A few years ago, at the time of my twenty-fifth birthday, I published a list of my “25 favorite books of all time” on the blog I used to write, next to something huge. This post got a great response, and six months later I published a list of “The 17 books I read in 2011,” which was again met with many thanks. Turns out people are looking for good books to read. With so much literature out there I think it’s hard to go to the book store and pick out a good story with good writing. There is a lot of “fat” writing published these days and I tend to be a hard critic.
That said, I don’t have any false illusions that I have a superior opinion to anyone else. When it comes right down to it, I am just a woman with my own taste for what is enjoyable, excellent literature and what is not. (I do not like Shakespeare, for instance. That is obviously not the “correct” opinion.) These lists are my opinion, nothing more and nothing less.
I have been asked by several people for either recommendations this summer, or for “that list you put on your blog a while ago….”
Here they are.
“twenty-five and tardy” (published June 3, 2011)
I promised to post this yesterday, but I didn’t get around to it. Apologies.
In honor of my twenty-fifth birthday, here is a lengthy post about my twenty-five favorite books. It’s kind of long, so read at your own volition. People ask me all the time for book recommendations, so consider the following my reccs:
1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck. While the rest of the list will not follow in descending order, this is my all-time favorite novel. Everything I have read of Steinbeck is written as nearly to perfection as I imagine fictional writing can be, but this story in particular captured me the first time. I have read it again and again, and each time it is simultaneously new and familiar. The theme that runs throughout is the story of Cain and Abel, but it is explored in the intertwined lives of a few families in the Salinas Valley in California. My favorite written character in all of fiction so far is Samuel Hamilton, who exists in this book. The narration is brilliant, the dialogue is accurate and the discussions are rich. The story is gut-wrenching and satisfyingly lengthy. It’s a bit daunting to look at because it is really thick, but once I was into it, I kept hoping that it would never end.
2. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. It was a fluke that I even brought this book home from Borders several months ago, but I picked it up because the cover is catchy, and read the first pages—a bird’s eye view of New York City on one particular morning, with the focus eventually narrowing in on a tightrope walker making his way across his thread plank between the World Trade Center towers. Again, it was the narration that got me. The book is a weave of vignettes, similar to the movies Crash or Love Actually, where the focus changes with each chapter, and the background characters move to the foreground, and visa versa. It is a brilliant, brilliant book. When I finished, I sat there just staring at the back cover for a long time. McCann is an Irish writer, and his Irish-ness comes through in the book. Irish lit is probably my favorite genre.
3. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. A.L. is hilarious. Everything she writes—from her memoirs in Traveling Mercies to her fiction, and back again to this book, an instruction manual for writers—is doused in humor. Every thing I have ever read of hers has made me laugh the whole way through. In college I took a writing course where the professor had us read a chapter from Bird by Bird called “Shitty First Drafts.” Later, I “borrowed” this book from a dear friend’s parents’ library, and admittedly never returned it because a. I moved away from that area and never went back to their house and b. I didn’t want to give it up. (I did admit this to Susannah later, volunteering guiltily to mail the book back to her folks, but she assured me they wouldn’t miss it…) The great thing about A.L.’s work, aside from her way with humor, is that it is strung together with great understanding and emotion. This was the first book I read about the craft and process of writing, and it filled me up because I realized that I am not the only person who thinks the way I think, who watches the world and stores up observations for plot ideas in the future. She has some pretty interesting thoughts on Jesus too, which I appreciate.
4. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. If you ask my sister what my biggest gripe with writing is, she’ll tell you it is dialogue. I cannot stand dialogue that would never actually be said, and I am my own biggest dialogue critic. I spend more time reading my written dialogues aloud during the editing process than any other thing because if dialogue is bad, then the whole book is rotten. Bad dialogue pulls you out of the story and reminds you that you’re just reading a book. Dialogue should immerse you into the story and make it MORE REAL. This book has great dialogue! That’s not why I love it, though. Plenty of books have great dialogue. I loved this novel because the story was so creative and colorful, it was so fun to read, it was the perfect balance of love story and other story. It’s about a traveling circus in the 1930s, and the details are so far out, so interesting, and so well-written. (As a disclaimer, I read this book long before there was mention of a movie and loved it then. I have not seen the movie yet, but I’m going to go when it comes to the $2.50 movie theater this week… I heard the movie was OK. The book is way better than that. Great beach read, but not in the brainless-blonde-romance kind of way.)
5. Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling. I.adore.every.single.one. There is really no need for me to go into great detail, since you all probably know, but I will say this: When Mark and I got married, he had never read the books. I spent months 1-15 of our marriage reading each and every book to him aloud, and we both fell in love with the series, for me, the third time. It was so fun, and we capped it all off with a trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter last fall. If you haven’t given in, just do it. Even if you’re thirty years old you will love it. Just got my sister in law to read the series, and she loved it. Books three and five are my favorite I think.
6. Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. A biography of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lived through the Nazi occupation of Germany during the second World War. Bonhoeffer had dedicated his life to studying the life of Jesus, teaching and studying theology, but could not turn a blind eye to the rise of Hitler in Germany. Along with a band of others, Bonhoeffer was part of one of the assassination plots to bring down the Third Reich, a plot which was ultimately unsuccessful and which led to his death in a concentration camp. The story is unbelievably inspiring, to see someone who followed Jesus so closely, who clung to the Beatitudes fiercely, and who lived a radical life. This book stirred my soul so deeply, and I would recommend it to anyone.
7. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. One of Bonhoeffer’s theological works. One of the first books I read in high school that really challenged me on what it means to follow Jesus. Probably my favorite book on the Christian life.
8. Dubliners by James Joyce. A collection of short stories that take place in the city of Dublin, Ireland. I read this book in high school for AP English and gobbled it up. The brevity of each story line is refreshing and allowed me to digest the stories one by one. The writing, again, is probably why I love it so, and the fact that I read at the beginning of my love of literature. I have since tried to enjoy Joyce, Portrait of the Artist, Ulysses, but I just couldn’t get into those books. But Dubliners… that’s a different story.
9. 95 Poems by e.e. cummings. I am not hugely invested in the world of poetry, but I do enjoy about a fourth of that which I run across, and in college I loved the poetry classes I took—both to study and to write it. However, (this is a huge however), I adore the poetry of e.e. cummings. I enjoy every single one of his poems, even if I have no idea what the hell he’s talking about, which does happen more often than I care to admit. My brother and sister in law gave me the complete works of e.e. cummings a few years ago for my birthday, and it is a centerpiece on my desk, but my first anthology was 95 Poems. I read and re-read and pulled apart every one of those ninety-five poems, and loved every second. Kaili read i love you much(most beautiful darling) in my wedding (#45), and I have memorized more lines from the poems of that anthology than perhaps any other book other than the Bible. These poems are PERFECT.
10. A Voice in the Wind (series) by Francine Rivers. I do not read Christian fiction often, except on a strong recommendation. My mom read this series a long time ago, and I finally read it the summer before I went off to college. It is a three-book series that takes place in the thirty years after Jesus’s death, in Israel. It is a fictional story about the persecution of the early church, the relationships between different people groups, the Romans, the nation of Israel, the Christians… what could have taken place, based on historical documentation of what did take place. It is SO good. Especially books 1 & 2.
11. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Wall. This memoir of Jeanette Wall’s bizarre life is incredible. I read it on a sail boat in the Virgin Islands last summer and it captivated me wholly. She is the oldest of three children in a family where the parents just didn’t quite know how to parent. There is humor and so much feeling, and the story is so triumphant, while also realistic. Whenever I read a true story of a real person’s great triumph, it blows me away. READ THIS BOOK if you haven’t.
12. Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert. Eat, Pray, Love obviously got a lot of press, and it seems like it was one of those books that you either love or you hate. I know a lot of people that hated it. I happened to love it, mostly because the third of it when she is in Italy was SO fun for me to read, having been in Italy myself, and re-living all of those weird Italy-isms along with this narrator that made me feel like I was back there. That pizza—somehow she nailed it. I went to see Elizabeth Gilbert speak in Winston-Salem about two years ago, and her presentation moved me so deeply, and encouraged me to continue writing. And she talked about this book, Stern Men, and how it was re-released after E,P,L because obviously at that point it would sell better. I bought it and LOVED IT. It is a down-to-earth, somewhat fantastical, humorous, quirky, lovely story about lobster fishing islands off the coast of Maine. Sounds strange, but she actually moved up there for a time to study and learn the trade, the lingo, the people. It’s brilliant.
13. On Writing by Stephen King. This book, like Lamott’s BbyB, is a book about the art of writing, but it is peppered with tons of anecdotes from Stephen King’s own life and process getting to his height of fame as a writer. Granted, not a lot of writers become bajillionaires like Stephen King, but this book was so life giving for me. It was another case of “Wow, somebody feels how I feel, knows what it’s like to edit, knows the emotions, knows the disappointment and exhaustion of being rejected time and time again.” The best part of this book is how he describes his first acceptances for publication. I keep saying this word, but it was wholly INSPIRING.
14. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. A while ago, maybe two or three years, I read The Hobbit. I liked it a lot. Maybe not top 25, but it was really enjoyable. Of course I have seen the movie trilogy, but never felt inspired to read the series. Well a friend of mine said that he had a friend who had read the series something like sixty times, and I thought, “Well, hot dang. I guess I ought to try.” I did, from about October to December of last year, and enjoyed it so much. I became so immersed in those books that I thought about them often even when I was not reading. The books are quite different from the movies in many ways, which made it more fun to read. I love the stories for the writing, for the allegorical quality and for the way they bring you into a world that we’ll never live in, but which I wish we could.
15. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. This series has to follow the last, since it is also an allegory of the Bible and God’s love for humanity, and was (as I am sure you all know, but I have to say it anyway) written while Tolkien was writing about the battle for Middle Earth, the two men being great friends and contemporaries in the world of literature of that time in the mid-1900s. My mom read the series aloud to my sister and me when we were kids, and then I re-read the series in college, and it meant just as much to me then as it did when I was a child, only in a different way. I think I ought to read the series once a year, but seeing as there are too many books in the world, I might need to spread it out a little further.
16. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. My long-time mentor Mrs. Brennan, my high school AP English teacher, gave me a copy of this book when I graduated from high school and said, “I think you will love it.” She was right. It is about a preacher who takes his family of four girls to the Congo to be missionaries and “convert the natives.” The story is told alternately from the perspectives of the four daughters and the mother as they watch their father descend on a people he knows nothing about to “convert them,” all the while forgetting about his family. The story is brilliant and thrilling and heart-wrenching, and it is so memorable to me even now. As I write this, I realize I need to read it again ☺
17. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. He is just the best. This book, although not quite as beloved to me as EofE, is a beautiful saga of the Joad family, traveling to California during the Dust Bowl to try and find work for their family. The perseverance and camaraderie of the family is both heartening and tragic, and, as usual, the writing is so vivid with words perfectly selected. This book is a good Steinbeck intro—it is a bit shorter than EofE.
18. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. Much like Bird by Bird and On Writing, so I don’t want to re-iterate. I can’t help it, I just adore good books on writing. I love reading people who feel how I feel because it is actualizing. Here is a quote: “One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better.” As Clyde always says, “That will preach.”
19. Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Talk about a daunting book. I stared at this baby for months and months before I finally decided to crack it. It took me several months, which is not usually my manner of reading, but it is so dense. Every chapter is sort of a story on it’s own. When I finished it was incredible satisfaction. Sometimes I read classic literature as a duty, and it is painstaking. This, however, was a lot like EofE. The story of Jean Valjean transforming from a thief to a heroic beacon of light is beautiful, and it is no wonder this is considered a classic. Although it is a little overwhelming, I encourage anyone to try it. You can do it! And then, hopefully we can all take a little trip up to NYC and see it on Broadway!
20. The Firm by John Grisham. I usually try to mix up the genres of books I read, and occasionally a CIA or government intrigue novel gets in there, and I love it. I enjoyed this book SO much when I read it the first time, and I’m sure if I started it again, I would love it again. I have read several of Grisham’s books, but The Firm is one of my favorite books ever. Another one I could not put down. I could never write literature like this, but I sure do love to read it.
21. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. This is the story of Francie, a little girl growing up poor in Brooklyn, NY. It is not full of drama, or a big event, or travel or important people, but it is the story of one wonderful, interesting, tragic, sweet, dysfunctional family. The brother-sister relationship is excellently described, and I love this book because I could not put it down, which supports the belief I cling to that everyone has a story, and likewise, every life is a brilliant story. Beautiful, perfect words.
22. The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus. A good friend gave me this book one year for my birthday. I put off reading it until one day when I didn’t have anything else. It didn’t really seem like my kind of book, until I started reading. It’s the story of a nanny in New York City, working for a wealthy family to take care of their children, run their errands and basically help manage their lives. It is written by former nannies, and the stories and events of the novel are unbelievable in their audacity, humor, and over-the-topness. This book was so entertaining, and also surprisingly deep. It is one of those stories that goes opens the closed doors of families with a great deal of money and power to show the relational family dynamics that are never seen in public.
