At the beginning of this year, I set a lofty new year’s resolution, as I tend to do. Last year’s resolution was to finish 52 books, in an effort to end my habit of beginning seven and maybe finishing two. I accomplished that goal… barely. I literally finished listening to Little Women on New Year’s Eve, at double speed, but I did it. So, this year, I decided to take it up a notch. Not only would I read at least 52 books, half of them would inarguably be titles of substance, meaning not werewolf/mafia/motorcycle club/time travel/alien romance novels. Since my library teens still have to read classics for school and my one and only act of rebellion in high school was to put more effort into not completing assigned reading, than it would have taken to actually read the books themselves, I decided that all 26 books would be classics. It seemed an overly ambitious way to make myself better at my job, of course, but then a pandemic hit, freeing up an awful lot of time for me to read 26 classics, so you don’t have to…
- Dracula, by Bram Stoker ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Dracula was my first classic of the year and, if I’m honest, I was dreading my entire project at this point and wasn’t enthusiastic about a book that is essentially a compilation of diary entries and letters. I don’t even like graphic novels, because the writing style takes me out of the story. Fortunately, however, I was able to download the audio for free, from work, and that completely removed the distraction. While I was confused, at times, as to why something was being shared, I did find that all of the pieces ultimately lined up into a genuinely scary tale. Jonathan Harker looking out his window to see Dracula climbing the side of the castle was quite possibly one of the creepiest things I’ve ever read. It was refreshing to experience horror without gore or smut, despite the many trashy movie adaptations, with all their genitalia. I give Dracula five stars and it’s easily one of my favorite books, now.
2. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I’ve never loved stories told through weird mediums, like court documents or interviews. It’s done in non-fiction for transparency and in fiction, to better resemble non-fiction, but I don’t enjoy either. I find it really difficult to get into a story, if I’m still putting together the puzzle while reading. Maybe I’m just lazy, but I feel like that’s the author’s job, before publication. That being said, it’s ironic that my first titles, of such a lofty goal, were both written in this style.
When I started In Cold Blood, I assumed it would be dry, as was the way of most non-fiction of the time. I had also had dental surgery just a few days before, so I was high as a kite when Jake came home for lunch and found me sitting on the couch, crying.
Jake: “What’s wrong?”
Jake: “That’s not true. You’re crying.”
Me: “They were just all so scared! Even the dog was scared and then all of his owners died and it doesn’t even say what happened to him!”
While I wouldn’t recommend reading this one on hydrocodone, I can attest to it being not only engaging, but truly disturbing, as you’re made to empathize with two vicious murderers. In fact, only after I’d finished this title, did I discover that Truman Capote was actually somewhat obsessed with the killer, Perry Smith. Some speculated that he held romantic feelings for him, while others theorized that he saw himself in the man. That’s… even more disturbing, so kudos to Capote for taking it to the next level. Simply for the slow pacing that is unavoidable in most non-ficion, I give In Cold Blood four stars.
3. Lord of the Flies, by William Golding ⭐⭐
Lord of the Flies has always sounded fascinating to me. Just the concept of an utter breakdown of society amongst young boys, who aren’t as strictly indoctrinated into social constructs of acceptable behavior, sounded thrilling and I never understood why all of the teens I worked with hated it. Color me surprised when I, too, was driven far more insane than the main characters, by my complete and utter boredom.
Y’all, nothing happened throughout most of this book. The first 10% of the story revolved around establishing a rudimentary society of gentlemanly norms, while the next 80% depicted the destruction of said norms, and the last 10% revealed the consequences. The beginning of the story was interesting, as young boys scrambled to build a way of life and a hierarchy that closely resembled the only one they knew. About 10% out of the next 80% was engaging, as the carefully constructed society devolved, while the other 70% was largely internal monologue. The final 10% woke me up, with an exciting chase scene and a surprising twist. Despite the rousing ending, however, over 2/3 of this book was simply filler and a failed attempt at suspense. While I enjoyed the concept, the execution left me wanting… three more stars. Two disappointed stars for Lord of the Flies.
4. Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck ⭐⭐⭐⭐
If I were hard-pressed to name a favorite author, who doesn’t turn out cozy and predicable romances, it would be John Steinbeck. I understand that people dislike him for being too descriptive, but unlike certain contemporary authors (here’s looking at you Diana Gabaldon and Stephen King), Steinbeck is actually good at it. Like Tolkein, Steinbeck isn’t wordy, because he’s in love with himself, but in love with the world he’s creating, specifically his characters. Can that be tedious, regardless of his motivations? Sure, but I love good characterization so much, I find I don’t mind. Of Mice and Men, however, hit a sweet spot, managing to have deep characters, despite its novella length.
