The Picture of Dorian Gray

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Sadly, this book was difficult for me to get through.  I imagine if I’d read it when it was first written, I might have a different take, as the idea was still fresh and new, but I’ve known this story my whole life and my expectations were quite high.  Once again I see how a classic becomes such due to its place in time.

Oscar Wilde was an aristocratic, wildly popular and the voice of his time.  He was flamboyant and prone to gossip, and all of these characteristics reveal themselves in the characters of Dorian Gray.  It makes the book more interesting to read when you realize the characters and situations aren’t made up entirely of his imagination.  Take the following paragraph, so wonderfully descriptive:

It was certainly a tedious party. Two of the people he had never seen before, and the others consisted of Ernest Harrowden, one of those middle-aged mediocrities so common in London clubs who have no enemies, but are thoroughly disliked by their friends; Lady Ruxton, an overdressed woman of forty-seven, with a hooked nose, who was always trying to get herself compromised, but was so peculiarly plain that to her great disappointment no one would ever believe anything against her; Mrs. Erlynne, a pushing nobody, with a delightful lisp and Venetian-red hair; Lady Alice Chapman, his hostess’s daughter, a dowdy dull girl, with one of those characteristic British faces that, once seen, are never remembered; and her husband, a red-cheeked, white-whiskered creature who, like so many of his class, was under the impression that inordinate joviality can atone for an entire lack of ideas.

This is a brilliant passage, made even more tantalizing by the fact that Wilde likely attended parties just like this, and knew people like this intimately.  It is a first hand account, a snapshot of an era one can’t help but be intrigued by.

Oscar Wilde is one of the most quoted authors, a skill highly demonstrated in Dorian Gray, his only novel.  That said, sometimes it is so quotable it reads like a philosophy book, but not of sound philosophy. Much of the book reads like this, which at times is unbearable:

Romance lives by repetition, and repetition converts an appetite into an art. Besides, each time that one loves is the only time one has ever loved. Difference of object does not alter singleness of passion. It merely intensifies it. We can have in life but one great experience at best, and the secret of life is to reproduce that experience as often as possible.

Negatives aside, the story of Dorian Gray is unforgettable.  More than just a story of a beautiful young man who essentially trades his soul for eternal youth, it is a story of man’s internal struggle with good and evil.  There is a turning point for Dorian’s character where he must decide the moral code he will live by, a turning point we’ve all been at in our lives.  For Dorian, however, this internal struggle seems to last all of five minutes, and isn’t considered further (until the end, briefly).  There is a lot missing from the story, and if I never hear another “witticism” by Lord Henry again, it won’t be soon enough.

Simply put, The Picture of Dorian Gray would have made an outstanding short story.

The Wizard of Oz

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The Wizard of Oz is a quick, delightful read.  I think it’s safe to say more people have seen the movie than read the book, and while this is one of those rare situations where the movie was better executed than the book, it’s important to remember that the original brilliance of the author is what allows a great story like The Wizard of Oz to come to life at all.

The book is simple; it’s a children’s story in the truest sense.   It’s only 187 pages, and each chapter is an isolated event; the cyclone, the scarecrow, the tin woodsman – these are almost like short stories within the greater story line.  In five short pages you’re transported from Kansas to Oz, from the beginning of the tornado to the final resting place of the house, and the Wicked Witch of the East.  The journey down the yellow brick road takes no more than a paragraph.

The movie expounded on all the good parts of the book, making it a musical masterpiece.  We’re told in the book that the munchkins dance – in the movie we’re shown.  In the book, the ruby slippers are a boring silver, but silver didn’t come across well in the new technicolor of the 1940’s, so the glamorous ruby slippers were brought to life on screen.

The violence in the book was greatly left out of the movie.  Evidently, the Tin Man cutting the heads off of 40 wolves and a mountain lion wouldn’t be very well received, so like Disney did with Grimm’s fairy tales, they toned down the shocking violence of the Wizard of Oz (do you know the true story of how the Tin Man came to be?).

It was pretty cool to read this book now that Wicked, The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West is so popular. I read Wicked before I read The Wizard of Oz, so there were a lot of references I didn’t understand (the Quadling people, the Winkies, the Flying Monkeys’ story), and it was a nice tie in to see where the author got the original references.  It reminded me of how well Wicked was executed (read that if you get a chance).

Another movie, Oz – the Great and Powerful, was released in 2013, and while it was visually stunning, the acting was just horrible.  Still, it was the first reference to the Dainty China City, which seems kind of random if you haven’t read the book.  Part of why I enjoy reading the classics is because I get more references in general, and there are so many in today’s popular culture.

It is a complicated world L. Frank Baum created, whether he knew it or not, and 114 years later  The Wizard of Oz is an unforgettable classic.

