House of Spirits: Isabel Allende
I loved this book as a teenager and I think it was my first foray into (that terrible label) magic realism. The way the surreality is woven into this family saga makes for enlivening reading that left me feeling uplifted and involved in the lives of these passionate, eccentric characters.
If you really want a sense of what happens in South Africa, I would suggest reading these two books. They are at times heart-rending, deeply disturbing and not entirely realist (which, dear reader, is different from realistic). They will grip you and bend your mind.
It's been well over a century since these were published, but the psychological portrait of Hetty abandoning her baby (in Adam Bede) was identical to an description I heard on Talk Radio 702 from a woman who helps mothers on the verge of abandoning their babies. George Eliot (or Mary Ann Evans. George Eliot was her pseudonym) was phenomenal. Her prose is so wise and full of fascinating observations and characters that never quite behave the way you want them to.
Beloved: Toni Morrison
I started reading this book that I had bought at a fleamarket and I put it down again shortly before midnight when I had finished it. This is a desperately sad novel, but such a necessary, beautiful and powerful one that it left my whole body shaken.
War and Peace and Anna Karenina: Leo Tolstoy
These are really good and not as difficult as everyone says. Ulyssess is as difficult as everyone says...
So I am writing my thesis on The Restless Supermarket and The Exploded View. They are highly evocative of everyday South African life. The Restless Supermarket is told from the perspective of a retired proofreader of telephone directories living in Hillbrow during the dying days of apartheid. It is laugh-out loud hilarious, partly because it is so offensive. The characters from this novel live on in my brain that they couldn't be more real to me if they had twitter accounts (which Aubrey Tearle, aforesaid proofreader, would definitely NOT have because he is such a conservative old curmudgeon).
The Exploded View has a more subtle palate, and therefore also creeps under my skin that little more. It is a brilliant evocation of white male South Africa and is so realistically done that many of his readers have been put off because they feel Vladislavic shares his characters' views. Very interesting stuff.
One Life: Sydney Clouts
"The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner": Samuel Taylor Coleridge
"Maud": Alfred Lord Tennyson
Songs of Innocence and Experience: William Blake
Don Juan: Lord Byron
This epic poem is by turns naughty, wise and completely hilarious. You can appreciate it more if you know a little about his life and times, but if you find an annotated edition with a juicy introduction, I think that should suffice for the beginner. His turn of phrase is so effortlessly brilliant it will leave you gasping.
Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom: Dr. Christine Northrup
What a wonderful guide to everything health and well-being for women. This is a tome that works its way through different parts of the body and gives advice about common issues women have. It is also fascinating because she explores the cultural heritage we carry around with us and how it can be harmful sometimes.
Country of my Skull and A Change of Tongue: Antjie Krog
Fast Food Nation: Eric Schlosser
This is a more thorough expose than the more popular Super-Size Me. Schlosser looks at the effects of the fast food industry not just on people's health (although he does that too) but the effects of their practises on the farms that grow their produce; the workers in their factories, slaughterhouses and kitchens; and the effects of their advertising. It is well worth a read.
Bad Science: Ben Goldacre
I loved this book because it takes on the health food industry and the "natural healing" phenomenon. He takes the laywoman (or man) through the rigorous testing that traditional medicine has to go through and why it is so important. He also exposes the qualifications (or I should more accurately say, lack thereof) of "Dr". Gillian McKeith and Patrick Holford.
At Home: Bill Bryson
Bill Bryson has a gift. This book is about the history of the home and the objects that are usually in it an how they got to be there. Ostensibly. What it becomes is a series of delicious morsels about everything under the sun, from the Great Exhibition in Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace (you'll have to read it to find out what I'm talking about) to the brilliant and weird home inventions of Thomas Jefferson. You will long to get into bed every night to read just a little more about, well, everything you can think of.