Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Six For Summer: Reading Recommendations

I'm a sucker for lists. As such, I've been having a lot of fun over the last few weeks poking around the Top Ten list put together by book review editor J. Peder Zane. Zane asked 125 British and American "top authors" to provide ranked lists of their ten favorite books. He then scored them based on priority (a book listed first on a list got ten points, second got nine points, etc.) and tallies all these scores to deliver a Top 100 list of books. The top picks are roughly what you'd expect, as the methodology leans heavily on consensus (#1 Anna Karenina, #2 Madame Bovary, #3 War & Peace, #4 The Great Gatsby, #5 Lolita) but what's interesting is that after each book you can see links to which authors rated a book highly, and click through to see individual author's top ten lists.

With summer starting, I have my own (doubtless far over-optimistic) list of planned upcoming reading. The prospect of long days, some of them out of the office, somehow promises the possibility of reading more than usual, despite the fact that vacation this year will be spent crisscrossing the country to attend a series of weddings.

However unrealistic this may be, it seems time for a summer reading list meme, and so I present: "Six For Summer" The rules are simple, list six books that you would recommend to others this summer and provide a quick description of each. Of the six, three are "watershed reads", books that you look back on as having been pivotal in your life. (To avoid repetition, the Bible is off limits.) The other three are "waterside reads", the sort of book you can read straight through in one long, lazy afternoon, or read in five to ten minute snatches during a trip, and enjoy either way.

Watershed Reads

Brideshead Revisited was one of my father's favorite books, but he'd told me that I shouldn't read it until I was 40 because I wouldn't understand it. The result was, of course, that I read it right away -- in the summer before leaving for college. I don't think I got as much out of Brideshead at 18 as I have in later years, but nonetheless I got a lot. The idyllic glow of Charles' early days at Oxford appealed strongly as I headed off on my own for the first time, while Waugh's tragic and wistful vision of what follows provided a much needed grounding in human reality. I think I've read Brideshead four or five times now, and it continues to grow on me over time.

A Dance to the Music of Time really is a book that you're best off reading when you're a little bit older. It self enforces that a bit, as it is arguably a single novel, but one which was published as twelve short novels over the course of 24 years (1951 through 1975) -- even if you start young you'll be older when you finish. The twelve novels are broken up into four movements of three novels each, which very loosely align to the four seasons (spring through winter) of the year and of life. The First Movement begins in the 1920s as the narrator character, Nick Jenkins, is at school with his friends. The Second Movement, which I'm currently re-reading, takes place in the mid to late thirties as the second world war looms. The third movement takes place during the war, and the fourth stretches into the early seventies. Somewhat like Brideshead, the theme here is memory, and way in which people and themes move in and out of one's life like the participants in a dance to which one cannot always quite here the music. Powell has a lush, mid-century British prose style which is a joy to read. While when I first read the books I just enjoyed them, they've grown on me over time, as the complex, interwoven story of Nick's circle of acquaintances (the clubbish circle of mid century British arts and politics) comes to seem more and more like life.

The Lord of the Rings is certainly the longest standing member of my watershed list. I first read it at 13, but it's influence on my life goes back much further. My parents met through the Mythopoeic Society back in the early '70s, and so not only did I grow up steeped in Lewis & Tolkien, I probably never would have existed had my parents not met through a shared love of their works. Although I've almost completely fallen away from reading new genre writing, LotR remains a classic for me, and one that re-impresses me every time I go back to it -- the more so now that whenever I crack it open I realize how badly the movies missed the boat by the comparison.

Waterside Reads

Spies of the Balkansis Alan Furst's most recent available novel, or if you wait another couple weeks you could try this year's Mission to Paris. While I've enjoyed some Furst novels more than others (my favorites thus far, in no particular order are Spies of the Balkans, The Polish Office, Kingdom of Shadows, and Spies of Warsaw) all are taughtly enjoyable thrillers set in the days of falling night in Europe during the final lead up to World War II and the early days of the war. Furst has a strong moral sense for the ways in which people are drawn into conflicts and the trade-offs they make once they are.

