Top 100 Books & Summer Reading Lists

Summers come and summers go,  reading lists for students tend to remain a constant, or… no?

According to The Boston Globe, the following are a few titles from high school summer reading lists over the years:

1915-1916 (long list of choices for regular year and summer)

  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau
  • Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  • Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  • Works by Stevenson, Twain, and Dickens

1984 (requirements by grade and academic level)

  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston

2009 (recommendations, not requirements)

  • Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  • Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
  • Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
  • Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith

ah…  the times they are a-changin.

Instead of (or, hopefully, on top of) reading the original Pride and Prejudice, students today are offered the zombies version… optional, of course.  The current view is, students should be enticed to read, not forced to.  Reading is supposed to be fun, after all, it’s summer.  


Around the same time, Newsweek published The Meta-List of Top 100 Books of all time.  The List is a compilation of 10 top book lists, including Modern Library, the New York Public Library, St. John’s College reading list, The Telegraph, The Guardian, Oprah’s, and others.  The Meta-List… the mother of all lists.

Here are the top 30,  just for a taste of the selections.  For the complete list, click on the above link.

  1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869)
  2. 1984 by George Orwell (1949)
  3. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
  4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
  5. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)
  6. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)
  7. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)
  8. The Illiad and The Odyssey by Homer (8th Century B.C.)
  9. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
  10. Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1321)
  11. Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (15th Century)
  12. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)
  13. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1874)
  14. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)
  15. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951)
  16. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
  17. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
  18.  The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
  19. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
  20. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
  21. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
  22. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981)
  23. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
  24. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf  (1925)
  25. Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)
  26. Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville (1835)
  27. On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)
  28. The Histories by Herodotus (440 B.C.)
  29. The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762)
  30. Das Kapital by Karl Marx (1867)

… and so on and so forth.  You get the idea.  Nothing on the top 100 list is later than 1987 (Beloved by Morrison) except Pullman (no. 84), and quite a few dating back to Centuries B.C. 

Now, is this literary elitism that has not caught up with the times?  Or, has our younger generation been short changed by not being taught to appreciate some valuable cultural legacy?  How do we reconcile the discrepancy between what’s recommended to our students and what experts think are the best books ever written?  Or, reading tastes vary, people are free to read whatever they like… Any list produced is therefore prescriptive and hegemonic?

Of course, one  could argue summer reading lists are not academic syllabi, give our students a break.  They’ll have the chance to read these great books at school… or, will they ever?

Still another debate would be the all too familiar struggle  even among book lovers: Literary or Popular Fiction, old or contemporary classics?   How do we choose?   Reading widely or reading deeply?  

 And, the very practical question:  How can I extend my 24 hours? 


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society


“Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.”

A novel in the form of letters?  I admit it wasn’t much of an appeal to me at first. After it has maintained its position on the New York Times Bestseller List for months, and now the trade paperback holding the first spot there, I just can’t resist anymore.

The book begins with a series of letters between a London writer Juliet Ashton and her friend and publisher Sydney Stark shortly after WWII.  Later, upon receiving a letter from Dawsey Adams, a resident of Guernsey of the Channel Islands, Juliet starts to correspond with the charming folks living there.

So how does the book title come about? Guernsey Island was occupied by the Germans during the war.   It happens that one night after a secret ‘pig out’, a few Guernsey residents are found breaking the curfew.  To find an excuse quickly when confronted by German soldiers, Elizabeth, our heroine, makes up the story that she and her fellow members have to leave a literary society meeting late as they’ve been so immersed in a German book.

This impromptu excuse soon takes shape in reality.  Thus begins the odyssey of reading, book discussions, and the members’ correspondences with Juliet Ashton.  Juliet is so immersed in their lives and moved by their situation that she later decides to go visit them, making the Guernsey Literary Society the subject of her next book.

Many of the letters are poignant descriptions of lives during the difficult war years.  The Guernsey residents have to suffer the searing pain of evacuating their own children to England for safety, seeing the young and healthy sent to war, finding others just disappear to concentration camps, and hearing eye witness accounts of heroic sacrifices for utter strangers. While all these years on the Island, they have to endure deprivation of food, basic necessities, and freedom. But the literary society meetings and the few reading materials in their possession remain their lifeline to humanity and dignified living.

“Everyone was sickly from so little nourishment and bleak from wondering if it would ever end.  We clung to books and to our friends; they reminded us that we had another part to us.”

Author Mary Ann Shaffer passed away in February 2008 and was succeeded by her niece Annie Barrows in finishing the novel.  In the Acknowledgment, Shaffer had written these words in December 2007:

“I hope, too, that my book will illuminate my belief that love of art — be it poetry, storytelling, painting, sculpture, or music — enables people to transcend any barrier man has yet devised.”