23. The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy. One of the best. Maybe number two or three on my list. The story is utterly captivating, and the characters are developed so richly, so fully I felt like they could have been my siblings. The story flips between the present day and the wild, lawless childhood of Savannah, Tom (the narrator) and the oldest brother Luke. The whole book points to one terribly tragic event that happened when they were children, and the rest of the narrative builds toward the revelation. I devoured every single page, although there were a few pretty terrible scenes. This book was incredible. However, I did read another Pat Conroy book a little while after, and didn’t like it nearly as much…
24. The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. It’s Lewis’s idea of what purgatory, or hell if you stay for good, could be like. The narrator finds himself there, and encounters several people he has known on earth. He also encounters George MacDonald, who Lewis has said was the most influential person in his own writing life. In the end, the narrator wakes up to realize it was a dream. This book was very interesting, very thought-provoking in the way some things are, not directly challenging or stating, but showing the ideas through story and allegory. Such an interesting read, just like everything Lewis wrote.
25. Lost Lily by me. I know, it’s cheap. Plus, you can’t go out and get it to read this summer. But here’s the thing, I LOVE THIS BOOK. It may never be published, but it’s still one of my favorites. It’s about this girl, Elena, who travels to Siena to study abroad during her senior year of college. Before she leaves she finds out that her deceased mother, Lily, also spent time in Siena and while she is there, she begins to trace her mother. The end is good, good good, with a plot twist that gives me chills whenever I read it. It’s my second book, but sort of my first real one. I just like it, I’m allowed.
So, there you have it.
“seventeen” (published January 2, 2012)
On January first of 2011 I made a few N.Y. resolutions, including the resolution to read fifteen books in twelve months. Characteristically, I made four or five resolutions and completed two or three, but the resolution to read was more than filled. These are the 17 books I read last year, and my reviews. A few were mentioned in my 25th birthday post back in June, so excuse my redundancy.
1. Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas. (****) This is the biography of one of the great theologians of the twentieth century, a German Christian who lived during the first and second World Wars, and spent his life devoted to the active practice and study of the life of Jesus. He was imprisoned by Nazis during World War II after taking part in the assassination attempts on Adolf Hitler, and was executed just before the end of the war in April of 1945. Bonhoeffer is an enormous book, physically (at around 1,000 pages), historically, as it offers the rare perspective of a German Christian in opposition to Naziism during that dark time in the world, and literarily, a beautifully written story with a perfect balance of facts, faith and politics.
2. East of Eden by John Stienbeck. (*****) This is my favorite novel of all time, and this was my third time reading it. It is the perfect epic story, with some of the best written characters in all of fiction (Samuel Hamilton, Lee). It is the story of budding America, a coast-to-coast saga of the reprecussions of sin throughout generations, the unique and bizarre relationship of brothers, fathers and sons. The way Stienbeck reaches back to the very dawn of humanity to Adam and Eve and shows the continuity of the human race is perfect. This book is PERFECT.
3. Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin. (**)Typically I don’t choose chick books like this, but Emily Giffin was coming to speak at Wake Forest back in the winter and I always try to attend when published authors speak in town. She was on a pre-movie book tour for this book, along with its bunch of sequels, so I picked it up. It’s the story of best friends competing for one man – a great deal of backstabbing, under handedness and treachery, with a somewhat disconcerting while also satisfying ending. It definitely kept me going, but wasn’t one I’d read again.
4. Bel Canto by Anne Patchett. (***) I bought this book from the used bookshop down the street purely because the cover is beautiful – turquoise and gold, shadowy and haunting silhouettes of people. It’s a very interesting story of a hostage takeover in South America. At a fancy birthday party full of politicians and celebrities a guerrilla gang infiltrates the home of the host looking to kidnap the president. However, when the president is not in attendance, the gang decides to take the entire party hostage. Somehow this situation propels 300 pages of compelling story. The best part of the book is the writing – Patchett’s language is precise and lovely – and though I didn’t love the outcome of the story, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
5. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. (*****) I have been accused of speaking in hyperbole (WHATEVER) but this is my second favorite book 🙂 WOW, I was absolutely blown over by the story, the eloquent and reachable language and craft of writing, the weaving together of stories to come to the end, the emotion, the drama. Across generations and miles, the story of several different Jewish families, the effects of the Holocaust over decades, and the book that ties them all together. Fantastic and brilliant. I’ll read anything she ever writes.
6. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. (***) Looking back I realize I read a lot of Jewish or World War II literature this year unintentionally. This book got a lot of press this year – a young Jewish girl’s story of escape from the hand of Nazis and her journey back home to find her lost baby brother. I was expecting greatness after what I had heard, but was not as impressed as I’d expected to be. Still a good story, emotionally exhausting.
7. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. (***1/2) The only reason I don’t give this one four stars (only three) is because I am not overly captivated by Chinese literature. Set in China in the 1800s, this story is about a young girl growing up – the old Chinese culture for young women, from foot-binding to old sames (arranged best friends) all the way through mother and grandmotherhood. The story is excellent, well-told, well-researched, fascinating.
8. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Juliet Ashton. (***1/2) This was a good summer book, a light, fun, feel-good story of a small island off of the UK, occupied during WWII (I know, we’re up to four). It’s entirely letters – the whole story is told through the correspondence of several characters. I was skeptical, but ended up really loving it!
9. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. (****1/2) This book was phenomenal, if you are reading this and you haven’t read it, don’t even rent it from the library. Buy it. The story of a lifetime for twin brothers Marion and Shiva – born in Africa at a mission hospital, the story of their childhood there in Ethiopia, and then into their lives as they grow up. Such fascinating relationships, such beautiful writing. There is a great deal of medical jargon and discussion, as the book is largely based upon their lives around a hospital and then as they grow up and continue in the world of medicine. This book kept me turning and turning, and I think I read the last 100 pages in one sitting. I can’t sing the praises of Cutting for Stone highly enough. It was one of the great books of my life.
WHEW, half way there. My feet are FREEZING (it’s 65 degrees in here but I don’t want to get up and put socks on. I’m sweaty too, from a run this morning, and now I’m all cold and sweat and white toes). TMI? Sorry, okay let’s keep going… Now we’re moving into the fall.
10. Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay. (****) Perhaps I enjoyed this book so much because it was so unlike everything else I had read by this point. I have also always been very fascinated by Russia, although I don’t think I would ever actually choose to go there, I find the history and culture wholly fantastic. It’s the story of a Russian ballerina and drama of her life, told from her perspective as an old woman going through her collection of jewelry piece by piece, each artifact symbolizing a time or event in her life. It is unique and ingenious, dark and rich. I really enjoyed it, was sad to turn the last page. In fact, I think I had to read the last five pages twice to make sure I got the ending straight 🙂
11. Exile by R. N. Patterson. (**) This is strange, but it feels like I read this book two years ago. It is a very lengthy political thriller centered on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It was interesting to me because I have been to Israel and am spiritually invested in that entire saga. However the story was painfully drawn out, and some of the political stuff just got to be too much, too detailed. I think if I were a bit smarter or had read it at a time when I could really focus on it, I may have felt differently, but for me it was just OK.
12-14. The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. (****) It took me four weeks to read the entire series, I became so wrapped up in this story. I was amazed by the first book. The story of this futuristic world where the continental US is divided into these districts, controlled by this crazed central dictatorship is so interesting, and the Hunger Games, a sort of gladiator-like fight between children, seems like a really sick idea for a book series, but Collins creates it so masterfully! After the first book I was chomping at the bit for the second, which I liked almost as much. However, I was pretty disappointed with the third. I think she took on too much in the third book, and some of the story sort of fizzled out because there was almost too much to wrap up. However, I’d recommend the series absolutely!
15. State of Wonder by Anne Patchett. (****) LOVED this book. Again, Patchett is brilliant with the English language, description, drama, emotion, people. I’m fascinated by the way she writes and aspire to write as she does. Marina is a research biologist who ends up traveling to the Amazon jungle to find out what happened to her colleague that went missing weeks earlier. Books that teach me something, show me something of a place or thing I can’t even fathom, are my favorite, and A.P. painted the Amazon so clearly for me. She had to have gone there. There is one scene in this book that was really the most amazing scene I’ve ever read in a book – I’ll just say it’s the “snake scene.” Go read it, and tell me that’s not the most AMAZING writing. Gosh, I want to read it again for the first time. I loved it.
16. The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova. (**) Strangely, this book was disappointing. It was quite long, a strange investigative story about an artist, tortured and misunderstood by the imaginations of his mind, and his psychiatrist’s efforts to understand and get to the bottom of his crazed actions. I invested a lot of time in the book, and in the end was not overly impressed by the result. However, I have two friends that read and really enjoyed the book, so maybe it was just me
17. Great House by Nicole Krauss. (****) It was great to end the year with Nicole Krauss again, after how much I adored The History of Love. Similar to her other novel, the book weaves the stories of the lives of several Jewish characters together until they meet at one central object: a large, dark writing desk. Her brilliance, the way the characters connect to each other is astounding, really. This story is a darker story than the other, there is no laughter or great happiness, but it’s such a satisfying book. This was another one I had to back and re-read a few things to figure out all of the threads between chapters and people, but once I pieced a few last things together I was blown away.
Such a good year of reading! There are a few others I started, and have yet to finish. Maybe in 2012? Hope this list gives you a few reading ideas! Happy New Year,