“Les livres sont des amis froids et sûrs”
—Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
“I have my books / And my poetry to protect me”
—Simon & Garfunkel, “I Am a Rock”
Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
Les Miserables – Victor Hugo (in French)
Le Vin de solitude – Irène Némirovsky
Dire presque la même chose – Umberto Eco
Dirty French (To brush up on my slang and obscenities)
Les petits chevaux de Tarquinia – Marguerite Duras
Pretty typical Duras. Pretty typical Nouveau Roman. A lot of ennuie and internal, beneath-the-surface conflict. A lot of cyclical repetition (the exhausting harsh heat of an Italian summer and mundane vacation activities). Adultery. And an intense mother-child relationship worth exploring further. I finished it right around the time that I saw the new Anna Karenina adaptation (à la Jude Law and Keira Knightley) and couldn’t help drawing comparisons between the two as adultery and mother-child bonds are at the center of both stories.
A Dance with Dragons – George R.R. Martin
The fifth installment of the Song of Ice and Fire series. See the blurbs for A Game of Thrones and A Storm of Swords. I rushed through the last two books because I was so hooked and now that I’m done I don’t know what to do with myself (because it’s sure to be a while yet before we get book six). I suggest your pace yourself and savor it. Also, we’re left with one of the worst cliff-hangers. All I’ll says is: NOOOOOOO, JON!!!
A Feast for Crows – George R.R. Martin
The fourth installment of the Song of Ice and Fire series. See the blurbs for A Game of Thrones and A Storm of Swords.
A Storm of Swords – George R.R. Martin
The third installment of the Song of Ice and Fire series. See the blurb for A Game of Thrones from June. Of the five books written so far, this one is my favorite. It’s jam-packed with new and old characters and there are some major and surprising plot twists. Books four and five are also different in that they cover roughly the same time period but only treat half of the characters, so book three is the last place we get them all together for a while.
A Clash of Kings – George R.R. Martin
The second installment of the Song of Ice and Fire series. See the blurb for A Game of Thrones from June. Obviously, the characters and plots get more nuanced, but writing-style- and captivation-of-the-reader-wise, the sequels are more of the same.
Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer
Everything is Illuminated was one of the many books on our book club list, so I decided to give it a go on my own once book club devolved into chatting about Jezebel articles over cocktails and baked goods. This book is PoMo. It’s story is multifaceted an told by multiple people, one of whom shares the name of the author. It’s about storytelling, writing and editing; it’s about the past; it’s about family; it’s about love. Everything is Illuminated is extremely and impressively crafted. Definitely worth it.
The Warmth of Other Suns – Isabel Wilkerson
Our last, somewhat successful, book club read, we picked this book because it was the Whitman summer read (they force all the incoming first-years to read it and frighten them into actually following through with it by promising they’ll have an intense college-level discussion about it. In reality, the discussion is led by your RA and lasts half an hour, tops). It’s non-fiction, which I don’t usually read, but written in an engaging narrative style that follows the stories of three people during what historians have termed the “Great Migration” (the period from roughly 1910 to 1970 of African American movement out of the South). It was a really interesting read, but took me a while to get through—it’s quite long. Wilkerson was also trained as a journalist, so she really drives home her point (which gets a little redundant if you’re a college graduate in literature, but I’m sure would have been really nice if I were an incoming college freshman).
A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin
Our second book club read, A Game of Thrones is epic fantasy literature at it’s finest. There are currently five finished books in the series (GoT is the first) with at least two more anticipated. The shortest one is 800 pages long. They’re riddled with innumerable complicated characters, captivating plot twists, an alternate medieval-esque reality, etc. Though a long book, it’s a ridiculously quick read (because you get so engrossed). I plan to read the rest of the series in the near future, but for now am trying hard to put them aside so I can do other functional things like my job and reading other book club books. (Side note: The HBO series is pretty good in that it follows the books impeccably. But it’s still not quite all the way there. The book just takes the story to the next level, and thus the TV show wasn’t able to hook me. I think if I had watched it first and then read the books, I’d love them both, but I didn’t and I don’t.)