Despite the subject matter, readers will find the book witty and delightful.  Authors Shaffer and Barrows have depicted a myriad of lively characters, charmingly joined in their humanity by their strengths and weaknesses.  Yes, we can also visualize the madness of war. But we’re relieved to see too that people can weather hardship much better when they have a common bond, here, in the reading and sharing of fine literary works.  Mind you, these are not your academics and scholars.  The Guernsey residents are mainly pig farmers and vegetable growers.  As we read their letters, we soon see them as friends, Amelia, Dawsey, Isola, Eben, Eli, Elizabeth and little Kit…

And, am I such a Jane Austen fan that I’m seeing this:  Juliet Ashton (J.A.), Dawsey (Darcy), and Elizabeth, beloved heroine of all time.

What impresses me most is that the Guernsey Islanders are so willing to open their hearts and lives to writer Juliet, an absolute stranger, mainly because of their common love of the written words.  They find it an honor to be able to correspond with a real life writer, pouring their hearts out in respect and admiration, and quickly confiding in her.  A writer as a celebrity and friend?  It’s just fiction, you may say. But, why can’t it be real?

As for the art of letter writing, has it been lost as some have claimed, or has it merely been transformed into … yes, blogging, for example?  Because as I was reading the book, it flashed by me at times that I was reading some blog posts.  Are the writings that we post in the blogosphere a kind of open letter?  Our exchanges in the comment box our correspondences?  And, to push it a bit further, the telegram of old the early form of twitter?

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, Dial Press Trade Paperback Edition, 2009, 288 pages.


Click here to go to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society website.  As for the potato peel pie recipe, yes, at the Jane Austen Society of North America website.

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall

NocturnesNocturnes is a recently published short stories collection by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Booker Prize winning author.  Like a song cycle, the five stories are arranged with a common motif, alas, the loss of romance.  They take place mainly in Europe, in some romantic settings, like Venice.  The cycle begins and ends there.  Music is the essential backdrop.  It is the common thread linking the various ways the characters attempt to salvage lost love and revive relation stalemates.

Nocturnes is a light read.  The theme could be dealt with seriously, but Ishiguro apparently tries a very different rendition.  I had expected him to depict dreamscapes as he had done with his previous works, such as The Unconsoled, or While We Were Orphans, but I had not expected laugh-out-loud, hilarious scenes.  Unlike the serious tone of The Remains of the Day, we see Ishiguro in a comedic styling.  And, despite the meditative title, it’s not the classical music of Chopin that he has invoked, but Broadway, jazz, Irving Berlin, Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan, and yes, ABBA, just to name a few.

The quintet is composed of ‘Crooner’, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, ‘Malvern Hills’, ‘Nocturne’, and ‘Cellists’.   They touch on a basic question:  Is a marriage finished with the loss of romance?  Is revival even possible after lovers have fallen out of love?

Kazuo Ishiguro

‘Crooner’ is poignant in depicting a once hot, now aging American singer trying to offer a last bit of love to his wife before the inevitable end.

‘Malvern Hills’ has a similar story line, but carries additional sadness in that the dispassion extends to the couple’s only son.

‘Nocturne’ offers an interesting perspective on Beverly Hills’ image-driven quest of the rich and famous, and the up-and-coming. It offers some real fun and sardonic humor.

And ‘Cellists’, well, I really don’t know what to make of it, a story about a cellist who is not a cellist…

The most hilarious scene is in ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’.  In the story, the main character has to cover up a mistake he’s made with the excuse that ‘the dog did it’. So, it’s canine method acting that he has to  take up instantly.  It is in such incredulous scenarios that the dreamscapes of Ishiguro emerge.  But this time it is more like merging reality with comedy romp.

Considering the motif of this literary quintet, Ishiguro’s humorous and sometimes farcical way of dealing could well have offered his readers a fresh perspective on the subject matter.  While Nocturnes may be a good pick for a beach read, I admit that I miss the poignant and pensive mood of The Remains of the Day.  I wish too that Ishiguro would re-visit his previous style in his future work, for his writing can be most subtle and incisive, heart-wrenching without commotion.  I missed such tonal expressions here, and the resonance they could have evoked.

Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro, published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2009, 221 pages.


Photo credit: Jane Brown, 17435-kazuo-ishiguro/

More Great Finds!

Call me greedy.  I’ m happy to take the blame.  Since this is the last weekend of the gigantic used book sale at the Crossroad Market, I just had to go again for more treasure hunting.  If you take a look at my second loot list below, you’d have done the same.  As the lady said when I was squeezing my way in,

“It was a zoo yesterday.”

“You came here yesterday too?”  I asked.

“Yeah, sure!”   (Subtext:  What a dumb question… and, why didn’t you?)

So, again, these are all trade paperbacks in mint condition.  They are all a dollar each (Canadian).

