Armchair BEA Day Three — Literary Fiction

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Ah, literature.  I have kind of a love/hate relationship with literature.  Mostly love. But I started my second graduate degree this year in English and now I’m kind of starting to hate it by proxy.  Anyone who has lived through a semester of it probably knows what I mean!

Literature is kind of a funny genre, a lot of books can be considered ‘literature’.  Officially, literature is defined as:

1. The body of written works of a language, period, or culture.
2. Imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value: “Literature must be an analysis of experience and a synthesis of the findings into a unity” (Rebecca West).
3. The art or occupation of a literary writer.
4. The body of written work produced by scholars or researchers in a given field

So, I am just going to name ten of my favorites, even though there are so many more books that changed my life in this genre.

1. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

catcherThe hero-narrator of THE CATCHER IN THE RYE is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield. Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days. The boy himself is at once too simple and too complex for us to make any final comment about him or his story. Perhaps the safest thing we can say about Holden is that he was born in the world not just strongly attracted to beauty but, almost, hopelessly impaled on it. There are many voices in this novel: children’s voices, adult voices, underground voices-but Holden’s voice is the most eloquent of all. Transcending his own vernacular, yet remaining marvelously faithful to it, he issues a perfectly articulated cry of mixed pain and pleasure. However, like most lovers and clowns and poets of the higher orders, he keeps most of the pain to, and for, himself. The pleasure he gives away, or sets aside, with all his heart. It is there for the reader who can handle it to keep.

One Christmas my mom bought be a box of books I’d never heard of.  Three were the first part of the series that fundamentally changed my life: Harry Potter.  Another was this book.  This book also changed my life, in a different way.  As a teenager, I was always feeling awkward, out of place, and on the peripheral of life.  Holden spoke to me, he understood me in ways I didn’t quite understand yet myself.  Then this year in my 20th Century Lit class, I had to read it again.  And this time I got to read about Holden Caulfield from another perspective: an adult and a parent.  So, I still remember what it was to be that awkward teenager, but I also read it as a heart-broken adult, seeing Holden as a mixed up kid who just felt life a little harder than the rest of us.

2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Gatsby_1925_jacketIn 1922, F. Scott Fitzgerald announced his decision to write “something new–something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.” That extraordinary, beautiful, intricately patterned, and above all, simple novel became The Great Gatsby, arguably Fitzgerald’s finest work and certainly the book for which he is best known. A portrait of the Jazz Age in all of its decadence and excess, Gatsby captured the spirit of the author’s generation and earned itself a permanent place in American mythology. Self-made, self-invented millionaire Jay Gatsby embodies some of Fitzgerald’s–and his country’s–most abiding obsessions: money, ambition, greed, and the promise of new beginnings. “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning–” Gatsby’s rise to glory and eventual fall from grace becomes a kind of cautionary tale about the American Dream.It’s also a love story, of sorts, the narrative of Gatsby’s quixotic passion for Daisy Buchanan. The pair meet five years before the novel begins, when Daisy is a legendary young Louisville beauty and Gatsby an impoverished officer. They fall in love, but while Gatsby serves overseas, Daisy marries the brutal, bullying, but extremely rich Tom Buchanan. After the war, Gatsby devotes himself blindly to the pursuit of wealth by whatever means–and to the pursuit of Daisy, which amounts to the same thing. “Her voice is full of money,” Gatsby says admiringly, in one of the novel’s more famous descriptions. His millions made, Gatsby buys a mansion across Long Island Sound from Daisy’s patrician East Egg address, throws lavish parties, and waits for her to appear. When she does, events unfold with all the tragic inevitability of a Greek drama, with detached, cynical neighbor Nick Carraway acting as chorus throughout. Spare, elegantly plotted, and written in crystalline prose, The Great Gatsby is as perfectly satisfying as the best kind of poem.

