While many readers will habitually gravitate toward novels with happy endings, the darker and more morose among us(myself included) harbor an uncanny, compelling attraction to venture into the most tragic of stories. Here are the top ten novels that may require copious amounts of your favorite adult beverage to recover from.
1.)Tess of the d’Urbervilles-Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy, without dispute, wrote some of the most depressing stories in all literature. The heroine of this particular story is a young, beautiful and incredibly unfortunate girl named Tess Durbeyfield, who, through the course of the novel, is the victim of so many emotional disasters that it almost beggars belief that any human being could suffer such an accursed fate.
2.) The House of Mirth-Edith Wharton
The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, chronicles the life of Lily Bart, a Manhattan socialite who was truly born before her time and suffers the consequent fate that usually befalls such women in literature. Lily is born into New York high society and, like most women of her class is expected to marry a rich man to support her. Lily fails to do so, and the novel depicts her subsequent plunge through the various social strata of polite society. Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of the novel is the “what could have been?” nature of her relationship with Lawrence Seldon, which culminates in the heartwrenching last scene of the novel.
3.) Ethan Frome-Edith Wharton
Ahhh….Ethan Frome and the pain of unrequited love. This is the only book where death would have resulted in a happier ending. Read it and you’ll understand exactly what I mean. Poor Ethan Frome is an isolated farmer residing in the one of the bleakest of settings-a cold, desolate New England winter. Life isn’t much warmer on the inside of Ethan’s home as he finds himself trapped with his frigid, shrewish wife Zeena. On the positive side, Ethan does get to experience an ephemeral glimmer of true love, but that’s all that Wharton plans to allow him in her apparent quest to unseat Thomas Hardy as literature’s great purveyor of doom.
4.) A Thousand Splendid Suns-Khaled Hosseini
A Thousand Splendid Suns was a book that haunted me for days after I read it. It’s one thing to know and understand the desperate plight of many women in the Middle East through statistics and media depictions; it’s quite another to feel that plight through the characters of Mariam and Laila, two very different women who come from disparate backgrounds, but whose lives are entwined in their mutual struggles in a repressive society. The ending is devasting and poignant in equal measure.
5.) Nineteen Eighty-Four-George Orwell
“Big Brother is watching you!” “Newspeak.” “Thought police.” Et cetera. Et cetera. George Orwell’s nightmare vision of the totalitarian state has provided some of the most iconic catchphrases in the modern political vocabulary, but its most depressing life lesson is that one man cannot overcome the power of the state.
6.) The Wings of the Dove-Henry James
The Wings of the Dove was written by Henry James in the beginning half of the 20th century, and it depicts the tragically brief life of young American heiress Milly Theale and the effect her life has on a young couple who seek to use her for money before she succumbs to her illness. There is something so very touching about the character of Milly, but by the end of the novel, you’ll not only feel sorry for her but for the two other main characters whom James portrays in all their raw vulnerability and moral weakness.
7.) The Painted Veil-W. Somerset Maugham
Set in England and Hong Kong in the 1920s, The Painted Veil tells the story of idealistic, yet selfish and spoiled Kitty Fane, who finds herself trapped in a marriage with a socially awkward, but brilliant scientist who is completely her opposite. Unsurprisingly, Kitty ultimately embarks on an adulterous affair. Out of hurt and revenge, her husband, Walter Fane, drags her along with him into the middle of a cholera epidemic that he has been assigned to research and treat in colonial China. At the heart of the story is a failure to communicate, as Kitty is unable to see and appreciate the extraordinary character of her husband, and Walter is unable what motivates his wife and her decisions. The 2004 movie adaptation starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts provides a mutual catharsis and redemptive quality to the ultimately heartbreaking ending, but Maugham’s novel is nothing but brutal, unmitigated suffering for the characters until the very last chapter.
