Shelf Tour: The Classics Part II

It's time again to examine one of my bookshelves and write a few mini reviews. If you missed my last Shelf Tour, make sure you check out that post here. We're looking at classics again this time, either ones I haven't got in Penguin Classic form, or more recent works. As I said in my previous post, I read many of these books years ago, and have probably completely forgotten their contents (so useful!), but we're going to plough on anyway. It's going to be a long one, so strap in.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

Having said that, here's a book I will never forget. I have at least three separate copies of it. I studied it for GCSE and then again on one of my favourite courses at uni, so it's close to my heart and I've re-read it many times. Published in the late 1950s, it's a novel set in pre-colonial Nigeria which focuses on the flawed hero Okonkwo and his family, as well as his clan's encounters with Christian missionaries towards the end. Achebe maintains a unique voice throughout that nods towards oral storytelling, and it is a fascinating exploration of pre-colonial life (or what pre-colonial life might have been like, as much of the history was wiped out by colonisers). I would definitely recommend this one to you if you haven't read it (though I'm sure many of you have), as it is a canonical work in Anglophone African literature and for good reason.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (x2)

I have two copies of this book because one will inevitably be covered in my 15-year-old scrawls and the other will have been my exam copy; yes, it's another GCSE book. However, unlike Things Fall Apart, I remember very little of this novel (what does that tell you?) Austen's books tend to melt into one for me. I remember it being a satire of gothic novels (I wrote about this a lot), and I do think it would probably make a nice slim introduction to Austen's writing. According to my googling efforts (it's all flooding back now), it's kind of similar to Emma in that it features a naïve heroine that produces some comedy, plus serves as fodder for the pseudo-gothic storyline.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

I'm not sure I've ever admitted this publicly, perhaps I have, but I have a confession to make which will likely cause many of you to disregard any and all of my book opinions from now on (and maybe me). I really strongly dislike Virginia Woolf and her novels. Before you start, I understand her significance and I've battled through a few of them, but I just can't stand them. In general, modernism is probably one of my least favourite periods of English literature. With that out the way, Mrs Dalloway is a novel that I'm sure many of you are familiar with. It is written as a stream of consciousness that mostly focuses on a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway as she gets ready to host a party that evening, but also a First World War veteran and his struggles with what would have been termed shell shock. This novel really marks that turn towards sustained focus on the inner psychological life of characters.

Bliss and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield

This one I haven't read! In fact I don't know where this little volume has come from, possibly another uni buy that I never got round to.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

I feel like everyone read this one at school so I'll be brief. It's a story about a farm that works as an allegory for the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union. I remember kind of liking this when I read it at the tender age of thirteen/fourteen, but I wonder what I would think of it now.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of Justified Sinner by James Hogg

I think if you've had any kind of education in Scotland, then you have probably come across this book, but I have to say before I went to Edinburgh I'd never heard of it. Because I read it in stress mode for my first (or second?) year exams, I don't really remember it too well, but I do remember liking it. It is primarily an early example of crime fiction, but it is certainly a genre-bending piece and features a lot of supernatural and religious elements, too (such as demonic possession).

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

This is Dickens' last novel and it was also left unfinished, so it is a bit of an unsatisfying read. Unlike some of his other late novels, I feel like this one concentrated on fewer characters and was more focused on the (still mysterious) mystery, so it didn't have the elements that I loved from some of his other work (the big cast of characters and expansive storylines).

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

This one is a canonical science fiction novel, and although it probably isn't to my taste as much as more contemporary stuff, I still think it's an important read if you like the genre. It is set in a futuristic London where people are artificially engineered, sorted into categories according to their abilities, and are made subject to such technologies as 'sleep-learning' (otherwise known as conditioning). Naturally, the protagonist doesn't want to live by these rules, and drama ensues.

