Recently, I compiled a list of reading for a very high level ESL student of mine. I thought I’d share it here – in part in case I lose it, in part because that student has now left, and I’d like to mark that in some way. It’ll be some time before I get to have literary discussions as part of my job.
I wanted to provide a list that would challenge. That would demonstrate various Englishes, from 19th century works to the modern day, from Scottish English, to African American dialect, to Nadsat. That I had read before and so could mark their varying levels of difficulty – in terms of vocabulary and structure and so on. That would be of interest to that particular student, I hope. The selections are unashamedly idiosyncratic. They are books that question and probe and twist, or simply tell a story. Some are serious, some fluffier, some influential, some brand new.
It is my wish that at least some of them will open up the world for this student a fraction, a crack. That the words will not only be new and add knowledge, but will charm and fire. What would you, personally, have suggested to someone new to literature in English?
The Annotated Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (notes by Alfred Appel)
Textually rich, lyrical and fanciful in imagery. Challenging subject matter (in the disturbing sense – and in the sense that the narrator is openly unreliable)
Difficulty rating: Tricky – though the rhythm of the sentences should help you through them, and the notes will explain any obscure references.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Also lyrical – and short! The American Dream in the jazz age (1920s-30s) is one big party. Or is it? The end paragraph is one of the most famous in American literature.
Difficulty rating: Moderate, but short, did I mention it’s short? Taught in American High Schools.
Possession, A.S. Byatt
A very literary mystery – Roland is a loser academic living in a flat that smells of cat pee, but studying in the library one day, he discovers a previously unknown poem by a famous 19th century figure. He pairs up with Maud Bailey to solve the mystery and evade a covetous American memorabilia collector. Meanwhile, in the 19th century the poets Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte embark on passionate love affair which will have lasting effects on the present day. Far and away not as trashy as it sounds.
Difficulty rating: This is an intellectually playful book, utilising poetry, letters and diary entries alongside 3rd person narration. A nice mash of contemporary (80s) language and 19th century conversational and written styles. Longish. So moderate-to-difficult
One D.O.A., One on the Way, Mary Robison
Eve is married to Adam, a Southern gent with an identical twin. Eve may or may not be sleeping with the identical twin, who can really tell. Amongst the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina, the story plays out. Witty and dark and bourbon-soaked.
Difficulty Rating: The minimalist prose style makes this one of the easier books on the list.
Beloved, Toni Morrison
A slave woman in the Southern United states is on the run with her children when she is cornered. Loath to see her children taken from her, she commits an act so brutal it will split the world from its reality. Brutal and lyrical, based partially on a true story. The author won the Nobel Prize for Literature for this.
Difficulty rating: Pretty high, using African-American dialect in dialogue, but the sentences are shorter for the most part, which should make it a little easier going.
The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
A charming love story between a girl/young woman and a handsome librarian afflicted with a disease that forces him to jump naked through his own timeline.
Difficulty level: Easy (but contemporary)
The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
A ferocious American preacher takes his family on a mission to the Congo. Told by the five women who surround him and must endure his fervour and madness and failures. A long but beautiful book.
Difficulty level: Depends which voice you are reading.
Glaciers, Alexis M Smith
Short, neat and moving – a story of memory, new love, and the landscapes of Pacific North Western United States.
Difficulty level – easier, very contemporary. Contains some of the most beautiful sentences I have ever read.
Green Girl, Kate Zambreno
A neurotic American girl with a fragile sense of self drifts and fails her way through her life in London. Every chapter begins with an interesting quote which will then be explored in some way. If you’d like to read ‘literature of the girl’ then read this. Some brutal scenes. Very contemporary.
Difficulty level: the quotes bump it up a little, but it’s crisp and clear.
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg
The book that Fight Club might have been inspired by. A young religious man meets a person he believes to be Peter the Great and embarks on a series of crimes at his new friend’s suggestion. But why has nobody seen this friend of his?
Difficulty: old fashioned (18th-19th century writing style) but it’s a short book
House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
Demented novel/movie transcript/not all that scary horror story/breakdown.
Difficulty level: how good are you at reading upside down?
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
A difficult childhood surrounded by religious hypocrites and coldness does nothing to damage Jane’s strength of character. Which is good at because Jane’s first job as a governess at a draughty mansion, the glowering Mr Rochester will be testing that to the extreme. A love story about God and the moors and being a poor woman in a rich man’s house.
Difficulty level: 19th century – so long convoluted sentences. But there is a movie to help clarify things.
Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
The ‘prequel’ to Jane Eyre. But in fact a darker beast altogether. The action takes place on Jamaica just after the emancipation of the slaves – the land where Rochester was sent to make his fortune. It’s all chaos and faded fortune and steamy heat and colonialism and desire. Antoinette Causeway is brought up in a similarly lonely way to Jane, but her outlook on life is decidedly more fatalistic.
Difficulty level: straightforward, punchy sentences make this quite an easy one. Also short. But read after you’ve at least seen the movie of Jane Eyre.
1984, George Orwell
Because you must, if you like novels of ideas.
Difficulty level: easier than…
A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
A sample: “There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar trying to make up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening. […] The Korova milkbar sold milk-plus, milk plus vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom, which is what we were drinking. This would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of the old ultraviolence.”
Difficulty level: (see above) But you’ll be ahead with the Russian bits. There is also a film version.
Zazen, Vanessa Veselka
America is about to be torn apart, but what to do until then? Make tofu scramble and do yoga and protest something.
A sample: “War A is going well and no longer a threat, small and mature. Like a Bonsai. War B is in full flower. Its thin green shoots reaching across the ocean floor like fibre optic cable. The TVs are on all the time all the time now. The lights dim and everyone moves in amber. They flicker like votives. That’s what we will all be one day, insects in sap, strange jewels.”
Difficulty level : It’s contemporary and full of unusual sentences like the ones above. But gorgeous, and not as difficult as A Clockwork Orange!
Orlando, Virginia Woolf
An aristocratic man lives for 400 years, changing gender and having various adventures. The style of the language changes as the years pass – from an Elizabethan English style to the Modernism of the 20th century. Actually a cheerful story.
Difficulty level: hard.