The Best of Books and the Worst of Books

Well. I guess my Uni hiatus was a little bit longer than anticipated. But, now that I’m not in school anymore, since I got that very expensive piece of paper, I guess I have more time to write! Quick personal update before we get to the real topic at hand: I’ve graduated with a major in English literature and a minor in history. I’ve got a part time job, but I’m now searching for something full time while I try to figure out what I want to do with my life. Anyone have any good advice on either finding a job or figuring out what I want?

Anyway, since I just spent four years of straight reading and writing (seriously, I spent a term in 3 English courses and 2 history courses. I wrote 12 papers in 13 weeks and read about 16 novels), I think I can give an overview of the best and worst things that I was forced to read! Most of these are going to be English lit books, but I know for sure that one history book will sneak its way in here.

Let’s start with the bad, shall we? These are in no real order. I hated them all equally! I would be super interested in hearing if any of you read these books, and if you had similar experiences, or if you really loved these books!

5) Pamela – Samuel Richardson 

This is by far the worst thing I’ve even read. And to be totally honest, I didn’t even read all of it. We were only assigned specific sections (blocks of about 200 pages), and I couldn’t even stomach that. If you haven’t read this, it’s 18th Century Brit Lit – which sounds pretty good right? It’s the era that has Austen and the Bröntes and all of those sweeping romances and excellent gothics! Except for the fact that Pamela is an exercise in victim blaming!

Pamela is a poor girl and servant whose mistress dies, leaving her in the employ of Mr. B. From then on the book is essentially this conversation, on repeat:
Pamela: Oh my virtue! I have to protect my virtue! I won’t let this frightful man near me ever again!
Mr. B: *tries to assault her, have sex with her, steals her letters, lies to her parents about her whereabouts, etc. *
Pamela: He’s so horrible, I hate him! Mr. B, I hate you! Somebody help me!
Mr. B: *does something vaguely kind*
Pamela: Oh Mr. B., I love you! You are the kindest! I want to marry you but I need to keep my virtue in tact in the meantime!

And repeat. It’s brutal. And over 500 pages. I borrowed my mum’s copy from when she was at the same school, and whenever I whined about it, she would say something along the lines of “well I had to read it 30 years ago, it’s your turn.” This book was worsened by the fact that it was part of my “Adaptations In/Of the 18th Century” course, so we had to read two adaptations of it. I will never get these hours of my life back. (Honourable mentions to Anti-Pamela, and Shamela – neither of which were actually that bad, but in the context of Pamela I had no time or desire to read them).

4) The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon 

Honestly, I don’t even have that much to say about this one. It was so strange because each word made sense individually, but no sentences were comprehensible to me. I made a friend with this book, though, since both of us were super confused about it. Of course, when he had to read it again for his conspiracy theories course, he decided it was his new favourite book. This betrayal really stings.

I think my other major complaint about this book is that the protagonist is so horrendously passive. She doesn’t seem to like any of the characters, but she also ends up having sex with about three quarters of the men. Oh joy. This was for my American Lit course, and it does feel pretty American to me. Lots of excess and angst.

3) Neuromancer – William Gibson

Image result for neuromancerThis one actually makes me feel a little bit guilty, because I should have some hometown pride for Gibson. But nope. No such thing. My complaints with this one are actually extremely similar to those in Lot 49. It makes no sense, and the female characters are the worst. The best part about studying this book was the fact that my prof said “I know this book is really confusing, so I tend to keep the Wikipedia page open beside me while I read it.” I feel like that says it all. This was for my course “@Snapchat Obsessed in Contemporary Literature,” which was generally a fun course, and this fits with the course. I just really did not enjoy this book. I only finished it because it was the first thing we read, so I had no excuses not to!

2) The Spoils of Poynton – Henry James 

What I remember the most about reading this book in second year is that it feels like one or two chapters of a larger book, just expanded into its own book. It’s about this girl trying to marry into a rich family because she likes all the stuff they have. It’s highly materialistic and so, so boring. It’s also very petty.

