As we slowly tick over into the summer months, even those with the most hectic of schedules take a moment to stop, breathe, and relax. What’s truly wonderful about this period is the fact that you can finally get around to dipping into some of those books that you’ve always meant to read. If you’re on the hunt for your next literary adventure, look no further. There’s a handful of brilliantly engaging novels that everyone simply must read at least once. From deeply touching accounts of life and death to alternate lifestyles, the tales here are ones that will stay with you long after you’ve turned the final page.
Down and Out in Paris and London
by George Orwell
First of all, if you’re hoping for a fast-paced adventure, this is not the book for you. In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell meanders through a lengthy account of his experiences of sheer poverty in both cities. The genius of Orwell was that he was never one to waste words, yet he still had the power to weave descriptively rich tapestries in the reader’s mind. Flipping through the pages is like living his reality, however bleak, moment by moment.
This may not be the most uplifting book you’ll even read; it’s packed with the struggles and sorrows of an often times lonely man, but the themes are as relevant today as they were back in 1933, when it was originally published.
The Dice Man
by Luke Rhinehart
The term ‘cult classic’ is thrown around a lot these days, but The Dice Man really is a novel deserving of that title. The plot follows Luke Rhinehart, a psychiatrist who has ultimately grown tired and weary of his mundane existence. (Note that although the book carries this character’s name, it is not an autobiography. The author has used the protagonist’s name as his pseudonym.) When he finds that nothing pleases him anymore, Luke makes a decision that would likely terrify most sane people; he will live his life by the roll of a die. Every minor and major life decision he makes from that time forward is controlled solely by chance. He gives over his free will to chaos in the hope that he will somehow find life satisfaction once again.
As you might imagine, it often makes for a rather shocking read. When you take morality and common sense out of the equation, your choices may lead to disastrous consequences, but in a way that’s the beauty of this fictional lifestyle. On opening this novel’s pages, the reader is taken on a tumultuous journey with the main character by their side, holding a set of dice and grinning manically.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
by Milan Kundera
There are many themes woven seamlessly into this story of love and infidelity – politics, philosophy and morals come together to set the background for the tale. What I personally enjoyed the most about the book is that it never once leads the reader one way or another. On a surface level, you can read the story of a marriage slowly being crushed by the protagonist, Tomas’ tireless womanizing.
There’s also the striking tale of Sabina, his mistress and a painter in that order, who has the feverish desire to think and live for herself. Finally, there’s Tereza, a woman made of morals and Tomas’ wife – her story seems to be the most tragic of the three as she goes from near poverty to stability, but loses her independence along the way. The three characters symbolize archetypal personalities of the time, and you don’t have to understand the political implications to be moved by their tales.
The Secret History
by Donna Tartt
What would inspire a group of five Classics students to premeditate and carry out the savage murder of one of their closest friends? That is the question that will be running through your mind from the moment you begin this feverishly addictive book. Tartt wastes no time gleefully mapping out the murder scene for the reader – giving away one of the central plots of the book before you’ve gotten more than a few pages into it. Just as Tarentino leads us into Pulp Fiction with the infamous diner robbery that doesn’t chronologically take place until much later in the film, Tartt leads us into an unceremonious murder that will most certainly resurface later in the novel. From that moment, the reader is hooked. This is not a game of figuring out who killed the character – we know that already – but one of why they killed them.
The narrative unfolds in the voice of one of the group – Richard Papen or Dick for short – who is new at the university. Upon arriving, he quickly makes friends with an odd, anachronistic group. It’s not clear when the novel is actually set, but most assume that it is in the 1980s, when Tartt herself attended university. Yet, despite this, the central group of characters dresses and acts as though they’ve walked off the pages of a period drama. While that in itself is bizarre, there’s much more to these individuals than meets the eye.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
by Ken Kesey
If you’re looking for a quick read that will leave a lasting, unyielding impression, this is the modern classic for you. This is yet another work which many people know only by its later film adaptation. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an insight into the troubled mind of the narrator, Chief Bromden, who resides in an Oregon psychiatric hospital.When a new patient comes onto Bromden’s ward, he’s taken by his ferocious nature and cheeky con man-esque hyjinx. He sees this new-comer as a savior of sorts; this could be a sign of change within the ward. Soon enough, though, the Chief has to let go of this misguided notion – as he sees that even this oddly precocious man can be worn down.
Of course, if you’ve seen the movie already, you’ll know all of this, so why is the novel any different? Well, there is something about the first hand account (albeit fictional) that you read here. From the unethical practices within the institute to the stigmatization of the ‘chronic’ patients, this is a book that conveys just how far we’ve thankfully come in terms of understanding mental health.