8.) Where the Red Fern Grows-Wilson Rawls
Where the Red Fern Grows is the story of Billy and his coonhounds who are on a quest to capture the coveted and elusive raccoon. The ending is quite bittersweet—but,wait, who am I kidding? Reading it was one of the most traumatic experiences of my sixth-grade year :(. I don’t think I’ve ever fully recovered…
9.) Jude the Obscure-Thomas Hardy
Published in 1895, Jude the Obscure was the last book written by Thomas Hardy, as it proved so scandalous among the Victorian reading public that Hardy finally threw down his pen in frustration and retired from the writing life. The plot follows the life of bright, ambitious Jude Fawley and his attempt to succeed against the forces of society and fate in his ambition to learn and love. I was actually a little afraid to read this book due its daunting reputation as the most depressing book in English literature, and although I came out of the experience relatively unscathed, I have to say that there is one scene in the book that is so devastating that it actually made me feel physically ill.
10.) Night-Eli Weisel
Night by Elie Wiesel is truly in a class by itself. In contrast to the other books on this list, it’s steeped in the reality and horror of the Holocaust. Wiesel is unabashedly candid about life in the Nazi death camps as he seeks to ensure that the world never forgets the inherent horror and tragedy that arises from man’s inhumanity to man. If you can only find time to read one book on this list, this is the one to read, because you won’t walk away the same person you were before you read it.
Unfortunately, I’ve been remiss in my blogging lately, but I have recently ventured into the world of video making. Here is my first attempt at making decent video with a (what else?) period drama theme. Enjoy!
“If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.”-Ralph Waldo Emerson
A few months ago, I was invited to write about the top ten books that have influenced my life. I’ve been an avid reader since I was a small child, so attempting to narrow down the ten most significant books I’ve read was a gargantuan task. However, after pondering it over for a long time, I decided that the following books were going to be the ones to make the cut. Keep in mind, these aren’t necessarily the most enjoyable books I’ve read, and many of my favorite authors are nowhere to be found on this list. Rather, these are books that I related to on a deeply personal level, ones that took me on a journey that changed my life for the better.
Anyone who’s listened to me talk about authors for any length of time knows that C.S. Lewis is my favorite writer. I owe an extreme debt of gratitude to Lewis for writing this book, because it taught me that being a Christian and being an intellectual are not mutually exclusive things.
Ahhh, Dostoevsky. I consider Dostoevsky to not only be one of the greatest authors who ever lived, but one of humanity’s greatest sages. Although all of his books are brilliant, I consider The Brothers Karamozov to be his masterpiece. I’ve never read an author who can plumb the depths of our psychology, our humanity, and the virtues and vices that lie within our souls with the probing insight and courageous honesty that he does. In The Brothers Karamozov, Dostoevsky represents various spiritual and moral worldviews within the characters of three brothers, and illustrates how those worldviews motivate their decisions and lead them to their ultimate fates. In doing so, Dostoevsky keenly examines the most poignant questions of existence that define us as humans to this day.
Kay Redfield Jamison is a psychiatrist who intricately weaves her personal struggles with bipolar disorder into an autobiography that contains some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read. A renowned psychiatrist, Jamison kept her condition a secret for years out of fear that it would compromise her professional reputation. I, for one, am grateful that she “came out of the closet” and wrote this book, because it gave me a greater understanding of my own experiences with bipolar disorder in my family.
This is an incredibly enlightening book written by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, and it truly opened my eyes to the plight women of many third-world countries. Women truly do hold up “half the sky,” and affording them the means to live a life comprised of dignity and hope is an integral component of any plan to achieve greater prosperity and equality in their societies.
There are many writers whose prose I greatly admire, but whenever I read anything by Sylvia Plath, I feel like I’m reading something that came from my own soul. I feel such a great kinship with Plath, and I believe that her most famous book, The Bell Jar, will forever serve as a bittersweet balm for women who have experienced the same travails as Sylvia, and a clarion call for our society to expand their empathy to include not only those who suffer from diseases of the body, but also those of the mind.
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis reveals once again what a stunning insight he had into human nature. The book details the correspondence between a senior demon named Screwtape and his nephew, Wormwood, a junior tempter who is learning the fine art of corrupting a human’s soul. It’s wickedly funny, but also spot-on in a way that positions you face-to-face with the vices and the weaknesses you’d rather not admit you have.
