Sunday, July 13, 2008

Summer reading list (Part One - The Classics)

Finally, in the downtime between the second and third drafts of the grown up book and filing my business taxes (because being a writer is dead glamorous), I have found an hour to compile some book recs. It will be a part work, because there are so damn many of them.

So, I'm starting with the classics. Those books of yore that you might even have to study at school and always end up on those 100 Books That Everyone Should Read lists - there's a reason for that; it's because they're magical, life-changing books. But here's my take on them.

1. I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith"

Ignore the fact that she also wrote 101 Dalmations, which actually I love, and the terrible film they made of this book, I Capture The Castle is one of the most poignant coming of age books. Which means the main character, Cassandra, is dreamy and insular and given to flights of fancy to escape her life of genteel poverty, unrequited love and a beautiful older sister. The last paragraph makes me cry every time I read this book and I've probably read it about ten times.

2. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I actually did this book for GCSE English when I was but a mere slip of a girl even that wasn't enough to ruin it for me! And of course you all know that I love it as one Atticus Smith from Let's Get Lost was named for Atticus Finch, the lawyer pa of Scout who defends a black man in 1930's Alabama against charges that he raped a white woman. Not only is it a really powerful story about civil rights, or the lack of them, it's about being a kid on long, hot days when the summer stretches out before you but by the time the first leaves fall from the tree, you've lost some of your childhood innocence as you realise what an ugly place the world can be. It always reminds me of that line from The Breakfast Club, "When you grow up, your heart dies."

3. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

I went through a huge Plath phase during my turbulent teen years. Like, always carrying her Collected Poems with me, going on pilgrimages to Chalcot Square, hating on Ted Hughes, writing my own sub-par Plath-esque poetry and, on one occasion, dragging a poor friend to a really bad play about La Plath at a theatre in a pub. Lord, I was one pretentious little bitch! That said, it's been years since I read The Bell Jar but it should be compulsory reading for all teenage girls with writerly aspirations. Basically, Esther Greenwood (but really Plath herself) wins a magazine writing contest and spends a summer in New York interning for them, with 11 other girls. She almost gets date-raped in a car park, has a really bad experience losing her virginity, then has a nervous breakdown. Why, it's a laugh on every page! Except, it's not but you should probably read it, because all us moody girls who like to wear too much black should.

4. The Catcher In The Rye

I always think of The Catcher In The Rye as a companion book to The Bell Jar, or the boy version of The Bell Jar. Holden Caulfield is one of the most biting, angry voices I've ever read. Holden is a deeply troubled teenager, scarred by the death of his perfect older brother and bumming around New York for a couple of days after geting kicked out of his expensive boarding school. It occurs to me that so many of these books are about disaffected youths who get stuck as they make the transition to a scary, grown-up world. Like, the loss of innocence that makes you an adult is a catastrophe for them. Holden moves through life as if the top layer of his skin has been shaved off so he feels everything too deeply, while at the same time he's almost numb. Or actually obsessed with the phoniness he sees in the people around him. I loved The Catcher In The Rye when I was going through adolescence but as I got older, Salinger's other books about The Glass family (Raise High The Roof Beam Carpenters and Franny And Zooey) are the ones I come back to time after time.

5. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Not my favourite Austen, which would either be Emma or Pride And Prejudice but this was Miss Austen's first novel and I think it's a good place to start for anyone who's a bit wary of books written in Ye Olden Dayes. Catherine Moreland is a 17-year-old girl obsessed with gothic romance novels. No, not like Twilight! Well, actually, yes exactly like Twilight but in Miss Austen's day these were melodramatic novels about haunted houses and heroines with heaving bosoms tormented by the ghosts of evil landowners and doomed lovers. Catherine has to separate fantasy from reality in her own search for love, which is something I've never managed to do. Now, in life I think you're either a Bronte fan or an Austen fan and I'm Austen all the way. I can't be doing with all that mopping and mowing about the moors and orphanages and madwomen in attics. Whereas with Miss Austen's novels, there's a lightness and elegance to them and I think her heroines are truly modern young women refusing to give up their dreams and settling for anything less than what they truly deserve. In fact, you can still relate to all her characters some three hundred years later, apart from Fanny Price in Mansfield Park who's stuck-up little prig. Please don't be put off by the language. The secret is to get into the rhythm of her writing and it doesn't matter if you don't perfectly understand each sentence, because all of a sudden you just get caught up and lifted away by the story and woah, you're an Austen girl. Welcome to our club. Another three members and I get the toaster oven.

6. Bonjour Tristesse by Francois Sagan

Literally translated as Hello Sadness. A story about une jeune fille de France just as a change of pace. Again, a crazy teenage girl going through crazy teenage things but she's French so it's all the more crazy and sophisticated. Oh la la!

7. Breakfast At Tiffany's by Truman Capote

Much, much darker than the film, Holly Golightly is a little girl lost in the Big Apple, running from her past and trying to find solace in a world of parties and rich men. Which never ends well.

Well, that's enough to be getting on with. I shall be back with more fabulous books for you to read and fall in love with. But right now, I have to write a letter to my accountant...

Live on

Sarra x

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