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July 31, 2009

The Literary World According to Plumcake

Filed under: Books — Miss Plumcake @ 3:21 pm

Normally the gig we play here is that Francesca is the smart, bookish one and I’m the popular one who happens to be kind of shallow and dim.  But that’s only partly true. Francesca IS bookish and smart, and let’s face it, I’m totally the Mean Girl at this lunch table and my shallowness knows no depths but dude, I know stuff, and not just important things like how to drink out of a glass without getting lipstick on it and how to make the perfect deviled egg, either. I know OTHER stuff.  Stuff about THINGS.

So I was happily popping away writing today’s Friday Fierceness (which will come later in the day) when I checked Francesca’s post and liketa apoplexied myself. Y’all I was mortified, MORTIFIED, at that book list. It was like those dreams I have where I’m front row at Lacroix directly across from Anna Wintour and I’m wearing Crocs and a particularly ill-conceived Renaissance festival dress.

I’m not saying those books aren’t worth reading –although some of them aren’t– but that list is howlingly, embarrassingly narrow. Unless of course you’re a middle school girl with precocious reading habits and a penchant for bonnet films, in which case, well played and by the way you might as well start hoarding cats now because we ALL know how that’s going to end. (What? Too harsh?)

Anyhoodle, I’ve decided to chalk up a little list of the 100 works –or collections of works– I think embrace the broader view of what it means to be a well-read English-speaker. You’ll forgive any gaps because I came up with it off the top of my head this morning, while sputtering like a Tourettes-afflicted kettle saying extremely uncharitable things about the state of letters today that would get me fired in a hot minute from any job I’d ever held.

How To Be Well-Read in 100 Mostly Not Boring Books –A Plumcake Joint

I’ll admit I’m probably a little Anglo-centric and weigh a bit heavy on the classics –BECAUSE YOU SHOULD KNOW THEM– and I’ve copped out with some of the Major Works because really, I think so much of it is a matter of taste. Does it really matter that I adore Bleak House but couldn’t slog through Great Expectations? No. But I’ve made an effort to include great works from around the world, not just around the home counties.

Anyway,  how many have you read? What am I missing? ( note: Catcher in the Rye is NOT missing because it suck-diddly-ucks)

Is your favorite book on here?

Feel free to facebook link to the page –not this entry– and share it as a meme with your pals.


  1. A few of my favorites are missing:

    Like Water for Chocolate
    Their Eyes Were Watching God
    The Girl With a Pearl Earring

    Comment by Melissa — July 31, 2009 @ 3:44 pm

  2. “you might as well start hoarding cats now because we ALL know how that’s going to end”

    Plumcake, you slay me. I scored roughly even on both lists, does that mean that my keeping multiple cats is not considered hording? Lol

    Comment by BatGirl — July 31, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

  3. Melissa, Like Water for Chocolate AND Their Eyes were Watching God just baaarely missed the list. Excellent calls.

    Comment by Plumcake — July 31, 2009 @ 3:53 pm

  4. Thank you for disliking “The Catcher in the Rye”. I thought I was the only one who didn’t.
    What about “Kitchen” by Banana Yoshimoto? Some of Haruki Murakamis short stories are absolutely brilliant, but I have no idea if they were ever translated into English, and his novels … well.
    How about “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy?

    Comment by Cara — July 31, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

  5. God of Small Things also just missed the list. It’s an excellent novel. Haven’t read any of Haruki Murakami’s larger works, but I know what I’m doing this weekend!

    Comment by Plumcake — July 31, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

  6. Fabulous list! I was thinking to myself “she better include Dorothy Parker or I am totally going to disown this blog” and then you did, and all was well.

    I’d also like to suggest: The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy (fabulous tale of an American ex-pat in France during the 1950s); Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes; and The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. I also think everyone shoudl read Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown, which is a very silly, silly book, but obviously that is part of its charm and is what makes it wonderful.

    PS: Hello! I have been lurking for 10,000 years and thought I’d take this opportunity to introduce myself.