Two years after taking this course (“prose fiction”), I discovered that the prof I had for this course was one of my mum’s profs when she was at uni! He tried to seduce her away from law school and into doing a masters degree in English lit, focusing on Henry James! How weird is that?

1) Snow Crash – Neal Stephenson

I feel as though this book deserves this slot for the sole purpose that it started so promising, and it let me down so hard! I really love the concept – anarcho-capitalism is so cool, and it’s conceptualized really well in this novel. I would watch the heck out of this movie.  I mean, look at the cover. There’s a sword on it. Image result for snow crash neal stephenson

But the book is just too smart for me! It devolves into this weird conspiracy theory focused around Babylonian religion and weaponizing that via technology. It went way over my head – and while I’m no genius, I’m also not stupid, and it’s not often that a book just completely baffles me. Thankfully, I still managed to write a paper that focused partially on this book and received an A. Thanks schmoop.com. My experience with Snow Crash seems to be pretty common around those who were in my class. A lot of people hated this book. But for me, since I loved the first hundred pages or so, I found it really hard to hate the book. I got there eventually, though, and I’ll never read it again. That’s another 500+ pages of my life that I will never get back. (I just feel so betrayed by it!). The rest of the books we read in this course were awesome, though, so I’ll forgive my prof for this one. (The course, by the way, was “Posthumanism”).

 

Moving on to the fun stuff! The best books I read in university!  Again, no particular order. These books are all fantastic!

 

5) I, Robot – Isaac Asimov

I’ve never been super into sci fi books, although I love sci fi films. This book may have changed by mind. I think I just dislike really vast sci fi, the same way I don’t always like reading fantasy that focused too much on the word and the rules of the world. I, Robot is nothing like the Will Smith film, before you get any ideas. Rather, it is a set of short stories chronicling the creation of robots. From my vast (okay, Wikipedia) reading about the book, the stories were all published independently to start with, and then Asimov brought them all together into this one book. The frame narrative is fantastic, and it connects the stories really well.

I think my favourite thing about the novel (which I wrote about in my paper – coincidentally the same paper which I mentioned in my Snow Crash review) is that it chronicles robots as they become increasingly human. Starting with the stereotypical robot that shows up in picture books and comics, and resulting in a robot which is so human that people cannot tell that it is a robot. The evolution is fascinating. It also uses the three laws of robotics (yes, the ones from the start of the Will Smith movie) in such a cool way, where at times they need a “robopsychologist” to figure out how the robots are interpreting what they’ve been ordered to do.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone, and I’m looking forward to reading more Asimov in the future! He’s near the top of the list of “Authors I’d Like to Read More Of!”

4) Kissing the Witch – Emma Donoghue 

This is another book of interconnected short stories. This time, they’re adapted fairy tales, which was for (you guessed it!) my fairy tales/children’s lit class. I don’t really know how to describe these, but they’re so cool. They’re not necessarily modern, and they’re not necessarily magical. Each of the tales is based on a traditional Western fairy tale, starting with “Cinderella” and ending with “The Little Mermaid” – with one exception. The final tale is original, with no literary antecedent.

I really cannot explain these tales. They feel magical, even though there’s no magic. They’re highly romantic, and also highly emotional. They detail abuse, neglect, and fear. They chronicle love, freedom, and the creation of identity. My paper on this book was about queerness and female characters. It’s got a bit of everything in it – straight couples, LGBTQ+ couples, platonic relationships, romantic relationships. The tales are connected because the secondary character in one tale is the primary character of the next, making a chain of stories told down the line.

I know that I’m not doing this book justice. So go read it for yourself, it’s short. It’s also fairy tales, but it’s not childish. It’s written for an older audience for sure!