The Selected Stories of Mavis GallantThe Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant:   887 pages.  Having seen the video of Mavis Gallant reading in a Paris book shop and her conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri, thanks to fellow blogger oh introducing the Granta link, I was elated to find this volume.  It looked like it had not been opened, fresh, clean for the picking.


The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe

Short stories, the more the merrier.  I was delighted to find this volume:  The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe, 621 pages.  I’ve long wanted to read Wolfe, now’s a good time.





A Fine BalanceA lady held up a heavy box for me to take this one out underneath:  A Fine Balance by Canadian writer Rohinton Mistry.   “That’s a good pick,” she said.

“I’ve seen it many times, but think it’s too thick,”  I said.

“You wouldn’t want it to end,”  she said.    What higher recommendation can you get for a book?



One Man's BibleOne Man’s Bible by Gao Xingjian, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Chinese recipient of the Prize.  Born in China, Gao has been living in France since 1987.  The book is translated into English by Mabel Lee, associate professor of Chinese at the University of Sydney.  Interesting… although this one I can read the original,  the chance of me finding it in a farmers market here in Cowtown, Canada is not great.  I’ll settle for the translation.


John AdamsI missed the Golden Globe winning TV miniseries.  So, grabbing the original material is just great.  David McCullough’s 721 pages John Adams won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for biography.  This is a handsome movie-tie-in- cover edition with many color pictures.  What a find!




The Radiant WayTalking about wonderful covers.  How about this one:  Margaret Drabble’s The Radiant Way.  I’ve never seen this edition of Drabble’s book.  A pleasure just to look at.




The Devil Wears PradaAnd what’s summer reading without beach reads.  Here’s my copy of The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger.  Again, seldom do I see a trade paperback of this title.






Here are the rest of  my 20 titles:

  • Digging to America by Anne Tyler
  • A Patchwork Planet byAnne Tyler
  • The Navigator of New York by Wayne Johnston (Giller and GG Finalist)
  • Larry’s Party by Carol Shields (Winner of 1998 Orange Prize and National Book Critics Circle Awards)
  • Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (Saw the movie starring Colin Firth, quite liked it.)
  • The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
  • The Reapers by John Connolly
  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (Just want to read it before the movie comes out.)
  • The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (Winner of the 2006 Man Booker Prize)
  • Durable Goods by Elizabeth Berg
  • The Gathering by Anne Enright (Winner of the 2007 Man Booker Prize)
  • Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald
  • The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier (Author of Girl With A Pearl Earring)
  • Bird by Bird:  Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

It’s a tall order to read all the 40 books I hauled back these two weekends.  It’ll take me years.  But as any book lover can attest, it’s good to know they’re on my shelves.


Summer Reading 2009

When does ‘regular reading’ end and ‘summer reading” begin?  Well this year it’s easy.  The gigantic used book sale I went to over the weekend and the loot I brought back make it official:  Let summer reading 2009 begin.

The treasures I found were trade paperbacks in like-new condition.  And because I had twenty, they cost me just one dollar each.  Right, that’s Canadian dollar, even a better bargain.  How I found them was an ordeal.  They were painstakingly selected under smoldering heat at a farmers’ market.  For two hours, I elbowed my way in to grab hold of my targets which I had to eye from a distance over heads and shoulders.  But it’s all worth it.

Here’s a picture and a list of the titles I brought back:

Used Book Sale Loot 1

  • The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • Simple Recipes by Madeleine Thien
  • Desperate Characters by Paula Fox
  • Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures by Vincent Lam (Giller Prize Winner)
  • The Sea by John Banville (Man Booker Prize Winner)
  • Saturday by Ian McEwan
  • Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
  • Daisy Miller by Henry James
  • The Stories of Edith Wharton selected by Anita Brookner
  • The Mapmaker’s Opera by Béa Gonzalez
  • Always Now The Collected Poetry of Margaret Avison
  • Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler (Pulitzer Author)
  • The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (Booker Prize Winner)
  • Marginalia: A Cultural Reader by Mark Kingwell
  • Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
  • A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman
  • Lost Souls by Lisa Jackson
  • Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood
  • Exit Music by Ian Rankin

Some of these titles I’ve long wanted to read, like Goodbye, Columbus and Rebecca.   Some are just well known titles or authors that I think I should read, like Tolstoy, Franzen and Tyler.   Some are winners of book prizes that I usually enjoy, the Booker, Giller, Pulitzer.   Some are fine Canadian authors and one of my favorite poets.   And some I’m just curious about like A Natural History of the Senses.  But one stands out.  This time, I’m literally judging a book by its cover:

Front Cover Mapmaker's Opera

Back Cover Mapmaker's Opera

The above are the front and back cover of the book.  There’s no title, only on the spine.  It’s enjoyable just looking at it.  But the title is appealing too:  The Mapmaker’s Opera.

Together with the books I’m already reading, plus my long TBR list, I think I’m topped up till next summer.

For More Great Finds, Click Here.