    Comment by Alexandra — July 31, 2009 @ 4:13 pm

  7. I was going to list the ones on your list that I have read, but it will be easier to just say I’ve read roughly half of them.

    A few of my favorites that didn’t make your list:

    Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
    The Broom of the System – David Foster Wallace
    The Master & Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
    Dead Souls – Nikolai Gogol
    The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins
    The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
    Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter – Mario Vargas Llosa
    A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
    Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
    The Leopard – Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
    The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass

    Comment by Cat — July 31, 2009 @ 4:21 pm

  8. I also hated The Catcher in the Rye, but I utterly love Salinger’s Franny & Zooey and recommend it highly.

    I’d also add Louisa Mae Alcott’s Little Men (a childhood favorite I read to calm down when I’m upset), The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King.

    Lots of excellent books on your list–I’m at about 40% that I’ve already read, and with your recommendation I may try a few more.

    Comment by Siege — July 31, 2009 @ 4:49 pm

  9. Great List, I have to add The Good Earth , by Pearl S Buck.

    Comment by Kerry — July 31, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

  10. “Atlas Shrugged.” It’s the second best selling book of all time, after the Bible. And it’s seeing an uptick in sales as the country collapses.

    Editor’s Note:

    It ain’t necessarily so. Atlas Shrugged, while probably worth being on the list, isn’t anywhere near the best-selling book of all time. In fact, it’s not even in any top 20 I’ve seen.

    Source 1
    Source 2
    Source 3
    Source 4
    Source 5

    Say, did you hear that kid from the Life cereal commercials died because he ate Pop Rocks and Coca Cola?

    Comment by annie — July 31, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

  11. I’m at 50% or so on both lists myself. A few I’d add would be The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime, I Capture the Castle, and Junior Miss.

    Comment by Phyllis — July 31, 2009 @ 5:17 pm

  12. D’Oh! I can’t believe I left out James Joyce!

    Wilkie Collins would have made the expanded list, for sure

    Comment by Plumcake — July 31, 2009 @ 5:52 pm

  13. Siege, see, I tried Franny and Zooey too, thinking that maybe I just didn’t like Catcher. Nope, hated that too. Good suggestions and although Alcott is a sentimental favorite, I had to leave her off because simply writing a beautiful, tender book wasn’t enough to make the list.

    Comment by Plumcake — July 31, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

  14. Kerry: The Good Earth, EXCELLENT call.

    Alexandra, thanks for FINALLY coming out of the woodwork!

    Comment by Plumcake — July 31, 2009 @ 5:57 pm

  15. a tree grows in brooklyn, by betty smith…i read this once a year, and think about it much more often. And the poisonwood bible by barbara kingsolver, and OH!, yes! The Robber Bride by margaret atwood.

    Comment by rebecca — July 31, 2009 @ 6:15 pm

  16. “Right Ho, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse,” YES.

    I’m also a fan of “Snow Falling on the Cedars,” and “A Civil Action,” although neither are books you must read to be well-read. Same goes for “The Secret Supper” by Javier Sierra, although it is like if The Da Vinci Code was written by someone using at least two brain cells.

    Comment by Genevieve — July 31, 2009 @ 6:49 pm

  17. Wonderful list–thank you for sharing it. I have read all but 11 of the BBC list (I counted for my FB page) and I have read all but 20 of Plumcake’s.(Disclaimer: I’m old, nerdy, and I have spent a disproportionate amount of life in school.) I loved Catcher, loved Franny and Zooey, too. But I loved Catcher in high school. I’ve never gone back to re-read it as I can’t imagine loving it as much as a hmmmum-something aged women as I did when I was 14, and if I did love it as much now as I did then, I’d have to wonder if there weren’t something wrong with me.

    The opening paragraph of A Bend in the River is honestly one of the most beautifully observed and constructed paragraphs in English prose. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a wonderful book, but of ZN Hurston, I just love Tell My Horse. It’s about her traveling to the Caribbean to investigate Voo Doo practice, and the very idea of this independent woman traveling on her own, racing off to the sounds of voodoo drums…ah. I’ve never been a Nietzsche fan save for On the Genealogy of Morals.

