Action! Murrrder! Classics Where Stuff Happens!

Every now and then, I’m seized by what I call English Major Guilt — you know, that “OMG, how can I call myself a literary person when I’ve never read [insert classic here]?” feeling. Like, I’ve never read Dante’s Inferno or Milton’s Paradise Lost or Joyce’s Ulysses (and I’m pretty sure that last one’s never going to happen!). I should give back my English major, shouldn’t I?

But right now I’m reading Crime and Punishment, by Dostoevsky, both because I felt like I should and because I just totally failed at reading To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. Yes, I know she’s a genius and brilliant and it’s one of the greatest works of literature, but oh my goodness, when they were still talking about the weather on page 40, I was like, ok, I need something to seriously HAPPEN here. At least in Crime and Punishment, there’s MURRRRRRRDER in the first fifty pages. Woo! MURRRRRRRDER! Of course, now that’s over, the murrrrrrrrderer is mostly lying around feeling guilt-ridden and going insane, and he hasn’t even looked inside the purse to see how much money he committed the murrrrrrrrder for! So it might be all downhill from here, but I’ve made it to page 116, so I’ll press on for a while.

I suspect my reaction to all this is supposed to be: “wow, murrrrrrder really messes with your head! I guess it really isn’t worth all that guilt and angst!” So it’s probably a bad sign that my reaction is actually: “dude, if I murrrrrdered someone, I totally wouldn’t lie around being so obviously distraught about it.” Hrm. Perhaps that’s why I’m not writing angsty murrrrder books that’ll be taught in college for centuries to come.

Hopefully I’ll like Virginia Woolf better when I’m older (you know, once I can relate to worrying about tomorrow’s weather) (oh, I know, I know, it’s about MUCH more than that). But many of my best friends love Virginia Woolf. You know, for all that classics are all supposed to be the indisputably best works of literature, it seems clear that liking them or not is as subjective as any other kinds of books.

So if you’ve been assigned to read “a classic” (or if you’re just suffering from English Major Guilt), and if you’re like me and prefer the ones where Stuff Happens (such as, say, romance, murrrder, or the French Revolution), rather than the ones where Stuff Gets Talked About Endlessly, these are the ones I’d recommend (that I can remember right now, anyway — I’m sure I’m forgetting something important!):

A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
I read this a long time ago, but it’s still my favorite Dickens book, probably because of all the revolution and guillotining and sinister knitting going on. I like most of his others too (with the unfortunate exception of bleak bleak bleak bleak Bleak House) but I think this one has the most action (plus romance!).

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
All right, there’s no murrrrder or revolution in this one, but it’s still one of the best romances ever, and if you’re having any trouble with it, just picture Matthew Macfadyen or Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy (swoon), and that should help.

The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins
I read this a long long time ago, too — when I was in eighth grade, I think — so I don’t remember much other than that I loved it. And I think there’s a diamond and MURRRRDER involved, plus a splendid surprise twist ending. Check out the two alterna-covers (above and below):

Is it a Victorian mystery? Or an exotic opium-laced adventure? It’s BOTH!

The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder
Five strangers die when a bridge collapses in Peru. Why them? Was there a reason for those five in particular to die? A friar sets out to find out all about the five travelers, trying to prove that it was their time to die. It’s a short, straightforward, beautiful, really well-written book (OK, the Pulitzer Prize might have tipped you off to that).

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
OK, confession: the first time I read this (also a long time ago), I was mightily confused for a while about whether Scout (the narrator) was a girl or a boy. So: she’s a girl, and now you won’t have to wonder about it like I did. I think the fact that this is written from a kid’s perspective makes it more interesting to read, but of course, I would think that.

Animal Farm, by George Orwell
Pigs! Sinister pigs! Taking over the farm! Watch out, lovable old workhorse! Warning: this book totally made me cry. Yes, it did! I’m telling you, the pigs are very sinister.

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
What if all books were banned…scary! Sure, I know I’m a TV addict, but if I had to choose one medium I couldn’t live without, I’d still always pick books. (Just don’t tell my DVR.)