When I told friends that I was reading this story, many of them shared that the ending made them cry. Judging by reviews online, that was Steinbeck’s intent, as he painted a rather dated picture of the plight of Lennie, a man who was likely on the autism spectrum. In 2020, however, I felt little for Lennie and all sympathy went to George, because I know several people on the spectrum… and zero of them are psychotic. I know, I know, he was a big guy, who didn’t realize his own strength, and was misunderstood. That’s the story described by George, anyway, as he recounts all the jobs and plans that haven’t worked out and all the times he had to take Lennie and run, because George is the real MVP. His life could’ve been so much simpler, were he to have Lennie committed to some sort of home, but he was loyal and acted as his protector, through all of his mishaps… until the very end.
I realize that Steinbeck meant for Lennie’s final actions to be an accident, a tragedy beyond his control, but I don’t accept that, with the understanding we have for special needs people, today. I’ve met too many of them, in my line of work, to believe that murder is such a small step, regardless of strength. Lennie had severe anger issues and was truly dangerous. He got what was coming to him. My heart went out only to George, in the final scene, as he bestowed such heartbreaking mercy on his lifelong friend. I give four stars to Of Mice and Men, despite feeling very differently about the characters than basically all of mankind.
5. Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I admit it. There was a month, where I Googled the shortest classics, so I could more easily accomplish my goal and Metamorphosis was one of them. Unlike most of the titles I’ve chosen this year, Metamorphosis is a symbolic, artistic piece and I loathe that stuff. As a teen librarian, I spend all of April, National Poetry Month, ranting about how poetry is stupid. I’ve been known to declare that it’s not art, if I can do it. I’m simply too direct for metaphors and beautiful prose, so I figured an art piece wouldn’t be my jam and researched what it was supposed to be about, before reading. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. Knowing that Kafka intended this novella as an allegory for his relationship with his father, painted a portrait that was both haunting and heartbreaking. Even Kafka’s mother and sister apparently had their limits on their affection for their source of income. He was a meal ticket and when he wasn’t that, he was an insect. Four painful stars.
6. We, by Yevgeny Zamyat ⭐⭐⭐
This might not have been the year to read a bunch of disturbing political classics, now that I sit here in terror, sporting my foil hat, beneath my bare lightbulb; but I’m a sucker for classic dystopian and I’ve always wanted to read the source material on which virtually all of them were based. We tells the story of One State, a supposed utopian society made of steel and glass, removing any and all sense of privacy from a totalitarian state. There are no individuals, only parts of the whole, as is reflected in the one and only pronoun: we. The only delineator for each of these parts is a letter/number combination, as we see in the spacecraft engineer, D-503. Society’s laws and rules are based entirely on mathematic formulas and emotions and dreams are considered a sickness, of which the consequence is death.
Y’all, I think one of the reasons I love these books so much, is that they’re all so very bleak. No one gets a happy ending in a world of government corruption, far surpassing anything we could imagine in our modern society. In this regard, We is no different than the books it inspired and I quite enjoyed the overall plot, as D-503 rebelled against his beloved One State, with the help of a beautiful woman, I-330, in a tale as old as time. Much like Eve, I-330 offered D-503 the curse of knowledge, inducting him into Mephi, an organization plotting to overthrow One State, despite the risk that they could both be destroyed by the Benefactor’s Machine. I won’t ruin the ending for you, since no one has actually heard of this book and I genuinely enjoyed the story, but I can attest to it being a somewhat confusing read.
Perhaps because it was translated from Russian or due to the fact that it’s literally 100 years old, We wasn’t a leisurely read. Much of the story is told in prose and imagery, to the point that the reader is not always entirely sure what’s happening and what’s metaphorical, a disruption only compounded by the use of invented terminology, along with words that have simply fallen out of fashion in the last century. There was some definite rereading required and that made for a tedious experience. I’d ultimately recommend the book, but it’s by no means light. The juice is still worth the squeeze, however and I give We three stars.
7. Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
I tried and failed to read this book about 10 years ago, when I was going through my divorce, and that was probably for the best, because this is not a book to read when you’re already depressed. Flowers for Algernon was another title that was told entirely through first person journal entries and medical reports, so I’m thrilled that I spent the last couple of years training my brain to comprehend audiobooks. People often judge the quality of an audiobook by the reader, but unless it’s either really good or really bad, I rarely care. The narrator for Flowers for Algernon, however, was fantastic. As the book progresses and simple-minded Charlie Gordon undergoes the same procedure as test subject mouse, Algernon, the narrator becomes noticeably, but gradually, more articulate. As Charlie surpasses his colleagues, his voice becomes more arrogant, espousing scientific jargon and passing judgement on everyone around him. As he sees Algernon failing and his own mind begins to degrade, he sounds frantic with terror and humiliation. This is a good book, but an excellent audiobook and quite possibly one of the few that left me near tears… at least without a dog dying. Five devastating stars.