and a conversation with a rather laid-back and not entirely spiritual ‘God’ (who appears for a chat with Maurice) convince Maurice to act against Underhill and his Green Man – a nightmarish monster made of sticks and leaves and so forth.

It’s all tied up neatly in the end, and there is certainly enough tension and suspense to keep a reader interested until the end.