 

3) Slouching Towards Bethlehem – Joan Didion

Oh wow. Another book of short stories. Would you look at that. It’s like there’s a theme (there’s not, but I think it may be that books of short stories are really refreshing when you read 12+ novels a term, nearly all of which are 300+ pages of one story!). This is also the first non-fiction book on the list! We read it in my American Lit course, which probably has the most mixed bag of texts I’ve ever read. There were several that I loved, I hated Lot 49, and there were two books that I simply didn’t finish.

This book is actually a bit of a microcosm of the course. Because they are unrelated short stories – actually articles that Joan Didion wrote throughout her years as a journalist – some of them were stories that I really connected to, and some I did not. But overall, I really enjoyed this book, and I wanted to include it because it’s so different from anything else I read over these four years.

Didion is also on the list of “Authors I’d Like to Read More Of,” and I keep meaning to watch the Netflix documentary about her life. Her writing style is so clear, and it feels purposeful, but not laboured.

2) Life and Death In the Third Reich – Peter Fritzsche

I actually wrote a really long instagram post about this book when I was reading it, in February 2017, so I think I’ll just insert that here:

“I’m currently reading this excellent book for my history class. And if there’s one trend that I’m noticing it is that SILENCE MEANS ACCEPTANCE. It is because people didn’t resist the boycotting of Jewish shops, Jewish professionals, and eventually any contact with Jewish people, that it became possible for the Nazi Party to roll out more and more severe policies against the Jewish population.

“We just watched Trump’s speech to Congress, and this is all I could think about. His rhetoric included calling out illegal immigrants for the types of crimes which are committed by American citizens every day.

“Reading this book is too grounded in the present for me. We all need work together the ensure that hatred and othering does not become the new norm – even in Canada it has been evident that there has been an increase of hatred. So please, everyone, let’s work together to ensure that we can turn this around.

“Also read this book, it’s fascinating. (Ps. I’ve not been very political over social media in the past. But it is important to resist this hateful way of thinking, even in small ways such as this.) ”

Essentially: this book is really grounded in the present, but it also a fascinating look at the every day life of Germans in the onset of World War II, and throughout the war. It’s a study in complicity. I would highly recommend it.

1) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

I bet you weren’t expecting that. I have a long standing love of P&P. It’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I’ve been watching the 1995 adaptation since I was a baby, and I first read P&P in grade 7, when I was 11. I’ve been a huge fan of all sorts of adaptations – Bride and Prejudice (a bollywood film), the Lizzie Bennet Diaries (youtube webseries), even the Mormon film (okay this one is weird but I really want to find someone else that’s seen it so we can talk about some of the interesting choices they made in making it!).

So when I saw that this was assigned for my adaptations course, I was so excited. And honestly it was everything I’ve dreamed of and more. I haven’t seen the film, but apparently it’s crap (my friend’s review was “2/10, and only because I like Lily James and she’s worth at least two stars), so if you’ve seen the movie and you’re thinking “what is she even thinking?? This is the worst version of Pride and Prejudice I’ve ever seen!”, bear with me.

This book makes some awesome choices; sure there are zombies, but marriage is still the priority for Mrs. Bennet, and the sisters have to balance survival with propriety. Not to mention one epic (and epically disgusting) zombie transformation of a primary character. It even includes the line “What? Five girls and you don’t have any ninjas?” (that’s paraphrased, but put it in Lady Catherine’s voice and you can’t go wrong). In my class we had some awesome discussions on orientalism, propriety, Mr. Bingley, the Darcy-Elizabeth romance, as well as Charlotte and Mr. Collins almost singlehandedly destroying all of our preconceived notions of their characters. Honestly if you like Pride and Prejudice at all, go read this book.  P&P&Z is delightful.
Congrats, you made it to the end! This is longer than a lot of papers I’ve written!

But seriously, I would be really interested in your thoughts on these books. Did you have a similar experience? Or did you hate a book I loved? What were the best and worst books that you’ve had to read for school!

I’m hoping that, with more time on my hands, I’ll be writing more posts. What do you want to see next? I think I’d like to talk about the best English courses I’ve taken, but I might do a few more in depth book reviews before that… any thoughts?

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