The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
While at Powell’s in Portland (a.k.a. my favorite
book store place on the planet), I stumbled upon The English Patient. I’d long since seen the movie (which is wonderful for many reasons: exquisite acting, a tragically beautiful plot, Colin Firth’s presence, etc.), but didn’t know it also existed in book form. Obviously I bought it. If the movie is great (it is), the book is a bazillion times better. The story takes place in an abandoned villa in Italy toward the close of WWII and chronicles the story of Hannah, a nurse, the English Patient, a burn victim she tends to, and the mystery to his past and identity (the only clue is an old copy of Herodotus’s Histories that have been palimpsested up—a palimpsest is a text written on top of another text (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively depending on whether or not your name is Gérard Genette)). The movie focuses more on the English Patient and his past in a series of flashbacks. The book gives more weight to Hannah and the other renegade characters living in the villa in the book’s present. Besides being terribly engaging, it’s also drool-inducing with how beautiful and poetic the writing is. It’s one of the loveliest pieces of English-language literature I’ve read in quite some time.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky
The summer book club is back! (and revamped!) This year we’re being more exclusive (7 members instead of 17) and no boys allowed. We also have a sweet, punny name…wait for it…Between the Covers. I know. It’s cool. Anyway, this was our first read. It flowed quickly and was easy to read—I finished it in two days. It was very interesting. I’m not sure if I liked it yet. It’s another epistolary novel and it deals with some heavy stuff, but the narrator (the wallflower of the title) uses this weird, disengaged tone so there seems to be a disconnect between the gravity of what’s being recounted and its (lack of) emotional impact. It’s currently being made into a movie (to be released in mid September) starring Emma Watson. I’ve watched the trailer and it looks good, but it doesn’t capture that weird disconnected tone thing (probably because they want Charlie to seem likable and personable so they can sell the movie…).
Lancelot or the Knight of the Cart – Chrétien de Troyes
Though this is a medieval French text (and was one of the options on my exam reading list) I actually read this for my Gender and Sexuality in the middle ages history class. It’s your classic courtly/knightly arthurian adventure tale. Good reading.
Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein – Marguerite Duras
The other piece of “literature” we read for my feminism class, Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein is a story about a woman (Lol V. Stein), told by a man (the author/narrator Jacques Hold), and ultimately written by a woman (Marguerite Duras). I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Marguerite Duras and Le Ravissement was no exception. It’s dizzyingly complex and layered with so much meaning (and unmeaning). It was also really interesting in comparison with Nadja (especially in terms of how the added layer of Duras allows us to consider it as more of a text that aligns with the post-structuralist écriture féminine).
Nadja – André Breton
Another read for my feminism class, Nadja is a (kind of) fictionalized autobiography. Breton is the author-narrator and Nadja is a mad woman he encounters who embodies his Surrealist ideology (and thus becomes his muse). We talked a lot about how it perpetuates (or doesn’t perpetuate) the gender binary and how Breton as a MALE narrator for the story about a WOMAN is problematic. It was really interesting, but I didn’t get as much out of it as I would have liked because we read it the week I had exams. I’d like to return to it someday.
L’Etranger – Albert Camus
I reread L’Etranger for exams (I read it the first time my senior year of high school for my AP English lit class). Reading it in French was both a good review of the plot and main ideas as well as a nuanced experience. Existential literature isn’t my favorite, but L’Etranger isn’t too bad.
L’Immoraliste – André Gide
An early 20th-century novel about a man who almost dies of tuberculosis and then develops a new life philosophy. I didn’t really understand this one too well and it was probably my least favorite exam read…
Le Traité sur la tolérance – Voltaire
Written in response to the affaire Calas (the persecution of the protestant Calas family), Le Traité is typical Voltaire. It’s a well-argued enlightenment text infused with sarcasm and full of a variety of different stylistic techniques. (And yep, it was another exam read. Surprise.)