    There are so many wonderful books. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, The Maltese Falcon by Hammett, anything by Salman Rushdie; anything by Penelope Fitzgerald; King, Queen, Knave by Nabokov.

    I hope there are nonfiction lists released, too, because there are some wonderful reads there, like Cosmos and the Voyage of the Beagle, The Autobiography of Malcolm X…

    Comment by Lisa — July 31, 2009 @ 8:04 pm

  18. Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Pride & Prejudice are my favorites.
    EVERYTHING by Jasper Fforde is great.
    Night by Wiesel is amazing though Dawn is in some ways a harder read.

    As for the Bible, I recommend reading a direct translation from Hebrew -> English. I like the Commentary on the Torah by Richard Friedman. He explains a lot of things where the language was twisted in the translation and make more sense through his lens.

    Comment by Lisa — July 31, 2009 @ 9:11 pm

  19. Oh and Cold Comfort Farm is quite good as well.
    The Good Earth

    Comment by Lisa — July 31, 2009 @ 9:14 pm

  20. I would add A Confederacy of Dunces.

    Comment by cassandra — July 31, 2009 @ 10:56 pm

  21. You know, I toyed with the idea of adding A Confederacy of Dunces despite hating that book with a passion I normally reserve only for Salinger and Jane Austen (though Austen doesn’t deserve it) but I didn’t think its voice was different enough from Lucky Jim to merit inclusion.

    Comment by Plumcake — July 31, 2009 @ 11:04 pm

  22. Also, all y’all Lisas need to start distinguishing yourselves. I can tell the difference because I see the IP addresses and emails, but it gets confusing for the other folks.

    As far as the Bible goes, while I agree with you completely from a religious scholar point of view, I actually think the King James –woeful mistranslations and all– would be of more literary value because that is the translation of the Bible most of the authors on this list reference.

    Comment by Plumcake — July 31, 2009 @ 11:08 pm

  23. To this list I would add “Inherit the Wind,” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” “Angels in America” and “I, Robot.”

    Comment by cyllan — July 31, 2009 @ 11:11 pm

  24. PLUMMY!!! You love Last Chance to See, too???

    I had the great pleasure of meeting Douglas Adams at a book signing just a few months before his (painfully early) death. He read from several of his books and did a signing. When he read from Last Chance, he said it was his favorite of the books he’d written. It felt wonderful to be able to tell him that it was mine, too. As much as I love the Hitchhiker’s Guide and Dirk Gently (and I do love them both), Last Chance is still my favorite.

    And I absolutely agree with you that any list of 100 best books ought by rights to include PG Wodehouse. Plum is tops of my personal pops.

    Comment by Twistie — July 31, 2009 @ 11:11 pm

  25. Oh Cyllan, those are all EXCELLENT choices. They shoulda been mine!

    Twistie, I’m so jealous of you! Last Chance to See was what made me pursue a degree in biology. Before I was called to my true vocation, I was very nearly a naturalist. As for Wodehouse, I almost didn’t include dear old Pelham because really you didn’t need TWO examples of the early 20th century Quintessential British Comic Novel (Three Men in a Boat being the other) but I just couldn’t resist.

    Comment by Plumcake — July 31, 2009 @ 11:35 pm

  26. So…why hate Jane Austen if she doesn’t deserve it? I get hating her if you think she does deserve it. I am curious.

    By the way (and forgive an English teacher’s correction) but I think you mean Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (not the warrior woman).

    Comment by maryb — August 1, 2009 @ 1:07 am

  27. It’s just an inherent dislike. I keep giving her the college try, but nope. We’re just not meant to be. Thanks for the correction!

    Comment by Plumcake — August 1, 2009 @ 1:14 am

  28. N. Scott Momaday- The House Made of Dawn
    Rodolfo A. Anaya- Bless Me, Ultima
    NELLA LARSEN- Passing
    John Updike- ooh….Witches of Eastwick, “The Lucid Eye in Silver Town,” “Dog’s Death”
    Roald Dahl’s short stories for adults, esp. “Man from the South,” “Neck,” and, of course, “Lamb to the Slaughter” (after all, if it was good enough for Hitchcock, it’s good enough for me!)