Amy Welborn's Wish You Were Here: Travels Through Loss and Hope is half travel book, half memoir of grief and loss, and the strong sense of the Sicilian sun makes it perfect summer reading. Well written and touching, you may find yourself blinking away tears a few times, but it is at root a deeply beautiful and hopeful book. And shouldn't all hope be infused with beauty and sadness?

The History Of Our World Beyond The Wave is a deeply quirky book. It takes what might be the premise for a SciFi thriller (a giant wave circles the world, wiping out civilization and leaving few survivors) and produces instead a surrealistic fantasy with theological undertones. Short, well written, and delightfully odd, it's a worth-while summer read, and is perhaps the only book in which a yellow VW bug becomes an object of sheer terror.

Please feel free to provide your own lists either in the comments or on your own blog (in which case, please link back.)


JMB said...

Interesting comment re: your dad about "Brideshead". I read it at 30, saw the BBC production much earlier and I'm thinking I should crack it open again. There was a lot about it that I didn't get. I had a similar experience with A. Karenina - read it at 18 and again at 42. 42 year old me got it.

Eric Mendoza said...

I think Brandon would second me on this one, but in addition to "The Lord of the Rings” as one the watershed reads, I would add "The Silmarillion," which covers the epic history of Middle Earth, from creation to the lead up to "The Hobbit." How epic? Well, the entire events of the LoTR only occupy a single paragraph out of the 300 or so pages. I especially enjoyed the “AinulindalĂ«” and “Children of Hurin” chapters. And if you thought the Battle of Pelannor Fields a massive battle, wait until you read about the War of Wrath in the First Age. We may never see a cinematic version.

Clare said...

1. In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden: A career woman's entry into a monastary of cloistered Benedictines provides the ostensible plot, but the book is more about the community in total--a rich, slow exploration of religious life, and the life of faith in general. It might be out of print, but Godden's insight and sensitivity are well worth the hunt.

2. The Female Eunuch, by Germaine Greer: I read this in highschool, and am rereading it now. Obviously some of Greer's solutions are incompatible with the faith, but her analysis of the problem is spot on. In highschool I read this in a kind of ecstasy of relief that someone else had vocalized what I was increasingly feeling; now I am struck by sentences that echo John Paul II.

3. I would put The Brothers Karamazov, but I think it needs more than a summer to absorb. So, Villette, by Charlotte Bronte: This is a strange, troubling book that evades much characterization. It is a lamentation, a passionate look at the the quiet, the buried, the suffering and unnattractive (in deeper and more challenging ways than Jane Eyre) alien.

1.Emma, by Jane Austen: This could easily be a watershed, but Austen's brilliant portrait of a young woman endowed with all of life's natural and social privileges is so delightful and perfectly constructed that you can effortlessly while away a few lazy beach days on it. It invites and deserves serious thought, but does not demand it as the price of admission.

2. China Court, by Rumer Godden: Someday I am going to start a printing press for the sole purpose of republishing Godden. This tale of several generations of an English country house is framed around the liturgy of the hours. It's a beautiful and charming defense of belonging and inheriting--or of belonging as inheriting, rather than creating or choosing.

3. The Short Stories of Gogol: Gogol's wicked humor and flair for the bizarre are on display here--his people are miserable and petty, which makes his flashes of deep concern for them even more shocking. Short and sharp.

Darwin said...


One of these days I need to re-read the Silmarillion. I've read it twice, but never since college. I did enjoy it a lot (as a proof of how deep this stuff got into my blood: there was a point as a grade schooler that I unknowlingly repeated the story of Morgoth's fall to my religion teacher thinking it was the fall of Lucifer from the bible -- an event I only later discovered wasn't explicitly described in the bible, and the "rediscovered" when I read the Silmarillion for myself in high school) but while the story definitely stays with me the process of reading the book somehow didn't sink in with me as much as LotR.

It'd be great if you'd post your own, Six for Summer, though!

Darwin said...


Thank you! I was starting to worry I'd committed the embarrassing misstep of proposing an internet meme that no one wanted to join in on.

I'll have to look into Gogol one of these days, I've never read anything by him.