Love in the Time of Cholera

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I finally finished this book that’s been on my list for a good 20 years.  I picked it up when I was younger, and promptly put it back down; the writing style was too adult for me at the time, too “classic literature,” and I couldn’t stay engaged.  I’m so glad I gave it a second chance in adulthood.

This is so beautifully written, I found myself reading sentences out loud, then copying entire pages for people to read.  At some point I gave up, and decided to recommend the whole book to anyone who asks.  So, here you go – you can read it online for free Here.

Love in the Time of Cholera is an epic love story in the truest sense.  It has a special place in my heart now, because it is also my Grandfather’s love story, another man who spent 50+ years pining for his true love in silence.  This is a story of obsession, of tenacity, of unconditional love.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez has mastered the art of flawless segueing.  The book starts at the end, and before you realize what happens you’re right back where you started, with three lifetimes worth of back story.  His descriptions of time and place entrench you so deeply in the late 1800’s Caribbean, you can smell the humidity and hear palm leaves pressing against stone walls.  It is a work of fiction, but told so richly it reads like a romantic history novel.

The anticipation of the love story is so great, I felt I might throw the book across the room if it didn’t end to my liking.  Without ruining the end, I’ll say it doesn’t quite strike where you’d hope, but it certainly doesn’t disappoint.  These characters have been taking up residence in my mind for only a week, but in a lifetime I could never forget them.

To keep the momentum going, I’ll go right into A Hundred Years of Solitude.

Amazon’s top 100 books to read before you die

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I’d convinced myself that once I finish my list of 100 books to read before I die , somehow I’d be done.  Haha.  All it means is I will be able to check off about half of the books from Amazon’s newly released 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime.

The list covers more than the old classics, including Are you There God, it’s me, Margaret, and A Brief History of Time.  Where the Wild Things Are, and Goodnight, Moon made the list, which I’m happy to see included, and will  probably be books we consider classics in a few more decades.  The old standbys are there, like 1984 and Catch-22, with a few additions to the “new classics,” like Beloved and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

How many have you read?  How many CAN you read?  I’ve done the quick math, and if you can read approximately one book every two weeks, that’s 26 books a year – it would only take you four years to read the books you should read in a lifetime.

I’ve read 24 on the list.  Only three more years to go (until I start a new list).

Amazon’s Books:

Meet Big Brother
1984 by George Orwell
Print | Kindle
Explore the Universe
A Brief History of Time
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
Memoir as metafiction
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Print | Kindle
A child-soldier’s story
A Long Way Gone
A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
Print | Kindle
Wicked good fun
A Series of Unfortunate Events
A Series of Unfortunate Events #1: The Bad Beginning: The Short-Lived Edition by Lemony Snicket
Print | Kindle
The 60s kids classic
A Wrinkle in Time
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Print | Kindle
A short-form master
Alice Munro: Short Stories
Alice Munro: Selected Storiesby Alice Munro
Print | Kindle
Go down the rabbit hole
Alice in Wonderland
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Print | Kindle
Unseated a president
All the President's Men
All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Print | Kindle
An Irish-American Memoir
Angela's Ashes
Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir by Frank McCourt
Print | Kindle
The angst of adolescence
Are You There, God? It's me, Margaret
Are You There, God? It’s me, Margaret by Judy Blume
Print | Kindle
A literary page turner
Bel Canto
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Print | Kindle
The ghosts of slavery
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Print | Kindle
Why and how we run
Born to Run
Born To Run – A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall
Print | Kindle
A journey from Haiti
Breath, Eyes, Memory
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
Print | Kindle
Launched its own catchphrase
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Print | Kindle
Vintage Roald Dahl
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Print | Kindle
The timeless classic
Charlotte's Web
Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
Ambitious and humane
Cutting For Stone
Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese
Print | Kindle
Vulnerability breeds courage
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown
Print | Kindle
For reluctant readers
Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Book 1by Jeff Kinney
Print | Kindle
A science fiction classic
Dune by Frank Herbert
Print | Kindle
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
Fahrenheit 451
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Print | Kindle
Gonzo journalism takes flight
Fear and Loathing
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson
Print | Kindle
Marriage can be a real killer
Gone Girl
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Print | Kindle
First published in 1947
Goodnight Moon

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

Dickens’ best novel
Great Expectations
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Print | Kindle
Understanding societies
Guns, Germs, and Steel
Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared M. Diamond
Print | Kindle
Meet the boy wizard
Harry Potter
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Print | Kindle
True crime at its best
In Cold Blood
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Print | Kindle
Award-winning short story debut
Interpreter of Maladies
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Print | Kindle
A literary milestone
Invisible Man
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Print | Kindle
A brilliant graphic novel
Jimmy Corrigan

Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware

Don’t eat while you read this
Kitchen Confidential
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
Print | Kindle
One of the best of 2013
Life After Life
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Print | Kindle
Childhood on the frontier
Little House on the Prairie
Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Nabokov’s triumph
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Print | Kindle
A Latin American masterpiece
Love in the Time of Cholera
Love in the Time of Choleraby Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A saga set on the reservation
Love Medicine
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
Print | Kindle
A life-changing book
Man's Search for Meaning
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Print | Kindle
Funny and poignant
Me Talk Pretty One Day
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Print | Kindle
A beautifully-written novel
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Print | Kindle
Rushdie’s breakthrough
Midnight's Children
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
Print | Kindle
Lewis hits it out of the park
Moneyball by Michael Lewis
Print | Kindle
A writer’s writer
Of Human Bondage
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham
Print | Kindle
The essence of the Beats
On the Road
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Print | Kindle
A remarkable woman’s story
Out of Africa
Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
Print | Kindle
A groundbreaking graphic novel
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Roth at his finest
Portnoy's Complaint
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
Print | Kindle
The perennial favorite
Pride and Prejudice
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
Print | Kindle
The birth of ecology
Silent Spring
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
Print | Kindle
The absurdist WW2 novel
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Print | Kindle
How Lincoln led
Team of Rivals
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Print | Kindle
19th Century high society
The Age of Innocence
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
Print | Kindle
Chabon’s magnum opus
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
Print | Kindle
A classic modern autobiography
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
The international sensation
The Book Thief
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Print | Kindle
The trials of a “ghetto nerd”
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Print | Kindle
Meet Holden Caulfield
The Catcher in the Rye
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Exploring a mother’s past
The Color of Water
The Color of Water by James McBride
Print | Kindle
Great, but divisive
The Corrections
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Print | Kindle
A triumph of narrative nonfiction
The Devil in the White City
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson
Print | Kindle
Moving and eloquent
The Diary of Anne Frank
The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank
Print | Kindle
A soulful young adult novel
The Fault in Our Stars
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Print | Kindle
Classic dystopia
The Giver
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Print | Kindle
Pullman’s fantasy classic
The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials
The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
Print | Kindle
The rich are different.. ..
The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Print | Kindle
Feminist speculative fiction
The Handmaid's Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Print | Kindle
A boy, a bear, a honeypot
The House At Pooh Corner
The House At Pooh Cornerby A. A. Milne
Print | Kindle
Reality tv writ large
The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Print | Kindle
Race, ethics, and medicine
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Print | Kindle
A darkly funny memoir
The Liars' Club: A Memoir
The Liars’ Club: A Memoir by Mary Karr
Print | Kindle
Monsters, Mythology, and a boy
The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1)
The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1) by Rick Riordan
Print | Kindle
Unique and universal
The Little Prince
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
First-rate Chandler Noir
The Long Goodbye
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
Print | Kindle
The history of terrorism
The Looming Tower
The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11by Lawrence Wright
Print | Kindle
One ring to rule them all
The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Print | Kindle
A deeply human account
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks
Print | Kindle
The origins of food
The Omnivore's Dilemma
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Mealsby Michael Pollan
Print | Kindle
An odd and original journey
The Phantom Tollbooth
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Print | Kindle
Missionaries in Africa
The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel
The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver
Print | Kindle
The Enforcer
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro
The inner life of astronauts
The Right Stuff
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
Print | Kindle
This way to the apocalypse
The Road
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Print | Kindle
A modern classic
The Secret History
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Print | Kindle
Chilling and thrilling
The Shining
The Shining by Stephen King
Print | Kindle
Existentialist fiction
The Stranger
The Stranger by Albert Camus
Print | Kindle
Meet the Lost Generation
The Sun Also Rises
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Print | Kindle
The best book on Vietnam
The Things They Carried
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
Print | Kindle
Baby’s first book
The Very Hungry Caterpillar

The Very Hungry Caterpillarby Eric Carle

Mole, Toad, Rat, and Badger
The Wind in the Willows
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
From the modern Japanese master
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: A Novel by Haruki Murakami
Print | Kindle
Beware the “Undertoad”
The World According to Garp
The World According to Garpby John Irving
Life, Love, Death
The Year of Magical Thinking
The Year of Magical Thinkingby Joan Didion
Print | Kindle
Tradition vs. change
Things Fall Apart
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Print | Kindle
A beloved family story
To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
An American inspiration
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Print | Kindle
Addictively entertaining
Valley of the Dolls
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
Print | Kindle
The joys of imagination
Where the Sidewalk Ends
Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein
Let the wild rumpus start!
Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Areby Maurice Sendak

Of Mice and Men

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of mice and men

Wow.  What a gut wrenching story.

I never read this book in high school, and since it’s a whopping 100 pages, you’d think I’d have read it sooner.  Now that I have, I recognize several pieces of it from various theater auditions I’ve seen – any scene could make a great dialog piece.