Here’s another book I read both as a teenager and an adult.  As a teen, I really didn’t like the book.  It was my junior year and we were reading all the required books and this one just kind of got stuck in the middle of all those novels.  But, I was able to read it again this year in my 20th Century Lit, along with some of Fitzgerald’s other works and I immediately fell in love with the prose.  I suddenly understood the point of Gatsby, the tragedy that comes with ‘wanting it all’ and the American Dream.  Luckily, this all coincided with the newest release of Gatsby on the big screen, while further congealed my love for the novel.

3. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

perksCharlie is a freshman.And while he’s not the biggest geek in the school, he is by no means popular. Shy, introspective, intelligent beyond his years yet socially awkward, he is a wallflower, caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it.

Charlie is attempting to navigate his way through uncharted territory: the world of first dates and mix tapes, family dramas and new friends; the world of sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, when all one requires is that perfect song on that perfect drive to feel infinite. But he can’t stay on the sideline forever. Standing on the fringes of life offers a unique perspective. But there comes a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a deeply affecting coming-of-age story that will spirit you back to those wild and poignant roller-coaster days known as growing up.

You may start noticing a pattern here — this is another book that I read both as a teen and adult.  It still seems so odd how different a book can seem at one point in life compared to another.  As a teen, (really a new adult by the time I got my hands on this), this book affected me just like Catcher in the Rye — it made me feel understood.  Reading it again this year, I saw Charlie as his parents would and it affected me in a whole new way.

4. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

waterThough he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski’s ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell.Jacob was there because his luck had run out—orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on this locomotive “ship of fools.” It was the early part of the Great Depression, and everyone in this third-rate circus was lucky to have any job at all. Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, was there because she fell in love with the wrong man, a handsome circus boss with a wide mean streak. And Rosie the elephant was there because she was the great gray hope, the new act that was going to be the salvation of the circus; the only problem was, Rosie didn’t have an act—in fact, she couldn’t even follow instructions. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

I will admit I only picked this book up because of the movie hype.  Yes, Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon made me want to read this.  I did, however, read the book long before I watched the movie, if that is any consolation.  And I am SO glad I did, because it was an amazing book.  It really touched my heart and soul.

5. A Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

belljarSylvia Plath’s shocking, realistic, and intensely emotional novel about a woman falling into the grip of insanityEsther Greenwood is brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under–maybe for the last time. In her acclaimed and enduring masterwork, Sylvia Plath brilliantly draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that her insanity becomes palpably real, even rational–as accessible an experience as going to the movies. A deep penetration into the darkest and most harrowing corners of the human psyche, The Bell Jar is an extraordinary accomplishment and a haunting American classic.

This is a book I waited a long time to read.  I knew it was going to be hard to read, especially since my emotions tend to match the emotional canvas of a book.  But, I am glad I did.  It is haunting, terrifying, and like many other books on this list, made me feel not so alone and misunderstood.

6. The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska by John Green

The_Fault_in_Our_StarsDiagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer at 13, Hazel was prepared to die until, at 14, a medical miracle shrunk the tumours in her lungs… for now.Two years post-miracle, sixteen-year-old Hazel is post-everything else, too; post-high school, post-friends and post-normalcy. And even though she could live for a long time (whatever that means), Hazel lives tethered to an oxygen tank, the tumours tenuously kept at bay with a constant chemical assault.

Enter Augustus Waters. A match made at cancer kid support group, Augustus is gorgeous, in remission, and shockingly to her, interested in Hazel. Being with Augustus is both an unexpected destination and a long-needed journey, pushing Hazel to re-examine how sickness and health, life and death, will define her and the legacy that everyone leaves behind.