Much agreed on Rumer Godden. Her stories for children are also delightful. I read Holly and Ivy to the girls every Christmas (and enjoy it as much as they do because I'm a big softie) and they've also enjoyed "Miss Happiness & Miss Flower" and "Little Plum". She's one of those rare authors who writes incredibly well at both an adult and a child level.

Anonymous said...

Re: Lord of the Rings - Tolkein's creative vision is unmatched, but he did have a couple serious limitations as a writer:

1) He didn't write female characters well at all. Arwen, Eowyn, and Galadriel are all pretty much one-dimensional. And there just aren't any other significant females in the story. (The movie Arwen was more interesting than the literary Arwen, if only because showed some backbone.)

2) Almost all of his characters were either purely good or purely evil, and the story basically consists of everyone showing, repeatedly, which side they are on. Tolkein seemed completely oblivious to the shades of grey in human nature.

I've recently enjoyed reading the Game of Thrones books, not least because in those books - unlike LotR - the characters sometimes surprise you, and are capable of moral change for better or worse.


Eric Mendoza said...

Sorry about that, Darwin! Here’s my list…


1. Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, by J.R.R Tolkien (or better yet, both!)

2. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I read this the summer before my senior year of high school. Two aspects stand out to me from the Karamazov tale, first, the harrowing results of living a nihilistic philosophy (as Ivan says, “Without God all is permitted”). The other is the Grand Inquisitor chapter. I guess I can also recommended Crime and Punishment, which features a similar plot where a nihilistic character attempts to go “beyond good and evil” by committing murder.

3. The Divine Comedy, by Dante. If I had to decide which of the three books had the most pivotal impact on my life, I’d pick the Inferno. After reading Dante’s tale of the journey through Hell, I immediately began to puzzle over the justice and love of God, which led me to reassess my so-far simplistic thinking of God. Thus, I began studying philosophy and theology, discovering Thomas Aquinas. Also, I should mention Ed Feser once said the Divine Comedy is a kind of sci-fi for Thomists!


1. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte. I just finished reading Bronte’s tale of “Plain Jane” this past spring, finding it an enjoyable yarn of one spirited woman’s quest to overcome the constraints of Victorian society ("I am not an automaton!"). There’s also a love story (with the eccentric Mr. Rochester, who dresses like a gypsy at one point) and some gothic, horror imagery (red room) thrown in for good measure. You won’t mind at all that this is a “girl’s book.”

2. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling. By far my favorite of the seven HP books, Deathly Hallows concludes with the final battle between Harry Potter and Voldemort. I should mention the Christian themes that run through this book, especially regarding the right way to face death (the “death eaters” vs. the “order the phoenix”).

3. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. The dystopian future developed in this book, the soma, the artificial reproduction, and so forth, looks less fantastical and more prescient given our current post-sexual revolution era.

Clare said...

Joel--I am not sure how relevant the shades of grey critique is to Tolkein. He wasn't writing psychologcal realism, but epic, and it's not a genre really concerned with nuanced characterization.

The woman thing is more valid, especially since some of the most memorable women in literature have come from epic(Dido, anyone?)--but oddly enough, I think the Silmarillion hugely improves on LOTR in this respect. Galadriel is a million times more interesting, and she's one of several fascinating female characters.

Darwin said...


1) He didn't write female characters well at all. Arwen, Eowyn, and Galadriel are all pretty much one-dimensional. And there just aren't any other significant females in the story. (The movie Arwen was more interesting than the literary Arwen, if only because showed some backbone.)

In LotR he doesn't write _many_ female characters, and they don't have a whole lot of screen time, but I don't think that his level of characterization with them is any different from the male characters. (I'm not sure one can say the lack is a general characteristic of Tolkien as in the Silmarillion, most of which was written first, there are a number of _very_ strong female characters.)

I found the movie Arwen utterly banal. Yes, they had her wave a sword around a few times, and when through the stereotypical motions of making her a "strong" action movie female character, but I can't see that they actually made her any more interesting. (Plus, she fell for the movie Aragorn, who was a pile of wet newsprint of a character, so that seems like a point against her.)

