What to read when not reading science fiction

Friday, 10 February 2012 14:55

While my reading list is heavily science fiction these days, I haven’t always read exclusively in the genre. I have posted before about my relatively small home SF/F library – if I have a book on my shelf, it’s because I really, really, love it. As I am about to embark on a SF-only research and reading binge for the foreseeable future, I thought it would be fun to write up a quick post about my non-SF favourite reads. Looking at the list of titles now, I can already see that I had an interest in stories about other worlds and other times. Transitioning into SF was a natural progression of my reading tastes. Here are some of my all-time favourite novels:

The Master and Margarita (1966) by Mikhail Bulgakov

In my undergrad days, I took a few Russian Literature courses – reading Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita was among one of my first transcendent reading experiences. Not only does he perform a crushing satire of Stalin’s regime, but his use of magic realism, historical revision, and grotesque and enigmatic characters, still captures my imagination today even though it’s been nearly a decade since I last read it. A novel I will return to throughout my life.

Doctor Zhivago (1958) by Boris Pasternak

The divided heart of poet. The Russian Revolution. That damn Lara. I’m not usually one for reading romances, but Pasternak’s story of love, morality, faith, art, and the human spirit will tear at the heartstrings of even the most hardened of us. Plus, there’s a really great film adaptation to watch once you’re done reading the book.

Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys

A minimalist novel – there is a story that Rhys felt that only one or two words were superfluous in the entire text – that made me say, “yes, I am a feminist and I want to read more books like this” (I was about 18, 19). Inspired by Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Rhys tells the story of Antoinette Cosway, a “Creole heiress” in 1830s Jamaica. A favourite novel to use in undergrad classes about postcolonialism and feminism, I highly recommend Wide Sargasso Sea to anyone who enjoys reading (feminist) revisions of classic texts.

The Passion (1987) by Jeanette Winterson

Admission: I own every Winterson book, except her latest two. As an undergrad, I was kinda Winterson crazy. And that’s okay. I ended up writing my Master’s thesis on her work. While my love affair with her has dimmed substantially over the past decade, I still love The Passion. The narrative is somewhere between fairy-tale, historical revision, and magic realism, but really it is Winterson’s ability to express the turmoil of unrequited love that makes this book a winner for me. If you like The Passion, try Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry (1989) as a follow up.

Wild Geese (1925) by Martha Ostenso

An early Canadian masterpiece of modern realist fiction – it has all the dreariness and weight of Wuthering Heights, but set in the wild prairies and with a kickass heroine (Judith Gare). Never have I hated a character so thoroughly and purely as much as the tyrant father, Caleb Gare (that bastard!). Wild Geese is a truly remarkable – and readable – piece of Canadian literature. If you can find it, read it.

You Just Can’t Win (1926/reprint 1988, 2000) by Jack Black

A truly wonderful and rich autobiography of Jack Black, a yegg (criminal) scratching out survival in the hobo underworld in early America. A narrative of a forgotten part of American history, filled with real life characters who have names like Salt Chunk Mary and Foot-and-a-half George, make this the best damn autobiography I have ever read. Seriously. Someone needs to make a movie of You Just Can’t Win. I have sworn that if no one else will do it in the next 5 years, I will start writing the screen play adaptation myself.

There are other favs on my list, but these 6 titles are definitely at the top of the pile. I am not one for re-reading novels, but I have read all of these at least twice and intend to go back to them in the future. Happy reading everyone!

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