The Novels That Shaped Our World

When the Sunday New York Times “By the Book” section asks someone, usually a writer, to identify books they are reading or one with a powerful impact on their lives, I feel so connected to the person when a book I know is named. If it’s a book new to me, I usually look for it in the library.  Like many of you, I love finding book lists and recommendations.

So, when the BBC decided to ask a panel of leading writers, curators and critics to choose “100 genre-busting novels that have had an impact on their lives,” I could not wait to review the list. “These English language novels, written over the last 300 years, range from children’s classics to popular page turners. Organized into themes, they reflect the ways books help shape and influence our thinking.”

I was equally surprised by the books on the list I had read, the books I had not read, and those I had never heard of. Some were predictable, like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Some seemed fun to read but below the mark, like Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones Diary. Others were tempting to find, just by the title and author’s reputation, like Ali Smith’s How to Be Both.

I’ve read only about a third on the list, some as required reading in my past life, but I was pleased to see a newer book – Homegoing.

My top ten from the list include these I’ve read – and still remember:

  1. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  2. Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
  3. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
  4. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
  5. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  6. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
  7. Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield
  8. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  9. The Witches by Roald Dahl 
  10. Rebecca by Dapne du Maurier

If you are interested in checking out the complete list, you can find it at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/494P41NCbVYHlY319VwGbxp/explore-the-list-of-100-novels-that-shaped-our-world 

My next read should be fun – discovered from the list:

Psmith, Journalist – P. G. Wodehouse  

Free from Gutenberg Press but I want the pictures, so I’ve ordered it from my library.

 

 

Hygge – The Danish Anti-Depressant

As I was walking through the park this morning, I was startled out of my musings when an older woman, looking a little like Mrs. Santa Claus with her red hat and spectacles, cheerily accosted me with her babble. I stopped, not sure what she had said, and wondering if she was someone I had once met but forgotten. Determining she was not among the homeless or crazy inhabitants of the area, I smiled and walked on. Could it be she was just happy and living in the moment? Was she enjoying hygge and passing it on?

Whether it’s joie de vivre, being in the moment, or Christmas spirit – all similar to the concept – hygge (pronounced hoo-gah) seems an idea with merit – although not so new.

The plan is to make simple pleasures matter. Slow down and smell the roses – preferably the fresh cut ones in a crystal vase on your dining room table. Brew some coffee and sip it slowly in a heavy white mug. Enjoy. Slow down. Sound familiar? It’s the runner-up word of the year in Britain – behind Brexit, but the word and concept is Danish.

51q1o69sy3l-_sx331_bo1204203200_  A friend’s email had alerted me to the hygge phenomenon, and I did a little research to discover what I had missed. I’ve downloaded How to Hygge: Thirty-Three Ways to Lead a Happy, Healthy, Contented Life Through the Danish Art of Hygge on Audible to accompany me while I walk (and discourage anyone else from talking to me).

The BBC has a more comprehensive definition in its article – Hygge: A Heartwarming Lesson from Denmark   

images

The Woman in White

9781400119424_p0_v5_s192x300     When one of my book clubs identified Wilkie Collins’ nineteenth century classic mystery The Woman in White for discussion, I looked for another way to reread the famous story and found the four hour BBC radio dramatization on Audible.  With rich British intonation, the dialogue kept me immersed in the plot, most of which I had forgotten since reading it for a college literature class.

A detective story with Gothic overtones, the story has an other worldly tone as the reader tries to discover the secret of the ghostly woman dressed in white. In her review, Camille Cauti cleverly summarized the plot without revealing too much for readers who want to thrill to its twists – either again or for the first time.

The story begins with an eerie midnight encounter between artist Walter Hartright and a ghostly woman dressed all in white who seems desperate to share a dark secret. The next day Hartright, engaged as a drawing master to the beautiful Laura Fairlie and her half sister, tells his pupils about the strange events of the previous evening. Determined to learn all they can about the mysterious woman in white, the three soon find themselves drawn into a chilling vortex of crime, poison, kidnapping, and international intrigue.

The father of the detective novel and a contemporary of Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins was the first to transform a sensational crime story into a tale with clues the reading audience could follow.  When it was first published in 1860, the book was serializedand according to mystery expert Charles Silet, readers enthusiastically started  a Woman-in-White craze “which gave rise to a popular song, a dramatization of the novel, and even prompted women to dress in white.”

I throughly enjoyed listening.  The music heightened the suspense, and the characters’ intonation made the complicated plot easy to follow.  I’ll look for another book performed by this talented group of British actors.

 

Nine Inches – short stories

9781250034700_p0_v2_s260x420Short stories are on my radar – with Alice Munro winning the Nobel for her short stories and Sarah Hall’s story winning the BBC short story award for her tale of a woman turning into a fox ( a story I have yet to find anywhere in print but the BBC reading was enticing).  Tom Perrotta’s Nine Inches on my Kindle was a funny, irreverent collection that had me laughing, crying, musing, and reflecting on my own experiences.  With the same quirky perspective he gave to people in crisis in The Leftovers, Perrotta changes ordinary events into devastating moments.

Each of the ten short stories focuses on a dreary middle-class suburbanite facing inner turmoil for an irretrievable life mistake, and emerging changed through events that could happen anywhere to anyone.  The only problem – each story has a depressing, nevertheless realistic, ending.  After reading the first six, I stopped.

The title refers to middle school teachers using a piece of nine-inch tape to measure and enforce safe space between students who are slow dancing, with the focus on one teacher who reminisces on his lost chances.  “Senior Season” targets a football player who suffers a head injury that keeps him from playing; “Grade My Teacher” focuses on a teacher obsessed with her online evaluations and ranking; “Kiddie Pool” has a man discovering his wife’s infidelity when he sneaks into his dead neighbor’s garage to use his pump to inflate a pool for his grandchildren; “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face” – the most enjoyable of the lot – targets the rivalry between coaches of a Little League game with a talented young girl as the pitcher.

Good stories…well written…maybe I’ll go back to read the rest later.

Call the Midwife

9780143123255_p0_v2_s260x420As a fan of British drama, the Public Broadcasting System’s replaying of “Call the Midwife” in preparation for the new season, inspired me to read Jennifer Worth’s well-written memoir of the twenty-two year old British nurse from a privileged background who challenges herself serving as midwife to the poor and underprivileged in London’s 1950’s East End.  A friendly librarian lent me her paperback copy, and reading the book has added so much to my viewing.

Meeting Chummy, Sister Julienne, Trixie,  Cynthia, and Jennifer again – but for the first time in print – as well as all those pregnant women – has me appreciating their heroism and grit even more.  If you’ve followed the series on television or video, the book is an added pleasure, and reading it won’t spoil the plot of new episodes.