I'd tend to rate Eowyn as the most interesting female character in the book (though Galadriel is clearly the most powerful.) But it's true that there just aren't a whole lot of female characters in the book as structured. (Personally, this doesn't really bother me one way or the other.)

2) Almost all of his characters were either purely good or purely evil, and the story basically consists of everyone showing, repeatedly, which side they are on. Tolkein seemed completely oblivious to the shades of grey in human nature.

This strikes me as rather off. It's true that Sauron is pretty much entirely evil, and that in LotR evil is evil and good is good. However, most characters do not strike me as being particularly one sided. Gollum spends much of the book in a balance between affection for Frodo and desire to regain the ring. Frodo struggles to remain true to his mission and eventually falls. Sam is true to his mission in a simplistic sort of way, but lacks the ability to feel pity or empathy that Frodo does. Boromir and Denethor are truly great men with truly great flaws. Theoden hangs in the balance between despair and valor, as does Eowyn, though she leans more toward despair.

I think two things tend to lead people to think of Tolkien characters as being without shades of grey:

1) People take the fact that Mordor is pretty much entirely a force of evil (though as we see in Sam's meditation on the fallen Southron, it's by no means necessarily the case that all those fighting for Mordor are evil) and that the novel is about the battle against Mordor to mean that the characters are all good or all evil.

2) People take individual characters to be either all good or all bad because they don't tend to dither on screen a lot (something the movie tried to "correct" with Aragorn and a few other characters with pretty lousy results.) This, I think, is much more a style choice. LotR is written in a somewhat elevated style more like one of the Norse or Germanic sagas. It doesn't try to be strictly naturalistic, and so it doesn't spend lots of time on what people are vacillating over. (Something which is often acted out as dialog in more "realistic" novels despite the fact that we seldom actually behave that way.) However, we do see people actually act in fairly "gray" ways on a number of occasions, at least in the sense that they act in ways that Tolkien did not himself consider to be wholly moral. (Of course, one of the most frequent flaws we see in his characters is pride, and that's one which we barely acknowledge to exist anymore in many circumstances.)

Bob the Ape said...

Clare is exactly right, but understating the case. The “shades of grey” critique is utterly irrelevant to epic; if that’s why one doesn’t like LOTR, then one won’t like the Iliad or Odyssey – and for Pete’s sake, stay away from the Divine Comedy – talk about everyone being purely good or purely evil!

And, besides, it isn’t true of LOTR. Boromir started out as a brave and honorable man, but fell, tempted by the Ring. It’s clear from the backstory that much the same thing happened to Saruman, but as he started much higher (the Wizards are, basically, incarnate angels – see the Silmarillion), he falls much lower. Denethor was not purely evil – he cared for Gondor, but in his pride he dared too much and was duped and broken by Sauron. Frodo cracked and failed at Mount Doom. Treebeard admits that his laziness has kept him from hindering the evil deeds of Saruman. And so on.

And then there’s Gollum. A horrible, selfish, sniveling, base little creature – but yet, he tries to fight the temptation to take the Ring; when given an opportunity to do so, he does not; and on the stairs to Cirith Ungol, he makes a halting start toward genuine repentance and love – but a harsh word from Sam breaks the moment and Gollum gives himself over to evil.

I’ll concede the orcs – there are no shades of grey in an orc, just varying shades of black.

Bob the Ape said...

Darwin, you beat me to it while I was composing my comment, and did a better job.

Darwin said...

Only because I didn't try to go head to head with you in verse, Bob.

Jamie said...

Playing along here.

nancyo said...

My Six for Summer (plus a bonus Seventh) are posted on my blog:
(sorry, I don't know how to link in a comment)

Emily J. said...

Can I play along too? Here's my list:

Banshee said...

If you were a pre-medieval, non-urban person, and you vacillated, there was obviously something wrong with you. Either you were a serious wuss, or you were sick, or you were mentally ill, because there just wasn't any percentage in being slow to decide. It would get you killed.

It was actually safer to be fickle. Didn't make you many friends, but at least you were decisive.

Tolkien understands this. Every time when Aragorn is unsure of which physical direction to go next, it's seen as a really dangerous situation. Better to make a stupid decision than no decision.