I debated for a while reading this book.  It was my first John Green novel, and I actually listened to it on Audible, since I had a six hour drive.  Well, I am glad I made the choice, because it made such an impact on me that i now own it in hardback, audiobook, and e-book versions.  I laughed, I cried, and I LOVED the actor chosen to read — she MADE Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters.  This is one of my favorite books of all times, and I love that it is something that is starting to become popular, especially with the announcement of a movie being made.  One of the most thought-provoking YA novel I have ever read, I kind of felt jealous of teens today.  To have someone as incredible as John Green to read is really something amazing.

 
alaskaBefore. Miles “Pudge” Halter’s whole existence has been one big nonevent, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave the “Great Perhaps” (François Rabelais, poet) even more. Then he heads off to the sometimes crazy, possibly unstable, and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed-up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young, who is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart.After. Nothing is ever the same.

After TFIOS, I wondered if anything could measure up.  Well yeah, Looking for Alaska was just as incredible.  So incredible, I used it in my seminar paper, along side Perks and Catcher this last fall.  (And got an A!)  What can I say that I didn’t say before — John Green has an incredible way of talking with teens, not at them, and forcing them not only to read, but to think critically.  As an English teacher, I kind of dig that talent.

7. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

curiousChristopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. He relates well to animals but has no understanding of human emotions. He cannot stand to be touched. And he detests the color yellow.
This improbable story of Christopher’s quest to investigate the suspicious death of a neighborhood dog makes for one of the most captivating, unusual, and widely heralded novels in recent years.

When my son was diagnosed with autism, someone recommended this book to me.  And I have to say, I would have read and enjoyed it even without my son’s diagnosis.  It is a beautiful tale of a boy who lives differently than you and I, but is amazing none-the-less.  Reading and seeing inside his head helped me come to terms with what was happening in my personal life.

8. Night by Elie Wiesel

nightNight A terrifying account of the Nazi death camp horror that turns a young Jewish boy into an agonized witness to the death of his family…the death of his innocence…and the death of his God. Penetrating and powerful, as personal as The Diary Of Anne FrankNight awakens the shocking memory of evil at its absolute and carries with it the unforgettable message that this horror must never be allowed to happen again.

I was assigned this book my sophomore year, nearly 12 years ago, and to this day I will never forget portions of it.  It was raw, emotional, and something that every.single.person. should experience.  I read it once again later in my college days, and it just reaffirmed my belief that although it isn’t easy, it is necessary to understand what humans are capable of.

9. Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

everythingWith only a yellowing photograph in hand, a young man – also named Jonathan Safran Foer – sets out to find the woman who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Accompanied by an old man haunted by memories of the war; an amorous dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior; and the unforgettable Alex, a young Ukrainian translator who speaks in a sublimely butchered English, Jonathan is led on a quixotic journey over a devastated landscape and into an unexpected past.

Foer is an interesting author, I’ve read two of his works (and seen the movies) and just LOVE them.  The books are different from anything I’ve ever read, and they stick with you.  This book features quirky characters who delve into the past and discover something about not only their relatives, but about who they are in the world.  Incredibly written, this is a must read for anyone who is looking to make a connection to those feelings.

10. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

princeMoral allegory and spiritual autobiography, The Little Prince is the most translated book in the French language. With a timeless charm it tells the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth and further adventures.
 

This is a book I never read as a kid, even though I always heard about it.  After seeing so many beautiful tattoos on a literary tattoo website, I finally decided it was time to read the book.  And even after reading twice, I still don’t comprehend everything that is written in those words.  The words on the page speak so deeply, that it takes time to chew and contemplate them — you don’t just get things the first time around.  But the book is definitely worth the trouble.

So that’s it!  I hope you enjoyed these books yourself, and if you didn’t, I hope you will try them out.  I promise you won’t be disappointed!

Much love,

Jess

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Special shout-out to the awesome  Sarah of Puss Reboots for the Armchair BEA button!

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9 thoughts on “Armchair BEA Day Three — Literary Fiction

  1. Awesome list of books here! Interesting definition too! I would think all books are considered literature, but not all literary fiction. I don’t know… ah… so confusing!

  2. Water for Elephants — two thumbs up! The movie was OK, the book, as usual, much better. Nice to meet you!

Lovely words from lovely people!

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