August 24: Books I Wish I Could Read Again for the First Time
1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt– I wish I could read this again and not know what was coming. At the same time I’m really glad I read this for the first time when I did, because my high school English class was reading Crime and Punishment at the time. There are a lot of parallels and I appreciated the enriched experience in that way. I think it would hold up well to a reread though. I just wish I could recreate that experience of finding those parallels and getting excited.
2. Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier– Last year I reread this with a book club and I found myself really jealous of the members who were reading it for the first time and didn’t know what twists and turns lay ahead.
3. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie- The first time I read this I tried to read it as a detective and figure out whodunnit as I read. I wasn’t right, but I tried! I think I’d like the experience of reading it as more of a reader and going along with the story without trying to be two steps ahead.
4. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield– I remember staying up late into the night with this one, and feeling the thrill of surprise as the story unfolded. Those reading experiences are wonderful and rare.
5. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro– This one had a slowly building sense of dread as I realized what was happening. At the same time I kept hoping that I’d be proven wrong. That sense of building tension without a “reveal” (rather a gradual unfolding) is not something I encounter often.
6. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters -I read this book for the first time while I was on a train. At one point I got to a plot twist and I literally shouted, “Holy crap!” Out loud. It’s a rare book that makes me embarrass myself on public transportation.
7. The Other by Thomas Tryon- There was one twist in this book that I felt was really obvious. Once it was revealed, I felt like I was very smart, I’d figured the book out, and it was going to be disappointing. Little did I know there were other turns ahead! I think the initial twist as a sort of misdirection, so the reader wasn’t on the lookout anymore.
8. A Little Life by Hana Yanagihara- This one didn’t have any huge surprises in it, but I became so invested in these characters, for better or for worse (and often it was for worse.) I was legitimately worried about them it was a wonderful and stressful experience. I think it would hold up to rereads, though, because I know what’s coming for the characters and I can focus on other things without worrying about them so much. Just a note: I’m always hesitant to recommend this one without including a content warning, because some of the content is very difficult.
9. East of Eden by John Steinbeck -I honestly think I was too young for this the first time I read it. It’s on my to be reread list, and I think I’ll get a lot more out of it a second time, but I wish I was coming to it fresh.
“Oh what a guy, Gaston!” A villain you can’t help but love- I’m not usually the type to love a villain. I find them compelling characters sometimes, but at best it’s usually a character I “love to hate.” I’ve had a sense of sympathy with Nurse Rached in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest ever since I started teaching though. I think it’s sort of unfair that people think of her as a villain. She’s working in a mental hospital with a vulnerable population that needs consistency and routine. So when Randall McMurphy comes in and starts upsetting things, she pushes back. I know that she’s supposed to represent the medical institutions that dehumanize the mentally ill, but I do think that some of her actions did have valid reasons behind them. Though I wouldn’t say I “love” her!
“Here’s where she meets Prince Charming” Your OTP- OK, so I find it very had to just pick one (and yes, I know the “O” in OTP stands for “one!”) but I suppose if I had to I’d probably pick Jamie and Claire from the Outlander series. A lot has happened to them over the course of 8 books, but I’ve never consistently stopped rooting for them as a couple (I have once or twice momentarily when I was mad at one or the other).
“I want so much more than this provincial life” A character destined for greater things. – I suppose any book that uses the “chosen one” trope could fit this one. I’m going with the Obernewtyn Chronicles though. When we first meet Elspeth Geordie, she’s an orphan in a post-apocalyptic world. She struggles to hide her special mental abilities from the totalitarian “Council.” But when she’s caught, she’s sent to Obernewtyn, a mountain retreat where “Misfits” are sent. But there are secrets at Obernewtyn that no one knows about. Over the course of the series Elspeth learns what happened to the world to bring about the apocalypse, and that it may happen again. Her presence there isn’t an accident at all. In fact, she may be the only one who can stop it.
“Be our guest!” A book that made you hungry.- I think some of the descriptions of food in The Night Circus are very tempting!
Dish after dish is brought to the table, some easily identifiable as quail or rabbit or lamb, served on banana leaves or baked in apples or garnished with brandy-soaked cherries. Other courses are more enigmatic, concealed in sweet sauces or spiced soups, unidentifiable meats hidden in pastries and glazes.
“Should a diner inquire as to the nature of a particular dish, question the origin of a bite or a seasoning, a flavor she cannot put her finger on (for even those with the most refined of palates can never identify each and every flavor), she will not be met with a satisfying answer. …
The desserts are always astonishing. Confections deliriously executed in chocolate and butterscotch, berries bursting with creams and liqueurs. Cakes layered to impossible heights, pastries lighter than air. Figs that drip with honey, sugar blown into curls and flowers.
“Beauty and the Beast” Opposites attract. I’m sort of tempted to use my own book for this one, but I won’t! I’ll got with The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. It’s about Don Tillman, a socially inept geneticist (it’s suggested that the character has Aspbergers but he’s not diagnosed). When he decides he wants to find a wife, he designs The Wife Project; a sixteen page, scientifically valid, survey to help weed out smokers, drinkers, and women who are tardy. Rosie Jarman is all of the above. She and Don end up on a date due to a mix up and she confides that she’s trying to find her biological father. Even though he has no romantic interest in her (according to the survey she’s all wrong for him!) Don designs The Father Project. You can probably see where this is going. I thought this book was really sweet, but I wasn’t a fan of the sequel. I haven’t read the third book yet, but I think this one works perfectly well as a stand alone.
