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Book Review: Celebrate National Reading Month (Part One) with The Book Lovers’ Companion: What to Read Next

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The National Education Association is building a nation of readers through its signature program, NEA’s Read Across America. Now in its 16th year, this year-round program focuses on motivating children and teens to read through events, partnerships, and reading resources.

Sure, March is National Frozen Food Month, but for those who would prefer some food for thought without delay, it’s also NEA’s National Reading Month, as the National Education Association celebrates the 16th year of its Read Across America efforts on motivating children and teens to read through events, partnerships, and reading resources.

And in a salute to the powers that read–at a time I thought I was making some kind of discernible dent in my books-to-read stacks–along comes The Book Lovers’ Companion: What to Read Next (due April 1) and its well-structured rundown of 200 tempting titles to consider or reconsider. Amassed by an array of English literature experts and ardent readers, it’s a diverse yet discriminating treasure trove of rewarding books, from classics to bestsellers, along with some more obscure finds–all subject to subjectivity, naturally, with the sins of omission and commission in the eye of the book holder. Limited to full-length books, each entry provides a succinct spoiler-free plot synopsis, background information, a sample of critical or reader response, discussion points, and suggested companion books.

Of course, there are the usual suspects as reflected in the Western canon and required school reading, worthy titles by Twain, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Woolf, Orwell, Lawrence, Lee, and Hawthorne, for example. And though some may find apparent lapses in judgment with conspicuously absent tomes from, say, Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky, Conrad, Wolfe (Thomas and Tom), Proulx, Flaubert, or Zola, it is good to keep in mind that some names may (or still may not) be relegated to the various Top Ten lists strewn throughout Companion, which also serve double duty in capturing many genre titles under-represented in the spotlighted sections.

For example, Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep) and Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) appear in the Top Ten Crime Books, James Thurber (My Life and Hard Times) in Humorous Reads, Charles Dickens (Great Expectations) in World Classics, Edgar Allan Poe (Tales of Mystery and Imagination) in Chilling Reads, James Joyce (Ulysses) in Challenging Reads, and Franz Kafka (Metamorphosis) in Quick Reads. Further accounted for are Isabel Allende (The House of Spirits), Armistead Maupin (Tales of the City), Albert Camus (The Outsider), Ian Fleming (From Russia with Love) in Men’s Books, Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) in  Sci-Fi Books, and Jack Kerouac (On the Road) in Cult Classics. And just to throw true life a bone, there’s the Top Ten Non-Fiction Books, which includes The Diary of Anne Frank and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

Nevertheless, one may wonder if any of these proven titles—or even some prominent and prize-winning ones hailing from the 1990s or early 2000s such as Don Delillo’s Underworld, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or Annie Proulx’ Shipping News–might have been better picks. They’re certainly better served as featured mainstays in place of some comparatively new books that crave the critical consensus that time and a more historical perspective can provide. When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman, for example, is a newly minted 2011 release, while both Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, and Wolf Hall from Hilary Mantel are from 2009. These all could’ve been dropped in to an existing or new Top Ten list.

Discussion Points, Background Information, and What the Critics Said or Reader’s Opinions—what a great idea to provide one or the other perspective—are a mixed bag but generally helpful and often very revealing. Validating, too, at times: my take on The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold—and my abandonment of it at around page 25—seems justified as Companion notes that “Many (British) critics have accused the book of being saccharine and overly sentimental.” At the same time, my perseverance in finishing Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, despite a nagging misgiving over an implausible plot point, remains inexplicable.

Three perennially censored books in the U.S. make for further illustrations for the contributions of the book ideas, details, and reaction. I may have been too blinded by “The filthiest book I have ever read … sheer unrestrained pornography” to recall, but Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita–which constitutes a terrific vocabulary builder, by the way–can be read metaphorically with Humbert cast as Old Europe and Lolita as America. And D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which as late as 1960 was subject of an obscenity trial, tellingly quotes a courtroom source who riddles us thusly: “Ask yourselves the question: would you approve of your young sons, young daughters—because girls can read as well as boys—reading this book? … Is it a book you would wish your wife or servants to read?” I hadn’t thought of the servants! Nor will I ever have reason for this consideration. Meanwhile, the entry for Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, duly notes how the book was originally banned by Southern states as subversive. But more currently and foremost, the more PC-centered efforts to ban it in today’s schoolrooms should also be noted.

Speaking more generally, a Companion-wide component to provide more informational substance may see a little style in the form of brief excerpts from the works cited. I still remember from years ago the power of the folktale-laced prose of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and I can imagine that a little passage would go a long way in supporting Companion’s recap of Achebe as “the conscience of African literature.” Similarly, the talent and craftsmanship that marked David Mitchell’s audacious 1999 debut Ghostwritten reaches a stylistic culmination in the elegance and kaleidoscopic plot of 2004’s Cloud Atlas, Companion’s cited book by Mitchell, begging for a well-chosen extract. And while an excerpt from Ian McEwan’s haunting and multi-part Atonement couldn’t do his tour de force full justice, a sample from even one of the stylistic forays might signify an effectual slice of the literary life.


Readers may come across a few head-scratchers in suggestions of “what to read next.” You may not expect the write-up for Hemingway to promote To Have and Have Not over some of his other novels, a book that even Companion notes is “often regarded as one of Hemingway’s weakest novels,” but a convincing enough case is made for the book that I just may have to subject it to a re-Read Across America effort. And the professor who taught the Henry James seminar I took in college would have a conniption fit that The Book Lovers’ Companion opted for the ghost story The Turn of the Screw over major trans-Atlantic novels like The Portrait of a Lady and The Ambassadors. At least, he seemed a little put out when I broached the subject of its inclusion in the syllabus. 


One work that is not destined to be in any syllabus, or any library or bookstore, for that matter, is a work prompted by the Gabriel García Márquez submission. Years ago, while placing phone orders for a bookstore I was working at, the customer rep—ostensibly referring to truncated titles on a computer screen—confirmed my order for Love in the Time of Cholesterol.

Then again, maybe she had National Frozen Food Month on her mind.

Upcoming in Celebrate National Reading Month (Part Two): Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!

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