Here are some Mr. McAteer-specific thoughts about the books I’m asking you to choose from. You can refer to Jack Murnighan’s Beowulf on the Beach if you want a little bit of a preview.
Crime and Punishment – I read this in my post-college years when I began thinking it would be good to read the books I should have read while I was in school. (I wasn’t even thinking about becoming a teacher yet, but I was becoming such a loser that I went to a Halloween party as Tom Joad from The Grapes of Wrath. Nobody knew who the heck I was, and nobody really stuck around for the explanation, either.) Anyhoo, books with a political tinge to them always captured my interest.
Dostoevsky wrote the book as a piece of social document fiction, as a way of examining the conditions that bred urban crime in post-feudal Russia. But the book is so much more than a mirror to social problems; every character in it has his or her own life, own problems, own doubts and desires. You’ll have to get through the problems that the Russian names will present for you, but there are strategies for that. You’ll also want to say, Yes, I get it; he has a fever; but that might help you learn when it’s time to read vertically.
In the end, it’s a story of redemption, and I am a sucker for those.
White Teeth – I read this sometime around 2000 when Mary Smith, our former department chair, was gushing about Zadie Smith. Because the humor is very British, by which I mean straight, deadpan-ish, expecting-the-audience-to-be-smart-enough-to-get-it, I enjoyed it for the subtleties in disconnects and characterization. It is also the most accessible of the novels because significant chunks of it are about characters around your age.
The other engaging part about this book is its intelligence. As you read, you‘ll really be amazed at how much Zadie Smith knows (and to think she was only about 22 when she wrote it). The story concludes at a Y2K scientific presentation, and its dualities, its themes of fate and free will, science and religion, of the non-linearity of time, collide in a way that would make Aristotle admire its plot construction. If you’ve ever wondered if “everything happens for a reason,” this book should be on your list, if not now, then at some time in the future.
The Brothers Karamazov – This is one of those books that I bought two years before I was ready to read it. Its size and its ambition are a little intimidating. But I read Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, a hilarious little novel that makes constant references to TBK, and I realized that the universe was telling me it was time to dig in to the novel.
The first few chapters are challenging because most of the characters aren’t folks you’d love to spend time with. But I like goodness, and Alyosha is a character I still rely on when I need to be a better self than I am in my day-to-day life. The book is Dostoevsky’s crowning achievement, and if you like big ideas, then this is the book among the five that deals with big ideas in the biggest way. For me, it is the most inspiring of the books, and maybe that’s because it requires the most from me as a reader.
One Hundred Years of Solitude – In addition to liking inspiring and thought-provoking stories, I also like messing with people. Garcia Marquez loves to mess with reality, with your sense of time, your sense of propriety. He also writes incredible sentences. You might recall Garcia Marquez from “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.” If you can go with a story when it doesn’t make literal sense because you can see the story as an adventure, you might like this one. There are themes in it, of course, but it takes a lot of retrospection to discover them. And when you pass by themes because the story was too weird or too interesting for you to stop and write notes, then you know you’re enjoying the book.
This is not a book for everybody. If you need a protagonist, you’re not getting one. If you need a core conflict that the story intends to resolve, look someplace else. If you need the events of a story to make sense within the laws of physics, the magic part of this realism might not be your thing.
A Tale of Two Cities – Yes, the beginning is as boring as all get-out, whatever that means. But there is something poetically pleasing about the structure of Dickens’ novel, and if you’re a sucker for redemption narratives, and you don’t mind getting banged over the head with symbolism, then you’ll enjoy this story. And if you like history, particularly the French Revolution and the way it changed human behavior, the way noble goals led to corrupt behavior, then this is an illuminating read.
One thing that I particularly love about this novel is the way Charles Dickens makes sentences. His sensibility is much, much different from GGM’s, but I have found that I unconsciously imitate Dickens’ style in my own writing when I read or re-read this book, and you could do far, far worse than to emulate Charles Dickens in the way you write.
FYI, if peer recommendations are useful to you: Last year, of 50 students who did not have A Tale of Two Cities as a choice, the distribution broke down like this: 22 read Crime and Punishment; 12 took on The Brothers Karamazov; 13 read White Teeth; 3 read Cien Anos de Soledad.