Friday, August 10, 2012

Books that most English Majors should have read by now

Recently I was asked to compose a book list for a dear friend of mine who confessed to me that she probably hadn't read most of the books that English majors are "supposed" to have read by now. Not believing her at first, as she is a wonderful poet, we went down the list.

She was right. She is a crappy English major.

So I compiled a list of books that are both staples on the English literature track, and books that I think are sometimes overlooked because they're overshadowed by the "required" books. Don't get me wrong, I love Austen and the Bronte's just as much as the next book worm...but sometimes I need a little more darkness sprinkled with some good ole' mystery. So here is, taken straight from the Word document, my recommendations for all of you English majors who haven't quite got around to the whole book thing yet:

  • Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier
    Plot: A mousy, insecure, and submissive woman falls in love with the enigmatic Max de Winter and marries him. She also marries his dark past, psycho creepy head housekeeper (seriously the bitch is CRAZY), and the massive house that seems to be haunted by his dead wife Rebecca. We find that through various events the new wife undergoes a complete change and that sometimes ghosts are real.

  • Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
    Plot: Basically the lesson here is don't allow your pride to get in the way, and don't judge someone based on gossip. Also, Romantic-era women were just as bitchy as some women today. The result is a wonderfully written, and poignant novel that once you read it you will understand why everyone with half a brain loves it. On a side note: I would totally bang Mr. Darcy.

  • Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
    Plot: You have two sisters, Elinor and Marianne: Elinor is the epitome of prudence and self-control while Marianne embodies emotion and enthusiasm. The story follows the two sisters, along with their younger sister Margaret after they are left in reduced circumstances when their father dies and his estate is passed onto their half-brother, John (because women are silly and don't deserve land). The novel follows the young ladies to their new home, a meager cottage on a distant relative's property, where they experience love, romance, heartbreak, and more bitchy Romantic-era women.

  • Persuasion – Jane Austen
    Plot: This is probably my favorite of Austen's, it was her last novel and its quite different from all of her other previous works. Anne Elliot is a lovely 19 year old, accepts a proposal of marriage from a naval officer Frederick Wentworth. He's handsome, smart, and has an ambitious spirit but he's dirt ass poor. Her snobby father and equally snobby, meddling sister along with her mentor Lady Russell force her to break the engagement because he's no good for her. Eight years later now 27 and still unmarried (GASP!! She's practically on the doorstep of Old-Maidom!!), Anne re-encounters her former love when he returns from the Napoleonic wars. Wentworth is now a captain and wealthy from maritime victories; However, he has not forgiven Anne for rejecting him. While publicly declaring that he is ready to marry any suitable young woman who catches his fancy, he privately resolves that he is ready to become attached to any appealing young woman except for Anne. The emotions play back and forth like a game of tennis and the banter is witty and sharp; it only takes a few pages to see why it's my favorite.

  • A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
    Plot: As you can guess...the novel is about two cities: London and Paris; its set just before and during the French Revolution. Dickens was known as a champion of the poor; this novel depicts the plight of the French peasantry as they are demoralized by the aristocracy in the years leading up to the revolution, the corresponding brutality demonstrated by the revolutionaries toward the former aristocrats in the early years of the revolution, and many unflattering social parallels with life in London during the same time period. It is a book where you have to pay attention because there are a lot of important characters and Dickens makes the most subtle of gestures the most important ones to note.

  • The Scarlett Pimpernel – Baroness Orczy
    Plot: First of all do not ask me to pronounce her name because I don't know how. Secondly this is an awesome follow-up to A Tale of Two Cities because this book is told from the point of view of a French Aristocrat during that same time period. This book set the standard for the masked superhero, its set during the Reign of Terror and follows the lives of Sir Percy Blakeney and his wife, a beautiful French actress, Marguerite St. Just. It's a novel where not all is what it seems, where you're given a new viewpoint into the Revolution.

  • Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
    Plot: Pop culture has ruined any chance of most people reading this novel because they assume the already know the story....and they are halfway right. You may know the story but in order to UNDERSTAND it and WHY it was written you have to read the novel. It's not very long, probably takes a day if you're a fast reader but its packed with wonderful themes that people to this day are still arguing over. I'm telling you, you don't REALLY know the story until you've read this book.

  • Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
    Plot: I love the Bronte's, I really do. They were women ahead of their time and their novels give an in-depth look into what it was like to be a woman in the Victorian Era; it sucked for the most part. The story follows the emotions and experiences of, you guessed it, Jane Eyre, her growth to adulthood, and her love for Mr. Rochester, the Byronic (A Byronic hero is a variant of the Romantic hero as a type of character, named after the English Romantic poet Lord Byron. He's kind of like a tragic hero but he's not always doomed to die, Google it because it's actually really interesting) master of Thornfield Hall. The novel is very Gothic in nature, meaning its kind of like what happens after “happily ever after,” it's very dark and often moody. Despite it's darkness the novel is excellent and a pretty easy read...especially when compared to the next novel.

  • Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
    Plot: Okay, not going to lie...this one was kind of tough to get into. It's one of those novels that if you stay with it, you will be rewarded...but it is a little confusing. Basically it follows the life of Heathcliff, (not the cartoon cat) an orphan who was found on the streets of Liverpool and taken to Wuthering Heights by Mr. Earnshaw where he was reluctantly cared for by the rest of the family. There he met Catherine and they became close...then things get a little sticky. I'm not going to go into detail but trust me, stick with this book and you will be rewarded young grasshopper.