“But there’s something in him that I simply didn’t see” A character who is more than they appear- For some reason the first book I thought of for this one was The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty. Cecilia has been married to John-Paul for years. They have several children and a pretty happy family life. But when Cecilia finds a letter from her husband in the attic, with instructions that it’s supposed to be opened in the event of his death, Cecilia reads it, even though he’s very much alive. What she learns turns their lives upside down. It throws Cecilia into a moral dilemma that she never imagined, and makes he wonder who is the man she married.
“I was innocent and certain, now I’m wiser but unsure” A book that changed you in some way- I’ve always been aware that I’ve lead a privileged life, but sometimes I don’t think of certain things as a privilege because they’re things I’ve taken as a given. Growing up in the US in the late 20th and 21st century, I took for granted that I could read whatever I want. Yes, I was aware that this was not a freedom everyone in the world enjoyed, but I never really thought about what that meant, or what it looked like to fight against it, before I read Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafazi. I think being a reader has made me who I am. It’s taught me empathy. It’s taught me how little I understand the scheme of things. So if I didn’t have the freedom to read as I chose, I don’t think I’d be the person I am today. This book made me consider all these ideas for the first time. Why would oppressive regimes go to so much trouble to ban books, and keep certain books out of certain reader’s hands? Because I’m not alone in this! Reading anything (regardless of whether or not it’s an “important” book) opens minds and hearts. Therefore it’s extremely threatening to an oppressor. Reading about the discussions that this Iranian book club had, and their responses to what they read made me realize on a conscious level that one of the most important things that literature (and art more generally) does is to show us that we’re not alone. That other people have emotional reactions to things, just like we do. Art can be a bridge between people of very different backgrounds and viewpoints. These connections can threaten the very foundations of a society. In that way, reading a novel, and sharing it with others, can be one of the most subversive things a person can do.
“Kill the Beast!” A book you picked up because of hype. – Are we talking about books that lived up to the hype, or books that didn’t? I suppose the most recent one was Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, which I heard was amazing, but I found it just OK. It actually inspired me to write a post of when you don’t love a hyped book. So stay tuned for that!
“I’ll never shake away the pain” A book or moment that always makes you cry- I didn’t want to repeat too much on this but when Jamie and Claire separate just before the battle of Culloden in Dragonfly in Amber, they think it will be forever. Jamie tells Claire that he’ll see her again someday. That always makes me weepy.
“I will find you,” he whispered in my ear. “I promise. If I must endure two hundred years of purgatory, two hundred years without you – then that is my punishment, which I have earned for my crimes. For I have lied, and killed, and stolen; betrayed and broken trust. But there is the one thing that shall lie in the balance. When I shall stand before God, I shall have one thing to say, to weigh against the rest.”
His voice dropped, nearly to a whisper, and his arms tightened around me.
Lord, ye gave me a rare woman, and God! I loved her well.”
“How does a moment last forever” A book that you’ve loved since you were little.- So. Many. Books. Can’t…choose! I’m tempted to use my “standard” answer for this one and say “fairy tales” (I go into the reasons why a bit here, here, here and here) but I decided to mix things up a bit. I think I was about nine years old when I picked up this book sort of randomly knowing nothing about it. That edition had the author’s name as “Julie Edwards.” As I read I fell in love with the sweet story of an orphan trying to create a home for herself. I flipped to the “about the author” page in the back of the book and saw that “Edwards” was the married name of Julie Andrews, star of Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music etc. Apparently in addition to being an Oscar winning actress with a gorgeous singing voice, she is also a writer. When I saw that, I felt like an old friend that I thought I knew surprised me in a magical way. Mandy is still worth reading for adults. It’s a little reminiscent of The Secret Garden in some ways.
Name a book that is an odd pairing but they still fit perfectly– Inigo Montoya and Fezzik from The Princess Bride always struck me as sort of an odd friendship. I don’t know if they were intended to be a sort of comic echo of Lennie and George in Of Mice and Men, but they always remind me of that. To look at the giant Fezzik, he’d seem to have nothing in common with Inigo, a thin, vengeance obsessed, swordsman. But they have a solid friendship, and seem to offer each other comfort and support on a regular basis.
A book/series that you have a love/hate relationship with– As much as it breaks my heart to say this, Harry Potter. I’ll always love Harry Potter, but JK Rowling’s recent behavior has cast a shadow on it for me. I don’t “hate” her, but I don’t approve of or agree with some of her recent statements and actions. I’m still trying to make peace between my love for the books and my disappointment in their author. I have no doubt that I will do it, as I said, the books will always have a special place in my heart, but it’s still a work in progress for me.
A character that is totally clueless but you love them anyway– Is it totally cheating to pick Emma for this one?! (For those who don’t know, Clueless is based on Jane Austen’s Emma, which is why I say that it might be cheating)
Name a book that made you cry– A Little Life by Hana Yangihara totally did me in. I think it was a beautiful book but it was hard to read at times. I’m always hesitant to recommend it, because of that. I’m sort of glad that I read it at a moment in my life when I was able to appreciate it, rather than at a time when I might not have for various reasons.
A book that makes you laugh– I’m assuming this means intentional laughter. There are a few (see here and here). There are also books that have made me laugh unintentionally, but that’s another story… One that I haven’t mentioned on the lists but would like to highlight is Beauty Queens by Libba Bray. It’s sort of what might happen if Lord of the Flies met America’s Next Top Model, and then they invited Pirates of the Caribbean over to hang out. It touches on some heavy subjects in a humorous way, without ever actually making light of those subjects. It’s a delicate balance and I majorly admire Libba Bray for pulling it off.
