Having recently graduated from McGill University with a BA in English Literature, I think it is time to take a look back at the extensive reading list of these past 3.5 years, and highlight my favourites. In the following list, you will find books that have changed my way of thinking, that have moved me, that have opened my eyes to other genres, or books that have done all of those things at once. Although many of these books were published in the 19th century, they range from medieval to contemporary times, and encompass a variety of topics Because I don’t want this post to be the longest one in history, I have divided it into 2 parts. Stay tuned for Part 2.
DISCLAIMER: The order I have put them in is not perfect. Don’t sue me :).
11. The Siege of Jerusalem – Anonymous
The Siege of Jerusalem is a medieval epic poem written during the second half of the 14th century and describing the events of 70AD when the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem. I read it for my Middle English class and let me tell you: this poem’s content is horrendous; there is blood, extreme violence, anti-semitism… Sometimes, you just have to stop reading it because the images are just too much. But what I enjoyed about it was the complexity of the religious issues, the fact that there are good and horrible people on both sides of the wall and that the actions of the Romans are not always justified by the voice. I wrote my final research paper on this text and found the debate concerning the true nature of the assailants fascinating. I also read this text in middle English which, although it rendered the reading process long and strenuous, it also made for a different reading experience.
http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/livingston-siege-of-jerusalem (full text available online if you feel like it)
10. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë
Published in 1848 by the (apparently) least famous of the Brontë sisters, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the story of Helen, a woman who has fled from an alcoholic husband and tries to start a new life with her son. This book portrays some early bouts of feminist ideas which I found particularly interesting. I also liked how Anne uses different point of views throughout her novel, giving as much importance to Helen’s thoughts as she gives to the male figures. I read this book for a course devoted solely to the Brontë sisters and my professor hated this novel. I think her negative commentaries were part of the reasons why I like the book so much. I tend to root for the underdog :). Moreover, unlike Emily’s Wuthering Heights (which I’m sorry to say I did not enjoy at all), the characters in this novel are somewhat relatable. If you like 19th century literature like I do and want to get a glimpse into the universe of the Brontë sisters, I cannot recommend this enough.
9. A Hero of Our Time – Mikhail Lermontov
Oh Russian Literature, you wonderful you. First published in 1839, the most interesting aspect of A Hero of Our Time is its structure. It is made up of five novellas all relating to a mysterious man called Pechorin, a russian embodiment of the Byronic hero. However, you learn more about the people telling about Pechorin’s life than about Pechorin himself. The different novellas take place in various settings, but the ones that will stick with me are those that occur in the Caucasus mountains. Lermontov transcribes perfectly the immensity and austerity of the landscape. Like in most novels that I was able to read in the only Russian literature course I took, the characters are always complex and hard to grasp. There are so many different ways to interpret the story. Lermontov deconstructs the notion of hero to illustrate the issues that Russian society is faced with. A Hero of Our Time is a great novel for people who enjoy thinking deeply about what they read and understand that there are often no clear answers.
8. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
Being French and studying in Canada, it was hard at times to rekindle my interest in French literature. In my third year, I took a French literature class and wondered why I ever left it behind. One of the first books we read was Madame Bovary. I started this novel in high school but never got around to finishing it for some reason. I am glad I finally did. Realism is one of my favourite literary movement and Flaubert is a master at it. Published in 1856, this book tells the story of Emma, a woman who is bored by her married life and becomes unfaithful. However, this novel is much more than a story about adultery; it is the portrayal of a society that does not let much place for growth and in which death is the only way for one to escape his or her assigned role. What I liked the most in the book was how Flaubert describes the different character-types. The language is also beautiful. Madame Bovary is a great book for someone who wants to get back into classics because it is not too long and the story will stay with you.
7. The Awakening – Kate Chopin
In the same vein as Madame Bovary, this book talks about a woman’s struggle with accepting her restrictive role as a wife and mother. Published in 1899, it centers around the character of Edna Pontellier and her life in New Orleans and the coast of Louisiana. The character of Edna is extremely powerful; you hate her, you feel sorry for her, she is frustrating at times, but most of all, she is a complex female character. The fact that I hated Edna made me question my vision of what a woman should be like. I really enjoyed reading this kind of story from the point of view of a female author. The role of the ocean and its descriptions are absolutely superb and the ending…the ending is just what it should be. One aspect that I also liked in the story was the setting. Apart from A Streetcar Named Desire, I don’t recall reading anything set in New Orleans and this city fascinates me. This novel is a must-read for a new and strong perspective on the role of women in late-19th century society.
6. Sunshine Sketches of A Little Town – Stephen Leacock
I was not expecting to like this book. I had to read it for my Canadian literature course and up to that point, i had not particularly enjoyed the material. A girl can only read a certain amount of poems about canoes before going insane. Sunshine Sketches of A Little Town was published in 1912 and tells the stories of different inhabitants of a town called Mariposa. All the stories intertwine and by the end of the book, you get a full image of what life in Mariposa looks like, the complexities of a rural society. I love character-type descriptions and Leacock paints very detailed pictures of Mariposians (I believe that is their name). They are all hilarious and pathetic at the same time. This book is a perfect way to get into Canadian literature without having to sit through Roughing It in the Bush by Susanna Moodie (although the title sounds mildly exciting, it is not).
‘Fun’ Facts: 1. My Canadian Literature class took place in the Leacock building (not sure if same person, I should probably have looked into it…oh well.) 2. I don’t remember one canoe mention in Leacock’s work (phew).
And here it is. Part 1 of my favourite university reads. Part 2 should be here soon. In the meantime, I need book recommendations (I’m about to read Harry Potter for the 15th time and I need to stop) so what were your favourite university/high school reads?