I found this book to be so psychologically haunting that I was unable to sleep for almost two nights after I read it. There’s been a theory floating about the Internet as of late, that reading fiction leads to greater empathy. If that’s truly the case(and I very well believe it could be), then I think all women(and men, too) should read this book. A Thousand Splendid Suns chronicles, in vivid and excruciating detail, the plight of two Muslim women in a fundamentalist society that treats women as little more than cattle. You can read about women forced into polygamous marriages, dying in honor killings, etc. in the news as much as you want, but the greatest way to truly understand what life is like for these women, aside from traveling to their countries and seeing it for yourself, is to “become” the female protagonist in a novel such as this. I saw life through the eyes of Mariam, and I’ll never be the same.
I hesitated to add this book, because it’s so frequently found on top ten lists that it almost feels like a generic addition to my own. However, this book has reached such a height of immense popularity for a reason. Holocaust survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl quickly learned through his experience in Nazi concentration camps that there was a vast difference between many of the people who survived and those who did not, and that essential difference was meaning. Frankl teaches that fundamental truth about happiness is that you can’t find through merely striving for it, rather, it can only be found as a byproduct of finding meaning in your life.
According to Myers-Briggs typology, I am an INFP, and learning that as a senior in high school was the key to discovering who I truly am. Thank you, Isabel Briggs Myers, for writing this book and leading me to a greater understand and acceptance of my unique qualities, and for leading me to wonderful friends who share my type, people who I consider to be my soul mates in this life.
Now, after writing about all of these incredibly deep and intellectual books, you might wonder why I’m ending my list with a popular series of children’s books. The simple fact of the matter is if I had never picked up a Nancy Drew book, I might never have become the reader I am today. The Nancy Drew books kindled my lifelong passion of reading and gave me a female role model who was strong, intelligent, and fully capable of solving any mystery, not to mention saving herself from any predicament that came her way. What more could a young girl ask for? The Nancy Drew series will forever hold a very special place in my heart.
In my previous post, I listed the best fiction books I read in 2013. However, 2013 was also a year that led me to a number of wonderful nonfiction books, and there were so many that I found it very difficult to narrow down my list to just eight. Here are my favorite books from my Goodreads list in 2013, and their descriptions from that site.
The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis.-C.S. Lewis has retained his position as my all-time favorite author, and The Abolition of Man certainly did not disappoint. The Abolition of Man comes in at fewer than 100 pages, but those 100 pages have the power to transform the way one looks at the vital importance and transformational power of universal ethics.
“C. S. Lewis sets out to persuade his audience of the importance and relevance of universal values such as courage and honor in contemporary society.”
What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist–The Facts of Daily Life in 19-century England by Daniel Pool.-The concept behind this book can be summed up by this famous quote-“The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” It’s a book I wish I would have read prior to reading the great works of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and their contemporaries. There are so many cultural references in Austen and Dickens that fly over the heads of modern-day readers, and I’m looking forward to revisiting their novels with the knowledge I gained from this book, and seeing how it might change my interpretation of them.
“Essays provide a view of British life during the nineteenth century.”(Short and sweet, I know)
Ethnic America: A History by Thomas Sowell-I have a long-standing love affair with history and a keen interest in different cultures, so imagine my excitement when I came across this book. It outlines the history of the most prominent ethnic groups in America and how they acclimated to each other, as well as the culture at large.
“This classic work by the distinguished economist traces the history of nine American ethnic groups—the Irish, Germans, Jews, Italians, Chinese, African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Mexicans.”
Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans-This is hands-down my most ambitious non-fiction book from 2013. Homans took on the unbelievably arduous task of condensing the entire history of ballet into a mere 672 pages(see, when you look at it from that standpoint, 672 pages isn’t so bad..). I learned a great deal about the origins of ballet and how it was shaped and molded by several different cultures as it progressed into the form we know of today. However, I was a little saddened by the author’s rather bleak view of the future of ballet.