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

Here is a book that I have actually reviewed on my channel; I read it in the summer of 2016 when I was in India. Salman Rushdie is obviously a controversial character, so be aware of that before you read any of his work. The novel follows Saleem Sinai, who is born at the exact moment that India becomes an independent country, so it is exploring post-colonialism and that transition, as well as the partition of India and Pakistan. It is a classic magical realist work, and it is written in a very engaging and sometimes comic style, so even though it is a long novel it's quite readable.

How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman

This is another classic Scottish novel and one that I love (plus it won the Man Booker Prize in the year of my birth). Having intimated that I hated stream of consciousness novels above, I actually think it works perfectly here. It's written as though it was spoken Glaswegian (I'm wary of the word 'dialect'), and follows Sammy, a man who suddenly goes blind in police custody. He has to pick his way through a Kafkaesque bureaucratic nightmare in order to get the benefits he needs to deal with his new blindness, and the novel toes the line between realism and surrealism throughout. It's great, and I want you to read it if you haven't already.

The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

Another Scottish novel, this one following a woman named Joy Stone as she struggles with mental health problems and eating disorders (so please be sufficiently warned, some of this is tough to read). It has lots of interesting stylistic choices, as well as being by turns funny and excruciating.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

I struggle sometimes to describe Morrison's books because they encompass so much in such a unique style that I never really know where to begin. I'll keep it brief or I know I'll be here in two hours writing an essay. It follows Sethe (an ex-slave) and her family as they try to make a life for themselves after slavery, even whilst they are haunted by the ghost of one of Sethe's daughters. Most of the novel centres around the arrival of Beloved - a mysterious and unknown young woman - into the household, and the strain this puts on Sethe's relationships. Morrison explores here the effect that slavery had(/has) on family relationships, particularly those between mother and daughter, and it is one of those novels that is well worth the accolades given to it. I always describe Morrison's style as sticky or viscous, it can be a little tough to work through the first fifty pages or so, but it is enormously rewarding after that.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Another modernist author I'm not a huge fan of, James Joyce. Like Dubliners, this is a lot more accessible than his later works, so if you're looking to get into Joyce then this would be a good place to start. This is a prototypical coming-of-age novel that is heavily based on Joyce's own life, and follows the protagonist Stephen through various phases of his early life, as he struggles to realise his artistic self. It certainly has much to be said for it in its style and accomplishment, but I generally didn't enjoy it that much.

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

An interesting little novel, and one that often plays second fiddle to Rhys' more famous Wide Sargasso Sea. Its about Anna Morgan - a white woman born in the Caribbean - who moves to London in the early twentieth century and finds herself becoming increasingly depressed and destitute. Anna constantly compares London to her old home, and therefore unpicks various facets of British culture, defamiliarising her readers from it. It certainly has its problematic aspects but it is an intriguing read nonetheless.

The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon

In a similar vein, this novel looks at the lives of a number of Caribbean people as they arrive in post-World War II London (commonly known as the "Windrush" generation). Its less a novel than a kind of flow through various people's experience, and therefore lacks a nameable plot. To better understand its characters, it is not written in standard English but rather in a distinctly Caribbean voice, despite the narration being third-person. It's a really fascinating example of contemporary writing that looks at this enormously important part of British history, so it's well worth a read.

Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow

How to describe Ragtime? Written in the early 1970s about the turn of the century, this is an interesting novel that looks at a key period in American history in an attempt to diagnose some of those things that constitute the basis of American society. There are some questionable aspects to this novel, but as a whole it is very accomplished. It mixes fact (including historical figures such as Harry Houdini or Henry Ford) with fiction to create a vivid historical novel all in Doctorow's unique prose style. It follows three families who symbolise each aspect of American society as Doctorow sees it, and the ways their stories become interwoven.

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

Another for my to-be-read list, but this purchase was definitely inspired by my fascination with Lolita.

The Trial by Franz Kafka

I read this long ago and I can't remember much about its specifics, only really what it represents more widely within literature i.e. the bureaucratic nightmare and the surrealism that that entails. I don't remember it being a particularly enjoyable read, but it’s a canonical one that deserves its place.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I don't know if I even need to review this book as it is so widely known and loved. A seminal novel about the American Dream set in the 1920s, this book positively drips decadence, and it all wraps around a suspenseful love story. Its certainly very good, and kind of a must for lovers of American literature.