Le deuxieme sexe – Simone de Beauvoir
I read this for my introduction to French feminism class. Le deuxieme sexe was our jumping off point to our exploration of the post-structuralist feminists like Kristeva, Cixous and Irigaray (who are definitely in dialogue with de Beauvoir). We definitely didn’t read ALL of the book (it’s in two hefty volumes), just enough to get the flavor of existential feminism. I definitely want to go back and read more someday, though.
Les Liaisons Dangeureuses – de Laclos
An 18th-century epistolary novel (meaning written as a series of letters between characters), Liaisons Dangeureuses depicts French libertinage at the height of the decadence of the old regime. The Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil manipulate each other and the other players in high society. It’s a world of scandal wrapped in façade. It was a little hard to get into (the letter format can get kind of monotonous…) but really well done. It’s very slow-paced (you often get an account of the same event to or from different characters), kind of like a Jane Austen novel, but much more juicy. (Yes, it was the base text for the films Dangerous Liaisons and Cruel Intentions).
Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement – Assia Djebar
A collection of short stories that dialogues with paintings of the same title by Delacroix and Picasso, Femmes d’Alger is a rich, short text written by feminist francophone author, Djebar. Her stories communicate the plight of being doubly Other—Algerian and female. They span generations, painting tension between cultures, languages, religions and genders. They treat voicelessness, silence, and oppression. They’re exquisite.
Le Testament – François Villon
For the medieval literature part of my senior exams, Le Testament is a collection of poems by François Villon, a late medieval author. Villon is sometimes considered the first poète maudit (a.k.a. poet on the margins of society—think Chenier, Baudelaire, Poe, etc.) and his poems treat topics like mortality, death, decay, beauty, sex, poetry and the poet, and other aspects of everyday life. A break from the courtly lyric poetry of the troubadours, Villon thus offers his reader a different take on love, especially a different view of the woman as more of an everyday, normal creature (even human!) rather than a beautiful cruel (and sometimes monstrous) one vaunted on a pedestal.
Monsieur Toussaint – Edouard Glissant
You guessed it…more exam reading! Monsieur Toussaint is a play that communicates, and also fictionalizes, the story of Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the slave revolts in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haïti) that took place during (and were inspired by) the French Revolution. (Yay! Cara gets to dork out about French history!!!) The play is really confusing. The plot has no definite time or place. Toussaint is in his prison cell in France in 1802 but also back in Saint-Domingue preparing for battle against various forces (and there’s a fluidity between the two—changes from one to the other are never announced). There are characters defined as “the living” and “the dead” (only Toussaint interacts with the dead). I enjoyed it more for the historical elements and haven’t really thought enough about it in terms of literature yet…I have until March to figure that out.
Eloge de la Créolité – Chamoiseau, Bernabé, Confiant
Yet another exam read (but this one for the Francophone lit category), Eloge is the manifesto of Créolité (or Creoleness). While its predecessor Négritude championed Africa and its traditions, Créolité seeks to promote and celebrate the unique blend of cultures in the Francophone world (specifically that of the Caribbean). At it’s essence it’s all about the seemingly paradoxical blend of writing and orality.
Le Jeu de l’Amour et du Hasard – Marivaux
Another work I have to read for my ominous senior French exams, Marivaux’s play is classic 18th-century theater. Love, switching places with servants, general debauchery. It’s entertaining, speaks to the social conventions of the times, and is ultimately about human agency. I also enjoyed it because I saw it performed last fall when I was studying abroad in Nantes, France.
En Attendant Godot – Samuel Beckett
Also known by its English title Waiting for Godot, Beckett’s play is infamous for its existentialism. I went into it with reservations and prejudices (I had to read Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead for AP English in high school to which Godot is often compared), but really ended up liking it. I also had to perform a scene from it for class (which really made the piece much more meaningful). It’s hilarious. It’s tragic. It’s great.
La Cantatrice Chauve – Eugène Ionesco
A bass-ackward comedy, La Cantatrice Chauve doesn’t have a plot. It’s about the ultimate (and tragic) failure of language. Two couples sit around discussing nonsense and a pompier arrives stirring things up even more. It’s interesting, but difficult to follow if you’re going too quickly—so take your time if you’re going to attempt it.