The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir-Ahh, what more can one say about Henry VIII? Evidently, Alison Weir felt that enough has been said him, as she chose to focus on his wives in the well-researched and wonderfully written book. Ever since I sat in my high school history class and learned about Henry VIII and his rather unfortunate wives, I’ve had a morbid fascination with him. Not only did this book give me a greater understanding of his more famous wives-Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, I also gave me the opportunity to learn more about the wives who have slipped in between the pages of history-such as Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard.
“The tempestuous, bloody, and splendid reign of Henry VIII of England (1509-1547) is one of the most fascinating in all history, not least for his marriage to six extraordinary women. In this accessible work of brilliant scholarship, Alison Weir draws on early biographies, letters, memoirs, account books, and diplomatic reports to bring these women to life. Catherine of Aragon emerges as a staunch though misguided woman of principle; Anne Boleyn, an ambitious adventuress with a penchant for vengeance; Jane Seymour, a strong-minded matriarch in the making; Anne of Cleves, a good-natured and innocent woman naively unaware of the court intrigues that determined her fate; Catherine Howard, an empty-headed wanton; and Catherine Parr, a warm-blooded bluestocking who survived King Henry to marry a fourth time.”
An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison-This memoir easily wins the most compelling, though-provoking and emotionally touching spot on my list of books this year. Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison not only is one of the foremost experts on bipolar disorder in the country, but she’s also longtime sufferer of it. Jamison’s prose is so beautiful that it’s actually poetic in many instances, and the immediacy and power of Hamilton’s experiences and her breathtakingly poignant views on life inspired me in an incredibly profound way.
“In her bestselling classic, An Unquiet Mind, Kay Redfield Jamison changed the way we think about moods and madness.
Dr. Jamison is one of the foremost authorities on manic-depressive (bipolar) illness; she has also experienced it firsthand. For even while she was pursuing her career in academic medicine, Jamison found herself succumbing to the same exhilarating highs and catastrophic depressions that afflicted many of her patients, as her disorder launched her into ruinous spending sprees, episodes of violence, and an attempted suicide.
Here Jamison examines bipolar illness from the dual perspectives of the healer and the healed, revealing both its terrors and the cruel allure that at times prompted her to resist taking medication. An Unquiet Mind is a memoir of enormous candor, vividness, and wisdom—a deeply powerful book that has both transformed and saved lives.”
The Brontes: Wild Genius on the Moors by Juliet Barker-
I almost cried when I finished this book. I felt like I actually knew them-Patrick, Branwell, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne-Juliet Barker truly brought them all to life for me. If you love Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre or any of the other books the Brontes have written, this book will give you a greater psychological insight into what inspired the characters and themes within their stories.
“The tragic story of the Bronte family is well known, replete with a half-mad father, a wastrel of a brother, and three uniquely gifted – and oppressed – sisters. But beyond these familiar details, the Brontes’ story has remained largely obscure. This landmark book is the first definitive history of this fascinating family. Based on eleven years of research among newly discovered letters by every member of the family, original manuscripts, and the newspapers of that time, it gives a new and fuller picture of the Brontes’ lives from beginning to end and, in the process, demolishes many myths. The father, Patrick, was not, as commonly believed, the cold patriarch of a family of victims. Charlotte, ruthlessly self-willed, ran roughshod over her sisters and went so far as to alter or destroy their manuscripts when she disapproved. Emily was so psychologically and physically dependent on her fantasy life that she could not survive in the outside world. Anne, widely regarded as the gentlest of the sisters, had a core of steel and was a more daring and revolutionary author than Charlotte. Branwell, the adored brother, was a talented poet who provided much of Charlotte’s inspiration.”
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham-““I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.“-President John F. Kennedy. Long before I had even heard of this book, Thomas Jefferson captivated me more than any of the Founding Fathers. There was something so enigmatic and paradoxical about his character-just when you think you might have an idea of what was going on his psyche, he throws you a curve-ball and says or does something that seems completely out of character. Meacham lends flesh and blood to the Jefferson we learn about in history books, and after reading this book you will walk away with a clearer understanding of who Jefferson was-his beliefs, his passions, his dreams and his downfalls-while still leaving Jefferson as intriguing as when you first found him.