Dubliners by James Joyce

I have to say I do love Dubliners, much more than Portrait. It’s a collection of stories that depicts - you guessed it - a group of people living in Dublin, and its his most outwardly realist work (though that doesn't mean it doesn't have many layers to it). Written at the peak of Irish nationalism, it explores its characters delicately with pared back prose and moving moments.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

I thought I'd read this one but it has become clear to me that I definitely have not. How did I manage four years at Edinburgh without reading this classic Scottish novel? I'm not sure.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

If you've been following me for a while you'll know that I've often said this is one of my favourite novels, and one day I'd love to get my Spanish to a point that I could read it in the original language. Marquez is one of the best at magical realism, a style that I absolutely love, and I was enthralled by it from the outset. It follows many (many) generations of the Buendía family, who live in a town in Colombia called Macondo. Lots of the generations have the same names passed down to them, so it can be a little hard to keep track, but if you do you'll be richly rewarded with an intricate narrative that astutely tracks the politics and development of Colombia through the eyes of its citizens. I can't do the novel justice here, but I highly recommend it.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I've never really thought of this novel as a favourite, but approaching it here to do a quick review it strikes me as one. Written in the 1940s, it focuses mostly on a deaf man called John Singer living in a small town in Georgia and his various acquaintances. Its hard to describe McCullers' prose (indeed, it couldn't be further from someone like Marquez's) but she somehow manages to create a deep sense of longing, an ache, through her writing that places you completely within her characters' world. It has a quiet intensity that is completely unforgettable, and she really has a knack for getting to the heart of human feeling. I've also read The Member of the Wedding which is has a similar feel to it, and I would recommend both.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey

Another canonical book, this one set in a psychiatric hospital that asks what madness really means, and shows what happens to people when you try to systematise everything and everyone. It has its light and dark moments and as far as ~good~ books go, its very enjoyable. However, it should be noted that there are some very outdated viewpoints here, concerning both race and gender.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

The Sketch-Book by Washington Irving

Rights of Man, Common Sense and Other Political Writings by Thomas Paine

Hester by Margaret Oliphant

I haven't read any of these (though I suspect I might have dipped into a couple for uni), but I'll get round to them eventually. For now I'll get them on my TBR.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

I don't like this book as I don't like most of Woolf's writing, but I'm willing to accept its accomplishment and scope. It follows the title character who starts as a nobleman during the reign of Elizabeth I who then mysteriously becomes a woman and continues to live out her life rather androgynously for three hundred years, bringing the narrative up to Woolf's time. It's an interesting one, and unlike some of Woolf's work there is much greater emphasis on plot and storytelling here.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Now I must have read this when I was around ten, so I remember very few particulars. Maybe its even worth a reread, because I did enjoy it at the time. I'm sure you'll all be familiar with its premise, but it is about a man who is generally an upstanding gentleman, named Dr. Jekyll, who occasionally (and increasingly) becomes dominated by his evil side, Mr. Hyde.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Here we are again at some Dickens. What with this being one of his earlier novels, I didn't find this one really dark enough for my liking (despite the plotline!) so it wasn't one of my favourites, but worth a read if you like Victorian literature.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

I rarely leave a novel half read, but this one I did. It's so dull.

Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography

I think I remember buying this for uni?? But I never read it. Not sure I ever will so maybe this one is ready to be donated, but I'm sure it’s a good example of autobiographical writing.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

If you study English literature you've almost definitely come across this book, as it’s a classic case of the unreliable narrator. Working within gothic and horror genres, this little novella follows a governess who goes to look after two children in a remote country house, where she begins to become increasingly alarmed by occurrences there. A great little book, and one well worth a read if you love that genre.

So that's it for now! I hope you guys enjoyed this post, let me know if you would like to see more because I have plenty more shelves but don't want to bore you to tears.

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BooksJessie Lethaby4 Comments