A book with a crazy party– Well, I once made a whole list about this, but if I had to pick just one, I’d say the literary masquerade party in The Starless Sea sounds like one of the few parties I’d really enjoy. Though I do think I’d have trouble deciding on a costume! I don’t know if I’d call it a “crazy” party (though it does lead to some craziness), but crazy parties don’t appeal to me that much anyway.
Name a character that you can never fully trust– For this one, Tinkerbell from Peter Pan comes to mind. Yes, I know that “All you need is Faith, Trust and a little bit of Pixie Dust.” I know she seems like a sweet tiny fairy, full of just those things. That’s why it’s easy to forget that she’s jealous to the core and pretty destructive!
A book with a memorable villain– Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca is one of my favorite villains of all time. I suppose you wouldn’t expect a middle aged housekeeper to be threatening, which is what makes her great. She’s so manipulative too, She gets under the skin of the second Mrs. De Winter and then tries to push her to suicide. And then she gets really destructive! I talk about a few other favorite villains on this list.
Name a book with witches– Just one? I’m actually working on a list of my favorite books about witches at the moment! But I suppose if I have to choose just one, I’ll say Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen. because I don’t think it gets enough love (actually I can’t just say one, because it has a sequel called First Frost) It’s overshadowed a lot of the time by Practical Magic, and there are some similarities (both are about sisters who are witches, both use a magical realist style) but they’re not the same (especially now that you can take the Practical Magic books as a series that goes in a very different direction). I would say that Garden Spells is worth reading on its own merits.
February 18: The Last Ten Books That Gave Me a Book Hangover (submitted by Deanna @ A Novel Glimpse)
For me book hangovers are rare. Even with a great book I’m aware that the next great book is on the horizon! The ones that give me hangovers aren’t always my favorites or even the best ones. But something about them sticks with me and makes it harder than usual to move on. So I decided to just do ten books that left me with lingering effects instead of the last ten. So yes, I might miss one or two, but you’ll get an idea. I also wan’t 100% literal with the term “book hangover”: anything that linger afterward in a strong was qualified for the list.
2. Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon– It’s rare when one of my favorite entries in a series comes eight books in, but this one pulled it off, leaving me in a place where I felt emotionally exhausted but satisfied and then ending things with a beautiful reunion.
3. The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons- I think my response to this book was based largely on who I was and where I was (in terms of my life) at the time that I read it. I sobbed for like two hours when I finished this! But then I found out that there were two sequels, and while I enjoyed them to differing degrees I didn’t have the same emotional response. That makes me think that it was less about the book itself and more about something it touched off at the time.
4.A Little Life by Hana Yanagihara– This left me with kind of a numbness. I felt like I’d be through so much with these characters, so how was I supposed to just pick up and move on with my own life?
5. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski– In a way a book about an endless house that you many never leave seems tailor made to give you a book hangover. But in this case it wasn’t an immediate hangover but rather elements of the book randomly coming back to me at different points.
7. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters– Forget Gone Girl, this book had some twists that really threw me in terms of upending everything I thought I knew about the plot and characters. After I read it, I had several “what do you mean, that character is exactly who he claimed to be?!” experiences with books. I kept looking for the trick that wasn’t there!
8. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier – I loved Marillier’s world building in this series. I’d even go so far as to say that it (very indirectly!) inspired my own, in Beautiful. But after I finished it was hard to get back to other books and worlds without holding them up to the same standard.
9. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafasi– This book made me aware of how reading a novel can be a politically subversive act. That of course made me wonder about every book I read after it; “what deeply held ideas and institutions am I undermining by reading this book?”
10. The Secret History by Donna Tartt– After I read this I kept looking for read alikes. But after being burned by many books claiming to be a similar experience, I gave up on that quest.
I’ve been seeing a lot of “best of the decade” lists lately, so I figured that this week I’d share my top books of the last ten years.
Room by Emma Donoghue (2010) I think that the first thing that really struck me about this book was the perspective: five year old Jack, a boy who has never left the small room where he and his mother are held captive, makes a unique voice. He doesn’t know anything different so he doesn’t fully understand how messed up his reality is. His mother keeps it that way for his own protection: why tell him about a world he may never see? But when he and his mother escape, his perspective changes. Donoghue’s mastery of Jack’s voice comes across as we begin to understand how Jack’s minuscule reality and limited experience has shaped the way he thinks, and how that grows as Jack’s world expands.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie (2013) In some ways it feels like this book, about being an African immigrant in America was written 100 years ago. It feels like racial tensions in America in the past decade have erupted in a way that make the Obama era seem like a distant dream. But that’s how it feels to me, as a white, native born citizen. In other words, I’m in a very privileged position in my country in many ways, and therefore I don’t experience it in the same way that someone who has a different position experiences it. I think that this book made me aware of some of the ways that make privilege impacts my perception of events that might help answer the “how did we get here?” question.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014) This novel set during WWII features two endearing protagonists; a blind French girl who must flee Nazi occupied Paris and a German boy who uses his skills building and fixing radios to help the Nazis find the Resistance. Even though these characters are from different countries and on different sides of the war, their stories are intrinsically interwoven. When their paths cross it feels almost inevitable.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanaghiara (2015)- This is a story of friendship over many years and the families that we create. It’s also a story of trauma, and it asks whether recovery is even possible. When we meet Jude, he his is a young college grad with several close friends, a good job, and a traumatic past. As we come to know him and his friends, we see him grow into a successful attorney who maintains his friendships and develops new relationships. But he’s still haunted by his past. His struggle to overcome it, and doubts about whether that’s possible, are the bulk of this novel. It’s a struggle that isn’t always pretty. At time’s its downright brutal, but the struggle is still beautiful. The novel itself is long and at times difficult but I think one of the reasons it appeals to me is that it recalls a 19th century Bildungsroman.
