Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – First thing to note is that the family in this book is very dysfunctional! This actually gets pretty dark at some points, but I think the takeaway is ultimately about the transformative power of friendship (even if we think we don’t need it), and that’s a positive we’re left with after the tough stuff.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – Yes, there is some darkness and sadness here too. But seeing people get through hard times with the help of loved ones helps me feel better about my own tough times. At different points in my life I’ve related to most to different March sisters, but I’ve “known” them all for so long that they all feel a bit like family to me!
A Little Life by Hana Yanagihara – I’m hesitant to include this here, because it is so dark and disturbing. If you have any issues around abuse, self-harming, sexual assault, drug use, or a host of other things, be warned! But the depiction of found family in this book is very beautiful. The book asks if that kind of tight knit bond can buffer someone against years of trauma. The answers are always comfortable, but I think at the end we’re still left with something beautiful.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan – This book incorporates family, but also strong, tight friendships that last for over forty years, from one generation to the next. It’s these friendships that help the main character of this novel better understand her mother (with whom she’s had issues in the past). I love that the lines between “friend” and “family” in this book are so indistinct.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – Yes, some of the Bennetts are easy to mock. But I do think that Mrs. B gets kind of a bad rap. As ridiculous as she seems, her family has a very real problem. Five girls and no son to inherit means that they’re all homeless when Mr. B dies, unless the girls get married before then. Even though Mr. B doesn’t seem to want to deal with this, the family still pulls together in a crisis. They still support one another and celebrate with each other. While Lizzie is closer to some family members over others, she cares for them all very deeply.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith – You have to love the Mortmains! They live at a strange point somewhere between rich and poor (they live in a castle with servants but don’t always have enough to eat.) and definitely crazy, but loving nonetheless. When their family comes into contact with another family, everything is thrown into flux.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune – This is another book I had reservations about including on this list, for the reasons described here. But in spite of those reservations, this book does have a beautiful depiction of a rather unusual found family.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin – A fortune teller tells the four siblings the dates of their deaths. As they move forward with those dates in their minds, they must figure out how to balance their family bonds and obligations with their desire to avoid that predicted ending.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – This is the story of a blended family over the course of several decades. Six children (siblings and step-siblings) spend the summers together and form a family bond. When they grow up, one of the kids writes a book about their family, which forces them all into uncomfortable positions. I like that this book depicts stepfamilies in a way that’s not positive or negative per se. Like any other family it has its pluses and its minuses.
My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite – Korede’s sister, Ayoola, is… difficult to say the least! But I found Korede’s devotion to her kind of moving, albeit morally questionable. What are the limits we go to to protect family? What factors influence that decision. The is a satirical novel, that poses some interesting questions
March 29: 21st Century Books I Think Will Become Classics (Submitted by Lisa of Hopewell)
I really love this topic actually. I’ve been thinking about it for a while, and here’s what I’ve come up with.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro -Published in 2005 this book already seems to have achieved a sort of modern classic status. It tackles issues of love, mortality, memory, the lives we value and those we don’t. It’s also a book that you can only say a little about without spoilers.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee – 2017 A story that follows a family through several generations. It begins in the early 1900s when Sunja falls for a wealthy stranger, and learns she’s pregnant, just as she learns he’s married. She marries a minister instead and leaves Korea with him for Japan. That decision will reshape her family’s future.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara 2015 – I’d be curious to see how future generations respond to this, since it is so polarizing now. I can understand why some people love it (beautiful writing and enduring themes), and why some hate it (the content is…difficult to say the least). It’s about absolutely sickening abuse and it’s aftermath, so if you don’t want to read about that, be warned. But it’s also about love and friendship. It asks which ties us more tightly, trauma or love? They answers are not be very comfortable.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel- Published in 2014 I now think of it as the pre-COVID COVID novel. It’ll be interesting to see how writing about a pandemic fairly accurately several years pre-pandemic plays into this book’s legacy. What I liked about it was that it asks what humanity’s legacy will be: art and beauty or death and destruction. And are those mutually exclusive?
Atonement, Ian McEwan – The film adaptation may have it’s a legacy on it’s own. But this book about family, class, memory, responsibility, and guilt, is it’s own haunting magic trick of a novel.
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski– 2000- This novel/screenplay/notes/something-or-other is definitely a dizzying example of multiple narrators and texts within texts. It’s even got it’s own set of companion works by the other and others in different forms of media.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon– 2001 – I think of this as a sort of valentine to books and libraries. It’s one of my deepest hopes that both will last well into the next century, but this book celebrates what’s lost and forgotten. Even in a best case scenario for books they won’t all be remembered. I love the idea of a Cemetery of Forgotten Books!
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters– 2002- This is another book that’s you’re better off the less you know about it going in. But it’s a favorite for it’s twisty, gothic, Victorian-inspired narrative.
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.