Well, since our heat still hasn’t been turned on in the apartment, I’ve taken to curling up with tea and blankets and warming myself the old-fashioned way. One of my favorite things of all time is probably tea and a good book, cuddled up on the couch on a cold day. Before I decided that political science was my calling, I wanted to study literature – and part of me still does. I have always been an avid reader, and there is nothing more wonderful than a good book. I was reminded of this yesterday at Shakespeare & Company, when it struck me that I hadn’t read a book in a while. Though I am constantly reading articles for my classes, it has been a long time since I sat down with a good novel and got lost in it. So, for inspiration, I’m going to list my favorite books of all time, for those of you out there looking for a good read to accompany your tasty cheese. So here are some books that I wouldn’t mind reading on a cold day in Paris…
Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast
One of the great American writers of all time, Hemingway was not only a literary genius but an expat who lived in Paris in the early 20th century. He was a frequent customer of Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Company in the Latin Quarter, and would frequently be given books by the owner since he was constantly out of money (who does that remind us of?). A Moveable Feast is one of his lesser-known works, and it is a memoir of his time in Paris, and his life as an expat during one of the most intriguing periods in literary history. He recounts his time with friends such as Ford Madox Ford and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and his ski trips with his wife. I love this novel because it’s a bit more obscure, and completely interesting.
Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar
One of the great feminist works of our time, The Bell Jar tells the story of Esther Greenwood, an intelligent young woman from Boston who falls into a deep depression as she begins to choose between a domestic life and the life of a career woman. Plath’s only novel was written at first under a pseudonym, and is partially autobiographical. However, the most fascinating part to me are the characters outside of Esther: her goal-oriented boss, her stereotypical American boyfriend, her mother…they are all forces driving her to a life she doesn’t want, and she can’t find the compromise between the two different women she must choose between to become. Though a somewhat depressing novel, Plath’s work is a must-read.
Jonathan Safran-Foer: Everything is Illuminated
Funny, touching, and quirky, Foer’s debut novel is a true gem. Though at times hard to follow (it takes a couple of readings to really get it), Everything is Illuminated follows a quirky young man as he travels to the Ukraine to discover his past. However, this story is only one: there is also the story of a beautiful young woman in the town in the Ukraine that the young man travels to, and the story of how the Holocaust ravages the country and destroys family. Sprinkled in between the two stories are letters from the young man’s friend in the Ukraine, who was his tour guide during his journey. This novel made me laugh and cry simultaneously, but it is a truly moving novel and depicts the Holocaust in a place and way that many people don’t often recognize. Once you’ve finished the novel, watch the film (starring Elijah Wood, who is delightful as Jonathan) – it takes some liberties from the book, and doesn’t quite tell the story in the same way, but is worth watching.
Harper Lee: To Kill A Mockingbird
Perhaps THE American classic, Lee’s first and only novel sets the standard for commentary on society and race issues. Her ability to weave social commentary into a story of a couple of children and their experience in the South is flawless, and Atticus Finch is a timeless character with exceptional morals who gives us a conflict and a solution at the same time. Lee’s decision to tell the story through Scout, a precocious young girl, gives us a unique view on the issue of race in the South, and allows us to view Atticus – the true center of the story – from an objective point. Brilliant and still relevant, it’s my personal belief that every American should read this!
Truman Capote: In Cold Blood
One of my personal favorites that I don’t often like to admit is a personal favorite, Capote’s novel is dark and intriguing, and is a celebrated but often overlooked piece of American literature. In the 1960’s (I can’t remember the year), a family in the midwest was brutally murdered by two men. Having spent time in jail together, the men had planned a theft, only to have it go wrong. Capote set out to investigate the murder, and ended up writing this incredible piece of non-fiction. The story behind it is equally as interesting – Harper Lee, who had not yet written her novel, was a longtime friend of Capote’s and helped him investigate. Once you’ve finished the book, watch “Capote”: it is a fascinating and incredibly well-made film.
Caroline Weber: Queen of Fashion: What Marie-Antoinette Wore to the Revolution
I stumbled upon this book a few years ago at my local library, and being somewhat of a francophile I lent it and devoured every word. More of a scholarly work than a novel, Weber weaves the tale of Marie-Antoinette’s life through her clothing, and her eventual downfall as a result of it. Her argument is strong and well formulated, and she provides not only a fashionable glimpse into history, but a look at the life of a young queen who was truly just a teenager. She offers a look at a girl who didn’t really understand her people, and who took advantage of the luxury of being royal without understanding its potential consequences. Weber’s work is a bit hard to get through if you’re looking for leisurely reading, but is worth it at the end. For another good look at the life of this queen, check out Sofia Coppola’s biographic film “Marie-Antoinette”.
Virginia Woolf: A Room of One’s Own
More of an essay than a novel, Woolf’s commentary on women in society is surprisingly easy to swallow. For a lot of readers, feminist literature can be scary and shocking: Plath’s works are often ignored by readers unless they have pre-conceived feminist views, especially male readers, to whom the themes hardly apply. However, Woolf’s argument is told in the most subtle way: she writes about not being able to write because of financial setbacks – women, she says, must have a room of their own in order to write fiction, and in order to do must have money. Her surprisingly elitist argument is written beautifully, as if she is reading it to you, and is a good way to introduce yourself to this genre if you’re new.
Philip Gourevitch: We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families
Okay, I know – depressing, morbid, off-putting title. But remember that phrase, “don’t judge a book by its cover”?
Gourevitch’s groundbreaking work is not as scary as it may seem. As a reporter for the New York Times, he traveled to Rwanda during and after the genocide that tore the country apart in 1994. Gourevitch not only offers political and humanitarian commentary, but tells a surprisingly human tale that, though hard to get through quickly because of the heavy content, is an incredible journey. Don’t worry if you’re new to the subject, he manages to give you the perfect amount of background knowledge without getting too scholarly, and mixes it perfectly with more personal narratives from survivors. As an international relations dork, this is a must-read, and I would encourage anyone with enough motivation to give it a try.