M Train by Patti Smith (2015)- I’ve seen Smith’s other memoir, Just Kids, on many similar lists. But I actually prefer this one. It’s less linear and more internal. We spend time not just in Smith’s life, but also in her dreams. Just Kids is a memoir of Smith’s youth in the 60’s and 70’s. M Train is a memoir of her life over the past decade or so. While Just Kids gives background that’s important to understanding the woman in M Train, I feel that this is the more mature work.
Circe by Madeline Miller (2018)- I was actually torn between this and Miller’s other book Song of Achilles for this list, because they’re both beautiful works. But I went with this one because it feels somehow larger. Not larger as a physical book (they’re about the same size) but as a story and as a depiction of Miller’s world. But I highly recommend both books.
Educated by Tara Westover (2018)- Tara Westover was the daughter of mentally ill survivalists who was homeschooled (a process which ended once she learned to read and write) and later pushed herself to get into Brigham Young University, Harvard, and Cambridge. But her educational success doesn’t give her what she needs to understand her upbringing. Even after she earns her PHD, her understanding of her abusive childhood depended on learning to trust herself and her memory. I appreciated the fact that this book complicated the notion of “hard work = success.” Westover depicts success, and education, as a process rather than a fait accompli.
Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield (2018) I was really excited to read this because I loved Setterfield’s previous novel The Thirteenth Tale. This was one of the rare highly anticipated novels that lives up to expectations. I think one of the reasons that it works for me is that it doesn’t try to give easy answers. It opens with a mystery and offers several possible conclusions but doesn’t tie itself down to any of them.
August 27: Books I’ve Read That I’d Like In My Personal Library (perhaps you checked it out, borrowed it from a friend, received it for review, etc. and want to own it yourself.) (Submitted by Annemieke @ A Dance with Books)
4. Nuclear Family by Susanna Fogel– This is a novel in letters so it’s easy to pick up anywhere and just read one. They’re really funny so I’d like to have it on hand to read bits and pieces from time to time.
5. Let Me Tell You by Shirley Jackson- Some of these lesser known stories and essays are better than others, but I’d like to have them on hand, especially since some of them highlight Jackson’s humorous side, which we don’t often get to see.
6. A Little Life by Hana Yanagihara– This book was beautiful but difficult to read. I’d like to revisit it at some point, knowing the plot, so that I can appreciate some of the other elements.
7. Crush by Richard Siken– I’m rather fussy about poetry but Siken’s work is vivid and compelling enough for me to want to revisit it often.
9. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr– I read a book dealing with similar subject matter shortly after this and as a result they’re sort of blended in my mind. But I remember this one was vastly superior so I’d like to reread it and have it clearer in my memory.
May 28: Favorite Books Released In the Last Ten Years (one book for each year) (submitted by Anne @ Head Full of Books)
2019 (so far…) Once Upon A River By Diane Setterfield– Set in a pub in a village along the Thames in the late 19th century, this novel opens on a winter’s night. A man, badly hurt and soaking wet, staggers in holding a little girl who appears dead. A local nurse saves the man and realizes that the girl isn’t dead (anymore?), but the man has no memory of how he came across the girl or who she is. When she regains consciousness the child is unable to talk. A local family believe that she’s the baby that was kidnapped from them two years ago. Another family thinks that she’s the lost daughter of their prodigal son. A woman well into middle age believes that the 4 year old child is her sister. The story winds its way from one character to the next, and each character’s back story becomes like a tributary.
2018 Idaho by Emily Ruskovich- Ann and Wade are a married couple living in Idaho. As Wade’s memory fades with early onset dementia, Ann begins to piece together the fate of Wade’s first wife, Jenny (now in prison) and their two daughters (one dead and one missing). The novel moves from one characters point of view to another in a nonlinear fashion. There’s a sense of strangeness to the events and characters of this novel, but there’s a familiarity as well. We’re never actually told what happened to Wade’s family, but we’re given enough pieces to put it together. If you like things laid out clearly, you probably won’t like this. But if you like a bit of ambiguity and gorgeous prose, you might like this.
2017 A Little Life by Hana Yanagihara- Four young men meet in college and become friends. When they graduate, they move to NYC and begin their lives. Willem, an aspiring actor, is kind to his core. JB is a bright, witty, and occasionally cruel painter, Malcolm becomes an architect at a prominent firm. But the nexus of the group is Jude, withdrawn, intelligent, with a dark, unspeakable childhood of trauma behind him. Over the years, their friendships deepen and change as they face different challenges. But Jude himself is their greatest challenge. We do eventually learn what happened to Jude, and it’s ugly. Very ugly. Like hard to read about. But there’s something beautiful about Jude’s struggle to overcome it, and his friend’s struggle to help him. Much like Jude’s like the experience of reading this is tragic, traumatic, and sometimes brutal. But it’s also beautiful.