  • Lady Chatterly's Lover – D.H. Lawrence
    Plot: This book was not allowed to be published in the UK until 1960. It was written in 1927-28. I didn't even know what this book was about but when I heard that I had to read it. The book is notorious for its story of the physical relationship between a working-class man and an upper-class woman, its explicit descriptions of sex, and its use of then “unprintable words.” While the novel is filled with steamy love scenes, its far from a trashy romance novel; it actually has a plot, characters that the reader becomes very empathetic for, and beautiful poetic language that flows so beautifully through the mind. It's one of the most forward thinking novels of the time (it follows in the footsteps of Madame Bovary, which isn't on here but you should read it nonetheless. I can't do everything for you. Also, after Bovary you should definitely read The Awakening by Kate Chopin), and Lady Chatterley realizes that a woman can't just be satisfied by intellect alone....

  • Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
    Plot: The novel presents a horrifying future American society where books are outlawed and firemen burn any house that contains them. Enter a young fireman by the name of Guy Montag. On his way home one night he meets his new neighbor: a 17-year-old girl named Clarisse McClellan, whose free-thinking ideals and liberating spirit force him to question his life, his ideals, and his definition of happiness. That's all I'm going to give you, if I give you any more it will ruin it and trust me, this is not one you want to ruin. Just a side note, 451 degrees is the temperature in which paper burns...

  • And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie
    Plot: READ THIS BOOK. I don't want to tell you anything because I want you to be as on the edge of your seat as I was when I first read it. I've read it three times and I'm STILL shocked each and every time. If you read no other book on this list READ THIS ONE.

  • Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie
    Plot: It's one of Christie's most celebrated novels starring one of her most recognizable characters: Hercule Poirot. That's all your getting. Trust me, you'll thank me when you read it.

  • A Murder Is Announced – Agatha Christie
    Plot: A Miss Marple mystery. Yes, that's all I'm saying.

  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There – Lewis Carroll
    Plot: Lewis Carroll changed the way children's literature was written, read, and perceived; before, kids had the Grimms Fairy Tales which were used to scare them into being good. Carroll created a world where kids could be kids and nonsense was a way of life. Both Alice stories are wonderfully written so that people of all ages can enjoy them, and even though some of the references are outdated both books are a real joy to read.

  • Les Miserables – Victor Hugo
    Plot: Okay the only reason I'm even putting this on here is because Hugo is excellent at using human characters to personify good and evil. The book is long. Really, really...really long; there are at least ten chapters of really boring and tedious information before you get to the actual story, and you come up on numerous chapters like this throughout the very long story. However...despite all of this, and if you have the stamina it is a really good story and one of the best tellings of redemption I can think of. And no, listening to the musical soundtrack does not count. You may want to save this one for last...

  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame – Victor Hugo
    Plot: Disney sugar coated this book...I mean it was to be expected but they left a lot out. This book is a lot easier to read than Les Mis, it's also shorter. This one is a tear jerker, and there are elements from the book that are in the movie but the book has a much sadder outcome. I think this one is by far one of Hugo's greatest because of the emotions that it evokes from the reader; emotions that you really weren't expecting. Okay, I cried. Go ahead and laugh, but I guarantee that you will be using kleenexes by the end of this novel too.

  • Frenchman's Creek – Daphne du Maurier
    Plot: Yes, Ms. Du Maurier makes another appearance on this list. Why? Because she's amazing. This is probably a close favorite of mine next to Rebecca. It's historical novel by Daphne du Maurier. Set in Cornwall during the reign of Charles II, it tells the story of a love affair between an impulsive English lady and a French pirate. Dona, Lady St. Columb, makes a sudden visit with her children to Navron, her husband's remote estate in Cornwall, in a fit of disgust with her shallow life in London court society. There she finds that the property, unoccupied for several years, is being used as a base by a notorious French pirate who has been terrorizing the Cornish coast. Dona finds that the pirate, Jean-Benoit Aubéry, is not a desperate character at all, but rather a more educated and cultured man than her own doltish husband, and they fall in love. The story is very difficult to categorize because it has EVERYTHING: swashbuckling pirates, lavish romance, witty banter, historical settings, and a woman who is possibly one of my favorite literary heroines.

  • My Cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier
    Plot: This novel is a little like Rebecca, it is a mystery-romance, largely set on a large estate in Cornwall. By now you'll have noticed that most of du Maurier's novels take place in or around that area because that was her home and she often wrote about how much she adored it. The basis of the novel is the tension set up in its young protagonist when Philip falls in love with his cousin, while uncovering, and trying to deny, evidence that she is pretending to care for him while she has only her own interests at heart. The tension is palpable, you can practically cut it with a knife and it is just spectacular how right up until the very end the reader is wondering who really is the villain...

  • Jamaica Inn – Daphne du Maurier
    Plot: We come to the final book, after this you're on your own. Jamaica Inn tells the story of 23-year-old Mary Yellan, who was brought up on a farm but had to go and live with her Aunt Patience after her mother died. Patience's husband, Joss Merlyn, a great big bully who is almost seven feet tall, is the keeper of Jamaica Inn. On arriving at the gloomy and threatening inn, Mary finds her aunt in a ghost-like state under the thumb of the vicious Joss, and soon realizes that something unusual is afoot at the inn, which has no guests and is never open to the public (This novel was the basis of Alfred Hitchcock's first successful talkie film, and he used several of du Maurier's works later on). The story is loaded with suspense and plot twists that will keep you guessing until the last turn of the page.

Now, go ahead and get reading. You have a lot of catching up to do.