The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck
My sister still insists that this book is about “agriculture”, but I LOVED it when I was in (I think) eighth or ninth grade, and I went on to read everything else I could find by Pearl S. Buck. It’s especially interesting if you, like me, like books about exotic places, such as China. I totally did not know this was an Oprah pick until right this second, but I certainly agree with her.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, by Mark Twain
Really I like all of his books, but this one has TIME TRAVEL! and SIR LANCELOT! Dude! Beat that, boy on a raft!

The Crucible, by Arthur Miller
Bonus: It’s a play! Double bonus: About WITCHES! Only not really, but close enough, because some of the girls at the Salem witchcraft trials are totally evil. Basically, it’s like if the popular girls in your middle school could literally get people hanged (or squashed) (seriously!) when they don’t like them. And it really happened! Not exactly this way, but almost.

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
A group of boys are stranded on a desert island — no polar bears, black smoke monsters, or creepy Others; just a really chilling story of how scary social dynamics can get in a situation like this. The book gets a little weird in parts, and it really made me wonder how things might have been different if there were girls there, but it’s very interesting.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte/Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys
Jane Eyre would have been on this list at one point, but ever since I read Wide Sargasso Sea (which is from the point of view of Mr. Rochester’s first wife), I haven’t really been able to look at poor ordinary Jane the same way. (and jeez, look at these covers — I”m not sure they like Jane either!) But you kinda have to read it if you’re going to read Wide Sargasso Sea, and on the plus side, both have epic romance and trrrrragic fire in them.

Watership Down, by Richard Adams
Does this count as a classic? Because it is literally one of my favorite books in the world. Who knew rabbits led such exciting lives? Prophetic visions of disaster! Poison! Malevolent dictators! Female rabbit abduction! LIFE OR DEATH! It starts a little slow, but for the last hundred pages, I couldn’t put it down. It”s amaaaazing.

If you don’t see your favorite on here, don’t be alarmed; it’s entirely possible I haven’t read it (Moby Dick – nope; The Bell Jar – nope; Heart of Darkness – nope!), but maybe one day I will (er, not sure about those three, though).

I did try to read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina once. I chose it because it was on a list of classics someone gave me, each with a one-sentence description of the book. I remember distinctly that the Anna Karenina description said something like: “and it ends tragically, with the roar of an oncoming train.” So I took the copy of AK that was on my parents’ bookshelf and read it, but at the end there was no train at all, and it seemed to end fairly cheerfully, all things considered (as far as I can remember). So I was like, huh, that’s odd. Well, whatevs. And it wasn’t until YEARS LATER that I discovered that the copy my parents own…is VOLUME ONE of Anna Karenina. Oh, yes, there’s a whole other half of the book I never read, apparently. And I totally didn”t notice. Tra la la. I still haven’t gone back and done it, but maybe one day.

All right, well, I can’t go recommending all this Great Literature without also making a plug for warping your brain, so I have a new TV show to suggest, too! It’s called Drive, and it premieres this Sunday on Fox. How do I know I’ll like it? (1) It’s created by Tim Minear, one of the big honking geniuses behind Firefly, Angel, and Wonderfalls, (2) It stars Nathan Fillion from Firefly (Captain Mal! We love you, Captain Mal!), and (3) I’ve heard it described this way: “As Lost is to Survivor, Drive is to The Amazing Race” — that is to say, it’s a non-reality, crazy-things-like-polar-bears-happen version. WOO! I am so there! I mean, it could only be more me-oriented if it were post-apocalyptic, right? Or if it starred cute dogs; one or the other.

Finally, in other news, I can’t even TALK about how much I love Planet Earth (the show, I mean. Well, and the planet, too). I know I”ve said this already, but HOLY BANANAS. I’m serious, you guys. Every other shot is either AWESOME or reDONKulously adorable. Snow leopards! So pretty! Weird little blue-faced monkeys! So cool! Giant sharks eating seals in super-slow-motion! So terrifying! Panda bear hanging out with BABY PANDA BEAR! Oh my GOOD LORD *head exploding cuteness overload eeeeeek must lie down now*

Go hunt down the Discovery Channel and watch at least one episode; you totally won’t regret it. It’s mind-bendingly cool. You know, what I’ve seen so far, anyway. And I’m sure it’s educational, too, but I bet it’s possible to look at all the huggable animals without learning anything. Go ahead and try.

Till next week…

Quote of the Day: “A classic is something everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read.” –- Mark Twain