The Jefferson story resonates today not least because he led his nation through ferocious partisanship and cultural warfare amid economic change and external threats, and also because he embodies an eternal drama, the struggle of the leadership of a nation to achieve greatness in a difficult and confounding world.”
I did it! At the beginning of 2013, I set the (somewhat) overly ambitious goal of reading 60 books in one year. Prior to that, the largest number of books I had read in a year was 50, and I considered that a major accomplishment. Last week, I completed my 60th book of the year, thus narrowly completing my goal a mere two weeks before the deadline. Although I’m very proud of my accomplishment, I’m planning to reduce my reading list next year so I can hone in on more classic authors and some lengthy, in-depth biographies of some of my favorite writers, poets, and classic movie actors. I would be remiss not share a few of my new favorite books with the blogosphere, so I put quite a lot of thought into what fiction books I thought were the best. Here is my list of the six best fiction books I read in 2013, accompanied by a brief description taken from from Goodreads, the website where I chronicled my books and completed my challenge.
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham-This novel is said to be a semi-autobiography of Maugham’s life, and if his main character, Philip, was anything like Maugham, I have a feeling we would have gotten along quite well. This quintessential Maugham novel deals with human entanglements, or “human bondage,” that keep us in situations and in relationships that our detrimental to our well-being. How much control do we really have over life and love, and is the freedom we long for illusory? Maugham addresses this and many other themes in this classic novel.
“Originally published in 1915, Of Human Bondage is a potent expression of the power of sexual obsession and of modern man’s yearning for freedom. This classic novel tells the story of Philip Carey, a sensitive boy born with a club foot who is orphaned and raised by a religious aunt and uncle. Philip yearns for adventure, and at eighteen leaves home, eventually pursuing a career as an artist in Paris. When he returns to London to study medicine, he meets the androgynous but alluring Mildred and begins a doomed love affair that will change the course of his life. There is no more powerful story of sexual infatuation, of human longing for connection and freedom. ”
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder-I know I have said this ad nauseam, but I really do think this book should be required reading for every Philosophy 101 class. The story is fantastic on its own level, but its genius lies in the way the book allows you to see through the eyes of the great philosophers in history. Don’t be surprised if you get a sense of whiplash by how quickly and dramatically the story twists and turns depending on the philosophical glasses you are reading it with.
“One day fourteen-year-old Sophie Amundsen comes home from school to find in her mailbox two notes, with one question on each: “Who are you?” and “Where does the world come from?” From that irresistible beginning, Sophie becomes obsessed with questions that take her far beyond what she knows of her Norwegian village. Through those letters, she enrolls in a kind of correspondence course, covering Socrates to Sartre, with a mysterious philosopher, while receiving letters addressed to another girl. Who is Hilde? And why does her mail keep turning up? To unravel this riddle, Sophie must use the philosophy she is learning—but the truth turns out to be far more complicated than she could have imagined.”
Sea Change by Karen White-This book doesn’t have quite as much depth as the others on my list, but if you are fascinated by reincarnation, lost love, and unsolved mysteries from the past, this is the book for you.
“For Ava Whalen, a new marriage and a move to St. Simons Island means a new beginning. But what she doesn’t realize is that her marriage will take her on an unexpected journey into the deep recesses of her past that will transform her forever… For as long as she can remember, Ava Whalen has struggled with a sense of not belonging, and now, at thirty-four, she still feels stymied by her family. Then she meets child psychologist Matthew Frazier, and thinks her days of loneliness are behind her. After a whirlwind romance, they impulsively elope, and Ava moves to Matthew’s ancestral home on St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia. But after the initial excitement, Ava is surprised to discover that true happiness continues to elude her. There is much she doesn’t know about Matthew, including the mysterious circumstances surrounding his first wife’s death. And her new home seems to hold as many mysteries and secrets as her new husband. Feeling adrift, Ava throws herself into uncovering Matthew’s family history and that of the island, not realizing that she has a connection of her own to this place—or that her obsession with the past could very well destroy her future.”