2016 The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss– When some unexpected excitement comes to an inn one evening, the innkeeper faces it like a veteran. But then he goes back to his regular life, and tells his story. Kvothe’s childhood was spent in a troupe of travelling players. When he encounters an Arcanist (sort of a scientist/wizard) he’s tutored and develops into a powerful Arcanist in his own right. When the world of his childhood is overturned, Kvothe just barely escapes and becomes a beggar before fate brings him to University. He makes several friends and several enemies before discovering the reason that his was killed. This is a pretty epic novel that covers the first 1/3 of Kvothe’s life and is the first in a planned trilogy. I haven’t read the second book yet, because I’m waiting for a release date for the third book before I invest more time in the series.
2015 The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters– Dr. Faraday is called to Hundred’s Hall, the home of the Ayers family. As a child his mother worked there as a maid. But now, its owners (a mother and her two adult children) are struggling to keep up with modern society. He treats the young maid, but he strikes up a friendship with Caroline Ayers, the daughter of the house. He also begins to treat her brother, Roderick, who is still recovering from wounds he sustained during WWII. He comes to understand the family’s dire financial straits. The stress of the attempts to reconcile these straits coincide with some disastrous events that may or may not be supernatural in origin and lead to tragedy. But what’s great about this novel is that it remains ambiguous, hovering on the edges psychological and supernatural without fulling diving into either category.
2014 Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth– Forsyth’s Rapunzel retelling is a wonderful braid of narratives that overlap. Charlotte Rose de la Force is banished from Versailles after a number of scandalous love affairs. She goes to a convent where a nun tells her a story of a young girl who was sold by her parents for a handful of lettuce after her father is caught stealing from the courtesan Selena Leonelli. Margherita is the price he pays for his crimes. She grows up locked away in a tower. The combined stories of these three women tell the traditional Rapunzel story as well as the story of the women who wrote it. The novel is both a historical fiction account of real women and a fairy tale retelling.
2013 The Other by Thomas Tryon– Holland and Niles Perry are thirteen year old identical twins. They live in a small New England town with their parents, and when their father dies in a tragic accident, the extended family gather, while their mother stays in her bedroom, heartbroken. This allows the boys to roam free. Holland, always a bit of a prankster, grows more sinister with his games. This book offers several twists on the ghost story genre as well as the evil twin/doppelganger trope. One seems fairly obvious from the beginning but that twist plays out early on, and there several other surprises in store.
2012 Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson– Major Pettigrew is a rather cranky widower living in Edgecombe St. Mary, an English country village where nothing much changes (which is how he likes it!). When he strikes up a friendship with Jasmine Ali, a widowed Pakistani shopkeeper, they bond unexpectedly over their love of books and the loss of their respective spouses. As their friendship develops into something more, they and the village must decide what elements of culture and tradition are worth preserving and what should change with the times. It’s a gentle story about the ways people are different and the things that they have in common.
2011 Heart’s Blood by Juliet Marillier– Catrin, a young scribe, takes refuge from a mysterious danger in Whistling Tor, a crumbling fortress that belongs to Anluan, chieftain living under a curse. Retained to sort through some family documents, Catrin and Anluan form a surprising connection. But if they are to have a future together, Catrin must unravel the mysteries of Anluan’s family curse. This Beauty and the Beast variation incorporates elements of mystery, fantasy and romance.
2010 The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton– In 1913, a little girl is discovered alone on a ship headed to Australia. She has nothing but a small suitcase with a book: a single volume of fairy tales. She is taken in and raised by a couple, but when they tell her the truth on her twenty first birthday, Nell goes to England to try to trace her real identity. The quest leads her to Blackhurst Manor, a Cornwall mansion that is home to the doomed Mountrachet family. But it’s not until many years later when Nell’s granddaughter Cassandra discovers the garden of the book’s title that the mystery can finally be solved. This book combines several elements I love: dual timelines, Gothic drama, and fairy tales.
November 27: Platonic Relationships In Books (friendships, parent/child, siblings, family, etc.)
For this one I decided to go with friendships. Sometimes the friendships in question are between siblings, but there’s always a strong basis in affection as opposed to just familial bonds. It’s also OK if two characters within a group are in a romantic relationships as long as the group itself is held together by platonic bonds.
1. The March Sisters in Little Women– Yes they’re sisters. And that holds them together even when they grow apart in other ways. But the March’s bond is built on a foundation of confiding in one another, having shared memories and experiences and being there to support one another when things go wrong. All those are things that exist among groups of friends, whether or not they share the same blood.
2. Anne Shirley and Diana Barry in the Anne series by LM Mongomery- Anne and Diana are kindred spirits, bosom friends pretty much from day one. You can only get drunk on cherry cordial with a bestie. When you share something sweet with a bosom friend it tastes even sweeter because you shared it. A best friend like this stands by you even when you’re not using your best judgement, and helps to pick up the pieces when you fall. Yes, I’ve read some contemporary criticism that claims this was more than platonic friendship. But on a purely textual level they’re simply BFFs through thick and thin.
3. Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling- I was probably one of the few readers who was relieved to see Hermione end up with Ron, without even a hint of a romance with Harry. As Harry tells Ron in The Deathly Hallows “She’s like my sister.” These three befriended each other early in the series and proved that together they were a formidable trio. Yes, Ron and Hermione hooked up eventually but they were friends first and since there was nothing going on at any point between Harry and Hermione or Harry and Ron, they qualify for the list.
