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The Bard and Dickens have their place in the pantheon of world literature, but the books below will give you a better sense of Merry Olde England than Richard III or The Pickwick Papers can.
Take a ride on an Italian scooter and discover the burgeoning mod culture of 1960s London through the eyes of an 18-year-old unnamed photographer who makes just as many dumb decisions as teenagers of any other place or era. Note that the movie, even with the presence of my beloved David Bowie, doesn’t come close to the book.
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Not only are Lewis Carroll’s tales of Wonderland as beloved today as they were when they were first published way back in 1865, they’ve also given the English language some of its most-used words and expressions: to go down the rabbit hole, chortle, mad as a hatter, Tweedledee and Tweedledum — to name just a few. Alice and her numerous companions and cohorts are well-known throughout the world, having been published in nearly 100 languages.
Spread over three periods of history, McEwan’s work was called a “beautiful and majestic fictional panorama” by no less than John Updike. (Book recommended by Kim Darroch, British ambassador to the U.S., in CN Traveler.)
Girl, Woman, Other
In 2019, Evaristo became the first black woman to receive the Booker Prize, the highest literary honor in the English language. Girl, Woman, Other (which shared the prize with The Testaments by Canadian literary giant Margaret Atwood) is a magnificent portrayal of the intersections of identity and a moving and hopeful story of an interconnected group of black British women that paints a vivid portrait of the state of contemporary Britain and looks back to the legacy of Britain’s colonial history in Africa and the Caribbean. Both The Washington Post and Barack Obama named Evaristo’s eighth novel one of the best books of 2019.
Of Human Bondage
I almost gave up on this tome of a book, but I’m very glad I didn’t. In fact, it’s stuck with me so much that I think about it almost daily, particularly in the sense that I wonder if I’m on the same path as the protagonist, who both frustrated and amused me. (I decided to pick up the book after reading a fictionalized account of Maugham in the Bernie Gunther installment The Other Side of Silence, mentioned on the Germany Books page. I may have to add his biography to my to-read list because the man was just downright fascinating.)
The relatively recent success of the Paddington movies (which have received high acclaim in their own right) introduced the beloved British (by way of darkest Peru) bear to a new generation. But Paddington had been deeply entrenched in British culture since his 1958 literary debut, and even served as a cultural symbol of international friendship when the Chunnel was completed: British construction workers passed a Paddington plushy to the French when the two sides of the underwater tunnel were completed. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more British touchstone than the red-hatted furball of lovable naïveté.
The wild and uninhibited Neverland scenes contrast so much with those in London that you get a pretty good idea of what it was like for early-19th-century English children. Those who haven’t read the original classic might be in for a surprise as to how vicious Peter really is.
The Pilgrim's Progress
One of the most translated books in the world, the work of theological fiction is often cited as the first novel written in English and has been alluded to or directly mentioned in many major works, from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The Pilgrim’s Progress From This World to That Which Is to Come is presented as a dream sequence narrated by an omniscient narrator. The allegory’s protagonist, Christian, is an everyman character, and the plot centers on his journey from his hometown, the “City of Destruction” (“this world”), to the “Celestial City” (“that which is to come”: Heaven) atop Mount Zion.
The winner of the 2009 Booker Prize and one of Barack Obama’s favorite books he read in 2019 (he “was a little busy” when it originally came out), the fictionalized biography of Thomas Cromwell — a key figure in Henry VIII’s court — offers a different, albeit heavily researched, take on the Tudor era in English history.
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