After finishing The Harshbarger List and The Dusty List, I set about to make a new list for what I believe will be an impossible task: to have a bookshelf where every single one of my books has been read.
No Book Left Behind takes up the 19 books still left on my shelves after finally reading everything that had been languishing and dusty for more than three years. They are listed here in order of preference. Plays and short stories made up almost half of my remaining titles.
The Bartender’s Tale, by Ivan Doig
This was the first book I read under the No Book Left Behind banner, and it stayed firmly as the favorite through the 13 months that it took me to complete the list. It was a wonderful book, with great character development and story-line. I’ve also read English Creek by the same author, and of the two I preferred this one. Mr. Doig has such a wonderful way with words.
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy is an expert plot and character developer. His battle descriptions are so honest and unlike what I’ve read in any other war novel. It’s obvious that he spent time with the army. I wish that the translator/publisher had included a map of the battles, and I wish the Russian names would have been kept instead of the English (Nicholas, Mary, Natalie, Andrew were used instead of Nikolei, Maria, Natalija, and Andrei) I enjoyed the novel, although I preferred the ‘peace’ to the ‘war’ sections. Tolstoy occasionally waxes philosophical, which I didn’t mind until the second epilogue, which was 30 pages of it. Surely one epilogue is enough for everyone?
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah
A compelling memoir of a boy who survived the civil war in his country, losing everything, including his own soul. His candid story-telling made the book read very quickly, and my heart ached for him.
The Long Walk, by Slovomir Rawicz
Wow, what a story. Mr. Rawicz was a Polish man who was captured by the Russians, shipped to Siberia, made to walk to the camp for hundreds of miles in the winter, and then later escaped with six other inmates all the way to India. The story was well-told and jaw-dropping. Against incredible odds, four of the original seven men arrived at their destination a year later. The author has a pleasing, candid style of writing. The movie version titled this story “The Way Back.” (If nothing else, watch the trailer to get an idea of the terrain these men traversed.)
The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs
I enjoyed this book immensely. The author made it his mission to take the Bible as literally as possible for a year. He devoted his first eight months to the Old Testament, and the last four to the New. I feel he gave better weight to the Old Testament, as he had grown up in a secular Jewish family. He didn’t have the mind dilemma of going through the motions, even as the rules were pretty strict in modern day New York City. His biggest set-back for the New Testament is that you actually have to accept Christ as your savior to really get the full experience, which he wasn’t willing to do. The author is a secular liberal, so he was at odds with a lot of things in the Bible, but I also thought he did a great job of being fair and presenting both sides. Both atheist and religious alike thanked him for his honesty and transparency. It’s a momentous task. I used to be much better about reading my Bible daily, but I’ve fallen off in recent years. This book was an inspiration to start that up again.
Richard III, by William Shakespeare
There were a couple of things that didn’t add up for me in the actual historical timeline, but on the whole I enjoyed this play very much, and I tried to stage and direct it the way it would have been done in my high school’s theater, The Black Box. The part I would have wanted for myself was Anne. I’d love to see this performed.
I am Legend, and Other Stories, by Richard Matheson
Richard Matheson was a writer that Stephen King described as influential to his own work. I could easily see the connection. This was a collection of short stories: I am Legend was the longest and most developed, and while this doesn’t happen often, I preferred the movie to the book. I loved the visual from the movie of an abandoned New York instead of an abandoned suburban neighborhood. I also liked it set in the modern day. I never quite caught on to the difference between a dead and living vampire. The rest of the stories were much shorter, in some cases only one or two pages. All of the stories were macabre or involved an element of the supernatural. My favorite was Mad House.