4. The narrator and Owen Meany in A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving- The unnamed narrator has nothing but love for his best friend Owen Meany and their friendship survives a turbulent childhood in which Owen accidentally kills the narrator’s mother (oops!). Owen weights less than 100 lbs and is less than five feet tall when he’s fully grown. He has a screechy, strangled voice. He’s also kind, honest, selfless, and rebellious. He comes into the narrator’s life early on and his influence is felt to the point where the rest of the narrator’s life is lived as a prayer for this childhood friend.
5. Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm in A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara- These four friends met in college. Over the next few decades there are fallings out and other friendships that come into and out of their lives, but these four are there for one another through it all. In this case the biggest threats to the group don’t really come from the action of the novel, but from the character’s haunted pasts. Once again there’s some romance in the group, as Jude and Willem eventually become a couple, but their relationship started as friendship only and existed as friendship for two decades before becoming romantic. Since there are no other couples within the group at any point, it qualifies for my list.
6. Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar in Shirley by Charlotte Bronte- Caroline’s father died and her mother abandoned her, and she was raised by an uncle. Shirley is also an orphan, but she’s wealthy, and cheerful and full of ideas. The become good friends and get involved in a labor dispute at the local mill. They also learn some family secrets and become romantically involved with two brothers. There’s confusion and revelations in the plot, but even at a point when it seems like Caroline and Shirley are being set up to be romantic rivals, they maintain a friendship. In fact while the book deals with a number of topics I consider the primary plot to be a story of friendship.
7. Mary, Dickon, and Colin from The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett- As a child the fact that the garden was a metaphor for the friendship that blooms between these three characters, went totally over my head. Fortunately I reread it later on. Well, actually now that I think of it, the garden is a metaphor for several things in that book, but one of them is the friendship forms among these three very different children from vastly different backgrounds.
8. George and Lenny in Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck- George and Lenny are two migrant workers during the Great Depression who dream of a little bit of land and a home to call their own. Lenny is a large man with a child’s mind and George is his protector. But when Lenny’s love of soft things leads to tragedy, George shows the kind of loyalty that the best of friends share, in the most terrible way possible.
9. Jane and Prudence in Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym- Jane is a forty one year old Vicar’s wife, with a daughter, who lives a very proper parish life. Prudence is a twenty nine year old spinster who lives in London and is fiercely independent. Jane was Prudence’s tutor at Oxford and despite their different lives, they’ve maintained a friendship. Jane decides that local widower, Fabian, would be a perfect match for Prudence, but Prudence is interested in her (married) boss. Neither character is particularly likable but as I finished reading the book I felt like I would miss them and their friendship.
10. Julie, Ethan, Jonah, Cathy, Ash and Goodman in The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer- Julie, Ethan, Jonah, Cathy, Ash, and her brother Goodman meet at a summer camp for the arts in the 1970’s and dub themselves “The Interestings.” Over the next few decades the group comes together and breaks apart in various ways. Their dynamics change and change again. Ethan and Ash marry but that’s really the only romantic relationship within the group.
That Artsy Reader Girl lists this week’s Top Ten Tuesday as a freebie, so I decided to look at the various ways that one of my favorite places has been depicted in fiction. I decided to specify fiction because NYC also has a vivid nonfictional presence that I might want to look at in a different post. I think that the incredible diversity that NYC has in terms of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, education and more makes it a great place to set a story.
1. Eloise by Kay Thompson– Even though this is technically “A Book For Precocious Grown-Ups” I loved Eloise as a kid. She lived in the Plaza with her dog, her turtle (Skipperdee, which I always thought was a great name for a turtle) and her nanny and she knew absolutely everything about everyone. I imagine that she’d be an annoying kid to have around if she were real: she bothers people on the elevators and in the hotel lobby, she crashes weddings, she runs up and down the halls, and considers pouring water down the mail chute. But as a kid, I found her hilarious and even today it’s hard not to be charmed by her antics.
2. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith– Before Williamsburg was a haven for hipsters, it was an immigrant community. There’s a sense of optimism amidst hardship in this book that begins with the very image of a tree pushing through concrete to grow. It is the optimism of immigrants who left their native countries in the hopes of a better life and it’s the optimism that Francie observes watching moments in the lives of various Brooklynites from her fire escape.
3. Forever by Pete Hamill– Cormac O’Conner arrives in New York as an immigrant in 1740. Thanks to a shipboard incident Cormac is blessed (or cursed) with eternal life, as long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan. Through Cormac’s eyes, we see New York grow from a small settlement to a thriving metropolis over the course of 250 years. He gets involved in the issues of every age. He’s not a passive observer of the city, but rather an active participant, who knows each ally, each street corner, each subway tunnel.
4. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer– Several teenagers meet at a summer camp for the arts in the 1970’s. They’re all creative and enthusiastic. But the kind of creativity that is celebrated at 15 isn’t always something that can sustain you into adulthood. Jules gives up her dreams of an acting career in favor of something more practical. Her friend, Jonah, gives up the guitar and becomes an engineer. Ethan and Ash, on the other hand, see their artistic dreams come true beyond anything they could have imagined. This is a character study of these friends over the course of several decades. But NYC is very much a character here as well, and we see it change over the years, alongside these characters.
5. The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe– Five women work for an NYC publishing company in the 1950’s. There’s Caroline, who dreams of leaving the typing pool and being an editor. Ivy is a Colorado transplant whose naivete may be her undoing. Gregg is an aspiring actress who gets involved in a potentially dangerous affair with a Broadway producer. Barbara is a divorcee with a two-year-old daughter, who isn’t sure if she’ll ever make it out of her mother’s apartment, and Mary Agnes, who has spent the past two years planning her wedding. This novel follows all of them through promotions, setbacks, break-ups, and breakdowns.
