At the start of every month, I’ll be publishing a “5 Monthly Reads” article, offering for your literary pleasure five of the best books I’ve read from the month before. Enjoy – and let me know in the comments what you think of the ones you do decide to pick up!

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#5: The Phantom of the Opera , Gaston Leroux – 1910

This month starts out with a novel that, almost from its first publication, has been overshadowed by its own adaptations – The Phantom of the Opera .

Published serially in France in 1909 and 1910, The Phantom of the Opera tells the story of a French opera house and the ghost that haunts it. Gaston Leroux carries us through the hectic relationships of the opera, centered around the ghost, singer Catherine Daae, and her suitor Raoul.

The novel is a thriller ride of a book, rushing from one melodramatic scene to the next at sometimes breakneck speed. Sometimes romance, sometimes mystery; sometimes horror, sometimes comedy; the book is emotionally all over the place, but always good fun.

Though the novel wasn’t overly popular when it came out (or much since), the first film adaptation came in 1925, and there have been numerous more since. Undoubtedly the most famous and loved adaptation is Andrew Lloyd Weber’s 1986 musical of the same name. Among many claims to fame, the stage production has grossed over $5.6 b worldwide, making it the most financially successful entertainment piece ever.

It probably won’t stick with you or move you quite as much as the musical, but if you’re looking for a fun adventure ride, you’ll enjoy this one.

You might have the music stuck in your head the whole time though. I did.

…I might also be listening to it as I write this. Indeed!

#4: The Hound of the Baskervilles , Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – 1902

Last month, one of the five books we featured here was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes . That was the first Sherlock Holmes book I’d read – and since, I have been hooked on them, short story collections and novels both. Of the five Sherlock books I read this month (like I said: hooked), The Hound of the Baskervilles was my favorite.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is the third of the four novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to feature Sherlock Holmes. The story takes us from London to the damp and spooky countryside, where Sherlock and Watson must solve a murder with seemingly supernatural undertones – and protect the heir of the Baskerville estate from the same gruesome fate that befell his uncle, whether hell-spawn hound or human hand.

One of the advantages the full-length novels have over the stories is the room for Doyle to include false leads and setbacks. In the short stories, whenever something unique or unexpected is described, you can be pretty sure it signifies something major. In the novels, the breathing room provides a more realistic experience – and less obvious outcomes!

As always with these stories, the lovable personalities of Holmes and Watson (and the lovable bromance between them) are what make The Hound of the Baskervilles so enjoyable. Check it out, and enjoy!

#3: White-Jacket , Herman Melville – 1850

White-Jacket is Herman Melville’s 1850 novel based on the author experiences serving aboard a US Navy ship in the 1840’s. Melville takes us on a tour of life aboard a military ship, describing incidents and relationships in such a way as to widen scope and meditate on humanity as a whole. Throughout the book, our narrator – whom we know only by his nickname “White-Jacket” – is plauged by the uncommon whiteness of his baggy, homespun jacket. Said jacket has the tendency to isolate our unfortunate narrator, and get him to spots of trouble.

If this all sounds a bit reminiscent of a certain arguably-greatest-novel-of-English-literature, it’s no coincidence: White-Jacket was published just one year before Moby-Dick .

Reading White-Jacket is somewhat surreal, as its nearly impossible to experience it as its own novel and not Moby-Dick ’s precursor. In style, tone, construction, and themes, so much of White-Jacket feels like a warm-up to Moby-Dick . Which makes it an enjoyable read in itself, though not at the heights of Moby-Dick .

Interesting historical note: at points in White-Jacket , Melville lambasts the practice of flogging on US Navy ships. His vivid descriptions and impassioned moral reasoning inspired Senator John Hale to move Congress to ban flogging on all US ships. Hurrah for literature being the source of ethical progress in the world!

#2: The Age of Innocence , Edith Wharton – 1920

The Age of Innocence is Edith Wharton’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 12th novel. Published in 1920, The Age of Innocence is set in 1870’s New York, exploring the growing pains of New York’s upper class entering an industrializing and modernizing future.

The story centers around Newland Archer, one of New York society’s up-and-coming young gentlemen, and Ellen Olenska, one of New York’s black sheep who has returned from a scandalized European marriage. Olenska is the cousin of Archer’s fiancee, and the romantic tension seethes.

Wharton paints a closed, inwardly focused American society struggling to maintain its internal coherence and rigid edifice of mannerisms, in the face of globalizing liberalism and democratic equality. Her depiction of a judgmental upper-class never degrades into mockery or condemnation, allowing us to sink into uncomfortable characters, seeing the world through their eyes (and the tinted glasses they look through). Through the novel, a growing strain of yearning passion enlivens a reticent society, as well as deepens our appreciation and understanding of characters we ourselves may have been quick to judge.

Marvelously written, this one was a treat. Check it out!

#1: The Jungle , Upton Sinclair – 1906

Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, The Jungle , is one of those books that we all know by name, and have at least a cursory understanding of – yet rarely read. To be frank, before reading it I thought it was simply a journalistic exposé, not a novel (Sinclair was a muckraking journalist, as well as novelist).

Actually reading The Jungle blew away my expectations.

The story follows Jurgis Rudkus, a Lithuanian immigrant who travels to Chicago, looking for productive work and a fruitful new life in America. Jurgis lands in the Packingtown district, where he works in the hellish meat-packing industry. Over the years, as his family falls apart around him, Jurgis struggles to hold his identity in the face of crushing abuse, and to reach some sort of sustainable relationship with the world around him.

The descriptions of the inner workings of the meat industry (informed by Sinclair’s time spent working in them, researching for this book) are what The Jungle is known for. And yet, the story is so much more than that. Inspired by his socialist philosophy, Sinclair shows the oppressive, soul-crushing side of capitalism, and the yearning to join together and create a more compassionate, supportive world.

It’s sad that The Jungle , from its first publication, has been so diminished in scope. As Sinclair himself said: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

Whatever your preconceptions of it may be, The Jungle is a novel well-worth a read – and worth letting strike your heart, as well as tummy.

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