To be sung underwater by Tom McNeal-This book definitely took me on an emotional roller coaster ride. The ending was shocking, and, quite frankly, a bit disappointing, but if you’ve ever yearned for a lost love and wondered what life may have been like if you had taken another path(as most of us have), you’ll certainly find this book compelling.
“Judith Whitman always believed in the kind of love that “picks you up in Akron and sets you down in Rio.” Long ago, she once experienced that love. Willy Blunt was a carpenter with a dry wit and a steadfast sense of honor. Marrying him seemed like a natural thing to promise.
But Willy Blunt was not a person you could pick up in Nebraska and transport to Stanford. When Judith left home, she didn’t look back.
Twenty years later, Judith’s marriage is hazy with secrets. In her hand is what may be the phone number for the man who believed she meant it when she said she loved him. If she called, what would he say?
‘To be Sung Underwater’ is the epic love story of a woman trying to remember, and the man who could not even begin to forget.”
The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham-[Taken from my Goodreads review] This novel broke my heart in so many different ways. I have to say that I found the lead character, Kitty, to be exasperating, and I alternated between wanting to punch her, to feeling profoundly sorry for her, to wanting to punch her again, to ultimately coming to some understanding of her humanity. That’s really what this novel is all about-humanity and all the ugliness, the disappointment and the glimmers of redemption that come with it. I had a very difficult time seeing the world through the eyes of Kitty in the beginning because I felt such a connection to Walter’s character. It’s hard to believe that his character appeared so little in the novel, but the author’s description was so vivid that the reader could delve into his psyche without actually experiencing the story from his perspective. Maugham’s depiction of the Walter and Kitty their relationship felt so authentic-his insight into human relationships was unbelievable! Overall, I really appreciate this book as a work of art, even though I have to say I was disappointed in its resolution. But that’s life-sometimes there is no satisfying resolution. This novel is so unsettling for precisely that reason, as there are no clear answers to the plethora of questions that it raises about how much Kitty and Walter were at fault in their own respective situations, and how much the inflexible social mores of the time trapped them into a situation they couldn’t escape from.
“Set in England and Hong Kong in the 1920s, The Painted Veil is the story of the beautiful but love-starved Kitty Fane. When her husband discovers her adulterous affair, he forces her to accompany him to the heart of a cholera epidemic. Stripped of the British society of her youth and the small but effective society she fought so hard to attain in Hong Kong, she is compelled by her awakening conscience to reassess her life and learn how to love.”
Wings of the Dove by Henry James-I have to admit, James’s abstruse, excessively wordy(in my opinion) prose made it difficult for me to get into this novel first, but I’m glad I toughed it out because it really is a gem. How far would you go to be with the person you love, and can you do so without irrevocably changing in the process? James is a master at exploring the depths of the human condition while excoriating the false societal values of his day.
“Set amid the splendor of London drawing rooms and gilded Venetian palazzos, ‘The Wings of the Dove’ is the story of Milly Theale, a naïve, doomed American heiress, and a pair of lovers, Kate Croy and Merton Densher, who conspire to obtain her fortune.
In this witty tragedy of treachery, self-deception, and betrayal, Henry James weaves together three ill-fated and wholly human destinies unexpectedly linked by desire, greed, and salvation.”
Check out the rest of the books I read in 2013 here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/1643382-maria-yohn?read_at=2013
Welcome to my new blog, “Confessions of a Bibliomanic,” my new space to talk about my favorite thing to do-read books! As a young child, my parents and teachers knew I had a strange condition which involved extended hours alone in my bedroom with masses of books piling up in every nook and cranny, but they couldn’t quite put their finger on what to call it. Fortunately, the Webster’s dictionary came to the rescue by giving it a name-bibliomania. In this blog, I hope to talk about the newest and most fascinating books I’ve been reading, as well as my own general musings about writing, literature, my many varied interests and hobbies, and life in general. My current goal is to read 60 books this year, so I should have plenty to talk about!
“So many books, so little time.”-Frank Zappa