Sunday, July 3, 2011

5 Books I Want to Read This Summer - Dave's Picks

Every Summer, at some point or another, I decide to take on a massive novel or literary masterpiece that will add a degree of accomplishment to my otherwise lazy Summer. Usually, I fail. So this year I'm using this theme as a challenge to complete 5 previously attempted books that I failed to make a dent in, yet remain on my "must read" list.

1. My most recently failed attempt was Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes. This comedic epic proved too overwhelming for beach reading so I opted to put it aside in favour of lighter fare after several chapters. Despite the difficult language, the adventures of the disillusioned and incompetent title character, along with his pitifully faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza, are really quite funny and engaging.

The story tracks these two unlikely heroes as they travel aimlessly through the Spanish countryside, where Quixote mistakes inns for castles, and unsuccessfully battles numerous, harmless countrymen in the name of a woman who doesn't even know he exists. The early seventeenth century masterpiece was hugely influential on subsequent literature, and provides great description – and criticism – of Spanish and knightly life and tradition.

2. Another recent title I failed to make much headway on is Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey. Kesey is of course best known for his very popular One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. This lesser known title was published only 2 years after Cuckoo, and is considered by critics to be his finest work. One of my best friends gave me his copy along with a glowing recommendation a couple of years ago; my subsequent attempt to read it was again interrupted by Summer distractions.

Another long novel, this book chronicles the working and familial lives of the Stampers, a logging family caught up in a labour strike in 1950s Oregon. The story provides a multi-perspective view on family tension and betrayal, masculinity, union conflict and working-life in mid-20th century America. This time around I'm determined to give my friend a full review.

3. Stephen King has been one of my favourite authors since I was in my early teens. Despite the occasional criticism aimed at his prolific and mainstream output, I find that I appreciate his literary talent more as I grow older. Like his overall body of work, his Dark Tower series is character driven and genre-spanning, but to date I've only managed to complete the 1st 4 of the 7 novels.

The remaining 3 form the next entry on my list: the continuing, epic journey of Roland of Gilead - a gruff and battlescarred gunslinger who is the last of his kind. His journey takes him across a sprawling mid-world that features remnants of decaying lands both futuristic and ancient looking. He gradually assembles 3 unlikely sidekicks from 3 different times who become fellow gunslingers and a kind of surrogate family. Their quest is to reach the physical and figurative Dark Tower, where they expect a final confrontation with the evil that has been causing Roland's world to disintegrate at the seams and been hindering their progress all the way. With a potential 8th novel and a film adaptation in the works, I definitely do not want to put these off any longer.

4. Twice I've come across The Satanic Verses, once as a young teenager, and again a few years ago. Both times I didn't finish. Like in much of his work, Salman Rushdie here interweaves mythology, history, religion and politics in an East vs. West storyline. His two male protagonists are a Bollywood star and a voice-acting Indian expatriate living in Britain. The two inexplicably survive an airplane explosion only to find themselves together on an island, transformed as a halo-laden angel and a hairy, cloven-hoofed devil. The story chronicles their time together on the island, and their attempts to piece back their lives after they return to civilization.

Filled with religious, moral, and cultural conflict, the narrative forms a controversial story of modern Islam, but also presents very human characters facing real questions in a fairy tale-esqe setting. Like in the Dark Tower series, there is an inevitable confrontation between good and evil brewing, and I'm hoping I’ll reach it on my third try.

5. My final novel to read this Summer is The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett. This is another title that came highly recommended, but I passed it over initially on account of its large size. It chronicles the construction of a cathedral in medieval England, and is interlaced with conspiracy, political maneuvering, religious conflict, civil war, betrayal, love and ambition. It is fictional, but the storyline places its many characters amidst actual historical figures and events, creating an alternative but ambitious and adventurous history of 12th Century England. It is frequently named Follett’s best work, and I am yet to hear a bad review from my friends.

Phew, I'm excited to get started, but I may have bitten off more than I can chew. Wish me luck.


  1. Do you know which version of Don Quixote you were reading? I've heard great things about the recent Grossman translation. It's on my to be read list too!

  2. My copy is the Modern Library (2001) edition, with the original 1755 translation by Tobias Smollett. I've read good things about Grossman's translation too, but I think I'm going to stick with Smollett. It's surprisingly smooth reading for 18th century English lit, and he really captures Cervantes' wit and humour. It'll still be a bit of a challenge, but I'm looking forward to it!