Moderato Cantablie – Marguerite Duras
Another Duras piece, this one was quite different (at least in terms of plot) from l’Amant. Another Nouveau Roman piece, it sustains itself on uncertainty and a confusing and ambiguous plot involving a woman of high social status, her son who takes piano lessons (and hates them), a run-of-the-mill working man in a bar, and a murder of course.
La Jalousie – Alain Robbe-Grillet
Like Tropismes, La Jalousie is part of the 1950s movement of French literature known as le Nouveau Roman (New Novel). In it, Robbe-Grillet plays with new narrative techniques, obsessive attention to detail, color, metonymy, etc. to shatter the traditional characteristics of fiction (especially the relationship between the author and the reader). This is another dizzying read, but interesting if you can get through it.
Tropismes – Nathalie Sarraute
A collection of short (two to four pages) vignettes that play with repetition, scale, oxymoron, tension etc. to try to capture the essence of the “tropisme” (in biology: a phenomenon, indicating growth or turning movement of a biological organism, usually a plant, in response to an environmental stimulus; in Tropismes: a similar idea only it’s the human (or humans) responding (or not responding when they want to) to this stimulus). The work is incredibly beautiful, convoluted and confusing. I loved it. (Until I had to write a two-page analysis of it for class that ended up taking 10 hours to write. But I still love it.)
The Quiet American – Graham Greene
Yep…another book about Vietnam. It’s pretty short, a quick and relatively easy read. Greene depicts the international stew that was Vietnam on the eve of the Vietnam War (French, British, Americans all striving for power and influence). It’s a classic.
Dimanche and other stories – Irène Némirovsky
Irène Némirovsky is one of my favorite authors. She was born in Russia, eventually moved to France and wrote in French (but I’ve only been able to get my hands on her works in English translation). Her work is beautiful, poetic, intelligent and captures so much of the human condition. Most of it is set in early 20th-century France (her later works are set during the German occupation). She died at a Nazi concentration camp during WWII. I would recommend any- and everything by her.
The Father of All Things – Tom Bissell
To follow along with my Vietnam kick (since I may very well be there this time next year if all my fellowship/grant applications get the desired responses), I picked up The Father of All Things. Tom Bissell, the son of a marine who served in Vietnam, explores the legacy of the war (especially its impact on the first and subsequent generations of Americans born after it had ended) as well as his father’s particular experience. It was very dense and at times difficult to read, but extremely interesting and informative.
Candide ou l’optimisme – Voltaire
My 15-year-old brother has to read this as one of his summer reading books for his honors English class and since I have to read it in preparation for my senior French major exams (set to take place in late March), I decided to read it along with him in an attempt to have something to relate to my brother about (other than the world of Harry Potter). Voltaire’s best-known work is short (only about 160 pages) and is broken into 30 brief chapters, so it’s a pretty easy read (in French if one’s able, or in English). One of Voltaire’s contes philosphiques (or philosophical short-story), it’s at the surface level a ridiculous (and implausible) bildungsroman type tale that follows the titular Candide (a young, candid man who adheres to Leibnizian optimism—that we live in the best of all worlds, despite hardship, horror, etc.) as he experiences the world (and all its hardships, horrors, etc.) and questions this philosophy. As can be suspected, on the just-below-surface level it is a biting, satirical denunciation and critique of modern (European) society and its practices, not to mention of the aforementioned Leibnizian optimism—of which Voltaire was a vocal opponent.
L’Amant – Marguerite Duras
Continuing my trend of Vietnam-related literature is l‘Amant (or The Lover for all of you who aren’t francophiles). The only thing Vietnamese about this book is the setting—French colonial Vietnam, to be exact. It’s characterized as an “autobiographical novel” (similar to, I suppose, O’Brien’s “autobiographical fictional short stories”) and centers on a 15-year-old girl, born in Vietnam of French heritage and the affair she has with a late-20-something-year-old Chinese man. Race exists as a below-the-surface theme. It is artfully written (there are so many beautiful phrases) in a stream-of-consciousness style (it’s somewhat chronological but interlaced with bits of the narrator’s anachronistic memories of times long gone and/or times to come). It isn’t organized into distinct chapters or parts but each “episode” is distinguished by a page break. It was an quick read—I read it in a few hours on a plane (in French! though there are English translations).