    I can think of a lot of others, but I’ll stop here for now. And yes, my house in nothing but books on shelves.

    Comment by megaera — August 1, 2009 @ 3:35 am

  29. of rather “is”

    Comment by megaera — August 1, 2009 @ 3:36 am

  30. oh yes, and how do you drink without leaving lipstick on the glass?

    Comment by megaera — August 1, 2009 @ 3:37 am

  31. What, no Kurt Vonnegut?

    I’ve read about 60 on Plumcake’s list, and I completely understand the Jane Austen dislike (it’s not intense, we just have nothing in common, I think–maybe once the cat hoarding starts in earnest…) but not the Salinger dislike.

    Comment by chachaheels — August 1, 2009 @ 5:47 am

  32. All Quiet on the Western Front.

    Crime and Punishment is really, really worth reading, despite it’s length. Probably my favourite book.

    Except for…my beloved Canadian, W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind.

    Comment by Christine — August 1, 2009 @ 11:19 am

  33. No Patrick O’Brian? I’m shocked, shocked. A 20 volume series, beginning with Master and Commander, about the same two men–a very long novel, really–that is UP THERE with Jane Austen and Tolstoy for wit, intelligence, descriptive power, richness of character, scope, complexity. Historical but NEVER boring. The man should have received the Nobel years decades ago. Disregard the Russell Crowe movie–it’s fine, he’s hot, but it’s nothing like the series. Totally worth the time spent. Don’t deny yourself this pleasure, especially if you are an Anglophile. Like Jane Austen with sex, drug addiction, fashion, sword fighting, explosions, untimely death. Also, A.S. Byatt’s “Possession” (another book with a film that is completely unrelated and unrecognizable.).

    Comment by Jude — August 1, 2009 @ 11:44 am

  34. My equivalent to your Jane Austen, I suspect, is “Ivanhoe.” I keep throwing it across the room, usually around page 68.

    I’m glad you included the Koran and the Upanishads. Bless you for including “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” I love that book even if I’m no longer a Christian.

    No Defoe? “Moll Flanders” was one I loved, but there’s also “Journal of the Plague Year” and “Robinson Crusoe” both of which made me happy.

    I’d like to argue for Science Fiction and Fantasy. Charles de Lint’s “Spirits in the Wires” is a bit of both. “Snowcrash” by Neal Stephenson is overwhelmingly inventive (until you get to the last fifty or so pages. Man can’t end a book very well, but the first several hundred pages are usually stunning.).

    Why don’t any of the lists have any of the Arthurian Legends? These are seminal stories for Western Culture, and there are so many different ways to read them from the modern, like “The Once and Future King” to the ancient like “The Mabinogion”

    Comment by Fabrisse — August 1, 2009 @ 3:46 pm

  35. Yes, please to Updike, although I’ll vote for the Rabbit books before “Witches.” Some others to throw out there — My Antonia, some Trollope, Woolf’s “The Voyage Out,” I adore “Lolita” but it isn’t his best, I’d go with “Pale Fire,” some Comrmac McCarthy — the Border Trilogy s a good start, some Larry McMurtry — “Lonesome Dove” or “The Last Picture Show.” I’m afraid I’m probably never going to make it through any Tolkien or the Bible, and I think I’m also too late for Narnia, although I adored the His Dark Materials trilogy. But yeah, that Facebook list is stone BS — I enjoyed the hell out of the Potter books, but they don’t belong on the same list as Austen, or Dickens, or even Wodehouse.

    Comment by Style Spy — August 1, 2009 @ 6:02 pm

  36. Rockin list!!! I would add Their Eyes Were Watching God is a wonderful by Zora Neale Hurston. Ive printed this list and will start at the top!