The Bachman Books: Four Early Novels, by Stephen King
Four short novels made up this collection under Stephen King’s alias, Richard Bachman. Rage: It’s a weird thing to say, but this story about a school shooting and hostage situation was a little slow for me. Part of it was the language. I start to tune out when the language is so course. The other issue was that this story about a school shooting written in the 1970s has so little in common with the horrible reality of what my generation knows school shootings are actually like. The Long Walk: It started out pretty interesting, and I made comparisons to The Hunger Games. A group of boys compete against each other in a walk to the death. After five days of walking, the action was a bit tedious. They start out walking, and two hundred pages later they’re still walking. Since you know who’s going to ‘win’ (or at least finish close to the top, otherwise the story ends) you’re just waiting for these boys to die so that Garraty can finally go home. Roadwork: This was my second favorite, although it flagged for me through the middle. I thought it did the best of the short stories towards building up to the finale, and what an explosive finale. I guess I also have a better association with the characters and the sense of hopelessness one feels as the landscape around your home clears to make way for construction and buildings you don’t want. The Running Man: This one was easily my favorite of the four novels. I do love a future dystopian society with a clever and defiant protagonist. Even more than The Long Walk, this novel reminded me of The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins must have read it and been inspired. A televised fight to the death, only this time every citizen in the world is fighting for the death of one person. Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in the movie. Reflecting back on all of the books, it was strange to read about a school shooting that was written pre-Columbine, and strange to read about a plane hitting a tower that was written pre-September 11.
Days of Dreams and Laughter: The Story Girl and Other Tales, by L.M. Montgomery
This book actually should have belonged in my Dusty Book List. A collection of short stories: The Story Girl, The Golden Road and Kilmeny of the Orchard. This would have been given to me in elementary school, because I enjoyed Anne of Green Gables by the same author. The vein of the stories was the same, and it was fun to revisit the world of Prince Edward Island in that time period. I was pleased that the personalities were completely different. Anne would remain my literary favorite. The first story dragged a bit for me, but the other two passed swiftly.
Three Plays, by Thornton Wilder
Our Town: I remember discussing the play in high school. It was a study in miming absolutely every activity and making it look believable. The final act gave me chills. The Skin of Our Teeth: This was a strange play. The plot takes one family through the epochs of humanity, starting as cavemen with a pet dinosaur. There’s hunger, disaster, infidelity, jealousy, and just plain weirdness. My thought upon concluding? “Huh.” The Matchmaker: This one was very amusing and entertaining – easily my favorite of the three plays. Once it dawned on me that it was the basis for the musical Hello, Dolly! I had the music playing through my head every time I opened the book. I imagined with pleasure how it would be performed in the Black Box.
Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton
It started out with a lot of excitement, and I was reading it with a child-like thrill, but even as the action picked up the story started dragging for me. The first introduction to the dinosaurs was anti-climatic – they get out of the helicopter, and there they are – no suspense, footprints, strange smells, goosebumps… I also thought there was no character development. There were just people with different skills who got killed off. The two kids were especially annoying, and acted in ways to me completely uncharacteristic for their age and comprehension. 8-12 year old kids who have just witnessed a t-Rex attack are not going to be bickering and whining about how hungry they are with the Rex still in the vicinity.
To Hope or Die, by Edmund Szybicki
A memoir of the Warsaw uprising and and Sachsenhausen concentration camp, this book dealt more heavily in the aftermath of the war and what life was like as a refugee in Sweden. It was very interesting to read, especially now with so many refugees fleeing the current Syrian war and flooding into Europe. Mr. Syzbicki wasn’t a religious, rather a political refugee, but even he still experienced discrimination. I wondered why he only made one trip back to his native country after being liberated from the camps. Poland was still under communist rule for a long time, but the wall in Berlin came down in 1989, and he never mentioned Poland again after his one visit 20 years later. He never tried to get his family to join him as asylum seekers.
Girl in Translation, by Jean Kwok
This book was a good introduction to learning about the sweat shops within the United States in the 20th century, but I didn’t find it particularly well-written. The ending did surprise me. I’m so used to the Americana novel where the hero chooses true love at all costs, and it’s a surprise to see it from another culture where money and filial duty are more important.