6. Extremely Loud and Terribly Close by Jonathan Safon Foer– Oskar Schell is a nine-year-old New Yorker on an urgent quest that takes him through the city. On 9/11, Oskar’s father died in the World Trade Center. Oskar finds a key that he believes was “sent” by his father, and ventures out into a city, still reeling with grief and shock, to find the lock that it fits, or the person who owns the key. His mission takes him all over the city, where he befriends a wide array of inhabitants. While the premise of the book is definitely sad, it’s not without humor. And like the city that he calls home, Oskar is a survivor.
7. Night Film by Marisha Pessl– Scott McGrath is a reporter who is interested in the reclusive film director Stanislas Cordova. Cordova is known for making horror/thriller/dark films. When Cordova’s daughter, Ashley commits suicide downtown, Scott is convinced that there’s more to the story than meets the eye. He begins to investigate. It’s hard for the reader to identify the point where Scott falls down the rabbit hole, but the NYC where he investigates is a sort of nightmare version of the real thing. Things that should be familiar to him take on strange, threatening shades and Scott begins to doubt everything that he once believed.
8. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton– This novel is set in the 1870’s when the city was in a state of transition; farmland would be next to beautiful mansions. It involves an engaged, upper-class couple and the arrival of a woman with a scandalous past, who may threaten their plans. I chose this one over some other Wharton novels because it seems to ooze its setting (in a good way!)
9. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara– Four friends graduate college and move to the city to pursue their dreams. For some of them, the city represents the opportunity to fulfill their ambitions. Willem is an aspiring actor, JB is an artist, and Malcolm is an architect. But for Jude, it’s a place where he might finally be able to escape his past. While it’s easy to be anonymous in such a big and busy city, this book celebrates friendship and devotion. In this book, NYC seems to be an almost friendly place, because its where these characters find that kind of friendship (and because most of the other places in the book are decidedly unfriendly).
10. The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati– Anna Savard and her cousin, Sophie, are both graduates of Women’s Medical School. They live in NYC in 1883, and treat some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. When they cross paths with Anthony Comstock, an anti-vice crusader who considers himself the enemy of anything indecent (like birth control), everything that they’ve worked for is put at risk. At the same time, they must reunite a family, catch a killer, and find the courage to break out of the places they feel safest.
Phase 1: Initial Attraction (A book you bought because of the cover)
The Children’s Book by AS Byatt– I love the contrast between the blue cover and the green jeweled dragonfly. Since I’ve read other books by AS Byatt and liked them, and since the synopsis (about a British family before and after WWI) interested me, I decided to buy it. But the cover definitely helped me make that decision. But apparently, I shouldn’t judge books by their covers (who knew?) because this was a bit of a disappointment.
Phase 2: First Impressions (A book you got because of the summary)
When fifteen-year-old Margot and her three sisters arrive at Applecote Manor in June 1959, they expect a quiet English country summer. Instead, they find their aunt and uncle still reeling from the disappearance of their daughter, Audrey, five years before. As the sisters become divided by new tensions when two handsome neighbors drop by, Margot finds herself drawn into the life Audrey left behind. When the summer takes a deadly turn, the girls must unite behind an unthinkable choice or find themselves torn apart forever.
Fifty years later, Jesse is desperate to move her family out of their London home, where signs of her widower husband’s previous wife are around every corner. Gorgeous Applecote Manor, nestled in the English countryside, seems the perfect solution. But Jesse finds herself increasingly isolated in their new sprawling home, at odds with her fifteen-year-old stepdaughter, and haunted by the strange rumors that surround the manor.
Rich with the heat and angst of love both young and old, The Wildling Sisters is a gorgeous and breathtaking journey into the bonds that unite a family and the darkest secrets of the human heart.
It’s got a few elements I love: mysterious house in the English countryside, dual timeline, hints of murder… It wasn’t brilliant but it was an entertaining read.
Phase 3: Sweet Talk (A book with great writing)
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff– I can see where someone might not like this novel; there aren’t really characters who the reader has sympathy for, and if you don’t like stories with multiple threads that don’t come together until later in the book, you won’t like this. But it’s hard to deny that Groff’s prose is an accomplishment. At times it’s weighty: when the focus is on a rather pretentious character it becomes so full of metaphors and literary references that it can be hard to “get”. But that’s intentional. When the perspective changes so does the writing.
Phase 4: First Date (A first book of a series which made you want to pursue the rest of the series)
The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati– I am impatiently waiting for the second book in this series to come out! It takes place in NYC in 1883 and follows two female doctors, Anna and Sophie. There’s romance, mystery, and some real historical figures like Anthony Comstock. Comstock saw himself as a protector of morality and in this novel, he serves as a kind of villain. But all together, it’s a lot of fun.
Phase 5: Late Night Phone Calls (A book that kept you up all night long)
Lost Among the Living by Simone St. James– This is the most recent book to give me the “just one more chapter…” problem. It’s not great literature but it’s a fun read. In 1921 Jo works as a paid companion to Dottie, the aunt of her husband Alex, who died in WWI. When she goes to live with Dottie at Wych Elm House, she’s exposed to things that go bump in the night, family secrets, and the fact that her late husband might not have been entirely truthful with her. This book did a nice job with atmosphere and it kept the tension going with some plot twists and turns.