Steinbeck wrote this as a “playable novel, written in novel form but so scened and set that it can be played as it stands.”  This make for a very vivid, easily constructed “set” in your mind as you read it – though I kept filling the role of Lennie with the Abominable snow man in the Looney Tunes cartoons, which actually is the basis for the character.

snow bunny

and I will hug him and pet him and squeeze him and call him George.”

This is the main reason I love reading the classics, it gives me a richer view of the world and shines a different light on things I’ve known my whole life.  In fact, there is a whole list of american cartoon references to the characters in this story.

The story itself is simple, yet surprisingly complex.  I was disappointed to learn this book has been placed on the American Library Association‘s list of the Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century, as it’s such a moving, memorable piece of literature, and such a shame to not be read among high school students of the past.  There is era-appropriate racism, but the list of books we’d have to ban for that is endless.  

In another shocking article from Texas, the character of Lennie is being used as a barometer to test an individual’s “Mental retardation” before it’s decided if that person will be executed.  

Most Texas citizens,” the argument ran, “might agree that Steinbeck’s Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt” from execution. By implication anyone less impaired than Steinbeck’s fictional migrant ranch worker should have no constitutional protection.”

I don’t even know what to say about that, it’s so far out of the bounds of rationality.

Of Mice and Men speaks to the heart of what it means to be human.  Lennie’s character is so loveable, and so gentle, and the almost unbearable love George has for him is, in my opinion, the strongest theme in this book.   Of Mice and Men is, at its core, a love story. 

50 Books by Women Authors

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Not that I need any more pressure to get my reading list built up, but here is a great list of 50 Books by Women Authors we should all start pecking away at.  It’s hard enough getting through a list of classics, but when you throw a bunch of contemporary ones on top of that, it’s a wonder we get anything done.  

How many on the list have you read?  Pathetically, I’ve only read three, but liked them well enough to give the others a chance.  Who knows, I might even send one or two as gifts.  We could all use a little more feminine brilliance in our lives.


What makes a book a classic?

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I came across this great article, which furthers the debate, “What makes a book a classic?”

As I wrote when I started this blog, I believe most books become classics because they represent a movement or new way of thinking, or personify a genre for the era in which they were written.  I also feel a classic is defined by its staying power; while I think Harry Potter is a must-read, whether or not it will go down in history has yet to be seen.

As I’ve progressed though this journey of “100 books to read before I die,” I’ve learned a few more things about a book’s staying power.

I believe a book becomes a classic if it stays with you, for better or worse.  Having just finished A Confederacy of Dunces,  a book I could hardly stomach, I can see its merits as a classic because my worldview was changed by the wonderful character development of Ignatius J. Reilly, even if he was the most repulsive, sniveling man ever created in the literary world.  He got under my skin, and now I can imagine the internal dialog of countless Ignatius’ running through the heads of slovenly looking men I see on the street.  When a book affects you in your daily life, long after you’ve put it down, it has staying power.

I’ve also learned some mediocre books are made classics only because they represent a revolutionary concept or way of thinking for their given time period.  The Catcher in the Rye was just “ok,” but it was the first glimpse we’d been given into the human frailties of an american teenager.  On the Road – sigh – was laborious and banal (don’t hate me), but at the time was celebrated as a closer look at the popular Beatnik era, a day (or year) in the life of a cool and somewhat mysterious subculture.  It was new, it was exciting, and now it’s a classic.

The problem is, this is all subjective.  You can’t run a book through a “scientific method,” to see if it stands up to whatever criteria you use to determine if it’s a classic.  I’m sure 50 Shades of Grey fits the bill for “revolutionary way of thinking” and “staying power” – if you’re talking to the multitudes of white, middle-aged suburbanite women whose “inner goddess fist pumps the air above her chaise lounge” (god help us).  It makes me cringe to imagine this amateur drivel lovingly placed in the Classics section of a beautiful dusty bookstore – though in time, perhaps 50 Shades’  fame will precede it and we’ll forget how or why it was ever popular enough to read.  Perhaps some unlucky reader will pick it up 50 years from now, because it’s on her list of “100 books to read before she dies” – and though she will be disappointed, perhaps she’ll rationalize it as “meaningful for its time,” and it will go right back on the shelf to perplex another generation.

What makes a book a classic to you?  It’s difficult for me not to personalize the question, to say every Anne Rice novel ever written is a classic.  Just because I love a book, doesn’t mean everyone (or anyone) will.  After all, Anne Rice already wrote a gripping original S&M series starting with The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty – and while it puts 50 shades to absolute shame – most people have never heard of it.

There is no checklist that can be created.  As readers, we are subject to the whims of everyone within our vast circle, and the relationship they have with their books.  If enough Twi-moms react to shirtless teenage boys or sparkly vampires, the books will sell, and we’ll be staring down a long list of questionable novels wondering if the only criteria is “because I said so.”