Sashenka, by Simon Montefiore
The first section was tedious, the second section finally started to show a little bit of the ‘increasingly compelling’ promise as printed on the cover of the book, and then the third section dove completely into the unrealistic. Sashenka is the story of an early and passionate recruit to the Communist Party in St. Petersburg and how that played out over her life. The method of interrogation and documentation were well researched and presented, but I found that the author had an annoying habit of “name and place dropping” – mentioning places and people in passing just to show off how well he knows the city instead of it having any real relevance to the story. All of the women were sexy and beautiful, and all of the men who met them were consumed by lust. The descriptions of the children and their antics were more annoying than endearing. I’d fire the editor of this book: there were a lot of typos where two words were smashed together likethis, words that had hyphens added for no rea-son, and then large spatial gaps in between words for the sole purpose of driving me crazy.
Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
I knew ahead of time that the author was later blasted for the inaccuracies portrayed in the book, so as I was reading it I was trying to decide which events were made up for the sake of the story. I was frankly astonished that a travel and humanitarian story of this magnitude could be so boring to read. I didn’t connect with the people. The descriptions of crazy cultural misunderstandings read dry for me, and any of my friends could tell you that I love stories about crazy cultural misunderstandings. I was exasperated with Dr. Greg on his wife’s behalf for never being around.
Lysistrata and Other Plays, by Aristophanes
The only reason this book scored so low on the list is that so many of the references and symbolism described events and people that had no meaning for me. It would be like a satirical play about our current politicians, but performed 5000 years from now. For all of that, there was still a lot of hilarious wit, with situations and morals that can apply to any age. The Acharnians: One sensible man argues for peace, while everyone else says it can’t be done. Meanwhile, the government pays ambassadors a huge salary for years to accomplish that peace, but they come back empty-handed. The Clouds: A man has incurred a lot of debt because of his lazy, gambling son, so he sends him to to the philosophers to learn how to argue his way out of his obligations. Predictably, this leads to the son being able to argue his way out of any obligations to his own father. Lysistrata: The women of Athens and Sparta, sick of the wars that take their husbands away from them at months at a time, withhold their sexual favor until the men can reach a peace agreement. This was my favorite of the three plays – gender stereotypes are still funny. All three of the plays had rather bawdy hints and lewd behavior, but this one was the most crass.
Searching for God Knows What, by Donald Miller
I’ve also read Blue Like Jazz by the same author, and preferred it to this book. He always seems so apologetic for his opinions, and after dozens of disclaimers it started to annoy me. He’s really got a bone to pick with Republicans. Still, there were some good thoughts and deep ideas.
The Firebugs, by Max Frisch (also known as Biedermann and the Arsonists, or The Arsonists)
What a strange play. Usually when I read plays I imagine my fellow high-schoolers as the characters, but I had a hard time casting this one. Mr. Biedermann knows that there are arsonists running rampant, yet he invites a stranger to stay in his home because he’s a ‘humane’ man. The stranger invites more and more people over, and their blatant connection to arson grows stronger. I kept wondering what the underlying symbolism was supposed to be. The evil that we ourselves let into our lives is what destroys us, was my final conclusion. I can’t say I enjoyed it. Too artsy-fartsy.
Three Famous Short Novels, by William Faulkner
Three ‘short’ stories made up this collection, but Faulkner can pack a lot of sloth and molasses into a short story. His books drag by for me, and he has an annoying habit of not making it clear who’s speaking. His women are colorless and meek with nothing much to say. Of Spotted Horses, Old Man, and The Bear, the latter was my favorite. I even read bits out loud to my husband. A boy goes on his first hunting trip, and the camp tries to subdue the infamous bear who’s been terrorizing them for years. If Faulkner had ended it in one place, it would have been fantastic. Instead, he saw the need to carry on with a 55 page chapter with a flow completely unlike the rest of the story, very incoherent, and back to his tricks of making sure his reader can’t tell who’s who. It was a very complicated family history, and I could see notes on the back where some previous reader had made a family tree to try to make sense of it. I took the book hiking with me, and when I needed a place to stop I decided to wait for the next sentence break. That break didn’t come for three pages. The final chapter went back to the original style, to my immense relief, but I still thought it was superfluous.