The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien
This was one of the books I could have chosen to read for “outside reading” for my senior year of high school AP English class. Because it was about war and most of the boys in my class elected to read it, I passed over it for things like Wuthering Heights. Now that I have a burgeoning interest in Vietnam (a.k.a. I’m applying for various fellowships/grants to potentially live there after being ejected into the “real world” after graduating) it became a must-read. Now it’s become a must-read again. Blurring the line between truth and fiction (and making the reader conscious of the poorly-defined line that exists between the two) this collection of interwoven short stories is captivating, beautiful (not to mention beautifully-written) and, most of all, haunting.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – JK Rowling
Brought along to Hawaii for some pool/beachside reading, HP7 was a necessary reread in light of the final Harry Potter event—the midnight premier of the film adaptation (HP7.2) occurring Friday, July 15 (4 days from now!!!). If you haven’t read the HP saga, DO IT NOW (I don’t care how cool and alternative you think you are by refusing to jump on the bandwagon, you’re not cool. The bandwagon is cool. Jump now.)
The French Lieutenant’s Woman – John Fowles
The second of my proposed (and rejected) picks for the aforementioned book club. Published in the 1960s but set in the Victorian era, Fowles examines 19th-century Britian from a modern perspective. The story follows Charles Smithson, amateur paleontologist, engaged to Ernestina but soon intrigued by Sarah Woodruff (the titular character). Fowles/the narrator constantly interrupts, dizzyingly and deliberately breaking the illusion of reality presented by his fiction. Though rather lengthy, it was easy enough to read, once the first few chapters hook you. I LOVED THIS BOOK, it’s in my top 10 for sure, potentially top five. I loved it so much that, after finishing it, I looked up and read several scholarly articles about it (using the various online databases I have access to as a college student). READ IT NOW.
Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen
Given all the movie hype and its bestseller status, I was excited to read Water for Elephants, the second book for my summer book club. The book is split between two plot lines (one set in the present in a nursing home, the other set during the Depression in a circus) united by the narrator/protagonist, Jacob. The novel was very accessible, I quickly found myself swept up in the plot and read it very quickly. Overall the characters were a little one-sided and the plot, though entertaining, was extremely predictable—I was a little disappointed by the deus ex machina, cookie-cutter ending.
Le Barbier de Seville – Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais
I’m doing research on Beaumarchais this summer—focusing more on Le Mariage de Figaro than the Barbier. But overenthusiastic student that I am, I decided it would be prudent to read the first play in the series of three (the third being La Mère Coupable). Figaro and the Count Almaviva endeavor to rescue the fair Rosine (by marrying her to the Count, of course) from her overbearing tyrant of a guardian, Bartholo. I can’t speak for the quality of any English translations, as I read it in French, but it was a quick read (4 acts in prose), funny and well-written.
Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys
Recommended to me by Whitman’s Director of Fellowships and Grants (and then proposed by me and subsequently rejected as one of my summer book club reads), Wide Sargasso Sea is a 20th-century novel set in the Caribbean of the 19th century. It’s main character is Bertha Antoinetta Mason (a.k.a. the crazy Mrs. Rochester in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë). The novel explores race relations, cultural identity, (in)sanity, etc.). I found it well crafted and the writing style intriguing. Being a lover of postcolonial literature and classic British literature, it was right up my alley. It’s also a short read. I feel like I didn’t quite get everything out of it the first time and need to reread it, though.
Bossypants – Tina Fey
The first read for my summer book club, Bossypants was funny, a quick read and oozed Tina Fey/Liz Lemon. The jacket design (and how it was marketed) was as interesting as the content of the book itself. Overall, an entertaining read, but not a great one.