Phase 6: Always On My Mind (A book you couldn’t stop thinking about)
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara– This book is hard to describe because some elements are so beautiful and others are so ugly. The prose is lovely. Its one of the few books where I would read and savor certain parts again and again. Some of the content is beautiful too; dealing with family, friendship, and love of all kids. But some of what the main character endures is so ugly. The fact that Yanagihara’s writing can be beautiful even when she’s describing horrors is somewhat disturbing. I still think about the characters sometimes as if they’re real people.
7: Getting Physical (A book you love the feel of)
Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock- This book is a tactile experience. It’s a love story told through the letters of two artists. You take each letter from the envelope and read it. Often there’s a postcard in there, and some decorative stamps as well. The letters are on different stationary, sometimes handwritten, sometimes typed. The story itself is good too! One of these characters might be mentally ill and hallucinating the whole correspondence. Or Griffin and Sabine might actually have a psychic connection from different universes.
Phase 8: Meeting the Parents (A book you would recommend to your friends and family)
Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi- First of all, I’m cautious recommending books because one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. I need to know something about someone and their tastes before recommending. But this is one I’d recommend to most people. It’s a “memoir in books”. Nafisi had to leave her job as a professor at the University of Tehran due to repressive policies. But she invited seven of her best female students into her home each week to discuss classic Western literature. I think this book really explores how fiction can take people outside of themselves, how it can inspire people to create real-world change, and how it can help people survive in difficult times. I came away from this book feeling, perhaps for the first time, that reading a novel might be the most subversive thing a person can do.
Phase 9: Thinking About the Future (A book or series that you know you’ll re-read many times in the future)
Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards– This is a lovely, comforting book. I remember picking it up randomly as a kid and falling in love with the characters and the setting. And when I flipped to the “about the author” page and saw that Julie Edwards was actually the married name of the Julie Andrews (who I knew and worshipped thanks to Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music) I was wowed. I reread it a few years ago, and it still put a smile on my face. I think it might be one to revisit in the future when I need something comforting and cozy.
Phase 10: Share the Love (Here’s who I’m tagging)
(Sorry if you’ve already been tagged, and there’s no pressure to participate if you don’t feel like it)
2. “The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.” —From Peter Pan by JM Barrie
I think this applies to a lot more than just flying. It’s really about taking risks. If we stop and think about all the things that could go wrong, we’d never do anything. Sometimes you have to just put all that out of your mind, and take a (metaphorical) leap.
3“…. my mother gave me a brown paper bag which I filled with caught butterflies so that by the time we were ready to go and the sun was ready to set in that Florentine filmy amber it gets down there at about 6 in the summer, I had caught a lot.
I’d wait until the car was all paced and we were just driving off and then I’d open the window, tear the bag quickly and watch the silent explosion of color fly out. “I’ll always remember this,” I thought, “forever.”
Then we’d go home and eat dinner I suppose, I don’t really remember.”
I just read this book recently, and I marked this passage because it really stood out to me. I think that the language shows just how vivid the memory of the butterflies is, compared to whatever happened afterward. It’s how I often remember childhood. Certain memories are very clear, and others just fade away.
4. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices.”
I think that this is very true. It is for me, at least. When terrible things happen I have this need to impose some sort of narrative as a way to give them meaning. If I can’t see the meaning at the moment, it just means that the story’s arc isn’t complete yet.
This is something that I try to think about. Often I’ll wake up in the morning and still be mad at myself for some mistake I made yesterday. I think it’s healthy for me to try to remember Anne’s words and regard each day as a fresh start.
6. “A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.”
In my experience this is true. That’s not to say that a kind person who isn’t conventionally attractive will start to look like a movie star to me, but I notice the less attractive elements far less. Likewise, if someone isn’t very nice, then no matter how beautiful they may be, after a while I won’t see them that way.
Something about Jane Eyre when she gets going, makes me want to scream “you go, girl!” I mean she’s not a character who you would expect to be able to assert herself that way or have that kind of self-confidence. It’s the Victorian era where women weren’t regarded as people in their own right. Jane less so than most, because she’s “poor, obscure, plain, and little.” She’s got no financial advantages, no connections in the right places, but she’s still able to stand up for herself and demand respect.
8. “What I’m not sure about, is if our lives have been so different from the lives of the people we save. We all complete. Maybe none of us really understand what we’ve lived through, or feel we’ve had enough time.” -From Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
I think that ultimately this speaks to how privilege matters and how little it really means. One person may be regarded as better or “more” than another, and that brings real advantages. But ultimately, we’re all just feeling our way around the world. We all have limited understanding, and we all want something more.
9. “I tried on Claire’s double strand of pearls in the mirror, ran the smooth, lustrous beads through my fingers, touched the coral rose of the clasp. The pearls weren’t really white, they were a warm oyster beige, with little knots in between so if they broke, you only lost one. I wished my life could be like that, knotted up so that even if something broke, the whole thing wouldn’t come apart.” – From White Oleander by Janet Fitch
The necklace with the knotted pearls is a great image and it definitely seems to serve the metaphor for one’s life. To me, it seems that when something goes wrong in my life, it can be like a chain reaction. My attention goes to whatever went wrong, and then because I wasn’t paying attention to something else, that goes wrong. Obviously, it’s easier to knot beads than it is to compartmentalize in the same way.
10. “He had looked at Jude, then, and had felt that same sensation he sometimes did when he thought, really thought of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn’t a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it.” -From A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
I think that this is a beautiful expression of the human condition really. Life is tough. Everyone has struggles and problems. But we all keep pushing through regardless. It can be seen as sad, yes. But I think also beautiful.