    Comment by Peaches — August 1, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

  37. Fabrisse, There’s science fiction (The Martian Chronicles) and Fantasy (Lilith) and the only reason there isn’t an Arthurian romance is because I couldn’t pick one –I prefer the Mabinogian as that is the book of my people, but Tennyson is the finer work of capital L literature. So I put Tennyson down and picked La Chanson de Roland for the early hero epic, but then forgot I’d deleted Tennyson.

    Comment by Plumcake — August 1, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

  38. I’d argue for at least reading Genesis, Exodus, Samuel and one of the gospels (your choice) because SO many pieces of literature are inspired off the stories in those books.

    I mean aside from the obvious “East of Eden” and whatnots, take, say, Cry the Beloved Country (which probably should’ve been on the list) about apartheid and the struggle of the natives of South Africa. Stephen Kumalo’s ne’er do well son’s name is Absalom. That wouldn’t really mean anything unless you knew that Absalom was King David’s son, whose evil ways began with a fair sense of wanting revenge over the rape of his sister. Eventually he rose against David and was killed. Thus the violated sister is South Africa and Kumalo is painted as David.

    David is the same person who goes up against Goliath. So the Israelites = native Africans while Goliath = Apartheid. And the comparisons just go on. It’s an entire layer of the book that would be missed if the reader didn’t know that narrative.

    Comment by Plumcake — August 1, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

  39. Peaches: it was a cloooose toss up between Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Bluest Eye, and I only picked the Morrison because I felt I didn’t have enough contemporary authors on the list. Good choice.

    Comment by Plumcake — August 1, 2009 @ 6:55 pm

  40. I adored Paradise Lost and Doctor Faustus! I like your early English taste!
    I was right with you until Heart of Darkness. That book dogged this little black girl through my entire education. Finally, as a college sophomore on my fourth tour of the book, I had had enough. Armed with only Chinua Achebe’s criticism, I railed against the book and cut to shreds every aspect that depicted Africans as inscrutable, inferior or inhuman. And you know, that’s like, the whole book. It was enormously satisfying, even though the professor gave me a B.

    Comment by emmme — August 1, 2009 @ 8:12 pm

  41. Emmme, well spotted. That was the EXACT reason I put Heart of Darkness on the list. Knowing that was what people meant by “Africa” back the bad old days is essential to reading contemporary African literature with an informed eye. I mean, Things Fall Apart and a Bend in the River, both on the list, spring directly as responses to Heart of Darkness.

    Comment by Plumcake — August 1, 2009 @ 8:30 pm

  42. From the Spanish-speaking front, and off the top of my head:

    Jorge Luis Borges, the short stories and the poems.
    Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch and the short stories.
    Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote.
    Mario Vargas Llosa, The Feast of the Goat, Conversation in the Cathedral.
    Isabel Allende, The House of Spirits.
    Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives, 2666.
    Javier Marías, A Heart So White, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me.
    Javier Cercas, Soldiers of Salamis.

    Comment by aa — August 1, 2009 @ 10:10 pm

  43. Why no Thomas Mann on any of these lists? If you haven’t read at least one of The Magic Mountain, Death in Venice, or Dr. Faustus your life is fundamentally incomplete.

    Comment by Starlady — August 2, 2009 @ 4:30 am

  44. ooooo A lot of those sound waaayy better than the required reading list we got earlier.

    But a few faves are missing
    Gone with the Wind(Cliche yes,but that is such a great book)
    The Princess Bride(Seriously amazing)
    The outsiders
    And then there were none.Seroously,if you dont like this book,your probably not human. quintessential mystery.

    But At least most of these boks we’ve heard of…Notes from a small island? What?

    Preach it plumcake

    Comment by jessie — August 2, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

  45. For the longest time I thought I was the only person to read Last Chance to See.
    Thanks for proving me wrong.

    Comment by jojokaffe — August 3, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

  46. I have to ask – how do you drink from a glass without getting lipstick on it?

    More on topic, I’ll be using the list as a reference when I am stumped on what to read next.

    Seriously though, please hook a red lipstick lovin’ young lady up with the no-lipstick-on-glasses knowledge.

    Comment by Abbey — August 3, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

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