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5 Books You’ve Probably Never Seen on a “Must-Read” List

“Must-read” lists have become a pet peeve of mine. They all mention without fail the same twenty books. Catcher in the Rye. 1984. Lolita. It’s as if the sole criterion for curating a “must-read” list is the incorporation of these books, defeating the purpose of the list in the first place. Obviously, this is a statement made for the sake of exaggeration but the point stands. These books are classics for a reason and most definitely worth a read, but such lists overlook what it is that is actually sought after, namely recommendations for unsung books.So here are my five recommendations for some out-of-the-box books that promise an interesting read. These books are simply some of my personal favourites!

White Oleander by Janet Finch (1999)

White Oleanderwas gifted to me by my literature teacher upon graduation, as he knew of my love for complex characters. It did not disappoint. Despite my obvious emotional attachment to the book itself, my judgement remains unclouded. Although not intended as feminist prose, I think it intricately addresses the notion of being a strong woman. The novel sees Astrid Magnussen navigate and ultimately overcome her toxic relationship with her mother Ingrid Magnussen. Areas of tension between Astrid and Ingrid, specifically sexuality and individuality, are further explored through the narration of Astrid’s time in foster homes; Astrid discovers what it means to her to be a woman, in both the erotic and personal context. However, don’t let my attachment to the feminist qualities of Finch’s novel deter you; it is merely what I took away – as this book conclusively delves into what it means to be content with oneself. 

Quote best summarising the book: I hate labels anyway. People didn’t fit in slots – prostitute, housewife, saint – like sorting the mail. We were so mutable, fluid with fear and desire, ideals and angles, changeable as water.”

Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards (2005) 

I bought Memory Keeper’s Daughterfor 50 cent in a Dutch library sale, and admittedly only picked it up because ‘New York Times Bestseller’ was printed on the back. Perhaps slightly hypocritical of me, given the rant on bestsellers I began this article with. Nevertheless, I came to adore this book for its sensitive and charming portrayal of Down’s Syndrome. Edwards writes of a certain Dr. David Henry who made the decision to give up his daughter Phoebe for the lone reason that she had Down syndrome. The book goes onto show that Phoebe, in defiance of all the hinderances in her life, is her own person. She is not someone with Down’s syndrome; she is simply someone. What’s better than one thoughtful story line? Two! The book also follows the toll that David’s lies place on his family. Norah Henry’s journey with grief is also particularly interesting, as she evolves from a timid and manipulatable individual to a person with her own desires. Decisively, this novel teaches one to live with your truths.

Quote best summarising the book: “You can’t spend the rest of your life tiptoeing around to try and avert disaster. It won’t work. You’ll just end up missing the life you have.”

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk (1998)

In complete candour, I am yet to finish reading My Name is Red. This book, for the same traits that make it exceptional, is not the easiest to read. I have picked it up and put it down multiple times over the past year *read three*. The plot centres around the murder of the miniaturist Elegant Effendi in the Ottoman Empire. Written in the postmodern style this book interestingly employs unreliable narration and self-reflexivity, with each respective chapter being written from another perspective, often disregarding another viewpoint. The most alluring is that these are not traditional perspectives – they are not reserved to the characters in the book – for example it also incorporates narrations by the colours red and black and certain objects from the scene of the murder, like a tree. This recommendation is targeted towards devote literature lovers, who read to revel in the genius behind such sophisticated writing, or precisely those who do not like to read as it offers no challenge, as this book is more of a puzzle than it is a script. 

Quote best summarising the book: “The beauty and mystery of this world only emerges through affection, attention, interest and compassion… open your eyes wide and actually see this world by attending to its colours, details and irony.” 

The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899)

The Awakeningis a favourite because of its captivating and almost confrontational storyline, and cheekily because of how short it is. This bildungsroman follows Edna Pontellier’s struggle as a wife and a mother, but most importantly as a person.It portrays how Edna struggles through numerous adverse situations to eventually learn how to express her emotional needs and sexual desires. It teaches that with independence comes solitudeThe book alludes that such seclusion is oddly enough desirable, as it allows self-fulfilment and acceptance.What sets Chopin’s writing apart is her expert fusion of foreshadowing and leitmotifs, notably through references to music and the sea. Yet again, this novel is a great piece of feminist literature. Do I sense a preference?

Quote best summarising the book: “The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.”

The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq (2005)

Picked up in complete blind faith from a second-hand store somewhere in Toronto, The Possibility of an Islandis quite possibly the most boundary-pushing book I have read. The misanthropic tendencies of Houellebecq’s writing, with this science fiction novel being no exception, are not for the light-hearted. The book questions sexuality, relationships, religion, society and the very concept of life itself. The storyline sees a rather realist Daniel manoeuvre within an increasingly convoluted culture – a critique of contemporary society – whilst engaging in the establishment of a corporation posing as a pseudo-religion. Alternative narratives are also incorporated through the perspectives of Daniel’s clones. This book is worth reading if only for what is in my opinion the perfect ending: emotive and reflective. 

Quote best summarising the book: “To increase desires to an unbearable level whilst making the fulfilment of them more and more inaccessible: this was the single principle upon which Western society was based.” 

Please comment any other recommendations for books we should be reading whilst we still have the time!

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